Joe Mathews: Disneyland ought to be constitutional right

Disneyland offers special holiday celebrations, but Joe Mathews says high prices are putting it out of reach for many Californians.
Disneyland offers special holiday celebrations, but Joe Mathews says high prices are putting it out of reach for many Californians. Disneyland Resort

On Christmas Eve, it felt like the park was all ours.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Disneyland was so reliably empty on the day before Christmas that my family often spent Dec. 24 in the “Happiest Place on Earth.” We rode every attraction in the park. And tickets, while expensive, didn’t break the bank. In 1989, adults paid $23.50, and children age 3 to 12 were $18.50.

Today, I have three little kids, but I wouldn’t think of taking them to Disneyland. Disney – through special events and the invention of holiday attractions – has all but eliminated its offseason. This Christmas week, you’ll probably find the worst holiday traffic in California on Main Street USA. And the expense would be hard to justify.

Disney has hiked the cost of a one-day ticket to visit just one of its two Anaheim parks to $96 for anyone 10 or older. For children ages 3 to 9, it’s $90. That’s enough to raise the question of whether the average Californian – the median annual per capita income in the state is just less than $30,000 – can still afford to visit this most iconic of California places.

Like the state itself, Disneyland has become overcrowded because of both its popularity and underinvestment in infrastructure (in Disney’s case, not enough new parks). One way the company manages this problem is to raise prices and make it more difficult for Southern Californians to come to Disneyland and its sister park, California Adventure. Disney has suspended sales of the Southern California Annual Passport that many locals bought in order to make frequent visits.

A few people reading this may not see our diminishing access to Disneyland as an issue as serious as access to, say, affordable health care. But for those who understand that a visit to Disneyland is an essential California cultural experience, it’s obvious we face a statewide crisis that cries out for a forceful response.

What could that be? As Walt Disney once promised: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

So here’s what I’m imagining – a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing all children born in California one free visit to Disneyland before they turn 18.

Such a right is easily justified by history; we launched the Disney park empire in 1955. With fewer than 500,000 native Californians born a year, we’re talking about less than $50 million annually in new financial commitments for a company with annual revenues approaching $50 billion. And wouldn’t there be considerable long-term public relations value to Disney in making Disneyland one of the few experiences all young Californians share?

I must admit there are two issues with a Disneyland-for-all-kids constitutional amendment. The first is practical: This new right could create even more crowds in the short run.

The second issue is legal. I’ve been informed that a measure forcing a private company to provide free goods to the citizenry might be blocked as an unconstitutional “taking” – unless the right comes with “just compensation” for Disney.

The best compensation would solve both issues in one fell swoop: The state should give Disney a piece of land in California, with all environmental approvals and entitlements in place, large enough to build another park.

Where? Disney could build a third park on a large piece of land next to its Anaheim resort, but hasn’t moved to do it. Land on the coast would cost too much, so it should be inland. And to leverage corporate welfare, the land should be tied to another public project that is already acquiring large amounts of land.

The perfect location is somewhere close to the planned high-speed rail station in Fresno.

Talk about Tomorrowland! A new Disney Fresno could draw crowds large enough to make high-speed rail economically viable – especially if Disney exploited its newly acquired rights to the “Star Wars” empire of George Lucas, a son of the San Joaquin Valley. Heck, if the California drought continues, the surrounding landscape might be passed off as the desert planet Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker grew up.

Far-fetched? Maybe, but when has that deterred Disney? As Uncle Walt liked to say, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Joe Mathews is Innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.