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!
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!
I always go in the off season during the week to avoid the crowds but you sacrifice a lot by going on a slow day they close early, there are usually no parades or fireworks. Even though the ticket prices are lower I’m not sure it’s worth it. If Disneyland wants to even out the crowds they might want to rethink what they offer on slower days. P.s. Love your blog.
I really enjoyed reading your blog. It is obvious that you know all kinds of top secret, insider info. Impressive.
I am planning my first time ever trip to Disney Anaheim, and I found your blog as i was doing some “what to expect” research. I agree that parking, street traffic, hotel shortages, cast member attitudes will play a part in defining your DLR experience, but I think better understanding the millions of tourists who will be sharing the park with you will also be an interesting part experience.
I was wondering if anyone had any information on DLR’s tourist demographics. Someone said half the people will be from Southern California. Are the rest from Europe, China, S. America? I think it would be fun to take a break from walking by having ice cream and just watching people from all over the world walk by you. Yes i am strange.
Although this doesn’t impact my upcoming trip, this was fascinating to read. Piggybacking on your “should you visit in 2018?” section of the main DLR Trip Planning Guide page, this realist look at the potential problems with that SW expansion should have not only potential tourists and/or SW diehards thinking twice but indeed should be of great concern to key decision makers. After all, if somebody has already “figured this out” this early into the expansion, the “what’s your plan, management?” questions are bound to be more frequent and asked in a louder voice as the project moves forward. And if a nightmare parking or crowd nightmare does occur and we get wind that these concerns were voiced 2 years prior, what then?
So here’s the final question: plenty of announced Disney parks, lands, rides and resorts have been announced and later cancelled. What is the chance this one gets the axe and the one in WDW actually moves forward instead? And maybe DCA gets a Marvel land or something as a concession, boosting the DCA profile (Pixar Pier –> Marvel) instead of the DLP portfolio?
I agree with your article, especially that it was a mistake for Disney to add Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Disneyland instead of opening a third gate. I can only imagine what kind of chaos it will be at the Disneyland Resort once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens, so that is why I am trying to go to Disneyland as often as possible before it opens.
Great article Sarah and Tom!! DLR constant changes are occurring too much too fast. I always question WHY DLR offers local special ticket prices (APs, so cal 3 day) only to complain and blame later. The fact remains that original DLR concept was not built to accommodate the huge crowds at the point were you’re shoulder to shoulder moving like a herd. Keep building and expanding DLR you continue the problem without any solution. It’s sad really.
I love your blog! We are just starting out Disney adventures, last year was out first WDW visit with 3, 4, and 9 month olds. Your articles helped us greatly! I’ve been planning my next trip since we left last Sept. =)
Great article. My only point of minor disagreement is that I think AP’s should be priced much higher than they currently are, and there should be no monthly payment option. Those who purchase single or multi-day tickets should not have the quality of their experience degraded by locals who are paying a ridiculously low price.
I think your blog post is spot on and I enjoyed reading this. I would just add that I already consider DLR to be a vacation destination and increasingly so. Cars Land, the unique shows and nighttime entertainment options have already made this an easy 2-4 day destination. Lots of add on options in the SoCal area if people want to stay longer and not spend all the time at DLR. I live on the East Coast and have an AP to Disneyland and not WDW. I also know of many other East Coasters who visit DLR more than once a year, with or without an AP. I’m also a RunDisney fan and prefer races at DLR over WDW. They are much more relaxed and I don’t have to spend a half day dealing with the Expo. I do hope they get the parking situation figured out.
Timely article as I visited DL over a long labor day weekend to participate in the races AND visit a park I hadn’t been to since the early 80’s. Stayed at a non-Disney hotel across the street from the entrance and was definitely glad we did.
I bought MaxPass for all our days there and it really made the trip. The park wasn’t that busy for a good chunk of the day, but with MaxPass and some FP switching I’ll bet we had one FP almost every hour/1.5 hours. Between those FP’s and a number of rides with fairly reasonable lines/short single rider lines (Matterhorn, etc.) we got a lot more rides in that at WDW (which we visit at least 1-2 times per year). I have to wonder if MaxPass will become more popular with the locals once they learn more about it, and if that happens will it end up less useful than I experienced.
As you said things are about to get nuts, which was one of the main reasons why on my last day there I decided to buy some DVC points at Grand Californian. The non-Disney hotel was ok, but I get the feeling that the time is coming where those on-property perks will be well worth it, especially given the small number of Disney rooms compared to those at WDW. I’ll bet that due to the smaller number of Disney resort guests the early entrance at DL will be even more valuable than it is at WDW.
On a related note, the impact of Star Wars land is already being felt at WDW, at least in prices of boardwalk-area DVC resorts. Beach Club points have almost reached Grand Californian prices.
In 2019, Park hopper day tickets will go to 220.00 per person. Parking will go to 28.00 per car. Signature Plus Pass will go to 1800.00 Lower passes may be phased out starting in 2018.
Ever since the passing of Walt Disney, the resort has increasingly become a business with a sharp eye on the bottom line. AP and day ticket prices adjust upward as more and more guests fill the park. The lower tiered AP are there to increase attendance during slower period when kids are in school tourism is down. This is also the time when rides are shut down for maintenance in preparation for the hectic summer season. The DLR bean counters are very good at their jobs. They tweak the prices to test the limits. They want to fill the park but not to the point of shutting the gates because of overcrowding. This leaves too many guests unhappy. It is all a numbers game.
Regarding parking and public transit. Southern California does not have a good public transportation system. If they did, they would have built a light rail from the airports to the DLR. The absence of a SoCal master plan is due to politics and the countless incorporated cities in the region. Tom alluded to this in his comments about the parking structure and the Anaheim city council.
As an AP holder, I did notice the immense drop in attendance on blocked out days even in the summer’s busiest period. It was almost pleasurable walking through DL and DCA without huge crowds and baby carriages everywhere. Despite being a local, I spend a lot of my discretionary money on food, gifts and knick knacks. It is a part of the fun of being at the DLR.
Star Wars looks like absolute hell, as does California Adventure, and the capacity of Disneyland could have become 100,000 plus, if they had expanded Disneyland to the 100 acres instead. The continuity of Disneyland was murdered by ridiculous people. Who ever would think to make TWO Eiffel towers in Paris?. . .
I just returned from my first Disneyland visit. I was there August 24th-28th. We flew into SNA, used Uber to take us to the Hyatt House. Granted, peak tourist season is over, but I agree that this is a local park. In the evenings, the park filled up with locals. Most weren’t buying, and I didn’t see one family t-shirt. The prices were cheaper. Mickey bars were about $.50 cheaper. We hopped daily between both parks. We loved the Frozen show, but other than the street shows, I thought the entertainment was lacking. Our family loved Cars Land. My seven year old had a great time in Radiator Springs. To me, Cars Land was the BEST part of the park. We walked daily from our hotel to the park. What I didn’t feel was the magic that I feel in WDW. I didn’t think the cast members were all that friendly. All were from California, and most were from Anaheim. They were pleasant, but not really providing exceptional service. WDW has the immersive experience that makes staying onsite WORTH EVERY PENNY. It’s total escapism and I love it. My first time visiting WDW was when I was 40. We’ve gone every year for the past 7 years and for the last few, multiple times a year. We’ve been AP and are DVC members. Cars Land made the trip, but I’m not in a hurry to fly back. I live in Michigan and it’s usually cheaper and always a shorter flight to WDW. I’m glad that did get to see Disneyland and California Adventure, but my money will be spent going to WDW.
I have to reply to you with a chuckle because I just got back from a trip last night where I spent August 25th-30th at WDW and I could have written the same review that you did. I mean, it was fine because it was Disney, but it just didn’t have the magic that DLR does. The cast members were nice enough, but none seemed to have the same level of commitment as those I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with at DLR. There were certainly more parks, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was an offering of quantity over quality, not to mention it was a hassle to get to and from the parks (and we stayed along the monorail route). The crowds at WDW also didn’t seem as “committed to the magic” either as it wasn’t unusual to see them leave their garbage laying around or to overhear them arguing with a CM or each other. Maybe it was the oppressive humidity and daily storms that just made everyone ill-tempered? The weather certainly didn’t improve my attitude either. After this trip — which was still enjoyable because we are Disney fans — my husband and I decided there wouldn’t be a need to travel cross-country in the future unless we had to board a Disney Cruise ship out of Cape Canaveral. We’ll stick to our home state and our two gorgeous, pristine (albeit, smaller) parks at DLR and cross our fingers that Tom’s prediction of Anaheim becoming the Orlando of the West Coast turns out to be wrong.
Try the TOKYO DISNEY RESORT. It makes the US parks look like carnivals in comparison!
Brad, I did say to my husband as we were cruising the World Showcase in Epcot (actually my favorite part of the WDW resort) that I would love to go to Disney in Tokyo sometime. Definitely on the bucket list. 🙂
I am a geek and the wife and mother to geeks (like, think Comic-Con attendees). I don’t know why anyone can figure out the demand and plan accordingly. Star Wars lands at any park anywhere in the world is a game changer like Harry Potter at Universal–except with more decades of fan base and an even bigger cultural footprint. We were planning our third DLR trip from Canada for 2019, but the good rationales here make me wary. We have to pay for airfare AND get APs because a 5-day tickets is not enough, and Canadians don’t get offers like Australians at DLR or Brits at WDW for longer tickets. Since they (currently) offer special passes for people close to the parks, I wish they would make offerings for people coming from far away. For example, we get a special membership at Washington’s National Zoo because we live more than 250 miles away. SoCal AP holders should pay more because they will use their passes more than people coming from 1000+ miles away.
So, the only cost we can sort of control is the hotel situation, but as you noted every year since our first trip in 2012 has seen significant increases. I can’t imagine we’ll be able to afford an easy walking distance, let alone a couple nights at PPH or DLH like on our other trips. One things Disney and Anaheim could encourage is a better, faster, more reliable SHUTTLE/bus system to get tourists to the park from the further away hotels so people don’t stay elsewhere and then drive in. We looked at staying further afield to save money, but waiting for shuttles is a turn off. They need to make it more attractive.
We went to WDW last December, and decided we really prefer DLR. But it’s the DLR of our memories, which might be inaccurate by 2019. 🙁
What’s this about Aussies getting perks? First I’ve heard of it! We have a de-valued dollar and we have to tip (something we DO NOT DO at home!). ANY perks would be greatly appreciated!!!
I live in Anaheim and was an annual pass holder since 1986 when it was $99 included parking and there were no blackout dates.
The park has changed since then and your article summed up a lot of what I think is wrong with it but to put it plainly there are just too many people for it to be fun. I have t been to DLR in 2 years and don’t miss it at all, when I hear the fireworks every night, it doesn’t phase me. But I have been counting the days to our next WDW trip.
I have a very unpopular opinion on how the DLR experience could be improved. Eliminate the monthly payments for Annual Passes, get rid of the bottom tiered APs and raise the prices for the ones that they keep. If one were paying cash for their AP I think it becomes a different decision and one that less people would make. Fewer people in te parks would make for a much more enjoyable experience. For me it is just too crowded to justify the cost.
Your mileage may vary!
“Eliminate the monthly payments for Annual Passes, get rid of the bottom tiered APs and raise the prices for the ones that they keep.”
I think this may be unpopular with locals, but I’m a fan of this idea. In fact, I’d rather Disneyland raise the prices on Annual Passes (even though that’s what would impact me) than raise the price on regular tickets.
I agree. Annual passholders should bear the burden of the price increases, provided the lower tiers and monthly payment plans go away.
@Tom ~ I remember those days well. I paid $89.00 with my AAA discount, and parking was right outside the DL exit turnstiles in what was once the Tinkerbell lot right under the monorail track.
I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to experience Disneyland back in the halcyon era of the park… (1000+ visits in my lifetime).
I think a lot of the SWL impact at DL will be mitigated by the fact that they are building one simultaneously in WDW, and by all accounts I’ve read, they will be identical. And while lots of DL regulars will brave all to see the new land, many more will wait for things to simmer down. That’s what I plan to do. In fact, a lot of my longtime DL AP friends have been hitting the park hard before the SWL juggernaut materializes, because then we all plan to take a break. But who knows? Time will tell.
That would be nice but I think there will be a 6-12 month window between the completion on the 2 coasts. Die hard fans – and there are a LOT – will flock to the west coast to see what we’ve got. Sadly, DL will probably be 100% packed for many months.
I’m one of those more rare APs who lives farther away (NorCal) but enjoys a visit as often as possible, usually 5-6 times a year. I have to drive 7 hours and rent a hotel, always across the street on Harbor. I also have my favorite meals at Disney and never pass up an opportunity to eat them – every lunch and dinner. I also love to get a souvenir or two each time. Something practical but very Disneyland. I guess I’m a rarity but I know there are many more like me who spend plenty every time! Crossing my fingers those like me aren’t penalized. :/ I know I’ll be avoiding Disneyland altogether in 2019.
I’ve been an annual passholer since 2011 & I spend a ton of money at the parks, take it I don’t have any children but between alcohol @ DCA, food & cute merchandise I spend about that. My friend/family and I try to go at least once a week. I live in Torrance, which is a drive at times but my friends and I always carpool and we do spend money at the parks. So to say that annual pass holders don’t spend as much I’d like to see the numbers. There were times when every Friday we would be at the parks and it was not cheap. Disneyland will always be always be my happy place, & the mouse will continue to get my money