By: Chris Norby, former Orange County Supervisor and California assemblyman
The 3-2 Anaheim City Council vote for a 30-year ticket tax exemption for Disneyland is part of a longtime double standard. The Happiest Place on Earth has a long history of dictating fiscal and land-use policy in Anaheim.
I fondly recall the Alpine Inn’s giant statue of Heidi, the Inn of Tomorrow’s flashing lights and space-age design, the spinning globe at the Jolly Roger Inn, the sputnik-like orb at the Satellite Cafe and the giant candy cane in front of its namesake motel. They’re all gone, victims of the Disney “resort district plan” which turned all this playful whimsy into uniformity.
Ironically, as it was crushing this colorful collection of the car culture, Disney was building its newest attraction – Cars Land! It replicates the very mid-century modern commercial architecture and soaring signage that was banned outside the park. You can still find some over on Beach Boulevard – the giant Robin Hood Motel sign, the classic neon of the Sahara and Covered Wagon Motels, the Movieland Wax Museum – but in the resort district, blandness reigns. Disneyland was built on imagination and kitsch, but outside it’s considered blight.
In the 1970s, the city’s redevelopment agency destroyed downtown Anaheim. The Fox Theater with its glittering marquee, the SQR department store, the mission-style Pickwick Hotel and other gems of Main Street Americana were all condemned and leveled. Anaheim now has two fake downtowns – Main Street Disneyland and Downtown Disney – but no real one. A city-commissioned study admitted that “the complete eradication of the traditional business district has left nothing for the community to relate to as their downtown.”
Just a block south on Harbor Boulevard stood a real roadside fruit stand at a 55-acre farm owned by the Fujishige Brothers. For decades they’d fended off pressure and eminent domain threats from Disney and the city. When the last brother died in 1998, Disney finally got the land and paved it for parking. It also got $546 million in public funds for a new parking structure off West Street.
The Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction features a robotic Old Abe dispensing homespun wisdom about equality and fair play. Yet, relative to their wealth, O.C. homeowners pay far higher property taxes than Disneyland, which hasn’t been reassessed in 40 years due to a loophole in Proposition 13. This amounts to $4.7 million in annual lost property tax revenues for local schools and services, according to a California Tax Reform Association analysis.
Disney poured $2 million to a 2008 initiative stopping a 1,500 unit housing complex, blocking its own employees from living in the resort district. It contributed $567,000 in the last two election cycles to elect a compliant city council. It won a $158 million tax subsidy for a 4-star hotel at the ailing GardenWalk mall. Mom-and-pop motel owners must pay their transient occupancy taxes – the new luxury hotel won’t.
Now it’s pushed through a legally dubious ticket tax exemption, tying the hands of future councils and citizens for 30 years, just ahead of the new districting plan giving future councils a stronger grassroots base and less reliance on corporate money.
The economic benefits of Disneyland are used to justify this double standard. However, if Disneyland is the “economic engine” its boosters claim, why is Anaheim’s poverty rate among O.C.’s highest, and its median family income 10 percent lower than the statewide average?
Disneyland is a tribute to private enterprise and imagination and creativity, but those are freedoms that belong to all.
Chris Norby is a former Orange County Supervisor and California assemblyman.