February 8, 2016

California Adventure at 15: Now & Then

Disney California Adventure park hits Fifteen Years. What a very strange, strange, journey it has been! Never before has a Disney park created such a stir among the company's loyal fan base of theme park enthusiasts. Nor has a Disney park ever gone through so much change. 

The original California Adventure souvenir map.

Inside the park guide map.
Revealing a small park with a mix of well designed elements
among a slew of cheap off the shelf attractions and re-run films.

Although there was the expected amount of Disney marketing and fanfare at the grand opening in 2001, the collective thud heard from the media and visitors in response to the ill-conceived park was just as thunderous. How could they pass this park off as a high Disney quality, and how could they place this disaster right next door to Walt Disney's beloved original kingdom? What were they thinking?

One of the most interesting but very different
parts of the park: the old entrance

Charmless Disney store just inside the gates.

Even after all these years of park visits, the first visit to any new Disney park exciting. What have the Imagineers have cooked up? New attractions, new themes, now places to eat and shop. With a California theme, I truly wanted the best, but with all the media's negative reviews, I braced for the worst. Something I'd soon experience for myself.  

Buying our tickets the night before, we were ready at the gate for opening time.  Peering through the gates, it all looked so bland. My worst fears would soon be realized. If the grand "opening act" to the park was this ordinary, what else had they done? As I soon discovered, the park itself was a half-baked Disney park: part a retread of other Disney attractions from Florida, too many films, and a large dose of carnival rides. Had Disney learned anything from 45 years in the theme park business? Did they just take guests' loyalty for granted now? 

The California Zephr. One of my favorite places once inside.

The answer was that the suits and designers wanted a money maker but has tossed out everything that made the Magic Kingdom parks so beloved. The stores lining the entry street screamed "hip and trendy" and oh so ordinary. Corrugated steel sides, splashy neon, but no substance or charm to be found. Ahead was the gilded sun and a fountain. Although I found the sun sculpture to be pleasant, I could not believe this was supposed to be the landmark icon for the new park.  I hoped for the best as I turned tight into Condor Flats, looking forward to the park's centerpiece attraction Soarin' Over California.

The beautiful but stationary California Zephyr was right around the bend. It did not go anywhere (a problem for many of the interesting pieces of the park that look like they should move), but the shops inside seemed rather inviting- especially compared to the entrance mall. I knew the train and its outdoor cafe tables would be a spot for exploration later.

At first a desert, now a mountain airstrip.

I just knew I would like the aviation focus and feel of Condor Flats. The high desert landscape had never been done before in a Disney park, and I was curious to see how they pulled it off. (At night, I really enjoyed the airstrip lights on the ground. A cool bit of theming that did not have to be there.) Plus, what's not to like about a flying attraction? 

Soarin' Over California- wow- an enduring favorite from the first ride. It got me a bit choked up as I flew over my home state.  The score, the sequences filmed, the scents and the gentle but thrilling flight simulation make it so much more than Star Tours. In a park with so little to offer, I ranked Soarin' among the top "E Ticket" attractions of the resort and of the opening day roster, I saw it as the top attraction in the little park. Based on the many reviews of the park, I discovered I was not alone.

GRR, somedays brr...

It was time to move on, and with the weather getting warmer, I was ready for a ride on Grizzly River. Clearly, this wooded section of the park was one of its most beautiful areas...and also the one with the views from the pricey Grand Californian Resort. Geysers, waterfalls, dense forests and great hidden paths to explore gave this very faithful representation of Northern California geography to a park that was very Southern California centric. A very nice change of pace. After the ride, I headed into what looked like San Francisco.

This short little street contained absolutely nothing. Zero, Zilch. What a waste. Speaking of waste, there were restrooms but no shops, restaurants or attractions. It just seemed to be tossed in there because the designers did not know what to do to transition from the forest to a beachside pier. And why was the Golden Gate Bridge at the front of the park and the bay at the back? A lost opportunity and also a nagging reminder that this was a bargain basement Imagineered theme park.

New heights in Imagineering for this park!

California Screamin' is an excellent roller coaster, but a carnival theme is a poor excuse for any land in any Disney park. Enough said.

From ugly to uglier...

Superstar Limo: The strangest attraction to ever make a Disney park.
It represented everything wrong with California Adventure.
Thankfully short-lived.

One of my favorite earlier photographs of the park.

What did I see that I liked in this patchwork quilt of a park? Well, the short-lived Eureka was a great parade. From the use of creative puppets of sorts to trampolines, roller skates and pogo sticks, it was a high energy presentation but it failed with its oh so trendy theme song.  

Animation was also terrific, but a great mid-level attraction does not a great park make. I left the park after about 4 hours (certainly a record), and went straight to Guests Services to complain. Apparently I was not alone in this either.

The park bombed plain and simple. The press was bad, and even The Simpsons got into the act, parodying the park on television. Crowds stayed away in droves, and even the later addition of a very truncated Twilight Zone Tower of Terror did not bring in the desired crowds. 

A new plan and a new map!

Thankfully, one of the smartest things new CEO Robert Iger did was announce an unprecedented re-Imagineering of the park in an multi-year plan. A desperate and wise move indeed!

World of Color construction.

After the construction dust cleared, I ventured into the park again. I've got to say, now, 15 years later, California Adventure has become one of my favorite Disney parks! All it took was well over a billion dollars and a large chunk of humility followed by a dose of creativity. Going back to what made Disney parks unique in the first place. Giving guests an experience they couldn't get anywhere else.

A Mermaid surfaces. 

How to fix a broken park, a product that damages the reputation of a company known for excellence? Start all over. And so they did.

Large swaths of the park were engulfed by walls as things began to change. The horrible Golden Dreams film show with Whoopi Goldberg was out. Ariel's attraction was in, adding a touch of whimsy to the old school look at a seaside carnival. The nighttime World of Color show came to the Pier. Enhancements were made to the exteriors of the shops and restaurants. Large ugly hamburgers and cement dinosaurs became charming places to grab a bite. A full transformation was underway.

Walt comes home to a park that needed his presence.

The former hip and edgy park gates and land took on a retro look back to when Walt Disney first arrived in California. Perhaps a bit contrived but desperately needed as well! Gone were the giant postcard tile murals, and in its place were elegant if copycat gates which also greeted guests at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Providing a foretaste of what was to come, Buena Vista Street would replace the boxy mall look of what was at opening. Imagine what Main Street U.S.A. would become twenty years later, and the former shell of a theme park street became an elegant, warm, and inviting place to begin a new adventure.

For those guests who enter Cars Land from the Wharf,
what a reveal!

In a move that sparked further controversy, alternating fans with excitement and yet surprise, an unused parking lot would become home to Pixar's Cars Land, a single intellectual property based area, the first ever in the States. It had happened at Tokyo Disney Sea when both Mermaid Lagoon and Arabian Coast appeared on the scene, but this would be the first time guests on American soil would find the same plan in action.

The race is on!

The risky move was fully successful! The newest and only Disney  "F Ticket" attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, is now the must-see attraction at the Disneyland Resort and the envy of those on the East Coast. All for good reason. The combination sightseeing, dark ride, and thrill ride attraction excels in all areas. The mountain range alone is some of the most impressive work the Imagineers have ever done. 

Breakfast at Flo's. 

The expensive and lengthy park transformation has finally made Disney California Adventure a Disney worthy theme park worth visiting, changing the guest traffic flow and increasing the numbers of people. 

A new blog version fun map from 2012.

With rumors of more stellar attractions on the way, Anaheim's second Disney park is finally on the road to success as it enters the second half of its second decade.

There are a number of articles on this site that chronicle the transformation of the park through a look at Disney concept art. Take a peek at Bargain Basement Imagineering beginning here.
Part Two is here

Part Three (with the beginning of the park transformation can be found here.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft. Maps copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


Len said...

I remember my disappointment the first time I visited DCA. I did like those huge postcard murals for some reason, although I'll be the first to admit the new front is light years ahead.

Mark Taft said...

I liked the post cards too, but there was no smooth thematic transition to the entry once in the gates. It was all very strange. I wish DCA hadn't copied The Studios park entrance, but I love Buena Vista Street.