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Half park, full price - Part One

It's literally been years, oh heck let's be honest here, decades in the making. Disney's publicity cogs are already trumpeting its arrival, and ads are now blanketing the media for it. With all that hype it's likely the most discussed and criticized theme park any company has ever built.

It's also arguably the most severely constrained project (both fiscally and creatively) that the Walt Disney company has produced in modern times.

Disney's California Adventure is all of that and more. It's also all of that and a lot less, at the same admission pricing as its 45 year old neighbor Disneyland.

Join me here on a tour of what the future of the Disney theme parks may be over this four part series as I get to visit this new park for the first time. (Keep in mind this isn't really a picture tour, it's a critique of the new park.)


On Monday, January 15th I finally got to visit Paul Pressler's, Michael Eisner's and Barry Braverman's baby, the awkwardly titled Disney's California Adventure park (or as everyone is now and will be calling it for short, DCA). Born out of a secluded and expensive executive retreat, this is the Walt Disney Company's attempt to turn the original Disneyland park into the "Disneyland Resort" - via an expanded hotel presence, and a new upscale mall connecting the entire package together - all in the hopes that visitors will extend their stays (and spending) on Disney owned and controlled property.

As with any major project, this expansion reflects the vision of the people in charge. In particular this project rather vividly demonstrates the lessons company president Michael Eisner learned via the financial headaches of Disneyland Paris, and it sufferes from the severely restricted creative management and vision of resorts and Imagineering head Paul Pressler, who focused primarily on the revenue generation portion of the park to the clearly apparent exclusion of the entertainment and ride aspects.

You should keep in mind that since Disneyland itself began, all of the parks Disney opens have an initial rough period of operation, then they are tweaked, adjusted and altered to a higher level by the company. That's because the parks are very sophisticated major financial investments that need to not only pay back the rather high costs in producing them, but the ever higher profit levels expected of them.

To be fiscally prudent the goal should be that any new park should open with more things right than wrong, which helps keep costs down as you make the adjustments that will be needed to make it a success. Unfortunately, even now knowing what's coming up for this park (which will be detailed here for you), I don't think there will be any inexpensive or easy solutions to the problems that have been hard wired into this park from the design stage on - all due to the lack of vision and restricted financial resources this project has been saddled with as far as its ability to entertain the visitor.

The entry hub
The Entry Hub

But enough with the pre-show (and didn't they get rid of a lot of those in the new park?) - and let's get to the trip report. Before we dive in you should know I visited on an un-crowded day, from about 2:30 until closing at 10 PM, and I got to visit all the "attractions" save for a few, which due to the way this report is structured, I will still able to comment on as I have two more visits planned as the series progresses.

As with any park in previews (which this one is in) there will most likely be changes made to many of the things I will be talking about before the general public gets in (under much more crowded conditions) come Feb. 8th. Through the series, I've made to sure keep in mind what the typical visitor's experience may more likely be under those situations.

One special note here: I found all the Cast Members (CM's for short) in the park, from the ride operators to the restaurant folks, from the custodial to the merchandise people, from the performers to the management types to be absolutely first class in the service department.

I truly felt the Disney company had worked very hard at giving this park a very friendly personal face via the CMs, and it really showed. Any criticisms I have of DCA should not reflect upon the good work the employees are doing out there with the public. The ability to maintain this high quality of service, will be very important for visitors and the company as the park weathers its first few years of operation.

Part One - Entering the park and the Hollywood Backlot area.

Unlike Disneyland across the way - with DCA there's no mystery or revealing of this park as you approach and enter it. That's pretty much due to the lack of a berm (and 45 years of vegetation) to shield the views. As you approach it you already see the towering carnival area (Paradise Pier) from your tram, the huge bear shaped raft ride and the Hollywood stages. There's no magical walk through a tunnel into another realm as with Disneyland, you pretty much know what you are heading to.

The huge mural entryway is supposed to look like a 3-D "Greatest California Hits" type of postcard - but sadly the effect is ruined by the poor quality of the art on the side walls. Rather than look hand- crafted or charming - they are garish and almost amateurish in their appearance. As I've seen them go up I compared them to some of the local freeway murals we have here in L.A. - and that opinion has only changed to reflect the fact that most of our freeway public art is probably better than what we see here. The poor view they offer by the way is marred at the entry way by the garish and out of place neon sign they placed on the left for the gift shop "Greetings from California" before you enter under the bridge.

These tiled walls are the facades behind which before the gate the guest relations (DCA's City Hall), lost and found, stroller rental bathrooms, phones and lockers are located, along with the first of many ATMs placed throughout the park. (It seems the ATMs were a priority here as opposed to the bathrooms - Disneyland itself in my opinion could use a few more ATMs in Tomorrowland in particular.)

A construction shot from December shows the hub area
A construction shot from December shows the hub area

As you walk under the oddly out- of- place Golden Gate Bridge which disguises the Monorail track you come into what appears to be a very scaled down hub area. It's sort of like they eliminated the long entryway you traditionally come in to a Disney park, and just threw you into the hub in front of the castle instead. This time with the shops (their Bakery and Emporium versions) ringed around it.

The icon for the park, their Castle I guess, is a giant metal sun that looks like either a rather glitzy hubcap - or as one older couple I overheard say - like an jumbo- sized old radio microphone. Due to the park being built with its back to the south - they have an elaborate system of mirrors rigged to reflect light on it all day long - as the sun actually sits in the sky up and behind the park. The giant icon also helps somewhat hide the Bugs Life 3-D movie theater building and farm area behind it.

The one really outstanding feature of the Sun icon area is the fountain under it - it creates waves that are shot up behind it in patterns. I liked this a lot - but it's a much smaller version of what was originally planned, a California shaped pool (along with another fountain out front between the two parks) that got scrapped due to budgets. There will also be a dedication plaque somewhere, that apparently sadly will be a reworking of Walt's opening day speech. Too bad they couldn't find the writer again who did the Disney MGM Studios dedication plaque - that one is nicely written and evokes that park's idealized version of what Hollywood is in people's minds.

The hub area serves (on the left) as the launch point for the parade, the entry way into the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area, and also (on the back and right) branches off to either the farm / winery areas or the Condor Flats / Hotel / Redwood creek play area.

One visitor tip that I can offer up now to you is that the first thing you should do when you come in is make a bee line to the right and into the Condor Flats area to get your FastPass for the IMAX ride film, "Soarin' Over California." Do not pass GO, do not collect your $200, get yourself over there and get a ticket or you will NOT see this movie during your visit. We'll detail this ride, and its very problematic loading procedure later on in this series. On my visit the Fastpass access was not clearly marked (they may still have been installing signs) and people were crawling every which way to get to the machines.

Although it will take a few months to figure out the traffic patterns here when regular visitors start coming in - my guess is that eventually it will prove out that most people will make a quick run to either the back or right of the hub on their way to the Carnival area (Paradise Pier) only because of the rides on view there. This may mean that initially at least, the Hollywood Pictures Backlot to the left of the entryway may not get so overwhelmed, and for a smart visitor (after he gets his Soarin' Fastpass) it may be where you want to start your day.

The Hollywood Pictures Backlot is probably the most successful section of the park for theming - and it reflects a lot more creative effort than the other areas got. When I said in the headline for the story, "Half park - full price" I not only meant it in terms of the small amount of attractions available - but in the "Disney" design aspect of this park too. DCA really feels after you take a whole look at it to only be half the Disney quality you expect - as some areas are lush in the detail they are famous for, and others make the food courts in your local lower rent mall look more sophisticated. We'll get to those problem areas later...

The entry way arch and its Elephants is supposed to be a "salute" to D.W. Griffth's famous Intolerance set - but the small scale they had to use makes it look toy- like rather than impressive. If you really want to see how this should have been done - go visit the under construction Hollywood & Highland Oscar® Theater complex (next to the Chinese Theater, across from the El Capitan Theater). They also have used the famous Elephants in their development - but at the majestic scale they were more likely originally built at. Those towering icons bracket a huge stairway up to a second level of the complex, making for a dramatic vista that just screams the glamour of old Hollywood. The photos I have here just do not do it any justice.

The original D. W. Griffith Intolerance film set above - (it used to sit where the Vista Theater now sits, near the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Blvds.) - note the scale of the Elephants here.

Below is the artist rendering of what the Elephants will look like in the new Hollywood and Highland project - the scale is comparable.

Below is a picture taken Sunday, the 14 of the actual Hollywood and Highland construction site, note again the massive scale...

And finally, (below) the less than enthralling Elephants at California Adventure. Maybe they should have rethought this?

Once you get past the gate, you gaze down upon a very sanitized version of Hollywood Blvd. circa 1940 or so - not as detailed as the one at Disney MGM Studios, but at a level of theming that's still a lot better than just about anywhere else in the park. (With even a slightly burned out blinking neon sign in place!) They did manage to keep more of a Main St. type of scale here, which helps to make it more inviting to the visitor.

As with all the areas of the park, the attractions listing is shorter than you would expect - dwarfed in fact by the listing of retail and dining options in the area. Let's run down what you'll see here.

On your immediate left is a gift shop "Gone Hollywood" - and on your right is the ABC Soap Opera Bistro, which is also home to the ABC SoapLink collector's type of shop. Visiting these shopping and dining areas you will see the huge amount of money and time spent on detailing them. The gift shop has high ceilings and theming all around the upper areas - the fixtures are all top notch custom efforts - and it just reeks of cash spent. Likewise with the Soap Opera complex (by the way the original building it is modeled on in Hollywood - ABC's old Vine St. radio studios - which just about burned down this past week).

Soap Opera Bistro
Soap Opera complex

The Soap Opera restaurant itself (along with the adjacent shop) is also lavishly detailed inside - with each dining area suggesting a different soap show. (Your host will walk you through explaining what it all is.) The bathrooms look like dressing rooms, and your servers are themed to the area they are working in. (Ours were medical personnel, due to our dining area being General Hospital.)

Due to union problems the servers will not be entertaining you - a cast of about three or four improv performers do that job on the hour instead. As with all service and entertainment personnel through the park, they are all top notch - both in serving your meal and the show they put on. I'll come back to a review of this location later - when I cover the dining options available to you throughout the park in part four of the series. (Just quickly here, expect to spend a LOT of money at the Soap Opera Bistro) - as prices are very high - you really have to ask yourself if the entertainment elements will make the cost work for you.

Further down the street, you realize the store facade on the left (across from the Soap Opera complex) is actually the side of the Muppets 3-D movie theater complex. This ten year old movie was one of my favorites when I first saw it in Orlando many years ago - and is has been recreated intact here. The pre-show is still a gas, but sadly the movie itself has dated quite a bit. I was watching the audience reaction and after ten years of no Muppet Show on TV the kids didn't "get" the characters or who they were anymore. The adults did enjoy the show, but the response was tepid to be kind here.

Muppet movie
Muppet movie

I found after all these years that the movie has long stretches now that are pointless - and the finale is a mess storytelling wise as much as it is a mess in the actual show they are trying to put on for you. I really had higher hopes for this attraction - but sadly time has passed it by. In my humble opinion here, in the long run, with the huge repeat audience that Disneyland has (60% locals) it will decline in attendance as quickly as the 3-D "Honey I Shrunk" movie has been declining in Tomorrowland across the way. It's too bad the new park couldn't serve to springboard a new movie and a re-launch of the franchise again - but Eisner's battles with the Henson company are a whole story unto itself.

As you exit the theater (and surprise! right into the Rizzo's Prop and Pawn (Muppet toys) Shop") you see a blank wall first on your left, then Superstar Limo in front of you, and the "Hollywood & Dine" food court further on. To the right of the food court are some bathrooms (why are they around the corner?) which are between it and the Hyperion Theater.

Now why may you ask is there a blank wall there? No budget? Well, actually that spot is where it looks like the next major attraction for DCA will go in, "Armageddon." Before you get your hopes up TOO high for this one - it looks to be a takeoff on what Universal now has with Backdraft on their lower lot in Hollywood.

Mind you, I LIKE fire. I can stare into it for hours. (Lots cheaper than some recreational chemical alternatives, right?) But fire is fire. And this looks to be just a show or demonstration with lots of it. It isn't a big crowd soaking ride, which is what this park so desperately needs.

Backdraft at Universal is still a very popular show, (face it, people just LOVE that fire) but it takes time to cycle it - and so it's not really something that's like a continual loading Pirates attraction. Even with Fastpass - you may end up waiting in one spot for up to twenty minutes while it cycles. The attraction is already in the plans for the park for next year (including staffing) - and short of Eisner changing his mind - as he is so wont to do - it seems a go.

Superstar Limo
Superstar Limo

Now let's get to one of the real failures of this park - the "Superstar Limo" dark ride. This is a bewildering mess of an attraction - poorly written and oddly executed, its biggest crime being it just didn't reach for anything. How can I describe it? I guess if you can imagine the "Mr. Toad" Fantasyland ride rewritten by talentless and unfunny comedians such as Jimmy J.J. Walker and David Brenner you may come close. Satire is a tough thing to do anyway (there's the old Broadway adage "satire closes on Saturday night") but this doesn't even reach the bar to that. "It's supposed to be stupid" one person kindly tried to explain to me, but doing "stupid" really is an art folks - watch "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" or "Dude, Where's My Car" if you want to see "stupid" done well.

The new tech twist to this attraction are the three little on board TV monitors have some very low budget computer animated characters on them telling you the story - that for this attraction was a waste of technology. (Maybe someday the Fantasyland dark rides will get updated with these kinds of video screens on the vehicles, it would be nice to play clips from the films, or have the animated characters tell you the story as you waft on though the rides.)

What could be the problems here? Maybe they shouldn't have mixed hyper- realistic- limited- movement- midget- animatroics that have watermelon- sized heads with cheap flat plywood settings? Maybe it's just very bad art direction combined with a totally witless script? And what is it about having to mention Brad Pitt's name all the time? (He gets mentioned in the "Golden Dreams" movie also. Come to think of it Whoopi Goldberg also pops up twice at DCA. Is the celeb pool that small?)

Other problems include way too short audio loops in the waiting area (which is supposed to have you arriving from the airport - I didn't get that until afterwards), and incredibly poor choices of paint for wall treatments (flat white paint on queue walls with dirty hands rubbing all day on them - flat blue paint below where it can scuff from people kicking it?) Is this because Disney executives and the Imagineers involved with this get backdoored into rides and don't spend times in lines with you and me? Who knows.

Anyway, it's really something that loads very slowly (even though the cars can each hold six people) and the show's pokey pacing drives that final nail in the coffin. If you have limited time on your visit, I wouldn't waste the time on this one when you need to be seeing some of the other things they have to offer in the park. As I understand it from an e-mail I just got, the two people behind this one at WDI are having a tough time of it due to the perceived failure of this attraction. We'll see if they weather it.

(An interesting note here - if you look closely at the roof of the queue of "Superstar Limo" you'll notice it really is an emergency evacuation platform for the Monorail. There are two other areas for emergency evacs also - on the part of the track that goes over the Golden Gate bridge - and also inside an area of the Grand Californian Hotel. These platforms were put in place because now that the new park has been built they can not longer get a crane or cherry picker up to the track anymore.)


CONTINUE or go back to CONTENTS

ALSO IN THIS SERIES:

Part Two - Middling, i.e. Condor flats, the farm, and wharf areas

Part Three - Paradise Pier carnival area

Part Four - The Whoopi movie, Raft ride and other details such as parking, the hotel and mall

Readers Respond

More Readers Respond!

ALSO ON THIS SITE:

Take a photo tour of the park

Take a photo tour of the Grand Californian hotel

WHAT YOU'LL SEE IN THIS AREA:

MAIN GATE AREA:

"Postcard design" entrance gate

Golden Gate Bridge: Monorail Crossing (this will remain a Disneyland specific attraction, with one stop for all three hotels outside of Disneyland proper).

Sun Icon: Sets the theme for the park

Parade: Route runs all the way down to Paradise Pier area

Shops: Engine-Ears Toys / Greetings from California

Restaurants: Baker's Field / Bur-r-r-r Bank Ice Cream

HOLLYWOOD PICTURES BACKLOT

Theme: Hollywood

Rides / Attractions: Superstar Limo dark ride / Muppet Vision 3-D Film

Shows: Hyperion Theater Show (day) Possible Broadway style show (night) / Get A Grip / Area entertainment

Exhibits: Disney Animation includes Art of Animation, Drawn to Animation, Back to Neverland, Sorcerer's Workshop

Shopping: ABC SoapLink / Gone Hollywood / Off the Page / Rizzo's Prop and Pawn Shop

Restaurants: ABC Soap Opera Bistro / Award Wieners / Between Takes / Fairfax Market / Hollywood & Dine / Pop-arazzi Popcorn / Schmoozies

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Hollywood and Highland Web site - see what those entryway elephants should reallly look like

Ennis Brown House Images - see the inspiration for the bathrooms... ;)

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