November 16, 2009

Disney's Cosmetology Adventure

You know, it's just getting harder and harder to come up with new puns on the DCA acronym... so this was a desperate attempt, but it brought up some interesting observations about my latest visit there.

Call it what you will, extreme home makeover deluxe theme park edition or pick what suits your tastes, but California Adventure's billion dollar transformation really is making a difference- at least on the outside, on what we can see. The park we love to hate has started to look rather pretty in a few areas. The current content, Soarin' Over California aside, it is still a fairly odd experience, making the park more a strange and disjointed collection of attractions than anything that tells a story or cohesively holds together. At least that is what I saw and felt on last month's visit to the park. Change, however, is having its desired effect.

Paradise Pier looks much better than before now that Toy Story Midway Mania has taken its place next to the recently revamped Games of the Boardwalk. The buildings are what they should have appeared like at the park's opening in 2001. Wish I could say the same for Mickey's Fun Wheel and the soon to be constructed and revealed Silly Symphony Swings. The Fun Wheel glows brilliantly in the evening, but during the day it remains a glaringly unattractive piece of the pier. Yet, honestly, what really can be done to improve such ugly structures in such prominent places? That in itself is a problem the company is trying to answer.

There are so many undesirable elements left over from DCA 1.0, that the Imagineers had their work cut out for them. Ugly backstage areas masquerading as a backlot guests want to see? Absolutely. Giant steel structures with minimal theming? Check. An unbelievably poor excuse for a main thoroughway once guest enter the park? It's there. In some cases, stripping things down to the core is the only way to go, and thankfully it is happening.

In the midst of this overhaul, its feels much like hip and knee replacement for a 95 year old: It will be an improvement, but it will take much more than these two operations to get her in shape and feeling great. Before you think I sound ungrateful, pessimistic and negative, consider this: I did have some great moments at the park, and I do see positive change coming.

It was a day Southern Californian's take for granted- mid-80s, slight breeze, bright blue skies, very sunny. In other words, just perfect, even more so in the latter days of October. Since coming into the park right from Disneyland, I was already in a relaxed frame of mind. This was to my advantage as walking past the tile murals (they really are a beautiful piece of art!) into the very mundane mall greeting me, I was reminded of the poor design choices all around but wasn't bothered by them. Knowing they were soon leaving could have had its impact. That said, this place did feel different, and not exactly in a positive way.

Bakers Field's Bakery was my first pit stop. The California Zepher train provides a clever home for this cafe, so it's a great place for some freshly roasted coffee! The painting behind the counter and all the vintage photos set the mood with the train itself making for a uniquely terrific atmosphere. The place is great but unfortunately not around for long. I'll miss it. I really will. Had it not been for the High School Musical 3 show happening nearby, (maybe that is what put me in the wrong frame of mind when I entered the park), I would have stayed around, but I was annoyed by the intrusion and moved onto Condor Flats.

From my very first on line glimpse of the Fly 'n' Buy shop years ago, I knew I would really like this small section of the park. Although the merchandise is now much more generic, the shop itself is aviation/retro cool, a treasure trove of the kind of detail found in the park next door. I walked in searching for something fun to purchase, walked out and grabbed a Fastpass for Soarin', one of my favorite attractions ever. Considered a blue cheese burger and lunch nearby before moving on down the path into the backwoods of Northern California.

I only had one day at the resort- and it would be a lengthy one- so I bypassed the soaking I knew I would get on the rapids and ducked into the Rushin' River Outfitters. This shop, much like the Fly 'n' Buy, is really well done. There's no other way I can describe it.

At this point, I immediately understood what I loved and loathed about California Adventure. When its parts are well executed, the theme holds up. Since I love California but for years have now resided in Colorado, a visit to this park can feel like coming home. However, and with few exceptions, the best delivery of the product resides in the shopping and eating locations versus the attractions themselves. The prime example being the Wine Country Trattoria and what surrounds it. It's home is a gorgeous building with a small but delightful vineyard nearby. Yet the stellar little film about winemaking is nowhere to be found. There is the obvious contrast and problem - the restaurant and surroundings are grand while the attraction supporting the park's theme is now gone, minimal, or replaced by an emphasis on Disney/Pixar characters.

Coffee in hand, I wandered into Paradise Pier to see all the construction firsthand. Although the Bay area buildings are much improved, the transition from Grizzly Peak Recreation area into the miniature San Francisco still jolts. As I navigated the massive amount of construction walls, I knew I had arrived in the Pier.

Although I appreciate all the photos on line, until you see it for yourself, it is difficult to realize the massive undertaking of the project. The bay is a huge piece of property, and being that it now "belongs" exclusively to the Paradise Pier theme, what develops around it must be excellent. This area currently feels like half the park and will soon display the park's evening spectaular. It will be a challenge to pull off. For a Disney park guest accustomed to the elegance of New Orleans Square or the France showcase at Epcot, turning an ordinary carnival into something appealing will take much hard work, demolition, and magic. A giant Mickey head alone will not do it.

I stood in awe of the project and walked around viewing the work from all sides. It was then I understood I was a bigger geek than I thought: construction had become an attraction- and it was more appealing than a good portion of the ones directly around me.

Soon enough it was time for lunch. Choosing to dine at the giant food court known as the Pacific Wharf, I walked up to the now dragonless Asian eatery. I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch from the Lucky Fortune Cookery as the orange sauce was much better than expected and the portion hot and plentiful. I sat in the middle of the patio at a table purposely without an umbrella, soaking in the sun, the flavors, and the beautiful sounds of the Mariachi Divas. For a moment, I felt as if I was at Epcot's Mexico showcase. I lingered as long as I could but then decided it was time for a stop at Imagineering's Blue Sky exhibit before returning to Disneyland.

Taking the short walk across the way, I realized there were not really any major attractions around me as I viewed a quite large piece of the park. By choosing to go farther away, they would be found, but by and large, here was an entire expanse that was really just a parade and pedestrian route. Eateries and shops aside, of course.

Into the Blue Sky Cellar I went. Love this place! I left hopeful for the future of the park with the understanding that it would not just be the two major attractions that would make a difference in the feel of it. The necessary overhaul of Paradise Pier was just the beginning. Buena Vista Street was also on the horizon. With all these major operations happening on the surgeon's table, the most encouraging one comes from the biggest transplant of all- The Walt Disney Company is giving California Adventure a new heart along with its complete cosmetic makeover.

The new plans were a stark contrast to the park's origins. What should have been its heartfelt and warm elements at opening, the park entrance, Golden Dreams and Eureka, were either ill-designed by opting for the politically correct and trendy or had their budgets slashed to the point they quickly defined the park by their shortcomings instead of their grandeur. With the addition of unadorned steel rides, retread films, the lack of a nighttime show, and poor transitions and sightlines, it was clear this new brand of park was missing the high quality "Disney factor" found next door.

All the marketing genius to be had couldn't fool the public. The overall effect left many guests surprised, disappointed, angry, and ultimately unimpressed. In a rush to redeem the park and draw in the crowds, the aspects most enriching the oddly chosen California theme were unwisely preempted and sent packing. Quick fixes and trendy events were now the strategy. It was a poor choice of direction. The Walt Disney Company executives did not realize this until their far less elaborate version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was not the fix they imagined it to be. A new plan of attack was designed, and the gorgeous Blue Sky Cellar now showcases it.

In spite of the ongoing character infusion, the executives are attempting to give the park a soul. The new Buena Vista Street will infuse charm, warmth, and a sense of Walt's presence into the park. Whether this historical approach is the right direction remains to be seen, (thrilling those members of the Disneyland Historical Preservation Society), but this revamped entrance to the park will definitely be prettier and more enticing to guests compared with the unappealing area now there. As it currently stands, California Adventure's main avenue wilts in comparison to the streets of Downtown Disney just outside the park. Just seems wrong to me. What was the thought behind that decision?

Although the additions of both Carsland and The Little Mermaid will be debated by theme purists, they will be first class in execution as far as anyone knows. How the recent company restructuring of executives effects this, we shall see. Few visitors, myself included, will be able to resist an attraction through Ariel's world nor miss a thrilling car race through these desert. These two headliners will join flying over California and become the must-see hits of the park. They are designed with the entire family in mind. Finally. You can also include World of Color in that category as well, certainly a nighttime show on par with Epcot's stunning lluminations.

Walking out of the exhibit, it was now time to use my Fastpass. Needless to say, Soarin' still thrilled. I decided to return to Disneyland for most of the evening hours. There was currently not much to keep me in the park. I would wait for a trip into the haunted hotel when the lines were down, had just seen It's Tough to Be a Bug and Turtle Talk with Crush a few months prior, and a bunch of carnival rides didn't appeal. Soon, I was back at Main Street and into the Disney Gallery. Except for a quick return to California Adventure to see Mickey's Fun Wheel lit up and grab a quick ride on Tower and Screamin', I was happily finished with the park. I will wait for my next visit until Ariel pulls me in, as it is one of the favorite films of both myself and my Disney loving daughter.

Between now and 2012 when Phase One of the redo is complete, it appears as if guests to the park are being allowed to preview a brand new one being built before their eyes. I guess they really are, as a rebuild / refurbishment / enhancement of this scale to any Disney park has been unprecedented. The disruptions and construction is only going to get worse. If you choose to visit in the new year, be prepared for more walls, more workers, more transformation than ever. Much more, but it is the price we all must pay for Disney's mistakes.

It was on my mind to photograph much of what was disappearing in the transition, and the results are partially found in this post. In years to come, DCA 1.0 will not exist but in the minds of a few- and we'll all be so absorbed in new experiences and actually like the park that we'll forget about the past. 

Phase Two promises enhancements to Grizzly River Run and its mountain, changes to Condor Flats and more attractions in the Hollywood section of the park. Call me a skeptic, but just watching the painfully slow development of Disney's Animal Kingdom and the lack of attractions after Expedition:Everest makes me doubt we these will ever come to fruition. But here's hoping they do.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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