The hottest attraction at Disneyland may be the biggest secret. It's not plotted on any official Disneyland maps. Thousands of tourists pass...
The hottest attraction at Disneyland may be the biggest secret.
It’s not plotted on any official Disneyland maps. Thousands of tourists pass by every day, oblivious.
Only a number discreetly posted next to an unmarked door indicates where the exclusive Club 33 sits.
That’s the way the club likes it.
Most Read Business Stories
- Pandemic gave locals fleeting taste of a tourist-free Hawaii
- Amazon's $3,000 signing bonuses irk workers who got $10 coupons
- ‘Ugly, ugly time’: Work-from-home era crushes U.S. dry cleaners
- For sale: $6 million Whidbey Island survival compound, stocked to withstand a pandemic VIEW
- Jobless claims soar as new restrictions hit restaurants and other Washington state businesses
The low profile isn’t hurting the members-only restaurant: The wait to join stretches out nine years. Membership cannot be sold, leased, transferred or bequeathed.
Even for members, it’s necessary to call months in advance to book a table for the peak summer months or holidays.
The club was founded 40 years ago by Walt Disney himself, who died a few months before it opened. Most of the members are corporations, including Boeing, Chevron and AT&T. A visit to the club and park in Anaheim, Calif., is often used to reward employees or to treat favored clients.
“It’s a unique facility,” said Alex Yelland, a Chevron spokesman. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, priceless experience. It has that cachet.”
Now Walt Disney Co. is opening the door a crack. It plans to increase the 487-member roster, said Gary Maggetti, who oversees Club 33 as head of Disneyland’s food and beverage services.
He said the total probably won’t be raised much above 500. The challenge is figuring out how to allocate the new memberships.
“The number of memberships is one thing, but the ratio of corporate memberships to individuals is more important because of how they use it differently,” Maggetti said. “We have to find the right balance.”
Corporate memberships cost $20,000 plus $5,825 in annual fees and $4,375 a year for extra members. They rarely turn over, Maggetti said. Individual memberships run $7,500 plus $3,025 in annual dues.
On top of that, members must pay for their meals, prepared by a chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
A recent lunch for four, without alcohol, came to $257 before tip. It’s the only place in the park where alcohol is served, and the wine list offers $200 vintages.
Even with membership dues and meal charges, Club 33 doesn’t provide a windfall for Disneyland, said Randall Hiatt, president of restaurant consultancy Fessell International, which has advised the theme park. The restaurant’s annual revenue is probably about $25 million, based on an average $65 check, 80 percent occupancy and membership dues, he said.
“It’s not a huge moneymaker,” Hiatt said. “But they get a lot of mileage and benefit out of it.”
Disneyland doesn’t break out the club’s sales, said spokesman Robert Tucker.
Members are also invited to behind-the-scenes tours and holiday events and can request the presence of Mickey Mouse or any other Disney character at their meals.
“This experience cannot be matched anywhere else,” said Mary Niven, Disneyland Resort’s vice president of food and beverage. “Because the club is for members and their guests only, our cast knows individual preferences at a level that is truly unique.”
Diners are more likely to be corporate executives than occasional celebrity guests such as actor Johnny Depp or musician Elton John, who has played the antique harpsichord in the hallway, said Michael Bracco, Club 33’s manager.
“It’s similar to buying a stadium suite or courtside seats at Lakers games,” said Hiatt “It’s all about taking care of your very best customers.”
The secretiveness inspires a cult-like fascination among some Disneyland fans. They post elaborate reports about their visits to Club 33 and fret about the lengthy waiting list.
A page on the Mouse Planet Web site, www.mouseplanet.com, is devoted to Club 33’s restrooms, including photos of the toilets and urinals.
“A lot of the reason people want to go to Club 33 is the exclusivity and the location,” said Tony Phoenix of Lakewood, Calif., a co-founder and chief technical officer of Mouse Planet. “For many years, it was shrouded as a mystery, and Disney didn’t really acknowledge it even existed.”
For many fans, the main attraction is the direct link to founder Walt Disney. He came up with the idea of a club to entertain dignitaries, hired Hollywood set director Emil Kuri and traveled to New Orleans to handpick much of the Victorian bric-a-brac, Bracco said.
Disney died at age 65, five months before the club’s opening in May 1967.
“The exclusivity attracts people, but the real draw runs much deeper,” said Dale Mattson, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy who runs an unofficial Club 33 Web site, www.disneylandclub33.com. “Within the club, the genius of Walt Disney is felt throughout.”
Access to the club is restricted to members with reservations, and their parties. Even a Disneyland spokesman giving a tour wasn’t allowed inside on one occasion.
Membership is limited by the restaurant’s capacity, Niven said. Even now, members must make reservations weeks in advance. Park officials want to ensure members can still come when they want.
To enter, guests lift a hidden panel in the doorway, push a buzzer on an intercom and provide a name to the receptionist.
Only then will the door open to a small lobby designed like an old-fashioned French hotel, complete with a spiral staircase that wraps around a reproduction of an antique lift.
The upstairs is split between two dining rooms: one light-filled and formal, the other with dark wood paneling and an animatronic California turkey vulture.
The restaurant is decorated with props from Disney films, including a table from “Mary Poppins” and the wooden telephone booth used in “The Happiest Millionaire.”
Mattson has been parked on Club 33’s waiting list since 2001; Robert Tickell for about that long. And poor Chris Villaflor — Disney informed him this month that the list is so bloated, he can’t even get on it.
It’s so incremental that Tickell, 55, laughed when he heard the number. “That sounds like Disney,” said Tickell. “They’re very protective of that club.”
New membership slots are allocated starting at the top of the waiting list. Mattson doesn’t know exactly where he stands in the line.
“They really don’t like to disclose to you your exact position,” he said. “It’s merely, ‘Well, you’re near the top.’ That’s what I was told.”
Club visitors can buy limited-edition Club 33 souvenirs, which can’t be purchased by regular park guests. Many of the items are highly collectible.
A blue dinner plate with the Club 33 emblem was selling for $450 on eBay recently.
Tickell is less interested in the souvenirs than the experience. He’s had a soft spot for Disneyland since he was a child. On one visit, Tickell lost his wallet and $5 his mother had given him. He reported this to her, upset and tearful.
Walt Disney himself overhead.
“About two shops down was their souvenir shop,” Tickell said. “He came back with a Mickey Mouse wallet and he put five dollars in it. And he said, ‘No one at Disneyland should ever have to cry.’ “
Doesn’t look like Walt can rescue him this time. With only five or six years under his belt, Tickell’s got a long wait ahead.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.