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Disney's California Misadventure – Part I: Inside Disney's Costliest Mistake EVER

Westcot rises…

They say that the sequel is never quite as good as the original. So imagine the pressure put upon Disney Imagineers tasked with designing the follow-up park to act as an equal partner and companion of the most beloved theme park on Earth.

It would be impractical to attempt to build a park that could match Disneyland’s fantasy environments or fairytale settings. Instead, they would follow Walt Disney World's lead. Specifically, Imagineers looked to Florida’s EPCOT Center to design a park dedicated to science, culture, technology, and innovation. As the concept traveled from the East Coast to the West, it would receive a fitting name change. On May 8, 1991, WESTCOT Center was announced.

Image: Disney

Despite its name, Disneyland’s second gate would differ dramatically from the similar concept that acted as the second gate at Walt Disney World. Even by Westcot’s 1991 announcement, Epcot was already beginning to look dated. Its architecture and concept had rooted it very specifically in the unmistakable and distinctive style of its 1982 opening. Its wide concrete expanses, cool gray colors, and rigid brutalist architecture had created a vision of the future that was harsh, sterile, and cold to audiences of the 1990s (and would only feel more that way into the 21st century).

Westcot would set out to do things in a much more West Coast fashion, filling the park with waterfalls, forests, organic rocks jutting from the ground, and a much more naturalistic vision of tomorrow. (This cozier, warmer, more 21st-century-friendly vision of the future was so well-loved by Imagineers and executives, they planned to export it back to Florida's Epcot as well, as we chronicled in its own in-depth Possibilityland: Epcot's Project: Gemini feature.) Westcot would even replace the divided countries of World Showcase with a more united realm celebrating the "four corners" of the globe and the interconnectedness of culture and our shared histories, with an epic boat ride rivaling Pirates of the Caribbean connecting them all. 

Image: Disney

The centerpiece of the whole park would be Spacestation Earth, a sort of Californian cousin to Epcot’s 180-foot-tall white geodesic sphere. But California’s – in fitting with Westcot’s warmer style and scale – would be nearly twice as tall – 300 feet – and gleaming gold with a lattice of white hovering supernaturally around it.

Make no mistake: the magnitude of this Disneyland Resort would be stunning. On top of building new parking decks, infrastructure, Peoplemovers, Monorail expansions, man-made lagoons, shopping districts, and resort hotels, Disney would finally have leverage to force Anaheim to clean up its act. Disney would handle the massive land acquisitions and improvements needed to build Westcot, Disneyland Center, and the new hotel district if Anaheim agreed to regulate the out-of-control hotels along Harbor Blvd. once and for all. With billions of dollars at stake, Disney wanted everything about this once-in-a-lifetime tranformation from single park to resort destination to be just right.

…and falls

The massive Disneyland Resort expansion (including Westcot) was to break ground in 1993, assuring a fully operational system by 1999. Before the New Millennium, Peoplemovers, Monorails, and shuttles would be connecting the various elements of the Disneyland Resort and its two theme parks. The problems began before a single shovel of dirt had shifted.

Image: Disney

For one thing, Disneyland’s tight placement in Anaheim struck again. Odd as it sounds, Disneyland is surrounded by neighborhoods filled with residents who detest it. Nightly fireworks, stifling traffic, wandering tourists… (At the 2015 shareholders meeting, one Anaheim resident even waited patiently in line at the question-and-answer microphone just for the opportunity to tell Anaheim officials and Disney executives they were “going to hell” for renewing Disney’s nightly fireworks license!)

Never mind that the Disneyland expansion would’ve brought thousands of new jobs to the area or that it would’ve generated tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives for Anaheim alone. They were aghast at the idea that Disney would build towering parking decks on the edge of their neighborhoods, ushering thousands and thousands of cars from the highway into the behemoth concrete structures in their proverbial backyards.

Worse still was the notion that their quaint town would now have to contend with forecasted exponential traffic increases, the seizure of their streets for widening and rebirth as part of the Anaheim Resort District, and that this new theme park would provide a 300-foot-tall glowing sphere to reign over their properties.

Image: Disney

Disney redrew plans for Westcot to respond to the worries, replacing Spacestation Earth with a towering white spire far less intrusive to neighborhood views. They argued that residents would never see the increased traffic since dedicated highway ramps would funnel visitors directly into the parking decks, and that Disney needed the $395 million it requested from the government to help build them, which only incensed the locals further.

All the while, Michael Eisner watched the price tag for the project inflate. By the end of its concepting, Westcot's anticipated cost was reportedly nearing $4 billion.

Then, in 1992, Disneyland Paris opened… and crashed. The financial collapse of Disneyland Paris – which continues to languish under financial strain even 25 years later – put a stop to almost every single major project at any Disney Park on Earth in the early 1990s, and that’s true of Westcot, too. In 1993, Eisner said, “I don’t even know if there’s going to be WestCOT. We’re at a crossroads. We had a very big investment in Europe and it’s difficult to deal with. This is an equally big investment. I don’t know where a private company can ever spend this kind of money.”

The whole project was quietly cancelled in 1995. Westcot was dead.

Back to the Drawing Board

Image: Disney

On August 2, 1995, Eisner took a few dozen executives from the Walt Disney Company on a three-day retreat in Aspen, Colorado. Eisner knew that the team needed to re-group. They’d lost countless projects across divisions to the fall of Paris, and they needed an action plan. The primary goal for Eisner, though, continued to be what to do next in Anaheim, where he perceived limitless potential from the tiny park.

Executives were split into small groups, each tasked with coming up with a plan for Disneyland to grow. The difference now was that whatever they dreamed up had to cost very little. But if it was the last thing Eisner did, he would see a second park built on Disneyland's parking lot.

Executives faced a serious conundrum. Disney World played to a captive audience. Anyone who came to central Florida had probably done so specifically to see Disney’s parks there. Anything outside of Disney World's property was an aside; an appetizer to Disney's main course.

But California was different. A visitor to Disneyland was no captive. They might visit Disneyland for a single day, then spend the rest of their trip visiting the state’s national parks, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, historic ocean piers… They could sunbathe one day and ski the next; visit historic amusement boardwalks and untamed evergreen forests in the same day. How could a park at Disneyland compete with everything California had to offer?

Eureka!

The winning idea allegedly came from Disneyland president Paul Pressler. 

(Pressler, for his part, was already infamous at the time. Having been hand-selected for the Disneyland presidency after a time at the helm of Disney Stores, Pressler had a scorched earth policy for finance, infamously cutting staffing, maintenance, and upkeep at the park to bare minimums. After his later exit from the company, it took literally years to make up for the cost-cutting decisions he and his team had made as they presided over the worst period in Disneyland’s history. He would then move on to The Gap, using his slash-services-then-trumpet-financial-gain policy there to disastrous effect.)

His idea was simple: to keep Disneyland guests from leaving the resort to see the rest of California, Imagineers needed to bring the rest of California to Disneyland. 

Pre-Opening

Image: Disney, via AngryAP.com

On January 21, 1998, the parking lot at the entrance to Disneyland closed. The next morning, construction started on Disney’s California Adventure. The 55-acre theme park would stand where the parking lot once had – the only large, open land that the California resort had to spare.

That October, a Preview Center opened on Main Street, U.S.A., providing guests with a sneak peek at the park's 22 shows and attractions and 15 restaurants. What Disney didn’t explicitly explain is that Imagineers – the creative designers and storytellers behind Disney’s attractions and themed lands – were purposefully left quite in the dark during the design of the park. Instead, Pressler employed his team from merchandising and retail sectors to design California Adventure, opting for dining and shopping to be the highlight of the more “mature” park. (To be fair, the model worked well at Epcot, so Pressler and company no doubt thought this more "grown-up" Californian park could focus on food and merchandise, as well.)

Altogether, the new park, an attached deluxe hotel, and the Downtown Disney shopping district would cost $1.4 billion – far less than half of the grander expansion with Westcot that had been cancelled three years earlier – and Disney's California Adventure itself would only take an estimated $650 million of that. (For reference: the same year, Tokyo Disneyland was joined by a second park, too; Tokyo DisneySea opened six months after Disney’s California Adventure and reportedly cost $3 billion alone.)

Annual passholders got exclusive access to the park before its official opening in February 2001, and the word of mouth they spread was… well… Uh oh.

On the next page, we’ll step into the Disney’s California Adventure Park of yesterday and experience its four districts, addressing the worries that Disney Parks fans so rightly expressed as they experienced the second gate at Disneyland.

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There are 20 comments.

"step into Luigi’s Tires for the astounding, trackless, spinning Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters"

Luigi's Flying Tires closed as a failure due to people having difficulty controlling and boarding/exiting the tires. The replacement--Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters--hasn't opened yet, but the ride vehicles won't be tires.

Also, why do you hate puns so much, you soulless monster?

Luigi's Tires as in the shop. :P The Roaders are... well... roadsters.

I don't hate puns at all... but they belong at Six Flags, not at a park that's trying to be a compliment to Disneyland. Seems to me (and many others) that Disney Parks should be about immersive environments and storytelling, not modern puns that pull you out of the story. Heh... San Joaquin Volley. That one's not bad.

The jungle cruise in Disneyland has the best puns. I laugh every time

I liked John Carter.

Your article is very timely. I was explaining to my son how DCA is now worth the visit (he was last there in 2005). Cars Land is my favorite land in all six American Disney parks, and Radiator Springs Racers blows me away with its detail and excitement. I still love the original Disneyland because so much of Walt's vision remains there, but California Adventure is worth the extra day.

It's also so easy to hop from park to park - Disneyland's space limitations are now part of its charm. You don't have to stand in line to take a time-consuming monorail or ferry to get to the kingdom, and within two minutes you can go from Main Street to Buena Vista Street.

I think this is a great blueprint for the rebirth of EPCOT. I would love to see the Gold sphere of West COT replace the dated EPCOT sphere. So many of the ideas could work in EPCOT, when and if Disney gets around to rebooting that park (and it desperately needs it). As a side note, I am always frustrated by people who choose to live next to a major theme park (or airport) and then do nothing but complain about the traffic and noise. Since Disneyland has been there since 1955, I'm guessing most of those people moved to the area AFTER they set up shop.

Thank you for the time and effort you put in on this article. I consider myself a knowledgeable Disney fan, yet I learned several interesting facts here. Thank you again.

Great stuff! I read the entire article and enjoyed most of it. Lol I'm a pun lover myself.

For all its faults California Adventures giant letters were a fantastic photo op. It was almost a family tradition to get you picture taken by one of the letters...they should have moved those somewhere and kept them...people loved them!

Thank you for the great article. I enjoyed it very much!

Awesome article! Well researched, thought out, and written. I enjoyed the entire thing :)

"Recognize that Disneyland is surrounded in neighborhoods filled with residents who detest it"

Disneyland was there WELL before the majority of the area houses were constructed. Home-buyers these days refuse to do their homework and find out about the neighborhood before closing... Then, when there are things they don't like, they complain.

We moved to Anaheim with a specific thought to move as close to the park as we could. We were flabbergasted when we discovered our neighbors disliked Disneyland. Yes, it gets noisy but as we see it, we have a whole plethora of things we can walk to when we just need to get out for a little while. We love living here, fireworks, marathons and singing practice at 3am.

We've been going since before the public grand opening (AP holder) but we aren't locals so our visits were limited to 2-4 times per year. I didn't really follow the rebirth of CA because I'd always like Disneyland more. In 2012 I didn't notice that the bridge was gone, or the letters out front (laughable, I know). I did notice the new amazing restaurant replaced that awful sun. It took a couple visits for me to settle in and I am now a huge CA fan. We spend equal amount of time in both parks as opposed to about 1/4 of our time in CA. What do I miss? The Beach Boys music. Every time I hear "Do you know the way to San Jose?" I think of CA. I also miss the old boardwalk games. Those were a great spot to hang out. Thanks for your article, it brought good memories.

Hmm, very interesting read. I really like these longer history articles. Of course, idk anything behind the parks besides what people have told me and what I have read (like these articles,of course) but besides my inexperience (I've gone to the park, though. I just don't know much behind it since I was just a newborn by the time this was finally open haha), I must say you do a good job. Thanks for the interesting article. :3

My favourite ride of both parks is located in California Adventure. That Toy Story ride is the best. I love all the little games.

Your article is great visited both DL and DAC for the first time late 2015 and I had the time of my life everything is great about the park and its hard for me to imagine it in its 2000's form but I must say something... IT DOES NOT compare to DISNEY TOKYO SEA... DTS is the BEST place I ever been in my life and also has by far the greatest NIGHT TIME showing.

You do a disservice to what DCA actually was when it opened...like it or not (and I am guessing, as a non-Californian you are not a lover of my home state), the park WAS a good representation of what California is, or at least was when it opened...it was a bit sparse when it opened and showed the strains of its budget, BUT SO DID DISNEYLAND! My family enthusiastically attended this park frequently in the early years; we love it all the more now as it's grown and we're thrilled with the rebirth (even though we hated the 3 years of "California's Box Adventure")....But the earliest days did in no way earn your UTTER CONTEMPT that you show for something that a LOT more people loved than you give it credit for..

Thank you, Paul Pressler, for your comment.
;-)

Hahaha! I'm certain there are MANY people out there like EJ who liked what Disney's California Adventure was when it opened. I'm glad they were out there! Problem is, there weren't enough.

5 million people its opening year, compared to 12.3 million at Disneyland during the same period. There *was* a fundamental flaw with the park. As if attendance, guest satisfaction surveys, and word of mouth weren't enough evidence, the $650 million park got nearly $2 billion dollars (that's billion with a b) in fixes in its first decade. Executive wouldn't have green-lit that tremendous expenditure if they didn't feel it was necessary for the longterm survival and profit of the park. The argument this feature makes is that the park *needed* that fundamental, foundational change. New rides alone wouldn't have done it. The entire park needed a new narrative. And my God, how incredible is it that the park got it!

The "modern" version (which I refer to as a "spoof" of California) in 2001 was a cop-out; a budgetary version of what should've been. Even if you liked it (and many did!), you also readily admit that the current, storied, idealized, historically-oriented park is better. And the point is, that's what it should've been all along!

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