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Paradise Lost: The Port Disney Dream in Long Beach

DisneySea, Long Beach Concept, 1990

Artist concept of DisneySea in Long Beach. Copyright 1990 The Walt Disney Company.

In July 1990, the Walt Disney Company disclosed preliminary plans to build a 350-acre new resort-theme park around the site of the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose in Long Beach. In 1991, Disney issued a one-time publication to Long Beach residents titled Port Disney News detailing their plan for the proposed Port Disney and DisneySea theme park. It would be one of Disney’s most innovative themed concepts. The $2.8 billion plan named Port Disney included a spectacular complex of waterfront resort hotels and aquatic-theme park named Disney Sea. Disney projected that Port Disney would draw, in its first year, 10 million visitors and employ more than 12,000 people.

The Port Disney plan could actually be traced back to Jack Wrather, who built and operated the Disney Hotel adjacent to Disneyland. In 1955, when opening Disneyland, Disney lacked sufficient funds to open both the park and an adjacent hotel. So Disney invited Wrather to fund the hotel’s construction and operation. However, Wrather declined to sell when Disney was finally able to buy the hotel properties for himself. Disney couldn’t even build a competing hotel nearby due a “non-competition” clause in their agreement. So, in 1988, after the deaths of Wrather and his wife, Disney bought all of Wrather’s properties and sold everything except Disneyland-adjacent properties and Wrather’s Long Beach leases on the Queen Mary ocean liner and an adjacent 55 acres of property (that also hosted the Spruce Goose aircraft and exhibition dome). Disney also acquired the right, as part of the Wrather purchase, to expand the Long Beach property near the Queen Mary by another 250 acres by extending landfill into surrounding water.

Disney’s Port Disney News publication declared:

Welcome to DisneySea! Here you will experience a thrilling journey through the mysteries, challenges and natural wonders of the sea. Among the highlights of your trip will be an intimate encounter with our planet’s most important environmental resource and the chance to participate in exciting research activities conducted by some of the leading oceanic scientists.

Disney sought to sell their plan by not only offering a new, innovative theme-park, but also an unparalleled marine research facility that would include public interaction. At the center of DisneySea was to be Oceana, a spectacular futuristic aquarium, designed as giant reflective orbs, that was both thematically educational and entertaining (the purpose presently served by the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific).

DisneySea, Long Beach Concept, 1990

Artist concept of DisneySea's Oceana in Long Beach. Copyright 1990 The Walt Disney Company.

The park would also include the Future Research Center, described by Port Disney News as “a state-of-the-art research laboratory where guests could interact with some of the nation's top marine scientists conducting oceanographic research.” The facility would be advised by local marine scientists and connected to local universities and schools.

Port Disney and DisneySea was to be linked by a looping monorail that looped through the park and connected the park with the hotels. The entrance plaza to DisneySea would feature huge sculptures of dolphins and sea horses.

DisneySea

Within DisneySea, visitors would encounter:

Fleets of Fantasy and the Boardwalk, where visitors would find exotic ships of fable and lore lining the waterfront, incorporating rides and dining places and a boardwalk offered whimsical turn-of-the-century amusement park rides with seafaring story themes. The boardwalk was to be a nostalgic recreation of The Pike, the once great amusement park on the Long Beach waterfront (1902 to 1979). The Paradise Pier at Disney California Adventure ended up being an incarnation of this boardwalk idea.

Heroes’ Harbor (renamed Hero’s Harbor), where visitors enter through a maze called “Aqua-Labyrinth” with walls of water to find “high seas” thrill rides themed after mythical and legendary seafarers such as Sinbad and Ulysses.

Mysterious Island, where visitors would also enjoy “high seas” thrill rides, find the lost City of Atlantis and buried treasure on Pirate Island and journey through dangerous underwater caverns on Nemo’s Lava Cruiser. The section would prominently feature a flaming volcano.

Venture Reefs, where visitors would experience themed beaches patterned after Caribbean, Asian, Polynesian, and Meditteranean beaches and waterfronts. These waters included “sunken ships.”

The Port Disney Hotels

DisneySea’s five resort hotels were to be no less impressive.

On the Long Beach side of Port Disney was to be the 900-room Tidelands Hotel (present location of The Pike Outlets), the 400-room Shoreline Hotel with retail and entertainment (present location of the Pacific Aquarium), and the 400-room Marina Hotel (present the location of the Shoreline Drive parking lot east of the Convention Center).

On the port side of Port Disney was to be the huge 1,400-room Canal Hotel and the 500-room Port Hotel. The Canal Hotel was to be designed after the famed Virginia Hotel (1908-1932. See vintage Long Beach postcards) and offer 150 dock slips for guests. Also prominent on the port side would have remained The Queen Mary, continuing to serve converted as a hotel.


Port Disney Map

Map showing Port Disney hotels, port facilities and DisneySea. Re-creation of map by Mliu92, Wikimedia Commons. Satellite map from Google Maps, Copyright 2018 Google.

What Sunk Port Disney?

After many frustrating setbacks, The Walt Disney Company decided in December 1991 to cancel the Port Disney and DisneySea project and refocus their energies and resources on their WestCOT project (which ultimately evolved into the California Adventure Park).

A key sinking factor was cost. The ambitious project proposed was to cost Disney almost $3 billion. Disney appeared to want to outdo itself. Yet, even before a single shovelful of soil could be turned over, the project had cost them millions of dollars. Simultaneously, Disney was dealing with the $2.3 billion cost to build Euro Disney Resort (later Disneyland Paris). After serious regulatory setbacks, the Port Disney project only promised to cost much more. Disney had to cut their losses.

Another sinking factor was that Disney found that they had “bitten off more than they could chew.” Disney may have been guilty of trying to play Long Beach against Anaheim to compete for significant new Disney investment. Indeed, Long Beach officials mostly welcomed the prospect of significant new business, jobs and revenue. At the same time, Disney was used to the relatively easy hurdles of local regulation and politics for expansion and construction projects in Anaheim and Orlando. The Port Disney project, on the other hand, proposing significant redevelopment on a coastline, had to jump hurdles of local, state and federal regulation and politics. Disney found it increasingly frustrating and costly to maneuver through a complex array of interests in Long Beach. Disney seemed unable to find common ground with environmentalists. When the California Coastal Commission, persuaded by local environmentalists, denied Disney the vital permits to turn several hundred acres of water into landfill, the project was essentially delivered a death-blow.

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea. Photo by AG2016, courtesy Pixabay.com.

The concept of Port Disney did not die in Long Beach. In November 1995, the Oriental Land Company, owner and operator of Tokyo Disney Resort, announced construction of the 176-acre Tokyo DisneySea next to their Disney park outside Tokyo. The park is a scaled down version of the Long Beach vision of DisneySea. Tokyo DisneySea opened on September 4, 2001, at a cost of $2.6 billion. In 2016, Tokyo DisneySea was ranked as the fifth most-visited theme park in the world, having then welcomed an estimated 13.46 million visitors.