Tourism boomed as park proved catalyst for visitors

As the Happiest Place on Earth marks its golden anniversary in 2005, 21st-century Southern California presents a complex tourism picture, with seemingly endless appeals for regional and international travelers alike.

But the Disneyland Resort is inexorably linked with the region. According to the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau, when first-time visitors to Orange County are polled, more than half put the park on their itinerary, with almost a third reporting it as their main reason for coming.

“The Disneyland Resort is a vital component of California’s nearly $80 billion tourism market,” says Cynthia King, director of the Center for Entertainment and Tourism Studies at Cal State Fullerton. “Surveys regularly show that Disneyland is among the top reasons why people choose to visit our state.”

But in the early 1950s, when Walt Disney was choosing a location for his then unheard of concept of an “amusement park,” Anaheim, Calif., was a sleepy rural town in the midst of a purely agricultural county.

Knott’s Berry Farm was a grass-roots roadside attraction on the way to the beach –better known for chicken dinners than family fun — and Orange County’s main tourist trade came from nearby Angelenos riding the Red Car to Newport Beach’s Balboa Pavilion.

Construction of postwar housing was picking up speed, though, along with some early industrial development, and Disney saw the future blossoming in Anaheim’s scenic orange groves.

Opening June 17, 1955, Disneyland was an immediate success. The “World of Disney” program on ABC promoted the park, and in its first decade, 49 million people visited, generating $555 million in revenue.

Visitors came from across the country, many staying at the Disneyland Hotel, which opened shortly after the park.

By the mid-1960s, Disneyland inspired a hotel boom that filled the surrounding streets, and helped spur a decision to create a visitor bureau and build the Anaheim Convention Center adjacent to the park.

It was a snowball effect: Conventioneers would bring their families to enjoy Disneyland, creating a need for more hotels and restaurants, and the ripple effect spread to nearby cities like Buena Park, Garden Grove and Costa Mesa.

“Disney was the first ‘domino,’ if you will, in making it all happen” says Elaine Cali, vice president of communications for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau.

From an early visitor’s standpoint, Disneyland was Anaheim. In the 1967 guidebook “California Points of Interest,” there’s only one Anaheim recommendation: Disneyland, described as the “world’s most fabulous ‘playland.’ ”

When Disney World opened in Florida in 1971, one entire half of the nation had their “own” Disneyland, so the profile of Anaheim visitors became increasingly more regional. Today, only one-third of the county’s visitors are from out of state. Of the rest, the majority are from Southern California.

By the early 1980s, area tourism had reached another milestone when an expanding convention business, increased Disneyland visitorship and the upcoming 1984 Los Angeles Olympics all stimulated a big hotel boom that saw the introduction of large, full-service hotels for the first time in Orange County. The Hilton Anaheim, opened in 1984, is still the county’s largest hotel, with 1,600 rooms.

As Disneyland changes and grows, so does the face of tourism in Orange County.

In the late 1990s, Disney’s ambitious plans to expand from a single theme park to the multifaceted Disneyland Resort led to a groundbreaking partnership with the city of Anaheim and freeway overseer Caltrans. The result, unveiled in 2001, includes the current expanded Disneyland Resort, major improvements to Interstate 5 and wider surrounding streets with pedestrian-friendly landscaping.

Today, Disneyland is the No. 2 most popular amusement park in the world by attendance — second only to Disney World. In 2004, 13.4 million people spent time at Disneyland Resort. The annual third-party economic impact (on non-Disney hotels, restaurants and other entertainment venues) of vacation spending has grown to $3.6 billion, according to a 2005 study conducted on the park’s behalf by CB Richard Ellis Group’s CBRE Consulting and Allan D. Kotin & Associates.

“The Disneyland Resort is a critical driver of tourism in Southern California,” says Thomas Jirovksy, senior managing director of CBRE Consulting.

The Disneyland Resort maintains Walt Disney’s vision for a family destination with unlimited growth potential, and in turn has contributed to regional growth, enticing visitors to stay longer and spend more in Orange County.

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