ANAHEIM, Calif. — Flanked between a platinum-dressed Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock smiled at the crowd, teasing what was ahead.
"The magic has returned," said Potrock at the annual Visit Anaheim tourism meeting at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
Potrock spoke in front of a room full of tourism industry professionals and, later, to Spectrum News about Disneyland Resort's comeback from the pandemic, what to expect in 2023 and beyond, and Disney CEO Bob Iger's return.
As California and Anaheim's tourism continues to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions that shut down most of the industry the past two years, Disneyland is exceeding pre-pandemic attendance, demand and employment levels, Potrock reported.
Potrock said hotels are full, restaurants are brimming with happy customers, and conventions, meetings and events are quickly gaining traction. Hiring is up, and high pent-up demand has visitors flocking to the Disney theme parks daily.
The resort now has more than 34,000 cast members, up 3,000 from the 31,000 employees in pre-pandemic 2020.
The Themed Entertainment Association, the theme park industry's largest organization, reported Disneyland had more than 8.8 million visitors and Disney California Adventure nearly 5 million in 2021. Visitor numbers were down from 2019's pre-pandemic levels of 18 million at Disneyland and 9.8 million at Disney California Adventure, but attendance in 2022 is quickly gaining.
The current scene at the Disneyland Resort is a far cry from the pandemic's low when the state government closed theme parks for about a year, more than 28,000 cast members were out of a job at the resort, and the surrounding streets in Anaheim were ghostly empty of tourists and visitors.
Potrock, however, proclaims that Disneyland Resort is back and making a "legendary comeback."
"Following the challenges that we have all experienced in the past two years, I'm really happy to say that the magic has returned to the Disneyland Resort and the Anaheim resort district," said Potrock.
And as Disneyland’s pandemic comeback continues, 2023 plans to be one of their most significant years to date.
The Walt Disney Co. celebrates the 100th anniversary of the multinational media company’s 1923 founding.
While Disney plans to have a multifaceted cross-company celebration with movies and other events throughout the year, Disneyland Resort is where the heart of the festivities will happen, Potrock said.
“The entire Disney company is celebrating, but the home of this celebration, in fact, I like to say the heart of this celebration, is right here in Anaheim,” he said.
Starting Jan. 27, Mickey and Minnie Mouse are ditching traditional red and black and red and white polka dot garments in exchange for sparkling platinum-colored new attire.
The Sleeping Beauty Castle will shimmer with sparkling platinum decorations.
Each theme park will have a new nighttime spectacular - “World of Color — One” at Disney California Adventure and “Wondrous Journeys” at Disneyland, featuring new original scenes and songs.
And after a 12-day stint when it originally made its debut in Feb. 2020 before the pandemic shut down the park, the Magic Happens daytime parade returns to Disneyland.
“We’re calling it a newish attraction. I don’t think everyone got a chance to see it,” said Potrock.
Next year, one of the biggest attractions also coming to Disneyland is the debut of the much anticipated Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride and a newly revamped Toontown.
Potrock, after the conference, speaking to Spectrum News, said the Mickey and Minnie-themed ride and the renovated land would be a great addition to that area of Disneyland. He rode the new ride and toured the site earlier this week, and they’re both making significant progress.
“I call it sort of a hot corner when you think about it,” said Potrock, adding that the new Toontown will be flanked by it’s a small world, the Fantasy Land Theater and the Disneyland Railroad train.
“Toontown has been closed for about a year. When you see it, you won’t recognize it,” he said to Spectrum News. “It is spectacular. It will be a place for families to hang out, chill, have fun, sit on the grass, have a picnic, and all those things. I think it’s going to be a spectacular addition to the Disneyland experience.”
He credited the resort’s quick “legendary comeback” to the cast members that stuck it out and the passion among Disneyland fans and families.
“[They] really wanted to have this back in their lives.,” he said. “The pent-up demand, which we don’t see receding any time soon, hopefully never, is really an exciting thing.”
But there are concerns ahead for Disneyland and the tourism industry that could halt the momentum.
Inflation, supply chain issues, and the cost of goods and business have increased. And many economic experts predict a possible recession to come sometime in 2023.
“Like every business, we’re watching it carefully,” he said. “But what I can control, what my team can control, is creating great products, creating a great experience, and creating reasons for people to come to visit Anaheim and the Disneyland Resort.”
“You can control what you can control,” he added.
Disney has also had some turnover from the very top. Facing pressure from its board of directors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek suddenly resigned last month and was replaced by former Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Chapek replaced Iger after the latter retired in 2020.
When asked about what fans should expect from Iger and the future of Disneyland, Potrock said Iger is a big fan of the parks but didn’t get into specifics about possible changes, if any.
Iger was at Disneyland this past week, Potrock said.
“Bob Iger is a terrific leader, has always been supportive of the parks,” said Potrock. “He’s a big fan. When the top boss is a big fan, I think that bodes well.”
One of the biggest complaints under Chapek’s tenure was introducing and maintaining a reservation system and Disneyland’s (and Walt Disney World’s) new pay-to-skip-lines service, Genie+ and Lightning Lane. Are those here to stay?
“It’s all about the guest experience,” said Potrock. “Whatever the mechanism is, it’s designed to help us create a better guest experience. That’s what we believe. The reservation system, Genie+ is helping us do it. Are they perfect? Are we continuing to try to improve them? Absolutely.”
As for what’s in store at the Disneyland Resort beyond next year, Potrock said there are big plans ahead. He said Downtown Disney is being reimaged and will have a dozen new restaurants, including Ding Tai Fung, Porto’s Bakery and Cafe, and Michelin-starred Chef Carlos Gaytan’s Paseo and Centrico in the coming years.
At Disney California Adventure, the Pacific Wharf will soon be renovated as San Fransokyo, the fictional city of “Big Hero 6,” with eateries, experiences, and a Baymax meet-and-greet.
“It’ll be coming together and debut; we haven’t announced a date yet, but sometime next year,” he told Spectrum News.
In the coming months, Disney officials and the city of Anaheim will also begin work for Disneyland Forward, “an entitlement initiative that will set the stage for growth in the next three-plus decades.”
Initially announced in March, the Disneyland Forward initiative would rezone parts of Disneyland's vast properties in Anaheim and allow the company to create a new third theme park, hotels and other entertainment and experiences within its property footprint.
“This is going to optimize our existing property, create new jobs, which is very important, launch new experiences, which drives traffic, [and] it’s going to generate new tax revenue for the city and so much more,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re looking to enhance the appeal of the resort and the surrounding resort district, and we do that by investing.”
More importantly, he said that this is a joint partnership between the city and Disneyland and that the community should know that Disney is not asking for anything beyond the entitlements.
“We are not seeking public funding, and we’re not asking for additional square footage, hotel rooms, we’re not asking for anything,” he said. “We want to do this together. We want to do this in a way that’s great for the resort district and the surrounding community.”