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Disneyland Helped Cultivate Anaheim Convention Activity; 
Supported First Visitor and Convention Bureau in 1961

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By Sandi Cain, August 2005
Orange County Business Journal Staff

Disneyland is widely credited with putting Anaheim on the map. The theme park also has had a hand in making the city a convention destination. 

Disneyland was the impetus for a flurry of new hotels, motels and restaurants that sprung up after the theme park and Disneyland Hotel opened in 1955.

The hotel was the first of the convention hotels, with 400 rooms by 1960 and a Top of the Park Lounge where events could be held for up to 1,400 people. 

Disneyland also supported a new visitor and convention bureau in 1961 to help bring in business, while the city approved plans for a convention center, which opened in 1967.

Janice Ayres, the park’s first marketing director, previously handled marketing for the American Heart Association among other groups and leveraged her contacts to bring some of those groups to Anaheim.

Those conventioneers stayed in area hotels and often brought spouses or families along to visit Disneyland and other attractions. “That was a real plus,” said Bill Snyder, the visitor bureau’s first president.

The visitor bureau, in turn, reached out to potential groups that might include families.

“Everything was geared to bringing groups to Anaheim,” Snyder said.

In the early days, Snyder said a major challenge was convincing people it didn’t take more than a day to get to Anaheim from Los Angeles.
As the Anaheim Convention Center grew, so did Disneyland attendance. And as Disneyland grew, so did convention business.

By the time the tradeshow boom began in the 1980s, an already-solid convention business spurred big-name operators like Hilton Hotels Corp. and Marriott International Inc. to open convention hotels nearby. Those two hotels still are the anchors for the convention business today.

In the mid-1990s, Anaheim approved plans for the Anaheim Resort District. The project would result in more than $6 billion in public and private investment.

Changes included another expansion of the convention center, development of Disney’s California Adventure park, freeway fixes, and hotel, restaurant and entertainment development. 

The investment helped bring more than 1 million delegates to group events in each of the past three years.

Disneyland’s own meetings business has followed similar growth, evolving from company and union picnics to a big resort with programs that teach the Disney culture and themed parties at Disneyland or California Adventure.

It wasn’t long after Disneyland opened that the park started luring group business.

“Disneyland kicked around a lot of ideas about groups,” Ayres said. “They were always looking to fill slow times.”

One of the first efforts was a separate admission picnic area outside the gates of Disneyland geared mainly to families.

It was a typical scenario in other parts of the country, but not a successful one in California.

“That didn’t work out,” said Milt Albright, who managed the area. “Walt never really liked it.”

When Walt Disney closed HolidayLand, Albright headed up an effort to sell picnics to unions and other groups after hours or off-season (Disneyland wasn’t open year-round during its first decade).

“Roy (Disney) always said he wanted to maximize the utilization of existing facilities,” Albright said.

New Year’s, Rose Bowl Parties

The park hosted its first Christmas party the year it opened and first New Year’s party in 1958. The next year, it hosted the Rose Bowl teams for the first time—a tradition that continues today.

Its first private party was for the Knights of Columbus in 1960. Grad nights were added later.

In the off-season from September to May, Disneyland worked with the visitor bureau to sell private parties at Disneyland to convention groups.

“The park opened rides for conventioneers in the off-season,” said Bill Long, marketing director for Disneyland in the 1970s.  The fee: $6 per person. But the minimum number of attendees was 6,000, Long said.

Some groups bought out the whole park. Others held after-hours parties. Groups from Boeing Co., McDonnell Douglas, Bank of America, TRW and the U.S. Postal Service rented the park right along with unions and associations.

“Meetings kept Disneyland alive in the off-season,” Long said.

The addition of Space Mountain and the Main Street Electrical Parade during the 1970s added a spark for evening business, Long said.
In 1972, the Disneyland Hotel opened its own convention center, which let staff court larger groups. The hotel still has the most meeting and exhibit space of any hotel in the county. 

The new facilities brought in large groups like the Shrine of North America, an international Masonic fraternity.

By 1974, Disneyland Hotel also hosted sports events like the North American Open Dart Tournament, which drew roughly 1,000 people to Anaheim for two consecutive years.

“It was the first time the tournament was held outside L.A. and was one of the first major tournaments in the nation to be held in a hotel,” said Della Fleetwood, a Downey resident who was one of the tournament directors.

Fleetwood said the tournament committee heavily marketed the event as a family vacation to players outside the region. 

“It was a big deal to them to be able to go from the hotel by monorail into the park,” she said.

Donna Sue Davis, a former director of resort and park event sales and service with Disneyland Resort, said Disneyland was always well respected in the meetings market because of its high service levels and space for large conventions.

But meetings at the Disneyland Hotel in the 1970s were just that—meetings, said Maritza Rudisill, assistant director for catering and conventions for the Disneyland Resort.

“We didn’t have other places for guests to go,” she said.

Nevertheless, groups like the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers, the California Credit Union League, the American Heart Association and the California Medical Association have returned year after year to Disneyland hotels. 

“The associations meet even in bad times when corporate groups (tend to) cancel,” Davis said. 

Changes in demographics and industry trends affect the mix of association business, but the sector has stayed healthy throughout the years, said Tony Bruno, vice president and general manager of Disneyland Resort hotels and Downtown Disney.

Family reunions were added in 1980 and now operate under a program called Magical Gatherings. In the mid-1980s, Disneyland began to go after small groups with a program called Enchanted Evenings. 

But it wasn’t until the Walt Disney Co. bought the Disneyland Hotel and the Paradise Pier Hotel and built the Grand Californian that the resort was able to sell different options for different sized groups.

“We’ve gone from a traditional hotel venue to a resort campus that has something for everybody,” Bruno said. 

Disneyland Hotel still caters to larger groups and those with exhibit hall needs. Paradise Pier Hotel is geared to more limited budgets and smaller groups, while high-end corporate groups and social events gravitate to the Grand Californian.

Disney Institute

In 2003, the Disneyland Resort added programs from the Disney Institute, in operation in Orlando since 1986. The Institute gives attendees the chance to meet Disney leaders and learn about its company culture through a series of programs and workshops.

Meeting planners can choose different modules in 30-minute, 90-minute or three-hour presentations. Another set of programs, dubbed Thinking Cap, are Disney-based courses in developing a creative culture and putting it to work in the corporate environment.

In Florida, thousands of business people from 35 countries and 40 different industries have taken part in the Disney Institute. It’s gaining ground in Anaheim, too, where a West Coast presenter recently was added to Disneyland Resort staff. 
 

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Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.
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Contact:
Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA
949-497-2680
scainado@earthlink.net

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