ANAHEIM, Calif. — At noon on a recent day, Ernie Badalian walked around the Tropicana Inn & Suites, stopped in the middle of the driveway and sighed at the sight of the nearly empty parking lot and the few cars that passed through along Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim.
Seven months into the pandemic, Badalian, the 95-year-old owner of the Tropicana and the adjacent Camelot Inn & Suites, is still not used to seeing and hearing how vacant this once-bustling area is.
Badalian said he misses seeing and hearing the Disneyland Monorail zip across the resort from his room on the second floor of the Tropicana and the sights and sounds of excited people staying on his property as they make their way to or come back from a day at Disneyland.
“It’s dead,” said Badalian, who has owned this hotel since 1959. “There’s nobody here. It’s like a funeral. This is nothing like anything that I have experienced in my whole life.”
The pandemic has hit the hotel and retail industry hard, but it has been extremely severe for businesses surrounding the Disneyland Resort. Many of these businesses, the hotels, the gift shops, and restaurants rely almost entirely on the tens of thousands of tourists who visit Disneyland daily.
Last year, the Disneyland theme park brought in 18.6 million visitors, an average of more than 51,000 visitors a day, according to the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry group for professionals in the theme park industry.
In recent weeks, Disney has pressed Gov. Gavin Newsom to release health and safety guidelines to reopen its two Anaheim theme parks. Newsom, though, hasn’t budged, fearing that reopening the park and flooding the area of visitors from all over the world could increase the number of coronavirus cases in the state.
“We don’t anticipate in the immediate term any of these larger parks opening until we see more stability in terms of the data,” Newsom said last week. “We feel there’s no hurry to put out guidelines, and we continue to work with the industry.”
Disney, which announced that it would layoff 28,000 employees due to the mandatory closure, pushed back, immediately releasing a statement:
“We absolutely reject the suggestion that reopening the Disneyland Resort is incompatible with a ‘health-first approach,” Disney Parks Chief Medical Officer Dr. Pamela Hymel said. “The fact is, that since March we have taken a robust science-based approach to responsibly reopening our parks and resorts across the globe.”
While the bickering over reopening guidelines between Disney and Newsom continues and dominates the news headlines, it's businesses in the city's resort district that are watching the drama unfold and suffering the economic fallout.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, this stretch of the city’s resort district along Harbor Boulevard between Manchester Avenue and Disney Way – directly across the street from the Disneyland Resort – would be busy with activity. The properties in this neighborhood are akin to beach-front property. Many businesses are immigrant-owned, passed down through generations and independently operated.
Tropicana Inn General Manager Greg Eisenman said on any given night, more than 10,000 guests would stay in the hotels in this part of the resort district neighborhood, not including the thousands of more visitors eating at the restaurants or shopping at the retail stores. This part of town employed about 8,500 workers, Eisenman said.
Tourists would walk around, many wearing Disney shirts and Mickey Mouse ear hats, on their way to or coming back from a day at Disneyland.
But on this day, there were no tourists, nor anyone for that matter, to be seen walking around the block, shopping, or going to or coming from Disneyland. The lights were off in several stores. Gift shops had “closed” signs hung in the front. A few restaurants remained open, and only a few cars were seen passing by on the street.
The parking lot of the Tropicana motel, which averaged more than a 90 percent occupancy in past years, had about a dozen cars parked.
“We just reopened the other day,” Eisenman said. “We actually have cars in the parking lot today. Before this, we’d look out at the street and wouldn’t see anyone or any cars driving by.”
Eisenman said the hotel had to reopen just to see if they can generate some income and give some hours to their employees during this time, but without Disneyland open, the writing is on the wall.
“If we don’t get any reopening plans soon, we will be forced to shut down and lay off our entire staff of 90 employees including me,” Eisenman said. “We were living off the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] money, but that money will be gone by the next payroll on the 16th.”
Compounding the Disney shutdown problem during the pandemic is that Anaheim’s other economic generators have not been reopened by the state. The Los Angeles Angels baseball team and the Anaheim Ducks hockey team, when they were in season, didn't allow fans in the stands. The city’s one-million-square-foot convention center also remains closed.
“Keeping our demand generators like Disney and the convention center closed indefinitely without reasonable reopening guidelines will create even more challenges for small businesses and our employees,” said Ajesh Patel, the president and CEO of Prospera Hotels.
Prospera has seven hotels in the resort district. Four remain closed, Patel said. The three that are open average a 20 percent occupancy each month, he said, way below what they are used to experiencing.
“Most of Anaheim has been closed for seven months now,” Patel said. “Motels, hotels, restaurants, and other small businesses simply cannot survive, and unfortunately, the continued closure will result in ever more businesses shutting down for good and will cause more unemployment.”
Dara Maleki has already had to close two of his three gift shops. Maleki and his family have been part of the resort district community for four decades. Malaki owns three gift shops and is the founder and CEO of the Pizza Press chain.
The Pizza Press store across the street from Disneyland remains open, but revenue is down 90 percent year-over-year, he said.
“This is the first time in 40 years that we are seeing just absolute devastation to a community that has long been held as bullet-proof,” Maleki said. “There is real hurt out there. It just feels like the theme park industry in the state are being unfairly punished.”
The longer this situation drags out, he said, more businesses will close and employees will find themselves without a job. Before the pandemic, he had a little more than 100 employees. He’s down to 38.
“The majority of business owners here are running out of money,” Maleki said. “All of the PPP money is running out. All of the other money like grants is out. The statewide eviction moratoriums are being lifted and realistically, us small business owners have to fend for ourselves.”
There is still hope.
The governor earlier this week said he is planning to visit Walt Disney World in Florida and send teams to tour Disneyland and other theme parks in the state to check their safety protocols.
"I'm trying to keep positive," Maleki said of the news. Maleki said he is not concerned about a possibility that a surge of coronavirus cases could come up if Disneyland and other theme parks reopen.
"We know Disneyland is going to take all of the necessary safety precautions to keep guests safe," Maleki said. "They were able to open Walt Disney World and keep the NBA players safe in a bubble. I don't see why they wouldn't be able to do that here."
For Badalian, the 95-year-old owner of Tropicana and Camelot, this is the most challenging situation he has ever faced. He and his family survived the Turkish-Armenian war in 1920. He was separated from his parents for two years during that time. He was a refugee first in Russia and then Germany before settling in America.
Through hard work, he was able to save enough money and bought a motel on Harbor Boulevard, just when Disneyland opened.
“March 15, 1959,” Badalian said with his eyes lit up above the light blue medical masks. “When I first came here, I remember there were still eucalyptus trees and a fenced gate on the street. There were no Matterhorn or monorail at Disneyland. It wasn’t built out like this. I’ve seen this place change. This is where I raised my kids.”
But this pandemic is unlike anything he has seen, Badalian said. It has “wiped everything out.”
He said he is most concerned for his employees, some of whom have been with him for more than 25 years. Under the company’s pension plan, each employee has to work 1,000 hours to qualify for this year. He is unsure if his employees will be eligible.
“That’s why we opened a couple days ago. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
But with Disneyland remaining closed, what he misses most is seeing families and visitors staying on his property. Before the pandemic, every day he would walk the grounds and greet guests and visitors and talk and shake their hands.
These days, he doesn’t go on many walks. It brings him down, Eisenman said.
“There were days when I would see him walk and then just stop and break down and cry,” Eisenman said.
Asked what’s going to happen to his business in the future if Disneyland remains closed, Badalian shrugged his shoulders.
“What’s going to happen to all of us?” he said. “Who knows? I just hope to live through this.”