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Byline: Dave McNary Staff Writer

When you zip past The Walt Disney Co.'s animation headquarters on the Ventura Freeway, it's impossible to imagine that you're driving over the original Disneyland site.

But it's true. Walt Disney's first vision of his theme park would have been built on land between his Burbank studio and the Los Angeles River flood control channel to the east of Buena Vista Street. The park would have included boat rides, trains and a small-town Main Street based on his boyhood home in Marceline, Mo.

But Disney's ``imagineers,'' working in scattered offices at the studio lot, kept coming up with more ideas for the new park. Too many ideas to fit in the 15-acre site.

So Disney moved southward, to an Anaheim orange grove where Main Street, Sleeping Beauty's castle and the Rocket to the Moon would be stamped indelibly on the world's consciousness.

But even though Disneyland is 60 miles away, its influence on Burbank and the nearby communities of Glendale, North Hollywood and Universal City has been titanic. Disneyland spawned an entirely new industry dedicated to serving, supplying and creating theme parks, and its epicenter is the greater Burbank area.

Unquetioned leader

Disney remains the unquestioned leader in the themed park industry; nearby Universal Studios is a solid runner-up. But most of the nuts-and-bolts work takes place at hundreds of small companies hired on a project-by-project based in Burbank, Glendale and North Hollywood.

The companies are in the area for a variety of reasons: Proximity to the two largest developers in the domestic amusement park industry, Disney and Universal; an educated work force; and ideal workplaces to develop and produce tomorrow's next big ride.

The work force and workplace availability is an ironic aftermath to the region's aerospace collapse at the beginning of the '90s. While thousands of aerospace workers lost their jobs as companies closed their local operations, the exodus left a large pool of experienced technical workers and factories that are ideal for the themed entertainment industry.

Non-descript buildings

Because unlike the gaudy locations or complicated rides that they design and supply, many theme-park companies are housed in nondescript concrete tilt-up buildings.

``The area around Burbank is full of what used to be aerospace businesses that have become theme park businesses,'' said John Wright, owner of Sun Valley-based Lexington Scenery and president of the Themed Entertainment Association. ``Some have even adopted defense technologies like motion simulation and virtual reality.''

Bullishness pervades the industry with announcements of major new projects accelerating. Less than two weeks ago, Disney reached agreement with Hong Kong for a $2 billion theme park; on Thursday, Six Flags California in Valencia announced it would open a new roller coaster called Goliath that will be one of the largest ever built.

``It's a great time to be in the business,'' Wright said.

The San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center recently issued eye-popping figures about the Valley's amusement-recreation services sector, reporting that it was composed of 9,619 jobs with a $615 million payroll as of September 1998. That means an average salary of $63,936, almost double the Valley's average private-sector salary.

In only eight years, the TEA has grown to 650 members, including nearly 300 in Southern California. And executives say the concentration of themed entertainment firms in the East Valley has helped drive the industry's growth.

``This area is a real hotbed of creativity,'' said Bob Rogers, chief of Burbank-based design specialist BRC Imagination Arts. ``The technical people inspire each other. They see each other's work and they want to top it so you can feel the competition breathing down your neck.''

Harrison ``Buzz'' Price, a consultant who conducted the original economic impact study on Disneyland in 1953, agrees. ``I'd bet the theming work in this part of Southern California matches all the rest of the world. It all goes back to Walt forming WED Enterprises to design and create Disneyland, which spun off the hundreds of little businesses that make this industry hum.''

The cornerstone

Executives universally agree that the 1955 opening of Disneyland remains the industry's defining event, or what Rogers calls ``the greatest milestone of this century for our business.''

``Walt completely revolutionized the business,'' Rogers said. ``Disneyland clearly has an authenticity for people that connects on a conscious and subconscious level. That's why it's a great and magic place.''

Price contends that Disneyland accelerated Americans' need to be entertained. His original forecast called for annual attendance of 2.5 million to 3 million with average spending of $3 per visit; instead, the amusement park drew 4 million with average spending of $5 per customer in its first year.

``There had never been a park that kept customers for more than a couple of hours,'' Price said. ``The idea was to make it more like storytelling so everyone in the family could find something they like.''

Disney domination

The first years of the new theme park industry were dominated by Disney, which moved Imagineering into a Glendale industrial park in 1961. But with other companies emulating Disney's model, myriad small players emerged to service the fast-growing world of theme parks.

Rogers, who worked for Imagineering before founding his own company in 1981, said Universal's 1964 entry into theme parks created the industry.

``It means you had two very important anchors that attracted the best and the brightest from all over the world,'' he said. ``Southern California, for all we complain about it, really does a marvelous job of welcoming talent from all over the world.''

By the time Walt Disney died in 1966, the business had developed plenty of momentum. Peaks came in 1971 as Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Fla., and again in 1982 when Epcot became Disney's ``second gate'' in Florida.

``A lot of the employees went out and started their own places servicing things that theme parks would need that you couldn't get at a hardware store or in the yellow pages,'' said Peter Chernack, head of Burbank-based theme-park designer Metavision. ``You needed places that could design special effects that would work 150 times a day instead of just once.''

Over the past 15 years, the industry has branched out into places like retail stores and museums. The 1987 launch of the Disney Stores retail chain, followed four years later by a Warner Bros. chain, gave significant momentum to the notion of entertainment theming.

Before 1987, stores were, well, stores. But now shoppers expect stores to entertain them, with faux trees to sell Tarzan dolls or big-screen music videos to hum along with as they buy their Mickey Mouse T-shirts.

``The trick is to make the emotional connection with the customer,'' Chernack said.

The industry opened a new revenue stream about a decade ago when Las Vegas casinos began creating attractions that stressed style over slot machines. When casino developers wanted to create a New York, Paris or Monte Carlo in Nevada, for example, they turned to the industry that had been creating fantasy lands for decades.

``Casinos have been very good to us,'' said Wright. ``It mostly goes back to standard show business practice - telling a good story and engaging the audience.''

Telling a story

Like Hollywood's movies and TV programs, the theme-park business has also benefited from both massive overseas expansion.

Jonathan Katz, chief of design specialist Cinnabar, noted that foreign theme-park customers have grown increasingly eager for American concepts, adding, ''The market is much more global so being from California is no longer seen as a barrier.``

The business is also being boosted by the growing importance of selling ''the shared experience.`` Executives struggle to get their arms around this concept and often cite companies like Starbucks using their stores as a ``stage'' to sell their story.

``So it's not about Disney's and Universal's scenery shops - it's an industry that's constantly adopting to connect with the consumer and capturing their hearts and minds,'' Chernack said. ``It's all about who we are and what connects us, so at the zenith of the Information Age, it's the company with the best story that's going to win.''

And for 40 years now, those stories have come out of the area that almost was home to Disneyland.


Only 19 of the 279 California-based members of the Themed Entertainment Association have more than 30 employees, although numbers vary greatly based on work load. Most are based in the Valley:




Attraction Services


61 to 99

AVG Inc.


31 to 60

Cini-Little International


61 to 99

Coleman/Caskey Architects


31 to 60

Economic Research Associates

Los Angeles

61 to 99

Electrosonic Systems Inc.


61 to 99

Global Entertainment Industries


31 to 60

Iwerks Entertainment


100 plus

Landmark Entertainment Group

North Hollywood

31 to 60

Lexington Scenery & Props

Sun Valley

100 plus

Preserved Treescapes International


31 to 60

Scenery West

North Hollywood

61 to 99

Show Technologies Inc.

Sun Valley

31 to 60

Showscan Entertainment

Culver City

31 to 60

Spectra Entertainment

Simi Valley

100 plus

Strand Lighting

Rancho Dominguez

31 to 60

Technifex Inc.


31 to 60

Universal Creative

Universal City

100 plus

Walt Disney Imagineering (Imagineering has about 3,000 employees in Glendale)


100 plus

SOURCE: Themed Entertainment Association.


photo, map, box

Photo: (color) Jonathan Katz, CEO of set design specialist Cinnabar, shows off a creature from ``Where the Wild Things Are.'' The prop will be used in a theme park in Japan.

David R. Crane/Staff Photographer

Map: Humble beginnings

Walt Disney's original Disneyland called for a 15-acre site south of Riverside Drive in Burbank but his ideas outgrew the available space. Disneyland opened in 1955 and much of the Burbank site eventually part of State Highway 134. This is based on Harper Goff's drawing of the proposed park which includes a carousel, picnic area, steamboat and ``bird island.''

Bradford Mar/Staff Artist

Box: Small is plentiful (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 14, 1999
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