February 10, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Our First Visit to California Adventure Version One

Continuing with our week long look at California Adventure at Ten Years...
It was finally time to take our trip out to California and see Disney's latest stateside theme park. To say I was very skeptical about California Adventure would be quite the understatement. Having read all the newspapers and on line reviews, I knew intuitively that the place was a dog- and I wasn't exactly surprised by the results.

My in-laws had planned to take all of us to the park which given their incredible generosity meant they would be paying for the day. With our family of six and a few other siblings and their kids joining us, it would have been quite the expensive day. Explaining what I'd read and describing the photos I had seen, I told them I would explore the park first, then we'd talk about going together. I wanted to save them some money. They understood (and were ultimately happy with waiting!)

As it turned out, I'd be making two trips to the park that week, but I certainly didn't expect things to work out this way.

It was fall of 2001, and my youngest daughter would be my companion for the day. The other kids had decided to wait to go with their grandparents should they make that decision. Off we went to see the new park.

The first visit to any Disney park is quite the thrill for me. I can't wait to see what the Imagineers have cooked up. Exploring endlessly, the rush of new attractions, seeing something new and wonderfully detailed around every corner. I couldn't wait to go, and this time was no different.

We were there at opening time, a tradition for us die-hards. In contrast to seeing the entrance of the park from some distance away, peering through the gates, I was a bit shocked at what I saw. It all looked so ordinary. Not a good sign- and not the way to make a great first impression. I tried to remain optimistic.

There certainly were things to like about the park. They just weren't immediately noticeable. Although I found the sun sculpture to be fairly bland, I did enjoy the small fountain in front of it with its multi hued tiles. As I turned to Condor Flats, I got my first real glimpse of the California Zephyr. I knew it would be a spot for further investigation- but I just had to get to Soarin' Over California right away.

Although it was obviously very small from the photos I had seen, I just knew I would like Condor Flats. The theming was excellent with its retro aviation feel, high desert landscape, and an attraction that lets guest fly. What could be better?

Soarin' Over California became an instant favorite of both of us. I love my home state with its varied textures of people, landscapes, and activities. Certainly, I would be lying if I didn't say the attraction brought a few tears to my eyes and a desire to hop right back on. Some folks view the Quonset hut architecture as annoying. I find it quite fitting and actually prefer it to the set up at Epcot. The tributes to great aviators is a small bit of Disney "edutainment", a perspective that I find missing from plans for the park's do-over.

Instead of hopping back in line, we dove into the Fly 'N' Buy shop. Great detail, unique merchandise, an overall fun feel. Eventually, it was time to keep exploring, and I was warming up to a ride on Grizzly River.

Rounding the bend, two design aspects surprised me. One, the monorail cuts right through the area. Two, the beautiful Grand Californian hotel was in full view and accessible by park guests. In fact, ten years later, these two things still catch me off guard. Once past the shock, it was clear to see that this wooded section of the park was one of its most beautiful areas. With geysers, waterfalls, dense forests and great hidden paths to explore and view it all, this representation of the stunning Northern California geography is one of the finest examples of Disney storytelling. (In fact, the very top photograph is one I left extremely large so you can get a great perspective on how the area feels.)

Passing through a pretty long but fairly empty queue since it was Fall not Summer, my daughter and I boarded one of the circular rafts for the Grizzly River Run. The extended up ramp provided some great views of the park- and unfortunately, some not so pleasant. But I'll get to that later.

The ride itself was a kick! The scenery was great, the waterborne journey thrilling enough for all ages, and the long spinning drop at the end a lot of fun. In spite of the lack of animatronics, the attraction was another winner. I was surprised it took up so much real estate in a park that was very short of acreage, however. We both expected some smaller attractions tucked into or directly around the mountain, but they were not to be found.

Moving on, we stopped to explore some of those hidden paths, enjoying the little discoveries. Bypassing the children's playground for the time, we headed into what looked like San Francisco.

This short little street contained absolutely nothing. What a waste. We used to live half an hour from the great city on the bay, and I couldn't have been more disappointed in the shortsightedness of the park's planners! Why was that Golden Gate Bridge at the front of the park, the bay at the back, and why was this great city only represented by restrooms? A wasted opportunity and an instant reminder that this was indeed an accountant built theme park.

At the end was the dreaded Paradise Pier. And I do mean dreaded. From the on line photos, to seeing it from Katella Avenue and Downtown Disney to my first view of the place, Paradise Pier (even in its current incarnation) reminds me of everything awful about Disney's Bargain Basement Imagineering

The failings of this area of the park were instantly recognizeable and have been thrashed about in all types of trip reports from the beginning.

California Screamin' is an excellent roller coaster, but it is a poor excuse for the theme of a land in any Disney park. The iron rides did not impress us, and we took in both the ugly Orange Stinger and Golden Zephyr with its the elegant looking rockets. Disheartened again, we walked into a couple of shops, and then we quickly left the carnival.

The Golden Vine Winery and the Pacific Wharf complex were a breath of fresh air again. Both were just excuses for shopping and dining, but they were beautiful in their design and execution. After a quick viewing of the sublime Seasons of the Vine film and a taste of wine to wash away Paradise Pier, we ventured back towards the entrance of the park.

Stopping for lunch left us longing for some Chinese cuisine. We headed to the Backlot. It was also a good time to talk about our day and what was left uncovered.

Like her parents and other siblings, my youngest daughter is a big fan of the Disney parks. She's got a pretty sophisticated taste, and even as a fourteen year old when first visiting California Adventure, she had some insightful comments to make. One of her most telling was the following, "It seems the Imagineers forgot what makes Disney Disney." We sat there looking at the guidemap. Kind of bewildered what to do next as we realized there wasn't much left to see but the overlooked attractions in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot and It's Tough to Be a Bug.

Before eating, I ducked into the California Zephyr's shops and eateries and took in all the little detail to be found. What a clever idea to use a train for this complex. The photos on the walls, the mural, the little touches all said Disney. It was so different than what I'd just seen in Paradise Pier and San Francisco's street, it was as if this park was designed by two very separate design aesthetics.

Hollywood Pictures Backlot was a jolt back into the new California Adventure reality. My distaste for seeing the back of the sets cannot be emphasized enough. It screamed cheap- not hip, not intriguing, not fun. 

Superstar Limo was another jolt. I actually found the attraction to be quirky and fun and alternately cold and unappealing. Disney was jamming their "B" list of stars down my throat. (That said, I love Jackie Chan!) We had to ride again and answer the question, "Was that really what we thought it was?"

About the time we were ready to call the Backlot a failure, the Disney Animation showcase beckoned. The contents and presentation were unexpected. We loved it, particularly the atmosphere transition in the Beast's library. We laughed doing character voiceovers and mostly just enjoyed sitting in the lobby watching "the classics" go by on the large screens.

What was left? Two 3D films- Muppets and Bugs. Neither are great but both are enjoyable. It was odd to do them back to back, and it was very easy to do as they are both so close together. The combination left us a little shell shocked- and then I started counting the number of films I'd seen that day. Wow.

After a bit of unsuccessful souvenir shopping- aside from a map and the park soundtrack for my collection- we were done with the park. Not quite the full day we hoped for, neither was it quite the park we wanted either. I asked my daughter if she would come back. Her response was "Once they start adding in some Disney quality classic attractions." That meant things on the scope and scale of her favorites: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (her very favorite coaster) and Indiana Jones Adventure. She is her father's daughter. After one more ride on Soarin', we went home. My daughter and I had a good time doing something new, and we always have fun together like I do with all my kids, but the park was not the home run the Disney Company wanted.
It was upon returning home that I discovered the difference a few days and a few years can make.

We arrived home and began to share our perspectives on the new park. My youngest son was quite disappointed that we all chose not to go with the entire family after hearing the description. And so began the thought that I would go again with him in tow a few days later.

Back then, he was ten years old. Very different likes and thinking than a fourteen year old girl. In fact, he loved the park.

Again, we got there at opening and began our day with Soarin'. A hit. We retraced our steps and took in It's Tough to Be a Bug. Another hit. No winery and no Seasons film as Paradise Pier lured him in. All the rides there were just taken in as an expected part of the atmosphere. Soft swirl ice cream was a must. The cement dino was cool. Even Mulholland Madness was a treat watching him ride next to me.

Grizzly River Run was another favorite, with two rides in a row and one later that night. (Riding in the evening is a whole different experience. I like it better than during the day!) We spent a short amount of time at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, but he was bored after a few minutes.

Time for lunch, and that meant burgers and Taste Pilot's Grill. Give me a great burger topped off with bleu cheese, and I'm a happy guy. Munching french fries and drinking Coke was a good time to talk about what we'd seen and ridden up to this point.

From climbing the C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A letters at the entrance, to getting soaked on Grizzly, to 3 rides on Screamin' in a row- the last one without his Dad, and everything in between, it was an entirely different take on the day. There was still more to do.

Eureka was a great parade. From the use of trampolines to roller skates and pogo sticks, it was a high energy presentation even with its oh so off-the-mark theme song. Flying cream pies in Muppets to more Bugs, the 3D films continued make him laugh. Superstar Limo, however, not so much. Even a ten year old can have good taste!

Of course, Pluto makes the day fun!

And there it was- California Adventure was a "Ten Year Old Boy Park". He didn't want or care for great theming, layers of detail, or sophistication. He didn't miss the animatronics. He didn't miss the love put into designing the place. He just wanted to have fun. Although I could have just taken him to Knott's Berry Farm, I started to see the park through his eyes. My perspective on the park remained it was far from Disney's best work, but we had a great time together.

Our three youngest kids have all been to the park since 2001. Not my wife, not even once. She is willing to wait for the great reveal of the remade park. Maybe by California Adventure's twelveth anniversary, she will be thrilled with what she sees. I think I will be. Yet, I'll always remember my first two trips with great fondness. Our kids were young, and we were, too.
Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the Walt Disney Company's emergency plans to save the park while retaining their reputation. As we will find out, it wasn't all that great of a plan!
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)


TokyoMagic! said...

Great post! Interesting getting the different perspectives. I wonder what I would have thought of that park if it had been around when I was ten. I liked Knott's, so I probably would have liked DCA, but I would have known that it was far from being anything close to the quality of my favorite park, which was Disneyland.

The only attraction I was impressed with at DCA when it opened, was Soarin' Over California. Screamin' is a good rollercoaster, but it should have been themed the way Disney usually does rollercoasters....possibly in a mountain. Maybe it should have gone inside the Grizzly River/Bear Mountain (like DL Hong Kong is getting) instead of the off-the-shelf raft ride.

Mark Taft said...

Thanks for the opinions. It WAS a totally different experience with my son than my daughter. Surprising- very surprising.