Pixar Pier inside out neighborhood

“…as long as there’s imagination left in the world.”

From 2007 to today, Disney California Adventure would drop a whole lot more than just the “s” and apostrophe in its name. After Michael Eisner left the company in 2005, then-head of ABC Robert Iger was hired on as CEO, and brought on a billion dollar investment two years later.

Numerous attractions, rides, restaurants, and stores would close at varying points during this time (“Soap Opera Bistro,” a restaurant themed for daytime dramas, lasted less than two years before it fell into a coma it would never actually awake from). Much of what the park seemed to be missing was some of that Disney magic, something reminiscent of what the founder originally injected into Disneyland. As it turned out, the park didn’t need Walt’s input. It needed his life story.

In 2012, Iger gave these remarks at the “re-opening” ceremony for DCA, which echoed Eisner’s speech from 11 years previously:

“To all who come to this place of dreams, welcome. Disney California Adventure celebrates the spirit of optimism and the promise of endless opportunities, ignited by the imagination of daring dreamers such as Walt Disney and those like him who forever changed- and were forever changed by- The Golden State. This unique place embraces the richness and diversity of California… Its land, its people, its stories and, above all, the dreamers it continues to inspire.”

The new IP the park implemented was Walt Disney, the man. His personal California dream that DCA could branch off from. Is there a more famous California dreamer than Walt himself? Well, if there is, it’s Steve Jobs, the man who bought Pixar in 1986, and turned a computer hardware company into an animated storytelling empire. After the creation of Pixar Pier, DCA will give you dreamers that can do both.

Back in 1996, legendary Imagineer Marty Sklar told the LA Times that part of DCA’s attempt to capture California was representing a part of Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore:

“You know what Hollywood Boulevard is like now, and you can’t get into most of the studios. The whole Walt Disney story of coming out from Kansas City as a 21-year-old, that’s a real California success story. All of these things add up to something larger in people’s minds than what actually exists here.”

Later, the park doubled down on Sklar’s remarks. A complete redesign transformed DCA’s entrance plaza into Buena Vista Street, which is filled with callbacks and homages to 1920s Hollywood.

“The street resembles what Walt Disney would have experienced when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1923,” Imagineer Lisa Girolami said amidst the construction in 2012. “In keeping with that, what we’ve done is we’ve created this wonderful street that has beautiful Los Angeles historic icons recreated for our guests.”

By this point, enough time had passed that Disney also had no problem referring to the refurbishment as an apology tour. “We knew that California Adventure didn’t measure up to what we knew it could be and should be,” said Thomas Staggs, then chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, in 2012. “So we set out to change that.”

Also debuting in 2012 was Cars Land. It’s a near-perfect execution of theme park design, to the extent where you don’t mind hearing Larry the Cable Guy’s voice for an entire ride. Entering this life-size Radiator Springs has got to be a mind blowing experience for children who are fans of the Cars franchise. Come nighttime, the glow of Flo’s Cafe and other neon signs light up the region’s main street, making it one of the best places to take a stroll as your Disney experience comes to an end.

Cars Land is also a great example of DCA’s habit of falling ass-backwards into representing the history of California. First, there was the Route 66, desert-town aesthetic in Cars and subsequently Cars Land. Now, the new queue station for The Incredicoaster will be modeled after the movie’s mid-century modern look, which just so happens to highlight one of California’s most notable architectural styles. Hopefully, the upcoming Marvel-themed land can take a note from this trend and replicate the home of Tony Stark. The production designer of the Iron Man films has stated he found inspiration for the circular house from famous California architect John Lautner. After that, DCA will just need a tribute to craftsman style to cover its architectural bases.

These aesthetic details certainly wouldn’t justify a label of celebrating California by themselves, but DCA is no longer about literal interpretations. The park’s theme – “The California Dream” – is more of a direction to aspire toward and less of a firm mandate. This is what gave the second gate a second chance.

avengers hatch at disney california adventure

Soarin’ Over Expectations

On top of representing the history of California and those who have gone after their dreams in the Golden State, there was another mission for Disney California Adventure that was more important than any other. The end goal for DCA was to turn Anaheim into what Disney executives referred to as a “total destination resort.” Meaning… Disney World. A location with multiple parks that families will need more than one day to enjoy, which necessitates staying in Disney hotels and eating at Disney restaurants. Strides have been made, and Downtown Disney has already premiered “Star Wars: Secret of the Empire.” This adds VR to Disney’s roster of completely immersive experiences, bringing the Disneyland Resort one step closer toward becoming a total destination.

In hindsight, DCA became the little theme park that could. Not only has it earned a seat at the Disney table, the park has its finger on the pulse of the future. So says Bob Chapek, the current chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, at the same D23 event where Pixar Pier was announced:

“Soon the Guardians will be joined by Spider-Man and the Avengers in what will become a completely immersive superhero universe at Disney California Adventure.”

This was announced four months before there were even any rumblings of Disney buying Twentieth Century Fox and a wide collection of superhero rights along with it. Suffice to say, the possibilities for rides and attractions will only continue to expand.

This prospective “Marvel Land” could change everything. Along with having the entire Marvel catalog to utilize, it’s been suggested the attractions could have their own interconnected story cannon, akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is certainly a game-changer all by itself, an entire park land dedicated to superheroes has the potential to take theme park fandom to a whole new level.

Much to my surprise, I did not have a lot of free time on a recent trip to DCA, even with no park hopping. There was a solid fastpass strategy in place, and I still only had just enough time to fit all of the attractions I wanted to do in a 14-hour visit to the park. With future reimaginings, I suspect there will be fans who want to go on every Marvel attraction, and everything else in the park will become the “if we have enough time” rides. DCA has come a long way since the cries from critics about the park being boring.

The park started from the bottom. It had an onslaught of terrible reviews – some even coming from Disney’s own Imagineers – that damaged its reputation for years. Today, the park no longer suffers from a lack of direction or identity, and with the integration of Marvel in the years to come, I doubt it’s going to need to worry about that pesky budget ever again. The medal DCA deserves for “Most Improved” should be as big as Mickey’s Fun Wheel. A decade and a half later, through persistence and imagination, this park doesn’t just celebrate “The California Dream.” It became one.

Pages: Previous page 1 2

Cool Posts From Around the Web: