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The Long-awaited Tourism Rebound Has Arrived in Southern California; 
Disneyland Said to be Drawing Thousands More Per Day than Expected


By Sandi Cain, August 2005
Orange County Business Journal Staff

Disney-Driven Boom Plays Out

The long-awaited tourism rebound is here, with Orange County in the midst of what looks to be a record-setting year for visitors and spending. 

Heading into the tail end of summer, hoteliers, travel agents and other tourism officials are harking back to pre-2001 days to describe the surge: “Business feels as strong as it was in 2000,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Thank the Mouse. 

“A lot of that is thanks to Disney, which spent a lot of money to bring people here for the 50th anniversary,” Ahlers said. 

For the past year, Disney has been heavily marketing the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, which opened on July 17, 1955.

Walt Disney Co. doesn’t release attendance figures for its parks. Indications are visitors this year will be on the high end of the 10 million to 14 million people estimated to come to Disneyland annually. 

Some who work closely with the park believe Disneyland is drawing thousands more per day than expected.

Disneyland: said to be drawing thousands
more per day than expected
Forecasters expect 44.7 million visitors to OC by year’s end, a 3% increase from 2004. Spending is expected to grow 7% to $7.9 billion.

For the 28 days ended July 23, Anaheim’s hotels had the highest occupancy in the nation at 87%, ahead of Honolulu and San Diego, according to Tennessee-based Smith Travel Research. The week of July 23, Anaheim’s hotels were 94% full, up 9% from the same week in 2004.

Then there’s the trolley indicator. Anaheim Resort Transit, which runs trolleys between Anaheim hotels and theme parks, has seen ridership swell, according to executive director Diana Kotler. “It definitely has exceeded our expectations,” she said. “It took us by storm.”

In May—when the anniversary officially launched—the trolley saw ridership grow to 101,500 people, up 24% from a year earlier. In July, that number grew to 146,000, up 34% from last year.

“The week of July 17 (Disneyland’s birthday) was huge,” Kotler said.

South Coast Plaza, which operates shuttles from Anaheim, has extended its shuttle hours. “The shuttle service from Anaheim is setting record numbers,” said Werner Escher, executive director of domestic and international markets for South Coast Plaza.

Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., said he’s not surprised by the response. “Disneyland is embedded in the DNA of Baby Boomers,” he said. 

As with South Coast Plaza, the tourism boom extends beyond Anaheim’s borders, with the ripple effect felt in neighboring Buena Park and in beach cities.

“Year to date, this is the best year since 9/11,” said Pattie Davidson, managing director of the Buena Park Convention & Visitors Office.

At the beach, the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, Montage Resort & Spa and Surf & Sand Resort report increases in business of up to 35% for the summer months. 

“We’ve had our best July on record,” said Blaise Bartell, general manager of the Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach. The Surf & Sand sells Disneyland tickets and has seen those sales rise this year. “Disneyland’s public relations impact has brought renewed attention to this market,” Bartell said.

Now attention is turning to how long will the good times last with fall just around the corner. 

“We’re not quite sure what will happen in the fall when kids go back to school,” Davidson said.

The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau is readying a new marketing campaign dubbed the “50 Days of Fall,” a $400,000 effort focused on shopping, “The O.C.” connection, holiday events and romance. and, part of IAC/InterActiveCorp, are sponsors and plan to feature OC on

In October, the Disneyland Resort is set to host the AAA National Travel Conference, which brings AAA travel agents to Anaheim. 

JetBlue Airways Corp., which flies in and out of Long Beach Airport, plans to offer an OC vacation package in the fourth quarter. 

In the past three years, Anaheim has ranked among the top 10 markets in the U.S. in hotel occupancy, rates and in the number of rooms sold, according to figures from Smith Travel Research.

“Growth is much steeper in Anaheim than in other markets,” said Jeff Karnes, regional vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles office of New World Travel, a tour operator.

New World brings travelers to OC mostly from Europe.

International arrivals into Los Angeles International Airport in June were up 7.3% compared to last year. In the first six months of 2005, 8.5 million international passengers have come through LAX, a 13.2% increase from last year and a record number for the airport.

The county also is a big draw for Latin Americans. Visitors from Mexico hit a 10-year high of roughly 1.5 million in 2004, with visitors typically staying five to seven days—roughly double the average county stay.

Long-term, a trend toward mixing business and pleasure may benefit the county.

Disney’s marketing push has come as funding for government tourism efforts have been cut. 

The 2005-06 fiscal year budget for California included $7.3 million to promote California—half of the funding that previously supported the California Travel & Tourism Commission.

Orange County supervisors, facing a looming pension crisis, are grappling with whether to grant $230,000 to the Orange County Tourism Council. The council has received as much as $750,000 in prior years. 

Marketing Muscle

Walt Disney Co.’s spending on Disneyland’s 50th anniversary is believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and even included a float in the Rose Parade.

The event has been trumpeted in the Burbank-based company’s first global ad campaign, which featured Disney characters returning to Disneyland. 

Disney also teamed with Alaska Airlines to add a Tinkerbelle-themed design on one plane. The Disney Cruise Line sold out its inaugural 12 West Coast cruises within days of announcing the Disney Magic ship would come West for the first time.

At Disneyland Resort, fans everywhere were asked to submit their favorite photo from a trip to Disneyland that would be turned into mosaics called “Faces of Disney.”

Disneyland Resort President Matt Ouimet said it started as a marketing idea to let fans share their memories. “We got hundreds of thousands of submissions,” he said.  “It was beyond our expectations.”

The murals—50 in all—are placed throughout the resort. The one at It’s a Small World is made up of people from Anaheim.

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Travel, which books Disney vacation packages, has seen record-breaking call volume, according to Bob Deuel, manager of travel industry publicity for Disney. In July, the travel agency fielded its highest call volume of all time, he said. “Now we have to work to sustain the momentum,” Deuel said. 


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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