They say that the sequel is never quite as good as the original. So imagine the pressure put upon Disney Imagineers tasked with designing the follow-up park to act as an equal partner and companion of the most beloved theme park on Earth.
It would be impractical to attempt to build a park that could match Disneyland’s fantasy environments or fairytale settings. Instead, they would follow Walt Disney World's lead. Specifically, Imagineers looked to Florida’s EPCOT Center to design a park dedicated to science, culture, technology, and innovation. As the concept traveled from the East Coast to the West, it would receive a fitting name change. On May 8, 1991, the Possibilityland: WESTCOT Center was announced.
Despite its name, Disneyland’s second gate would differ dramatically from the similar concept that acted as the second gate at Walt Disney World. Even by Westcot’s 1991 announcement, Epcot was already beginning to look dated. Its architecture and concept had rooted it very specifically in the unmistakable and distinctive style of its 1982 opening. Its wide concrete expanses, cool gray colors, and rigid brutalist architecture had created a vision of the future that was harsh, sterile, and cold to audiences of the 1990s (and would only feel more that way into the 21st century).
Westcot would set out to do things in a much more West Coast fashion, filling the park with waterfalls, forests, organic rocks jutting from the ground, and a much more naturalistic vision of tomorrow. (This cozier, warmer, more 21st-century-friendly vision of the future was so well-loved by Imagineers and executives, they planned to export it back to Florida's Epcot as well, as we chronicled in its own in-depth Possibilityland: Epcot's Project: Gemini feature.) Westcot would even replace the divided countries of World Showcase with a more united realm celebrating the "four corners" of the globe and the interconnectedness of culture and our shared histories, with an epic boat ride rivaling Pirates of the Caribbean connecting them all.
The centerpiece of the whole park would be Spacestation Earth, a sort of Californian cousin to Epcot’s 180-foot-tall white geodesic sphere. But California’s – in fitting with Westcot’s warmer style and scale – would be nearly twice as tall – 300 feet – and gleaming gold with a lattice of white hovering supernaturally around it.
Make no mistake: the magnitude of this Disneyland Resort would be stunning. On top of building new parking decks, infrastructure, Peoplemovers, Monorail expansions, man-made lagoons, shopping districts, and resort hotels, Disney would finally have leverage to force Anaheim to clean up its act. Disney would handle the massive land acquisitions and improvements needed to build Westcot, Disneyland Center, and the new hotel district if Anaheim agreed to regulate the out-of-control hotels along Harbor Blvd. once and for all. With billions of dollars at stake, Disney wanted everything about this once-in-a-lifetime tranformation from single park to resort destination to be just right.
The massive Disneyland Resort expansion (including Westcot) was to break ground in 1993, assuring a fully operational system by 1999. Before the New Millennium, Peoplemovers, Monorails, and shuttles would be connecting the various elements of the Disneyland Resort and its two theme parks. The problems began before a single shovel of dirt had shifted.
For one thing, Disneyland’s tight placement in Anaheim struck again. Odd as it sounds, Disneyland is surrounded by neighborhoods filled with residents, some of whom detest it. Nightly fireworks, stifling traffic, wandering tourists… (At the 2015 shareholders meeting, one Anaheim resident even waited patiently in line at the question-and-answer microphone just for the opportunity to tell Anaheim officials and Disney executives they were “going to hell” for renewing Disney’s nightly fireworks license!)
Never mind that the Disneyland expansion would’ve brought thousands of new jobs to the area or that it would’ve generated tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives for Anaheim alone. They were aghast at the idea that Disney would build towering parking decks on the edge of their neighborhoods, ushering thousands and thousands of cars from the highway into the behemoth concrete structures in their proverbial backyards.
Worse still was the notion that their quaint town would now have to contend with forecasted exponential traffic increases, the seizure of their streets for widening and rebirth as part of the Anaheim Resort District, and that this new theme park would provide a 300-foot-tall glowing sphere to reign over their properties.
Disney redrew plans for Westcot to respond to the worries, replacing Spacestation Earth with a towering white spire far less intrusive to neighborhood views. They argued that residents would never see the increased traffic since dedicated highway ramps would funnel visitors directly into the parking decks, and that Disney needed the $395 million it requested from the government to help build them, which only incensed the locals further. All the while, Michael Eisner watched the price tag for the project inflate. By the end of its concepting, Westcot's anticipated cost was reportedly nearing $4 billion.
If you're interested in the immensely-scaled, massively-ambitious, never-built second gate Disneyland almost got, you can dive into the full story of this alternate reality version of the Disneyland Resort in its own Possibilityland: WESTCOT Center feature - a sort of possibility-fueled prologue to the story of California Adventure.
What derailed Westcot? Simple. In 1992, Disneyland Paris opened… and crashed. The financial collapse of Disneyland Paris – which continues to languish under financial strain even 25 years later – put a stop to almost every single major project at any Disney Park on Earth in the early 1990s, and that’s true of Westcot, too. “Were at a crossroads,” Eisner told the LA Times in 1993. “We had a very big investment in Europe and it’s difficult to deal with. This is an equally big investment. I don’t know whether a private company can ever spend this kind of money. I don’t even know if there’s going to be WESTCOT.”
The whole project was quietly cancelled in 1995. Westcot was dead.
The drawing board
On August 2, 1995, Eisner took a few dozen executives from the Walt Disney Company on a three-day retreat in Aspen, Colorado. Eisner knew that the team needed to re-group. They’d lost countless projects across divisions to the fall of Paris, and they needed an action plan. The primary goal for Eisner, though, continued to be what to do next in Anaheim, where he perceived limitless potential from the tiny park.
Executives were split into small groups, each tasked with coming up with a plan for Disneyland to grow. If it was the last thing Eisner did, he would see Disneyland learn from Walt Disney World's "multi-day, multi-park resort" strategy. The difference now was that whatever they dreamed up had to cost very little.
And as any Disney Parks afficianado will tell you, those executives faced an incredibly difficult task. Disney World was intentionally designed to be "The Vacation Kingdom of the World;" a destination drawing visitors from around the globe. Almost certainly, most travelers landing at the Orlando International Airport have Disney somewhere on their itinerary. And increasingly through the '80s and '90s, Disney had made an even more intentional push to become a self-sufficient "walled garden" resort; to not just be the reason folks came to Florida, but to be the only place they visited while they were there.
But Disneyland is not Disney World, and California is not Florida. For Disneyland to grow into a destination, it would be competing with the rest of California! From its 1955 opening to the mid-'90s, most visitors to Disneyland were from Southern California and the surrounding states anyway (Disney historian Jim Hill calls Disneyland "the world's most popular regional theme park"). Those visiting from elsewhere in the country or world would likely only stop in to Disneyland for a day before continuing along to the rest of California's offerings: beaches, mountains, zoos, studios, cities, and more. How could Disneyland compete with everything California had to offer?
The winning idea allegedly came from Disneyland president Paul Pressler.
(Pressler, for his part, was already infamous at the time. Having been hand-selected for the Disneyland presidency after a time at the helm of Disney Stores, Pressler had a scorched earth policy for finance, infamously cutting staffing, maintenance, and upkeep at the park to bare minimums. After his later exit from the company, it took literally years to make up for the cost-cutting decisions he and his team had made as they presided over the worst period in Disneyland’s history. He would then move on to The Gap, using his slash-services-then-trumpet-financial-gain policy there to disastrous effect.)
His idea was simple: to keep Disneyland guests from leaving the resort to see the rest of California, Imagineers needed to bring the rest of California to Disneyland.
On January 21, 1998, the parking lot at the entrance to Disneyland closed. The next morning, construction started on Disney’s California Adventure. The 55-acre theme park would stand where the parking lot once had – the only large, open land that the California resort had to spare.
That October, a Preview Center opened on Main Street, U.S.A., providing guests with a sneak peek at the park's 22 shows and attractions and 15 restaurants. What Disney didn’t explicitly explain is that Imagineers – the creative designers and storytellers behind Disney’s attractions and themed lands – were purposefully left quite in the dark during the design of the park. Instead, Pressler employed his team from merchandising and retail sectors to design California Adventure, opting for dining and shopping to be the highlight of the more “mature” park. (To be fair, the model worked well at Epcot, so Pressler and company no doubt thought this more "grown-up" Californian park could focus on food and merchandise, as well.)
Altogether, the new park, an attached deluxe hotel, and the Downtown Disney shopping district would cost $1.4 billion – far less than half of the grander expansion with Westcot that had been cancelled three years earlier – and Disney's California Adventure itself would only take an estimated $650 million of that. (For reference: the same year, Tokyo Disneyland was joined by a second park, too; Tokyo DisneySea opened six months after Disney’s California Adventure and reportedly cost $3 billion alone.)
Annual passholders got exclusive access to the park before its official opening in February 2001, and the word of mouth they spread was… well… Uh oh.
On the next page, we’ll step into the Disney’s California Adventure Park of yesterday and experience its four districts, addressing the worries that Disney Parks fans so rightly expressed as they experienced the second gate at Disneyland.