In 2001 when Michael Eisner opened Disney’s California Adventure, people questioned the wisdom of building a park based on California in the state of California. Who would want to pay to see a fake Golden Gate Bridge or visit a fake beach side boardwalk when the real things were so close at hand? What was the point of having a mock-up of California when people could readily see the real thing? Park attendance was poor, and the project was chalked up as a failure. Still, Disney tinkered with the theme and the lands in an attempt to draw more guests over to Disneyland’s sister park. After all, part of the success of Florida’s Walt Disney World has to do with its ability to capture guests for long term stays, rather than just a couple of nights.
Marvel Takes Over
When Guardians of the Galaxy replaced the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney was starting to retheme a part of the park that had been aimed at children – “a bug’s land.” At the time, the casual guest may not have thought of it as such, but the Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, which was original placed in Hollywood Land, is now one of two attractions in Avenger’s Campus. The themed land appeals to fans of Marvel at any age.
But there’s more than a subtle switch from one land to another in this move. Hollywood Land is also being taken over by Marvel. Photo ops on the backlot feature Marvel character cutouts. Stores feature Marvel products. With no musical in the theater and the Art of Animation Building mostly closed (in September 2022), there’s every reason t believe that Disney will begin to retheme this space to something better. Currently, only the Animation Academy is worth visiting with Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue being only slightly entertaining. Mickey’s Philharmagic no longer draws people (if it ever did), and Disney Junior Dance Party is strictly for the little ones.
So as Hollywood Land, with no stunt shows, no backstage magic, and only a tenuous grasp on the term “Hollywood,” is slowly consumed by superheroes, other Disney California Adventure lands are facing their own park identity crisis.
Cars Land and Pixar Pier
Cars Land is the easiest of the lands to show that it doesn’t belong in California. The fabled Route 66 did go from Chicago to Los Angeles, but Radiator Springs is located in a version of Monument Valley – a place in Arizona. It is clearly lacking in California character.
Pixar Pier has completely taken over Paradise Pier. All of its attractions, including the rethemed Flik’s Flyers, now called Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind, are themed to various Pixar movies.
Remaining California Lands
Grizzly Peak maintains its California feel, largely due to the Redwood Creek Challenge and Grizzly River Run. The idea of a California adventure has suffered here through the loss of Soarin’ over California. Now, simply called Soarin’ the attraction takes guests hang gliding through famous places of the world. The queue still features a history of California aviation.
Pacific Wharf is still largely California in flavor. The dining area features Ghirardelli, Boudin, and the Wine Country Trattoria.
Buena Vista Street is trying hard to hold onto its 1920 – 1930s vibe. The Red Car Trolley, still rolls down the street. The Carthay Circle Restaurant still serves food, and Walt and Mickey are still on hand with their suitcase and a dream.
Paradise Gardens Park
The last land is the most problematic. It’s a mishmash of characters and experiences that have no unifying theme. Paradise Gardens Park features Coco as a show attraction. “Coco” is based in Mexico, and while the roots of California are undeniably linked to Mexico; the state is no longer located in Mexico.
The Silly Symphony Swings are a somewhat clever retheme of a giant swing ride more fitting for a cheap thrill than a Disney style attraction; it’s a good example of Disney imagineers doing the most they can with the least amount of work possible. California averages about 11 tornadoes a year, so it’s possible that this Silly Symphony could take place in the state. Goofy’s Sky School is a mouse-style rollercoaster that is fun and cheaply rethemed, though brilliantly done assuming the budget for the attraction was small. The rollercoaster is a nod to California’s aviation history, in case you missed it at Soarin’.
Jumpin’ Jellyfish and Golden Zephyr were lifted straight from a seaside boardwalk or a carnival with no retheming. These two rides, they certainly don’t embody the term “attraction,” have nothing to do with anything Disney. It’s possible the Zephyr tips its hat to the Rocketeer, which takes place in California, but the mention is so haphazard, that it seems more like a coincidence than something intentional.
The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure was out of place when it opened in 2011. At the time, it had nothing to do with the theme of the park or the area. Within the first few months of its opening, lines were as short as five minutes. It’s not that the attraction is bad; it’s just not good enough to anchor an entire section of the park. This area’s lack of cohesive theme is something Darth Vader would find disturbing, and Disney should, too.
What’s in a Name?
The original theme park name was Disney’s California Adventure. The apostrophe gave ownership to Walt as the park did its best to create the atmosphere of California when Walt arrived with $40 in his packet and an Alice reel under his arm. Hollywood Land, Buena Vista Street, Paradise Pier were all set in Hollywood’s heydays.
Simply by losing an apostrophe and an ‘s,’ Disney California Adventure has become generic. When guests come to the park, they’ll have a Disney California Adventure. The park is in California. It’s run by the Disney company and has a lot of Disney intellectual property, and it’s an adventure. Still, there is likely a plan hidden somewhere deep in the Disney offices with a new name. Something that will create a better sense of identity for the park and what it offers. What do you think it will be called?