World of Color fire testing image

Last week, I discussed the potential impact of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter on the Florida theme park market. This week, all eyes will be on another major new attraction that could play a transformational role for its host park - the World of Color show at Disney California Adventure.

There are strong parallels between Islands of Adventure (the home of the Wizarding World) and California Adventure. Both sit directly next to more famous, better-attended sister parks (Universal Studios Florida and Disneyland respectively), and both were designed to boost hotel attendance and turn single-day parks into multi-day resorts. The two parks can be viewed as partial failures in that respect, although critical reaction to Disney California Adventure was undoubtedly far more scathing than the largely positive reception for Universal's park. Now, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in an attempt to turn their fortunes around - with World of Color's public debut on June 11 marking the first milestone in a dramatic transformation of California Adventure.

Troubled from birth - issues with Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure suffered from poor attendance and negative word of mouth almost from its opening day. The reasons for this are well documented, particularly:

  • Bland theming - selecting California as the central theme for a park where the majority of attendees are locals must have made sense to someone at Disney at the time. Recreating landmarks that are less than an hour's drive away was never likely to achieve Walt Disney's dream of transporting guests away from the "real world" outside the park's gates.
  • Lack of major, original attractions - Disney fans were quick to bemoan the serious imbalance between the number of shops and restaurants and the number of major rides at California Adventure. On top of this, many of the rides that were present on opening day were of the generic kind that can be found in amusement parks worldwide.
  • Absence of Disney characters and theming - as at Walt Disney World's Epcot, management discouraged the use of Disney characters within California Adventure. This made sense at Epcot, where the focus on future technologies jarred with Disney's traditional fairytale image - but it was a bizarre and misguided decision for California Adventure.
  • It was cheap - at the same time that Tokyo Disneyland Resort was blowing an estimated $4 billion on the new DisneySea park, its California cousin spent just $600 million on California Adventure. This was not the ambitious WESTCOT project that many had hoped for.

In my humble opinion, the addition of Toy Story Mania and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has already helped California Adventure become a great park, with an identity that is distinct from other Disney parks. But then, I'm not a California resident so the theming still seems exotic to me. And despite the additions, the park is struggling relative to Disneyland with just over 6 million visitors in 2009 against its sister park's 15.9 million (though it is still the 11th best-attended park in the world).

World of Color - the start of a new dawn

World of Color Alice sequence

Source: gonzabar77, Wikimedia Commons (license)

Disney has not taken California Adventure's lack of success lying down, choosing instead to embark on a massive $1.1 billion programme of updates. World of Color's debut marks the completion of the first major phase of that programme - the reimagining of Paradise Pier. Criticized by Disney fans for aping the seaside amusement parks that Walt Disney himself sought to distance Disneyland from, it was always likely that this area would be among the first to receive an upgrade. And what an upgrade.

Rather than removing all of the generic fairground-style rides from Paradise Pier, Disney has instead opted to retheme many of them and give them a unique spin. This is not new territory for Disney, which has been doing this since the days of the original Dumbo attraction at Disneyland. Now, it's transformed the park's ferris wheel into Mickey's Fun Wheel, and turned the "waveswinger"-style Orange Stinger into the heavily-themed Silly Symphony Swings.

The real centerpiece, though, is World of Color. In development for over 6 years, and costing an estimated $75 million, the show is a stunning technical achievement. It has been compared to the famous water fountain display at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, and indeed fountain expert WET Design was involved in both projects. However, Disney's production combines the Bellagio show's powerful fountains with lighting arrays and fire effects - all synchronized with music from classic Disney movies. An enormous "wall of water" acts as a projection screen for animated video footage, some of which was produced especially for the show. It's no surprise that the first reviews have been glowing, with the LA Times' Brady MacDonald describing World of Color as "at times beautiful, majestic and dreamy and at other moments epic, explosive and wicked."

Most importantly, World of Color finally gives Disney California Adventure a nighttime spectacular to rival Fantasmic at neighboring Disneyland. If the show meets Disney's expectations, it will draw in crowds and keep them in the park for longer - helping to get over the grudging complaints that tickets for California Adventure don't offer the same value for money as tickets for Disneyland. The company certainly expects its new addition to prove a smash hit - implementing a FASTPASS system to enable guests to reserve a space and avoid disappointment.

Heralding the arrival of the new Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure entrance

The Golden Gate Bridge is on the way out at Disney California Adventure

As important as it is to Disney California Adventure's fortunes, World of Color is just the beginning of a new era for the park. The rest of that $1.1 billion that Disney is spending will go a long way - and the company is throwing away a lot of what it originally built in order to start over.

The entrance to Disney California Adventure, the Sunshine Plaza, will be renamed Buena Vista Street and will be completely rethemed in order to provide guests with a totally different impression on entering the park. The new name for the area is significant - it's taken from the Burbank street where Walt Disney Studios are located. No more bland theming - this is a Disney park now, folks.

Disney has also sought to address the issue of recreating Californian landmarks so close to their actual locations. The replica of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge is on the way out, and the Hollywood Pictures Backlot will be rethemed as a tribute to classic 1930s movie-making - fitting given that it's the home of the retro-themed Tower of Terror.

The biggest additions, though, are two new E-ticket attractions - Radiator Springs Racers and The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure. The former, based on Pixar's Cars movies, will cost some $200 million and will anchor a whole new land - Cars Land. Meanwhile, the Little Mermaid ride will help overcome claims that the park doesn't offer enough rides for younger children.

Will it work?

World of Color Alice sequence

Source: gonzabar77, Wikimedia Commons (license)

With the radical upgrade plans, Disney's Imagineers have opted to rip up the original blueprint for California Adventure and attempt to sprinkle the park with some of Walt Disney's magic dust. It's not easy overcoming such a negative reaction to the opening of a new park - but I think Disney have made the right choices.

The core Californian theme will remain, but will be made more exotic with trips to the past (old-time Hollywoodland) and exciting flights of fantasy (Cars Land). Disney has chosen to focus on more modern characters, particularly Pixar's stable, in favor of long-time favourites. This makes sense, as it gives California Adventure a distinct feel rather than simply trying to clone the timeless classics at Disneyland next door.

Alongside the addition of Star Tours 2 at Disneyland, the updates at Disney California Adventure - sprearheaded by the magnificent World of Color - should be enough to keep the Disneyland Resort packed with satisfied guests for years to come.


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