Disneyland's Golden Anniversary celebration was anticipated as the be-all and end-all of theme park promotions. It just started off the summer with a lot more excitement than it ended it.
The summer ended with a whimper, said one cast member, commenting on the slight, premature slowdown in business. The crowds were here up to and around Disneyland's birthday, but dropped after that. Attendance really took a hit when Hurricane Katrina hit and the gasoline prices exceeded $3. (Kids returning early to school didn't help, either.)
Disneyland's challenge will be figuring out how to extend the excitement of the last four months for another 14 months. It has a few cards up its sleevesuch as the Honda car giveaway at Disneyland next month. Then at Disney's California Adventure there's the new Monsters Inc. dark ride in January and the reprofiled drops patterns on Tower of Terror a few months later. Also in late spring, Disneyland will power up the new night-time version of Space Mountain, Rock-It Mountain.
The latter is just the first of possibly several instant overlays the park is considering. The idea is based on the success of the seasonal overlays on It's a Small World and the Haunted Mansion (and, before that, the Country Bear Jamboree). The only problems was these promotions have become so comprehensive, that they're quite expensive to produce, install and tear downand mean an extra month of downtime for the popular attractions. The instant overlays create a new ride experience with the flip of a few switchesa change in lighting, music, sound level, effects, evenas is proposed for Pirates of the Caribbean, having your boat rerouted into new show scenes installed in the current boat storage channel.
Now that the summer's over, management can finally catch its breath and evaluate what's worked and what hasn't. Chief among the crowd-pleasers has been the fireworks show; in fact, it's been uncomfortably popular. The new parades at both parks are also hits.
The biggest loser was Disney's California Adventure as a whole, where estimates have summer-time attendance levels at historic lows.
Perhaps the downturn shouldn't be surprising. For a change, DCA offered no significant discounts this summer. Too, while Disneyland boasted about 10 exciting new additions, the only thing DCA got was the parade and later the Turtle Talk With Crush show. As well, the marketing department seems to have forgotten the place exists.
Certainly concern must be growing that DCA will never be able to stand on its owna necessity before Disney will ever invest in a third gate on the strawberry fields.
Something tells me that, with only 150 shopping days left 'til DCA's 5th birthday, there must be hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians who have never given the park a try. Who are these people? Why haven't they been to DCA yet? I went looking for these Block Party-poopers and, to be honest, they were not difficult to find.
Karen is a 40-ish mom with two daughters, one in high school, another in college. She still likes to get to Disneyland about once every year or so (down from about twice a year when her girls were young), but she's never been to DCA. Never even considered it. She's pretty familiar with it, but just doesn't have any interest in it. She's seen the TV commercials and, from across the esplanade, the big roller coaster and other carnival rides. For her, it looks too much like Knott's Berry Farm and Magic Mountainneither of which appeal to her or her family. I don't like the circus, she says firmly.
Ironically, the similarity to the competition is intentional. Disney figured that if it could give visitors the Hollywood atmosphere of Universal Studios, the thrill rides of Six Flags, and the woodsy charm of Knott's. What it's given DCA is Knott's-sized, not Disneyland-sized, crowds. Apparently, Disney's audience isn't an exact match of the competition's.
Consider Rita, 60. She adores Disneyland. She's been going at least once a year for as long as she can remember. Rita's never paid to visit DCA, but did find herself in the park to attend a community service award presentation in the Hyperion Theater. An hour after the cermony ended, she had hopped over to Disneyland.
Why such a hurry to flee DCA? It's not fun, Rita explained. There's really nothing that I like, except they served alcohol. Oh, and Soarin' over California. I also rode Tower of Terror, but it wasn't very terrifying. They had things for teenagers, but I'm not into all these roller coasters. It conjures up the image of Magic Mountain, which I detest. And it's not worth the price. Disneyland has so much to do.
Chuck, 43, has three teenage kids and has also never been to DCA. But then he hasn't been to Disneyland either in the last five years. What's kept his family away? The cost, he says. If it were cheaper I'd go in a heartbeat. It costs $50, $60 to get in, and it's just not worth it.
Perhaps it's Disneyland that has priced DCA out of the market. Although the two parks charge the same amount to get in, it's difficult to argue that they provide the same value.
Chuck's favorite activity had been to just walk around. We wouldn't go to ride rides. We'd mostly go to look at stuff and people watch. But it's so crowded now, that's no fun anymore. Instead, he finds it much more comfortable (and affordable) to hang out at entertainment-themed malls similar to the Irvine Spectrum.
He knows DCA is there, although the only rides he can name are two he can see as he drives by, the Hollywood Hotel that looks like it's falling apart and the roller coaster with the mouse face on it.
William, in his mid-50s, had been an annual passholder for a few years before being distracted by other interestsabout the same time that DCA opened. He also wouldn't mind visiting DCA some time just to see it. Yet, from what he's heard about DCA from his friends, nothing about the place really excites him. It sounds more like an amusement park than a Disneyland, with a Ferris wheel and a lot of big rides instead of visual rides, William says. I get the impression there aren't that many rides, and that it's not as much fun [as Disneyland]. Frankly, I haven't heard any ringing endorsements.
So what's a Mouse to do? Keep adding rides until something catches the public's fancy? Change the theme to something more appealing? Steamroll the carnival rides? Bribe dissatisfied customers to stop bad-mouthing the place? Just know that inside DCA something's got to change. I wonder if anyone will notice.
The Golden Anniversary celebration has resulted in a treasure trove of merchandise for Disneyland enthusiasts. It's also made the company begin to appreciate some of the people who have worked so hard to make the magic on a daily basis. Over the last 25 years, Disney had become adept at venerating its animators and Imagineers, but continued to neglect most of the pioneers who operated the theme parks.
Fortunately, the 2005 class of Disney Legendsto be honored at an invitation-only presentation September 20 at 10:00 a.m. in the Main Street Opera House, then 11 a.m. in front of the castleconsists mostly of unsung Disneyland heroes.
This year's inductees are Chuck Mr. Matterhorn Abbott (Disneyland Operations), Milt Albright (Magic Kingdom Club originator), Hideo Amemiya (WDW & Grand Californian Hotels), Hideo Indian Aramaki (Disneyland Foods), Chuck Boyajian (Disneyland Custodial), Charles Boyer (Disneyland's master illustrator), Randy Bright (Disneyland Operations, WDW, Imagineering), Jim Cora (Disneyland Operations), Bob Jani (Disneyland & WDW Entertainment), Mary Jones, Art Linkletter (Disneyland Opening Day host), Mary Ann Mang (Disneyland Public Relations), Steve Martin (actor/comedian who got his start at Disneyland), Tom Nabbe (original Tom Sawyer at Disneyland, WDW Facilities), Jack Olsen (Disneyland & WDW Merchandise), Cicely Rigdon (Disneyland Guest Relations), Bill Sully Sullivan (Disneyland & WDW Operations), Jack The Voice of Disneyland Wagner, and Vesey Walker (first leader of the Disneyland Band).
Sadly, half of the Legends are no longer around to enjoy the accolades. And, we lost another one last week. On September 7, Indian Aramaki, Disneyland's first executive chef, passed away. He lived until age 90two weeks short of his day in the sun.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.