Making (Political) Magic in Anaheim

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Local Elections Scholars Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Mirya Holman at

By Peter F. Burns Jr. and Matthew O. Thomas

For the past decade, the theme of Disney vs the neighborhoods has dominated Anaheim politics, and this conflict is central to the city’s 2018 elections.  When voters go to the polls in November, they will select a new mayor for the first time in eight years, elect three city council members as part of the city’s new district-election format, and decide on a local living wage referendum, which may or may not eventually apply to Disney.

Does Disneyland provide a collective benefit to the residents of Anaheim?  While Disney argues that it does, opponents of this view argue that the city’s 16.2% poverty rate, issues of violent crime in certain parts of the city, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing, among other problems, suggest otherwise.  Only in recent history has the electorate stood up and told Disney and the city’s corporate interests that the benefits particular to Disney must stop and attention to the neighborhoods must start.

For most of its history, which began before the park’s opening on July 17, 1955, Disneyland enjoyed what the Los Angeles Times has characterized as a “cozy relationship” with the city of Anaheim.  As a result, Disneyland enjoyed favorable zoning ordinances that limit the height of buildings outside the park to maintain the illusion of a magical experience, significant infrastructure improvements for the park, and, despite the 17.8 million visitors a year, the city of Anaheim has never charged a gate tax on admission to the park.

The first fissure in the Disneyland-Anaheim relationship appeared in 2007, when the city supported and then backed away from allowing affordable housing to be built in the Anaheim Resort District, the special district that is home to Disneyland.  Disney vigorously opposed the city on this issue.  The deal for affordable housing fell through, but Disney continued to fight the war against any changes to the resort district.  It won in early March of 2008, when the city council decided against any zoning change inside the Anaheim Resort District.  Since that dispute, conflict has become just as common as cooperation.

Disney continued to receive some preferential treatment, but those deals came at a political cost.  A minority of city council opposed a recent hotel tax deal, and residents became ever more mindful of the two prominent themes that come up when the city offers preferential treatment to Disney and other major corporations.  The first is that two Anaheims exist – a resort district that gets all the attention and the neighborhoods that receive little in terms of attention or resources.  The second theme is that the resort district does not provide collective benefits for the entire city.

These themes were at the forefront when, in June of 2012, the ACLU sued Anaheim and claimed that the city’s system of at-large elections discriminated against Latinos and consequently violated the state’s Voting Rights Act.  The lawsuit was resolved when the city council moved to allow the city’s electorate to vote district versus at large elections and whether to expand the number of members of the city council to six, plus the mayor, elected at-large, who also sits on city council.  Both measures passed, setting the stage for a new relationship between Disney and Anaheim.

Despite their significant financial advantages, Disney-supported candidates managed to win only two of the four open council seats.  Disney lost its majority of supporters on the city council, which now began to be referred to as the “The People’s Council.”

The new council moved quickly, removing the pro-Disney city manager, and calling into question several of the deals the city provided to Disney, including a streetcar project and the hotel tax incentives.  Adding fuel to the fire, in February of 2018 the Los Angeles Times ran a story reporting that three-quarters of park employees who were surveyed claimed that they did not earn enough to pay basic expenses, such as rent, food, and gas.  Eleven percent of respondents were either homeless or had no place of their own over the last two years.  These hardships occurred even though Disney not only reported a 78% increase in quarterly profits as compared to the previous year but also raised ticket prices.

Despite Disney’s protests about the accuracy of the survey, advocates of wage equity seized on the story and placed an initiative on the ballot that would mandate a series of wage increases for workers of any company that received public subsidies.  At the same time, the city council cancelled the hotel tax deal, ending that potential subsidy for Disney.  The cancellation created an interesting question around the ballot initiative: with the end of the public subsidy, would Disney be subject to the result of the initiative?

In addition to the wage ordinance, the 2018 municipal elections will help decide the future of the People’s Council and the cozy arrangement between Disney and Anaheim.  Voters will choose a new municipal leader for the first time in eight years.  Term-limited Mayor Tom Tait led the resistance against public benefits for Disney and anchored the so-called People’s Council.  Among the eight candidates for the open-seat are:

  • Consumer Protection Attorney Ashleigh Aitken, who told the Wall Street Journal, “Like most Anaheim residents, I love Disneyland. And I, like most of Anaheim, got fed up being taken for a ride outside the park.”
  • Harry Sidhu, a Republican small business owner in the city and former member of the city council, sided with Disneyland on the affordable housing issue in 2007. He also received direct campaign contributions from Disney while he served on the city council.
  • Lori Galloway, another former member of the city council running for mayor, led the charge for affordable housing in the Anaheim Resort District.
  • Cynthia Ward, a Cemetery District Trustee, who wrote in her candidate statement of qualifications, “I’m running for Mayor to build on Tom Tait’s principled commitments to direct public funds for public benefit, not private profits.”

In addition to selecting whether the next mayor will be pro-Disneyland, this election will determine if the People’s Council maintains the majority on the city council.  Jose Moreno, who won his District 3 city council seat by 44 votes in 2016, is a key member of the People’s Council who is up for reelection in 2018.

The results of this election will set the parameters for the relationship between Disney and Anaheim for the next four years – if not much longer.

Photo from Pixabay

Peter F. Burns, Jr., one of the editors of Urban Affairs Review, is professor of political science at Soka University of America.  Matthew O. Thomas, a member of the Urban Affairs Review’s editorial board, is professor of political science in the Department of Political Science at California State University, Chico.  Burns and Thomas are co-authors of Reforming New Orleans: The Contentious Politics of Change in the Big Easy (Cornell University Press, 2015).  They are working on a book about the politics of Disneyland.



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