The most innovative attraction at Walt Disney Co.'s new California Adventure may be the simulated hang-glider ride over the natural and man-made wonders of the Golden State. Soarin' Over California is estimated to handle 1,250 riders an hour--but on busy days that means as many as half of the park's visitors won't be able to get on.
It's just one example of what is looming as a major issue for the new park: overcrowding.
California Adventure park, set to open Feb. 8, will allow only about 30,000 people within its gates at one time--almost half the number at adjacent Disneyland.
One complication is the popular Fastpass program, which allows patrons to avoid lines at major rides by reserving ride times. The problem, park managers and employees say, is that all those people no longer standing in line for hours make parks seem even more crowded on busy days--a factor that contributed to Disneyland's shutting down its turnstiles at midday several times during the holidays.
Senior Disney officials acknowledge that there will be days when California Adventure will have to turn patrons away, particularly in the first weeks after the park opens, during spring break and again in the summer.
Disney hopes those denied entry will stay at the resort and visit Disneyland and the new Downtown Disney's shops and restaurants. The risks are that people may flee the resort and those who do get inside California Adventure on crowded days will feel cheated out of experiencing a full range of attractions.
When that happens at Disneyland, "complaints go way up at City Hall," said a ride supervisor at the park. "People want their money back. And spending goes down on Main Street at the end of the day because people are walking out unhappy and not buying souvenirs."
Ride capacity is an issue because Disney succeeds so well in packing its parks. Disneyland patrons can experience 12 or 13 attractions on slow weekdays, and even on a day when 50,000 people crowd the park, they can fit in as many as nine rides, a number considered acceptable by park officials.
But California Adventure, part of a $1.4-billion Disney expansion in Anaheim, has 23 attractions, counting minor exhibits such as farming and tortilla-making--just a third as many as Disneyland.
"Come early in the day or come later, after the park clears out again," said George Kalogridis, senior vice president of Disney operations in Anaheim. "Hopefully, with Disneyland right across the esplanade and Downtown Disney right there, we won't have to turn people away from the resort."
Indeed, elaborate stage shows, "edgy" street entertainment, fancy dining and wine bars are designed to take up the slack while Disney positions the new park as an alternative to the Magic Kingdom in hopes of extending visitor stays beyond one day.
Company projections show Magic Kingdom attendance falling by 500,000 per year, to about 13.3 million, and California Adventure visits rising to 7 million. Thousands more visitors each week are expected to stop by Downtown Disney, which has no admission fee. Separate admission is needed for Disneyland and California Adventure; each one charges $43 for general admission and $33 for children 3 to 9.
Although Disney prides itself on anticipating and satisfying customers' wishes, executives acknowledge that no one will really know how many people the new park can handle until operations begin.
Some insiders worry the company may have overestimated the capacity of the new park's rides. Certainly, no California Adventure attraction can handle as many visitors as Disneyland favorite Pirates of the Caribbean, a workhorse that on smooth-running days can handle nearly 2,800 riders an hour--more than 40,000 a day.
In designing California Adventure, Disney Imagineers worked backward from the projected attendance level of 7 million a year, said Barry Braverman, Disney's chief creative supervisor on the project.
Disney designers used industrial engineering models to determine how many rides, shows, restaurants, parades and restrooms would be needed to accommodate the expected crowds. But because the park has fewer attractions than Disneyland, there's a smaller margin of error. If a couple of major rides malfunction on a busy day, Braverman said, "We'll just have to count on the [live] entertainment being good."
Kalogridis and others who went on Soarin' Over California during staff previews last week said it sometimes took as long as 12 minutes to unload one set of riders and load the next group. The target time is 2 1/2 minutes.
If pessimistic predictions are correct, about 16,000 people a day can experience Soarin' Over California if it operates without a hitch from 8 a.m. to midnight. If the official forecast is correct, it still means just 20,000 maximum.
Kalogridis said the hang-glider ride turned out better than expected. Had Disney realized how popular it could be, it could have increased its capacity, he said. Improvements are being made to software that indicates when seat belts are properly fastened, which should bring Soarin' Over California's loading cycle close to the target 2 1/2 minutes, he said.
Another projection that has raised eyebrows is that the Sun Wheel, a scary Ferris wheel with moving cabins, will accommodate 900 riders an hour. That can be achieved only if every cabin is completely filled with six riders. So workers have been told to aggressively combine parties--a policy that often draws objections from patrons.
"If you're in a party of four, you'll be hearing: 'Party of four, meet your new friends, party of two,' whether you like it or not," an employee predicted.
Executives say the preview days allow them to work out bugs on many attractions, such as a stalled train on the California Screamin' roller coaster last week that forced closure of the high-capacity attraction for the day.
A separate capacity issue has to do with parking. California Adventure and Downtown Disney occupy what once was Disneyland's main parking lot. Even with the addition of a $100-million parking structure that holds more than 10,000 cars--said to be the nation's largest--the net gain in spaces is just 4,500 cars.
Kalogridis said that will be enough to handle the expected new throngs, even if 30,000 more park-goers show up on a busy day. Noting that the departure of an army of construction workers will free up thousands of parking spaces, he said the company believes its original parking projections will prove adequate.
Then there is Fastpass, the system that lets patrons avoid lines by reserving ride times on major attractions. California Adventure, which has six rides with Fastpass, may feel more crowded on busy days because of the system--and some say Disney staff may have to close the gates even before 30,000 people are in the park.
Park employees, who have been given "countdown" watches showing the days to California Adventure's opening, are bracing for big crowds, at least until initial curiosity over California Adventure is satisfied.
"History has taught us that attendance the first year will be heavy," said Kalogridis, a veteran of Walt Disney World in Florida, where Disney has four parks. "Certainly, there will be huge interest in Southern California, where it's been 45 years since a new Disney park opened."
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Too Popular? Disney's California Adventure should bring in the crowds. But that will create a challenge for the new park, because on busy days some attractions won't be able to handle the demand. Estimates of the number of patrons who can be served per hour on some Disneyland and California Adventure rides: Disneyland
Rides Capacity (riders/hour) Pirates of the Caribbean 2,775 Big Thunder Mtn Railroad 2,250 Haunted Mansion 2,150 Indiana Jones 1,850
Rides Capacity (riders/hour)* California Screamin' 2,200 Grizzly River Run 2,100 Soarin' Over California 1,250 Sun Wheel 900
Source: Walt Disney Co.