Anaheim: Not just Mickey Mouse anymore

Besides palm fronds, freeways, and minimalls, residents here have a boundless affection for city officials in a suburb 40 miles to the north.

Thanks to a roundtable of aldermen in Burbank in the 1950s, building permits were denied to a man who wanted to erect a carousel in the town. He also wanted to construct a replica of a traditional American "Main Street," and a lake where families could sit on the shore. "Sounds too much like a permanent carnival," Burbank officials said.

So the man, Walt Disney, jumped in his car and headed south out of the smog and into the fragrant orchards of Orange County. He built Mickey Mouse Park (now Disneyland) - dedicated to dreams, frontiers, and the world of tomorrow.

Last year, 42 million visitors spent $6.4 billion at his park. And the town where he built it, Anaheim, is still virtually synonymous with Disneyland, as well as family values and the American dream.

Today, as home to the 2002 World Series champions and this year's Stanley Cup finalists, the town has come of age - and in many respects epitomizes the transformation of southern California.

Once a white-bread suburb of refugees from crime and congestion elsewhere, the community of 330,000 has ripened through sheer population growth, economic ebbs and flows, ethnic influx, and business diversity. Now only one-third Anglo, the city has some crime and congestion of its own and has moved beyond its conservative roots. It is gradually attracting a harder-earned fame that hosting the country's most famous theme park once gave them merely by default.

"It is not just coincidence that Anaheim has moved into the world spotlight because of fielding finalists in two of the country's biggest sports," says Rick Reiff, executive editor of the Orange County Business Journal. "For all the indicators that make a city attractive - from business growth to ethnic diversity - this is the year that reflects to outsiders that finally, in that nondescript sprawl between Los Angeles and San Diego, there finally is a there there."

One indicator of new international visibility is reflected outside the Anaheim Pond arena where the Mighty Ducks will host the New Jersey Devils Saturday.

Alongside the bronze, "Wild Wing" statue which fronts the arena, the Bourke family from Birmingham, England, are taking photos. "We wanted to tour southern California but we decided to stay here in Anaheim instead of L.A., because we wanted to check out the home of the Ducks and the Angels," says father Brian Bourke, visiting with his wife and two sons.

That sort of comment is encouraging for merchants and retailers across the city, who have long yearned to add reasons - besides Disneyland - for travelers to venture to town. That said, even long-time residents find it difficult to articulate what is here besides the theme park.

"Oh, there's just lots here," says Susan Barnaby, manager at JT Schmid's Restaurant, which sits between the Pond and Edison Field, home of baseball's Angels. "I would suggest totally going to downtown Disney [a free-public-access mall run by Disney], and the California Adventure [another Disney park adjacent to Disneyland] and then, of course ... no wait that's in the city [of] Irvine."

Part of the difficulty in listing alternatives to Disney is the recent, 5-year, $5 billion renovation to the heart of town, a three-way public-private partnership between Disney, Anaheim, and the Caltrans. Where once a sprawling parking lot stood outside the Disney entrance, block upon block of newly terraced gardens, shrubs, widened walks, fences, and lamp posts create a giant universe of natural beauty in an urban setting. The once-seedy perimeter of hotels, shops, and neighborhoods outside the park now glisten with the same kind of pristine purity as inside.

"The city really has been transformed in the past few years," says Kate Radcliffe-Lang, a landscape architect who has lived one mile away for 18 years. "All the improvements in signs and trees, and flowers and landscaping have raised the bar for the surrounding neighborhoods and also raised the price of our homes."

One of the most noticeable changes in recent years - here, as elsewhere across Orange County and Southern California - is the influx of Hispanics, whose population has doubled in 10 years while Anglos dropped 25 percent. The city is now half Latino, one tenth Asian, and 33 percent Anglo.

One symbol of such change is the recent opening of Gigante, a giant retail-grocery chain headquartered in Mexico. "That is one of the largest indicators that Hispanics have finally come into their own here," says Reiff of the Business Journal.

Other developments: the county economy, famous for bankruptcy nine years ago, now hums along with much more impunity to recession, thanks to bio-medical, high-tech, apparel, finance and lending services. For much of this, say officials, thank the weather: quintessential balmy-and-dry, sunny 70s year round - helping to keep the largest convention center on the West Coast attractive year round, and keeping the tourists coming despite travel fears from Sept. 11.

At the same time, the Disney domination rankles some. Poorer Hispanics say they don't feel included in the ersatz, American fantasy machine - either culturally or monetarily. And some residents complain of the sway Disney holds in local politics, and omnipresent traffic generated by visitors, many of whom want to park in their neighborhoods.

"We had to enact a new ordinance to keep people from parking in our neighborhood and walking or taking the bus to Disneyland," says Radcliffe-Lang.

Overall the mood here seems upbeat thanks to the success of the Ducks and Angels.

"It's been so tough for so many years, but now they've finally made it," says Julie Trofholz, a lifetime Anaheim resident who has supported the Ducks since their very first game 10 years ago. "Alongside the Angels winning the world series, it makes you feel like finally we've got it together."

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