Disney seeks major expansion of California theme park to add more immersive attractions

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Walking through the frosty, snow-covered hamlet of Arendelle from “Frozen,” or the bustling, critter-filled metropolis of “Zootopia” might be possible one day for visitors to Disney’s California theme parks.

That’s only if Disney wins approval from local officials to expand its Anaheim resort over the next four decades.

The proposed expansion wouldn’t increase Disney’s 490-acre (488-hectare) footprint in Southern California or change what the company already has permission to build. But it could help the company develop new attractions. They could place rides and entertainment options on what is currently a sprawling, 50-acre (20-hectare) parking lot — and move parking for Disneyland to a multistory structure — all while keeping within the boundaries of a resort surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

“We know there are stories out there we haven’t told yet, like ‘Wakanda’ or ‘Coco’ or ‘Frozen’ or ‘Zootopia’,” said Rachel Alde, Disney’s senior vice president of global development and finance. “We know what kind of stories we would love to tell. We need to get the guidance on what we can build there so we can understand how.”

The city of Anaheim’s planning commission is scheduled Monday to review the proposal for Disneyland, dubbed the “happiest place on Earth.” The project — which would require Disney to invest at least $1.9 billion in the theme park, lodging, entertainment and related uses over the next decade — still must be approved by the city council before taking effect.

Disney’s goal is to create what it calls more immersive experiences for tourists, similar to the attraction Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opened in California in 2019. The company said it doesn’t yet know which stories would be central to the new developments, but the idea is to create areas like “Zootopia” in Shanghai Disneyland, where animal characters walk through a vibrant cityscape that resembles the setting of the film.

Right now, there isn’t enough room in the original Disneyland in California to build something on a large scale without affecting existing attractions, which are relished by loyal, long-time visitors to the company’s oldest theme park, Alde said.

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 its first park into a resort hub. It later added a second park, Disney California Adventure Park, and a shopping and entertainment area called Downtown Disney.

Disneyland, which dates back to 1955, 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.

Disney’s parks are a tourism magnet for Southern California and especially for Anaheim, which is Orange County’s most populous city and home to more than 345,000 people as well as a major league baseball team and national hockey league team. Hotel revenue typically makes up about half of Anaheim’s revenue, and is expected to climb to $236 million this year, according to city estimates.

“Visitors generate a tremendous amount of revenue for our city that allows us to invest in our neighborhoods,” said Erin Ryan, a spokesperson for the city of Anaheim. “Disney brings a lot of tourists here.”

The plan also would require the company to invest tens of millions of dollars in street improvements, affordable housing and other infrastructure in the city. Disney has held workshops to address residents’ questions about the proposal, including concerns about the company’s plan to absorb a local road into the theme park.

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