February 12, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Back to the Drawing Boards

Continuing on with our week long look at California Adventure at Ten Years (which starts here)...
To put it politely, California Adventure was the not astounding success the Walt Disney Company wanted for the Disneyland Resort in California. Most fans detested the park, staying away in record numbers, and when they did enter the park at full price, many were to be found complaining loudly at Guest Services.

The media, the press both traditional and on line, did not help matters. Word of mouth was consistently bad with the sole winner being seen as the great Soarin' Over California. But one attraction does not a crowd favorite make.

Visitors to the resort saw Paradise Pier from afar, rightly thinking "carnival", and this poor impression only kept them away as well. Sponsors began to drop out. Quick fixes like the extreme sports presentations and "sure fire" attractions pulled from the planned "Phase Two"like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror didn't do much for attendance. Even the wonderful Tower was reduced to a second hand version of Disney's Hollywood Studios sole masterpiece. This misstep only reinforced the perception that Disney was not in fact serious about turning this into a high quality park. Behind the scenes, once it was clear that this new and expensive addition didn't pull in the crowds, it was back to the drawing boards to reinvent the park.

Word was leaking out that California Adventure was due for a major overhaul. Al Lutz over at MiceAge, with perhaps the best connections within Disney halls regarding California, spilled the secrets early. The park would in fact be redone to correct past mistakes, giving it a brand new focus on Walt Disney's arrival in California.

Eventually, CEO Robert Iger wisely (or reluctantly)admitted the park hadn't met expectations, and along with a proposed one billion dollar plan to fix it, earned much respect from fans. Imagineering a New Dream began, and California Adventure 2.0 was soon on its way. It started small. Let's take a look at some art for the expansion while I interject my insights along the way.

Pixar Play Parade

This fun little parade /interactive experience was pleasing to the crowds, but it was another clear move away from the California theme. Pixar was the name of the game as its movies continued to go from massive success to massive success, something the Walt Disney Company could not pull off with their animation division.

Toy Story Midway Mania

The first major addition to the park since Tower was not a project originally announced with the billion dollar makeover. Instead, it was announced prior to it. On line "insiders" claimed it would change the entire look and feel of the pathetic Paradise Pier. In some ways, Disney delivered what was promised.

Toy Story Midway Mania is a fun little cruise through the Pixar world. I find, however, three main problems with this addition. One- its brings even more film based attractions to a park already filled with them. Two- The attraction was again duplicated in Florida, depriving bi-coastal fans from yet another reason to visit the Disneyland Resort. Three- the Imagineers were again repeating themselves as they moved away from the California theme. Much too similiar to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin/AstroBlasters just across the way.

Blue Sky Cellar

In a move with more savvy than used in creating the park, Disney management deemed it absolutely necessary to house a preview of coming attractions for the park- especially if they intended to keep the crowds coming while the place was torn to shreds. A makeover of a Disney park had never been done like this before- more than 50% of the park would be undergoing a major remodel- and it was important to create enthusiasm for the billion dollar investment over the years it would take to change the mistakes from the first attempt.

Replacing the beautiful Seasons of the Vine film, The Blue Sky Cellar became a popular attraction in its own right, only proving once again that us Disney park fans would clamor to see what was new and upcoming! Love the concept art!

New Paradise Pier

The remodeling of Paradise Pier was a necessity if the company would in fact convince tourists to give the park another try. This created a long list of improvements, some successful, others short changed. All needed since the company took the cheap way out the first time around.

Games of the Boardwalk

Stuck with an infrastructure that made a changing of theme entirely impossible (sans dismantling California Screamin') Disney started off by characterizing the miserable little carnival games Walt detested and avoided at Disneyland. The end result was certainly more attractive with its buildings revamped to a more genteel era.

Mickey's Fun Wheel

The iconic Sun Wheel was a poor choice to begin with, but turning it into Mickey's Fun Wheel didn't make it any better. The only improvement was the lighting package and some new signs. The ugly concrete walls of the queue and lack of the boardwalk hinted at by the model in the Blue Sky Cellar brought to mind the debacle of the Tower of Terror addition: It promised much and delivered little.

Grand Californian Expansion and Disney Vacation Club Units

Never one to miss a beat when it comes to cash from lodging versus investing in a park, the Disney Company expanded the vacation club offerings at the Grand Californian Resort. Certainly the land could have been used more creatively to expand a park cramped for space. Yet, if the addition generated income produces more cash for park expansion, I will see it as a necessary evil. Problem is, the company has not convinced me of that goal when I look at what as happened in Walt Disney World in Florida!

Silly Symphony Swings

Aside from the incredibly offensive Maliboomer, the ugly Orange Stinger revealed how little the business side of the Walt Disney Company understood of what made a great park. Hip and edgy never seemed so unattractive.

In its remodeled version into the Silly Symphony Swings, it is still the same ride but better. It is much more fun to glide out in the open over the bay. If this were the only swing based ride, I could accept it, but with the Golden Zephyr right next door, it is an unnecessary thing. the building housing the ride does create some great little nooks for sitting and photography however.

World of Color

Finally, a real hit when it opened. When the original Imagineering team was told to forget a nighttime show in the great Disney tradition, it was a sad sign for the future of the park. Evening draws of great magnitude bring in the dinner crowds, increase spending, and keep guests in the park. The shortsightedness of the executives in this area was consistent with their overall view and execution of the park.

World of Color changed this immediately. Disneyland's Fantasmic! would pale in comparison to this incredible show. The Imagineers, under the leadership of the talented Steve Davison, created a masterpiece on par with Epcot's stunning Illuminations. This beautiful show is now the must see event at the Disneyland Resort, making the years of construction ugliness worth it. The gardens/viewing area is not as beautiful as originally conceived, but that is a small complaint.

Goofy's Sky School

Here's a place where I have to agree with some yet-to-be Imagineers. This attraction needs to be torn down or enclosed and given a complete and compelling makeover. The park's opening day Mulholland Madness only strengthened the cheap aspect of California Adventure, and the Goofy's Sky School makeover is on par with what has happened to the Sun Wheel and Orange Stinger.

Far better ideas are out there, including this one which was imagineered years ago. Sure, the structure already looks better with its proposed changes, but the lipstick on a pig analogy fits here.

The Little Mermaid /Ariel's Undersea Adventure

In response to the all-too-accurate cry of "There's no great Audio-Animatronic attractions like at Disneyland", the Imagineers resurrected an old idea for bringing the beloved animated movie of 1989 to the park in a full length extravaganza. Wise move! Mermaid is beloved for many reasons, and its timeless story reasonates with the generations.

Unfortunately, the creation of the attraction comes at a price. California Adventure is again robbed of a unique draw as Ariel's Undersea Adventure is the centerpiece of the revamped Fantasyland in Florida's Magic Kingdom. (Does anyone sense a disturbing pattern here?)

No matter, on the heels of World of Color and a 85% revamping of Paradise Pier, a Little Mermaid attraction will make a fine addition to a park that needs all the help it can get to recoup the large investment needed to fix it!

New Entrance to the Park and Buena Vista Street

Logically, the whole entrance area both inside and outside the gates to California Adventure marked the first major blunder in design. Do not misunderstand, I really liked the tile murals and the giant letters- but then the park delivered a mall quality entrance area which reversed and sense of intrigue the park might have built. First impressions are only created once, and this was not the one needed. Along with the removal of the Maliboomer, the remodeling of these areas will be one of the best advertisements that Disney means business this go around.

Not thrilled with the reuse of the gates from the Disney Hollywood Studios, but I can live with that because the area inside the gates make for a pretty terrific change. Like the entrance gates, there will be more than a nod in similarity to the park formerly known as Disney-MGM. Thankfully, we get a full blown recreation of the Carthay Circle Theater at the end of the street instead of the giant Sorcerer Mickey's hat! Now, what they put into it will be interesting. Private club, shopping, or a new version of the Blue Sky Cellar. With the Red Car Trolleys making its route nearby, a nice park fountain, and plenty of places to rest and dine, this should put guests minds at rest. This is a Disney park.

Should Carsland remain exclusive to the West Coast, it will put California Adventure on the radar of theme park lovers. That is a big if, as development and production costs keep soaring with some claiming Radiator Springs Racers to be the most expensive Disney attraction ever built- including Epcot's Mission:Space.

This loving tribute to Pixar, I mean Route 66, will be the place to go day or night. The atmosphere will be rich, the shops unique, and the attractions a mix of updates on old favorites. In spite of the obvious character references, I cannot wait to see this land come to life.

Hollywood Pictures Backlot

The Red Cars from Buena Vista Street will end up here as well, but major revisions to Hollywood Pictures backlot- including a name change- are on the horizon. That will be part of the next article to come on the California Adventure saga.

As we learned last time earlier in this series, the end result speaks louder than concept art, so let's just hope the Walt Disney Company does the right thing and follows through with what they have planned. This will be their last chance to prove a second day at the Disneyland Resort is worth the wait!

As we continue with this series, come back tomorrow for something new...

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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