July 15, 2010

Disney Park Countdown- #5 Disney California Adventure

Drum roll, please... Coming in at Number 5- Disney California Adventure!

Once the laughing stock of the stateside Disney parks, Disneyland's younger sister is in the midst of a makeover fit for an ugly duckling. And what an ugly ducking it was!

Boasting the most unappealing entrance ever to a stateside park, DCA was an enormous failure for the company that produced it. Although the marketing frenzy was in full blitz upon its opening in 2001, the end result was a mish-mash of ideas and quality, and the public was smart enough to notice.

The place couldn't decide exactly what it was. Once inside, an ugly carnival made up the largest piece of real estate in the park, the Hollywood Backlot resembled a junkyard with all the exposed steel, and the quality and quantity of attractions made decades old Disney fans stand up and take notice for all the wrong reasons. The park was so cheaply designed, the concept art even looks mediocre! (Follow my "Bargain Basement Imagineering" series starting here.)

However, there were bits of elegance to be found in the Golden State forest and Winery, with small gems of attractions hidden inside the amazing Animation exhibit. Although the Wharf area consisted of only eateries, all combined these areas did give the park a slight World Showcase feel.

It's been almost a decade since opening, and the park has changed for the better overall. Things that were once weaknesses are beginning to be a small part of its strengths. In an economy still struggling, the many attractions that were imported from Walt Disney World are now saving me a trip to Florida!

I love The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Turtle Talk with Crush. Glad they are here, even if the former comes in an abbreviated form! Two 3D movies from Florida also show up - one from Animal Kingdom and one from the Studios, the Muppets. Then add in an Animation attraction that is better then the one in the Studios. The Great Movie Ride is the only attraction as an excuse left for visiting that Florida park. And it is one that will probably get passed over if I'm ever short on time.

As far as original attractions, Soarin' Over California, is a favorite! I still consider myself a Californian at heart, so flying over my home state never ceases to thrill me and add a tear to my eye. This attraction so perfectly fits in the park's Condor Flats area. Much more so than it ever can at Epcot's Future World! (But then, Crush fits so much better in The Seas pavilion!) Grizzly River Run seems like an entirely different attraction than the bland and too short Kali River Rapids, even though they are the same commonplace ride system. Lastly, as much as I hate the fact it is without a theme as strong as the other Disney coasters, California Screamin' is just too much fun! Still, there are not many unique attractions, unless you count the state fair types found in Paradise Pier- and I do not.

Of the newest additions, Tower aside, the Monsters Inc. dark ride succeeds the most. The story is great, and the execution far better than most of all the similar "C" ticket rides at Disneyland. Yes, I'd rank it up there- almost with Peter Pan! Other additions fall all over the scale. Bugs Land? Great theming, more carnival rides. Midway Mania? Fun and engaging but the park really didn't need it- aside from being the first piece of a Paradise Pier makeover. The theater presentation of Aladdin is the best Disney theme park production period.

Shopping? California Adventure is hardly worth the time and effort aside from Rushin' River Outfitters and Off the Page; the first for smartly themed outdoor gear and the second for Disney movie fans, as the place is filled with animation art and books on the subject. Everything else? Well, think High School Musical and Hannah Montana.

On the other hand, the dining options were once varied and plentiful, then shabby, and now getting better. (A coffeehouse inside a train? How cool is that?) I think the Disney suits decided its guests really love some great choices along the lines of those found at Epcot's World Showcase and Disney's Animal Kingdom. Looks like eateries and atmosphere for dining are going to get better and better- especially if the terrific Marachi Divas continue to play on the Wharf!

In 2010, we are almost at the half way point in the park's one billion dollar makeover. The results have focused on making the Pier truly a slice of paradise by revamping the steel rides with a fast and cheap cosmetic makeover. The changes to the games, shops, and restaurants are in process. A lavish Little Mermaid attraction is on the way. (Had they built the originally conceived Circle of Hands, would we ever see Mermaid?) There is finally a nighttime show- the well received World of Color. More is on thee way. (In fact, my blog series on California Adventure's art has transformed into a series entitled Imagineering a New Dream- and you can find it here.) As the park now stands, it currently holds some of my favorite attractions from Walt Disney World and will soon add a version of another (Radiator Springs Racers is Test Track transformed.)

Longtime readers of this blog might ask, "What changed your mind about California Adventure?" after noticing it is now above the two lesser parks in Florida. The answer is pretty simple. With a much better variety of attractions and experiences than at opening, the park is becoming a place that is just plain fun! It doesn't shove an agenda in your face like Animal Kingdom, and it isn't just an excuse to push the latest Disney film and its merchandise like the Studios. The future also looks bright with the coming Buena Vista Street and Cars Land. In fact, there is so much change coming, my next "Best Of" list may be revised in a few years.

Speaking of this list, like the transformation of California Adventure, we are also at the half way point. Just as the Walt Disney Studios Paris is in a (poor) class all its own, the three I just ranked are still many notches below the ones remaining. The Top Four ranked parks are so close to each other, it is making committing to my decision difficult. Very difficult.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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