Disney California Adventure, the New Progress City

The first time I visited what was then known as Disney’s California Adventure was in the spring of 2001.  I was in high school, and the park was shiny and new.  Having only opened a couple months prior, it was basically untouched.  Part of that was due to a woeful lack of attendance.  My visit took place on a Friday evening in what would have been spring break for some families, and even then I remember looking around and thinking, “Damn, this place is a ghost town.”

Danny and me, on our most recent visit to Disney California Adventure

Danny and me, on our most recent visit to Disney California Adventure

Disney’s California Adventure was not the park that SoCal locals wanted, and it was not the park they were promised by Disney.   In the late ’80s, Disney shopped the idea of another park not just to Anaheim, but to neighboring cities as well.  Long Beach was in heavy consideration for a park called Port Disney.  Eventually, the city of Anaheim won out by offering sweetheart tax breaks and large investments from the city in exchange for what should have been a $3.1B theme park.  In 1995, the company’s plans for a second California theme park called WestCOT, first announced in 1991, finally fell through.  But the idea of a second park remained.    In 1996, Disney struck a deal with the city of Anaheim that would keep them from collecting and paying to the city a “gate tax” on theme park admission for the next 20 years with the promise of a second theme park.  However, the new plans for a $1.4B park called Disney’s California Adventure were lackluster compared to the pie-in-the-sky WestCOT.

Mickey Mouse finds a new home in 1920s California on Buena Vista Street

Mickey Mouse finds a new home in 1920s California on Buena Vista Street

Several years of poor performance followed California Adventure, but a substantial $1.1B investment and a multi-year plan to revitalize the park was announced in 2007.  The plan was to overhaul the park in stages, but over the years, it seems that what was initially Phase 1 of the plan is now Phase Final.  We got Buena Vista Street and Carsland out of the deal, so I can’t muster up any anger for what might have been.  If I were an Anaheim taxpayer, though, I might sing a different tune.

The Carthay Circle Theater on Buena Vista Street serves as a most interactive park icon for Disney California Adventure

The Carthay Circle Theater on Buena Vista Street serves as a most interactive park icon for Disney California Adventure

Regardless, after the 2012 grand re-opening of what is now Disney California Adventure (the park’s name is no longer possessive, although what we see now on Buena Vista Street is undoubtedly more reminiscent of Walt’s adventure to California than anything in the original DCA), Anaheim finally has something approaching the $3B park they were promised.  And while I always enjoyed California Adventure as a quiet respite from the bustle happening across the Esplenade, I enjoy it even more now that it’s as happening as Walt’s Park.  The state of California and the Walt Disney Company should both be proud.

There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore in the revamped California Adventure. We love that art installations are mostly at ground level.

There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore in the revamped California Adventure. We love that art installations are mostly at ground level.

There’s an intimacy to California Adventure that doesn’t exist with Disneyland.  The Partners statue is up on a dais, fenced in and behind manicured flowerbeds.  Sleeping Beauty Castle, surrounded by its moats, ramps, bridges and gates, feels like a thing you can never reach out and touch.  Even when physically inside the castle’s walk-through, there’s a disconnect that prevents me from realizing that I’m within the park icon.  With the single-level landscape of Buena Vista Street, not only can you walk right up to the Carthay Circle Theater, but also the Storytellers Statue.  The Red Car Trolley News Boys perform only feet from guests rather than up and away on a stage.   The accessibility of the place is an admirable quality of what fans call DCA 2.0.

The Red Car Trolley News Boys perform right at street level. They could reach out and touch you.

The Red Car Trolley News Boys perform right at street level. They could reach out and touch you.

The revitalization of Disney California Adventure is something that many of Disney’s other U.S. properties could aspire to.  In the past, I thought of California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista, FL as sister cities of sorts.  Their themes differ, but the feelings the parks stir up in me as a guest are very similar.  There’s a warmth, and a nostalgia to both places.  Both feel at once more adult and more casual than the flagship “castle” parks of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.  The two even share flagship attractions like the Hollywood Tower of Terror and Toy Story Midway Mania.  What Hollywood Studios lacks is anything original worth doing.

The neon lights and red clay mountains of Carsland create one of the most immersive Disney park lands to date.

The neon lights and red clay mountains of Carsland create one of the most immersive Disney park lands to date.

Despite spending about 40 days on Walt Disney World property in the past five years, Danny and I have spent maybe two hours of that time in Hollywood Studios.  When we visit, we go in, wander around Sunset Boulevard for a few minutes watching the street performers and listening to the wonderful background music, and maybe have lunch at the Hollywood Brown Derby before leaving again.  We haven’t walked into the park at all since 2012.  There’s just nothing to see there right now.  With the announcements of Star Wars and Toy Story lands (and, if I were to hazard a guess, it would be that there are more new things coming that are yet to be announced), it seems that Hollywood Studios will be the next park to get the California Adventure treatment.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom is also in the midst of a smaller buffing and polishing that will make it an all-day destination for the first time.  Could Epcot be next?  We can only hope.  Bolstered by seasonal festivals and myriad dining options, the park attendance situation at Epcot is not as dire as others, but that doesn’t mean attention should not be paid.  If anything needs a breath of new life the way the once under-visited, underwhelming California Adventure did, it’s Future World.

Do you think the “secondary” Florida parks are headed for makeovers akin to the one Disney California Adventure received?  Which one needs it most?

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