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

Image: Disney

Disney had warned that the roads around Anaheim would likely be clogged for months as guests rushed to explore the new Disney’s California Adventure. They estimated that the park would close most weekends due to reaching its maximum capacity – 33,000 people.

On its opening day, the park saw 8,000. That's less than a quarter of what it was built to hold.

On weekends, it averaged 10,000 to 15,000 – about a third of its capacity.

In its opening year, the park saw only 5 million visitors. The same year, the original Disneyland saw 12.3 million. Think about it: that means that in its inaugural year – when interest should be at its peak – only 40% of people who came to Disneyland bothered to see California Adventure, too.

Of those who did try out the new park in 2001, only 20% reported being “satisfied” or better by the experience. In 2002, attendance dropped 15%, no doubt thanks in part to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which crippled the tourism industry... but it was now undeniable: California Adventure would never be an equal partner with Disneyland.


Right away, Disney had to have recognized that California Adventure could not survive. The slump post-September-11th was devestating all of the tourism industry, and California Adventure couldn't take the hit.

Disney at once began to add attractions to the park, like the hastily-constructed "a bug's land" in 2002, built as a quick fix for the park's need for more attraction capacity... and for rides suited for young guests.

The deck was still stacked against the park. It wasn’t just that poor word of mouth would keep California Adventure from attracting guests. California Adventure had been the backbone of Disney’s push to make Disneyland into an international destination. A national marketing campaign was pared down to a regional one as Disney offered deep discounts to Southern Californians who would try the new park. But this would not do. After the investment in the park, Disney had to choose: either let California Adventure wither and throw away any hope of Disneyland becoming a multi-day destination, or change.

That's when Disney began adding piecemeal additions to the park, all in an effort to draw more guests to Disneyland's starving little sister.

The park map, above, is from 2006. Five years after the park's opening, you'll see some very important additions: a Monsters Inc. dark ride (replacing Superstar Limo), The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular in Hollywood Pictures Backlot joined A Bug's Land.

And sure, there’s no denying: Disney’s California Adventure needed those rides. It needed well-themed rides and family rides and rides for kids. It needed shows. It needed more Disney characters. But even as Disney invested heavily in adding new experiences to the park, it would never be enough. It was like putting Band-Aids on a broken bone.

The problem with Disney’s California Adventure was foundational. It was in its identity. The park was too modern. It tried too hard to be “hip” and “edgy” and “irreverent.” It reached too far to be “MTV” and “young.” People didn’t want a Disney park modeled after a Six Flags. They didn’t want modern music and rock concerts and puns and irreverent mockery of California. They wanted a park modeled after Disneyland: reverent, thoughtful, historic, idealized recreations of California. And even if they added a dozen new rides, a hip, edgy, modern California was not ever going to be a fitting companion to Disneyland. 

A new direction

Image: Disney / Pixar

By 2007, Disney’s California Adventure was still weighing heavily on the Disneyland Resort. Still more piecemeal additions were on the way, like Toy Story Midway Mania under construction in Paradise Pier. But even with its upped attraction count and new shows, the park simply wasn’t ever going to hold its own, much less be a worthy partner. Not without a major change in direction.

Under the guidance of then-new CEO Bob Iger, Imagineers began to toy with what to do to Disney’s California Adventure. He noted: “Steve Jobs is fond of talking about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. Any time you do something mediocre with your brand, that's a withdrawal. California Adventure was a brand withdrawal.”

Bob Iger reported in retrospect to the Wall Street Journal that there were two options: the first and simplest was to combine Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure into a single, massive park. He had Imagineers develop plans for how the two could be united into a single gate with one ticket required to experience both. The new mega-park would require new internal transportation systems, to reroute the monorail, and rebuild the infrastructure of the resort. The cost? About $1 billion.

The second option was more aggressive. It was to completely redesign Disney’s California Adventure from its foundation; to strip the park’s themed lands to the steel and rebuild them in the tradition of Disneyland, with historic, reverent, romanticized stories. Not just new attractions, but a new spirit. A new backstory and a new identity. The cost to bring the park back to life? Upwards of $1 billion.

With the prices approximately equal, Iger opted for the second: a complete redesign of the park from the ground up.

On October 17, 2007, Disney announced something absolutely, positively unprecedented: Disney’s California Adventure was going to change. Big time. The $600 million park would undergo nearly $1.5 billion as part of an aggressive five-year plan. Yes, it would add rides, shows, attractions, restaurants, and more. But more importantly, this unprecedented project would rebuild the park’s narrative; its foundation. Absolutely everything would change. Each of its themed lands would turn back the clock and become timeless, romantic versions of themselves. No more puns; no more top 40 hits; no more modern California.

For five years, the park was a circus of construction walls, drained lagoons, heavy-duty machinery, and steel framework.

On May 28, 2010, the park officially received a new name and logo: Disney California Adventure. The removal of the possessive “’s” brought the park in line with Disney’s current strategy but more than anything, it signaled the beginning of a new story and a new style.

The park closed for a single symbolic day and re-opened the next morning – June 15, 2012 – with eight themed lands (the same number as DIsneyland) and a new grand dedication ceremony overseen by Bob Iger.

"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."

— Bob Iger, June 15, 2012

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

Are you ready to step into the reborn Disney California Adventure? That's where our story is heading next, and it's in an in-depth feature all its own. Make the jump to Declassified Disaster: Disney's California Adventure – Part II to walk through the park as it appeared after its re-opening in 2012... and see why Disney may be making its most costly mistake all over again...

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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 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 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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