Dressed in hol­i­day style at Dis­ney­land

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - hugo.mar­tin@la­times.com Twit­ter: @hugo­martin

It takes more than pixie dust to trans­form into a win­ter won­der­land

Harsh halo­gen lights bathed Dis­ney­land’s Main Street U.S.A. in the dark early-morn­ing hours as the backup beeps of aerial lifts and heavy-metal cranes mixed with the thun­der­ing sound of their revving diesel en­gines.

Hor­ti­cul­tural work­ers in neon safety vests hus­tled to plant red and white blooms in a large flowerbed while a sec­ond crew di­rected a mas­sive white crane to lower an 11-foot metal sleeve into a con­crete hole to sup­port a 12-ton Christ­mas tree that was ex­pected soon.

Look­ing more like the chaos of a dis­as­ter re­cov­ery ef­fort than a jolly sea­sonal makeover, the work Mon­day morn­ing marked the be­gin­ning of a four-day job to trans­form Dis­ney­land into a hol­i­day play­ground. But the an­nual project had, in fact, been metic­u­lously planned for nearly 11 months to make the most of scant hours be­fore park vis­i­tors burst through the en­trance gates.

“We only get a cer­tain amount of time to get into the park and do our work,” Adam Sch­w­erner, Dis­ney­land’s di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture and re­sort en­hance­ments, said as he watched a

crane move the adorned Christ­mas tree into place. “We have to have per­fec­tion.”

The work­ers are driven by more than just a sense of pride. The hol­i­day sea­son has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar — and prof­itable — times of the year for theme parks, al­though sum­mer will al­ways be tops.

Dis­ney­land doesn’t re­lease at­ten­dance fig­ures, but vis­i­tor num­bers surge dur­ing the days that chil­dren are out of school for the win­ter hol­i­days. Aver­age wait times dur­ing the Christ­mas and New Year’s hol­i­days jump as much as 75% over wait times for the rest of the year, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by Tour­ing­plan.com, a web­site that of­fers sub­scribers plan­ning tips and crowd pre­dic­tions for ma­jor theme parks.

To grab as many hol­i­day vis­i­tors as pos­si­ble, parks go into pro­mo­tional hy­per­drive.

Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood has be­gun heav­ily ad­ver­tis­ing that the Wiz­ard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter area will fea­ture a nightly snow­fall for the first time, start­ing Nov. 17, and Hog­warts Cas­tle will be lit up us­ing pro­jec­tion map­ping tech­nol­ogy that throws images onto un­even sur­faces.

Six Flags Magic Moun­tain and Knott’s Berry Farm also make it snow ev­ery night. And Magic Moun­tain is launch­ing a hol­i­day food fes­ti­val Nov. 17 plus two new Christ­mas-themed areas.

In ad­di­tion to spurring at­ten­dance, the hol­i­day sea­son gives theme parks the chance to sell new hol­i­day mer­chan­dise and elab­o­rate food, in­clud­ing Knott’s Christ­mas Pizza — de­scribed as “a dish that de­li­ciously com­bines the ex­quis­ite fla­vors of a hol­i­day meal into one per­fect bite” — topped with sliced turkey, stuff­ing, gravy and cran­berry sauce.

Dis­ney­land Re­sort of­fers sea­sonal chur­ros and hand­pulled candy canes, which are so pop­u­lar that de­mand must be man­aged with wrist­bands and spe­cial lines that al­ter­nate be­tween Dis­ney­land and Dis­ney Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture.

“From Dis­ney’s stand­point, it’s a time to put fat on the fat hog,” said Den­nis Speigel, pres­i­dent of In­ter­na­tional Theme Park Ser­vices. “That is when they are go­ing to build their at­ten­dance and their rev­enues.”

Since Dis­ney­land opened in 1955, it has over­hauled its park each year for the hol­i­days, a prac­tice that has taken hold at theme parks across the coun­try, he said. But the Ana­heim park has a rep­u­ta­tion for the most elab­o­rate hol­i­day dis­plays.

“Dis­ney is the god­fa­ther of the Christ­mas hol­i­day ex­pe­ri­ence in theme parks,” Speigel said.

Re­dec­o­rat­ing Dis­ney­land is an ex­pen­sive and la­bor-in­ten­sive task.

On most nights, Dis­ney­land em­ploys hun­dreds of work­ers to per­form reg­u­lar cleanup and re­pairs dur­ing overnight shifts. To con­vert the park to hol­i­day mode, Dis­ney puts dozens of ex­tra em­ploy­ees to work, ei­ther by pay­ing full-time staffers to work over­time or by ex­tend­ing part-time work­ers to full­time shifts for the four-day project.

The flick­er­ing faux can­dles on the Christ­mas tree and the types of flow­ers planted in the flowerbeds are de­cided nearly a year ear­lier. Work as­sign­ments are planned out on bar charts to en­sure the crews don’t get in one an­other’s way.

To pull off the park­wide job, Dis­ney­land work­ers con­cen­trate on hol­i­day-ify­ing one geo­graphic sec­tion of the park at a time. On Mon­day morn­ing, the eighthour shift was cen­tered on the town plaza, the en­trance area of the park and Main Street U.S.A.

Mid­night: Cathy Car­son, the park dec­o­ra­tor, and her team of 10 work­ers ar­rive to be­gin in­stalling gar­lands and wreaths on win­dows, awnings and doors of build­ings along Main Street. Sta­dium lights are in­stalled around the town square. Car­son be­gan at Dis­ney­land as a sea­sonal worker help­ing dec­o­rate dur­ing the hol­i­days and has since moved her way up to over­see­ing the hol­i­day makeover.

2 a.m.: Luis Gomez, a hor­ti­cul­ture man­ager who stud­ied land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, starts his shift. His crew of 14 work­ers be­gin to re­place the Hal­loween-in­spired marigolds, mums and celosia flow­ers in the town square with 300 red poin­set­tias, 600 white cy­cla­mens and 80 white aza­leas. Gomez watches to make sure the blooms are spaced an equal dis­tance apart and face out to­ward the park vis­i­tors.

The de­sign of the town square flowerbed — aza­leas in the mid­dle, sur­rounded by poin­set­tias with a ring of cy­cla­mens on the out­side — was cre­ated back in Fe­bru­ary to give Dis­ney­land’s nurs­ery sup­plier time to grow the hun­dreds of flow­ers needed.

3:05 a.m.: Car­son’s team mem­bers wear rock-climb­ing har­nesses and strap them­selves into mo­tor­ized aerial lifts that shut­tle up and down the street. Wear­ing head­lamps, they stretch gar­land across the build­ing fronts and hang wreaths over each win­dow and onto lamp­posts. “The most chal­leng­ing part is co­or­di­nat­ing every­body,” she said.

4:30 a.m.: At the cen­ter of the square, a fork­lift sets an 11-foot metal sleeve — re­sem­bling a long stretch of pipe — into a con­crete hole next to an un­der­ground elec­tri­cal box. The sleeve pro­trudes from the hole about 5 feet. It will hold the trunk of the nearly 12-ton Christ­mas tree. Dur­ing the rest of the year, the hole is cov­ered with turf and en­cir­cled with stan­chions.

4:45 a.m.: A 100-ton crane, rolling on 12 mas­sive tires, makes its way up Main Street, hoist­ing the bot­tom sec­tion of the Christ­mas tree from its ex­tended metal arm. Yel­low signs with the words “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” are taped to the branches so the crews know how to align the tree on the base.

Over the last few weeks, Car­son and her crew have dec­o­rated the tree in a ware­house, adding 3,500 lights, 1,500 or­na­ments and 200 can­dles with flick­er­ing flame lights. This year, the dec­o­rat­ing team de­cided to re­move about a third of the branches to “make it look more real and not like a big cone,” she said. It is the big­gest of 120 Christ­mas trees that will go up in the park and its three ho­tels.

6:09 a.m.: A smaller, 50ton crane hoists the top sec­tion of the Christ­mas tree, con­structed of steel branches and trunk and plas­tic nee­dles. Work­ers in hel­mets and head­lamps climb among the branches to se­cure the two sec­tions to­gether. Car­son watches from the ground to make sure the two sec­tions are lined up cor­rectly. “This is when they can mess up my tree,” Car­son said.

6:25 a.m.: The green, red, white and gold lights on the tree are turned on for the first time. Car­son cir­cles the tree to see if any lights are burned out or bro­ken.

6:40 a.m.: Near the en­trance gates, the hor­ti­cul­ture crew has fin­ished re­plac­ing hun­dreds of marigolds with 600 red poin­set­tias around the flower dis­play that cre­ates the image of Mickey Mouse. “When the sun comes up, it will look even more vi­brant,” Gomez said as he sur­veys the dis­play that has be­come a pop­u­lar spot for fam­ily pho­tos.

If the marigolds and other plants that are up­rooted are still healthy, they can be re­planted in an­other area of the park. If not, the flow­ers are re­cy­cled and used to make com­post.

6:45 a.m.: Josh D’Amaro, pres­i­dent of Dis­ney­land Re­sort, climbs into an aerial lift that raises him to the tree’s top. A sec­ond lift car­ries two work­ers and the star­burst light that will adorn the top of the tree, and a third car­ries a cam­era crew. For sev­eral min­utes, the work­ers strug­gle to plug in the wires that will con­nect power to the star­burst.

7:13 a.m.: The star­burst or­na­ment be­gins to glow and smaller lights start to twin­kle. At the base of the tree, Car­son and other work­ers move over­size gift boxes to cover the trunk and the elec­tri­cal box at the bot­tom. The lifts and cranes be­gin to roll down Main Street to a back­stage area. Main­te­nance crews wash down the side­walk and streets with hoses.

7:55 a.m.: Vis­i­tors line up at the en­trance gates.

8:35 a.m.: The gates open and peo­ple rush past the Christ­mas tree as a few mem­bers of the early-morn­ing work crews linger in the square. Fam­i­lies pose for pic­tures in front of the tree, but oth­ers hurry to be first to their fa­vorite ride. “Dad, it’s a Christ­mas tree. Look at it,” ex­claims a boy, barely paus­ing be­fore rush­ing away with his fam­ily.

Pho­to­graphs by Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

A CREW puts the fin­ish­ing touches on a gi­ant Christ­mas tree and other hol­i­day dec­o­ra­tions along Main Street U.S.A. as seen from be­hind the “Part­ners” statue of Walt Dis­ney hold­ing Mickey Mouse’s hand.

BY HUGO MAR­TIN

A WORKER fas­tens a wreath to a lamp­post on Main Street U.S.A. in prepa­ra­tion for the Ana­heim re­sort’s hol­i­day sea­son.

Pho­to­graphs by Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

A CREW in­stalls hol­i­day light­ing on Sleep­ing Beauty Cas­tle in the early morn­ing hours near the statue of Walt Dis­ney and Mickey Mouse at Dis­ney­land.

DIS­NEY­LAND’S four-day hol­i­day makeover re­quires nearly 11 months of metic­u­lous plan­ning.

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