Disney advances plan to inject $1.9 billion into ‘the happiest place on Earth’

Visitors to Disney’s California parks could one day walk through the snow-covered hamlet of Arendelle from “Frozen” or the bustling, critter-filled metropolis of “Zootopia” under a park expansion plan approved by the Anaheim City Council.

Disney would spend at least $1.9 billion over the next decade to transform its 490-acre (488-hectare) campus in densely-populated Southern California. It would be the biggest expansion of Disney’s Southern California theme parks in decades, aiming to create more immersive experiences for guests. Disney would also be required to spend tens of millions of dollars on street improvements, affordable housing and other infrastructure in the city.

The council unanimously approved the project early Wednesday at the end of an hourslong meeting that began Tuesday evening. A second council vote for final approval of Disney’s plan is required in May.

The plan wouldn’t expand Disney’s footprint in tourism-dependent Anaheim but would help it add rides and entertainment by letting the company relocate parking to a new multi-story structure and redevelop the massive lot, as well as make other changes to how it uses its properties.

Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area are surrounded by freeways and residential areas in the city 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, so the company sees the plan as vital to creating to continue to create sizable new attractions.

“We are thrilled that the City of Anaheim has agreed to work together on this legacy project,” Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock said in a statement, adding the company awaits the final vote in May. “We look forward to our bright future together!”

A significant share of public testimony to the city council focused on Disney’s plans to buy a public street near the theme park and turn it into a pedestrian walkway and its intention to add a crosswalk on another neighboring street.

Resident Cassandra Taylor said she looks forward to the new rides the expansion will bring but is concerned about Disney’s plans to privatize a city street, adding she first heard of the idea last month in a newspaper article even though she had attended two informational presentations.

“They might have a pedestrian walkway planned now, but once it is theirs, they could just as easily remove it,” Taylor said. “It will be theirs and theirs entirely. Voters will have no say in its future use.”

Over the last two decades, Disney investments have included Cars Land, Pixar Pier, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and Avengers Campus in Southern California. The company has not committed to which stories it plans to feature given that the new development will take years.

It’s the first time Disney has sought a major change to its California theme parks since the 1990s, when the company obtained approvals to turn Disneyland, its original theme park dubbed “the happiest place on Earth” and built in 1955, into a resort hub. It later built the Disney California Adventure theme park and the Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment area.

Disneyland was the second-most visited theme park in the world in 2022 with 16.8 million people coming through the gates, according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM.

Anaheim is Orange County’s most populous city and home to 345,000 people, a major league baseball team and a national hockey league team. Hotel revenue typically makes up about half of the city’s revenue and is expected to climb to $236 million this year, according to city estimates.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom welcomed the vote as a way to create more jobs in the state of 39 million people.

“We look forward to cultivating more Disney magic and building opportunities for all as this investment drives billions of dollars in revenue for our state and local communities,” Newsom said in a statement.

For Anaheim, the plan would translate directly into much-needed cash for police, fire, libraries and other community services, said Mike Lyster, a city spokesman.

“Whenever Disney invests in Anaheim, we see city revenue grow and our economy expand,” Lyster said. “This is a milestone vote for our city.”

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