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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of Feburary 12, 2001

Passionate Response

DCA
Paradise Pier

In my recent musings on Disney's California Adventure, I wondered how such a pleasant yet trifling place could generate so much passion, both pro and con. Readers responded in force—fortunately not with force.

Jeff Schinkel of Fremont, California, wrote:

You hit the nail squarely on the head regarding DCA and its supporters and detractors. I will confess that I am probably more on the "brainwashed" and/or "starved" side of the Disney meter. Reason: 38 years of great Disneyland memories, especially the past 10 with my own kids.

So it's no surprise that I truly enjoyed DCA. Okay, tortillas I can watch being made at Chevy's. But after reading so much negativity from MousePlanet regulars—waaaaay before they actually visited the park—I was expecting coin-op rides of the K-mart parking lot variety.

DCA is a good park now. What excites me are the possibilities. Some of the "isolationists" (I love that label!!) who never ever want anything added, subtracted, improved or removed from Disneyland seem to forget that Disneyland opened with a lot of temporary or non-working attractions in 1955. And plenty of naysayers grumbling that it would never work. We all know the story of Walt Disney instructing gardeners to place signs bearing exotic names in front of weed patches. I saw no weed patches at DCA.

DCA will grow and improve and the New Isolationists of DCA will spring forward around, say, the year 2012. They'll start Save the Orange Stinger sites. They'll hold conventions at Burger Invasion. And, damn it, you know they'll complain if the tortillas go away, too. The new park will become new sacred ground, because over the years, they'll have happy DCA memories and they'll want to preserve them. And they'll show video to their grandkids bragging about how they were there when it all began. (I know I will. I can hear it now: "Wow, Grandpa! They used to give you free tortillas? Cool!!!!!!!

Well, I've blabbered on too long. I really just wanted to say that you got it right, especially when you pointed out that a trip to Disneyland or any theme park is more about the attitude you bring along with you.

Thanks for a great article, and thanks for keeping an open mind!

Eric wrote:

I enjoyed your article on DCA, and found myself nodding my head in agreement or empathy much of the time.

DCA
Superstar Limo

Superstar Limo? What the heck is the matter with that ride? I tried to explain it to somebody who said it sounded cute. I said I thought so too, before I went on it, but I just couldn't tell her how it went so horribly wrong. Maybe it's the overall tone—so pandering, so smug, so faux-satirical. Maybe it's the bizarre minimatronic wax museum characters from the company's other products that are sure to become obsolete within a couple of years. Perhaps it's that they dared to theme the show building like LAX, which after waiting in line outside for a long time to get into some serious theming, seems like a sad shameful letdown. The ride itself: too slow for a thrill ride, too fast for any enjoyment of the sets, which were chaotically arranged and did not focus your attention properly. Mm. I think I'm finally starting to articulate what I didn't like about it.

Whew. Sorry. Let's talk about the good things. Soarin' is a treat, and I've already done it four times. Great pre-show! The Animation exhibit is just gorgeous, and I didn't even go there the first time because I just assumed it would be minimal, like the rest of the Hollywood area. Boy, what a great secret is tucked in that building!

I took a few of my friends from different backgrounds on different occasions, and they all agreed on a few things (completely on their own, and with no prompting from me!). There are way too many restaurants and not enough attractions (I would argue the restaurant situation might be better if they all weren't so similar). And $43 is ludicrous to spend on such a park, and all agreed somewhere around $30 would be a little more fair.

So there's my rundown. I wasn't prepared to think too much of the place, but after spending a few days there, I have to admit, it's kind of grown on me with a little bit of magic all its own. The park has its own logic and its own rhythms, which made itself clear to me only on repeat visits. I find myself really enjoying the feeling of Paradise Pier at night. (I believe that one of WDI's very strongest points now is knowing how to light a theme park at night. Wow!) Cutting through the Big Sur road to get to Hollywood. Eating free tortillas. Getting a really good ice cream cone. It's a park of little details, which exist in time to become little "moments," some of which I already hold dear.

Anyway, glad you enjoyed yourself overall. And I think you're right, the park is just a "down payment." I'm sure more is to come, and probably pretty quick, as they see their "experiment" start to sour guest relations in a hurry. So, I'm sure, the best is yet to come.

Many did give DCA enthusiastic reviews. Chris Kitamura wrote:

I liked your "review" of DCA. You seem to be very unbiased (emphasize the very) with the park. I haven't heard too many opinions like that, especially on MousePlanet. I do disagree with you, slightly. I do like the park a lot! Not more or less than Disneyland, but the same as that park. It's geared more to teens and adults. Disneyland and DCA seem to complement each other because of Disneyland's ability to appeal to kids and older adults (I'm thinking grandparents taking their grandkids for some family fun). DCA's theming environment was terrific! I really felt like I was in each of the landmarks of California. The park itself had a feeling like the Disney-MGM Studios park has.

Even though it was cheap to do and is more for making money, the company did a great job. I like the rides and the "lands." I am passionate about the park, but not because I'm a brainwashed Disney fan. It is well done, and a great companion to Disneyland!

DCA also has its detractors. CNTLI wrote:

You seemed to hit the nail on the head with your latest article, "Why all the Passion?" While agreeing with nearly every point, I have a small rebuttal. Coming from a longtime cast member who has visited DCA, I was very disappointed with what I experienced. While I suffer from your "Squeaky Wheel Syndrome" and "Jan Brady Disease," I expect Disney (particularly the theme parks) to not only meet my expectations, but to EXCEED them. Disney's newest theme park did not meet my expectations, it fell far short of my glaringly low expectations. That's why I have become adamantly opposed to it, despite the few "diamonds in the rough." Disney's attitude towards profitability while sacrificing quality scares me.

Unfortunately, Disney now thinks that Exceeding Expectations is too expensive; apparently their research shows that, considering their built-in customer base, there are higher profit margins on Meeting Expectations. That is their goal; it's up to each of us to decide how well they succeeded.

And, Mark J Guttag wrote:

Well, I'm a critic of DCA and I don't fit into any of the five categories you listed. For example, I am critical of DCA despite the fact that I believe it  will have wonderful detail work on may of its buildings. One thing the recent management of Disney has generally done well in my humble opinion (IMHO) is detail work at the parks as evidenced by Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM and New Tomorrowland at WDW (but not at Disneyland, which was a major disappointment to me from a "Disney detail" standpoint and I would really like to speak to the idiot who approved the Sorcerer Mickey Hat for D-MGM, ruining a fantasy Hollywood view that rivaled the view up Main Street in its attention to detail, IMHO).

I may like classic Disney quality level attractions, but I am quite willing to replace attractions like the Tiki Birds, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, etc. if these attractions are no longer popular. I've personally thought that the real "spirit of Walt" as evidenced by his own tenure running Disneyland was to revise or replace the old with something new, if the something new was perceived to be better. Walt probably removed more rides in the 10 years or so he ran Disneyland than any president of Disneyland has done in any 10 year period since Walt's death. What he didn't do was just rip out something old and let the area sit idle for years as has been done with the skyways and submarine rides at Disneyland and WDW.

To illustrate two of the specific things that bother me about DCA that represent, a more major underlying thing that bothers me about DCA and today's management, I would like to comment on the first part of (3) from your article.

(3) Isolationism. Others worship not Disney, but Disneyland, circa 1967. For them, Disneyland is such hallowed ground that a second gate should never be built, no matter how inventive and wonderful. Inimitable Van Arsdale France, the late founder of the Disney University, often played the Disney cheerleader in public, but in private he gave me the impression that he wished Disneyland had joined Walt in the deep freeze after the Haunted Mansion opened. He thought Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, "all these little Disneyland franchises" detracted from Walt's masterwork.

I do worship Disneyland, circa 1967, but not in the way you have stated in the rest of your paragraph. Two major things I worship about Disneyland 1967 are:

1. Disneyland's commitment to give the guest the best theme park attractions on the planet: Carousel of Progress, Adventure Thru Inner Space, The PeopleMover, It's a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some of these attractions may be dated by today's standards, but for 1967, they were jaw-droppingly amazing.

2. Disneyland's feeling that they owed it to the guest to make news attractions that moved masses of people so guests would not be faced with ever increasing lines as Disney increased in popularity. Look at the five attractions listed above that were added in 1965, 1966 and 1967; all of them handled over 2000 guests per hour, and in the case of Pirates and It's a Small World, almost 3000 guests per hour.

I look at DCA and don't see a commitment to either of these two things.

With respect to #1, compare the headliner attractions of DCA with the headliner attractions at Tokyo DisneySea:

DCA

  • Soarin' over California
  • California Screaming
  • Grizzly River Rapids
  • It's Tough to Be a Bug
  • MuppetVision 3D
  • Animation Studio

Tokyo DisneySea

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Aladdin Show
  • Voyages of Sinbad
  • Storm Chaser
  • Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull
  • Mermaid Lagoon

The only attractions at DCA that I might trade for one of the attractions at TDS is Soarin' over California and the Animation Studios, based on what I know about the attractions at DCA and TDS (and admittedly, I've been to neither park, but as a long-time visitor to Disney parks, I can make some educated guesses)

DCA
Animation lobby

With respect to #2, consider that in 1967, Disneyland's attendance was probably 7 million or so (it was 6.7 million in 1966 according to Richard Schickel's book, "The Disney Version" and I assume Disneyland's attendance increased in 1967 with the addition of Pirates). Interestingly, Disney is projecting a yearly attendance of about 7 million at DCA. However, I don't think too many people would seriously argue that the total capacity of the attractions at DCA is the same as the total capacity of the attractions at Disneyland in 1967. In fact, in operation, all of the attractions at DCA might have trouble just matching the capacity of the five attractions added to Disneyland in 1965-1967 that I have mentioned above.

Which brings me to the more important concern, at least for me, that I think underlies my concern about #1 and #2: the people who currently make decisions about the attractions added to Disney theme parks do not really "love" theme parks; they just look at theme parks as another revenue source.

For comparison, take one of the movie companies owned by Disney: Miramax. The people who run Miramax are famous for "loving" to make movies. Do they release a non-artistic money makers? Absolutely, Scary Movie being the most recent example. In a business, the bills have to be paid after all. But they also release artistic movies periodically that they know are unlikely to make money, because they are the movies they want to produce.

Similarly, one of the things that made Disneyland great was that it was run by people who loved theme parks, Walt himself being the most conspicuous example. Disney didn't "need" to upgrade its attractions with an expensive attraction like Pirates of the Caribbean to fend off the competition. In 1967, there was no real competition to Disneyland in the theme park arena. But given that building an attraction like Pirates was both technologically and financially feasible, Walt, being a theme park lover, went ahead and built it. And Disney has been rewarded by guests for Walt's love of theme parks ever since.

In contrast, I don't see many attractions at DCA that look like they were inspired by someone wanting to build the best attraction that was financially feasible in 2001 (in contrast to TDS which will include many such attractions). What I see all over DCA are attractions where making a great attraction was either not considered or rejected as costing too much.

I, too, am often critical of what Disney does. Their current business model, though, is to spend as little as possible on new theme parks (since they know people initially will visit it when it's new), then add big marketable attractions every year or two to sustain attendance. As a fan, this disappoints me, but I admit it does make sense business-wise.

I'd also love to see Disneyland expanding and updating, but—let's face it—if management thinks it's not going to get any new people in the gates, why do it?

Unfortunately, in the real world, the Disney Company's greatest concern is not us fans—it's our wallets.

Mark quickly responded:

I think your "clumsy success" article about DCA was the one article I have read that came closest to my own opinion of DCA. The relatively cheap cost of the park and the proximity to Disneyland almost insure it will make money in its first few years, almost no matter how mediocre the attractions. Of course, I didn't foresee Disney angering the Disneyland annual passholders, the people Disney will need to fill up the shops and restaurants at Downtown Disney (similar to what happens with the locals hanging out at Downtown Disney in Orlando)

Oh, that even one attraction was added to the parks every year or two to sustain attendance.. Consider that at least two of the four WDW theme parks have had a net loss of attractions in the last six years: the Magic Kingdom lost the Subs and the Skyway and will replace them with the Magic Carpets of Aladdin 18 months after the Skyway closed (plus both Hall of Presidents and the Lion King puppet show are now closed, apparently for several months, so the MK is even down more attractions currently). Epcot traded World of Motion and Horizons for Test Track, so Epcot is down one attraction (but on the positive side, has picked up an afternoon parade).

Since opening, Animal Kingdom has added Asia and the mediocre Kali River Rapids ride (which has a great queue) and lost the even more mediocre Discovery River Boats. The "big additions" since 1999: Triceratops spin (in 2001, a Dumbo clone) and Primeval Whirl (in 2002, a wild mouse). The one park that most closely follows the pattern of adding something new periodically is Disney-MGM which seems to have something new, either major or minor, almost every year. Fantasmic in 1998, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in 1999, Doug Live and Sounds Dangerous in 2000, Who Wants to be a Millionaire in 2001.

No problem with only adding a ride or two a year per se; I would have preferred DCA been built a piece at a time if it could have ensured attractions of Tokyo DisneySea quality. However, as even Richard Schickel, not exactly a friend of Disney, noted in The Disney Version, what really brings in the money is how happy people feel about visiting a Disney park, so happy that they feel an obligation to support such a wonderful place. Attendance numbers don't tell the full story on this.

No question that Disney's greatest concern is its wallet. However, I'm not even convinced Disney is doing a particularly good job of making all of the money it could, particularly over the long run. I see a company that has lost $840 million on a Go.com investment that, to me at least, seemed doomed from the outset and a company that for all of its famous "synergy" does a very poor job, IMHO, of promoting its theme parks on the cable channels it owns. For example, I've seen more specials about rides at Cedar Point on The Learning Channel/Discovery Channel than I have about the rides at Disney on The Disney Channel.

Robert Meyer wrote:

I looked over your profiles for the people who have feelings about DCA. After going though the list, I don't fit into any of the groups. Currently, I have no plans to visit DCA. I am interested in a couple of the rides, but not enough to pay a full admission for them. Perhaps when a Tower of Terror opens up and a couple of new rides replace the obviously lame stuff.

I accept Epcot and enjoyed my stay there tremendously. DisneySeas sounds pretty cool, too. I find the ride mechanics for the Tokyo version of the Pooh ride incredibly fascinating (and I am not a Pooh fan)!

I do love Disneyland. I stayed 30+ hours when Star Wars opened. But I don't care for the new Tomorrowland and I hated Light Magic. I have even considered never going to Disneyland again as prices increase. I believe sometimes complaining in a public forum is necessary to get things fixed at Disneyland and occasionally management will fix things on their own. I believe one problem I see with Disney right now is most of the management looks at their work as being a job without commitment or passion. Great art and entertainment come from passion and pride in your work, I do see evidence of it at Disneyland but not always.

So, is this another category or do I just straddle a few of the others?

Similarly, Allen Huffman wrote:

Excellent reading and excellent words, David. It's rare I read anything on DCA that I don't have a problem with, but you hit a lot of nails on the head. Now I just have to figure out which of the profiles I belong in…

And Cindy Stephens echoed:

Hmmmm, I'm not inclined to love everything Disney does, I'm not starving for new Disney entertainment, I'm not myopically attached to Disneyland, I don't feel the need to point out every flaw I might see, and I don't feel the need to compare DCA to Disneyland because I know it's not meant to be Disneyland. I just wanted to see what Disney had to offer, and I had a great time at DCA, and I thought they did a terrific job at what they set out to do, though of course it's not perfect, as no park is.

How about a category for people like me?

Won't you all join me in the category I didn't mention: Average Disney Fan. This minority realizes DCA is just a theme park not a place of worship, that it may or may not appeal to me or others. When (or if) we visit DCA, there will be things we like and things we dislike. We might complain, but we won't organize picketers into a formal protest.

I think Bob Gurr summed it up best:

I enjoyed your ideas on why folks get in an uproar, especially trying to create categories to put them in.

Long before you were born, America had stuff to totally focus on. The Great Depression—If we all don't do something we all are gonna starve. World War II—If we all don't do something together, even if it's a sacrifice of fun, we may have to learn a permanent foreign language. Even Korea gave a bit of focus, so did Vietnam.

Guess what? There's been no Big Focus ever since (unless Monica counts). I think folks flap about in all directions trying to latch on to any kind of focus, no matter how trivial. Look at the Survivor Syndrome… now look at the DCA Syndrome.

Look past all this trivia and see the regular folks on the planet… they might just enjoy a nice day any place with their loved ones… doesn't have to be anything profound. And maybe they never see hype… or Passion for The Lost Focus.

DCA

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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