Disney and the Queen Mary

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

How did Disney end up operating the Queen Mary in Long Beach from 1988 to 1992? The short answer is that Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to own the Disneyland Hotel.

The long answer is a little bit more complicated and is the subject of today's column.

The British cruise ship RMS Queen Mary sailed the North Atlantic Ocean from England to New York and back as the flagship of the Cunard Line from 1936 to 1940 when it was transformed into a troop ship during World War II.

In 1947, the ship was refitted as a passenger ship and dominated the transatlantic crossings until the introduction of faster transatlantic flights that could make the trip in hours rather than days resulting in the ship operating at a loss. It sometimes came into port with more crew members than passengers. It was retired in 1967.

It was purchased by the city of Long Beach for $3.45 million dollars and, since it was too large to sail through the Panama Canal, it journeyed around the South American Cape Horn to arrive in Long Beach where it was moored. After a long conversion from a sea going vessel to a hotel, museum and tourist attraction, it opened to the public in May 1971. It was now officially classified as a building rather than a ship.

Different operators were handling different aspects of the attraction and, as a result, it was losing millions of dollars for the city each year. In 1980, the Long Beach's Port Harbor Commission assigned a 66-year lease to Wrather Port Properties Corporation in the hopes that having just one operator might turn things around.

It was run by Jack Wrather, an entrepreneur who owned such properties as the Lone Ranger, Lassie, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and the Disneyland Hotel, among other investments.

Wrather and his wife, former actress Bonita Granville, had sailed on the ship many times and had a sentimental connection to it. One of the first things Wrather did was to bring another icon out of hiding.

From 1983 to 1993, the Queen Mary was joined nearby by a huge geodesic dome that housed Howard Hughes' infamous H-4 Hercules aircraft, colloquially known as the Spruce Goose because it was made of wood.

Wrather and his wife lived in Holmby Hills, like Walt Disney and his wife, and they became friends, especially since Wrather's television shows were also running on ABC, like Walt's weekly series. That's why Walt turned to the millionaire to ask him to build a hotel at the exit of Disneyland so that guests could stay in quality lodging.

As Wrather recalled in an interview with the Orange Country Register newspaper in September 11, 1978:

"It was in 1954 when I got a call that Walt was putting in something very special out there in Anaheim and I was asked if I would be interested in building a hotel next to it. I had heard a little bit about the Disneyland plan but when they told me where it was being built, all I could exclaim was 'Anaheim! Oh, God! Anaheim!'

"Then I asked them why they didn't call Hilton or Sheraton since I wasn't in the hotel business. They said they had called them but Hilton or Sheraton never heard of Anaheim and weren't interested. If Walt hadn't sunk everything he had into the park at that time, he would have built the hotel himself. I was a kid in Long Beach and we used to come up to Knott's Berry Farm so I knew Anaheim well."

Wrather also knew, like Walt, that Anaheim was primed for major expansion. Walt was so desperate to have a hotel nearby for guests to stay that he gave Wrather a 99-year lease on the land across from the park that Disney had purchased (at a rate of $2,000 a year for the length of the lease, plus 2% of the gross on the rentals) and the exclusive rights to use the "Disney" name for the hotel and any future hotels that Wrather might build in Southern California (at a rate of $25,000 per year) and Walt's assurance that he would not build a hotel in competition.

Walt was so grateful that while he was alive, he rejected all suggestions to renegotiate the contract or try to get ownership of the Disneyland Hotel. When the monorail was extended to the Disneyland Hotel, it was done so at only a nominal leasing fee for the station for Wrather.

Eventually, in addition to the Disneyland Hotel, Wrather owned the Twin Lakes Lodge (Las Vegas), the L'Horizon Hotel (Palm Springs), the Balboa Bay Club (Newport Beach), and the Inn at the Park in Anaheim. Interestingly, there were discussions in the 1970s to have the monorail expanded to stop at Inn at the Park, as well. Disney did make an offer in 1973 to acquire the Disneyland Hotel that was rejected and, over the years, made other offers that were also rejected.

Disney created a subsidiary company, WCO Port Properties, to oversee the Long Beach property lease. At one point, Disneyland guests were offered free admission.

When Michael Eisner became CEO in September 1984, one of the things that irritated him was that there was a hotel called the Disneyland Hotel that Disney did not own. Even worse, it was falling into disrepair, which reflected badly on the Disney Brand.

Eisner also coveted the acreage around the hotel and was upset that he was prevented from building other competing hotels in the Southern California area.

Jack Wrather died in November 1984. In March 1987, Disney negotiators tried to make a deal to buy out the Wrather Corporation, but offered $6 less a share than the stock was selling for at the time.

In June 1987, a New Zealand firm purchased 28% of Wrather Corporation and announced it intended to eventually purchase at least 50%. This meant a foreign company might gain control of the Disneyland Hotel and the right to use the "Disney" name on any other hotels in Southern California.

The lease on the monorail was about to expire. Disney threatened to increase the leasing cost of the monorail access to an exorbitant amount or cut off service entirely. The move was meant to discourage any plans to sell anything more to the New Zealand firm and to prevent any further development on the hotel property and perhaps upset any attempts to get loans to do so.

Disney approached the New Zealand firm for a joint buy-out of Wrather in a deal that cost Disney $76 million dollars in 1988. Six months later, Disney purchased that firm's 50% interest in Wrather for an additional $85 million.

In total, it cost Disney $161 million to gain control of the Disneyland Hotel, plus the assumption of an additional $89 million in debts that Wrather had generated.

That same package included the contracts and leases for the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose, as well as the Londontowne Village, which was a collection of quaint shops and restaurants between the plane and the ship.

Wrather owned 26 acres south of Disneyland and had a long-term lease on 18 additional acres north of the hotel. With the acquisition of all the Wrather land, Disney gained a total of 84 acres near the park that eventually could be used for expansion. Wrather also had an option to lease about 236 acres near the Queen Mary that could be developed as a marina or filled in to create land that could be used for a retail district.

Disney executives immediately confirmed that the Disneyland Hotel would be upgraded. The previous December, the hotel was downgraded from a Four Diamond to Three Diamond rating by the American Automobile Association.

Disney created a subsidiary company, WCO Port Properties, to oversee the Long Beach property lease. Those who worked for the company were given their own special WCO Port Properties nametags.

They were still Disney cast members but those who were transferred from Disneyland, as well as Disney executives assigned to the venue felt they were being punished and sent to Siberia. They seemed isolated from all the other activity in the Disney Company.

Disney didn't officially promote the entertainment complex as a Disney venue, but it did try to make it profitable. Disney created a popular Haunted Passage tour for the Queen Mary, as well as other limited capacity tours, like Celebrity Tales, that took guests through areas where the rich and famous stayed, and Legendary Passages, which followed in the steps of a typical crossing.

Disney hired look-alike performers of famous celebrities who might have sailed on the Queen Mary in its heyday, like WC Fields, The Marx Brothers, Mae West, and Clark Gable to wander the ship and interact with guests. A Howard Hughes impersonator gave tours of the Spruce Goose and shared its history.

One famous passenger on the Queen Mary was not impersonated: Walt Disney himself, who often sailed on the ship and its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, since it was the only form of transportation to Europe during his time even though it took up to five days to make the crossing.

Disney spent an estimated $40,000 alone just polishing the brass handrails on the Queen Mary. Newly restored staterooms and suites at the Queen Mary were available for overnight accommodations.

Disney upgraded the restaurants and shops. Harrods, the famous London department store opened its first "Signature Store" in the United States aboard the Queen Mary on January 5, 1989. Its Queen Mary boutique sold 125 items carrying the Harrods name, ranging from clothing to food to souvenirs. Prince Michael of Kent, the grandson of the real Queen Mary of England (for whom the ship was named), dedicated the new store.

Harrods officials said they hoped that the Queen Mary collaboration would lead to ventures at other Disney properties. Harrods was developing special travel packages for British patrons that would include trips to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. As part of that program, Disney began staging breakfasts for Harrods shoppers featuring Disney characters.

Jack Lindquist, then executive vice president of creative marketing concepts for Walt Disney Attractions, said Disney hoped to negotiate agreements with other well-known British retailers to open Queen Mary shops.

Among those Disney hoped to lure were Crabtree & Evelyn, which sold soaps, fragrances and other gift items, and clothiers such as Burberry, Dunhill, Pringle and Laura Ashley. In the beginning of 1989, The Queen Mary's retail offerings consisted of four small souvenir and gift shops.

Disney pulled out all the bells and whistles for 1990 with a year long celebration in an attempt to attract a larger audience. By now the Queen Mary had 15 specialty shops, 17 snack bars, three full-service restaurants, and Sir Winston's piano bar.

For the promotion, Disney expected visitors to feel as if they have been transported back to 1939. Daily live shows evoked the era with on-board performers entertaining the passengers.

The Queen Mary and Spruce Goose Entertainment Center hosted the "Voyage to 1939" celebration to reference the ship's last peacetime voyage on August 30, 1939 before it was converted into a troop transport carrier.

"1939 was the last great innocent year before the war changed the world forever," said a Disney representative. "It was a carefree year, one that we feel the Queen Mary kind of signifies."

The celebration was held every day "Rain or Shine" from January 6 to December 31, 1990. It ended with a gigantic New Year's Eve Gala on December 31 "when we bid fond farewell to the 1930s," Lindquist said.

Among the onboard festivities were a musical tour of the ship, a "preview" of a 1930s style New York revue with live entertainers entitled the "Bon Voyage Party" with music from "Hollywood's Heyday and Broadway's Ballyhoo".

Lindquist stated, "We tried to give the visitors the feeling that they were aboard the ship sailing the route between New York and Southampton. The bon voyage party with whistles blowing, throwing confetti, that sort of thing."

In addition, Big Band music for dancing in a special Club 39 decorated like a popular nightclub of the era was available. Cast members roamed the ship in period costumes and interacted with guests in the persona of 1939 passengers on a cruise.

Each day, visitors were presented with newspaper front pages from the same date in 1939. As they toured, they heard specially prepared tapes with authentic newscasts, sports results and music as the ship's radio broadcasts.

On shore starting in April, an Old English carnival called the Brighton Carnival took over the Londontowne Village shopping/dining complex with authentic English food and drink. It also featured children's rides and carnival games in an attempt to make the area family friendly.

In the Spruce Goose dome, Disney built a permanent stage for future shows. For the year long promotion, it presented "Motorcar Mania Musical Revue," a freewheeling musical "who-dunit" with zany characters like Lola Lugnut, Bugsy, General Otto Partz and the Can-Do Sisters

The dome also hosted a 1939 Auto Show featuring 50 classic cars like Packards, LaSalles, Fords, DeSotos, a Rolls-Royce and Buicks. All of the cars were auctioned off for sale. One Ford convertible with rumble seat was estimated to be worth $25,000, and a four-door Lincoln convertible in periwinkle blue could bring as much as $90,000, according to Lindquist.

Beautiful bathing beauty models decked out in vintage swimwear lovingly described the autos. Lindquist remembered, "I sent people to search the entire country for authentic cars from that year and we found some in mint condition. The idea was to re-create an old fashioned auto show. We had a Packard up on a riser and models in evening gowns pointing out the features from door handles to how the lights worked, trying to sell the marvels of the 1939 car."

Offshore spectaculars included a daring vintage aircraft stunt show starring Captain Sebastian Wright and the Royal Flying Circus. It was three old fighter planes doing acrobatics and a dogfight over the top of the ship.

Disney offered special promotions to get people to the entertainment complex.

A Disneyland brochure announced: "Bonus Offer! With a 3 Day passport you'll get something extra! By special arrangement with Long Beach's Queen Mary and Spruce Goose, your 3 Day Passport gives you admission to Disneyland or this exciting nearby attraction. A great way to spend your third day!"

Flyers were handed out at Disneyland offering $3 off each admission to the Queen Mary for up to 10 people. At one point, Disneyland guests were offered free admission to the Long Beach attraction with a paid admission to Disneyland.

Local Los Angeles television station KCAL ran an hour special titled "Celebrity Celebration Aboard the Queen Mary" on April 15, 1990 with host Wil Shriner and celebrity impersonators of Groucho Marx, Laurel and Hardy and Clark Gable, as well as performers like Melissa Manchester (singing period songs) and Michael Feinstein playing piano in the Grand Salon.

Shriner took viewers on a tour of the Queen Mary and its history to motivate the audience to come and see the attraction and the special year long promotion.

It quickly became apparent that people visiting Disneyland, especially for multiple days, had no desire to take the trip out to Long Beach. The venue struggled financially.

In an effort to make the acquisition profitable, Disney announced in 1990 that the two icons would be the centerpiece for a new elaborate theme park to be called Port Disney (and later Disney Sea). When the plans for that Long Beach project fell through and with a survey that identified at least $27 million in needed repairs for the ship alone, Disney decided to abandon the lease and the venue in March 1992. It would continue to operate the attractions until September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"The Queen Mary has not been a profitable operation as a tourist attraction and has proved to be a less than viable investment," the Disney Company stated in the official press release. Disney claimed that it had lost nearly $8 million on the ocean liner and the Spruce Goose the previous year and had been spending on average $7 million to $8 million a year just on maintenance and repairs.

As Lindquist recalled, "Before we came in, the Queen Mary had less than a half-million visitors a year and the first year we took it over, we had more than a million visitors. We looked at what it would cost to cosmetically bring the ship back to her pristine state. It would have been a major overhaul. Basically, the city of Long Beach bought a ship and never had any idea as to what the hell to do with it. The ship can't go anywhere. It can't even be towed. It's set in cement. But it was fun while it lasted."

The dome had been used for conventions and special events, but when Disney informed the Aero Club of Southern California that it no longer wished to display the Spruce Goose, the flying boat was relocated to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon. The dome was later converted into a soundstage for films and television shows and eventually into a ship terminal for Carnival Cruise Lines.

The Queen Mary is still owned by the city of Long Beach, but it's operated by a real estate firm, Urban Commons, that has announced its intention to build a $250 million entertainment complex for the 65 acres of waterfront surrounding the Queen Mary.

Dubbed "Queen Mary Island," the sprawling project will include cafes, bars, a 2,400-foot-long boardwalk, a 200-room hotel and nearly 700,000 square feet of retail space, plus an amphitheater and an advanced playground area for extreme sports. The complex could also incorporate an "ice climbing wall," as well as surfing, skydiving, and zip lining.

"Queen Mary Island embodies everything that is great about Long Beach," Jeannine Pearce, a Long Beach City Councilmember, said in a press release. "It brings the great history of Long Beach's most iconic landmark to life while stimulating our thriving local economy."

I wish them well. but if even Disney pixie dust couldn't make the area profitable, I wonder what the odds are for this new venture.



  1. By danyoung

    Thanks for a most interesting article. As a SoCal resident I visited both the Queen and the Goose many times, and always enjoyed the theatrical nature of the presentations. They used to show you a wide screen multimedia show as you entered the dome, and then at a dramatic moment the screen itself rose up and you were nose to nose with the Goose. Very very cool!

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