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Walt Disney was not a real estate developer but he created park plans that allowed for expansion and resulting construction where the construction company would not interfere with ongoing park operations.
 
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Disneyland - Walt Disney's "Theme Park" Real Estate Development

In spite of his lack of real estate development experience, Disney had created park plans that allowed for expansion and resulting construction where the construction company would not interfere with ongoing park operations.Disneyland's origins had deep roots in Walt Disney's past. He later told inquirers that he first had the idea for a new kind of amusement park when he took his two young daughters out for fun on weekends and found that, "…existing kids' parks and fairs were often dirty, sleazy, money-grubbing places." In spite of the fact he had never developed real estate or managed a large-scale construction project, Disney nourished his notions of a new kind of amusement park throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. His idea for displaying Disney characters in a fantasy setting was a bold departure from present-day amusement parks and carnivals that offered rides, games, and inexpensive food. Instead Disneyland was conceived as an extension of the Disney brand, and would be the first "theme park" built in the United States, signaling a major shift in amusement park construction -and, equally as importantly, in real estate development surrounding major attractions.

As his ideas for the development began to expand and take shape, Walt found little enthusiasm for the project within his own company. His brother Roy, the financial director of the studio, strongly opposed it, believing that this "fanciful, expensive amusement park would lead to financial ruin." Most bankers and investors agreed, feeling that Disney's lack of real estate development and construction experience was too large a hurdle to overcome. But Walt, confident of his own vision, sidestepped the studio and began to gather funds by borrowing on his life insurance and selling vacation property in southern California. He assembled a staff of designers, planners, and artists and formed WED Enterprises - the letters were his initials - as a personal corporation to house them.

Operating out of a small building on the Disney Burbank lot, the WED group began a long process of creative brainstorming. Its members conceptualized, designed, and reworked Walt's broad ideas. They visited other amusement attractions around the country to gather data and impressions and flesh out development plans, and with the help of commercial contractors created a rough construction timetable.

By 1953 major large hurdles - obtaining financing and securing a location - still blocked the launching of the park's construction. In July of that year, Walt recognized his need to seek real estate development expertise and solicited a pair of marketing studies from the Stanford Research Institute: one would examine the economic prospects of developing Disneyland, and the other the ideal location for construction.

After determining the facility could be profitable, the Stanford group closely examined a host of factors - demographic statistics, urban growth trends, population concentrations, traffic patterns, freeway construction, availability of experienced commercial contractors, weather conditions - before recommending a sight in Anaheim, a rapidly growing town just southeast of Los Angeles. The study eventually led to the purchase of a 160-acre orange grove alongside the new Santa Ana freeway; its proximity to a major freeway meant the park was a short 27-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles.

The Disney model has been been further replicated in Disney theme parks in Orlando, Paris and Tokyo; Disney's diversification from cartoons and movies into vacation environments now includes a Disney cruise line as well. Disney had struggled to find additional financing; as he later recalled, he was told by bankers that "the outdoor amusement business was a cultural anachronism that had already declined into senility." A few months later, the financial breakthrough came with a long-term agreement with ABC which brought the television network in as a major investor. (ABC agreed to carry Disney television programming, marking Mickey Mouse's first network appearance and the start of a tremendously profitable partnership for both companies. ABC also agreed to help publicize Disneyland in return for an ownership stake in the property.)

With financing in place and a location secured, construction began in the summer of 1953. Commercial contractors and construction companies fell under the overall leadership of Joe Fowler, an engineer and retired navy admiral who became construction supervisor, and later park manager for ten years.

Disneyland was formally opened a year later, on July 18, 1955, to glowing reviews. Unlike other amusement parks of the day, Disneyland was developed and constructed to be instantly recognizable as an extension of the Disney brand and the Disney philosophy. The rides used an array of Disney motifs, costumed Disney characters roamed the park, and Sleeping Beauty Castle, the looming attraction at the heart of the park, was instantly recognizable to millions of people since it was seen every Sunday night on ABC television. Disneyland became, in a sense, the capstone of Walt Disney's career.

The capstone of his career also quickly became the cornerstone of an empire. In its first six months, one million people visited the park; in its first full year, three million people passed through its gates. The park quickly generated capital to finance a vast expansion, and in subsequent years, each time the park expanded its capacity, revenues increased more than proportionately to the added capital. In spite of his lack of real estate development experience, Disney had created park plans that allowed for expansion and resulting construction that would not interfere with ongoing park operations.

Disney also recognized that Disneyland would become a destination for vacationers, and his plans left room for hotels and restaurants to be built surrounding the park - a model that later was used in the construction of Disney World, where hotels and restaurants are an integral part of the amusement park; Disney World features more than 20 Disney-owned resorts on its property, ranging from campsites to deluxe villas. The Disney model has been been further replicated in Disney theme parks in Paris and Tokyo as well; Disney's diversification from cartoons and movies into vacation environments now includes a Disney cruise line as well.

In fact, Disneyland signaled a major shift in amusement and theme park development and construction. Almost every major amusement park in the U.S. today is a descendant of and aspires to the Disney model: a focus on convenience, a superior guest experience, development planning allowing easy and seamless expansion, and most importantly a "theme" that gives a park a sense of identity and uniqueness.

By developing Disneyland, Walt Disney not only changed the fortunes of the Disney Company; he also revived the dying American amusement park business and made it a multi-billion dollar industry entertaining millions of people every year. Disney is justifiably celebrated for creating characters like Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Bambi - but his effect on real estate development and theme park construction is no less significant.

 


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