Port Disney Long Beach 1991

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I recently wrote about Disney and its connection to the Queen Mary cruise ship hotel in Long Beach.

However, that was just the beginning of a much longer story about how Disney almost built another massive Southern California entertainment venue in the location.

When the Disney Company purchased the Wrather Corporation in 1988 to gain ownership of the Disneyland Hotel, that same package included the contracts and leases for the legendary Queen Mary ocean liner and Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose wooden airplane in Long Beach, California, as well as the Londontowne Village, which was a collection of quaint shops and restaurants between the plane and the ship.

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 created a subsidiary company, WCO Port Properties, to oversee the Long Beach property leases.

It quickly became apparent that tourists, despite all of Disney's marketing attempts, were just not that interested in making the trip to Long Beach to see the two historical icons.

As Disney Marketing Vice President Jack Lindquist said, "Before (Disney) 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 1 million visitors, but that was still not enough to cover the expenses for repairs and maintenance. We were losing millions of dollars each year."

The Long Beach area was certainly ripe for expansion. Even Wrather, before his death, had huge plans for the area, which is why he had an option on all of that land.

He had announced he was going to build a 10-story hotel and parking garage with a large area devoted to meeting space for conventions by 1988. Then, he stated he would build a huge retail space tentatively called The Festival Marketplace, followed by an exhibition hall and perhaps five to six high rise office buildings. He died in 1984 before any of those plans were finalized.

Despite the tourist attractions of the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose underperforming to Disney expectations, Disney CEO Michael Eisner also saw that there was potential in the location.

At one point Eisner wanted to build a new Walt Disney Stadium for the California Angels in Long Beach, as well as The Pond hockey arena for the Mighty Ducks there. In addition, he hoped the stadium might work to attract a new Los Angeles pro football team. Long Beach's lack of enthusiasm killed those proposals.

In January 1990, Eisner announced that as part of his plans for a "Disney Decade" of expansion that the Disney Company was planning on building a new theme park to be located either in Anaheim (basically on the area of the Disneyland parking lot along with some additional acreage) or in Long Beach and added, "It depends a lot on which community wants us more."

Since such an entertainment venue was guaranteed to bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue and additional jobs, Eisner was expecting major concessions from the proposed city to help facilitate its construction and make major modifications to the existing infrastructure including significant road improvements.

For Anaheim, Disney proposed WestCot, a variation of its East Coast Epcot theme park. For Long Beach, the concept of a Port Disney was first presented to city and port officials in closed meetings in July 1990 and then officially announced in a public meeting on July 31, 1990.

The Port Disney concept, which would include DisneySea, was first introduced in 1990 as part of the "Disney Decade"

The property would have had a nautical-themed park known as DisneySea (no space between the two words), a marina, a cruise ship port (potentially competing with the existing Port of Los Angeles for cruise ship traffic) and an expanded specialty retail and entertainment area in addition to five resort hotels, one in the space then occupied by the Spruce Goose that would have had to be moved.

The Queen Mary would also need to be relocated roughly 700 feet north, but would still remain as the backdrop for the new themed venue that would reportedly cost more than $2.8 billion. In October 1991, the entire project would be renamed DisneySea to avoid confusion with the Port of Long Beach.

Over the years, some have claimed that Disney never really intended to build a Port Disney in Long Beach. Supposedly, it was merely a ruse to leverage more favorable terms and concessions from the City of Anaheim for what Disney really wanted by creating a faux competition.

However, many years and millions of dollars were spent on the project, and it was well known that executive Frank Wells was a huge supporter of building in Long Beach because he felt it would be less expensive than Anaheim and that there would be more space for future expansion.

In addition, many of the things developed for the Port Disney project were later included in Japan's Tokyo DisneySea theme park (that opened in 2001) so obviously the development of attractions had been taken seriously enough by the Disney company for the Oriental Land Company to decide to pursue that "seven seas" concept for their second park as early as 1992.

In fact, that park's American Waterfront area features Disney's version of the Queen Mary labeled the S.S. Columbia because some of Imagineer Tim Kirk's designs for Port Disney would have depended upon the ship as a focal point.

Actually, for quite a while, it looked like Long Beach would indeed be the final choice. However, the residents of Long Beach were not quite as beguiled by the magic of Disney as was the government of Anaheim.

Representatives from neighborhood associations and businesses objected to the significantly increased traffic concerns, the public subsidies that Disney demanded that were felt to be excessive, environmental concerns and other issues.

Surprised by this cool reception, Disney met with small groups three times a week between August 1990 and February 1991 as a community outreach and to convince them that Disney would be a good neighbor and the project important to the city.

Disney created a Port Disney project display room aboard the Queen Mary on the Promenade Deck in Piccadilly Circus that featured a large six-by-six-foot three-dimensional model of the proposed Port Disney project and other components like concept artwork to help people better understand what Disney was planning and what it would look like.

In addition, Disney published one issue of The Port Disney News filled with elaborate and colorful concept art and detailed descriptions, which was mailed directly to residents of Long Beach in 1991 in the hopes of addressing any concerns and stirring up support for the project:

Welcome to DisneySea! Here you will experience a thrilling journey through the mysteries, challenges and natural wonders of the sea. Among the highlights of your trip will be an intimate encounter with our planet's most important environmental resource and the chance to participate in exciting research activities conducted by some of the leading oceanic scientists.

For millions of Southern California residents and visitors, this fantastic voyage may become a reality based on the conceptual master plan for one of the most innovative theme parks ever conceived by the Walt Disney Company.

According to its designers, the goal of DisneySea is to enable everyone to experience the marvels of nature's secret world beneath the sea and to gain first-hand experience of how the oceans affect human life as well as the life of the planet.

Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative, design, production and project management subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company responsible for the creation of Disney theme parks and attractions, has been charged to develop DisneySea. Its vision for Long Beach is a singular blend of entertainment and education through Disney-style rides and attractions, marine research facilities, an oceanarium and other aquatic adventures.

While plans for DisneySea are still evolving, Walt Disney Imagineering is planning attractions for visitors to enjoy the spirit of the sea with fun as the common denominator.

The Port Disney resort complex would span roughly 414 acres on both sides of Queensway Bay. The two sides of the resort, known as City-Side and Port-Side, would be connected by watercraft, monorail and the Queensway Bridge.

City-Side would be the location of three Disney resort hotels, shopping and entertainment areas and would integrate existing facilities like the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the Long Beach Convention Center, Shoreline Village and the Downtown Long Beach Marina.

Disney would build three resort hotels there: the 900-room Tidelands Hotel, attached to a six-acre park; the 400-unit all-suite Shoreline Hotel, with its own shopping center; and the 700-room Marina Hotel, adjacent to the Long Beach Convention Center. In addition, a new 17-acre park would be created along with enhancements to Shoreline Drive.

Port Disney's monorail system would run alongside Shoreline Drive, and connect with these three Disney hotels before turning southward toward the 225 acre DisneySea theme park, making it one of the advantages of staying at a Disney resort hotel.

Disney would build two more resort hotels on Port-Side: the Canal Hotel with 1,400 guest rooms and 150-slip guest marina, as well as a waterfront promenade and the 500-room Port Hotel with luxury accommodations and a waterfront setting. Disney later decided to downsize the Canal Hotel by about half and include an additional sixth hotel called the Regatta to keep the skyline silhouette more manageable and less overwhelming.

The WorldPort (no separation between words) just outside the theme park on Port-Side would be the location where excursion water ferries would depart on a regular basis to Avalon, Newport Beach, Dana Point, Redondo Beach and Marina del Rey. It would have a promenade that provided easy access to shops and restaurants and would be the end of the monorail line.

It was suggested that theme boats, pageants and special events would be featured in the area where the Queen Mary would also now be docked as a familiar visual icon. In addition, at night there would be laser and fireworks shows.

For the first time, a five berth port would provide cruise ships access and also feature a 250 slip public marina. It would actually have been the largest cruise terminal on the west coast if it had been built.

In order to justify the need for 250 acres of landfill, Disney had to include marinas, a cruise ship port, ferry ports and even some sort of an aquarium in order to meet the requirements of the Coastal Commission.

One of the things that made the DisneySea theme park different than Disneyland was that it was specifically to be educationally oriented, in addition to the entertainment aspects much like the original overall intent of Epcot Center in Florida or the Living Seas pavilion at Epcot. To immerse guests in this experience, a massive 17,000-space parking garage would block any unsightly view of the real world on land from the park.

Without an iconic castle, the centerpiece for the park would have been Oceana, a bubble-shaped structure with orbs reminiscent of a hidden Mickey head that housed the world's largest "oceanarium," which was a combined two-story aquarium reaching depths of up to thirty feet and holding ten to twelve million gallons of water and an extensive learning center.

In fact, Oceana would house the Future Research Center that was to be a working meeting center for oceanographic researchers, as well as the Ocean Outreach Center described as a "library of the sea." It would have been a massive research library dedicated to all aspects of the ocean throughout the world with computers, reading rooms, research files, and full access to ocean-centric literature for everyone from guests to scientists.

It was hoped that respected scientists from around the world would visit to conduct studies because of the vastness of the available resources.

For the average guest there would be interactive exhibits to learn about the ocean and marine life, a submarine simulator going to various underwater locations and even an exhibit to demonstrate how to clean up an oil spill.

Overhead walkways and underwater portholes would provide views of the marine creatures. Kids would be able to borrow goggles that allowed them to appreciate what it was like to see as a fish.

Project Manager David Malmuth said, "Our goal is to sensitize millions of visitors each year to the enormous challenges and opportunities of our seas—our most precious resource—in a setting that encourages play and fantasy."

Oceana would truly be the centerpiece, as all the other themed places would surround it much like ripples around a pebble dropped into a body of water.

According to the Port Disney News:

Guests will be able to visit the heart of this functioning sea laboratory, observing scientists at work. Watching these experts, visitors can glimpse the future of man's involvement with the seas and probe deeper into man's relationship with the environment. For the more light-hearted adventurers, the Center will include a simulator adventure that will give guests a glimpse of the drama—and danger—faced by real explorers of the deep.

Just as Disneyland had several different lands, there were several different sections of DisneySea:

Mysterious Island

The icon was a man-made volcano and the area centered around stories of Captain Nemo and his Nautilus submarine. It featured several attractions, including a ride discovering the lost City of Atlantis, Pirate Island (described as "Tom Sawyer's Island times 10"), and Nemo's Lava Cruiser (where suspended guests would careen through underground caverns in the volcano).

Heroes' Harbor

This area was themed as an ancient Greek village where "the myths and legends of the sea come to life." It featured attractions like the Aqua-Labyrinth that was a "challenging maze with walls made only of water," a ride that was to based on the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and another attraction centering on the adventures of Ulysses from Homer's famous poem.

Fleets of Fantasy

Near the boardwalk area, it was described by Disney as "a harbor of fabled and fanciful ships, including outsized Chinese junks and Egyptian galleys, would disguise exciting rides and dining and entertainment experiences."

Venture Reefs

This area, originally known as "Adventure Reefs," seemed reminiscent of Florida's Typhoon Lagoon water park. Guests had the opportunity to surf or snorkel through tropical reefs filled with fish or just enjoy the paradise-like setting and swim. One piece of art shows guests being lowered in a steel cage into a tank of sharks.

The Port Disney News stated:

Guests will enjoy scenic beach vistas from the Caribbean, Polynesian, and the Pacific. They'll be entertained and invited to dine, shop, and take a dip in the ocean, where they'll find sunken ships and marine life "under the sea."

Boardwalk and Rainbow Pier

Designed as a tribute to Long Beach's famous Pike amusement park, this area would include a Ferris Wheel and an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster.

Such a massive undertaking could not be done all at once. so Disney announced that, like Walt Disney World, the park would open in two phases. The first phase would be operating by the year 2000 with the second and final phase completed by 2010. The expectation was that the first year would attract up to 10 million guests and Disney anticipated that it would be a minimum 18-hour experience to enjoy most of the area.

Disney officially cancelled the project in December 1991 and announced it would instead proceed with the Anaheim WestCot proposal.

Many things ended up killing the Port Disney project.

A special bill would have needed to be passed by California to permit Disney to proceed with the landfill and allow recreational use of the new property. The bill stalled in the California State Senate and was actively opposed by the Sierra Club and the California Coastal Commission fearing it would set a bad precedent. Disney was perceived as being "arrogant" in how they proposed the bill.

Disney would have had to also restore wetlands elsewhere at a significant cost to mitigate the marine environmental impact and couldn't come to an agreement on the amount of land to be restored. Significant financial overruns for the EuroDisneyland project in France drained working capital forcing not only the abandonment of this project but also eventually WestCot in Anaheim.

The City of Long Beach was greatly divided about the project, as well as the money it would need to contribute to do things like improvements to the Long Beach Freeway and other roads because of all the additional traffic. Internal disputes kept delaying action and preventing commitments from being formalized. Basically, local, state, and federal approvals were all required instead of just the Anaheim City Council.

Long Beach Mayor Ernie Kell told the Los Angeles Times on December 13, 1991: "Obviously, we're very disappointed. I had hoped we would be able to work this out."

"I can't believe the lack of leadership and vision that cost us this quality corporation," said Long Beach Councilman Jeffrey A. Kellogg, who blamed both the harbor commissioners and the mayor for not finding a way to keep Disney.

Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said he saw no reason why "an agreement could not have been reached. Highly questionable negotiation tactics [by the port] were apparently employed, and they appear to have backfired."