Disney's Latest Theme Park: California Adventure

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California is the Oz of America, a place shimmering on the horizon,promising riches and beauty. Anything seems possible in California; you can shake your past, choose your future.

Every day, hopeful immigrants pour into Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco, weaving their language into ours, mingling the aromas of their tortillas and gingered pork with our cabernet sauvignons and sourdough rolls. They come in search of stardom, wealth, acceptance, a new beginning. Many never find what they come looking for, but the allure persists. California is a dream as much as a destination.

Now Disney, which has a genius for tapping into Middle America's fantasies, is turning the California dream into a theme park. Disney's $1.4 billion California Adventure opens February 8 in Anaheim on land that used to be Disneyland's parking lot. Though there was some early criticism that Disney watered down some ideas to meet its budget, the result is typically stunning. California Adventure is a visual feast. You'll find precise reproductions of California landmarks, charming streets, and gorgeous landscaping that simulates the state's forests and farmlands. The park is a centerpiece for Disney's ambitious effort to make the Anaheim property more like its Florida counterpart and change it from a day hop to a resort destination that is attractive even to honeymooners. To that end, Disney has also opened a 750-room luxury hotel, the first ever to be built within the boundaries of a Disney park, and Downtown Disney, an eating and shopping area situated between the two theme parks.

What distinguishes California Adventure from the Magic Kingdom is the adult appeal. Kids will like it, but not nearly as much as they like Disneyland. This park, smaller and more sophisticated than its next-door neighbor, was built with grown-ups in mind. You'll still find a carousel and old-fashioned fudge, but you'll also find seafood from Wolfgang Puck, a vineyard, Broadway-caliber productions in a state-of-the-art theater, a river-rafting ride with 21-foot drops, and a ride that simulates a hang-gliding trip over the most beautiful spots in the state, complete with the appropriate fragrances.

Virtual Reality


But before you venture too far into Disney's version of California, you're likely to be struck by a thought: Isn't it odd to be visiting a simulation of the state in which you are, at that very moment, standing? It's one thing to simulate France or Japan, as Disney's Epcot Center in Florida does. But California? Why not just head out of the parking garage and see the actual Hollywood, the actual Golden Gate, the actual Yosemite?

"If we do our job right," says Barry Braverman, senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, "that's what you'll want to do. We're not trying to replicate California. We're just trying to tease, to tantalize with the best of California. It would take you a month to see all that you can in a day here."

In truth, visiting a Disney theme park is always about stepping away from real life. Despite the long lines, you're visiting a perfect little world where animals can talk, good always wins, and everything is clean. California Adventure, likewise, has definite advantages over reality. You won't find many of the inconveniences of the actual California. No graffiti, no urban squalor, no drive-by shootings, no freeway backups (except in the Superstar Limo ride).

But you often feel in California Adventure as if you're in a hall of mirrors, where reflections are reflecting back on themselves until you stop trying to count the layers of artifice. This is not bad, just disorienting—as you'll find in the ABC Soap Opera Bistro. Inside, diners sit in replicas of soap opera sets (all from Disney-owned ABC shows), such as the nurses' station and Kelly's Diner from General Hospital. Waiters and waitresses are dressed as soap opera archetypes—the ingenue, the villain—and engage diners as if the diners were extras on the set. In other words, Disney has re-created re-creations of a hospital and a diner, and re-created characters who are themselves re-creations of characters. But perhaps it's always best at Disney not to think too deeply but simply enjoy the imagination, humor, and technical expertise that have created the experience.

Where Do They Come Up with this Stuff?

Braverman and his team of Disney creative executives came up with the concept for California Adventure during a retreat in Aspen in August 1995. They considered parks focused on history, on water themes, on California, even on Route 66. On the last day of the retreat, Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner told them to pursue the California idea. Braverman assembled a design team that immersed itself in research. They consulted Kevin Starr, the state historian, and Huell Howser, the host of local Southern California television show Visiting . . . with Huell Howser. They built a library of books.

But how to condense the third largest state in the union into a mere 55-acre parking lot?

The team divided the park into three main areas: Hollywood Pictures Backlot, The Golden State, and Paradise Pier.

"Because our intent was to celebrate the California dream, we began by identifying the most important qualities and attributes that draw people to this state," Braverman says. "High on this list were: the mystique of the movie industry, the fun and relaxation of California beach culture, and the state's scenic beauty."

He adds: "We want to give people a taste of what draws people to California, a sampling, a mosaic of different parts of California to celebrate the different qualities that make California special."

To draw you into the park, Disney created a main entrance called the Golden Gateway. In front of the turnstiles, on the entry plaza that California Adventure shares with Disneyland, the word "California" is spelled out in 11-foot-tall, metallic-gold letters, evoking the state's shiny promise. Past the turnstiles, rising from either side of the walkway, two stunning mosaics depict California scenes, which were created from 8,000 individually glazed pieces of ceramic tile. Straight ahead, the Golden Gate Bridge looms, the exact red of the real bridge in San Francisco. And beyond the bridge, framed by the Golden Gate's towers and looped cables, an enormous titanium-and-bronze sun glistens.

Hollywood Pictures Backlot

The entire Hollywood area is about illusion, beginning with the entrance. Ornate pillars, topped by golden elephants, are copies of a set built by famed director D.W. Griffith for the 1916 movie Intolerance. Behind the elephants, Disney left scaffolding, making it clear to visitors that they're entering a make-believe world. Hollywood Boulevard stretches straight ahead for what seems like blocks, with buildings receding into the distance. But this, too, is an illusion. The "buildings"—in reality just facades—at the end of the street were constructed by set designers to look as if they're disappearing into the horizon.

The real buildings lining the boulevard mirror classic Hollywood architecture, such as buildings inspired by the Pantages Theatre and Bullock's Wilshire. There are stores and restaurants and the Muppet*Vision 3D, which explores the moviemaking process with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and lots of special effects. There is the Superstar Limo ride, in which riders play the role of movie stars riding through cartoon-style scenes of various Hollywood-area neighborhoods, such as Beverly Hills and Malibu.

At the end of the block, the 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art Hyperion Theater will feature Broadway-quality productions, the first being a song-and-dance revue called Steps in Time set to Disney music. And in Disney Animation, you can peek behind the scenes to see how artists and technicians bring animated characters to life on the screen. You can try your own hand at animation in the Sorcerer's Workshop; visit the Beast's Library, where you'll discover which Disney character you most resemble; and provide the voice for an animated character in Ursula's Grotto.

The Golden State

The Golden State area celebrates the gifts nature has bestowed on California and how Californians have utilized them. You won't want to miss the most innovative ride in the park, Soarin' Over California. Eighty-seven people buckle up into banks of seats inside a theater. The entire seating mechanism flies up toward a concave screen, where for the next four minutes you'll feel as if you're hang gliding over 12 locales, including the Napa Valley, Palm Springs, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe. Wind and scents are pumped through vents over the seats to enhance the experience.

The 110-foot-tall Grizzly Peak dominates the Golden State area. At the base of this craggy, granite-looking formation that resembles a bear's head, a real vineyard has been planted. The Grizzly River Run takes you through river rapids down the mountain.

In the Golden State area, you will also find the Pacific Wharf district, where you can take a tour of the Mission Foods tortilla-making factory, see how Boudin Bakery makes its famous sourdough bread, and sip wine at Robert Mondavi Winery's winetasting room and fine-dining restaurant.

Paradise Pier

The most un-Disney part of the park is Paradise Pier, built to resemble an old-fashioned seaside amusement park with a huge Ferris wheel, a carousel, and a classic-looking but very fast roller coaster that goes upside down. The area will be fun for the kids but lacks the inventiveness visitors expect from Disney. Disney re-creating an old-time amusement park is like Wolfgang Puck re-creating an authentic grilled cheese sandwich.

Along those lines, some might balk at the cost of California Adventure, which will be comparable to Disneyland's $43 adult admission price. California Adventure is 40 percent smaller than Disneyland and features one-third as many attractions and shows. Even so, Disney expects about 7 million visitors a year to the new park. A new, six-level, 10,250-car parking garage, the largest in North America, will meet the demand.

Disney hopes the new Grand Californian Hotel and Downtown Disney will attract people who have been hesitant to spend more than a day's vacation in Anaheim. The rustic Arts and Crafts-style hotel is the first Disney-designed accommodation on the West Coast. (Rates start at $235-$275.) It's comfortable with enormous fireplaces and cozy places for enjoying a quiet meal or drink. If you stay at the hotel, you have your own turnstile into the park and your own entrance into Downtown Disney. Inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the long promenade offers Cajun food, Latin dance bands, an outdoor wine bar, the House of Blues, and shops selling specialized merchandise, such as candles, soaps, and jewelry.

Disney's replication of the Golden State is nearly perfect, but there are two omissions. One is Silicon Valley, which Braverman admits is a great challenge. "We're working on a show for the future, but we're struggling to find the right medium," he says.

The other omission is Disneyland, a quintessential California institution. Of course, if they replicated Disneyland inside California Adventure, it wouldn't be the Happiest Place on Earth but a simulation of the Happiest Place on Earth, an earnest effort at capturing the original fantasy. It would, like all Disney attractions, clearly be a manufactured illusion. But aspects of it would also be stunningly creative and sublimely magical—just like California itself.

The Thrill is Closed

You’ve been planning your California Adventure vacation for weeks and can’t wait to try the ballyhooed Maliboomer. But when you get there, it turns out the ride is closed for repairs. How can you avoid this kind of heartbreak? Some of the larger California amusement parks have hotlines you can call in advance to check on the status of your favorite rides. (With Six Flags Marine World and Great America, you’ll have to take your chances.)

  • Disneyland, California Adventure, (714) 781-4565 or (714) 781-7290
  • Universal Studios Hollywood, (818) 622-3771
  • Knott’s Berry Farm, in Buena Park, (714) 220-5200
  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, (831) 423-5590

Photography Sean Arbabi

This article was first published in January 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly.

If You're Going: 

Call AAA Travel Services for AAA Vacations packages and special savings. Contact the Walt Disney Travel Company at (877) 700-3476.

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