With Anaheim Expansion, Disney Wants You Captive
Back in the coonskin-cap days when Davy Crockett ruled the airwaves, families by the station-wagonload traveled to Southern California for a day of clean-cut fun at Disneyland.
The modern American family, richer and busier than ever, has a different idea of a vacation. What they want now: convenience, multiple diversions and a bit of adventure, escapism and coddling--all packed into a few intense days.
As families have grown, and grown up, in this American-born style of entertainment, they have become an even more desirable target. And Disney thinks it has them in its cross hairs.
Walt Disney Co. is creating resorts to appeal to the ever-widening interests of American families and to entice them to stay longer at their hotels and parks. In the process, it is transforming the face of travel and tourism and enhancing its own bottom line.
Disney’s $1.4-billion expansion in Anaheim, only a few months from completion, aims to turn the Disneyland area into a throbbing all-day, all-night playground--with a second theme park and the kinds of live entertainment and night life that have made Disney World in Florida and places like Las Vegas meccas for tourists.
The Burbank-based company plans to employ a strategy the industry calls “sequestration,” tourism’s Holy Grail, in which visitors are isolated at the resort, preferably for several days.
Day visitors and tourists staying with friends or relatives spent $50 a day each at theme parks in 1998, compared with $250 for those who stayed in hotels or motels, according to Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm.
“It’s a simple idea,” says a top advisor on the California Adventure project. “You lock them up, grab their ankles, turn them upside down, shake them and don’t let go until all the money is gone.”
By lengthening and monopolizing visitor stays, Disney wants to work some financial magic--doubling spending in shops, restaurants and hotels even while park attendance in Anaheim is projected to rise by half, according to the city’s tax revenue projections.
But the strategy will call for some un-Disneyland-like changes.
Walt Disney himself forbade alcoholic drinks at Disneyland, seeing the park as the ultimate family play land, safe and reassuring. But when the new California Adventure park opens in February, grown-up visitors will be able to wander the grounds with cocktails in hand, as they have for years at much of Disney World.
Drinks and music will be flowing outside the park too. In Downtown Disney, an entertainment mall, the company will cater to adults with a sports bar themed to Disney’s ESPN, a House of Blues, a New Orleans-style jazz place and a Latin supper club. Disney’s new Grand Californian hotel in Anaheim, at $220 a night, features a slate-floored wine-tasting room with 900 bottles displayed--plus two massage rooms.
Some Disneyland regulars complain that all this retail expansion is coming at the expense of more and better rides. But Disney executives hope the tightly clustered mix of new attractions will create a lively urban resort.
Says Timur Galen, general manager at Disney’s Imagineering design unit, “We want this [new] park to be hipper and edgier.”
For Disney, the remaking of Disneyland is as much a nod to the changing demographics and leisure tastes as it is to today’s tourism economics.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, married couples with children under 18 made up 46% of U.S. households, according to the Census Bureau. That number has since dwindled to about 25%.
So Disney is hoping to expand its audience in Anaheim by catering to additional groups of the population--a segmentation strategy, as analysts call it.
“Disney does it phenomenally well,” says Salomon Smith Barney analyst Jill Krutick. “At Disney World, in the daytime you can take gardening or cooking lessons at the Disney Institute, watch some sports, then head for the golf courses.
“Then at night you head over to Pleasure Island for the nightclubs,” she adds. “The goal, of course, is to keep you there as long as possible, spending as much as possible.”
Today’s kids also demand multiple diversions.
Jennifer Ledford of Seattle remembers her childhood vacations in Southern California: She tossed a book or two into the family sedan and rode along for the 1,200-mile journey to visit grandparents in Beverly Hills, a vacation highlighted by a day treat to Disneyland.
“Now when I pack for my [four] kids, I’m bringing brand new toys, 75 books, Game Boy, Walkman,” says Ledford, 25.
When the Ledfords went on vacation this month, it wasn’t in a car. With air fare, they spent more than $5,000 on their trip to Disney World.
They typify today’s on-the-go family. Both parents are so busy working that they find it hard to get extended time off together. So overworked, in fact, they share a pang of guilt about not spending enough time together with their children.
Says Ledford, who runs a day-care center: “We don’t take days off very often, so when we do, we go all out.”
Indeed, the prosperous economy has left many with a lot more money than time on their hands. Nearly four out of 10 people now say they would trade an increase in pay for more vacation time--up from 29% just last year, according to an annual survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine.
“There’s a general feeling that we’re all overworked, but things are good, and frankly we owe [vacations] to ourselves,” says the consulting firm’s Peter Yesawich. “A lot of people are saying price is no object.”
More than ever, leisure travelers want to learn some activity or skill on vacation. But even more vacationers are looking for live entertainment and night life, the survey found. Also very much in vogue: opportunities to indulge in different and unusual cuisines.
All of which the new Disneyland resort offers.
While the kids get turned upside down beneath a pair of mouse ears on the California Screamin’ roller coaster, parents can indulge at an upscale seafood restaurant run by star chef Wolfgang Puck. Another Los Angeles culinary celebrity, Joaquim Splichal, will operate a tapas restaurant and wine bar in the entertainment mall.
In an industry that promotes novelty, Disney’s expansion freshens Disneyland’s image while leaving the popular old park unchanged. And it’s likely to make Anaheim more attractive to high-income vacationers as well as the budget travelers who in the past have dominated the scene.
Theme parks, after all, are a huge business; attendance at larger U.S. parks--the 112 that attract 500,000 or more visits annually--is expected to top 226 million this year and generate revenue of $6.8 billion, according to Economics Research Associates. That’s up from 159 million attending and $4.3 billion in revenue for 1990.
The growing number of bigger parks, however, have stolen from smaller ones, and overall attendance growth through the 1990s leveled off at about 3% a year, according to Amusement Business magazine.
The move to create a hipper, livelier scene creates challenges--not the least of which is maintaining the Disneyland area as a safe family resort.
“Let’s just hope they keep the drinkers off the roller coaster,” says Robin Crabb, a licensing supervisor for the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department, which is requiring that the hard drinks be served in easy-to-recognize containers.
Disney strategists considered charging admission to the nightclub zone to discourage unwanted urban intrusions, but decided against it.
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner predicted that Disneyland’s security force will handle any problems. “I don’t think gangs find Disney a cool place to hang out,” Eisner said.
The Disneyland expansion is consistent with the company’s historical emphasis on the family, according to Eisner. “One of our strategies has always been that the whole family can do everything together,” he says. "[On] almost every single attraction, the oldest and the youngest can be together.”
Disneyland’s long popularity has produced rabid fans who are concerned that the new California Adventure won’t be up to Disneyland standards. A common complaint is that Eisner spent too little on California Adventure, passing up the one-of-a-kind attractions on which Disney built its reputation.
Despite the gripes, Michelle Smith, a columnist for the MousePlanet.com theme park Web site, figures she will visit Anaheim more often after the new park opens, adding a monthly trip to California Adventure to stops at Disneyland every other week.
“California Adventure has one purpose,” she said. “Bring people back a second day without costing the company very much. It will do that marvelously.”
MousePlanet editor Al Lutz is more skeptical about the new park’s appeal. California Adventure is “basically just a lot of inexpensive movies and carnival rides,” he maintains.
“Are you going to book an expensive family vacation to see bread-baking and tortilla-making exhibits?” he said.
The smorgasbord of broader diversions in and outside the park, the company hopes, will beckon visitors from all over, especially relatively affluent families like the Ledfords of Seattle.
Ledford remembers going to Disneyland at age 4. “Now that I’m an adult with kids, I’ve started the tradition again.”
She says she’s sure to visit the new Disneyland resort. She talks excitedly about Downtown Disney and is dying to stay at the new luxury Grand Californian. But whether the Ledfords stay for several days, she says, will depend on what there is to do and see.
“What I didn’t like about Disneyland [before] was once you walk out the gates, it’s immediately back to reality.”
Times staff writer James Bates contributed to this story.
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Ups and Downs
About 3.5 million people visited Disneyland the first year it opened, in 1955. Since then, attendance has gone up and down, depending on what new rides were opened or what kind of inducements were offered. The last 16 years of attendance:
ATTENDANCE AT DISNEYLAND
1999: 13.45 million
1998: 13.68 million
1997: 14.25 million
1996: 15 million
1995: 14.1 million
1994: 10.3 million
1993: 11.4 million
1992: 11.6 million
1991: 11.6 million
1990: 12.9 million
1989: 14.4 million
1988: 13 million
1987: 13.5 million
1986: 12 million
1985: 12 million
1984: 9.8 million
Source: Amusement Business Magazine