“Armchair Imagineering.” For Disney Parks fans, it’s a skill that’s learned early, and practiced often. Almost inescapably, theme park aficianados can’t help but to imagine what we would do if we were given creative control of a theme park we love. And once in a while, we finally decide to put our ideas down and make them real. That’s exactly what lead to my built-out redesign of Disney's Hollywood Studios, and this project: my armchair-Imagineered, Blue Sky version of California Adventure.
I should say before I even begin that no one “armchair Imagineers” better than S.W. Wilson, whose blog – Ideal Build-Out – contains work that is not only jaw-droppingly, stomach-churningly enviable, but almost inconcievably professional. Be sure to bookmark that blog, and follow @buildoutideal on Twitter for incredible park concepts.
I should also remind you that I know this version of California Adventure isn't possible! Current Disney leadership would never greenlight most of the ideas I've brought here, and there are many practical, budgetary, and operational reasons that this park couldn't come to life exactly as I've designed it. But I have taken care to make my ideas "possible" in the sense that they're correctly scaled, accurately placed, and thoughtfully developed... so c'mon... be kind. This took a lot of work! So offer your own ideas, concepts, and dreams, not a rude comment.
With that said, today we’ll step through my own, hand-drawn “built-out” version of Disney California Adventure. I hope you’ll enjoy my vision for what could’ve been… Our tour of an “idealized” California Adventure will go land-by-land… But maybe we ought to start with the basics.
The Real California Adventure Story
If you don’t know much about Disney California Adventure, let’s take a second to catch you up…
For most of its life, little ole’ Disneyland was all alone. Walt’s “original magic kingdom” was a little storybook oasis surrounded in the urban sprawl of Southern California. Disneyland and its equally-sized blacktop parking lot were stalwart companions, even as dozens and dozens of hotels, motels, convenience stores, and neighborhoods surrounded them on all sides. So even as Walt Disney World grew, by the early ’90s (above), Disneyland was still just a single theme park mostly drawing intergenerational, loyal locals, road-tripping regional visitors, and the odd Disney historian from afar, and only for a day or two at a time.
Michael Eisner’s plan was to change that. In the early ’90s, Disney announced that a second theme park – the Possibilityland: Westcot – would soon rise on Disneyland’s only expansion pad: its own parking lot. As part of a wide-reaching reinvention, Disneyland would become a multi-park resort, gobbling up available land to add hotels and shopping and entertainment venues around the new Disneyland and Westcot combo.
But plans were soon scaled back. The result was explored in our Disney’s California Adventure: Part I feature, where we stepped into Disneyland’s second gate as it opened in 2001. Suffice it to say, reviews were not positive. Rather than turning Disneyland into an international, multi-day resort the way executives hoped, the cost-conscious and creatively starved California Adventure was a blight that left the park’s local and vocal audience disappointed. Attendance was abysmal, and a decade of “Band-aid” ride fixes only served to temporarily bolster a park that was fundamentally broken – a flat, punny spoof of California lacking the immersive, idealized, E-Ticket quality of Disneyland.
In 2007, under then-new CEO Bob Iger, Disney announced that they were waving the white flag. In an unprecedented move, the company launched a five-year, $1.2. billion redesign effort that would not only add new lands and rides, but that would fundemantally recontextualize the park’s existing lands by making them historic, timeless, textured, and romanticized – the “Disneyland” formula. A modern boardwalk of bland thrill rides became a historic 1900s pier of Victorian architecture and popcorn lights; a run-down forest of extreme sports thrills became a 1950s National Park at its heyday…
And as we saw in Disney’s California Adventure: Part II, all was right with the world. Much has changed about California Adventure since there, but the ideal, imagined version of the park we’re about to explore traces its roots there, to 2012… when California Adventure had found its heart. With a new sense of optimism and a genuinely-Californian story as its roots, the stage was set. So working off of that new foundation, let’s tour the California Adventure that could’ve been….
Buena Vista Street
Buena Vista Street is practically perfect. Combining the best of Main Street and the best of Hollywood Studios’ Hollywood Blvd., this buzzing, 1920s street is a newsboy’s dream. There’s also an awesome narrative piece to the land, in that guests who begin at Disneyland’s Hub actually walk through Walt’s memories of a quiet, charming, turn-of-the-century, Midwestern hometown, pass under the Main Street Train Station, then proceed under the gates of the Pan-Pacific and find themselves in a bustling, buzzing young city twenty years later – literally making Walt‘s California Adventure.
So naturally, the RED CAR TROLLEY stays (and has a more logical route, which you’ll see unfold as we go). But more importantly, I wanted to do something more substantial with the Carthay Circle Theater.
Even though Pixar Pier’s Ferris wheel is often used as California Adventure’s park icon, it’s clearly meant to be the Carthay – the palatial 1920s movie palace that resides at the end of Buena Vista Street. As you probably know, the real Carthay Circle (demolished in 1969 for low rise office buildings) wasn’t just an icon of Los Angeles and the filmmaking business; it was the place where Walt premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the world’s first full-length animated feature film. A massive risk that many expected would bankrupt Walt, Snow White instead remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time accounting for inflation, and of course, became the start of Walt Disney Feature Animation.
For that reason, I considered putting a version of Snow White’s Enchanted Wish into the Carthay (there’s really no better a spot) but ultimately decided on a different route…
During California Adventure’s reimagining, every indication had been that the park’s Carthay Circle Theater would contain an exhibit about Walt’s life and his journey to California. Obviously, that was vetoed by a full-service restaurant on level two, and a bar and private club on level one. But in my idealized California Adventure, that level one lobby also serves as the entrance to WALT DISNEY’S CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE, in which guests hop aboard miniature train engines and proceed through Walt’s story via a dark ride housed in the current home of the Disney Jr. stage show.
I like the idea of this ride being really simple; maybe using newspaper-type visuals, black-and-white images, film reels, headlines, and lighting to tell the story of Walt’s boyhood, to Kansas City, Ub Iwerks, and onward to California, Oswald & Mickey, ending at the Snow White premiere. A short, sweet, personally-scaled, impressionistic biopic ride. Guests would then exit into a small exhibit space… which actually brings us to the next land…
It never made sense for California Adventure to host the “Hollywood Pictures Backlot” – a modern Hollywood set of a modern Hollywood – when the real Hollywood and its real movie studios are just an hour north. 2012’s redesign of the land sought to fix that – at least superficially. The land was renamed “Hollywood Land,” modern pop music was replaced with big band standards, and the land’s “punny” shop signs and windows became more historic. The worst offender – the dead end “Backlot” plaza once littered with lighting rigs, exposed steel supports, and grimy electrical poles – was lightly smoothed over.
But the concept art Disney released of a fully redesigned Hollywood Land (above) never came. (To this day, it’s the only area of the park to nearly exactly resemble its 2001 version in most meaningful ways; especially since Tower of Terror was annexed from it to become Guardians of the Galaxy, leaving the land with the embarassing attraction lineup of a Monsters Inc. dark ride, Turtle Talk With Crush, and Mickey’s Philharmagic.)
So while it’s absolutely awesome that Buena Vista Street “flows” into Hollywood Blvd. and that the two lands are narratively connected (indeed, the Red Car Trolley used to offer ads for Hollywood Tower Hotel), the fact that Hollywood Blvd. ends in a massive “Blue Sky” flat (disguising the fly of the Hyperion Theater) means that it feels very unfinished. My plan not only erases that remaining "backlot" motif, but plusses the land's attraction count with quality things to do.
The timeless, historic Hollywood Blvd. at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is so fantastically effective and evocative as a theme park streetscape, it boggles my mind that Disney didn’t just recreate it from scratch at California Adventure to begin with instead of opting for the Backlot version. So in my ideal California Adventure, that switch would finally happen, aesthetically resetting this land to the 1940s and an idealized streetscape of pastel buildings and neon signs.
So now, gazing down Hollywood Blvd. from the Carthay, you’d see this…
A wonderful, historic streetscape of rooftop billboards, dancing neon, Red Car Trolleys, and – at the street’s end – the historic Chinese Theater with the Hollywood Hills beyond (which are actually layered, textured flats serving to disguise the showbuilding that the Chinese Theater facade connects to. (Enjoy my hasty photo-edit, above.)
As a physical and now narrative continuation of Buena Vista Street (Walt’s arrival), I think it’s fair to use Hollywoodland as the place where the park explores animation further, which, of course, connects to what’s happening here in the Chinese Theater… But we’ll get to that in a second. First, passing between the pillars that serve to separate Buena Vista Street from Hollywoodland, you’d come across…
ONE MAN’S DREAM – a version of the exhibit found at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that would celebrate Walt’s legacy and from Snow White through Disneyland and the Florida Project. This exhibit space would be accessible from Hollywood Blvd., but would also serve as the post-show of Buena Vista Street’s California Adventure dark ride, picking up right where the ride left off and depositing guests in Hollywood, just as Walt himself was.)
Further down the street, I preserved the ANIMATION ACADEMY portion of the current Animation building (the rest of that very, very large showbuilding will be re-used later…), which I think could be used to continue that focus on early animation.
But the land’s true icon would of course be the iconic Chinese Theater (weirdly, another theater-at-the-end-of-a-Main-Street that’s clearly set up to be the park icon, but isn’t at Disney’s Hollywood Studios). That would serve as the entrance to the West Coast version of MICKEY & MINNIE’S RUNAWAY RAILWAY, which is a spectacularly fun ride and a fitting ode to Mickey’s cartoon origins. I added it here for a few reasons:
- California Adventure desperately needs more E-Tickets (which is why it’s absolutely, jaw-droppingly strange that a copy of Runaway Railway is instead being routed to Disneyland, which already has more E-Tickets than any other Disney Park)
- As proven by Hollywood Studios’ version, the Chinese Theater actually makes a really great end-of-the-street weenie, and the transition from an opulent theater into the cartoon world is a really compelling one (the transition from Disneyland’s Toontown into the cartoon world can’t possible be as clever a juxtaposition)
I added a Chinese Garden space (where the current “outdoor lobby” for the Hyperion is) to serve as an extended queue for Runaway Railway when needed and – otherwise – a nice, quiet, green, walled-in break from the urban sprawl of Hollywoodland.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the Chinese Theater, I added a small, multi-story SOUTH SEAS CLUB from Disney’s 1991 film The Rocketeer, which is actually a Disney movie, set in California, and even in Hollywood, in the 1940s! It couldn’t be a better fit, and I think this space would add a great jazzy flair to the land’s dining offerings.
You can sort of imagine the South Seas Club offering lounge-like entertainment, perhaps with a bar on the second level. But it might also be interesting to imagine if this club could have a little Rocketeer presence, maybe with an impromptu stunt show every hour or so, or at least walkaround, meet-and-greet characters from the film milling about and adding to the ambiance.
Finally, I wanted to deal with the odd “Backlot” plaza that resides behind the facades of Hollywood Blvd. This is the place where the park is unapologetically “studio,” with big beige soundstages and concrete plazas. So even though I love a solid timeline and a continuous identity for the land, I did go ahead and turn this into a Muppets Courtyard within Hollywoodland. (If it makes you more comfortable, you can imagine this “graduating” into its own mini-land, and that would be fine!)
I actually relocated MUPPETVISION into a new, smaller theater space. (This space, currently, is a small covered outdoor stage, but if enclosed with a pre-show gathering place along Hollywood Blvd., could serve as a great, perfectly-sized way to return this show to the park.) There’s also a quick-service PIZZERIZZO with balcony seating on the second level.
The former Muppet Vision theater, I’ve repurposed as THE GREAT MUPPET MOVIE RIDE – a dark ride once planned for the never-built Possibilityland: Muppet Studios expansion of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. A simple, family dark ride (which every park needs more of), this attraction tours guests past sets where the Muppets try (and inevitably fail hilariously) to recreate great scenes from cinema history.
So that's where we're at so far... Getting the picture? While right now, my version of California Adventure hasn't drastically diverted from the real thing, it's managed to "build-out" the park, better using its space and upping its attraction count and atmosphere. That's the point, and that'll continue as we go.
Which isn't to say I won't diverge from the existing park and its existing foundation. After all, just take a look at what's next...