February 8, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Disney's Real California Adventure

Disney's California Adventure theme park opened 10 years ago today. Beginning with yesterday's post, Insights and Sounds will feature a week-long series of articles on the park. Some fresh, some old favorites from years back. Hope you enjoy it!


The newest playground in Anaheim, and the quickly planned younger sister to world-renowned Disneyland, debuted to great expectations for fans and company alike. In hindsight, the Imagineers knew they had big trouble on their hands as the classic Disney Imagineering that had brought attractions par excellence to Disneyland and Florida's Epcot had given way to new fangled Bargain Basement Imagineering.

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. Gone would be attractions on the magnificent scope and scale of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, or Journey into Imagination. Early reviews were largely negative with only the Disney suits singing the new park's praises.

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 film based hand me downs from Florida and reproductions of cheap iron rides found at numerous county fairs all over America. Not the stuff of greatness nor the way to draw guests and convince them that Disneyland was now a resort.

The new park's Eureka parade was one of the opening 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. This was Imagineering by committee, and it was clearly obvious to the most casual observers as the quality of the park varied from area to area.

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 and sad era in outdoor Disney entertainment. Instead of immersive and thoughtful, this was a pedestrian area merely "good enough"; one to be found in any shopping mall nationwide. Even Anaheim's nearby shopping center, The Block in the city of Orange, had better design and theme. Garish and uncreative, this was a bad beginning to an overall mediocre experience, and it certainly did not create an expectation of Disney quality at its best.

Thankfully, when 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 strong roots in aviation. The park's premier draw, Soarin' Over California was the perfect blend of thrill, new technology, and light travelogue. All combined, this filmed journey through the state drew raves and rightly so. Even without narration, the spectaular scenery of the Golden State was enough of a draw to create lines not seen since the heyday of Disneyland.

The neighboring Grizzly Peak Recreation area offered a fairly common circular raft adventure amidst recreations of California's spectacular northern landscapes. Beautiful waterfalls, stunning rock work, and deep grottoes enhanced Grizzly River Run, raising it far above the earlier completed Kali River Rapids from Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. An imaginative woodsy playground rounded out the area. It provided some great views of the place but it required use of a lot of land in a park starving for more.

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 but very politically correct manner. The budget had been severely cut from the Audio-Animatronic show originally planned- and it was evident something was missing. Now removed, the film was not a disaster but neither was it one that warranted repeat visits. At the nearby Pacific Wharf, an area inspired by Monterey Bay's Cannery Row, the two small films on bread and tortilla making are only noteworthy due to the free samples given out during the latter's factory tour. Again, contemporary celebrities diminished what should have been small but charming gems.

It's Tough to Be a Bug, came right from the Animal Kingdom. It is a bit of fun for those loving to be scared, poked and spit at. Quite a long stretch thematically for a California theme, but it is a crowd pleaser. The surrounding area filled with farm equipment was not.
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 screenshot from the opening day map (above), the area is filled with roadside carnival rides, cheap midway games and one truly magnificent- if sadly 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. It was one of few repeatable attractions in the park.

Leaving behind the pier, the Hollywood Pictures Backlot concludes the offerings at the park. From the strange and awful Superstar Limo- the park's only dark ride- to the beautiful Disney Animation exhibits, the area is completed by another retread from Florida, 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, much stronger in some places than in others.
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.
Tomorrow, we'll look at some of the hopes and dreams for the park as expressed in the Imagineers art. You'll see Bargain Basement Imagineering at its finest with one of the largest collections of California Adventure artwork on the web. In fact, I've added even more pieces in the last few days! Every day this week, we'll discuss different aspects of the park's execution, the public's reaction, and its continuing transformation. I'll throw in some trip reports with early photos and take a look at what lies ahead. Join me, won't you?

Come back every day this week for more articles on California Adventure!
(Images copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


Brother Bill said...

Now that so much seems to be going right with DCA, I was looking for a retrospective of the park to remind me how far its come, and this series of articles is fitting the bill exactly!

The problem with DCA 1.0 can be summed up right at the original entrance... why build a themed environment that evokes California when you can just put the word "CALIFORNIA" in big letters like a mission statement writ large? Why play area music that transports you to a particular time or place when you can just play songs that have "California" in the lyrics (everything from Baby Boomer era "California Dreaming" and "California Girls" to grunge-era "Lookin' California, Feeling Minnesota.") The whole park felt like one big sub-reference rather than a sincerely realized theme.

Mark Taft said...

Great comments about the park at opening, spot on, actually. Thanks for reading, Brother Bill!