My thoughts on Disney's California Adventure

So yesterday was one of the Employee Preview days for Disney's California Adventure, the new theme park next to Disneyland. I was quite skeptical, to say the least, at finally seeing this park. See, the internet crew has not been kind to this park. Rumors and speculation and lies have been floating around the cyber-ether pretty much since Disney's California Adventure (DCA) was first announced in the summer of 1996.

Earlier in the 1990s there were grand plans for Westcot, an EPCOT Center to be built in the Disneyland parking lot. But since Epcot is such a huge park (I believe it's still the largest Disney park out there) and the parking lot is so small, Westcot was going to be a well planned, multi-leveled park - something truly innovative and new.

Then budgets and numbers and executives came into play, and Disney's California Adventure was born.

Smaller in scale, scope and vision than Westcot, DCA is an economy park. Many of the attractions are recycled from Walt Disney World in Florida. Some of the theming might leave a little to be desired. The new park doesn't actually use all of the space available, leaving a smaller parking lot where some new rides could (or will someday) go. But then they did build Downtown Disney, an outdoor shopping area right outside the gates of Disneyland. And most outrageous to some - they're actually selling alcohol in the new park. All of these issues have had four years of bashing on the internet.

Well, these internet naysayers don't realize the grander vision for Disneyland. In fact, the area's now known as "the Disneyland Resort". Disney Imagineers have renovated the Disneyland Hotel. They rethemed the Disneyland Pacific Hotel as the Paradise Pier Hotel (after a 'land' in the new DCA park). They built Disney's Grand Californian Hotel "inside" the new park. The goal is to make Disneyland to be a destination resort, so tourists from all over Southern California will come down to Anaheim, stay a night or two, and do the two parks. Someday we'll even have a third theme park ( to make it a REAL destination resort.

Downtown Disney is the hub of this new Disneyland Resort. The first press releases called it, "the new Main Street". You can now walk from the hotels to the parks without getting hit by a car on West Street. But more than just a safety stroll, Downtown Disney in Anaheim is the best example of an outdoor retail environment that I've seen. Now, I haven't been to Disneyland Paris' Disney Village, or to the new CityWalk at Universal Escape (or whatever they're calling it this week) in Florida. But this Downtown Disney is head and shoulders about the Marketplace at WDW or the mess of a CityWalk in Hollywood.

I actually find the whole area quite beautiful, really. Peppered with full-grown trees in nice planters that double as benches, the narrow walkways still aren't crowded, people actually move aside to sit down, out of your way. At CityWalk and the like they just stop in the middle of the road! And the pathways are gently graded, so you have a little elevation change, which is nice. Soothing. Oh, and the bridge over West Street is a much welcome addition. The whole thing is very nice. Sure, there could be a few more restaurants so you don't have to wait two hours at the House of Blues on a Saturday night, but you can always wait in the bar.

Yes, there's a bar in the House of Blues. Several in all of Downtown Disney. But there were bars at the Disneyland Hotel before. However, people have also complained about this, and the sale of alcoholic beverages inside the new park. This is by far the lamest battle out there. Um, Epcot, anyone? Beer in Germany, Wine in France? It's been going on for, oh, almost twenty years now in Florida. Walt said that he didn't want alcohol in Disneyland. So there's no alcohol at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, either. But when the Imagineers went off to build EPCOT Center, they let the sale of beer and wine go, because techicically it wasn't the same brand of Disney park. Alcohol sales are kosher at Disney-MGM Studios and the Animal Kingdom, as well. Thus, this also includes Disney's California Adventure.

Maybe if people have a few drinks they'll stop complaining what a small park it is. Or maybe they'll just get louder and more upset. We'll see. But when Disney-MGM Studios opened May 1, 1989 there wasn't a whole lot to do there, either. I remember we went in 1990, and did almost everything in a good half a day. I was fourteen and bummed. The first new park since I had been going to Walt Disney World, and it sucked. Sure, Animation was cool, and the Indy stunt show was neat (the first three times - it's thus lost its charm), but that was just about it.

Last summer when I was at Walt Disney World and discovered that without Toad at the Magic Kingdom, Figment at Epcot, or ... well, anything interesting at the Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios is now my favorite park. Jim Henson's Muppet-Vision 3D, the Great Movie Ride, the Magic of Disney Animation, the Tower of Terror, Rock N Roller Coaster, that zany Little Mermaid puppet show ... I love that park. It took some time, but here we are twelve years later, and the Studios are on top.

Yes, Disney's California Adventure is a bit budget right now. The off-the-shelf rollercoaster Mullholland Madness is just weak. Superstar Limo is just about the most ... unusual, lame, boring, pointless ... (the adjectives go on) attraction I've ever seen at a Disney park. But the themeing of the San Francisco Wharf is beautiful (although there isn't anything to do there) and the California Screamin' coaster is, quite possibly, the best Disney coaster ever (although I haven't been on the Indiana Jones one at Disneyland Paris, which I hear is a hoot). And though I didn't go on it, I bet the Grizzly River Rapids ride is cool, as I really, really liked the Kali River Rapid raft ride at the Animal Kingdom. The Animation tour is fun. I love Return to Neverland (sic) with Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite, I could watch that every week. The interactive exhibits were a nice touch. The new Mushu show Drawn to Animation is fun. I love the Muppets, so Muppet-Vision is just a blast. Sillier still, I think the pre-show is the best part! I could watch that every DAY! Soarin' Over California is a neat ride, if only they'd clean the lense or the print or something more often (dirt and dust on an IMAX screen is bigger than my freakin' head!). Did I mention California Screamin'?

I'm not all-out defending all of the theme park, mind you. After spending about eight hours there (which would be a modest half a day for me at Walt Disney World), I can see flaws. But I can also see possibilities. This new park was just made at the wrong time, born under a bad sign.

The late 1990s will go down in history as a very bad time for the Walt Disney Company. Company President Frank Wells died in 1994, Jeffrey Katzenberg left in 1994, Disney's America was cancelled in 1994 (yeah, that was a BAD year for Disney!) Pocahontas came out in 1995, Michael Ovitz came in 1995, Disney bought ABC in 1996, Ovitz left with many many millions in 1996 - and then you have bad press from Celebration, Eisner taking his bonus of, what was it, thirty two bazillion dollars, the whole Go Network fiasco ... reputation-wise and financially not a great period.

Obviously Eisner and the executives are trimming costs and expenses, and a theme park is a big damn expense. So they cut corners. I'm not justifying what they did here, I'm just trying to see it from their perspective, however misguided it may be.

One perspective that I cannot understand is that of the die-hard Annual Passholders. They've made the biggest stink on the internet about the California theme of the theme park - they're all from Southern California, why make a park all about California? They live there!

See, these Annual Passholders can't comprehend anything that's not related directly to them - and they think that they own damn Disneyland park. They don't. It's going to get a lot more touristy now. It's a new destination resort. A new era. But they can't see that, so onto the internet they go, complaining that Downtown Disney is just a mall, that alcohol shouldn't be in the park, that the park is too damn small, and that the theme of California is just lame. My question to them is, "Were you happier with the parking lot?" The big, paved wasteland of a parking lot? The big, paved wasteland with high-tension wires running through it? You like themeing? How's that for themeing?

Does Disney's California Adventure have the replayability of Disneyland? Not yet. Have we had forty-five years there to make memories in the park? No. But is the park finished? Even Walt, dead these thirty something years, can answer that. I think he said that, "Disneyland will never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world ...".

I don't love the park, but I'm going to give it a damn chance. You should to. In twelve years, you might just like it better than Disneyland Park.

Unless you want the old parking lot back ...

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Last Updated on: January 22, 2001

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