December 11, 2009

Imagineering Tries Again: Bargain Basement Version 1.5

Note: I had so much fun offering Bargain Basement Imagineering 1.0 a few weekends ago, I thought I'd repost the 1.5 version. Remember 2.o is on line as well! Also, Tomorrowland Mondays continue next week. Enjoy!
Once the Grand Opening of Disney's California Adventure was behind them, the executives of The Walt Disney Company waited for the crowds to come- and waited and waited and waited.

Early renderings, models and posters of the park communicated poorly- or maybe accurately, prominently featuring the carnival side of California Adventure and the film making aspects, things that could be found at other southland amusement parks.

Bad weather, the economy, misunderstanding of the park- all these reasons were given as to why the crowds didn't materialize. Why didn't the public appreciate groundbreaking attractions like a small area of crops and a tractor display? What was wrong with carnival attractions that could be found at state fairs? Eventually, reality set in: Disney had tried to sell the park as the peak of Imagineering efforts, but the public saw through all the hype and advertising.

The original Magic Kingdom, Disneyland, was doing just fine, thank you, but its newer sister park was clearly the less favored ugly duckling. The numbers were dimsal. Park managers and sponsors were less than delighted.

From the guest standpoint, surveys seemed to indicate that Disney had forgotten much about what made a beloved park. There were too few attractions for families, too many film-based theater shows, clones of secondary draws from Walt Disney World, and overall very little magic and theme.

The most oft criticized area was Paradise Pier, a modern version of an old seaside amusement park. Unfortunately, this area was executed as a cheap version of a Six Flags park- full of iron rides with little originality or dressing. The park entrance, dubbed the Sunshine Plaza, was said to create a "hip and edgy" vibe for the park, but more excitement was to be found at the very places it emulated: Southern California shopping malls.

The only true new and winning area seemed to be the Golden State, an area that most celebrated the California theme. Even that district was not without it problems, as fans realized the park's icon was a beautifully designed mountain that held a mundane and off the shelf raft ride. Adjacent was an imaginative children's play area themed to California's mountain landscapes. The raft ride, what should have been an incredible attraction, was just passable- much like most of the park. There was one bright spot- Soarin' Over California, and that soon made its way to Epcot, stripping this struggling park of its one jewel.
Something had to be fast as the park was quickly becoming the laughingstock of the theme park and entertainment industry. When it became impossible to change public opinion, the next best plan of attack was to add to the park and add to it quickly. So now, here is a compilation of concept art for the next stage of this poorly executed second theme park at the Disneyland Resort.
A quick addition was made to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! This guest experience was based on the over exposed television show. It was a fun attaction, but really did nothing to bring in the crowds. Once the television show lost its audience, so did the attraction, closing quickly thereafter.

This rush to bring in guests had another down side. Once proposed attractions for the Backlot area were now abandoned. This included the immensely fun Armageddon special effects show built at Walt Disney Studios Paris.

In an effort to bring more Disney to the park, characters were added and the unique California flavors were decreased. The wonderful Eureka parade gave way, and Disney announced that Flik's Fun Fair, a kid oriented play area, and a reworked (but less impressive) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror would soon be added.

One of the odder choices for an attraction in Disney theme park history was Superstar Limo. This journey through Hollywood streets was so unpopular that it was shuttered in 2002. Speculation on a replacement ranged from a reworking of the original theme to a classic Disney character filled excursion to appeal to children.

The characters did end up inhabiting the stomping ground of Superstar Limo, however, they were Pixar characters from the popular Monsters Inc. film. Making its debut in 2006, this attraction made great use of its previous work on a fairly reasonable budget. Certainly, the attraction was as good as any smaller dark ride in Disneyland, but all these changes were not enough. Additionally, this choice signed a new change in strategy- California seemed to be on its way out, characters, and Pixar chracters in particular, were on its way in. This trend would start with the earlier inclusion of A Bug's Land in 2002.
Once Disneyland's 50th anniversary was complete, the focus would reshift to its smaller, less charming sibling. It seems the Disney executives finally understood they couldn't fool the consumer with a second rate park. With a new Chief Executive came a big announcement and much money accompanied with it. Did the company really understand? Time will tell. They have one last chance to convince the public that California Adventure is a real Disney quality park. Will they follow through with the eleborate plans, concepts and models in the Blue Sky Cellar? Stay tuned...
(All concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Special thanks to Brett Garrett from Visions Fantastic for his photo of the first piece.)
As my computer has recently crashed and I lost a lot of files, feel free to send me pieces of concept art YOU have. I will gladly add them to this or future posts! Thanks.


Epcot82 said...

I like your recap, but it repeats an oft-held belief, that DCA failed from the start. Attendance-wise, it did, and there are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which was that it opened just as the dot-com bubble burst, which had a big impact on the economy. Seven months after its opening came the 9/11 attacks, so fate intervened with DCA very quickly.

Perhaps without realizing it, you've upheld Disney's core belief: That without "Disney," a Disney theme park isn't successful. Thus, when DCA is refurbished, we'll basically see a Disney-ized version of DCA, which might as well just be "The Other Land" of Disneyland.

My take is this: DCA needed tweaking, not overhauling. The quickly slapped-together rides like Mulholland Madness and the Golden Zephyr needed complete rethinking. Superstar Limo was closed instead of being overhauled, which is (I'm a minority of one, probably) a big shame since the underlying concept was a sound one. (Hey, it's basically the same concept that propels the story of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.)

The Golden State area's Monterey Wharf and winery sections weren't bad ... they just were concepts that Disney had no idea how to sell. Twenty years earlier, Disney could have made these sections fantastically successful, but the current (and recent) marketing and operations teams at DLR really didn't know how to position these correctly.

Likewise for the park. DCA was intended as a "discovery park," much like EPCOT Center, Animal Kingdom or the earliest incarnation of Disney-MGM Studios. It was infinitely more successful creatively than the Disney Studios Paris, a lousy park by any stretch of the imagination. But DCA worked. It actually got great reviews when it opened, something that's easy to forget.

But it wasn't revolutionary, and that's more or less what Disney had promised. Following the blockbuster mentality in the film industry -- whereby a film is branded a failure if it's not hugely popular right out the gate -- Disney's marketing folks set themselves up for a fall with DCA.

And instead of letting the park grow and mature and develop, Disney has panicked.

EVERY Disney theme park that has ever opened has struggled in its first few years. Open during a recession, and things get even worse. There was a very clear, very well-known pattern to the way DCA went ... and Disney ignored it.

DCA was a completely different park than Disneyland, and that's something Disney is trying to fix. But it was not going to "go away." It would, once built, always remain there, which meant its big opportunity was to refine its theme, explain itself and improve its offerings. You know, a lot like Disneyland itself did over the last five decades.

Epcot82 said...

Whether it had been WESTCOT (a stupid name) or Disney's America, whether it had been Disneyland II or Disney's California Adventure ... no matter what, this park would have suffered negative comparison to Disneyland, which is literally yards from its front gate.

I've always held that DCA worked nicely enough in its first couple of years. The problem wasn't the park -- the problem was the Internet and executives who needed to justify their bonuses.

Golden Dreams was a lovely show with a terrific song. Make a few adjustments, it could have been really exquisite. California Screamin' is a good, popular roller coaster that nicely anchors the park. Create a few dark-ride style moments in Grizzly River Run and you'd have a much better attraction. Remove the Redwood Challenge and open a dark ride themed to, say, a Jack London novel and you would have had a nicely themed addition. Add Disney characters to Superstar Limo and you could have saved tens of millions of dollars by keeping the basic ride. (Remember the Mickey cartoons of the '30s when he was going to movie premieres? There ya go!)

There were lots of little adjustments and additions that would have emphasized the California theme. Laugh if you will, but most Angelenos and Southern Californians DON'T go to the Sequoias and the Sierra, they don't go to Gold Country and the Central California coast ... so this really was the right theme.

I don't lament the "bygone days" of DCA, but I do think Disney has had a ridiculously overwrought reaction to the "problem," which has been fomented by online fan reaction. Disney needed to trust itself with DCA ... and it didn't.

Mark Taft said...

Great thoughts!

Don't misunderstand, I loved the California theme of DCA but most of its execution fell flat, in my opinion. You can read one or more of my many posts on DCA and get that viewpoint. Or my trip reports on the WDW parks and see what I really like.

I'm not thrilled about the character infusion, but I am glad for Mermaid and Radiator Springs Racers.

I was not trying to say "Disney" equates with adding characters to the park, instead only that the Disney magic was missing. The Imagineers most excellent work was budgeted out. I would have loved a sophisticated discovery park like Epcot (My favorite Florida park) but DCA was not it either.

I do not recall reading one favorable view of DCA but I do not live in Southern California either.