California Misadventure

When it opens early next year, Disneys California Adventure is likely to be a lot like the crowded, strip-malled state for which it is named

Photo by Keith MayWhat does Disney CEO Michael Eisner want, anyway?

Only to transform Disneyland—and all the land the Mouse owns around the 45-year-old theme park—into a miniature version of Orlando.

Is that too much to ask?

Eisner doesn't think so. He has already committed 10 years and $1.4 billion to his central Floridian dream. When construction is completed in February 2001, what was once Disneyland's parking lot will be a shopping and dining district, a 750-room luxury hotel and a brand-new theme park. This new park—Disney's California Adventure (DCA)—will supposedly celebrate the best that the Golden State has to offer.

Once these pieces are in place, Eisner believes, the revamped Disneyland Resort will become California's premier vacation destination. That prospect thrills Orange County's motel and hotel owners, who'd love to see millions more tourists pour into the area each year.

Unfortunately for Eisner, not everyone in the area is as upbeat about Disneyland's expansion. Many nearby residents have been vocal in their opposition to DCA, citing the additional traffic problems and noise the expanded resort is sure to create. Then there are the diehard Disney enthusiasts who—instead of embracing the idea of a second Disney park in Anaheim—complain that Eisner is ruining Walt Disney's masterpiece by putting a park full of carnival rides right next door to Disneyland.

The Mouse pooh-poohs most of the project's critics, saying that once the doors are open at DCA, everyone will marvel at how the Walt Disney Co. has reinvented the Anaheim vacation experience. But it's harder for Eisner and company to dismiss criticism of Disneyland's expansion when it comes from within.

Several veteran Imagineers have reportedly warned Disney management that DCA, as it is currently designed, is a seriously flawed theme park. When it opens next year—with not nearly enough rides and attractions to handle the huge crowds that are sure to surge through the gates—DCA is almost certain to develop a bad reputation. Worse still, it may take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to finally set the place right.

Does this sound like the "Happiest Place on Earth" to you?

The Weepy Movie Mogul

Disney's California Adventure should have been a no-brainer for the Walt Disney Co.:

Step 1: Build new theme park right next door to Disneyland.

Step 2: Make sure new theme park is similar in capacity and quality to Disneyland.

Step 3: Throw open doors.

Step 4: Collect buckets of money.

Instead, the new park has become the subject of bad buzz. To understand why, a little Orange County history is in order. Only when you understand the mistake Walt Disney made back in 1955 can you appreciate the problems Michael Eisner is having in 2000.

Before Disneyland opened, Disney had pumped every cent he had into building the theme park. But Disney didn't have the dough necessary to build a hotel next door. He knew that having a nice hotel right next to the park would play a crucial part in the project's success.

In desperation, he turned to an old friend, television producer Jack Wrather. Producer of two of TV's earliest syndicated hits (Lassie and The Lone Ranger), Wrather was flush with cash, which he invested wisely in real estate around Southern California, giving him huge holdings in oil and natural gas.

Using the excuse that he wanted to pick Wrather's brain concerning his Disneyland project, Disney invited Wrather out to Anaheim for a tour of the construction site. It was only after Wrather got there that he realized Disney didn't want to pick his brain; Disney wanted to pick his pocket.

There, among the construction footings, Disney described his dream for Disneyland, how it was going to be a different kind of family fun park—and how he'd need a clean, new hotel nearby for visitors to stay in.

Wrather listened. Smiled. Nodded politely. Then he said, "No."

Disney persisted. Wrather resisted. To Wrather, Disney's idea made absolutely no sense. Disney didn't need a hotel. He needed his head examined.

But Disney wouldn't give up. He sweetened the deal, first offering Wrather a 99-year lease on the property and then throwing in the Disney name, saying Wrather could use it on any other hotels he built in Southern California. At this point, Disney was near tears. Embarrassed at the sight of the weepy movie mogul, Wrather finally agreed to help his friend.

The Threatening Mouse

Flash-forward to 1984. Eisner and his new management team had just taken up residence at Walt Disney Productions. One of Eisner's first goals was improving the company's bottom line, which meant quickly increasing the amount of cash the company's theme parks produce.

To do this in Florida, Eisner okayed construction of two huge Disney-owned hotels at the Walt Disney World resort: the 900-room Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and the 2,100-room Caribbean Beach Resort. But when Eisner planned to do the very same thing at Disneyland, he discovered that (a) the Disney Co. didn't own any hotels in Anaheim; (b) it didn't have sufficient land to build any new resorts, anyway; and (c) only the Wrather Co. had the rights to use the Disney name on hotels built in Southern California.

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