Disney D23 Expo: ‘Star Wars’ attractions expected to fly through Anaheim City Hall approvals

ANAHEIM – As Disney prepares to pour at least $1 billion into improvements in Anaheim – including a new “Star Wars” land at Disneyland – few obstacles are expected at City Hall.

The “Star Wars” land expansion, anticipated for 14 acres on the north side of the popular theme park, will bank off of an environmental-impact report completed in 1996, when Disney submitted a master plan that permitted the construction of Disney California Adventure, Downtown Disney and the Grand Californian Hotel, city officials said.

Despite Walt Disney Co. Chairman Bob Iger’s Saturday announcement that “Star Wars” will land in Anaheim, the company has until the end of 2017 to formally notify the city of its intent to move ahead.

“This isn’t going to be the Disneyland from Walt’s days,” Anaheim Councilwoman Lucille Kring said. “Disney is getting pretty aggressive with their rides, and people can’t seem to get enough of these ‘Star Wars’ movies.”

Under the 1996 accord, Disney will be required to apply for permits that allow for the demolition of the Big Thunder Ranch, a few adjacent warehouses and perhaps other buildings; Disney has only said the new land will go in the area that includes Big Thunder Ranch. The company must also file paperwork seeking permission to fill the area with attractions based on the popular “Star Wars” franchise, including a ride that will allow park-goers to control the Millennium Falcon spaceship.

While construction is already permitted for a 5,000-space parking structure on Disney-owned property just east of Harbor Boulevard – known as the Pumbaa Parking Lot – a specific plan must be approved by Anaheim’s Planning Department.

“There is such a pent-up interest in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise that this attraction will certainly be a success for Disney,” Councilman James Vanderbilt said.

Disney has 28,000 workers in Anaheim, already making it Orange County’s largest employer. The project is expected to create 1,400 permanent jobs at the Disneyland Resort and an additional $15 million in annual tax revenue for the city, according to a Disney-commissioned report completed by KPMG, an auditing firm.

Councilman Jordan Brandman said that the anticipated increase in tax revenue will allow the city to build more parks and community centers, while also closing a $560 million city-employee pension liability.

“This is the Anaheim way of economic development that we’ve always done to create good jobs and resources for our residents,” Brandman said.

Iger’s weekend announcement of “Star Wars” attractions at Disneyland came just more than one month after the Anaheim City Council voted 3-2 to impose no admission taxes at the Anaheim theme parks for 30 years, extending a ticket tax ban that started in 1996 and was set to expire next year.

If Disney doesn’t spend at least $1 billion, then the deal falls away. However, the ticket-tax ban could be extended another 15 years if Disney later embarks on a separate $500 million project.

Although a “Star Wars” land is also planned for Walt Disney World, government officials in Florida were not asked to approve a ticket-tax ban as a condition to build the proposed project.

“I believe Disney would have built this new land (in Anaheim) regardless, because it’s in their best interest to do it,” said Mayor Tom Tait, who opposed the ticket-tax ban along with Vanderbilt.

“No other company in this country has a 45-year exemption from any types of taxes,” Tait said. “Clearly, this wasn’t necessary, given that Walt Disney World doesn’t have the same deal, but the same investment is being made there.”

Disney officials said that the threat of a ticket tax has only been raised in Anaheim, and not in Florida or any of the other cities where Disney operates theme parks worldwide. At the time the ban was approved, Disney officials said they believed a ticket tax would hurt attendance, guest spending and the company’s ability to “significantly invest” in the theme parks.

“This is a proven policy that has worked very successfully in Anaheim,” Councilwoman Kris Murray said. “Disney didn’t ask for any public assistance, and this expansion is not costing the resident a single dollar.”

Contact the writer: 714-704-3769 or amarroquin@ocregister.com

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