Disneyland has announced a proposal for new theme park, retail, and parking expansion in California as Disney plans to work with Anaheim to reimagine the resort district over the next two decades. In this post, we’ll share info, details, and our commentary about the tentative plans. (Updated September 15, 2023.)
The proposal is being called “DisneylandForward” and is a conceptual development plan for Disney to work with Anaheim to grow the area, update the blueprint for the resort district, and facilitate the city’s economic rebound. DisneylandForward does not involve the company acquiring additional property–it stays within Disney’s existing 500-acre footprint in Anaheim with no physical expansion or additional acreage.
In a nutshell, DisneylandForward is essentially the company’s pitch to the public and City of Anaheim for more flexibility in the master plans from the 1990s in order to add a mix of new theme park lands & attractions, hotel, shopping, dining, and entertainment venues on the eastern and western perimeter of the existing Disneyland Resort. Here’s some of what that entails…
There’s a lot to the the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), much of which is legally mandated. Among many other things, this includes a noise analysis and alternatives to the proposal. We mention these specifically because there’s already excitement among fans for what the “projects” entail based on EIR.
But the thing is, the EIR cannot be blank. It must offer a range of potential possibilities, and analyze the impact on the environment based upon those potentialities. So yeah, it’s true that the noise study shows 13 attractions being added to Disneyland Resort (see graphicbelow). However, it’s also true that this isn’t an actual construction proposal–it’s a campaign to get approval for what essentially amounts to zoning changes.
Which brings us to the really big point that is of paramount importance. DisneylandForward is not a third gate at Disneyland Resort. Although an oversimplification, DisneylandForward is better viewed as a zoning proposal. In essence, the goal is to give the company more autonomy over development, and then they might use that freedom to expand the parks. Examples of expansion options–but not specific plans–are contained in the DisneylandForward promotional materials and the new EIR.
Rather than being a brand new theme park, DisneylandForward offers the potential for expansion to both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. (Even that is not guaranteed, and is not the core of DisneylandForward, as explained below.) When viewed in the most favorable light, DisneylandForward is somewhat akin to Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea (which is evoked a lot in this proposal). Personally, I think there’s a less than 1% chance that Disneyland will spend the money to build something on par with Fantasy Springs. Whatever this does end up being, it won’t be that.
As is clear from my commentary above and below, I’m highly skeptical of DisneylandForward. Not whether it’ll be approved (I think it will), or if it should be approved (as a Disney fan, I’m biased–but again, yes), but whether it’s worth anyone’s time at this point. Honestly, I don’t think so. All of the graphics, concept art, and potential proposals we’re seeing aren’t real. They’re placeholders.
Devoting any amount of discourse to this or getting excited about DisneylandForward seems very premature to me. This is precisely why, aside from skimming a few pertinent sections, I have not and will not read the Environmental Impact Report. But to each their own on that!
Beyond the EIR, Disneyland Resort has not offered anything substantive about the DisneylandForward proposal. That’s despite Disney CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro repeatedly touting ambitious plans for the future, bullishness on parks, and desire for capacity-expanding additions. We discussed all of this in great length in Bob Iger Wants Big Expansions at Walt Disney World & Disneyland.
Newsom’s endorsement came in response to an economic study from Cal State Fullerton finding that for every $1 billion Disney invests into Disneyland Resort, more than 4,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in economic output would be generated during the four-year construction period. Following construction, that investment would generate an annual $253 million in economic output, $15 million in tax revenue, and 2,292 jobs.
With all of that said, there is still no there there with DisneylandForward. Disney has also held a bunch of community meetings this year, that have been heavy on cheerleading the plan and showcasing its possibilities, but totally devoid of the substance that’s planned for DisneylandForward. That’s because there are no meaningful concrete details. At this point, it’s only potential ideas, ambitions, and creative potential. A whole lot of fluff.
Anyway, here’s a map of the area to help visualize how the expansion would look relative to the existing Disneyland Resort:
Essentially, there would be a westside expansion with new theme park elements on the Downtown Disney and Lilo & Stitch parking lots built around Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier Hotel. The concept art of the westside site shows a mountain ridge that would separate the theme park from nearby neighborhoods–sort of like Cars Land.
This westside site expansion would wrap around to Downtown Disney near the unused AMC Theater and ESPN Zone. Those previously closed for the luxury hotel project that didn’t get approval from Anaheim and was subsequently put on indefinite hold. (More on that later…)
The eastside expansion would bring utilize the Toy Story parking lot next to the Anaheim Convention Center. Disney indicates that this property could be the perfect location to cater to locals, conventioneers, hotels, and Disneyland Resort guests.
It would feature restaurants, hotels, live music, shopping, ticketed shows, and theme park experiences modeled after the popular Disney Springs at Walt Disney World. Another piece of example concept art features Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, which would undoubtedly be popular with locals if that ends up being built.
Finally, the DisneylandForward project would revive the Eastern Gateway parking garage off I-5 and its connection across Harbor Boulevard to the parks. This was also previously abandoned, with the Pixar Pals garage built instead.
This would presumably be necessary once again since so much other parking would be converted to guest space…and also due to increased demand and attendance at Disneyland Resort. Disney also has some words of caution for those dissecting the concept art: the project will be refined over time and there aren’t any specific projects planned for the future. In other words, literally everything pictured is a placeholder.
Additionally, Disney notes that it is not seeking any public funding for DisneylandForward or additional square footage or hotel rooms beyond what is currently approved and allowed. Disney is simply asking to update existing approvals to allow for integrated development to be located and built on Disney properties.
“Thinking big and leading the way is both our legacy and our best path forward. Now is the time to be bold, to dream, to believe, and to lead! The world-renowned Disneyland Resort is poised to bring back jobs to our community as well as new entertainment and experiences to loyal fans and new audiences for generations to come.” said Ken Potrock, President of Disneyland Resort.
If you browse the DisneylandForward website for even a few minutes (and you should!), it becomes patently obvious that this is Disney’s sales pitch to the public and is about brokering a deal with the City of Anaheim. It’s not even thinly-veiled, it’s totally transparent with the opening paragraph on the “Possibilities” page:
“We want to bring more Disney investment to Anaheim. However, this simply isn’t possible under current inflexible planning restrictions unless we remove and replace treasured rides and attractions in our Parks today. Without updates, new Disney experiences and placemaking, created from our beloved stories, will likely never find their way to the Disneyland Resort as they have to other parks throughout the world. With DisneylandForward and more flexibility within our existing properties, new lands and adventures like those underway at Tokyo DisneySea and Shanghai Disneyland could inspire new experiences here.”
The crux of the issue is the Disneyland Resort Specific Plan No. 92-1 (“DRSP”). The DRSP was adopted in 1993 with subsequent amendments, and is an interesting look at what was planned versus what came to fruition. I’m very familiar with the DRSP because back when the Eastern Gateway project was proposed over 5 years ago, I read most of its 200+ pages.
Admittedly, I’ve forgotten a lot of that since. At the time, my analysis of the Eastern Gateway proposal was that Disney would face staunch opposition from local businesses and may have a difficult time building the Eastern Gateway due to the terms of the DRSP, which was true. Ultimately, I predicted that Disney would nevertheless succeed in muscling the Eastern Gateway through after that fight, which was untrue.
In only a few short years, the stand-off between Disney and Anaheim caused serious harm to both sides and the community. At the time, it wouldn’t have been hyperbole to call it “irreparable harm.” However, a lot has changed since then…
First, a more Disney-friendly mayor and members of the Anaheim City Council have been elected since all of those plans were cancelled or put on indefinite hold. In large part, that’s why Disney had no issues getting the proposed Disneyland Hotel DVC wing approved by Anaheim.
Second, the year-long closure of Disneyland that decimated the city’s economy. As a result of that, the Anaheim City Council authorized borrowing $210 million to close budget deficits caused by tourism downturn. I’m not sure the lesson I’d learn from the last year is “let’s double down on tourism,” but it’s definitely the quickest and easiest path to recovery, especially given Anaheim’s existing infrastructure and businesses.
From my perspective, the unknown quantity is the perception of Disney by residents of Anaheim. After a few years of growing animosity towards Disneyland among Anaheim residents in 2016-2018 (roughly), the tides have turned again after a challenging few years. Suffice to say, Disney wouldn’t have announced this if it didn’t have sufficient support from the Anaheim City Council, and my guess is it’ll likewise have little issue gaining public support.
Anaheim is in a vulnerable position right now, and Disney has an attractive solution. It’s an opportunistic one, but it’s also practical and viable. And to Disney’s credit, they are doubling-down on California after a year that could fairly be described as “challenging” for the parks doing business in the state. It thus isn’t really fair to paint this in a rapacious light. This will be good for both Disney and the City of Anaheim. Even the struggling businesses on Harbor Boulevard that previously might’ve opposed something like this over a year ago now might have more “clarity” about how essential Disney is to them.
With that said, I’d still caution against looking at that possibilities page, seeing references to blockbuster Tokyo DisneySea and Shanghai Disneyland projects, and getting too excited. For one thing, both Fantasy Springs and the Zootopia land are colossal, and there simply is not space for several additions of that size on the parcels in Anaheim.
Once again, these are all placeholders–Disney is not promising to buildany of this. Moreover, Disney isn’t promising to invest anything–there’s a reason no dollar amount attached to this proposal. It could be $3 billion, it could be $0. This is not even as concrete as the plans for Port Disney or WestCOT, two Disney theme parks in California that you’ve possibly never heard of because they were not built.
DisneylandForward is all about paving the way for future developments of some sort by giving Disney more autonomy over land use by relaxing the DRSP. Disney is essentially saying, “give us authority to build whatever we want, then we’ll tell you what, if anything, we’re going to build.”
There’s a reason the words “like” and “inspired by” the Tokyo and Shanghai projects are used. You could also say the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. But it also very much is not.
My assumption is that evoking the Asian parks was a deliberate move to generate support among Southern California’s knowledgeable fanbase, and not representative of what Imagineering intends to build. If you start getting hyped for Neverland and end up with Alien Swirling Saucers, that’s going to feel like a swift kick in the A.S.S.
Ultimately, this is not to be a buzzkill or rain on any parades. Just trying to cut through the marketing puffery to present a realistic synopsis of what’s actually being proposed, why it’s being pitched this way, and whether it’ll likely come to fruition. With all of that said, I am very excited for DisneylandForward. This is a huge step forward for the evolution of Disneyland Resort that will likely happen in a form bearing almost no resemblance to the concept art at the top of this post. (The map, yes–but not the art.)
Setting all of that aside, what a way for Disneyland Resort to bounce back?! This must be a big blow for those openly rooting for California’s failure, naively thinking that Disney might play Theme Park Tycoon and magically move the parks to Texas. (Don’t say we didn’t warn you–wet blankets were repeatedly thrown on those delusions.) At the end of the day, Disneyland is still conveniently located near millions of people in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The area is well positioned for growth, and with the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics less than a decade away–a catalyst for expansion in both Tokyo and Paris previously–it appears Disneyland Resort is likewise primed for further expansion.
What do you think about the DisneylandForward proposal? Excited and optimistic about this news, or have you been around the block before with Port Disney and WestCOT? Any predictions as to whether Disney will be successful in gaining support for modifying the Disneyland Resort Specific Plan No. 92-1? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!