3. The Golden State
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE BAY AREA
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.
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.
4. Paradise Pier
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 (8) yo-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.
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.
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 (F) decked 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.
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.
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.
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.
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-lost places and times... that never really existed. 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.
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.