The End of Disneyland as a “Local’s Park”

Disney has been touting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as a huge expansion to Disneyland, and that’s unquestionably true. It will also fundamentally alter the nature and drawing power of the park. While this addition is sure to be an immense draw, it’s an immense draw containing two attractions with a combined hourly capacity of 3,000 to 4,000 guests. Even assuming lengthy queues and the space in the land itself to absorb crowds, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge adds maybe around 15,000 guests to Disneyland’s capacity.

These are rough, hypothetical numbers, but the point stands that this land is going to cause a huge spike in guest demand. Unless Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi is a biopic about Jar Jar Binks that kills off literally every other character in the Star Wars Universe, that added demand for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is going to far outweigh the modest increase in capacity. I don’t think anyone would dispute this–the only question is, “by how much?”

My guess: by a lot. In fact, I’d argue that both this and the upcoming(?) Marvel Land will do more to draw guests to Disneyland Resort than they will to help absorb crowds. There’s excitement in the air among Disneyland locals about the future, but I would posit that this enthusiasm is not totally grounded in reality. Come 2019, reality will set in. Locals will have one of those epiphanic moments, realizing To Serve Man is actually a cookbook, and they’ll have to come to terms with the implications of this all…

To put it succinctly, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will irreversibly alter Disneyland. It will transform from a local’s park that generations of Southern Californians have grown up attending regularly, to a bona fide destination that caters primarily to tourists. For the reasons laid out in this article, Disneyland can no longer have it both ways.

In fairness, catering primarily to tourists has been the goal for a while. In February 2001, Disneyland suspended Annual Pass sales for the first time, citing concerns “that the highly anticipated opening of its neighboring park may lead to overcrowding.” Obviously, we all know how Disney’s California Adventure flopped hard when it opened, so that fear of overcrowding seems laughable now.

What’s not so laughable is the turnaround of Disneyland Resort’s second gate in the last 5 years, and how those 2001 expectations of Disneyland and DCA becoming a ‘destination resort’ have finally been realized thanks to Cars Land and other unique, large scale draws.

Between rising average hotel prices (plus an under-supply of hotel rooms) and rising Annual Pass prices to cull the herd, so to speak, the writing has been on the wall. Disneyland Resort is becoming a vacation destination unto itself, effectively the Walt Disney World of the West Coast.

The biggest difference between Walt Disney World and Disneyland from this perspective? Infrastructure. While Florida cannot absorb unlimited crowds, it is far better equipped to handle locals and tourists alike. For starters, Walt Disney World has four parks to absorb guests, plus a plethora of hotels, other entertainment, and a veritable sea of parking lots.

Disneyland Resort has two parks, the more popular of which was built over six decades ago in a totally different era. Anaheim’s parks don’t just lack the space to accommodate guests within the parks, they lack the space outside. There are not enough hotels, alternative entertainment, and (most significantly) parking.

To compound matters, the population of Central Florida is around 9 million, and a good chunk of that is probably shirtless ‘Florida Man’ types who do not meet the dress code for the parks, anyway. By contrast, the collective population of Los Angeles and Orange Counties is 14 million.

While the population gap is only around 5 million people, there’s also a cultural difference and attitude towards Disney. In Florida, Disney is begrudgingly accepted as the region’s largest employer, a ‘machine’ for extracting revenue out of tourists. In California, Disneyland is still regarded as Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom, and is a cultural institution. Generally speaking, those 14 million people have a greater affinity for Disney.

This much is reflected in the enormous Annual Passholder population, which dwarfs that of the Florida parks. While Disney does not release Annual Passholder numbers for either park, it has long been rumored that Disneyland crossed the 1 million mark several years ago. Depending upon the blockouts, it’s a reasonable possibility that APs could account for over 25% of guests in the parks on any given day.

In addition to the army of existing Annual Passholders, these local numbers mean there’s a huge guest pool for Disneyland. Once you throw San Diego and other areas into the mix within a reasonable driving distance of Disneyland, you have around 20 million potential guests.

All of this is to say that there’s a lot of potential local demand for Disneyland, even before you consider the demand from other states in the West. While most Disneyland Resort guests come from somewhere in California, people travel from other states, as well. Utah and Nevada are chief among these, with Oregon, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington also heavily represented.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will open in California before it opens in Florida, likely by 6 months to a year. This means that any diehard Star Wars fans–no matter where they’re located–will also be considering a Disney Resort vacation in 2019. In other words, there’s a huge potential pool of guests for Disneyland Resort in the immediate future.

The guest pool is one part of the problem. As we hinted at above, infrastructure is also an issue, in addition to park capacity. The first problem in terms of infrastructure is hotel rooms. Right now, there are not enough to satisfy peak season guest demand, a fact that is evidenced by the average price in hotel rooms eclipsing $180/night last year. (No doubt that number is even higher this year.)

You might think this is not a huge issue, because cities around Anaheim have hotels, and people can stay farther away and commute to the parks. That’s true. The problem this presents is that it further taxes Anaheim’s overtaxed surface roads and I-5, as well as Disneyland’s parking.

That brings us to the largest problem in terms of infrastructure: the parking situation. Even on a busy day right now, it can be awful. Remember the 24-hour parties? Every time, Disneyland incentivized carpooling with free buttons (lol), which was (surprise!) totally ineffective as traffic still backed up terribly onto I-5 and the surface streets throughout Anaheim.

No big deal, you might think, recalling the Eastern Gateway Project that was announced last year, and will be opened by late 2018. Unfortunately, due to a changing political climate, that has yet to be approved by the Anaheim City Council, and there’s a good possibility it won’t be approved this year.

The Eastern Gateway Project has been part of Disneyland’s Master Plan since before Disney California Adventure, and its repeated delays are emblematic of the issues that arise when President of Disneyland is a stepping-stone position only held for a few years by each occupant of the role. Knowing their tenure is limited and infrastructure projects are not ‘sexy,’ parking has been a game of kick the can for the last several leadership teams.

Some of the blame with the Eastern Gateway Project’s delay lies with Disney officials. They had over a decade to get this built, and could have been proactive when the political climate was right to get the project done. More recently, they’ve also failed to revise their plans to address concerns of local businesses and elected officials. They’ve had zero sense of urgency with regard to a project that urgently needs to begin construction.

Blame also lies with Anaheim. Both the City Council and Mayor have recently become openly adversarial to Disney. One City Council member recently was quoted as saying,“we’ve invested in the children of tourists, it’s time to invest in the children of Anaheim.”

Never mind the fact that Anaheim has an annual $80 million tax surplus due to the Anaheim Resort District, which helps fund programs that can benefit actual residents. It’s much easier to use the city’s largest source of tax revenue as a scapegoat for problems the city faces. While the City of Anaheim has been overly Disney-friendly for a while, the recent sea change is an overreaction to that, and will have its own negative, long-term impacts.

But I digress; this article is not about the politics of Anaheim. Even if the Eastern Gateway Project is approved, it’s already too late for this to open in time for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. What does that mean? No one’s really sure–probably not even Team Disney Anaheim’s own planning team. One thing that cannot happen is a daily redux of the 24-hour party traffic jams. Disney did just get approval yesterday for a Toy Story Lot expansion, but that’s a paltry 455 parking spaces as compared to the 6,800 spaces the Eastern Gateway parking structure would add.

The most likely scenario is that Disneyland will be forced to do all it can to discourage vehicle use. There are two ways to accomplish this. The first is to raise parking costs. The second is to eliminate parking from Annual Passes. This step has already been taken for the lower tiers of passes, and it seems like an inevitability for all Annual Passes, save for perhaps the Signature Plus tier. This is just the first of much larger implications for Annual Passholders…

Basically, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that Disneyland Resort is going to have a tremendous amount of potential guest demand come 2019, without the infrastructure and capacity to satisfy that demand. Effectively, this means that Disneyland will be able to pick and choose the demographics to whom it would rather cater, and its management will no doubt choose those guests who are likely spend the most money.

It’s no secret that, on average, tourists spend more money per visit than locals, particularly local Annual Passholders. Vacation guests will be Disneyland’s top priority, with whatever capacity and infrastructure supply is ‘left over’ from them being ‘distributed’ to locals. Whether this means a suspension of all Annual Pass sales remains to be seen.

If I had to guess, my hunch is that sales of the two lower tiers of Annual Passes will be suspended indefinitely and the Deluxe Annual Pass will continue to be offered but with much more aggressive blockout dates. If any Annual Pass remains available without blockout dates, I would expect its price to top $1,500.

It wouldn’t even remotely surprise me if any Annual Passes that might be offered are blocked out for the first three months that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is open. If someone is willing to fork over $1,500 for an Annual Pass, chances are that they’ll fork over another $150 for a day ticket to experience Star Wars land earlier.

To be honest, not all of the aspects of this paradigm shift are necessarily bad things. Even as a local, I can recognize that Disneyland has a problem with us Annual Passholders. We arrive with 1-2 guests per vehicle, show up for a handful of hours at a time, wander around taking pictures of ourselves in front of walls, don’t buy anything, and often bring our own food or avoid doing meals in the parks. The “Passhole” stereotypes exist because they are, in large part, accurate. For locals, Disneyland has become a glorified public park or mall. Disneyland should be a special place–it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the Grove for things to do on a Friday night.

With that said, I maintain that it was a mistake for Disney to locate Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland rather than making it the cornerstone offering in a third gate. I think it will be borne out that this wasn’t the “conservative” approach once the land opens–it was the foolishly risk-averse approach. The subsequent failures to add people-eating capacity in Disneyland to help absorb crowds, compelling counter-programming in Disney California Adventure to draw the hordes of people away from the 60+ year old park, and address infrastructure shortcomings will all be evident once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens. Disney will undoubtedly point to the crushing demand as proof of the land’s unforeseeable success, but the chaos that will occur in 2019 is easily foreseeable to anyone with their eyes open.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

What do you think about Disneyland’s future with regard to tourists v. locals? Do you see this as a long-term paradigm shift, or something temporary during the initial surge of popularity for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge? Thoughts on the parking and hotel situation in Anaheim? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

76 Responses to “The End of Disneyland as a “Local’s Park””
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