A better, cheaper Disneyland?

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Photo via Flickr by Glen Scarborough / Creative Commons

On Christmas Eve, it felt like the park was all ours.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Disneyland was so reliably empty on the day before Christmas that my family often spent December 24 in the “Happiest Place on Earth.” We rode every attraction in the park. Tickets got more expensive each year, but they didn’t break the bank; in 1989, adult admissions for one day, were $23.50, and kids ages 3 to 12 were $18.50.

Today, I have three little kids, but I wouldn’t think of taking them to Disneyland. Disney—via special events and the invention of holiday attractions—has all but eliminated its off-season. Christmas week is now so busy that Disneyland and its sister park, Disney’s California Adventure, sometimes reach capacity. You’ll probably find the worst holiday traffic in California on Main Street USA.

And the expense of taking the kids would be hard to justify. Disney has hiked the cost of a one-day ticket to visit just one of its two Anaheim parks to $96 for anyone 10 or older. For children ages 3 to 9, it’s $90. Throw in gas money and another $17 to $22 for parking, and for a family of five, we’re talking $500 just to walk in the gate.

That’s enough to raise the question of whether the average Californian—median annual per capita income in the state is a tick under $30,000—can afford to visit this most iconic of California places.

Like California itself, Disneyland has become overcrowded as a result of the combination of its popularity and underinvestment in infrastructure (which is to say, not enough new parks). The company’s way of managing this problem is to raise prices and make it harder for Southern Californians to come to the park. Disney has suspended sales of the Southern California Annual Passport that many locals bought in order to visit frequently throughout the year. Disney does offer a “select” Southern California pass, but it works on fewer than half the days of the year; neither brand of local pass gets you into the park during the height of the summer or the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s.

Now, a few people reading this may not see our diminishing access to Disneyland as an issue as serious as access to, say, affordable healthcare. But for those Californians who understand that a visit to Disneyland is an essential California cultural experience, it’s obvious we face a statewide crisis that cries out for a forceful response.

What could that be? As Walt Disney once promised: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” So here’s what I’m imagining: a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing all children born in California one free visit to Disneyland before they turn 18.

Such a right is easily justified by history; we launched the Disney park empire in 1955. With fewer than 500,000 native Californians born a year, we’re talking about less than $50 million annually in new financial commitments for a company with annual revenues approaching $50 billion. And wouldn’t there be considerable long-term public relations value to Disney in making Disneyland one of the few experiences all young Californians share?

I must admit there are two issues with a Disneyland-for-all-kids constitutional amendment. The first is practical: This new right could create even more crowds in the short run.

The second issue is constitutional. A California legal scholar has informed me that a measure forcing a private company to provide free goods to the citizenry might be blocked as an unconstitutional “taking”—unless the right comes with “just compensation” for Disney.

That compensation could solve both issues in one fell swoop: The state should give Disney a piece of land in California, with all environmental approvals and entitlements in place, large enough to build another park. Where? Disney could build a third park on a large piece of land next to its Anaheim resort, but hasn’t moved to do it. Land on the coast would cost too much, so it should be inland. And to leverage corporate welfare, the land should be tied to another public project that is already acquiring large amounts of land.
The perfect location: something close to the planned high-speed rail station in Fresno.

Talk about Tomorrowland! A new Disney Fresno could draw crowds large enough to make high-speed rail economically viable—especially if Disney exploited its newly acquired rights to the Star Wars empire of George Lucas, a son of the San Joaquin Valley. Heck, if the California drought lasts a couple more years, the landscape surrounding Disney Fresno might be passed off as the desert planet Tatooine.

Far-fetched? Maybe, but when has that deterred Disney? As Uncle Walt liked to say, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Joe Mathews is Innovation editor at Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.