When Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) opened in February of 2001, Disney executives hoped that the small sister theme park built in Disneyland’s parking lot would become financially successful and provide a model for building successful theme parks built on smaller scale. Somewhere between an outdoor shopping mall, expensive restaurants, and off the shelf carnival rides, was a niche that DCA was supposed to fill. Although they built it, the guests never came, at least not in the numbers predicted and not without steep discounts.
When Disney executives first thought of adding a “second gate” or second theme park near Disneyland, they considered a variety of options. One of which was an expensive clone of the already popular EPCOT center in Orlando, Florida. This West Coast EPCOT, or Westcot, was considered to be too expensive to build, and executives wanted a smaller theme park which provided opportunities for guests to buy more souvenirs, wine and dine themselves in expensive restaurants, and to be able to ride a couple of rides. The rather disjointed theme of “California”, which no one seemed to notice existed outside Disney’s doorstep and didn’t charge an admission price, was decided upon as the theme.
On a recent trip to DCA, I walked around the theme park looking at the large amount of construction projects in place. Indeed, due to poor guest evaluations and fiscal losses, Disney is trying to fix their beleaguered theme park not only to help with the bottom-line, but also to restore confidence that Disney can build quality theme parks at a time when the company plans to open additional theme parks overseas. Their newest theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland, has been plagued by poor reviews due in part to lack of attractions for guests to ride when they visit the park. You would have thought that having plenty of rides was theme park construction 101.
When walking around DCA, the contrasts to Disneyland are obvious and striking. There is a lack of shade at DCA, due to a severe lack of trees and long stretches of concrete walkways that radiate heat and look more like freeway off ramps than any board walk. There are also a lack of benches, when I found a bench at DCA I sat there for a couple of minutes and marveled that even some of the fast food stands were closed at lunch time, it is although the park knows it won’t be getting a lot of visitors. While Disneyland has highly themed areas, such as Fantasyland which recreates a land of childhood enjoyment with favorite characters such as Peter Pan, to Adventureland which recreates Africa in the 1930s, DCA has no such highly themed areas. It is although an alien race decided to recreate all of the grim and blight of carnival amusement parks for historical reasons. I am unsure why a dilapidated section of a San Francisco pier was recreated, or for whom this would lead to feelings of nostalgia.
Still in place are the carnival booths and the wooden roller coaster. However, being constructed in the lagoon is a new night time water show which will use digital projectors to display scenes from Disney’s favorite films such as The Lion King and Alice in Wonderland on gigantic sheets of water. Interesting, but is this Las Vegas style show really what DCA needs? Personally, I think many guests would rather watch the nightly fireworks over at Disneyland or the Electric Light Parade. Technological achievement, sort of, and could be interesting to watch at least once. In addition to the water show a new ride based on the Little Mermaid Animated Feature will be constructed, as well as whole new land, Carsland, dedicated to the characters in Pixar’s animated movie Cars, and red trolley with ferry guests around will also be added.
However, the gritty industrial style of DCA remains, which is all the more accented by multiple hotels which are easily visible from inside DCA. Walt Disney specifically built a tall berm of soil around Disneyland, planted with trees, to keep the outside world from intruding on his reality. DCA still feels like a traveling circus which has temporarily setup shop in the once spacious parking lot in front of Disneyland.
With the large amount of construction projects beginning at DCA, the face of the theme park will surely be much different for future guests of the theme park. Time will tell if the changes are enough to bring DCA up to the level of quality family entertainment that is Disneyland.