February 9, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Bargain Basement Imagineering 1.0

Continuing on with our look at Disney's California Adventure after ten years, here's an article showcasing the original concept art for the park. It is not always the best work of the Imagineers, but they did what they could with a vastly scaled down version of what was originally planned!

I had no idea this series would be so popular when I first posted it! More than two years later, I am still adding pieces of concept art to it (even recently!), and even more text. Therefore, the article remains a continual favorite. Remember, this is Part One of a multi-part series. Lastly, enjoy this article and come back tomorrow as we continue our look at the park ten years into its opening!


In 2011, Disney fans around the globe are constantly checking out the beautiful new Blue Sky Cellar at California Adventure. It seems more than appropriate to look back on what was actually built come opening day. Why? First, it will help us keep all this new and wonderful concept art for the park's remodel in perspective. 

Remember, what is in the Blue Sky Cellar is what the park will potentially look like once work is completed. As we will see with the original art completed for the park's opening day version, the painters brush can be unintentionally deceiving! Secondly, due to the cost-cutting measures of the leadership of the time, it reminds us what poor foundations the Imagineers are stuck working with trying to improve this discount park.

As we look at concept art from the first incarnation of California Adventure, let's compare what we saw in the preview center versus what the park really looked like to an opening day guest. Many visitors, myself included, expressed displeasure at what was found at this new park. So did the media and for a good reason.

Let's begin with the park entrance. The tile murals flanking the sides are really well done. The C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A letters are a unique touch and both together clearly communicate this is not Disneyland. It's not a bad design, there's just no follow through.

When the Disney advertising experts have to create a fictionalized version of the entrance for promotional purposes as seen above, this should be the first clue that the park has some serious problems and design flaws.

Regardless of the strength or weaknesses of its content, Disney advertising kicked into high gear producing many promotional pieces. The artwork at the top of this article was created as the cover for a map given to cast members. It is quite a beautiful piece which conveys an elegant and exciting park- at least from the entrance!

The logo below attempts to bring a fresh element into the Resort's advertising and is as far away from the fantasy inspired Disneyland logo as can be!

It is what we encounter once walking past the turnstiles that shouts "bargain basement" design. Looking right through the gates brings a very ordinary looking area, nothing to entice a visitor who is considering a day at this park. A peek through the gates screams cheap and contemporary, and my bet is many guests turned and walked away, choosing to spend their cash on the "Happiest Place on Earth" instead. Couldn't blame them.

The Sunshine Plaza reigns as the ugliest and least original park entrance area in Disney's history. Yes, this includes the even less imaginative Walt Disney Studios in Paris! Framed by an out of place replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, the feeble attempt at creating environment matches a low budget outlet mall, appropriately setting the stage for what is found in most of the park.
The Sun fountain is an interesting structure, but it really belongs in an open garden at a hotel, in the midst of a walkway from the parking area or just someplace else. Not large enough in scale to impress, not a fitting centerpiece for the park. In some ways, it is appropriate. This is big and flashy with a contemporary edge- but it lacks substance.

Moving on, let's head to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. At first glance, it is a pretty Disneyesque area, a more playful version of the main drag at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World. The centerpiece, and clearly the highlight at opening, is Disney Animation.

Frankly, this is one impressive showcase! Beyond the park's signature flight simulator attraction, this gem is filled with the kind of care in execution that should have been found all over the park. The Animation Courtyard has an impressive layout that dazzles, and The Sorcerer's Workshop, including Beast's Library, feels like a walk-thru dark ride, drawing guests in further and further inside. It's easy to spend an hour here just watching the transformation in the library. Well done, Imagineers! In a nod to the Studios old working animation area, The Animation Academy truly provides a fun and informative demonstration of the art of the wonderfully ageless 2-D process. (Below is altogether different concept for Disney Animation. Cheesy and thankfully, abandoned.)

Beyond this great little attraction is where the troubles begin. Wandering around the rest of this land, guests discover raw steel and bland walls lie behind the great looking storefronts. Even the seemingly impressive Hyperion Theater is really just one great optical illusion. Just a big box but one with state-of-the-art facilities inside. However, it is a facility with no lobby and no restrooms! In some ways, this mirrors the overall problem with the park it sits in: vague attempts at splashiness without substantial content that shows caring about the guest experience.

Nearby, the past its prime MuppetVision 3D show is found. Not too thrilling an idea or presentation. It's a quick retread from Florida to save some cash- and an attempt by Disney to relaunch a very tired but admittedly once charming franchise. Rumors abound it is due for a relaunch, but will children of the new century be enthralled by a group or characters so charmingly old school?

The worst of the (Back) lot, however, is the only dark ride found here in 2001. In one of the oddest moves ever for a Disney park, the Imagineers designed and built the strange Superstar Limo attraction. The building housing the ride is at once quirky and likable to some degree, but the experience inside is just plain bizarre. Hosted by an on-screen agent who seems like someone you'd never let your children be alone with, the limo ride takes you through a tongue in cheek and trendy Hollywood filled with animatronics of "B" list celebrities from the Disney Studio. It quickly became the laughing stock of the theme park industry and a symbol of everything wrong with California Adventure. Less than a year from its premier, this ride quickly and thankfully disappeared forever. It was one of many opening day attractions to close or be retooled.

In a bit of poor planning, the Backlot's main street becomes a dead end, so let's cross back over to Condor Flats, a recreation of a California desert airfield.

Condor Flats effectively marks the entrance to The Golden State district, the most successful portion of the park, one that truly strengthens the California theme and offers the only attractions either not tied into a carnival or any of the Disney/Pixar characters. It is an area in touch with what made Disneyland great at its opening: fully rich and immersive environments that take you away from the hustle of Southern California.

The airstrip is a small area to be sure, but it contains the park's signature attraction, Soarin' Over California. All the quibbles of the queue design and its minimal theming/true to form theme debate aside, this film experience is the emotional heart of the park. Californians are rightfully proud of their state and its stunning diversity of landscapes. The photography is exhilarating, the musical score heightens the mood, and the ride mechanism impresses to thrilling results. It is the single standout attraction in the park. This crowd pleaser should not have been duplicated at any other resort. Period.

The true icon of this park, its position revealing the true focus of the current state of the Walt Disney Company, is Grizzly Peak. For the very first time ever, the stunning park icon is directionally placed to please hotel guests instead of theme park visitors. No expense was spared in creating an authentic and beautiful mountain environment. The rock work created by the Imagineers ranks with the best of their efforts, including Big Thunder Mountain and the younger Expedition Everest. The landscaping is superb. The network of waterfalls, winding paths and viewing areas makes this part of the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area the most beautiful location of the entire Disneyland Resort. (Below is an amazing piece of artwork. Like the others, makes sure you click for a larger image.) It's strangely void of attractions, however, revealing shortsightedness and a shrinking budget.

The setting for the Grizzly River Run is spectacular and "E" ticket worthy. However obvious short cuts have been taken with this attraction, starting with the design of the watercraft. The promotional poster below shows a whitewater excursion with an authentically styled raft. Somewhere between concept and execution, this key attraction ended up with standard theme park fare circular rafts. Certainly the very same company that could imagine and engineer leading edge ride systems for other attractions could find a way to build an authentic raft that was safe while providing the desired thrills! But this is Disney's California Adventure, and the company erroneously thought the Disney name would cover is shortcomings.

Further cost-cutting took place by the exclusion of animatronic animals in this ride and Audio-Animatronic creations in general. Every other nature-based attraction designed by Disney uses them to good effect. From slow moving rides like The Jungle River Cruise to the high speed adventures of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there is simply no excuse for their absence except budgetary restraints. It's still a very fun attraction with terrific views of the park (and the less than beautiful city of Anaheim), but it could be so much more than it is.

Guests quickly noticed a trend in this new era Disney park: there may have been discounting on the attraction detail, but no expenses were spared when it came to creating the shops! California Adventure has some Disneyland quality shopping areas, and the Rushin' River Outfitters (below) is no exception.

Continuing a trend that began with Disneyland itself and continued into Animal Kingdom's Boneyard, the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is a new take on the original park's Tom Sawyer's Island. All three provide plenty of fun as well as an area where younger visitors can run free. It is a nicely themed playground but not much more. This is a trend that should stop immediately as it wastes precious real estate. 

The limited number of attractions and cutbacks aside, this region of California Adventure provides the immersive environment that Disney guests are accustomed to finding at the parks. If only the rest of the small park had a percentage of this much charm and care taken with it! The glaring shortcomings are only heightened when we enter into the San Francisco area, one far removed from the Golden Gate Bridge we found at the park entrance.

This tiny little sliver of San Francisco houses only restrooms, leaving guests who expected an elegant area such as next door's New Orleans Square in a state of shock. In place of a fully realized cityscape, we find Golden Dreams, yet another film! This tribute to the history of the state was originally envisioned as Circle of Hands. It was intended to be a heartwarming multimedia presentation of the brave men and women who settled and worked the land with full scale animatronics similar in presentation to Epcot's American Adventure. Budget cuts again derailed the project. We are now left with a small scale but warm and expected politically correct vision of California's history. Unintentionally, this show is also one of the best arguments for Disney to stop using its a film stars as part of their attractions.

As we move around the bend, the beautiful Golden Vine Winery comes into view. Behind the main building is the park's own vineyard. It's a nice touch that reinforces the feel of the area and is much more effective than the farm area found in the park. Nearby to the winery, we also see the Pacific Wharf food court with its two work based presentations, Bountiful Valley Farm (wow- tracters!), and the surprising un-Disney Paradise Pier.

The winery area charms guests with a sophistication not found elsewhere. To be expected, like Napa Valley itself, we find a couple of pricy restaurants among the park's vineyard. Attractions? Oh yes, Seasons of the Vine is here- yet another film, this one highlighting the process of the art of winemaking from field to table. It is a slice of Epcot Center, an undiscovered gem. The music and photography perfectly capturing the area.

Across the way on this side of the bay is the Pacific Wharf. What could have been a wonderful setting for some California themed Disney attractions is reduced to mostly a food court with a couple of bakery tours using short films to tell the manufacturing story. The educational aspects of the park are important, however, they needed to be smaller in number compared to the traditional Disney dark ride attractions to justify the full ticket price.

Butting up to the Wharf is Bountiful Valley Farm, showcasing the agricultural impact of the state. Aside from yet another film, this one a clone of an additional 3D attraction from Florida, guests to the area are left without much to do except viewing tractors, a couple of crops and fruit trees, and watching the quite unimaginative fountain / water play area. In this new age of "Bargain Basement" Imagineering, it's Disney storytelling at it's sorry best.

Controversial. Cheap and tacky. Off the shelf. Definitely not what Walt would have wanted as and far removed from Disneyland as possible. Paradise Pier is all these things and more. And less.

Once guests had experienced the limited number of attractions in the other areas and the truly good live entertainment to be found, many headed toward Paradise Pier hoping to round out their day at Disney's recreation of a seaside amusement area.

The California Screamin' coaster stands tall over the area, and it is a roller coaster ride very worthy of a Disney park. Unfortunately, it is just a coaster- no great theming to be found here. No journey to outer space, no wildest ride in the wilderness, just an exposed track reaching for the sky. It is fun, day or night, but there are no Disney touches to be found except the giant glaring Mickey head. In this new fangled park, big, loud and obvious has mostly replaced the charming nuances provided by designers from earlier generations.

The rest of Paradise Pier is fleshed out with carnival games, kiddie attractions, swing rides, and an impressive Ferris Wheel deemed the Sun Wheel. There's truly nothing magical or Disney here, yet the advertising department thought this was one of the best areas to show to promote the new park. What were they thinking? The public was not fooled, and the executives at Disney were left with an embarrassment on their hands.

Which brings us back full circle to the Blue Sky Cellar, housed in the old Seasons of the Vine building. Yes, it seems Disney is seriously trying to redeem itself by re-Imagineering the park. Starting with the areas that guests complained about the most, the makeover has started. The entrance to the park will be reworked. The Hollywood Backlot will get more improvements. The Pier will be a challenge but will still be a carnival. Plans even exist for a wonderful new land and a couple of great attractions worthy of the Disney of old. Will we see them? Will the proposed changes turn California Adventure from dud to star?

What can we learn from the "Bargain Basement" Imagineering? Concept art can be deceiving, and budgets can be reduced. However, I have a hunch Disney has learned some important lessons from trying to fool us as they did in 2001. They've got one last chance to redeem themselves, and my money says they will.
Come back tomorrow for a trip report from my first visit in the fall of 2001. It was full of unexpected surprises- both good and bad!
(All art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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