20 Years Of Disney California Adventure: Exploring How Disney's Theme Park Misfire Came Back From The Dead

20 years ago today, Disneyland Park got a sister. For over four decades, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California had comprised the original theme park and its corresponding hotel. But on February 8, 2001, Disneyland Park was joined by Disney's California Adventure, a theme park located in California that was also about California. (In an opening-day TV special, the park was advertised thusly: "Disney's California Adventure...in California!")Even with the park closed for nearly a full year due to the ongoing pandemic, Disney California Adventure – as it's now known, having lost the apostrophe – is the living, breathing personification of growing pains. DCA has in fact shifted so drastically over the last two decades that the best way to honor its big anniversary is to drop into the park year by year to see how Disney's California Adventure – in California! – has altered over time.So let's travel back through time and take a look at how one of Disney's greatest disasters was salvaged thanks to Pixar, Marvel, and a massive pile of money...and we'll also dwell on what it lost to get there.

2001: Superstar Limo

There is no better representation of the baffling choices on display in the initial iteration of DCA than Superstar Limo. In this attraction, guests ride a limousine through the greater Los Angeles area, on their way to a big, splashy movie premiere. When Superstar Limo was first conceived, guests would take their ride to outrun paparazzi, an idea that fell by the wayside after the horrific death of Princess Diana in the late 1990s. The eventual attraction included caricature-like versions of celebs like Drew Carey, Tim Allen, and Regis Philbin. The ride closed less than a year after DCA opened, but don't worry. You may have experienced this attraction in the years since. Keep reading to learn more. 

2002: a bug’s land

Though the Walt Disney Company didn't buy Pixar until 2006, the theme parks quickly started to show off the characters and worlds the studio had concocted. In the fall of 2002, as Disney's California Adventure continued to struggle with defining itself, a hint at the eventual way forward came in the form of a bug's land. (That's no typo. Just like the 1998 film a bug's life, the land name is all lowercase.) When DCA opened in early 2001, the 4D experience It's Tough to be a Bug! was already open, but the kid-friendly attractions in a bug's land added to the experience. The design of the area, which lasted for 15 years, was meant to make guests feel like they were the size of bugs, but the oversized fake food containers, cups, and more only lent to a kitschy feel that felt decidedly un-Disney-like.

2003: Playhouse Disney Dance Party

Disney's California Adventure opened without always being for the young at heart, or terribly kid-friendly. One early death at DCA was the ABC Soap Opera Bistro, a restaurant and bar that allowed guests the chance to walk into their favorite soap operas, like General Hospital and Port Charles. In spite of the attention to detail, and the implication that upon entering the restaurant, you too might be thrust into the day-to-day dramas of these characters, it didn't work (and kids were obviously not interested). Just over two years after DCA opened, the ABC Soap Opera Bistro closed and was turned into the Playhouse Disney Dance Party, in which kids could jump around and dance to music from their favorite Disney Channel shows. The show's been updated since to reflect newer Disney Junior shows and characters. But this was one of the earliest examples of DCA realizing that certain brands were more valuable than others. 

2004: Tower of Terror

Disney's California Adventure had a couple of thrill rides when it opened, such as Grizzly River Run and California Screamin'. (Remember: this park is about California.) But they needed something else, and fortunately, there was enough space to include a fan favorite from Walt Disney World: the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Though the ride mechanism is an old-school carnival-style lift, raising guests to impossible heights before dropping them to the ground, the attraction was a rousing success because of its delicate theming to old-school Hollywood and its nods to...the Twilight Zone. The slightly truncated version in California lasted for almost 15 years, but...well, we'll talk about why shortly.

2005: Turtle Talk with Crush

The Pixar-ification of DCA began soon after the wild success of the 2003 comedy Finding Nemo. One of the film's breakout characters was Crush, a very old turtle with the spirit of a surfer dude, voiced by director Andrew Stanton. First debuting at Epcot, Turtle Talk with Crush is a fairly simple show with some novel technology. The premise is that guests can talk with Crush, thanks to some inventive animation technology. The attraction found a second home in Anaheim as part of the Animation Building, less as a way to show off the snazzy capabilities of the Cast Member playing Crush and interacting with guests, and more to emphasize the expansion of animation at the studio that started it all. But most of all, Turtle Talk with Crush, which arrived in the summer of 2005 after solid reviews in Orlando, hinted at the vast power Pixar wields.

2006: Monsters, Inc.

Maybe you feel like you missed out something delightfully kitschy by never experiencing Superstar Limo outside of, say, a YouTube video. Good news! If you've ever ridden on its replacement – Monsters, Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! – then you have essentially experienced Superstar Limo. Though people like Monsters, Inc., budgets to revise Superstar Limo were tight enough that when Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! opened in 2006, those with good memories could easily recognize that the members of the CDA with flash-bulbs used to be paparazzi, and some of the monsters in early scenes are simply re-dressed versions of famous folks from the original attraction. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! is still very charming, but it's an early 21st-century example of how Disney uses budget-conscious ways to update some attractions.

2007: Expansion 

When Disney California Adventure opened (back when it was "Disney's"), it cost $600 million. After Bob Iger became the Disney CEO, the company announced that DCA would go through an expansion costing $1.1 billion. That makes 2007 a directly transitory year, kicking off an expansion that would encompass a full quarter of the theme park's current lifespan. While 2007 wasn't a year when DCA offered lots of new additions, Disney was acknowledging that the park as it existed at the time needed some love and attention it previously hadn't received. 

2008: Toy Story Midway Mania!

Some results of the expansion were designed to give people what could also be found in Orlando. Just as Turtle Talk with Crush and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror could be found at Walt Disney World, the same is true of Toy Story Midway Mania! The 3-D attraction arrived in Orlando just a few weeks earlier, and has since become a perennial favorite on both coasts. Midway Mania! gives guests the chance to play a series of carnival games via 3-D technology, all themed to the Toy Story films. Over time, some characters have been added, such as Trixie from Toy Story 3. (It's a little wistful now to see the large Mr. Potato Head Audio-Animatronic serve as carnival barker with the voice of the late Don Rickles.) Toy Story Midway Mania! served as an opening salvo in the expansion of Disney California Adventure, clarifying that some of it would work flawlessly.

2009: Mickey’s Fun Wheel 

Some attractions are simple enough that they get updated, not removed. When Disney's California Adventure opened in 2001, the Paradise Pier section was not just a throwback to boardwalks in locales such as Santa Cruz. It offered midway attractions you could find just about anywhere, from a merry-go-round to a faux-rickety upside-down roller coaster to, of course, a ferris wheel. The Sun Wheel, as it was called, was a massive, 160-foot tall ferris wheel with a large stylized sun grinning at guests. Though the Sun Wheel had a novel twist – half of its gondolas swing, adding a real thrill – it didn't fit with the DCA overhaul. As the area was refreshed with old-school Disney characters, the same happened with what became Mickey's Fun Wheel. The swinging gondolas stayed, but the sun left, leaving behind Mickey's sunny face staring back at you. It lasted for nearly a decade. 

2010: World of Color

Nighttime shows and Disney theme parks go together like churros and Dole Whips. (You should try them together if you haven't. Thank me later.) For nearly its first decade, DCA had no marquee nighttime spectacular of its own. One of the biggest updates to DCA as part of the billion-dollar expansion was the creation and design of a show to rival Disneyland's Fantasmic!: World of Color. Inspired by the dancing fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, World of Color has fountains of its own that synchronize with Disney music, lighting effects, and even a healthy dose of fire. Since the show premiered in the summer of 2010, World of Color has quickly, justifiably become a fan favorite, inspiring holiday-themed shows to boot. There was little question when it premiered that DCA had finally become a park to visit, if only at night.

2011: Little Mermaid 

In case you forgot, Disney's California Adventure, when it opened, was a theme park...about California. One long-gone attraction, a film called Golden Dreams, was about the history of California, starring Whoopi Goldberg. But when Golden Dreams closed in 2008, it did so to make way for the kind of Disney standby that hadn't been a big part of the park when it opened: a dark ride. When it opened in 2011, The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure wasn't DCA's only movie-themed dark ride, but it married the slow-moving ride-vehicle technology of The Haunted Mansion that enabled lots of guests to ride every hour, with the same detailed design work and characters that are emblematic of Fantasyland dark rides like Peter Pan's Flight. Though the story of The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure cycles through the second half of the film far too quickly, the ride has become perennial for fans, and a great way to beat the heat for a little while.

2012: Cars Land

A major part of the DCA expansion was an entirely new land themed to – yes, again – something from Pixar. By 2012, there were two films in the Cars universe, with two spinoffs on the way. Though Cars 2 wasn't a huge hit (and is the only legitimately bad film Pixar has ever made), the original Cars succeeded well enough that Walt Disney Imagineering partnered with Pixar to create Cars Land, themed to the setting of Radiator Springs. (Forget that Radiator Springs is primarily inspired by the small towns of Arizona, not California.) The immersive new section featured three attractions at the start, including the massive Radiator Springs Racers. Although its ride style mimics that of Epcot's Test Track, the theming throughout the ride and the overall land, with everything from cone-shaped restaurants to frequent visits from Lightning McQueen, were successful enough to transcend the reality that the Cars films weren't as enduring as other Pixar entries.

2013: Expansion success

The proof was in the pudding for Disney California Adventure. 2013 was the first year in a while when the park didn't add major new attractions or shows. The billion-dollar expansion had finally come to fruition. One easy way to detect the success of the park was by attendance. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, DCA welcomed more than 8.5  million guests through its gates in 2013, the highest number the park had achieved to that point (in 2017, 2018, and 2019, it welcomed more than 9.5 million guests a year). Of all the Disney parks that year, DCA saw the largest percentage gain in attendance. Finally, years after the struggles of the park's early days, DCA was becoming a park no one could miss. 

2014: Muppet-Vision 3D

November 1, 2014 is a dark day in Disney theme-park history, because it's the last day that Muppet*Vision 3D played at DCA. Though the wonderful 3D film was an opening-day attraction, it slowly felt like an interloper in a park that was redesigning itself almost every day. Sadly, Muppet*Vision 3D would have to go away, a choice that was foreshadowed by how Disney would frequently close the show and put in its place long-form ads for upcoming films. Muppet*Vision 3D had remarkable staying power – by 2014, only a literal handful of attractions were left from opening day. Kermit, you did good.

2015: Luigi’s Flying Tires

When Cars Land opened, it offered three attractions: Radiator Springs Racers, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, and Luigi's Flying Tires. The first is a fan favorite, with some fans being so dedicated that they rode the attraction more than 12,000 times over the years. Mater's Junkyard Jamboree isn't as widely adored, but it's popular enough. Luigi's Flying Tires didn't hit the same heights of fandom, closing its doors in February 2015. Or, more accurately, it was re-designed. Originally, as a nod to a long-gone Tomorrowland attraction, guests who rode the "flying" tires would steer them by shifting their body weight forward, backward, left, or right. But people never got the hang of it, leading to frustration instead of elation. The replacement, Luigi's Rollicking Roadsters, uses the same ride area and show building, but with a much less challenging mechanism. The shift was only further proof that while the broad strokes hit right, Cars Land's smaller details weren't as perfect.

2016: Frozen Live at the Hyperion

One of the biggest phenomena in Disney history, Frozen quickly became a major presence at the theme parks. Soon after its release, it inspired an overhaul of the Maelstrom attraction at the Norway pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase. And in Hollywood Land, you can visit Princess Anna and Queen Elsa in the Animation Building. But the biggest change came in 2016, when the Hyperion Theatre – which previously hosted a condensed stage version of Aladdin – welcomed Frozen: Live at the Hyperion to the stage. The roughly hourlong adaptation boasted lavish, gaudy sets, costuming, and live actors singing and dancing. Frozen: Live at the Hyperion gives you exactly what you would expect. It's colorful, full of creative projection screens, and a centerpiece sequence with a talented young actress belting out "Let It Go". As DCA became more driven by intellectual property than by larger theming, this show felt right at home.

2017: Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!

It was inevitable that the neighbor to the Hyperion would change. Though the Tower of Terror had been a favorite with many guests for years, Disney's ownership of Marvel didn't limit the company from employing some characters in its theme parks. With a larger expansion on the way – and we'll get there soon – Disney chose to update the Tower of Terror and theme it to the Guardians of the Galaxy films from the MCU. Though the ride mechanism and building are the same, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! offers 80s music on the soundtrack, a genuinely inventive Audio-Animatronic version of Rocket Raccoon, and more drops than its predecessor. But it's hard not to miss the old version of this ride.

2018: Pixar Pier

If you want to be charitable, the shift from Paradise Pier to Pixar Pier in Disney California Adventure fits with the initial theming, because...well, Pixar Animation Studios is in California! Pixar Pier doesn't look too different from its predecessor, with Toy Story Midway Mania! as well as a series of kid-friendly games that hand out stuffed-animal prizes. The biggest update was to California Screamin', the throwback to wooden-slatted roller coasters with a big loop-de-loop (the only one in Disneyland). It's now called the Incredicoaster, a well-timed arrival to the 2018 sequel Incredibles II, and replete with animatronic versions of the Parr family of superheroes. When this second Pixar-themed land was unveiled, DCA's shift from quirky California to intellectual property was complete.

2019: Mickey’s Philharmagic

When Muppet*Vision 3D departed, the space was used as a catch-all for long-form advertisements for upcoming Disney fare. But the space was too good to waste on seasonal projects. So DCA became home to yet another attraction that began life in Walt Disney World. This time, it was the 4D film experience known as Mickey's PhilharMagic. The show combines classic Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (with the latter's voice provided, via archival footage, by the original Donald, Clarence Nash) and computer-animated bits of films such as Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast. Though seeing some beloved characters in computer animation instead of hand-drawn is strange, Mickey's PhilharMagic is a delightful show and an effective use of the Sunset Showcase Theatre. It's not a replacement for Muppet*Vision 3D, but then...what is?

2020: Avengers Campus

Walt Disney always said that Disneyland would never be complete. Disney California Adventure has lived that ethos out more than any other park in the Disney line, though its own sense of completion may be arriving...well, sometime soon. In a perfect world, Avengers Campus would have opened its doors in the summer of 2020. But if this was a perfect world, you would be able to...y'know, visit DCA to celebrate its 20th anniversary today. When Mission Breakout opened in 2017, it was the first step towards a Marvel-themed section of DCA. After a bug's land closed in 2018, it was time to bring Avengers Campus to life. The big new attraction will be themed to Spider-Man, though you'll have to wait to see what it's like now that Avengers Campus is slated to open in 2021. Hopefully. If the delay goes further, DCA will weather the storm. It's lasted for 20 years through some of the most incredible upheaval in Disney history. DCA is nothing if not resilient.