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Third Theme Park – It’s dot-com!

Then a funny thing happened – no one showed up. Initial attendance estimates weren’t met; they were then lowered and those weren’t met either. Disney first blamed the weather – certainly people would show up for Spring Break. When they didn’t, Disney blamed the economy. Everyone was to blame except the park itself. Summer arrived, but the crowds did not. Disneyland itself continued to pack in guests, bursting at the seams on weekends and holidays, yet DCA sat empty. Disney took the unprecedented step of actually lowering admission prices for the park, and then began to offer free child admissions for passholders. Then they began to distribute thousands of free tickets throughout Anaheim as an attempt to get someone – anyone – through the turnstiles.

Throughout this process, prep work continued on the third park, still without an announced theme but widely reported to be a water park. In May of 2001, Disney began the application process for the park, only to be accused by homeowner groups of attempting to speed up the process and of a return to excessive secrecy. As DCA continued to founder, Disney began to cut staff and costs. While refusing to say that the third gate had been postponed from its announced 2003 opening, Disney spokesman Ray Gomez said that DCA’s attendance problems would not affect the third gate and that it was “at this point completely independent with anything taking place with the existing Disneyland resort.”

By June the City Council had rejected a homeowner group’s appeal and allowed Disney to start submitting applications for the third park. Many were reticent due to Disney’s continuing refusal to disclose what they intended to build, but preparation continued apace. Most of management’s attention that summer was drawn towards the sucking chest wound occupying Disneyland’s old parking lot, but as Disney was trying to figure out what bandaid it could apply to DCA, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred and the entire travel industry went into a nosedive.

The drop-off in attendance after the attacks gave Eisner cover to slash costs and eliminate staff. Despite his cutbacks, profits continued to tank and the idea of building a new park seemed to fade. By that November, Eisner told a conference call of financial analysts that concerning the Fujishige farm, “probably the best strawberries in Southern California will continue to grow there.” Disney CFO Thomas Staggs said that while Disney was going to continue the permitting process, they were considering putting a “smaller item” on the site. They would continue with plans, he said, “if time, economy, and the fates line up.”

They didn’t. Plans for a third park were mentioned less and less, and while theme park attendance remained soft throughout the Disney empire it was California Adventure in particular that continued to underperform. As the creative staff responsible for the DCA disaster filtered out of the company – Pressler himself left to run the Gap corporation into the ground in September of 2002 – it became apparent that a great deal of money would have to be poured into DCA to make it a desirable destination.

Much has happened since then; the economy remained skittish and war in Iraq kept a damper on tourism, but a lack of quality park additions was what continued to hurt Disney’s reputation. Matt Ouimet was brought in as resort president in 2003 to begin the process of rebuilding Disneyland and DCA after the disastrous tenures of Pressler and Cynthia Harriss. Yet his hands remained often tied by corporate forces until Eisner himself was forced out by fan and shareholder anger as well as an insurgent campaign led by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney. In the interim, Ouimet managed to restore the crumbling Disneyland infrastructure just in time for its 50th anniversary. Sadly, Ouimet followed his predecessors in leaving the company in 2006 and the pace of his improvements have yet to be matched.

In the midst of all this corporate wrangling, few probably noticed that was allowed to lapse in the fall of 2002. The third park was on the farthest back of burners, and the site itself was outdated. Not only was a 2003 opening date obviously out of reach, but two attractions mentioned – Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – were already adapted in various forms in Disneyland itself.

Despite the ensuing silence about a third gate, the subject has proven to be continuously relevant. Last year, it was central to a legal conflict between Disney, the city of Anaheim and developers that planned a housing development adjacent to the site destined for the third park. Disney argued that the residential development broke with the zoning plans created in the 1990s for the resort district, which kept the area around Disneyland zoned strictly for commercial use. As the development contained a small amount of subsidized housing, the City Council found it difficult to oppose. At the same time, critics said that Disney had abrogated the agreement themselves by failing to live up to the promises they made for developing the property. It appeared for a while that Disney might be forced to disclose some plan for the third park to help themselves politically; eventually the announcement of the billion-dollar DCA expansion did that trick.

While the residential development eventually fell through, no light was shed on Disney’s plans for a third park. While it’s generally recognized that the site is destined for a third gate, Disney maintains that they have no current plans to announce. Current theories point to a smaller, exclusively priced park; as we have described, Disney has wanted to experiment with this model since Sea World’s Discovery Cove opened in 2000. We can only hope that whatever plan they arrive at, they make the most of the land they have available. Disney will never again have such a large plot of land to develop on in Anaheim, and it would be a galloping shame to waste it on hotels, nightclubs or waterparks. A proper, fully-realized third gate would be the only appropriate compliment to Disneyland itself, unlike its current evil twin that site across the Esplanade. By the time the first wave of DCA renovations is complete in 2012, it might be time for Disney to announce their plans for the strawberry patch. So keep bookmarked; you never know what’s going to show up.

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4 comments to Third Theme Park – It’s dot-com!

  • […] themes. We’ve already touched upon the story of Disney’s America, as well as the process that led WESTCOT to be downsized and eventually cancelled. Port Disney followed a similar path to […]

  • Mike Kowalczyk

    Fascinating article, its really a shame what the management did to Disneyland and Disney World in the ’90s, even today.
    As of right now it seems the third gate is going to be a parking lot until at least 2017-2018. We can keep our fingers crossed for what it will become after that but they have lots of issues to fix in their existing parks before building a third or fifth gate.

  • Thanks… it’s true, we’re still paying the price for those policies.

    I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t had a chance to cover the parking lot news. Looks like Third Theme Park is a ways away, and that’s probably a good thing. DCA is no Westcot, and needs many years of attention. Disneyland, too, needs some love and a new Tomorrowland!

  • Chason

    Another fantastic article. I am constantly captivated by the wonderful information you present and much appreciate (and in most instances agree) with your commentary about the state of Disney theme parks, its successes, failures, and changes that need to be made.

    I hate to take the discussion into the realm of backseat imagineering, but I hope the powers at be, as penance for DCA, really work to conceive a wholly original and inspired third gate for DLR. I cannot help but have a kernel of hope for DCA given the flavor of improvements they are applying to the park, specifically Buena Vista Street and the (albeit superficial) re-themed Silly Symphony Swings. DCA could be very successful as “Walt Disney’s California Adventure,” a park dedicated to the California young Walt experienced, the one that inspired and informed his work, and what came of it in his early years. I think this sort of philosophy, a sort of back-to-the-beginning investigation of Disney history and appreciation for classics, should really be at the heart of Disneyland development. Let Disney World be innovative. Let DLR be that little bit of the past Walt hoped no one would ever truly let go of.

    In that vein, I wouldn’t want to see a revival of Disney’s America or Port Disney. I wouldn’t even want to see WestCOT, as impressive as the concept was, just because it draws so heavily from Epcot (and I’m sure we will never see the concept of a city ever again). DCA’s Hollywoodland has, thankfully, saved us from another studios park, and the plot of land couldn’t accommodate something akin to Animal Kingdom. As I child, when I first saw the Silly Symphony short “Music Land,” I thought that would be an amazing theme for a park, with Disney shorts and Silly Symphonies as the themes for lands and attractions, though I am unsure now if an entire park could be built with that theme. Nonetheless, this is the sort of development Disneyland deserves, and I hope management realizes this, too.

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