Next on the chopping block

by David Koenig, contributing writer

In the Bad Theme Park Management Hall of Fame, there are certain policies that will live forever in infamy: Run it until it fails. Every facility must generate a profit. Promote shops and restaurants, not attractions. Every guest contact is a sales opportunity.

Most of these brainstorms and their ilk were instituted under Disneyland's president in the mid-to-late-1990s, Paul Pressler. But there's one frustrating policy that he can't be blamed for: Every time a new attraction opens, an old one must close.

The rationale behind this practice does make sense, at least financially. Adding a new attraction doesn't just increase overall ride capacity; it also increases the amount of money required to operate the park on a daily basis. You need more ride operators, maintenance crew members, electricity, paint, replacement parts; you even pay higher property taxes. So, one way to keep expenses in check is by closing attractions-assuming the park can do without the increased ride capacity.

In the early years of Disneyland, its first 22 to be exact, the park clearly lacked capacity and kept adding attractions without regard for closing something else. In fact, due to the long-overdue closure of the Pack Mules, 1973 was the only year—from Day One in 1955 to Space Mountain in 1977—that net ride capacity decreased. Any other year, whenever a ride closed, one or more would open in its place.

After 1977, the process reversed. Whenever a ride opened, one or more would close in its place. Disneyland was no longer concerned about increasing overall ride capacity. For one thing, attendance had plateaued at about 10 million guests a year. Second, and more importantly, in 1982 the park switched from individual ride tickets to an "unlimited ride passport." Guests could ride as many attractions as they'd like as many times as they'd like and end up paying Disneyland the exact same amount. Immediately, park management had lost its primary incentive for adding new attractions.

The exceptions, of course, would be flashy, headliner attractions that might lure someone to the park who otherwise might visit Magic Mountain or Knott's Berry Farm that year.

According to Bill Sullivan, a Disneyland Club 55'er and top man at Florida's Magic Kingdom from 1984 to 1994, "The plan was that every two years we'd add a new major attraction. That gave marketing something to talk about, to have the guests come back again and again. That's where you make your money, not new guests every year, but return visitation."

But when additions become primarily marketing-driven, there's no motivation to add B- or C-ticket-level attractions—and the ones they already had became expendable.

Management's suspicions appeared to be confirmed in 1983 when Disneyland spent a bundle to overhaul all of the C-ticket attractions in Fantasyland and attendance actually decreased. Consequently, the Alice in Wonderland remodel got delayed, while an expansion of Storybook Land and revival of a pirate ship restaurant were cut from the plans. "That was the Olympic year (1984) and the attendance was down. Nobody came," recalled lead designer Tony Baxter. "So (Corporate) went, 'Oooh, we're not going to do any more Fantasyland stuff. Nobody wants to see it.' It needed to be done. (Fantasyland) was in such bad shape. All the things were rotten and falling apart, so it was certainly a visual improvement. And a lot of people said it was like nothing had changed, and they meant it as a compliment because they were so worried it was going to be awful. So that was good, but I think in hindsight if people think nothing has changed, they're not as excited about coming to see new stuff."

At first, the end of Disneyland's expansion was incidental, since new attractions were being built right on the site of former attractions-such as Big Thunder Mountain replacing the old Mine Train, Pinocchio's Daring Journey replacing the Fantasyland Theater, Captain Eo replacing Magic Journeys, and Star Tours replacing Adventure through Inner Space.

Onlookers, however, began to grow suspicious when in 1988, management decided to shutter Tomorrowland's America Sings, with no replacement in sight. America Sings wasn't falling apart or regularly hurting people. It wasn't low capacity or ridiculously high maintenance. It just wasn't the most popular attraction in the park, either, and made an easy target to reduce expenses in anticipation of adding an equivalent-sized attraction (Splash Mountain) on the other side of the park. The carousel building that housed America Sings would sit vacant for a decade.

The "open one/close one" practice was brought out of the shadows in 1993 when park president Jack Lindquist publicly admitted that, to open Mickey's Toontown, he was forced to close the Motor Boat Cruise and Fantasyland Autopia. (He conveniently failed to mention that he'd pulled the plug on Mission to Mars a few weeks before the Toontown Train Station opened.) A year later, Roger Rabbit's CarToon Spin opened, and the Keel Boats closed. In 1995, the Indiana Jones Adventure opened, and the Skyway came down. Then, an entirely rebuilt "New Tomorrowland" opened in 1998—with less ride capacity than Old Tomorrowland. The park was growing more popular—and managers were making it smaller.

Disneyland management had been itching to close the Submarine Voyage for years. Once a premier E-ticket attraction, the "adventure through liquid space" had long since begun to show its age. Worse, at least to the accountants, the ride was costly to run and maintain. Still, the Submarine Voyage typically had a long wait—in part because of its limited capacity.

Walt Disney World had unceremoniously shuttered its even more popular submarine attraction in 1994, months after a new head of attractions was named. To escape criticism, Magic Kingdom flaks explained that the subs were merely undergoing an extensive rehab and denied rumors that they were gone forever. Eighteen months later, when Disney World finally confessed that the subs weren't coming back, Pressler realized that he would have to take a different approach. Unlike in Orlando, the most passionate—and vocal—Disneyland fans lived just outside the kingdom gates, ready to gather up their torches and pitchforks at a moment's notice.

Pressler publicly vowed that the subs would not close until he had decided on a replacement. Unfortunately, about the only proposal that met his requirements (minimal investment to build, operate and maintain, and generates revenue) was filling the lagoon with foot-long, radio-controlled submarines that guests could steer for a buck—similar to the miniature Jungle Cruise boats added at the Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Hotel. Thankfully, Pressler realized this would only make the mobs angrier. But by the fall of 1998, he could wait no longer and shut down the subs.

During the lagoon's nine empty years, the most viable replacement appeared to be an ambitious, simulator-based attraction themed to the forthcoming feature Atlantis. The cost—as much as $100 million—nauseated Pressler, and he must have been quite relieved when Atlantis' poor showing at the box office provided the perfect excuse for sinking the sub revival.

Basically, ride capacity at the park has not increased significantly in 30 years—as evidenced by the daily congestion. We've moved from 10 million people a year using individual ride tickets to 12 to 15 million with an unlimited-use passport in one hand and a Fastpass ticket in the other. The park desperately needs more capacity.

We're now days away from the return of the submarines, a revival made possible only after Matt Ouimet evicted the last holdouts of the former regime from the Team Disney Anaheim building. Yet Ouimet is gone now, and the presidency is held by the elusive "Senator" Ed Grier. Will Grier recognize the opportunity the sub reopening provides in restoring much-needed capacity or will he revert to the corporate-approved "open one/close one" approach?

Certainly, there are a few expendable rides left. Let's consider his options. Just keep in mind the five qualifications of an ideal candidate: expensive to operate, expensive to maintain, limited in capacity, limited in popularity, and no longer relevant or cutting edge. (Also note that Disney usually bases its decisions on the former reasons, but blames the latter.)

In Fantasyland, the congestion is even worse than in Tomorrowland, so removing one of its dozen rides makes little sense. The most vulnerable attractions might be the two least popular, Snow White and Pinocchio. Both, however, have high-visibility locations. I can't imagine Disney boarding them up without having replacements already planned, which defeats the main reason for closing them in the first place. The one the accountants would love to tear down is the Matterhorn, a maintenance nightmare that can't go a year without a top-to-bottom, one-to-two-month refurbishment. The mountain's notoriety and bobsleds' popularity will protect it.

Toontown really doesn't have anything left to close. These days, the vacant bounce house, abandoned ball pit, slide-free boat and treehouse, and chained-down trolley no longer require an attendant. Mickey's House still requires manpower to work the photo location, but this generates revenue. Roger Rabbit's CarToon Spin is too popular to close, leaving Gadget's Go-Coaster as the only possible alternative. This too is unlikely because Toontown really can't afford to lose any more attractions. But then, that's what I thought before they deflated the bounce house.

Frontierland, which had 10 attractions in 1955, is also down to just a handful. For all intents and purposes, the island now belongs to New Orleans Square. Big Thunder is safe, the Mark Twain is currently being patched up, and the Columbia has become little more than a show prop. That leaves the Big Thunder Ranch, which already offers sporadic hours.

New Orleans Square's two attractions are protected landmarks—and it doesn't hurt that they both had recent expensive updates. The one facility that might possibly be in jeopardy is the Disney Gallery, which—because it doubles as an "attraction" and sells niche merchandise—generates comparatively low retail sales per square foot. Club 33 recently took over half of one of the Gallery's back rooms and would love to have more.

At Critter Country, the popular Splash Mountain remains untouchable. Not nearly as popular is the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. What should protect Pooh, however, is that the ride is only four years old and draws wee ones to the far western corner of the park, where a Pooh shop awaits them. There's also a Pooh meet-and-greet, where the lines are regularly longer than those for the ride itself. That leaves the canoes, a ride Disney World closed 13 years ago and Disneyland temporarily grounded in 1998, only to reclassify it as a "seasonal" operation. Although labor-intensive to operate, the canoes are relatively inexpensive to maintain and provide management with a handy "standby" attraction in times of sudden crowds.

Of Adventureland's four attractions, management has long wanted to shutter the Enchanted Tiki Room, but a complete restoration in 2005 has given the attraction a boost in attendance that should keep it open for a while. Tarzan's Treehouse might also be in play, except for the fact that it's currently being refurbished and it's a low-to-no-attendant attraction, anyway.

On Main Street, the train is untouchable, while the other vehicles have worked only part-time for decades. The cinema could be closed and converted into a store (as was done in Florida), but then the park would actually have to pay people to staff it. No, the most vulnerable resident on Main Street is the still-vacationing Mr. Lincoln. He's already had his return delayed until late next year—at the earliest—as management is in no hurry to spend the money to reinstall an attraction they assume no one will visit. In the meantime, the Opera House is too prominent a location not to keep playing the Steve Martin movie.

Tomorrowland itself offers only two realistic possibilities: Innoventions and Honey I Shrunk the Audience. Innoventions will remain open as long as there are sponsors willing to subsidize it. HISTA, on the other hand, has little going for it, and it's my nominee for most likely to secede. (It also could move to seasonal status, as Disneyland eventually did with the canoes and, temporarily, with the keel boats, Fantasyland Autopia, and CircleVision. HISTA's doors could simply be locked and, when capacity is required, reopened with little notice.)

Of course, the best option for the guests would be to not close anything and actually increase the number of attractions for a change.