Despite a deadly pandemic closing its theme parks for a year, Walt Disney Co. has begun charting a course for the future by announcing plans Thursday to upgrade and renovate its Anaheim resort with new attractions, shops and restaurants within its existing 490-acre footprint.
The plan, dubbed Disneyland Forward, is short on details, but Disney officials made clear they want to squeeze new attractions, shops and eateries into underdeveloped areas of the existing resort, specifically around two Disney hotels west of the theme parks and on the site of a parking lot east of the resort.
Disney officials said it is too early in the process to disclose construction costs but vowed to bring detailed development plans for approval to the Anaheim City Council by 2023.
The announcement of the proposed overhaul comes less than two years after the media giant spent $1 billion to open its newest expansion to Disneyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, in May 2019. The next addition, an area dubbed Avengers Campus that features Marvel superhero characters, is expected to open soon at Disney California Adventure.
“Guests need and want more, " said Jeanette Lomboy, Disney portfolio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. “In order to give guests what they want, we need more flexibility in Anaheim.”
Disney officials emphasized that they have no plans to ask for any public funding to support the project and do not envision adding a third theme park to the resort.
Although Disney officials declined to say what new attractions might be added, they described several lands and attractions that have been added in other Disney parks as examples of what could come to the Anaheim resort. Those included the themed areas based on the Disney movies “Tangled,” “Peter Pan” and “Frozen” set to open next year at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan. They also mentioned attractions based on the movie “Zootopia” under construction at Shanghai Disneyland and the new Toy Story Land and soon-to-open Tron ride at Walt Disney World in Florida.
“The possibilities are endless,” Lomboy said. “We’re excited about the possibilities and ready to dream.”
The challenge facing Disney is the media giant must first persuade the city of Anaheim to redraft a specific plan approved by the city in the 1990s that defined the areas of the resort that are set aside for attractions, for hotels and for parking. The Disney Forward plans would call on the city to overhaul that plan dramatically, allowing theme park elements to be added in the area set aside for hotels, and shops and restaurants in the area allocated for parking, among other changes.
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu has been briefed on the plan, according to a city spokesman, who said the mayor is supportive of Disney’s efforts and looks forward to seeing the detailed project make its way through the city’s approval process.
“I welcome fresh thinking about how the Disneyland Resort evolves and how we best maximize this resource for our city,” Sidhu said in a statement.
Getting the project approved depends on the cooperation of the city of Anaheim, which has had a rocky relationship with Disney over the last few years.
In 2017, the Disneyland Resort shelved plans for a new transportation hub on the eastern edge of the Anaheim property, opting instead to build a 6,500-space parking structure near its shopping district. The transportation hub, dubbed the Eastern Gateway, was opposed by some nearby business owners who worried that a pedestrian bridge that crossed over Harbor Boulevard would divert foot traffic away from their shops and restaurants.
A year later, Disney put on hold plans for a new luxury hotel in the Downtown Disney shopping district because of a feud with Anaheim over tax subsidies that Disney was expecting to get from operating the hotel. Disney officials say reviving the luxury hotel project is not an element of the new Disneyland Forward plan.
Since the pandemic closed much of the resort, Anaheim elected officials and business leaders have lobbied state lawmakers to allow the theme parks to reopen to help revive nearby businesses that rely on resort visitors.
The renderings offered by Disney show new themed attractions added around the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel on the west side of the resort. On the east side of the park, the Toy Story parking lot, which holds more than 5,000 spaces, would be developed with hotels, restaurants and shops, according to the images released by Disney.
Disney officials said the future plans would include the addition of a new parking structure with a pedestrian bridge, crossing South Harbor Boulevard to connect with the theme parks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Disneyland and Disney California Adventure closed since March 2020. But thanks to dropping COVID-19 cases and the rollout of several vaccines, the state issued guidelines March 5 that gave theme parks the green light to reopen as early as April 1. Disney announced plans to reopen its Anaheim parks April 30.
The yearlong closure of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure has been a financial blow to the city of Anaheim, which relies heavily on hotel occupancy taxes and sale taxes generated by resort visitors.
The city anticipates a $108-million deficit for the fiscal year that ends in June, mostly due to the steep drop in hotel occupancy taxes, according to city officials. Some city services, such as tree trimming, have been cut to save money.
To help close the deficit, the city has received $53 million in federal funds for this year and the City Council voted Tuesday to issue $210 million in bonds to help close the funding gap for the current fiscal year and the next two years, city officials say.
The resort, which opened in 1955, generates about $8.5 billion in economic impact annually and supports more than 78,000 jobs in Southern California, according to a study by Cal State Fullerton.