The Walt Disney Co. announced Saturday that it has acquired an option to buy the last large undeveloped site in the resort district of Anaheim, a 52.5-acre strawberry farm that the Fujishige family had refused to sell for decades.
The property, which could be used for a third Disney theme park or a cluster of restaurants and nightclubs, is one of the most valuable in Orange County. Several real estate experts speculated the land will cost Disney from $65 million to $78 million.
The site is part of the Fujishiges' 56-acre farm on Harbor Boulevard, one block from a second Disney theme park now under construction, Disney's California Adventure.
The Fujishige family had steadfastly refused multimillion-dollar offers from the entertainment giant and other developers, to the admiration and wonder of many members of the community. About a decade ago, the family turned down a $54-million offer from Disney, former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist recalled Saturday.
A family spokesman who declined to be identified said patriarch Hiroshi Fujishige, now in his 70s, is pleased with the agreement. The family will continue to farm 3.5 acres of the property, and Fujishige plans to keep his produce stand at Harbor and Convention Way.
The agreement is the culmination of years of work by Disney, and was greeted with elation by several Anaheim city and tourism officials.
"This absolutely is going to add to the value of our destination and helps secure a favorable future for us," said Ned Snavely, general manager of the Anaheim Marriott hotel.
In 1993, Disney earmarked the site for a possible theme park as part of its expansion and included it in an environmental impact report. The presumption angered the Fujishige family, who hired an attorney and threatened to sue. Disney removed the site from its plans.
But the futures of the two entities, the small, proud family and the Disney juggernaut, remained intertwined.
In spite of the 1993 run-in with Disney, Hiroshi Fujishige earlier had said he would consider selling the farm someday.
"I could see where I may have to move, maybe in three, four, or five years," he told The Times in 1991. But he added: "I'm happy doing what I'm doing, that's all I know."
Why the family decided to sell now remains unclear.
"We're really trying to keep this as low-key as we can," said one of Fujishige's daughters, who wouldn't identify herself. Other family members also declined comment.
Paul Pressler, president of the Disneyland Resort, said he "has a great deal of respect for the Fujishige family and their persistence in maintaining the tradition of family farming."
The Burbank-based company does not have immediate plans to build on the site, Pressler said, but called the acquisition a "prudent course of action" in light of its expansion plans.
The company currently is building the Disneyland Resort, which includes a 750-room hotel, shops, restaurants and a retail center. It also will include Disney's California Adventure, scheduled to open in 2001.
Although a third theme park is a possibility, some real estate experts say the land more likely will be used to bring the Florida Paradise Island concept to California. Paradise Island is a cluster of nightclubs and restaurants near Walt Disney World.
Such a plan, they said, would work well in a city that has launched a costly expansion of its convention center and a number of new hotels and is changing faster than any city in Orange County.
"I expect they would immediately incorporate that land into their overall planning and have its uses ready when California Adventure opens," said Michael Meyer, managing partner of E&Y; Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group in Newport Beach.
Others agreed it would be unlikely that a third park would be built so soon after a new park opening.
"In my mind, a California version of Pleasure Island would happen faster than a third park," said Lindquist, the former president of Disneyland. "To me, that doesn't make any sense and would be contrary to everything Disneyland has done in the theme park business--to really get specific about a third park when a second one is only 30 months away from opening."
Either way, news of the sale was greeted enthusiastically by some city officials.
"It's exciting news to know Disney has been able to reach an agreement with the family at last," said City Councilwoman Shirley McCracken. "I see that parcel as a vital part of Anaheim's resort complex--it's just too valuable to stay as agricultural land."
When the Fujishiges, Hiroshi and his brother Masao, bought the land in 1954, it was surrounded by orange groves and eucalyptus trees. Nearby, Richard Nixon's brother, Donald, operated a hamburger stand.
Now the farm is a charming anachronism, bordered by high-rise hotels, souvenir shops and tourist amenities. Throughout it all, the Fujishige brothers refused to sell.
In 1986, Masao, in failing health, committed suicide. His brother appeared at an Anaheim City Council meeting and said that although outside pressure to sell the farm had been a contributing factor, the council members should not feel guilty.
"I have no bad feelings for any of you," he said. "He was a sick man. The only trouble was, I didn't realize how sick he was."
Today, the farm property is zoned for resort use but not for a theme park. That means that Disney probably would have to undergo an environmental impact review process if it wanted to build a third park, Mayor Tom Daly said.
"Disney probably will have to do substantial additional environmental analysis," Daly said. "An EIR was done for the entire area and the property is entitled for features such as hotels and restaurants. But it's not yet entitled for a theme park."
But, he said, "whenever the largest employer in an area decides to continue investing, that's good news."
Councilman Lou Lopez said he also was pleased.
"We went to Disney World in Florida on a fact-finding mission to see what had been done there, and it was very impressive," Lopez said. "At first you wonder, if they build another hotel or sports center, will they be able to make any money? But what we saw down in Florida was that if you provide a good resort area and setting, the people will come."
Times staff writers Daryl Strickland and Liz Seymour contributed to this report.