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As Disneyland Rides Close Early, the Happiness Ebbs

Entertainment: Officials cite lagging attendance, but some visitors see a bid to drive them to the shops.

October 03, 1998|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in its 43-year history, Disneyland has begun closing large numbers of rides early, including all of Toontown and such signature attractions as the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise.

The move drew immediate fire from frequent park visitors and from former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist, who said it shortchanges guests. They said that in the past, the number of early closings--and late openings--was minuscule compared with the more than 20 attractions affected this year.

The affected rides typically are closing at 6 or 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, while the park stays open until 8 p.m.--and its shops even longer. So far, the early closures aren't in effect on weekends.

Park spokesman Ray Gomez said the moves were "seasonal adjustments" as the weather cools and attendance lags. He said that unless an attraction is shut down for maintenance, "it should be available to guests every day.

"All they need to do is stop by one of the information areas and ask for the hours of their favorite attraction," Gomez said.

The cutbacks come during an off year for the Anaheim theme park and its parent Walt Disney Co. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner says earnings will grow about 3%, far below the often-achieved target of 20% that has so endeared him to shareholders. Disney stock is down nearly 60% from its all-time high set in May.

Theme park business has risen overall because of Disney's new Animal Kingdom park in Florida. However, the new park has taken attendance away from the company's three other Florida parks. And the number of visitors to Disneyland in Anaheim also is down, officials say.

Disneyland didn't announce the money-saving move publicly, but provided details to "cast members" assigned to answer guests' questions.

"We're kind of just trying this out," explained one guest relations worker, Jaymee, who--like all park employees--uses only her first name.

She said the attractions closing early are the ones least visited in the slow post-Labor Day season. "We want to see how it works out as far as maintenance and how the guests react," she said.

The most popular thrill rides, including Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsleds, will remain open until 8 p.m. So will the Frontierland roller coaster Big Thunder Mountain--but it won't start zooming past its ersatz mine shafts and mountain goats until 11 a.m., an hour after the park opens.

One Magic Kingdom tradition will remain, park officials said: shops will stay open after the official closing hour, so departing visitors will have a final chance to buy trinkets, T-shirts and other treasures.

The change drew harsh words from park aficionados who fault its president, Paul Pressler, a former Disney Stores boss, for neglecting attractions and concentrating too much on boosting merchandise sales.

"The strategy of this is obviously to get more people into Main Street for longer periods of time," said Al Lutz, whose unofficial Disneyland Web site, popular with annual pass holders, has been highly critical of changes in the park since Pressler took over four years ago.

Main Street, the mall-like funnel of shops that visitors pass as they enter and exit the park, "is obviously where the money is," Lutz said.

Julie Martin, an annual pass holder who lives in Stanton, said many mothers who enjoy taking their children to the park after school could be affected.

"My kids aren't in school yet," Martin said. "We can go to the park in the early afternoon during the week. But parents who work full time or have kids in school can't do that." Pressler is at a Disney management retreat in Ireland and couldn't be reached for comment.

Lindquist, a longtime Disneyland executive who preceded Pressler as president, said the park in the past has staggered openings of a few attractions, but only for an hour or even less. But the high numbers of early closings are new, and an unwelcome experiment, he said.

"If Disneyland says it's going to be open till 8 o'clock, then as a customer I'd expect to be able to get on any ride at five minutes to 8," Lindquist said. "I think it's going to cause a lot of guest dissatisfaction."

Theme park experts say it's common to shut down rides for maintenance during slow attendance periods. Jack Falfas, general manager at Knott's Berry Farm, said he closed several recently to get them ready for the park's annual Halloween Haunt nights. And, he said, "I don't see a problem in closing food attractions during slow periods."

But Falfas, a veteran of Cedar Park LLP's Midwestern amusement parks, said he's not a believer in closing rides early except when maintenance makes it unavoidable.

"Where I come from, I've always been taught that you always run your equipment till closing time," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Opening Later, Closing Earlier

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