New Visit Anaheim CEO Pledges Fresh Start After Controversy. Plus: Disney’s Expansion

Becoming the top tourism boss for Anaheim ought to be a fairy tale dream, given that Disney plans to invest $2 billion in enhancing the city’s flagship attraction there. But Mike Waterman, who was named CEO of Visit Anaheim in April, has some tough issues to tackle.

Waterman’s predecessor, Jay Burress, resigned last November after allegations of wrongdoing at the destination marketing organization.

In January, California published a scathing audit of Visit Anaheim’s activities, finding oversight failures. Key findings included:

  • Visit Anaheim failed to properly account for tourism assessment funds.
  • It lacked meaningful oversight of contracts.
  • It improperly subcontracted $1.5 million in work to an entity controlled by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce without the required approval.

Making a Fresh Start

Waterman said he felt confident he could get past the controversies.

“My predecessor got caught up in some questionable activity, and there were some opportunities for me to come in and sort of apologize and say, it’s not going to happen again,” Waterman said.

“Bottom line is Jay didn’t do anything wrong,” Waterman said. “He just should have gotten board approval, and he didn’t. And unfortunately, that’s where it became problematic. If he had done that, it would’ve been a non-issue.”

As the new CEO, Waterman must help ensure that Visit Anaheim is fully transparent.

“I’ve come in [with] three principles,” he told Skift. “We’re going to be much more transparent, we’re going to be better communicators, and we’re going to be much more strategic in our approach towards growing the TID [tourist improvement district].”

A New Advisory Board

Anaheim’s city council recently instituted an advisory board to oversee Visit Anaheim, which was a recommendation from the state auditor.

Waterman clarified that many tourism improvement districts across the U.S. have advisory boards similar to this. These boards aren’t hands-on with oversight, he said, but are instead mainly about ensuring that best practices are in place. They also ensure that data is shared transparently and accurately with government officials.

Visit Anaheim now has a seven-person advisory board. Four members will be from the city, including the city manager and the Anaheim Convention Center CEO. Visit Anaheim gets to appoint the other members.

“It’s a group that meets twice a year and advises the city council on all things Visit Anaheim,” Waterman said. “This board will bring [city officials] back to the table, so to speak, to better understand how we spend money and how we strategize around our business plan.”

The city has chosen to maintain Visit Anaheim’s use of a tourism improvement district funding model. Under this model, city hotels charge guests an assessment fee that can only be used for tourism promotion and marketing. The city can’t redirect this income toward other purposes.

That model gives tourism bureaus more predictability over their funding than the traditional bed tax funding model, which is more prone to annual politicking. The model also typically includes fewer directives, allowing the board to focus on marketing and promotion — rather than being micromanaged.

Disneyland’s $2 Billion Expansion

In May, Anaheim’s city council approved a nearly $2 billion expansion of the Disneyland Resort over the next decade, called DisneyForward. Under the approved plan, Disney is going to repurpose some of its existing land for new theme park attractions, dining, entertainment and retail.

“Oh, it’s a complete game-changer. Disney’s going to virtually double its density without adding any more additional square footage of footprint,” said Waterman.

Construction on the project might start as early as this year and roll out to various attractions over the next decade.

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Visit Anaheim CEO and President Mike Waterman

Anaheim’s Golden Decade

Disney isn’t the only company hiking its investment in Anaheim. OCVIBE is undergoing an over $4 billion infrastructure improvement.

“The OCVIBE is going to be the entertainment capital of the West Coast, four times larger than LA Live,” said Waterman. “That will be a $4 billion to $6 billion improvement. All of the customer-facing components of OCVIBE will be open in 2028.”

The city also expects other fairly large commercial real estate tourism-related developments.

“The next 10 years are going to be the golden decade here in Anaheim because there’s over $10 billion of infrastructure improvement going to happen in the area,” Waterman said.

World Cup, Olympics, and Super Bowl

Anaheim will benefit from the global events nearby Los Angeles will host in the next few years. LA is hosting eight matches for the World Cup in 2026, the Super Bowl in 2027, and the Summer Olympics in 2028.

“We’re hosting the FIFA World Cup in LA / Orange County because they’re going to need to use our facilities,” said Waterman. “After all, LA can’t handle all of the teams.”

“In 2028, we have the Olympics in LA, and the men’s and women’s indoor volleyball teams are seriously considering using the Honda Center for the Olympics,” he said.

Tourists Come for Disney, But Anaheim Wants Them to Explore

Disney obviously already has a massive marketing budget. Visit Anaheim sees its role as mainly supplementary, promoting other local businesses and attractions like SeaWorld, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios.

“We know a lot of families come to Anaheim to see Disney,” Waterman said. “But Anaheim becomes their home base for five or six or seven days. We know our job is to get them to stay another day or two longer locally, seeing some of the other attractions.”

Next Big Campaign 

Last year, Visit Anaheim launched a successful marketing campaign called “Here We Go.” The campaign highlights Anaheim’s hidden gems.

“It’s been very, very successful for us,” Waterman said.

Visit Anaheim is launching a luxury campaign this week that is highlighting hotels and resorts including the Westin, the Jaw, the Grand California and the Viv.

“That’s something we’ve never done before.”

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