In an era of health consciousness, it seems insane to put a power station just 3km from the heart of a city, but to fulfil the ever-growing demand of Sydney’s public transport networks, White Bay Power Station was necessary for the city in the early 1900s.
After 66 years of faithful service, this power station was decommissioned on Christmas Day of 1983 and has laid dormant ever since.
When thinking of Sydney, not many people think of White Bay. It’s a non-picturesque, flat concrete industrial area surrounded by derelict abandoned buildings one of which was the aforementioned White Bay Power Station.
But for the Walt Disney Company, this made for a perfect canvas. The non-picturesque flat concrete land could easily be transformed into a bustling boardwalk with outdoor cafes, waterfront restaurants, neighbourhood parks, a marina, hotels and a luxury spa.
Though this wasn’t a standard Disney resort. The abandoned buildings around would be given new lives as cultural, entertainment and educational centres featuring the Disney Design Studio, Disney-Pixar Digital and Entertainment Arts Colleges, a University, hospitality school and more.
Disney wanted to create a whole community similar to Celebration in Florida. The close location to the city made it perfect for easy access from both roads and public transport. This would be a global vacation destination and would put Australia on the Disney map.
More Than Just A Resort.
Back in 2007 Disney Wharf at Sydney Harbour remained a secret under the codename ‘Project Lester’. Disney was under new management, with CEO Bob Iger taking over from Michael Eisner in 2005. Iger was right to keep the project secret, as Eisner had a habit of oversharing projects that never came to be and would ultimately damage the reputation of the company. Together with the NSW government, Disney cautiously laid down the plans in a 43-page, 10,000 word document.
‘Project Lester’ was an entirely new venture for Disney. The project was trying to break Disney out of their traditional theme park bounds, but apply similar tactics of storytelling through architecture, unique experiences and lively atmosphere in a more communal setting.
The idea of Disney Wharf was to integrate itself amongst Sydney almost more as a functioning suburb than a theme park.
“Set in a bustling urban waterfront environment steeped in history and overlooking beautiful Sydney Harbour, Disney Wharf is an exciting showcase for new ideas, innovative technology, entertainment, and creativity… People live, work, and play in Disney Wharf. “Page 5, Disney Wharf Document
The project consistently reflects on three words ‘Live. Work. Play’. It’s impossible to break down the entire project due to the sheer immensity, so we will attempt to highlight some of our most intriguing and exciting aspects of what could have been.
Live: Disney Magic in Your Own Backyard.
Disney Wharf was separated into various sections based on their purpose, though the exact details are difficult to interpret. Disney Wharf Town Centre and the Disney Wharf Boardwalk were two distinct areas of the Disney Wharf project that would be mostly dedicated to dining, shopping, recreation and accomodation.
Disney Wharf Town Centre was the heart of the community at Disney Wharf. It would feature a vibrant community hub with a rich mix of media companies, shops, businesses, and residences and would make use of the abandoned White Bay Power Station. The Power Station would be home to an ESPN zone, the Australia Sports Hall of Fame and apartments for residents to live in.
In a similar sense, the Disney Wharf Boardwalk was dedicated more to the tourist featuring many of the hotels and resorts.
The environment of Disney Wharf would feature several traditional hotels & resorts for tourists to stay at whilst they either explore the Wharf itself or the greater area of Sydney. It was also aime at providing people with residential opportunities aimed at creative individuals as Disney wanted promote the idea that Disney Wharf was an arts and entertainment community.
There were four hotels mapped out featuring both short and long term stay options. There would be Disney’s Yacht Club Family Resort, a luxury resort heavily inspired by the Yacht Club Resort at Walt Disney World. The Disney Village, an upscale residential arts community in the heart of Disney Wharf. Disney’s Bayfront Tower, a luxury mixed-use property for tourists and residents with a focus on urban living and Disney’s Grand Australian Hotel.
Following the trend of the Grand Californian and Floridian, the Grand Australian celebrates the beauty and grandeur of the Australian continent, it’s culture, rich historical legacy and people. Ironically whilst celebrating Australia, this hotel would most likely cater towards non-Australians with specifically “Overtly-Australian” themed restaurants, Australian art and artefacts featured throughout the hotel as well as the ability to visit native Koalas and Penguins.
The rest of the resorts are what you’d expect from Disney with themed shopping, restaurants and spas.
Disney were focused on creating a vibrant community amongst the bustling boardwalk for both locals and visitors. Community initiatives include public parks, jogging paths, the expansive boardwalk, a vibrant Town Centre, and Disney Wharf Marketplace.
The setting was meant to be as practical as it was entertaining with an example of the local bookstore featuring a daily storyteller for moms with toddlers, a busy indoor/outdoor marketplace with food, flower, and cheese vendors and street artists, part of a vibrant artists-in-residence program, showcase their masterpieces along the avenue.
The boardwalk would also feature Epcot World Showcase-style food and wine, music, and entertainment festivals would also bring out locals and tourists all year long.
Work: An exciting crossroads for the business of entertainment, arts media, innovation, and education.
And everyone who lived there required somewhere to work. Career opportunities for locals would benefit both Disney and the Australian technology, arts and entertainment fields with the introduction of Disney-Pixar Studios Australia, Disney Imagineering Creativity Centre and a plethora of opportunities behind the operation of the Wharf.
Disney described the Wharf as ‘an incubator new for talent’ and it’s dedication to the arts and entertainment is definitely impressive. Talented school and university groups as well as individuals would have the opportunity to perform at Disney’s Theatre District in front of large, appreciative crowds.
Disney’s Theatre District was one of the distinct areas of the Wharf that aimed to mirror the bustle and entertainment of New York’s Times Square & Broadway areas. The heart of the district was the Hyperion Theatre which would be home to Disney theatrical presentations such as Finding Nemo: The Musical, Tarzan, and Beauty & The Beast. It’s explicitly noted that these aren’t the Broadway versions of the productions and that they’d be more reminiscent of what you’d find in a Disney park or on the Disney Cruise Lines with shortened versions of the shows often limited to a maximum of 45 minutes. The purpose of this would most likely be for a higher turn around of guests and to appeal to school excursion groups.
Similarly to time square, the district would also feature international restaurants, unique clubs, themed dinner theatres and bars similar to what’s on offer at Disney Springs in Florida and Disney Village in Paris. Themed entertainment isn’t a large market in Australia, so it would provide a niche experience for both international and local visitors alike.
With a dedication to architectural design, storytelling and symbolism, Disney was ready to take their shot at creating a Sydney icon to go alongside the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. ‘The Point’, as it was referred to is purposefully vague but the soaring architectural symbol would take its place as the next generation architectural jewel on the Sydney Harbour. It’s interesting to imagine what might have been the next icon for Sydney especially looking at the various icons they have created for their parks over the years like the Disney Sea icon in California.
‘The Point’ would feature a large outdoor amphitheatre which would allow popular and cultural performers from Australia and around the world to showcase their talents, as well as the best in Australian and international culinary expertise with it’s world-class restaurants.
Nestled in between ‘The Point’ and the ‘Disney Wharf Town Centre’ was ‘Fantasia Gardens’. These gardens would serve as the interior central promenade for the Wharf connecting the several areas together and would be home to live performers, artists and a spectacular water display. Similar to the boardwalk, the area would also feature Epcot World Showcase style signature events such as food & wine, festival of the arts, and holiday events. The centerpiece of the Gardens would be a fanciful carousel adorned with Disney characters.
Play: Entertainment, enhanced learning, and recreation.
A lot of the information so far may suggest that this was simply a was an expanded Downtown Disney experience without a Disney theme park attached, however, a further look shows t he distinct separation which makes the project seem more like an amalgamation of the two ideas.
For the first time since the 1964 World’s Fair, Disney was prepared to feature their attractions outside of a Disney park. Featuring a small selection of rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight, Soarin’ over Australia and Toy Story Midway Mania, visitors would be able to get a taste of the magic offered at the full-scale Disney resorts. Because there no preset boundaries defined by a Theme Park, these attractions would be placed through the Wharf in different sections appropriate to their theme such as The Point housing Soarin’ Over Australia and Midway Mania being a highlight of the Disney-Pixar Experience, a museum-like venture through Pixar technology and creativity.
These attractions fueled the rumours that this project was actually a Disneyland, but the way in which their showcased around the Wharf suggests that Disney was prepared to feature their world-class attractions in an entirely new way and a way which we have never seen Disney do since.
Lacking the traditional ticket-gated monetisation method, Disney needed to reinvent the way in which they’d profit from the Wharf. “Tracks of Experiences” was the work in progress title for the new way in which Disney would make this profit. Instead of making all guests pay the same single priced entry ticket, Disney would create packages in which guests could purchase that would map out their day at the Wharf based on their interests and demographic factors. There were nine pre-determined ‘tracks’ ranging from Toddlers to Seniors, to Thrill Seekers with a spotlight on school groups for excursions and field trips.
Disney were taking education very seriously at the Wharf and it’s understandable why.
Disney are renowned for their attention to detail, extreme quality control and impeccable customer service. They wanted to provide students with the opportunity to learn from their qualities from their many tours, art galleries, and studios. For those wanting to go the extra level, Disney were going to partner with local universities to provide university level courses in hospitality, design, production and technology.
It seemed that they had everything thought out and that Disney were ready to take on the new frontier of the southern hemisphere. Disney Wharf at Sydney Harbour was bound to be an immense project, but immensity doesn’t come cheap.
It was estimated that for the infrastructure alone, the NSW government would need to invest close to $500m dollars into the project. You can understand the skepticism that the government would have placed upon Disney when a lot of benefits of the environment were for the high-end society. With an emphasis on luxury, being mentioned throughout the plans, many lower and middle class taxpayers would have been priced out of something which their taxes in-part paid to build.
And that’s not including the cost of the Wharf itself for Disney which would be estimated in the billions of dollars. At a time when Disney were already throwing around that sort of money on expansions to their current resorts, including the $1billion fix-up for DCA, I can’t imagine that they’d have much left over for this ambitious idea.
And thus, this document remains the very last public evidence of Disney wanting to bring their resort experience to Australia. From the Gold Coast Disneyland to Disney Wharf, we’ve come so close to some great experiences. One source who looked closely at the project commented “it was a fabulous site, close to the city, and instead of more million-dollar apartments, we thought why not look at something potentially more interesting. But in the end, it was difficult to get detailed proposals from them in writing, and there was always doubt over whether it could work.”
In Australia, Disney feels like a world away. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but it would be great to have some experiences to help tide us over. Though it begs the question: Would the existence of Disney Wharf take away from the magic of Disney and the potential of Australians wanting to visit the international parks?
It’s important to note that this concept was blue-sky thinking. Whilst a lot of thought and planning would have gone into it, it was barely practical. By the time you factor in budgets and engineering limitations, many ideas would fade away whilst others would take the limelight but it still would have been exciting to have seen the Disney Wharf we would have ended up with and get the slice of the Disney experience, a little bit closer to home
The Sun Sets on Disney Wharf
Some may wonder what the purpose is to focus on something so rudimentary. A central theme around much of our content is exploring the ‘what-if’. They provide an opportunity to think outside of the box and imagine how different the Disney experience we know and love could be. Even though this specific project was featured in Sydney, there’s no reason why Disney couldn’t have such a project in many major cities around the world. Projects such as this internationally would ultimately make the Disney experience far more accessible, especially in an era where many guests are concerned about being ‘priced-out’.
I believe Walt Disney said it best himself: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”