A steady flow of cars filed into Downtown Disney's parking lot yesterday afternoon, with every driver sticking their hand out the window to take a ticket good for two hours of free parking. But by this time next week, visiting the outdoor shopping plaza is going to get pricier. Disney recently announced changes to its parking policy online that still provides two hours of free parking—granted people spend at least $20 at the Lego Store, Sephora, Starbucks or any of the district's storefronts to get validation.
The best folks can hope for with the price hike is four "free" hours of parking in exchange for going to a table-service restaurant like the Rainforest Cafe or taking in a movie at the AMC Downtown Disney 12 Theater. Lose a ticket or stay too long after validated purchases? The maximum parking rate for that is rising from $36 to $48. So much for just taking a casual stroll through the crowds without whipping out the wallet!
The changes come just days after the announcement of "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire," a virtual reality attraction slated to open at Downtown Disney in time for the holidays. But it's no secret that Disneyland annual pass holders routinely use the Downtown Disney parking lot to visit Anaheim's theme parks and avoid paying $20 for a spot at the main Mickey & Friends parking structure. Now the costs will effectively be the same.
John Rivera, a pass holder from San Bernardino talked about the changes with his friend on their way to Downtown Disney yesterday. "I honestly don't like the idea because I like having two free hours to do what I want," Rivera told the Weekly. He paid an extra $179 to get a parking option on his pass, but understands why others use the Downtown Disney lot. "If I didn't have the option, I'd do it, too. Sometimes you want to come in and not pay $20 for parking and spend two to four hours tops at the park. I can see why people do that."
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The $20 people will pay, whether going to Downtown Disney or the theme parks nearby, is a much more than what Disney pays Anaheim annually for use of the city-owned Mickey & Friends lot. As part of the massive Anaheim Resort expansion plan approved by city council two decades years ago, Disney pledged to invest $1.4 billion to build California Adventure, The Grand Californian Hotel & Spa and Downtown Disney. The city spent $550 million to renovate the Anaheim Resort, including $108 million to construct the future Mickey & Friends lot.
How much does the House of the Mouse pay the city for its massive parking structure with over 10,000 spaces? "Anaheim leases the parking structure to Disney for $1 per year," says city spokesman Mike Lyster. "At the end of the 40-year deal in 2037—once bonds related to the 1990's expansion are paid off—ownership of the garage will be transferred from the city to Disney." Lyster added that the resort expansion generates tax revenues that benefit city services, but Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, who originally voted for the plan as a councilman in 1996, has now become one of its harshest critics, calling for a renewed focus on neighborhoods away from the resort.
Nancy Fago, a Villa Park resident who brought a friend from Arizona to Downtown Disney, used to go to Disneyland once a year before it got too expensive. She frequents the shopping plaza more often now. "We had a great lunch at the Rainforest Cafe and walked the shops," says Fago. "You can spend money or you don't have to and you get the feel of Disney."
Only, that feel will come in the form of an added wallet pinch. "It's going to just keep getting worse; the parking, the prices, the crowds, everything!" says Rivera, who expressed surprise when learning of the Mickey & Friends deal. But he doesn't think next week's parking fee raises will diminish the crowds. "It's so popular, I don't think it's going to effect people coming here."