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

3) The Golden State

Image: Disney

You might find it odd that one of the districts inside of Disney California Adventure is called “The Golden State” despite the fact that “The Golden State” is California's nickname, thereby encompassing the elements of the park that don’t fall into the Golden State district. In fact, this land is officially sub-divided into Condor Flats, Grizzly Peak, The Bay Area, Pacific Wharf, Bountiful Valley Farm, and the Golden Vine Winery. Each was meant as a small nod to the various elements of California's vast and varied environments.

CONDOR FLATS

Image: Disney

This "sub-land" within the Golden State district was meant to recreate a modern, high desert airfield testing new flight technologies. To its credit, the land's centerpiece was a beige aircraft hangar housing the park's single runaway success of a ride – the Lost Legend: Soarin' Over California (8).

Suspended in unique hang-glider seats, Soarin' Over California ingeniously hoisted guests high up into a curved, all-encompassing OMNIMAX screen, sending them gliding across the inspiring landscapes of the Golden State in time with an (excuse the pun) soaring musical score. Majestic, moving, and thoughtful, the ride became the park's single runaway success and was duplicated at Epcot.

Image: Disney

Despite its E-Ticket ride, Condor Flats never quite succeeded at accomplishing what it set out to, given that the tiny fragment of land nestled into the base of the forested Grizzly Peak couldn't exactly feel like an expansive desert runway. But what's worse is that – in true California Adventure style – the land was decidedly modern, with metal lattice structures, rotating satellite dishes, and water-spraying space shuttle engines turning the supposed "desert" airfield into an industrial encampment rather than a true celebration of California's aviation history and its real aviators.

GRIZZLY PEAK

Image: Disney

The next of The Golden State's sub-areas suffered from a similar miscasting. Probably the most beautiful of the park's original areas, Grizzly Peak simulated a densely forested High Sierras national park. Given a romantic 1950s overlay and rustic theme, it could've been a beautiful example of Disney's signature storytelling and placemaking.

Instead, it was needlessly given a "hip, edgy, extreme" makeover and designers went to great lengths to assure us that this is NOT a beautiful, historic, 1950s National Park. It's an old, rusted out park that's been overtaken by an extreme sports company who's left their modern equipment all around, ready for high speed action-packed thrills. Of course, the lone ride is Grizzly River Run (4), a fun but soulless rapids ride around the mountain with no animatronics, story, or noteworthy props.

Image: Werner Weiss, Yesterland.com

The Bay Area – made of a row of San Francisco style buildings – contained only a restroom, with a recreation of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts acting as the entrance to a film called Golden Dreams (2) depicting the history of California. The film starred Whoopi Goldberg (in her second California Adventure role after Superstar Limo) as Califa, the goddess after whom California is named. The historic film might be the park's version of Epcot's American Adventure or Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents. "Edutainment." More than anything, it was a cop out of doing a real, reverent historical look via a dark ride or an Audio-Animatronic show.

THE REST

Image: Disney

While convincingly decorated, PACIFIC WHARF was mostly made up of window service restaurants, leaving guests to overlook its convincing detail and instead write it off as another of the park's overbuilt food courts. Its two “attractions” were the Boudin Bakery Tour (9) – a walkthrough of a sourdough bread bakery hosted by C-List ABC stars Colin Mochre and Rosie O'Donnell – and Mission Tortilla Factory (6) – a walkthrough tour of a tortilla factory.

Finally, the BOUNTIFUL VALLEY FARM and GOLDEN VINE WINERY sub-areas didn’t contain a single attraction between them. Bountiful Valley Farm did count a Caterpillar tractor you could sit inside of as an attraction, but we won’t.

The Golden State was far and away the largest district in the park, and probably did contain the most to see. However, it was largely fluff. For those counting, in terms of actual rides, we have only Superstar Limo, Grizzly River Run, and Soarin’ Over California. Three rides total among the park's first three lands. That’s because most of the park’s rides are contained in the final land. 

Paradise Pier

Image: Disney

The final land in the park is perhaps the most ambitious. Paradise Pier was meant to recreate a modern seaside boardwalk amusement park. Perhaps accidentally, it did a good job of recreating the amusement piers that exist today, composite parts of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.

Paradise Pier had the Orange Stinger (8yo-yo swings – a classic amusement park ride, now placed inside of a giant, modern, neon-lit orange peel with the swings painted like bees. You’ll also find the more historic Golden Zephyr (3), placing riders in metallic blimps for an aerial carousel ride on the water’s edge.

Then there’s the modern Mulholland Madness (7), an off-the-shelf wild mouse roller coaster common at traveling fairs that casts you as a driver zipping back and forth along the streets of Mulholland Drive, all hidden away behind a cartoon, comic-book-style foldout map. What's that? You say that Mulholland Madness looks like something from a carnival? It's not something you'd expect at Disneyland? You were expecting this park to have a companion to Big Thunder Mountain or Space Mountain? No such luck.

Image: Disney

Beyond, you’ll find Maliboomer (6), another low-cost addition. It’s an S&S Space Shot tower. If it looks familiar, it’s probably because a taller version already exists at your local theme park, including Knott’s Berry Farm just a few miles up the road. But Disneyland's picky neighbors have necessitated a fun addition: plastic "scream shields" that pull down over each seat. Your first scream will probably be your last, as the shields meant to deafen noise will also deafen you if you dare scream during the ride. 

Maliboomer is a distinctly modern attraction that absolutely could not have existed in the skyline of a historic boardwalk. Yet, next-door is the Sun Wheel (10), a thrilling Ferris wheel with a vaguely-1970s brass sun face affixed to its center.

Then there’s the land’s highlight and park's backdrop: California Screamin’ (1). The roller coaster is designed to resemble a historic wooden coaster – the centerpiece of many seaside boardwalks – but is truly a cutting-edge steel roller coaster with a linear induction motor launch, accelerating guests from 0 - 55 miles per hour in seconds. It also features on-board audio by Gary Hoey and George Wilkins, scrambling together their rock 'n' roll music and classic carnival calliope tunes, synchronized to the ride.

Image: Disney

Also here in Paradise Pier, you’ll find an homage to the tacky roadside attractions of Route 66: a giant pink dinosaur-shaped kiosk selling sunglasses, the S.S. Rustworthy (9) shipwreck water play area; Burger Invasion! (B), a McDonald's walk-up window dressed as a sci-fi giant hamburger spaceship; the regrettable Pizza Oom Mow Mow (Fdecked out with surf boards and playing music from the Beach Boys...  

As you might imagine, Paradise Pier’s identity is a bit confusing, and its story nonexistent. Half modern, half-retro, the land is decorated with “circus freak” style posters and flat, stucco exteriors adorned with glowing neon waves.

Image: Alan Huffman, Yesterland.com

The endless row of stucco shops is also covered with striped circus-tent style awnings. Puns run rampant as always (Mali-burittos as a Mexican restaurant, San Joaquin Volley as a boardwalk game, “It’s a Meatier Shower!” on a Burger Invasion billboard, etc.). The safest bet is that Disney simply did its best (and lowest cost) imitation of an amalgamation of many real California boardwalks.

The irony did not escape fans that Walt Disney had spoken at length about how he created Disneyland specifically as an alternative to the dirty boardwalks of the day. He was tired of the seaside amusement parks with un-themed thrill rides and off-the-shelf attractions. He wanted something different. So he built Disneyland. Then Disney turned around and built Paradise Pier… Oops.

The Problem

And that’s it. That is the California Adventure visitors found when the park opened February 8, 2001. Disney’s California Adventure would open with significantly less to see and do than Disneyland across the way, and fittingly it wouldn’t have as many themed lands, either. Instead of Disneyland’s eight lands, California Adventure had its four “districts”: Sunshine Plaza, Hollywood Pictures Backlot, The Golden State, and Paradise Pier.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

Annual passholders got exclusive access to the park before its official opening in February 2001, and the news they sent home was... not so good.

It wasn’t just that Disney’s California Adventure was light on attractions and instead stuffed with eateries and stores. (Though that was true.) It wasn’t only that Disney characters were practically non-existent in the park and that families with children under age ten would find practically nothing to do. (Though that, too, was the case.) It wasn’t just that the few attractions the park did have were cheap, “off-the-shelf” carnival rides devoid of theme or story that directly contradicted all that Walt had wanted Disneyland to be. (But, yeah...)

Perhaps the most fatal blow to befall the park was its attitude.

Image: Disney

Consider the way Disneyland does things. The "magic" of Imagineering has always been that Disneyland was built by filmmakers who were able to make guests feel "transported" to long-long places and times. Each of the themed lands of Disneyland are literary and cinematic and romantic and idealized, but contain just enough history and fact and reverence to feel real and habitable. That's what makes us feel that we've truly ventured into uncharted jungles, been whisked away to the Jazz Age of New Orleans, or stepped into the Wild West.

Frontierland is "the Old West that never was and always will be" – it's our collective imagination of what that world must've been like, even if it doesn't look like any real place on the map, it feels that it could be real.

That's what Disney does better than anyone else. Only through the collective forces of Disney Imagineers could you and I have the opportunity to travel back to the Golden Age of Hollywood; to an elegant seaside Victorian pier at the dawn of the incandescent lightbulb; to truly step into a 1950s High Sierras National Park with all the sights, sounds, smells, music, and "magic" that would bring.

Image: Disney

California Adventure did precisely the opposite. It recreated modern California: here, now, today. The park reeked of its 1990s conception and was starved of funds to such an extent that its interpretation of California read as a spoof; cheap; a joke. Modern music, comic-book architecture, puns left and right… It was practically offensive to locals’ sensibilities that the park existed at all, much less that Disney would dare call this a fitting partner to the original Disneyland.

Why come to Disneyland to see a mock-up of the real Hollywood of today?

It's a question Imagineers had to answer. And boy did they.

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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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