November 18, 2016

A Grand Californian Adventure: Part Two- DCA Reborn

Editor's note: My friend Len Yokoyama returns with part two of his California Disney Resort Trip report. In addition to being a great photographer and all around nice guy, did you know Len also is a huge comic book fan with his own comic book series? Anyway, onto his interesting take on Anaheim's second Disney park. Enjoy!

I can't recall the exact year I first visited Disney California Adventure, but I do remember being vastly underwhelmed. There were hints of creative inspiration...the postcard motif at the entrance gate, the Golden Gate bride replica lit up at night, and of course, the debut of Soarin'. Other than those few bright spots, DCA struck me as a low budget Disney park, hastily slapped together with bits and pieces from whatever the company could cobble together. Comparing the layout and theming of both Disneyland and DCA, one could see the vast differences that put them apart at the farthest ends of the spectrum. Whereas Disneyland's layout guides you down Main Street, past the hub, and straight on to Sleeping Beauty Castle, DCA's entry path lead you to Sunshine Plaza who's reigning carrot was a sun icon above a rather plain looking fountain. The whole thing felt and looked like a visual dead end. You could imagine then CEO Michael Eisner telling his Imagineers to just slap something in that space...the visitors won't care, they'll still come in droves. Well, the visitors did care, and they did come in Disneyland! Our vacation strategy was to run over to DCA for a relaxing lunch and then head back to DL for some real park fun. The second gate ended up being a rest stop for us, albeit one with an expensive entry fee. My biggest disappointment, however, was that it wasn't Disneysea. Now I know if that particular park had been built, it’s would’ve been in Long Beach, but the thought of having a park resembling the Tokyo version always makes me a bit melancholy. 

Flash forward a few years later with park in full renovation mode thanks to a generous 1.1 billion dollar budget signed off by new CEO Bob Iger. Gone are the large letters spelling out C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A replaced by an art deco style entrance that immediately sets the stage for the classy upgrades. Replaced too are the large postcard tiles and homogenous mix of stores and eateries. Paying tribute to the California that existed when Walt arrived on the west coast, the strong theming and overall composition immediately transports one back in time to an era of fun, whimsy, and style! 

Although I often bypass Disney entertainers in order to rush to a popular attraction, I find myself stopping dead in my tracks to enjoy the live performances on Buena Vista Street. The current group, Five and Dime Swing Band (a talented quintet of jazz performers and a lead vocal singer) belt out a number of catchy, danceable tunes that harkens back to the past. The group loves playing to the audience, pulling them into the show as active participants. 

Also in this area, you’ll find a lot of cast members dressed up in 1920’s attire such as a photog or police officer. The one officer I ran into reminded me a lot of Ward Kimball (I think the round spectacles he was wearing had a lot to do with it) – one of Walt’s “Nine Old Men” from the golden age of animation. 

Wonderful food at the Carthay!

The centerpiece of Buena Vista, is of course, The Carthay Circle Restaurant. Standing tall and proud at the end of the street, the Imagineers did a magnificent job of replicating the original movie palace circa 1926. 


On a moonlit night, after park closing, you can buy into this place existing in a time long since past. The restaurant inside is just as beautifully designed with strong attention to period detailing and style. The food and service are excellent (although not on par with Napa Rose), but it’s the atmosphere and overall environment that will stay with you long after your meal has been digested. 

Condor Flats- now in California Adventure's Yesterland.

I love the area known as Grizzly Peak! I could be happy with a whole park that is designed similar to this area. While I miss the now gone Condor Flats (love that name), the newly redesigned Grizzly Peak Airfield fits nicely as a transitional space between the Peak and Buena Vista Street. There's an open airy feel here that reminds me of Andy Griffith's Mayberry and its small town hominess. Soarin' Around the World is still the big draw here, and the newly updated ride means long, long lines. 

Truth in advertising.

Wet guests are a trademark of Grizzly River Run, but truth be told, I haven't rode it since I started lugging around my Nikon! My good friend Eddison Esteban, an amazing photographer, gets some crazy cool shots as he's going down the rapids, but some men are just born with nerves of steel (mine are more like house grade aluminum). Taste Pilot's Grill has been replaced by Smokejumpers Grill...a really cool restaurant celebrating the legacy of those airborne firefighters of yore. Sue and I ate there for lunch and found the sandwiches (both a burger and chicken) quite ono (Hawaiian for delicious) with the french fries nice and hot! The downside was the crowds ... plenty of 'em, so finding seats was a challenge. We ended up in the dining area outside which I don't recommend due to the heat. But inside tables are very limited, so you have to make due. 

There were two special parties I attended at DCA, both on my first day at the park. The first was the Frozen Dessert Party. A $60.00 price tag gets you into a pre-show event with sweet treats, photo ops, and alcohol (wine, beer, and hard liquor). Since I don't drink, I gave my complimentary ticket to another guest to enjoy. I had a snow cone (similar to shave ice in Hawaii), which is a blend of fine crushed ice and sugary syrups. There were 5 or 6 dioramas where families could have their pictures taken against the backdrop of Arendelle and other assorted winter scenery. Olaf made an appearance to the delight of the children and the event was capped by a cool snowstorm in the middle of the room. Being the only adult, I didn't get much out of it other than the treats (which wasn't the reason why I signed up). Come show time, we were escorted to the Hyperion Theater for priority seating. Now, priority seating at some other events (looking at you Candlelight Processional) doesn't mean much, and can often be disadvantageous for photographers (sort of looking at you World of Color Dessert Party). But for Frozen Live! “priority” truly lived up to its billing as we were first to arrive and allowed to choose whatever seats we wanted! I choose front row...smack dab in the middle! 

Sisters, sisters.

Frozen Live! features great vocal talent, first rate scenery, and high production values. Does it surpass Aladdin for me? No, but that's because I don't have strong emotional attachments to the film (and that’s purely a subjective issue...I know it strikes a chord in many of the younger audiences). One thing that did bother me though out the play (and found it a major distraction) is the actress who plays Anna...looks much older than the one who plays Elsa! This really kept me from suspending disbelief and buying into the play's reality. I do want to clarify that Anna had a great voice, and she is very talented...but it would have worked better for me if Disney had casted a younger actress. 

Outstanding food choices all over the park- even if you pay extra for some.

The other hard ticket event I attended was another dessert party, this time for the World of Color. The first time I saw this show was during its premiere back in 2010. I watched it twice. The first with friends while I recorded the entire thing on my video camcorder (I dabbled a bit in videos, but eventually went back to still images. I found that I rarely, if ever, watched my recordings once I got home). I thought the show was pretty cool, if a little underwhelmed by the nearly non-existent narrative. 

The second time was with Sue strictly as a spectator (no cameras). As the show started, my wife turned to me and said, "This is so cool!" The colorful images and cascading waters popped up one after another...and another...and another. After about 10 minutes of this, Sue turned to me and asked "How long is this show?"…hahaha! I found myself getting a bit antsy around the 15 minute mark and was ready for it to end a good 5 minutes before the finale. Besides the lack of a narrative, WOC ends up being a bunch of images that have no connection other than being Disney produced. I liken this show to a summer blockbuster with lots of action and great special effects. Interesting for a bit, but no real story or characters to get me invested. So why did I even book this event you might be asking yourself? Pretty much to use my camera. Unfortunately, the area reserved for this party, while very nice, is not conducive to taking good photos. Guests are more off to the side of the show, directly behind a couple of huge speakers. While the photos are a total loss, I must say the desserts and service were excellent. Being alone, I was seated with this wonderful retired couple from Oregon. We started talking and I really enjoyed my time with them. So, I still give the event two thumbs up (but still don’t recommend it if photography is your main purpose)! 

A classic San Francisco lunch.

The Pacific Wharf area is another favorite area of mine at DCA (I seem to say this a lot about DCA in general). I love the variety of foods here, and I'll pretty much head there by default to have the Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bowl at Boudin Bakery. The Mexican food at Cocina Cucamonga is also darn tasty and who can go wrong with a sundae or ice cream cone from Ghiradelli's? 

Better than before but still very weak.

Due to the short time I was allotted at both parks, there are still many areas I did not photograph or explore. For DCA, I barely glanced at Paradise Pier, but part of the reason being it’s my least favorite area. I understand how it fits into the period of California when carny games were popular, but it comes off as unimaginative and "low budget" to me. Mickey's Wheel is definitely the centerpiece of the pier, but even the ride itself is nothing you can't experience at a local state fair or carnival. And while I love Hollywood Studios in Florida, I don't spend a lot of time at the California version either. We did see the "Pete's Dragon" 4D preview at the Sunset Showcase Theater which was pretty cool. And the obligatory multiple rides on Tower of Terror is a must. If I had known that the end was coming for the ride's theme, I would have taken a bunch of pictures, but as it is, I only got a couple of the cast members. 


I used to scoff at waiting to take pictures with Disney characters. That was before I got into photography, and now, I laugh at a mere one hour wait time! Make it a Marvel character, and I'm willing to camp out all night if necessary (okay, I'm getting carried away, but what do you expect from a comic book nerd?). 

Protecting America for all!

Captain America and Spider-Man were both there for pic ops and autographs. One thing I noticed is how much better the costumes looked at DCA compared to their Universal counterparts. The main reason is that Universal probably has the license only for the comic book look while Disney can do the actual movie versions. The difference is night and day since the movie takes real world aesthetics into consideration. While waiting, I struck up conversation with this family in front of me from New York. Super nice people and it helped the time go by faster. It also occurs to me that I'm becoming more like my mom as I get older. I'm talking more and more to strangers I don't even know...LOL! 

Even great photographs do not do the place justice!

The current "Piece De Resistance" of DCA is Cars Land by a wide margin! Now, I don't even like Pixar's Cars...I still think its their weakest animated film to date. But regardless of how you feel about the movie, Cars Land is an amazing area, a true testament to the skills and creative geniuses of the Imagineers. This place literally feels like Radiator Springs come to life. Not sure if the fact that its based on a CGI animated film (as opposed to traditional hand drawn animation) is what enabled Disney to make such a seamless transition from screen to park reality. I'm thinking the more realistic, three dimensional nature of computer generated images provides a much better blueprint for bringing characters and environments to life (of course, the amazing job they also did on WDW Beast's castle in new Fantasyland pretty much tears major holes in my theory). Still, I can't imagine being able to faithfully reproduce the stylistic backgrounds of Eyvind Earle from Sleeping Beauty with this degree of accuracy (although I would love to see Disney try). 

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters replaces the much maligned (and deservedly so) Luigi's Flying Tires. Sue and I rode Flying Tires when it first opened, and the ride had all the thrills of waiting in a dental office to have your teeth cleaned. Okay, it wasn't that bad, but it struck me that even 50 years later, Disney still can't get this type of floating ride to work (Flying Saucers anyone?). I probably won't be alive when the Imagineers give it another shot, but hopefully the third time's a charm! 

The new standard for theme park attractions.

If Cars Land is the "cream of the crop", then Radiator Spring Racers is the "cherry on top of the sundae"! Is this an E-Ticket ride? Absolutely. RS Racers has jumped to the top of speed rides, surpassing both Test Track and Rock 'N' Roller Coaster. What gives Racers the edge? For me, it's the depth of immersion felt through the entire ride. From the audio-animatronics that brings the citizens of Radiator Springs to life to the incredible desert landscapes as the track takes you out into the open air. Not as fast as the WDW rides, the vehicle acceleration is still nothing to sneeze at. Overall, this attraction puts Cars Land on the map in a big way. If you have to ride only one ride in DCA, this is the go to guy! 

From a photography standpoint, you can't take a bad picture here. Every inch of space, every angle has been maximized for visual impact and storytelling. Disney's attention to detail is a company trademark, but here it's taken to a new level. The downside of all this "theming goodness" is the place is literally packed from dawn to dusk. This is one area that security begins to close down access almost immediately at park closing. On the first night, I made the mistake of shooting Pacific Wharf first, and 15 minutes after closing, a guard would not allow me to enter Cars Land. While getting shots without people is challenging, the quick closures does usher folks towards the front much faster, clearing out areas for isolated images. 

Overall, Disney California Adventure is morphing into a really terrific park. It’s finally begun to forge its own strong identity, tapping into the potential that was absent during the initial opening. While it has a bit more work ahead, I can see DCA one day standing equal to its sister park Disneyland

(Photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)


Len said...

Thanks again for allowing this blogger "wanna be" some space on your always amazing blog!

Mark said...

Your photos are great- and your writing style just as good!