DisneylandForward Expansion Proposal Approved by Anaheim Planning Commission

DisneylandForward took a crucial step towards becoming reality, with the City of Anaheim Planning Commission approving the proposal by a 5-1 vote after almost three years of reviews and analysis. This covers highlights of the meeting and what Disney has promised as part of its 10-year plan that will bring new theme park, retail, and parking expansion to California.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, DisneylandForward 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.

Critically, DisneylandForward also does not commit to building any specific new theme park lands or rides. You might see reference elsewhere to possible expansion based on Wakanda, Zootopia, Frozen, Fantasy Springs, Tangled, Peter Pan, Toy Story and TRON. These are merely blue sky examples that have been pulled from other parks around the world. In actuality, DisneylandForward is the company’s pitch to the public and City of Anaheim for more flexibility in the master plans from the 1990s in order to give the company greater autonomy over what to build and where.

Fast-forward to mid-March 2024, and Disney cleared one of the final hurdles for its DisneylandForward theme park expansion proposal, which would jump-start a minimum of $1.9 billion of theme park expansion plans, with $2.5 billion being the actual target for new development at the Anaheim Resort District over the next 10 years. (More on the investment amounts in the commentary.)

A lot happened during the meeting that lasted over 6 hours, and I’ll be quickly covering the broad contours of what was said plus things that struck me as most interesting. Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock spoke during the meeting addressing both the Anaheim Planning Commission and residents.

Potrock ask them to “imagine the possibilities” if DisneylandForward is approved, highlighting Zootopia in Shanghai Disneyland and World of Frozen in Hong Kong Disneyland. He also pointed to major past expansions such as Cars Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as what’s possible: “when Disney invests, everyone wins.”

“Together we are unequivocally making history, just like Walt Disney did almost 70 years ago with the City of Anaheim and Disneyland,” added Potrock. “It’s a tremendous responsibility for all of us and a privilege to be a steward of this vision for this very, very special place.” He also highlighted the thousands of jobs that would be created in Anaheim via DisneylandForward.

It was a persuasive presentation from Potrock. I’d add that the three years spent doing diligence within the community at coffee gatherings, workshops, and so forth really helped. Obviously, the timing coming out of the pandemic–when tourism was decimated–helped as locals saw the value Disneyland provided to Anaheim. But beyond that, Disneyland’s ground game has been strong and the campaign on DisneylandForward has been well-executed. Shows the company can still play politics!

The public comment portion of the meeting was, unsurprisingly, far from choreographed or smooth sailing. If you’ve seen the show Parks & Rec, you know how these types of meetings tend to go. (In a past life, I had to attend things like this–and in Indiana, no less–Parks & Rec really isn’t that far off.)

All told, 55 different Anaheim residents spoke at the meeting. The commenters ranged from lifelong Disney employees to diehard Disneyland fans to disgruntled locals. All voiced their opinions on everything from ticket prices to bike lanes to heartwarming stories from Cast Members meant to make residents feel good about supporting DisneylandForward.

All said more or less what you’d expect. The prominent Disney employees and Cast Members in attendance were obviously supportive of DisneylandForward. They wouldn’t have been there if that weren’t the case. And of course, any meeting like this is going to have its fair share of NIMBYs who want to delay or cast doubt about potential “what if” scenarios, no matter how implausible.

Disney could’ve pledged $20 billion to the City of Anaheim, while promising to build a free public kangaroo park and place to pet hippos, and one-quarter of the commentators would’ve been clutching the pearls about kangaroos kicking the children, hippos having bad breath,  and $20 billion being used to build “too much” housing. It’s just the nature of the beast.

One of the things I found more interesting was the amount of support from local businesses, unions, and other organizations. Keep in mind that these are largely the same groups that helped doom the plans for the luxury hotel and eastern gateway parking structure back in 2017. They nitpicked those projects to death, letting perfect be the enemy of good. So Disney took its ball and went home, and everyone lost.

It would seem that this time around, local hoteliers and businesses realize that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” so to speak, and that Disneyland becoming more of a tourist destination is good for them. Which should be obvious, given the explosive growth in Anaheim hotels since Cars Land. More people at the parks equals more potential overnight hotel guests, restaurant patrons, etc. Nevertheless, good to see businesses playing the long game and recognizing that further Disney development is mutually advantageous.

The commissioners also had opportunities to speak and ask questions of Disneyland, which itself went a bit off the rails and devolved into arguments. Prior to that happening, there were some interesting inquiries. One concerned cultural or potential historic landmarks, which includes the Disneyland Railroad Station, Hungry Bear Restaurant, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

These landmarks may be impacted by DisneylandForward. Not in the sense that alterations are planned to them directly, but that they’re in the general vicinity of construction and may experience short-term noise pollution. (I didn’t realize Hungry Bear was considered a site of cultural significance, which might explain why it wasn’t converted to Tiana’s Palace!)

This isn’t really material to the proposal, but I personally found it to be an interesting tidbit. I’m also curious as to how Disneyland concluded those particular buildings are historic and not the rest of Main Street, Sleeping Beauty Castle, Award Wieners, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Schmoozies, etc. (The answer is that California’s Office of Historic Preservation’s Built Environment Resource Directory (BERD) has identified these buildings as historic and not others. Who knows why. It’s California.)

Commissioners also inquired about what, exactly, Disney plans to build if DisneylandForward is approved. The Disney representative indicated that the company knows “very clearly what we want to build and where.” However, they want the DisneylandForward proposal to be approved first so they have guidance in place to determine which characters and stories will be placed where.

I’ve assumed it’s the case that Disney, at this point, has an actual concrete plan for DisneylandForward. Now that the amount of investment has been settled upon, this proposal is not merely an abstraction. And now that they’ve said they want to know what they want to build and where, it strikes me as disingenuous to vaguely gesture at World of Frozen or Zootopia or Fantasy Springs as “what if” possibilities. There’s an actual plan! Show that!

The reason, I assume, Disney has declined to do that is because it hurts their cause rather than helps it. If you show a sizzle reel of endless possibilities, DisneylandForward can be any or all of those things. Disneyland diehards and locals are going to make assumptions about their favorites coming to fruition. Blue sky daydreaming is a lot of fun, especially when done with budget constraints!

The unfortunate reality is that there’s no building all–or even most–of that for only $2.5 billion. We don’t know budgets for World of Frozen or Zootopia, but Fantasy Springs alone is going to cost about that much. And that’s in Japan, where labor is much cheaper than in California.

My guess is also that the actual plans for DisneylandForward call for clones from Walt Disney World, which is far less sexy or exciting than ‘exotic’ additions from international parks that most Americans will never visit. Orange County, Florida is far more accessible to people who live in Orange County, California. There’s that cheap Breeze nonstop flight between the two.

Nevertheless, confirmation that Disney knows exactly what’s planned should DisneylandForward be approved suggests an announcement isn’t that far off. As we’ve suggested in other posts, it seems like Disney is withholding investment–or even announcing plans–in California as a bargaining chip for DisneylandForward approval. But that’ll happen by the 2024 D23 Expo!

Between now and then, DisneylandForward will likely be approved in full. The city of Anaheim’s staff report on the project previously recommended the planning commission’s approval. With this 5-1 vote, the DisneylandForward proposal now requires final approval from the Anaheim City Council.

That’ll likely happen in mid-April 2024. Even though there are some efforts to pump the brakes on the process from residents and commissioners, and delay a bit more, that always happens. Again, nature of the beast. Disney has been doing workshops and community outreach on this for 3 years. They’ve released reports on the local and economic impact, dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s. Whatever is ever going to be known, already is known. At this point, it’s time to approve or reject DisneylandForward.

Based on the consensus of the community plus the 5-1 vote by the planning commission and the makeup of the Anaheim City Council, I don’t see any reason to believe DisneylandForward will be derailed or delayed at this point. Never say never, as this is politics, but it sure seems like smooth sailing for DisneylandForward at this point, in which case we should, hopefully hear what’s actually planned for Disneyland at the 2024 D23 Expo.

Finally, and to that point, Disney previously detailed the investment commitments as part of DisneylandForward. If approved, the company would promise a minimum of $1.9 billion invested in Disneyland Resort over the next decade. If investment doesn’t reach $2.5 billion in 10 years, Disney would pay an additional $5 million for street and transportation improvements.

For those of you who have been skeptical about Disney’s past statements about “turbocharging” growth in the parks, this should be reassuring. This is no longer simply hollow hype. If approved, this development deal with Anaheim legally obligates Disney to spend at least $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion in the next decade.

With that said, given that the penalty is peanuts and not enough to incentivize spending, I think calling this a ~$2 billion commitment is probably more apt than $2.5 billion. My bet is that Disney wants to invest the full $2.5 billion and has a plan to do so, but won’t follow through with the final $600 if the economic environment is unfavorable. It’s worth a $5 million hit to save $595 million in such a scenario.

This multi-billion investment would go towards theme park attractions, entertainment, lodging, shopping and dining–including expansion west of Disneyland Drive and replacing the current Toy Story Parking Area. The amount does NOT include investments in parking, road improvements, or bridges.

This is important because Disney could easily spend several hundred millions of dollars on infrastructure if DisneylandForward is approved. They have big plans on that front, and the company has been salivating at the prospects of reworking infrastructure since around 2017. So when all is said and done, this probably amounts to an all-in investment by Disney of $3 billion.

Suffice to say, this is something real and not merely blue sky daydreaming. We’ve been critical of DisneylandForward as being all style and no substance. And while there still aren’t concrete plans or concept art attached, this is the “meat” we’ve been anxiously awaiting to (finally) make DisneylandForward real.

If you look back at the last decade (Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge), the one before that (Cars Land & DCA overhaul), or the one before that (original DCA construction), I think you’d find that ~$2 billion is about the norm for a decade of investment at Disneyland. So unless you assumed the company would otherwise slow its spending on the California parks, this $2 to $2.5 billion mostly represents the status quo.

However, I also think it’s fair to say that maybe Disney would otherwise start to slow down on spending at Disneyland, especially after encountering so much resistance from the city on projects greenlit after Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Without an updated master plan and more autonomy, maybe Disney determines it’s not worth it to investment billions of dollars per decade into Disneyland–too much uncertainty, friction, and potential for projects to fail prior to approval.

Not only that, but spending another $2 billion or more almost requires building on land that would’ve needed zoning approval. As much as I would love to see Tomorrowland finally get some love–or Fantasyland expansion–I’m skeptical that Disney would drop $2.5 billion on those projects.

Locking in a minimum of $1.9 billion in spending outside of infrastructure plus other deal sweeteners (see below) in exchange for giving Disney more certainty strikes me as a win-win for the company and city. It’s easy to be cynical about this, calling it “only” about as much investment as Disney was spending since Cars Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. However, those (and everything in between) were massively transformative projects for Disneyland Resort that have already helped transform the California parks into a bonafide vacation destination, while also fueling major growth beyond the berm and throughout the city. If I’m Anaheim and can get Disney to commit to another decade of that–I take that deal in a heartbeat.

Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and many other SoCal cities!


What do you think about the DisneylandForward proposal? Excited and optimistic about this news that the planning commission approved it, or still think Disney isn’t committing to enough in Anaheim? Any predictions as to whether Disney will be successful in gaining support for DisneylandForward from the full Anaheim City Council? 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!

9 Responses to “DisneylandForward Expansion Proposal Approved by Anaheim Planning Commission”
  1. MrNico April 4, 2024
  2. disfan March 12, 2024
    • david March 13, 2024
  3. Luke March 12, 2024
  4. Fluffatu March 12, 2024
  5. Aaron March 12, 2024
    • Tom Bricker March 12, 2024
    • Aaron March 12, 2024
    • MrNico April 4, 2024

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *