The History of California Adventure

The future of the Disney California Adventure theme park is a bright one. At D23 this past summer, it was announced that Paradise Pier, DCA’s throwback to seaside boardwalks and Victorian-era amusement parks, would be getting a makeover – which also symbolically marks the end of a long journey for a theme park that’s been through hell and back.

Among the renovations and reimaginings are four new neighborhoods that will transform Paradise Pier into Pixar Pier. These sections will be represented by notable IP from Disney and Pixar. Toy Story Mania, already a popular staple of the pier, makes up part of the first neighborhood themed for the Toy Story franchise.The other three will be themed for The Incredibles, where California Screamin’ will be transformed into The Incredicoaster; Inside Out, which will feature a new attraction not yet announced; and each of the 24 gondolas on Mickey’s Fun Wheel will feature a different Pixar character (in a very aesthetically smart move, the wheel’s Mickey Mouse centerpiece is staying put). The nearby boardwalk games will also be redesigned with character themes. Starting on April 13, Pixar Pier will open for a limited-time during the first-ever Pixar Fest, which also introduces a new Incredibles-themed float to the “Paint the Night” parade and sees the return of the Pixar Play Parade. The reimagined land will officially debut on June 23.

This transformation is groundbreaking, but it is almost overshadowed by what it represents: Disney California Adventure’s epic journey of redemption.

From the very start, DCA suffered from an identity crisis. Upon its grand opening in early 2001, criticisms of the park ranged from complaints about a lack of attractions, to attacks on its foundational theme of “The California Dream.” Fast forward to today, the park that was once ridiculed by The Simpsons for its lack of popularity (twice in the same episode) became California’s number one most Instagrammed place in 2017 (ninth overall in the U.S.).

What could get lost amidst exciting development news is how the park has been, finally, fulfilling promises and goals that were first made upon its conception. In order to appreciate what lies ahead for DCA, it’s essential to understand its history of failure and success, criticism and praise.

The Second Gate

“You know, Mickey, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful theme park.”

Emphasis on the word: “beginning.” This nod to the famous quote from Casablanca was spoken by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner at the end of a TV special produced to promote the house of mouse’s new theme park in Anaheim. The DCA that’s showcased is incredibly different than the park we know today. Before there was Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, before there was even The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, there was just parking spaces.

The 55-acre parking lot across from Disneyland had long been envisioned as the future home of Anaheim’s “second gate.” The first half of the decade had been spent working on Westcot, a west coast take on Disney World’s Epcot Center, along with other speculative parks. After these plans proved too ambitious and expensive for the company, Eisner needed to hear new ideas. In the fall of 1995, he summoned executives and Imagineers to Aspen. Among several pitches within those few days in Colorado was one concept that resonated with Eisner and… that was kind of it. For better or worse, the fate of Disneyland’s sister park was sealed.

“The whole idea is that we’re celebrating the dreams of California – the special qualities that draw people here – and so we’re trying to take and three-dimensionalize each of those qualities,” Disney Imagineer Barry Braverman told the LA times in 2001.

While recreating several of the state’s iconic figures and landmarks, the premise was also to offer samples of different California experiences. This idea would be mocked. What’s the point of a model of the Golden Gate Bridge when people can go see it in that very state?

Well, hold-up. Anaheim to San Francisco is at least a seven-hour drive. Heck, if a family on vacation was staying in Hollywood, chances are good they might not even venture past Westwood. So, there’s that. Overall, the park’s vision had legs, but it lacked source material, and therefore an obvious execution in pulling it off. Celebrating California could mean a lot of different things, and it’s actually the park’s dangerously broad theme that what would allow for the scope of future reimaginings.

pixar pier

When you wish upon a star?

In February of 2001, the park had its opening ceremony, where Eisner gave the following remarks on what everyone who passes through the turnstiles could expect:

“To all who believe in the power of dreams, welcome. Disney’s California Adventure opens its golden gates to you. Here we pay tribute to the dreamers of the past: the native people, explorers, immigrants, aviators, entrepreneurs and entertainers who built the Golden State. And we salute a new generation of dreamers who are creating the wonders of tomorrow, from the silver screen to the computer screen, from the fertile farmlands to the far reaches of space. Disney’s California Adventure celebrates the richness and the diversity of California… its land, its people, its spirit and, above all, the dreams that it continues to inspire.”

That’s all great and everything, but a couple of things should be noted.

DCA deserves all of the credit in the world for building an entire park on a very modest budget. In fact, it’s clear most of DCA’s initial problems and criticisms can be blamed on its $600 million price tag, which even for 2001 was a pretty low figure to create an entire world from scratch – especially with Disney’s legendary high standards for creativity and quality.

“We tried to do some new things and push the envelope,” said Paul Pressler in 2002. As then chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, he also shepherded DCA with Braverman since that first meeting in Aspen. “It turned out our guests want what we traditionally have given them.”

People really didn’t like the park and many of their complaints have only become more valid in retrospect. As they walked past the Bountiful Valley Farms or Superstar Limo, there was a lack of magic. A lack of Disney. Instead of complementing its sister park, it became the weird step-child no one knew what to think of. Guests complained about the lack of attractions and local media critics happily pointed out that the park is especially disappointing considering its original design was a beautiful version of Epcot for the west coast.

However, the young DCA deserves a point for its boldness. Braverman and other Imagineers were attempting an almost completely IP-free park. This creative direction would result in, among other unique choices, original characters like Whoopi Goldberg’s “Califia” in its “Golden Dreams” film presentation, and eateries such as “Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream.” They swung for the fences with varying results.

But what did it have? Paradise Pier.

“We wanted it to have kind of a nostalgic look back on the golden days of theme parks, but we also wanted to utilize state-of-the art technology for everything,” said Braverman.

The boardwalk, ferris wheel, roller coaster, and man-made lake amalgamate into what is arguably the best scenic view within the Disneyland resort, which has no doubt contributed to DCA’s stellar Instagram stats. It also fulfilled one of the park’s earliest goals, which was to enhance the Disneyland experience. A wide-open area, it allows guests to breathe and feel less claustrophobic, while simultaneously creating an immersive experience that’s bigger than any region within the flagship park.

As guests enter the re-imagined land this summer, it will be clear where the heart of the park can still be found and where it’s always been. While a slew of IP reimaginings are introduced, the pier itself will shine as DCA’s most original and successful creation. The iconic, picturesque view is sure to become synonymous with the park the same way Sleeping Beauty Castle is for Disneyland or Spaceship Earth is for Epcot.

The pier and bay have remained one of the most untouched locations in the park over the years, acting as a touchstone for those who believed that with patience, money, and a fresh creative direction, the park still had a chance to live up to its potential.

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