California Adventure's incredibly fantastic Cars Land and the equally impressive attraction Radiator Springs Racers together form the new gold standard for Disney theme parks. There is nothing like it- and it alone is worth a trip to Southern California and the Disneyland Resort whether or not the film is appealing.
I was skeptical even after reading the glowing trip reports. After all, this is the same company that has been given us "attractions" like "Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor" and "Stitch's Great Escape", not to mention the original mess of California Adventure 1.0. However, since my visit last week, I have been converted. Seeing is believing... and I am not a huge fan of the Cars films.
From the measure of a single "E Ticket" attraction, the geniuses at work in Imagineering have not created anything this incredible since the opening of the Indiana Jones Adventure. When combined with an entire land just as well designed, you'd have to go back to Disneyland in its prime days of the mid to late 1960s to find an end result equally as inspired; a time when the gorgeous New Orleans Square, the Pirates of the Caribbean, and a brand new dazzling Tomorrowland seemed to be revealed within months of each other.
Let me put it a different way. My son-in-law and I bought a park hopper pass, and we stayed twelve hours in the parks, from opening until the start of World of Color. Less than two were spent at Disneyland. This trip, we preferred to spend our single day at California Adventure. In the past, that never would have happened.
The park opened at 8:00am, and we arrived at the gate 45 minutes earlier with tickets in hand. Heading straight for the Fast Pass line for Racers, those golden tickets brought us a ride at 8:40, so we immediately walked to the regular queue while crowds were light.
Walking down the main drag of the town, I was stunned by the attention to detail and the scale and scope of the whole project. Totally immersive, encompassing in every sense. The exact opposite emotion of my first visit to this little park in 2001.
Rounding the corner, our wait for the first ride was a total of 27 minutes. It flew by as the sights at every turn absorbed it quickly. The Bottle House was a particularly beautiful addition to the queue, unexpected and delightful. We finally reached the front of the line and anxiously awaited our vehicle.
There's nothing like the first time on any new Disney attraction. It cannot be repeated. My view of the attraction rarely strays from what I first experienced. The expectation was high, the experience just as powerful.
For those unfamiliar with the attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, breaks down nicely into three segments: a slow sightseeing tour of Ornament Valley, a dark ride portion inside the main show building, and a high speed family thrill ride to conclude the journey. A little something for everyone and a potent combination where the sum of the parts creates an entirely satisfying whole. No spoilers here, but I will say I was happy to get right back in line for my second ride.
We hadn't eaten before arriving at the resort because I wanted to breakfast at Flo's V8 Cafe. So worth the delay! Walking in, Motown tunes created a warm buzz and retro vibe. I ordered the delicious and fairly priced Caramel Banana Brioche, one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten at the resort- on par with the Creme Brûlée French Toast at Goofy's Kitchen. We sat outside in the morning sun with the cars of Racers hugging the track in front of us every few seconds.
I still couldn't believe the view. Everywhere I turned, the gorgeous rock work and loving attention to detail stunned me. I was totally drawn into the story, the environment, the feel; surprised I really was in a theme park, specifically California Adventure. The Imagineering dedication to excellence paired with the generous budget created something that will draw me back for years. Yes, Cars Land will be a hit for generations to come- long after the namesake movie is a memory. We exited through the entrance from Pacific Wharf, turning around for a new glance. The long view, the short view and all in between. I swore I was in Arizona on Route 66 with California within sight. Words are not enough.
Pirates of the Caribbean was next up as last year it was closed for refurbishment. My son-in-law had never seen it. Yet, we walked by Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, and we couldn't resist the fifteen minute long line. So glad we did! For a ride considered one for little kids, a minor addition, it was a blast. We laughed through our entire dance. And I didn't see one single face without a smile on it, young or old. A surprise hit.
So, it was back to Disneyland. The close proximity of the two parks is a big plus at the West Coast resort. In short order, we covered Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pinocchio, and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. Briefly, Pirates looked and sounded the best it had in years. The bayou was dark, and no ceiling could be seen. All the effects worked beautifully. The Bobsleds were a painful ride, but the snow storm has finally returned. Tomorrowland looked awful with worn paint, making the old as dirt buildings look every bit their age. Hopefully, Iron Man will bring a fresh focus. Back to California Adventure we went, less than two hours in Walt's original park.
Heading back into California Adventure, we took time to explore Buena Vista Street. What a wonderful new "first act" for the park. At opening the Sunshine Plaza and entryway was almost a joke, a quick and easy, "trendy" attempt at something new. Only the Sun Icon and the California Zephyr train housing restaurants and shops hinted at any creativity. It's boring no longer. Instead, the area is warm, charming, and full of places to explore. The shops are full of unique attraction-specific merchandise. For the first time since my original visit, I actually purchased a variety of souvenirs and wished I had more money to burn. Incredible.
Loved the Walt and Mickey statue as well as Oswald's. The Red Car Trolley adds much to the area, and the lush landscaping truly brings guests into another place and era. The Carthay Circle Theater brought just the right touch of elegance. Was this really the same park that Disney geeks firmly rejected in 2001?
To make a long story very short, lunch was Chinese, dinner of Clam Chowder at the Wharf. We were able to explore every corner of Cars Land and do just about every attraction in the park, ending the day with a nighttime ride on Radiator Springs Racers (Single Rider Line, fifteen minutes. Even better at night!) The lighting ceremony at Cars Land was a treat. The new land is as strongly themed and every bit as impactful as anything Disney has ever built. It was a near perfect day.
Is California Adventure now the perfect park? No. The weaknesses are still there, with Hollywood Land and Paradise Pier exposing the faults found at the park circa 2001. Will those areas be addressed? Hopefully so.
As things now stand, I'd place California Adventure as a stronger American park than Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom. There's a big difference between the three: the new Adventure feels like a complete stand-alone, full day worthy Disney park. The other two remain half day parks. You can still tell where the suits have stopped short of excellence, and where they have continued to let those parks rot. Would Cars Land help save the park formerly known as Disney-MGM? Absolutely. Should it be built? Absolutely not!
I have no idea when my next visit to California will occur. However, I can say with full confidence that the new California Adventure will be where I spend my entire Disney day. Cars Land is a well deserved smash, a true labor of love. I cannot wait to ride Radiator Springs Racers again. Congratulations, Imagineers!
(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)