February 8, 2010

Steps in Time: California Adventure's Grand Opening 2001

Disney's California Adventure theme park opened 9 years ago today. The newest playground in Anaheim, and the long planned younger sister to world-renowned Disneyland, debuted to great expectations for fan and company alike.

I was among those hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. The park's preview center did not excite me, as I was savvy enough to look past the artwork and models to discover what I heard was true: this park was clearly built to satisfy the need for a second park, but the Walt Disney Company was delivering a sub par product designed solely for profit and not for the love of the art of Imagineering.

The preview guide to the park tells a story all its own. Yes, there were gems to be found here, but by and large the development was filled with hand me downs from Florida and reproductions of rides found at numerous county fairs all over America.

The Eureka parade was one of the park highlights. Silly theme song aside, (Disney should never go for "trendy" in music or park execution), this parade was full of energy and a bit of class. The performers gave 100% and the floats excellently delivered tribute to the state and the people who call it home.

The full blown fold out map (click on the image for a very large view) promised new and special places to explore, but ultimately the park offered only a couple of world class draws. As with the attractions themselves, even the "districts" within varied greatly in quality.

Beyond the gorgeous tile murals and giant C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A letters at the front of the park, a poorly designed and cheaply executed "Entry Plaza" signaled this was a new era in Disney entertainment. Instead of immersive and thoughtful, this was a pedestrian area merely "good enough"; one to be found in any shopping mall nationwide. Garish and uncreative, this was a bad beginning to an overall mediocre experience.

Thankfully, as guests turned right off the plaza, Condor Flats came into view. As part of the central Golden State district, this all too small area was filled to the brim with a nod to California's roots in aviation. The park's premier draw, Soarin' Over California was the perfect blend of thrill and mild travelogue. Through the use of newly developed ride technology, this filmed journey through the state drew raves and rightly so.

The neighboring Grizzly Peak Recreation area offered a fairly common raft adventure amidst spectacular landscapes. Waterfalls, rock work, and grottoes enhanced this white water attraction, raising it far beyond the earlier completed Kali River Rapids from Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. An imaginative playground rounded out the area.

A series of films flesh out the Golden State, each with varying degrees of success. The Whoopi Goldberg based excursion Golden Dreams showcased state history in a heart warming and politically correct manner. Now removed, the film was not a disaster but neither was it one that warranted repeat visits. Pacific Wharf, an area inspired by Monterey Bay's Cannery Row, the two small films on bread and tortilla making are only note worthy due to the free samples given out during the latter's factory tour.

It's Tough to Be a Bug, also right from the Animal Kingdom, is a bit of fun for those loving to be scared, poked and spit at. It's a stretch thematically, but it is a crowd pleaser.

The most successful of the area's films was to be found at the Golden Vine Winery. Housed in a small theater, the short presentation known as Seasons of the Vine brought a bit of Epcot's elegance and class to a mundane park. The soundtrack was as delightful as the film!

From this point, Disney's California Adventure begins to fall apart. The Paradise Pier area is one of the poorest excuses for a themed area that Disney has ever built. As seen in this opening day map (above), the area is filled with roadside carnival rides, cheap midway games and one magnificent- if unthemed- roller coaster! California Screamin' ranks among the company's best thrill attractions. Not for its great story and landscapes but for the adrenaline rush it provides. Day or night, it is one terrific experience.

Leaving behind the pier, the Hollywood Pictures Backlot concludes the offerings at the park. From the awful Superstar Limo- the park's only dark ride- to the beautiful Disney Animation exhibits, the area is completed by the Muppets 3D film and a great theater offering the Steps in Time musical.
To the observant, a few things were instantly clear:

1- The park is filled with film based attractions, county fair rides, repeats from Florida, and very few original attractions.
2- Budgets were slashed midstream during the park's construction. The end result is a park that feels incomplete and less than atmospheric.
3- Shops and restaurants are the true stars of the park, with lavish budgets given to create a strong pull for guests to be constantly opening their purses and wallets.
Guests were not fooled by this lackluster park. Long lines formed at Guest Services for complaints, refunds, and complimentary passes to Disneyland. Visitor numbers dwindled as the press reported what they saw. Even The Simpsons television show parodied and lampooned the place. The park was a creative failure and a financial flop. Disney had a public relations nightmare on its hands.

Stunned, Michael Eisner and the suits in Burbank rushed to revive their dying newborn. Plans were quickly put into place to add new excitement and shows. The next chapter of California Adventure was about to begin- and much sooner than the company expected.

(Images copyright The Walt Disney Company.)
One of the most popular series on the Insights and Sounds blog is focused on California Adventure's concept art. It's a multipart look at the initial designs, what was done to revive the park after opening, and plans for the park's total transformation as announced by Robert Iger. The "Bargain Basement Imagineering" and "Imagineering a New Dream" series begins here.


TokyoMagic! said...

Very well put, indeed! I just discovered your blog and have been enjoying reading past posts! I somehow forgot the anniversary of DCA....unless it was an unconcious thing and I really didn't want to address it anyway. I've only mentioned it maybe three or four times ever on my blog. It is not one of my favorite Disney parks! What a shame that they didn't build Westcot as originally planned.

Mark Taft said...

Thanks for the comments- it helped me discover your blog, too!