ocregister.com | Aug. 17, 2015 –
If nothing else, you can view Disneyland’s latest high-profile expansion plan – a “Star Wars”-themed land – as an insurance policy keeping the highly popular theme park in state-of-the-art condition.
Disney executives announced Saturday that the historic park will get a new, 14-acre, two-major-ride wing tied to the epic science-fiction movie franchise by Hollywood legend George Lucas. This comes after the 2012 addition of a 12-acre Cars Land – based on the “Cars” movie franchise – to the Disney California Adventure park next door.
Few financial details were given about the “Star Wars” addition, other than Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger saying the “jaw-dropping new world” to be created in Anaheim and at Walt Disney World in Florida will be the company’s two biggest in-park expansions. Disney pledged to spend at least $1 billion at its Anaheim resort area in return for a city promise not to tax park admission for at least 30 years.
No matter how Disney spends that sum – and the project will take years to complete – it’ll be a healthy boost to an already-solid Orange County economy. Cars Land’s popular Radiator Springs Racers ride alone cost a reported $200 million to build, so it’s a reasonable bet that the “Star Wars” attractions will be in that cost range.
“The surge of building will provide an economic boost,” says economist Mark Schniepp of California Economic Forecast. “It’s another way Disney symbolically is committing to keep Disneyland fresh. Gives people more reason to go.”
Look, Orange County is a bit of a tourist town. Its share of tourism workers is roughly 50 percent higher than the statewide pattern. So keeping Disneyland competitive with numerous Southern California entertainment options is not just critical to owner Disney, but to the Orange County economy overall. With some 28,000 workers, Disneyland is Orange County’s largest employer.
It’s the flagship of local tourism’s revival. The county drew 46 million visitors last year – up 7 percent in five years, according to Visit Anaheim data. Annual visitor spending has soared in the recovery to $10.7 billion in 2014 – up 50 percent from the mid-recession low of 2009.
That cash flow creates jobs. Orange County’s tourism trade – counting workers at amusement parks and hotels – this year employs roughly 60,000, up 14 percent in five years.
This niche employs 3.9 percent of all Orange County workers – just 2.5 percent of all California jobs are in these categories – and today’s local share is up from 3.3 percent when California Adventure opened 15 years ago.
“It’s good to have a major employer committed to continued investment,” says Lucy Dunn, head of the Orange County Business Council. “People – unless you’re in the tourism industry – don’t realize how important it is.”
A flood of tourists fill hotel rooms, too. Last year, 79 percent of Orange County’s hotel rooms were full, according to PKF/Colliers data – up from 67 percent in 2009. And in that period, the average cost of one night in a local hotel room rose 21 percent.
The tourist rush has spurred an eight-hotel building spree around Disneyland that will add 1,500 new rooms to the market this year. The new “Star Wars” attraction may help those projects pencil out profitably.
“The city is in an enviable position to be perfectly suited to welcome new waves of visitors,” says Visit Anaheim CEO Jay Burress.
Nobody knows what the rush to see the new “Star Wars” attraction will be like – even the opening date is still unknown. Perhaps Cars Land’s June 2012 debut gives a hint.
That year, attendance at California Adventure rose by 1.4 million, or 23 percent, according to the Themed Entertainment Association; countywide visitor counts grew by 900,000; and tourist spending grew by $1 billion, or 13 percent.
Yes, 2012 was in the early stages of a serious economy revival, so it was a broad-based tourism upswing. But a critically acclaimed Cars Land obviously boosted Orange County’s appeal to visitors. And “Star Wars,” no doubt, has a far larger, deeper fan base.
“‘Star Wars’ is a franchise to build upon,” Schniepp says. “Disney will be right there, in a timely position to take advantage of it.”
If Disney’s magic touch with tourists continues, the “Star Wars” land will be an economic force.