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

When you think of Disney, you may think of the storied, golden years of animation heralded by Walt himself; of today's international media conglomerate acquiring Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and more; you may imagine the world's leading theme parks with fairytale castles at their center, or pirates, or parades. One thing that you probably don't associate with Disney? Failure.

Sure, once in a while a John Carter, a Lone Ranger, or a Good Dinosaur slip through, but those financial flubs are merely blips on the radar, quickly passing from pop culture, forgotten by fans. It's not just films, though... Our Declassified Disaster series was created to share the rare instances when Disney Parks have missed the mark, with in-depth entries exploring unfortunate attractions like Stitch's Great Escape, The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management, Disney-MGM Studios' stalled Backstage Studio Tour, the sputtering Rocket Rods in Disneyland's abysmal New Tomorrowland '98, and the laughably bad Journey into YOUR Imagination. But those attractions, too, eventually close or crumble, living on only in the stories people tell about them.

But what happens when a mistake isn't so easily brushed under the rug or written off? What happens when the thesis behind an entire theme park is broken?

Image: Disney

When Disney's California Adventure opened in 2001, Disney executives and designers quickly came to terms with the fact that they had a more permanent problem on their hands. An entire park of problems, California Adventure was underbuilt, under-funded, and devoid of the kinds of rides, characters, stories, and settings people grew to expect thanks to Walt's own Disneyland just a few hundred feet away. And unlike a passing film or a maligned ride refurbishment, the $600 million second gate at the newly-rechristened Disneyland Resort was a problem that wouldn't get better with time.

Our deep, deep dive into Disney's "California Misadventure" is a two-part exploration into the history of Disney's biggest failure (and its rise from the ashes). In this entry – Part I – we'll trace the park's development and step into California Adventure as it appeared on its opening day to explore exactly why fans, executives, and Imagineers agreed that it was broken at its core. Then, in Part II, we'll walk through the park as it appeared after a grand, billion-dollar re-opening in 2012... and see why Disney may be making its most costly mistake all over again. Settle in and let's get started.

Disneyland Park

Image: Disney

Before Disneyland, amusement parks in the United States really came in one of two forms. Some originated as Victorian-era "picnic parks" supplied with patrons via the new railroad system, adding dance halls, carousels, and wooden roller coasters over decades and decades. Others took shape as seaside boardwalks with gaudy, attention-grabbing games, food stands, and thrilling rides open to the public.

Given that those were the prevailing images of such amusement parks, it's no surprise that when Walt showed interest in opening his own, his wife Lillian asked, “Why would you want to get involved with an amusement park? They're so dirty and not fun at all for grownups."

"Well, that's exactly my point," Walt told her. "Mine isn't going to be that way. Mine's going to be a place that's clean, where the whole family can do things together."

Image: Disney

And when the first guests to Disneyland stepped through the gates of Walt Disney's new attraction in 1955, they would find that it was entirely unlike anything that had ever come before. Walt Disney's park had it all: lost Indian jungles, turn-of-the-century Midwest towns, gleaming cities of the future, the reverent and romantic Old West, storybook villages... Brought to life by filmmakers and artists, the park indeed had something for everyone in the family.

If there was one thing Disneyland did not have, it was size. The original land purchase totaled about 160 acres, of which 60 was occupied by Disneyland. The rest was divided between the massive parking lot – with a larger footprint than the park! – and the various “backstage” facilities powering the property. Otherwise, the entire complex was landlocked by streets to the west, south, and east, and the under-construction Interstate-5 to the north. Situated cozily between existing streets, Disneyland was snuggly cemented in place with little room for growth.

Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

That might've been fine... except that once word of Disney’s land acquisition got out, the orange groves around the property were gobbled up as hotels, motels, convenience stores, and more squeezed into every square foot of Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave., desperate to get a foothold near the young park. Of course, each built its sign taller, brighter, and louder than the rest as the sleepy farmland of Anaheim became a bustling urban landscape.

It’s no secret or surprise to fans of Disney Parks that Walt detested the encroaching battle lines of reality. And for first-time visitors, it can be astounding that, from the Disneyland Railroad, you can hear the commotion of cars; guests staying at off-property hotels can be a 5 minute walk from the parks; and the Monorail provides astounding aerial views of traffic jams on Harbor Blvd. While the ingenious earthen berm built around the park acted as a great wall to keep visual intrusions out, the fact remained that the real world was a little too close to Disneyland for Walt’s liking.

It was Disneyland’s tiny footprint, of course, that inspired Walt to do things differently in his second take. 

The Florida Project

Image: Disney

Dissatisfied by the rapid urbanization of Anaheim and the way that the modern world so invaded Disneyland’s sphere, Walt and his team did something unusual: they began scouting for a space to build another park. But this time, Walt was determined to control the experience on a much larger scale. Of course, we know now that the Walt Disney Company was able to purchase massive landholdings in sleepy Central Florida (this time under false company names so as not to attract the attention of developers, who might otherwise rush in to buy the land themselves) and even establish the Reedy Creek Development District, a strange (and questionably legal) political arrangement where the Walt Disney Company effectively governs itself and grants its own permits.

Walt Disney famously said of his then-unnamed Florida Project: “Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland... the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine." And it did. In Florida, Walt and company had well over 25,000 acres of undeveloped land, spanning about 40 square miles (famously, the size of San Francisco, or twice as large as Manhattan).

Image: Disney

Walt Disney World opened in 1971. Arriving guests found the headlining Magic Kingdom theme park – a younger, larger sister to Disneyland. And as Walt had predicted, unlimited land and the benefit of foresight and master planning allowed Magic Kingdom to build higher capacity attractions, to replace Disneyland’s narrow pathways with wide open plazas, and to build its infrastructure with an anticipation of international success that Disneyland simply hadn’t accounted for – larger restrooms, larger restaurants, etc.

But unlike at Disneyland, the theme park wasn't alone. Walt Disney World was billed as the "Vacation Kingdom of the World," and even though only a small corner of the property had been developed, it offered plenty to earn that title. Guests arriving for Magic Kingdom would park at the Transportation and Ticket Center and board a Monorail or ferry boat, looping around the 200-acre, man-made Seven Seas Lagoon (itself larger than the original Disneyland property purchase) and passing by two deluxe resort hotels. Walt Disney World offered hiking, boating, fishing, and swimming.

And it only got bigger from there.

Image: Disney

Of course, Walt Disney World today includes four theme parks, two water parks, 27 resort hotels (and growing), four golf courses, a campground, a “downtown” shopping area, and thousands of undeveloped acres all connected by monorails, boats, hundreds of miles of walking paths, an arsenal of hundreds of buses, and literal highways between destinations. The behemoth operation grew larger and larger over its four-and-a-half decade life.

And then… there was Disneyland.

Growing

Image: Disney, via AngryAP.com

By 1990 – just as Walt Disney World opened its third theme park – Disneyland looked… well… quite a bit like it did in 1955: a single theme park, its gargantuan parking lot, and the nearby Disneyland Hotel.

Spurred on by Michael Eisner, The Walt Disney Company planned to change that. Early on in his tenure, Eisner began to impress upon his team that Disneyland needed to change. If Walt Disney World could command stays between four and ten days, it was nothing short of a waste that Disneyland – even four decades after its opening – remained a single-day park catering almost entirely to local audiences. By far, most of Disneyland’s visitors seemed to come from Southern California neighboring states, and they’d spend one day – maybe two – before moving on.

If Eisner had his way, Disneyland could, should, and would grow into a multi-day, international resort destination, just like Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

On May 8, 1991, the company officially announced plans for a $3 billion expansion that would take the measly Disneyland and turn it into the Disneyland Resort. In an all-at-once growth spurt, Disney would transform the tiny Anaheim resort property to a world class destination.

It would include a complete rebuild of the existing Disneyland Hotel, the addition of three new, immersive resort hotels, a 5,000 seat amphitheater called the Disneyland Bowl, the Disneyland Center shopping district built around a six-acre lake, and the cornerstone of the project: a second theme park, built on the only expansion pad Disneyland had: its own parking lot.

Image: Disney

This massive expansion would’ve equipped the resort with new parking decks, each leading to Peoplemover systems whisking high volumes of visitors to the resort’s central hub, where they would stand directly between the entrances to the two theme parks in the new Disneyland Plaza. Directly across from the Main Street Train Station and the timeless wrought iron gates of Disneyland would stand the entrance to the second theme park: the most ambitious one Disney had ever designed. Read on… 

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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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