No Disney theme park has been so roundly criticized in so short a time as two-year-old Disney's California Adventure (DCA) park. Critics paint the park's designers as unimaginative, bottom-line obsessed, and oblivious to what guests want in a Disney park.
Yet DCA's flaws aren't new or unique; they're conscious trends developed over the last 50 years. Now, I enjoy DCA although it is my sixth favorite of Disney's six domestic parks. But I'm not trying to make excuses for DCA, merely to show that there is precedence. Its design calculations (or miscalculations, if you like) some to save money, others to expand the Magic Kingdom's customer base were in place long before DCA was a twinkling in anyone's eye.
Listen to the common complaints about DCA, most of them valid. And realize that DCA wasn't the first Disney park to hear them.
They were thinking what the designers of Epcot had in mind 20 years before them aiming the park at an older demographic to expand the resort's target audience beyond families with young children. The problem, of course, is this objective works against DCA's second objective: convincing current customers (those families with young children) to lengthen their stay.
DCA visitors, consider yourselves lucky. Epcot opened with 16 attractions, Animal Kingdom with 13, counting the walking trails, and Disney-MGM Studios with brace yourself six. (Heck, Disney-MGM remains so starved for rides that current park maps number the Guest Information Board among its attractions.)
The last thing you want is a park built out on Opening Day, so there's no room or money available for expansion. Remember, it took decades to boost Disneyland's attraction count to its current total.
Of the 23 attractions on DCA's opening day roster, five (or 21.74%) are movies. Epcot opened in 1982 with 16 attractions five of them movie-based (31.25%).
Movie-based rides in general attract a more mature, transient audience, the demographic DCA, like Epcot, initially targeted.
DCA opened with 18 stores and 27 restaurants, about twice the number of attractions only if combined. Still, quite a few, but done so consciously to appeal to that older audience. Similarly, Epcot opened with approximately 34 shops and 23 restaurants, combined nearly four times the number of attractions.
And how many whiteknucklers did Epcot open with? What about Disney-MGM? The Great Movie Ride? Possibly the animation tour? How about Animal Kingdom? The safari tour, Countdown to Extinction.
Disney believes it gets more bang for its marketing buck by adding megaattractions later.
Yes, and so did Disneyland when it opened in 1955 dark rides, a carousel, a spinner, car rides, a train. Later years produced more elaborate and original offerings; the park had been established, was generating revenue, and Imagineering could expend more energy on a single attraction. They didn't have to worry about designing an entire theme park.
The headline attractions at Epcot (Test Track) and DisneyMGM (Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster) came later, as well.
This shameless practice didn't begin with DCA; it started with Walt. In Disneyland. In 1955. Out of time and money and staring at an attraction-less Tomorrowland, Walt was forced to turn to such sponsor-funded Zzzzz-tickets as Monsanto's Hall of Chemistry, Kaiser's Hall of Aluminum Fame, Dutch Boy Paints' Color Gallery, and Crane's Bathroom of Tomorrow.
Disney insists that the percentage of guests who regularly visit both Disney World and Disneyland is very small, and the majority feels cheated if they visit a Disney resort and can't find a certain signature attraction. That's why when Florida's Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 with 23 attractions, 20 of them were copied from Disneyland. And when it came time for Disney World's first E-ticket addition, the entirely new Western River Expedition was passed over for the tried-and-true Pirates of the Caribbean.
Thank Disney-MGM Studios for this. In the beginning, DisneyMGM wasn't meant to occupy visitors for 12 hours; the idea was just to convince families to extend their vacation by an extra day. At the last minute, the executives decided to charge the same admission price as the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
Sure enough, just like at the brand new DCA, many first-year visitors to Disney-MGM were able to see everything that interested by early afternoon and would swarm Guest Relations to demand a refund. And, the complainers were promptly comp'ed into the park with the castle to fill out their day.
Hogwash. The designers of Epcot, I imagine, must have had their hands tied even tighter. As originally designed, World Showcase attractions had to be basically travelogues for the sponsoring countries. Future World attractions had to provide forward-looking summaries of major aspects of life (transportation, communications, energy, etc.), also determined by what type of sponsors could be found.
Disney, in fact, refused to build attractions for Epcot unless a sponsor footed a healthy percentage of the bill. Journey into Imagination was completed months after Opening Day because the sponsor (Kodak) signed on too late, while Horizons, the Seas and the Life & Health pavilions opened one, three and seven years later, respectively, because sponsors were harder to find.
To have more leeway as it expands, DCA sometimes has to work awkward contortions to pretend new offerings have anything to do with the California theme. That's no different than with the proposed makeover of Epcot's Future World (see JimHillMedia.com's recent article on Project Gemini). Sure, there are plenty of exciting possibilities, but they're basically abandoning the area's original concept.
On a final note, while I was in Orlando, my e-mail server overloaded and took it upon itself to devour all mail received between April 1 and April 8. Translation: If you responded to my last article on the Travel Channel special, Beverly Butrum's party, and the Mine Train reunion, I never received your note. My apologies for not being able to reply.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.