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The Most Jam-Packed Theme Park on Earth?

Attracting visitors won't be a problem for Disney's soon-to-open California Adventure. But coping with the expected hordes may be another matter.


The most innovative attraction at Walt Disney Co.'s new California Adventure may be the simulated hang-glider ride over the natural and man-made wonders of the Golden State. Soarin' Over California is estimated to handle 1,250 riders an hour--but on busy days that means as many as half of the park's visitors won't be able to get on.

It's just one example of what is looming as a major issue for the new park: overcrowding.

California Adventure park, set to open Feb. 8, will allow only about 30,000 people within its gates at one time--almost half the number at adjacent Disneyland.

One complication is the popular Fastpass program, which allows patrons to avoid lines at major rides by reserving ride times. The problem, park managers and employees say, is that all those people no longer standing in line for hours make parks seem even more crowded on busy days--a factor that contributed to Disneyland's shutting down its turnstiles at midday several times during the holidays.

Senior Disney officials acknowledge that there will be days when California Adventure will have to turn patrons away, particularly in the first weeks after the park opens, during spring break and again in the summer.

Disney hopes those denied entry will stay at the resort and visit Disneyland and the new Downtown Disney's shops and restaurants. The risks are that people may flee the resort and those who do get inside California Adventure on crowded days will feel cheated out of experiencing a full range of attractions.

When that happens at Disneyland, "complaints go way up at City Hall," said a ride supervisor at the park. "People want their money back. And spending goes down on Main Street at the end of the day because people are walking out unhappy and not buying souvenirs."

Ride capacity is an issue because Disney succeeds so well in packing its parks. Disneyland patrons can experience 12 or 13 attractions on slow weekdays, and even on a day when 50,000 people crowd the park, they can fit in as many as nine rides, a number considered acceptable by park officials.

But California Adventure, part of a $1.4-billion Disney expansion in Anaheim, has 23 attractions, counting minor exhibits such as farming and tortilla-making--just a third as many as Disneyland.

"Come early in the day or come later, after the park clears out again," said George Kalogridis, senior vice president of Disney operations in Anaheim. "Hopefully, with Disneyland right across the esplanade and Downtown Disney right there, we won't have to turn people away from the resort."

Indeed, elaborate stage shows, "edgy" street entertainment, fancy dining and wine bars are designed to take up the slack while Disney positions the new park as an alternative to the Magic Kingdom in hopes of extending visitor stays beyond one day.

Company projections show Magic Kingdom attendance falling by 500,000 per year, to about 13.3 million, and California Adventure visits rising to 7 million. Thousands more visitors each week are expected to stop by Downtown Disney, which has no admission fee. Separate admission is needed for Disneyland and California Adventure; each one charges $43 for general admission and $33 for children 3 to 9.

Although Disney prides itself on anticipating and satisfying customers' wishes, executives acknowledge that no one will really know how many people the new park can handle until operations begin.

Some insiders worry the company may have overestimated the capacity of the new park's rides. Certainly, no California Adventure attraction can handle as many visitors as Disneyland favorite Pirates of the Caribbean, a workhorse that on smooth-running days can handle nearly 2,800 riders an hour--more than 40,000 a day.

In designing California Adventure, Disney Imagineers worked backward from the projected attendance level of 7 million a year, said Barry Braverman, Disney's chief creative supervisor on the project.

Disney designers used industrial engineering models to determine how many rides, shows, restaurants, parades and restrooms would be needed to accommodate the expected crowds. But because the park has fewer attractions than Disneyland, there's a smaller margin of error. If a couple of major rides malfunction on a busy day, Braverman said, "We'll just have to count on the [live] entertainment being good."

Kalogridis and others who went on Soarin' Over California during staff previews last week said it sometimes took as long as 12 minutes to unload one set of riders and load the next group. The target time is 2 1/2 minutes.

If pessimistic predictions are correct, about 16,000 people a day can experience Soarin' Over California if it operates without a hitch from 8 a.m. to midnight. If the official forecast is correct, it still means just 20,000 maximum.

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