Hotel Online  Special Report

All Grown Up in Anaheim; Tourism’s Come a Long
Way Since Disneyland Opened in the 1950s


By Sandi Cain, May 2005
Orange County Business Journal Staff

Anaheim was a sleepy, mostly agricultural town with about 30,000 residents when Walt Disney Co. picked it as home to Disneyland Park in the 1950s.

“It was just a town on the way to the beach,” said former city manager Keith Murdoch, who helped Walt Disney put together the land for the amusement park.

Today, tourism is huge not just for Anaheim, but also for the entire county.

The sector accounts for about 11% of Orange County’s employment at roughly 160,000 jobs.

Visitors to OC spend more per resident than those to San Diego and Los Angeles. Overall spending is about 30% of the region’s tourist dollars. Last year, visitors spent $7.3 billion here—9% of the $82.5 billion in overall tourism spending in the state.

Disneyland led the transformation to a large degree. But the county now is turning to more attractions to lure visitors for longer stays.

When Disneyland opened its gates in 1955, it became the largest single draw for OC. Other tourist attractions rode Disneyland’s coattails for years.

Even Knott’s Berry Farm—which preceded Disneyland as an amusement park by 15 years—was happy to go along for the ride.

The downside was that OC became known as a day trip for people vacationing in Los Angeles. Many of them never ventured much beyond the Magic Kingdom.

That perception was hard to erase. But in the past decade, it’s changed dramatically.

Anaheim still is the county’s tourism hub, with 37% of the county’s hotel rooms, 35% of hotel meeting space at the largest 50 hotels, and one of the largest convention centers in the West.

But OC now draws visitors who come for shopping, culture and the new string of luxury resorts lining the coast.

“We’re moving away from (just) Disneyland to a coastal leisure lifestyle,” said Werner Escher, executive director of domestic and international markets for South Coast Plaza.

South Coast Plaza is the third-largest shopping center in the U.S. It’s long hung its hat on travelers’ penchant for shopping.

The shopping center was one of the first in the U.S. to market to international travelers and has run shuttles from Anaheim for more than two decades. About 7 million people who shop at South Coast Plaza every year come from outside Southern California.

Shopping was rated the No. 1 activity for 63% of travelers, according to a survey by Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association. That led South Coast Plaza to trademark itself as the “Ultimate Shopping Resort.”

“We’re trying to reinforce the power of our brand,” Escher said.

OC’s coastal lifestyle has gotten a boost from TV shows like “The O.C.” and “Laguna Beach: The Real OC.” Whether or not the shows depict reality, it’s not the first time that television has given a boost to the county.

In Disneyland’s early years, ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” boosted familiarity with the new park outside of California and generated vacation business.

Back then, there was no convention business. But after just three years of Disneyland operation, OC was producing $13.5 million in visitor spending ($88.5 million today), according to a 1964 report from Los Angeles-based Economic Research Associates.

By 1964 the park generated $555 million in revenue for the area (equal to $3.5 billion today), according to the report.

The economic study concluded that the “best use of surrounding land is in investments that add to the drawing power of the total complex.”

There was roughly 1,000 acres around Disneyland for development, an area now known as the Anaheim Resort District. A Wall Street Journal article at the time claimed that 240 families staying each night for a year created more economic impact than $1 million in manufacturing payroll.

Anaheim paid attention.

By 2000, a report by Economic & Planning Systems of Berkeley projected that redevelopment of the Anaheim Resort—including the Disneyland expansion—would account for an increase of roughly 1 million hotel stays per year.

There were 43.5 million visitors to OC last year. For the 2005 fiscal year, Anaheim’s hotel room taxes are expected to hit $64 million. Roughly 1.2 million visitors attended meetings and conventions in OC last year.

While the 2001 terrorist attacks have skewed tourism results for the past three years, indications are that 2005 will be a good year for vacation travel. Consumers have said they have confidence in their ability to travel based on finances and available time than a year ago, according to the Travel Industry Association.

“We’re optimistic for summer,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

“Spring break was better than it has been in years and we’re doing well compared to other markets,” he said.

U.S. visitors are expected to grow 2% this year with international travelers jumping 10%, according to San Diego-based tourism tracker CIC Research. The jump in international travel would bring it closer to pre-2001 numbers.

Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration is expected to be a big factor in the increase.

Disneyland today ranks No. 2 in the world among amusement parks, based on attendance. California Adventure ranks No. 15 and Knott’s Berry Farm ranks No. 25, according to figures from industry publication Amusement Business.

The three parks together had more than 22 million visitors in 2004. And tourism officials in OC, Los Angeles and San Diego are counting on a visitor boost this year as Disneyland celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Disneyland Resort has a $3.6 billion a year economic impact in the Southland, according to a study by CB Richard Ellis Group Inc.’s consulting arm and Allan D. Kotin & Associates. The resort generates $225 million in taxes to Southern California cities and counties and supports more than 65,000 jobs.

“There aren’t many other players (in tourism) that create the kind of atmosphere that Disney does,” said Cynthia King, director of the Center for Entertainment and Tourism at California State University, Fullerton.

On the coastal side, resorts have banded together to market The OCeanfront as an upscale leisure and business destination.

Beyond the coastal resorts, officials believe the next big thing to help OC will be cultural tourism. The interest generated by the Mummies exhibit at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the King Tut exhibit in Los Angeles could be an indication.

“Mummies has so far broken every attendance record in the history of the museum over the course of the first 12 days of the exhibition,” said Rick Weinberg, director of public relations and marketing for the museum. “We expect Mummies to be the most highly attended exhibit in Bowers history.”

Last year, the Queen of Sheba exhibit at Bowers drew 30,000 people in six months.

When the expansion of the Orange County Performing Arts Center is complete next year, it is expected to bring more focus to the arts in OC.

The $200 million expansion includes the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Samueli Theater and an education center on a 6-acre parcel designated the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The grand opening is set for September 2006.

According to the Travel Industry Association, 75% of U.S. tourists—about 110 million people—attended a cultural activity or event while on the road in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available. Visits to the performing arts and museums led the list of cultural activities pursued.

Last week, Henry Segerstrom, managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom and Sons in Costa Mesa, attended PowWow, an annual international gathering of tourism officials, in New York to promote cultural tourism in Southern California. (Anaheim is set to host PowWow in 2007.)

“My hope is that L.A., Orange County and all of Southern California can band together to market cultural tourism,” Segerstrom told attendees at a Tourism Council event in OC last month.

But an identity problem still remains for OC tourism.

The biggest concerns include building market share, improving name recognition and increasing the length of stay.

Ahlers said the length of stay has increased on the convention side, but hasn’t increased much on the tourist side since an initial bump just after the Disneyland expansion.

Visitors to OC stay an average of 3.8 days. Stays have been boosted in part by the new resort district in Anaheim, increased convention business, an expanded Disneyland Resort and marketing efforts that tout attractions beyond Anaheim. But they lag other tourist areas.

The problem: Many people are familiar with city names like Newport Beach, but don’t realize they’re in OC, according to a focus group study sponsored by the Orange County Tourism Council.

“A key piece of information was how many of our tourists didn’t know about Orange County beaches,” said Mark Feary, executive director of the tourism council.

The tourism council’s effort “to speak with one voice (for Orange County) is a very healthy thing,” said James Bermingham, general manager of the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach.

An airport bearing the OC name might help, said Bill Snyder, former president of the Anaheim convention bureau.

“Most competing cities have an airport with their name on it,” he said. “That gets lots of promotion for the city.”

But a suggestion last year from one county supervisor to change the name of John Wayne Airport to The O.C. Airport met with scorn, scuttling the idea before it got off the ground.

The convention bureau’s Ahlers said that beaches, luxury resorts and shopping should create as much appeal as amusement parks in the next decade.

“The reasons people come here have changed in the past 10 years,” Ahlers said. “It’s not exclusively for Disney anymore. The county has more diversity than we used to have.”


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.


Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

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