October 28, 2010

California Adventure: Disney's Complete About-face

If Walt Disney World guests cover the gamut of shapes and sizes, it seems the guests of Disneyland and California Adventure comprise an entirely different lot. During my visit last week, I was surrounded by young blonde beauties with silicone enhancements in all the right areas and blindingly white teeth, and young men with jet blackened hair or none at all, bronzed faces, bulging biceps and perfectly placed tattoos. It was Southern California's Ken and Barbie show for the new century! But it was also a good complement and imagery to describe the transformation of Anaheim's second Disney theme park.

California Adventure has truly become Disney's Complete About-face. Eschewing the "hip and edgy" focus of 2001, this Disney ugly duckling is changing rapidly. The new-park-in-the-making is heading back to the future with immersive theming, Disney charm, and old school, story-rich attractions. The wait is half over as the surgeons complete their work.

Having been to the Disneyland Resort last year about the same time- and the differences in this park (and my trip report and impressions) couldn't be more different than if I was comparing the park of 2001 to the park of today. I had one day to cover both parks this time. Thankfully, it was an overcast day, so my one day park hopper- along with some advance planning- brought me 23 attractions between two parks, leisurely strolls for exploration, and a "blue" ticket for World of Color. For this post, I'll focus on California Adventure alone.

Having seen all the latest photo updates, I thought I'd had a good feel for the current state of things. I was wrong. Nothing beats first person visuals. Approaching the gates, it was rather strange to see the right mural dismantled, and later, the sun sculpture following suit. With half of Paradise Pier behind walls and the Bountiful Valley Farm area a distant memory, the whole of the park felt under the knife of surgery. Much like Heidi Montag before and after- and during.

The line for a World of Color ticket was the longest line I waited in all day for either park- about 15 minutes- and I was at the gates just minutes after opening. Going into Condor Flats, I was reminded how much I liked this area of the park and just how much I disliked the fact that Fly 'N' Buy had become another generic Disney merchandise location versus the unique offering it once was. Not too sure about how Fastpass for the show worked, so I skipped getting one for Soarin' Over California, the one attraction at California Adventure that I never miss. No worries, my wait later on was one single ride cycle. In fact, I never bothered with another Fastpass all day.

The not-too-golden ticket in hand, Grizzly River Run just seemed like a bad idea at the time, so I wandered through bathroom row (San Francisco), turned into Paradise Pier and headed for Silly Symphony Swings. Beautiful building, well positioned, and a very enjoyable ride over Paradise Bay. Very enjoyable solo ride. No other person in sight. What a difference being out in the open air made instead of being inside a peeling Orange Stinger! Touring the lower level of the building after the ride, I was impressed with the thought and detail put into this simple makeover. And I loved Mickey on top. Well done.

Rounding the bend and passing the now defunct Maliboomer was a joy. Continued straight on to California Screamin', passing Toy Story Midway Mania- which posted a forty minute wait already. No single rider line, so it wasn't worth the wait. Not a must see in my opinion.

I had the pleasure of riding the coaster next to someone who hadn't ridden before, her husband betting she wouldn't do it. Laughing through the entire ride once we were past the launch, she kept saying how smooth this was. California Screamin' is a great coaster- and it will be even better with a fresh coast of paint and perhaps even a new queue. The coaster looks horrible- dirty and tired- but the ride is as great as always. The cheap queue and set up do this attraction an injustice.

Glanced at the renamed Paradise Pier Ice Cream Company. Nice changes, nothing more. But it was a reminder to me of how much time we Disney park lovers have invested in watching California Adventure's transformation live and on line. We / I have made so much out of even the littlest changes. Before anyone yells "Fault", I think it is a compliment to Disney Imagineering that we are so passionate about their work. It's brand loyalty the suits love when we spend cash and heap praise; one they disdain (and maybe even mock) when we rightfully attack a poor product or project. The truth is, you cannot have one without the other.

By this point in the morning, I was ready for a brief stop at the Winery tables before entering the Blue Sky Cellar. Sitting there, it hit me how much this park has in common with Florida's Animal Kingdom in one important aspect. In both parks, a sunny day makes all the difference in the world.

With so many of the attractions outdoors, California Adventure designers rely on beautiful weather by the hand of God to complete the perfect lens through which to view the park. When it is sunny and bright, the lush greens of the Golden State's pines provide the perfect backdrop for the sparkling waters around it. The geysers' spray dances in the sun, making getting drenched much more fun. Attractions alongside Paradise Bay have a bit more allure. Even the rather pedestrian streets of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot seem welcoming. On a cloudy and overcast day, the lines are short, but the trade off is the park feels drab and its shortcomings are more obvious.

Surveying the work for Cars Land and the incredible looking Radiator Springs Racers, I had one thought in mind: I cannot wait for this to open! Route 66 belongs here, and the towering bluffs will finally create a berm from the outside world, allowing more magic to shine through. Greatly detailed buildings and beautiful neon at night- it's a bit of Disney's Hollywood Studios best atmosphere given a west coast twist. And what can I say that hasn't been said about the land's premier attraction? Cars is not my favorite Pixar movie by a long shot, but the film segment where the characters race through the land is made for an attraction. Test Track rocks, so it is a great match of story and technology. I'll ride Racers every visit just like I do Soarin'. More Disney is a good thing here. Let's just hope the show elements remain working, unlike the Yeti at Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest!

It was time for Tower of Terror- and a look at the construction surrounding the coming Red Car Trolleys. The ability to connect through Flik's Fun Fair is an improvement in traffic flow. The area is one of the best designed and most charming in the park, and too many adult visitors have missed it in the past.

Ever ridden the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with only three other people? I did for the first time. Going into the library and then the empty boiler room is an entirely different experience. I slowly explored a few references to the television show. Nice not to be rushed by the folks behind me, but kind of creepy, too. It would be even creepier with a darkened lobby at the beginning to set the tone. However, this was the one time the darkened skies added to the atmosphere. In fact, for a brief moment I wondered if the lightning was real.

Before returning to Disneyland, I wandered into the Blue Sky Cellar, noticed much hadn't changed since my last visit, and decided to return to this park an hour or two before lining up for World of Color.

Flash forward several hours. I stopped in Baker's Field Bakery for a treat and a cup of coffee. Dusk was approaching in about two hours, and I wanted to pause and sit by the train and take in the details found in this soon to be demolished area. The California Zephyr is one of the few original pieces of California Adventure that I will miss. It's elegant with great visual impact and true to theme. Sun Icon- adios. Golden Gate Bridge- goodbye. Maliboomer- see you later. Sun Plaza- meet Buena Vista Street! No loss to any of the old ugly pieces of the past. But to lose this train, a great piece of real history and simple charm- not a good idea. Not at all. Attention Imagineers: If you find a home in this park for the train, you'll win many fans. It fits the new theme beautifully. Walt was a railroad buff after all.

Finishing my coffee, a bit of hang gliding was next on my agenda. Front row- first time since my first visit in 2001. Nice, really nice. Being a Californian in Colorado, Soarin' always brings a tear to my eyes.

Since the skies had warmed up, I jumped in a nonexistent line for Grizzly River Run. What a blast to ride as the sun is disappearing into the horizon. The details on the ride seem to be increasing, and I hear there are more to come. (Were there always "miners" sound effects in the caves?) For water rides as these, the other riders make or break the journey, and in this case, a nice crew from Northern California were the perfect rafters to share a journey with.

Almost time to queue for World of Color, but I had time for a trip to Monstropolis. Again, no line. The quirky Superstar Limo was laughable in not a good way. I was worried Disney would continue to "cheap out" as they transformed the ride to Monsters Inc, but they did not go the route I expected. Monsters is among my favorite "C" ticket dark rides in any Disney park. Mike, Sully, and Boo are great characters, the effects terrific, and the storyline great fun.

Time for the nighttime spectacular. The thirty five minute wait passed rather quickly due to the color patterns on the Fun Wheel. The set up is rather messy, and I much prefer the take your chances approach used for Disneyland's Fantasmic. Personally, I think this is just the suits way of presenting World of Color as an event. If it is difficult to see and expensive to do it the best, it must be something special. Guess it works.

Much has been written about this new century Disney extravaganza, so I keep it brief. The music soars, the images are somewhat blurry, a story is unnecessary, and the water fountains bring a brand new dimension to the night. I just wish the after show would have lasted longer. Being in the back of the viewing area, I could easily see the higher streams shooting up, but the richer amazing colors of the smaller jets were harder to see. As with Epcot's Illuminations, the Imagineers' new show is a fitting way to end the evening, but I wish it were only the beginning of a few more hours to tour the park at night. California Adventure has always shone better after dark, and riding Screamin' over a neon lit bay is a different thrill than riding during the day. Why not get more play out of all that atmosphere from the Pier in the evening?

I ended my Disney day at this point, aside from a walk through Downtown Disney. I strolled through the night tired but happy as I realized the Disney Magic was finally ready to strike twice in Anaheim. I do not get to Walt Disney World very often, as family is in Southern California not Florida. My Disney fix comes from the west coast. To say I was disappointed in California Adventure in 2001 would be saying the obvious.

When the calendar hits 2012, it will be a difficult choice should I have only one day to visit a park. I'll always love Disneyland, but at least for awhile, I'll have a love affair with the other park once she's been through surgery. She's working hard to earn my love, and she's almost ready for her second debut.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

1 comment:

Rob's Help Desk said...

Excellent review! I agree that they should find a new home for the train. I'm giddy over the changes at DCA and find myself constantly checking for construction update photos. I have boys who cannot wait to race through Radiator Springs in 2012.