The Golden Gates
Welcome to the new Esplanade – the central hub of the brand new Disneyland Resort. You’re facing the historic entrance to Disneyland, with its elegant wrought-iron gates and – on the hill ahead – the towering Train Station of Main Street, U.S.A. It’s a timeless entry into a romantic, idealized small town sometime at the turn of the 20th century. It's elegant, reverent, historic, and timeless, just like all of Disneyland.
But something has changed. If you’re facing the entrance to the park, you may be used to the expansive blacktop parking lot being behind you. Turn around now, though, and you’d notice quite a difference. Directly across from Disneyland’s turnstiles is the entrance to the resort’s new theme park: Disney’s California Adventure Park. Disney promises that this new park is “the most unusual theme park in the Disney family.” You may start to get that sense even from outside the park.
In stark contrast to the understated and historic entrance to Disneyland Park, the entrance to Disney’s California Adventure is larger than life. It starts with 11-foot-tall concrete letters spelling out C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A. The letters stand out against a backdrop made up of massive mosaic ceramic murals (the largest in the world) flanking the park’s entrance. They depict sights of modern California, from bustling cities and airports to wildlife and snow-capped mountain peaks. Between those is a stretched-and-skewed cartoon-perspective recreation of the Golden Gate Bridge with a metallic golden sun rising beyond it.
The unique entrance is not a bad one at all. In fact, it’s breathtaking in its scale. The pieces are meant to add together to create the illusion that you’re stepping into a giant postcard of California. However, in order to convincingly understand the effect, you’d have to A) know to look for it, and B) approach it from directly straight-on despite pedestrian traffic entering from the extreme left and resort traffic entering from the extreme right.
The original entrance to Disney’s California Adventure wasn’t horrible. Truthfully, it might’ve been one of the most impressive thing about the park in 2001. However, the effect was lost on many visitors. Only those approaching the park from Disneyland’s gates could even see the desired perspective, and doing so would only exacerbate the extreme difference between Disneyland’s warm, cinematic entry and the cartoon-style entrance to the new park. Disneyland, after all, had been designed by cinematic veterans who built believable exteriors and habitable worlds; the entrance to Disney’s California Adventure was a stark contrast to that style: post-modern, concrete, and imposing.
Your first thought might be that Disney’s California Adventure is not your grandfather’s theme park. That’s on purpose. Disney hopes that this park will be edgy, hip, irreverent, and very different from the tired old Disneyland next door. Creative lead Imagineer Barry Braverman might’ve put it best: “There’s a kind of brash California attitude that we wanted to capture. Much more pop culture and MTV with a little tongue-in-cheek thrown in.” Oh no… Let's head into the park's four "districts."
1. Sunshine Plaza
Disneyland Park has the quaint, charming, warm, Main Street U.S.A., its turn-of-the-century storefronts recalling Walt's idealized memories of his childhood, lit by glittering incandescent bulbs with horse-drawn carriages gliding down the street. Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida has a bustling, bright, optimistic recreation of an idealized Hollywood Blvd. in the 1940s. Universal's Islands of Adventure has the eclectic and kinetic ancient Port of Entry representing cultures from around the globe come together in one harmonious port city; Animal Kingdom has the immersive, centering, and spiritual Oasis.
Disney’s California Adventure has… something different.
The uninspired Sunshine Plaza entry to the park served as a crash course in the “hip, edgy” styling of Disney's "brash, Californian attitude."
While Disneyland's Main Street is alight with atmospheric ragtime music, California Adventure's entry features music by Bob Seger, Dionne Warwick, and Randy Newman. Behind the brightly painted corrugated steel wall facades, California Adventure's gift shops aren't quite on par with the Emporium at Disneyland. Their interiors continue the plastic, cartoon-proportioned, postcard motif, as chronicled in Yesterland's gasp-induing look at Engine Ear Toys and Greetings from California. They look distinctly out of a '90s family entertainment center design manual...
But continuing along, guests would pass under the comically-stretched-and-skewed Golden Gate Bridge as the Monorail zoomed over it. While its unusual shape clearly functions as a piece of that "post card" entry, it doesn't exactly create a Disney-style immersive world. Of course, it's not really supposed to. As we'll see time and time again in California Adventure, it's not about being transported to another place and time. The place is here, the time is now! We're on a whacky journey through modern California!
Finally, we've reached the namesake of Sunshine Plaza: a wide concrete open plaza centered around the park’s would-be icon. A straight shot from Sleeping Beauty Castle stood the metallic Sun Icon – previously seen as the rising sun in the “postcard” entry. The Sun Icon (nicknamed “The Hubcap” by early visitors) was truly a large bronze sculpture of the sun suspended over an impressive Wave Fountain.
Disney Imagineer Kevin Raffery probably put it best in the Imagineering Story docu-series. "And the first statement that you saw when you walked in the gate was this sharp sun. And frankly, you could've seen that in a shopping mall in Newport Beach, and it's like, 'Why is it here?'"
With curling metal rays stretching out from all sides, the Sun Icon was meant to reflect the real sun, bathing the plaza in warmth. Unfortunately, the Sun Icon faced due north, leaving it cast in shadow at all times. Designers had an answer, though: telescoping mirrors would trace the real sun’s path all day, concentrating the real sun and reflecting it onto the Sun Icon so that the Sun Icon could reflect the sunlight onto the plaza. Get it? Rest assured knowing that the system never worked as intended, and Sunshine Plaza remained unfortunately dark, concrete, and chilly.
Is Sunshine Plaza a fitting companion to Main Street? The Sun Icon a fair counterbalance to Sleeping Beauty Castle? If you don't think so, then you may already be wishing you'd decided to use your Disneyland Resort ticket at that "old-fashioned, tired" theme park across the Esplanade. But you're inside now, so let's press on and visit the next of the park's four districts.
2. Hollywood Pictures Backlot
Visitors to the Disney-MGM Studios are no doubt familiar with its entry – Hollywood Blvd. – and how it’s easily one of Disney’s best themed lands anywhere. The soaring cityscape, the jazz standards playing down the street, the eclectic architecture, and the countless details all help to portray the romantic and ideal Golden Age of Hollywood that we all imagine and dream of. Main Street, U.S.A. is an idealized recreation of the Midwest, and Hollywood Studios' Hollywood Blvd. is an idealized recreation of 1930s Hollywood. It feels as if you've really stepped back in time.
Disney’s California Adventure has a whole land dedicated to Hollywoood, too. But instead of recreating the reverent, historic, and idealized history of Hollywood, Hollywood Pictures Backlot is as “meta” as its name implies: while it may look like you're walking down a 1990s Hollywood Blvd., you're on a Hollywood set... of Hollywood! Get it?
Make no mistake: the time is now (by which we mean, the late '90s / early 2000s) and the "store" awnings are all cheetah-print. After all, it's the age of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and the height of the paparazzi reality TV craze!
It’s here that we encounter the first of California Adventure’s rampant puns. Most of the park is filled with signs, names, and allusions to modern California locales or products. Here on this backlot set of Hollywood, the false front hair salon is advertised as “Ben Hair” (spoofing the film Ben Hur) while a fitness center is called Dial M For Muscle (spoofing Dial M for Murder). An upper-level shop is even advertised as the Philip A. Couch Casting Agency – a "joke" about Hollywood's infamous "casting couch" sexual assault problem.
And where Florida’s Hollywood Blvd. terminates in an incredible recreation of the iconic Chinese Theater, the street here ends in a towering flat façade painted with a blue sky and matte buildings, as if to imply that the street goes on and on. It’s fitting, though, since stepping near the buildings reveals that they’re mere facades. In fact, you’re encouraged to walk behind them to see how they’re flat, wooden boards only dressed to look like famous Hollywood buildings. You fell for it! This isn’t really Hollywood. It’s a Hollywood set of Hollywood! Get it?
And here in the auxiliary plaza nestled deep within the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, designers were able to dispense entirely with any insinuation of being in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It's a barren, industrial, beige plaza of overhead wires, watertowers, pipes, and other hallmarks of studio baclots.
Hmm? You say that the real Hollywood is 45 minutes north? You say that if you wanted to see "behind the scenes," you could've done it at a real studio backlot that cost half as much to visit? You expected that Disneyland would use its famous storytelling, details, and design to take you to a time and place you can no longer experience? Oh well.
Hollywood Pictures Backlot is a dead end in more ways than one. There are only a few inhabitants of the district. For one, a large, beige soundstage dressed in rusted pipes and wooden poles hosts Muppet*Vision 3D (3, above). The attraction is charming enough, never mind that it’s an exact clone of the 3D film that had been playing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida for a full decade before California Adventure opened.
Next-door is a ride so unquivocally bad, it earned a not-so-sought after in-depth entry of its own, Declassified Disaster: Superstar Limo (4). Unequivocally the worst dark ride Disney has ever designed, ever, the ride carried guests through comic book stylized versions of Hollywood's hoity toity neighborhoods for "face-to-face" encounters with miniature figures of Disney and ABC's C-List celebrities, narrated by a cigar-smoking "agent" leading you to your movie's big premier.
Superstar Limo was so unimaginably bad that it closed barely a year after the park opened with no plans to replace it. The park was simply stronger with no dark rides than it was with Superstar Limo.
The single other noteworthy attraction in Hollywood Pictures Backlot was the 2,000 seat Hyperion Theater (2) disguised behind that studio-style sky façade. The theatre has the capacity to do Broadway style performances (though it didn’t have any noteworthy shows until 2003’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular, which played to full houses until 2016's Frozen – Live at the Hyperion replaced it) even if its interior is “purposefully” scantily dressed with revealed lighting and scaffolding again meant to reinforce the (cheap) backlot style.
If you can believe it, we’re two districts in and halfway done with our walkthrough of Disney’s California Adventure in 2001. Only two districts remain… We'll tackle them on the next page.