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

Anaheim HOME did things that terrified the Mouse, forever changing the way Disney did business in Orange County. Take, for instance, the tickets scandal. For 38 years, free Disneyland tickets were among the nicest perks Anaheim city employees got while working in the mayor's office. You just told the mayor's secretary when you wanted to go, and she called Disneyland's City Hall. Your passes would be waiting at Guest Relations when you arrived at the park.

Since the people who worked in the mayor's office were obviously going to have some influence over the Anaheim planning commission (the folks who'd actually say "yea" or "nay" to Disneyland's expansion plans), couldn't giving free tickets to the mayor's staff be viewed as influence peddling by the Mouse?

Anaheim HOME got wind of this decades-old practice and tipped off the local media. In the firestorm that followed, hundreds of Orange County employees had their reputations sullied for allegedly taking illegal gifts from the Walt Disney Co. As a result of the controversy, Mayor Tom Daly was forced to hand down an official edict: no city employee would be allowed to accept free tickets—or free anything—from Disneyland ever again. It was the end of an era for the Mouse.

That was not, however, the end of Anaheim HOME's guerrilla tactics. Guests driving into the Disneyland parking lot during Christmas week 1993 had to roll through a picket line. As guests slowed, they were offered an Anaheim HOME leaflet detailing the less savory aspects of Disney's expansion plans. Staffers close to Eisner say he didn't have a very happy holiday when he heard about it.

By then, Eisner was used to bad news. Big problems were popping up around the Disney empire. Euro Disney —which many Disney executives had thought would be a surefire moneymaker —floundered almost immediately after its April 1992 opening. It took Walt Disney Attractions president Judson Green and a cadre of accountants until October 1994 to piece together an intricate financial-restructuring plan for that resort.

In the 18 months it took to set up the Euro Disney bailout, Eisner lost his enthusiasm for ambitious Disney theme-park projects. He saw how Euro Disney had been dragged down by the six luxury hotels that surrounded the theme park and vowed never again to overbuild another Disney resort.

So word came down in spring 1993 that Eisner wanted Disneyland's expansion plans scaled back. How much? Original specs called for 4,600 new hotel rooms. Westcot 2.0 would feature only 1,000. Spacestation Earth? Gone. In its place was a new icon: a 300-foot-tall, tapered white spike.

Even with these changes, the Disneyland Resort plan still met with strong local opposition. Tiring of the struggle, Eisner turned to Paul Pressler. A bright young executive who had worked wonders with the company's retail division, Pressler had recently moved over from the Disney Stores to head the Disneyland Resort project.

Eisner told Pressler that he was weary of the mess and bad press associated with Westcot. "Make it go away," Eisner allegedly said. So Pressler did.

On the day before Disneyland's 40th birthday, Pressler called a press conference to announce that the Walt Disney Co. was abandoning its plans to build Westcot as well as scaling back its Disneyland expansion project.

In the fall of 1995, Eisner and a team of Disney executives met at his home in Aspen to discuss the future of the Disneyland Resort. Chief among those in attendance were Pressler, senior WDI officials Marty Sklar and Ken Wong, and Imagineering rising star Barry Braverman.

Braverman had recently come to Eisner's attention because of his exemplary work in putting together the "Innoventions" project at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World. Armed only with a telephone, Braverman had persuaded many major American corporations to pay the Mouse to build and staff exhibits of their new products. He re-themed and redressed Future World's entire Communicore area for virtually no money.

Sure, Epcot's "Innoventions" looked more like a mall than a theme-park attraction. What did that matter? Guests seemed to like the place. More important, it had been inexpensive to build and even cheaper to run. In Eisner's eyes, that made Braverman a genius.

From the start of the Aspen meeting, the group agreed on the main problem with Westcot: in trying to create a theme park that equaled Disneyland, the Imagineers had simply gone too far. The original expansion plan had tried to be too many things to too many people. In the end, the Disneyland Resort project had collapsed under the weight of its own grand ambition.

This time around, the Mouse wouldn't try to top America's original theme park. Eisner wanted this new park to be a modest companion to Disneyland, rather than a flashy competitor. He also wanted Anaheim's so-called "second gate" to be something the company could build quickly and affordably. Most important, this second theme park had to generate a huge cash flow for the Walt Disney Co. from the day it opened.

Kill the Robots

During that weekend in the Rockies, Eisner and his Imagineers explored many possible themes for Disneyland's second gate. But it quickly became obvious that none of the concepts Disney had used for its other theme parks would work in Anaheim. So the team attacked the problem from another angle: What was missing from Disneyland? Why did guests leave the resort and continue their Southern California vacations elsewhere?

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