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Half Park, Full Price - Part Four

In part three of this review we visited the disappointing Paradise Pier area in the new California Adventure park opening next to Disneyland.

In this section we'll visit San Francisco section, along with the raft ride and the Redwood Creek play area, and we'll catch up a few missed items, and wrap up the rest of the observations of this park that I have.

Before we continue here though, an apology. As you can probably guess by a few missed links, and some errors, date and text problems, this series has been a major undertaking, made a little more crazy with trying to squeeze in two more visits to the park as the writing progressed. Much of your kind feedback has helped catch many of the glitches, and I'm thankful to the readers who have been patient as the series has continued.

A few things first, though, that I forgot about the Paradise Pier area (and some other notes about DCA) - thanks to two nights of no sleep... ;)

Ever since the Skyway was closed at Disneyland, there really hasn't been any place where folks could, well... um... heck, let's be blunt here... take a toke. Well, according to the CMs at DCA, the Sun Wheel (Ferris wheel) has filled in for the missed Skyway quite nicely it seems. Apparently some of the CMs have been sort of "testing it out" before the park opened - and now the word has spread (thanks to the 'net) that the long loading times and once-around ride cycle give each passenger cabin just enough time to um... partake... of this pastime of theirs. No wonder there were so many teens in line for this thing the few times I walked by it, although when I rode it I didn't get a whiff of anything...

For those of you who asked, yes, they do have a soundtrack on the California Screamin' coaster - but I have yet to figure out what it's supposed to be. This could be due to sync problems (on one ride into the station it was a total mess) or it is simply just very disjointed music. The actual soundtrack itself (when I could figure it out) was disappointing - synthesizer stuff for the most part. Why couldn't they have done something creative like having the Beach Boys do a harmony vocal instrumental here? "Stacks 'O Tracks" style.

Background music for Paradise Pier is well-chosen - the arrangements have a carnival sound to them. The arrangements are well-themed I guess, but I could see people constantly checking their cell phones in the area due to the ringing sound these arrangements make occasionally.

I really do like some of the other background area music in the park - the San Francisco section has the main theme from one of my favorite movie soundtracks Dave by James Newton Howard, and the entry area music is also nice - although I could have done without Bob Seeger's "Hollywood Nights." (Who'd ever thought you'd hear Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." at a Disney park, in both it's original version at the entry, and a carnival arrangement in Paradise Pier.)

By the way, a note about cell phones before I forget - they are almost unusable in both the Downtown Disney mall area and just about everywhere inside the Grand Californian. The new park itself seems to be better though. (Disneyland itself has some problem areas, but is also pretty good for use.) Hopefully they can fix the coverage problems.

Also, traffic patterns in the park are starting to form - as night falls the crowds seem to empty out from the rest of the park into the Paradise Pier area - probably due to all the lights. Keep this in mind if you want to do that section of the park at less crowded times, such as the morning for example.

Now, let's finish our tour, shall we? Walking past the Mullholland Madness ride (the Mad Mouse), the Sunglass Dino and Souvenir 66 shops, we stumble upon the Golden Dreams theater, with an entryway themed to look like San Francisco Palace of the Fine Arts (here's a link to a site that has photos of the original). There is also a huge mural semi-circling the building outside - which looks like it belongs in a musty state office building somewhere.

The mural outside the theater

This unnamed theater was supposed to originally host a larger scale show - similar to Epcot's American Adventure complete with extensive animatronics interacting with a large format film. Instead, thanks to the need to keep costs at a minimum, we just ended up with a movie, Golden Dreams, that has a book-ended Haunted Mansion visual effect bit from host Whoopi Goldberg involving the statues on the walls flanking the screen.

Whoopi as Califa
Whoopi as Califa

The movie itself (scheduled on the quarter and three-quarter hour) really left me cold. It's basically a ViewMaster history of the state in seven scenes - with Whoopi doing what Olivia Newton John did on Xanadu - portraying a muse involved with whatever snippet of history they are currently showing on screen.

Don't get me wrong, they have a lavish production here - showing off some lovely scenery (some of it - tsk tsk - not even shot in the state) - but the whole thing is much too Hallmark slick. (Even the abandoned junk in the dust bowl camp sequence, rusting mattress spring frames, is way too artfully arranged.) Characters shown in the film look like models or bit players, there is no realism to their performances.

The big finale montage - complete with a huge dramatic ballad where they seem to be trying to duplicate the "Golden Dream" sequence from American Adventure at Epcot - has so much stuff popped in and out (from the Rodney King beating to the Carpenters, from Harvey Milk to Sonny Bono) that it comes across more like some huge "state history highlights" checklist was used instead of being a truly moving ending. The special Olympics footage to me seemed especially manipulative. The only thing that stuck me as charming is the very last thing Whoopi says - you have to stay a few extra moments in the theater to hear it.

The audience reaction I could see afterwards seemed mixed - with some folks wiping a tear from their eyes, and others making comments similar to mine. You may either like it or be disappointed, there apparently is no major consensus on it. The sad thing is that due to the current mind-set at the company we got only this movie, when we could have had a spectacular west coast American Adventure-type epic attraction here instead.

DCA's budget cutbacks are also evident inside the theater itself - interior decor only goes on up just above the doors then stops. The ceiling itself is simply bare metal beams and exposed air conditioning ducts painted black. MousePlanet's Fabulous Disney Babe, Michelle C. Smith, did tell me that they were supposed to have some kind of fiber optic light display up there to help hide things, but in my asking around I was told that the theater was pretty much finished. I guess if it isn't a shop or restaurant they will just not detail the attractions here - kind of dumb when they spent so much to duplicate the exterior entry.

(A warning note for parents of little ones - there is an on-screen death in the Golden Dreams movie, which is artfully done, but jarring nevertheless. You may want to keep that in mind.)

Across from the theater you'll see a small San Francisco street - where they were supposed to have artisans housed and working to show off handicrafts. The building is all closed off with ropes on the stairs up to the doors (and is supposed to have just dirt floors inside) since they couldn't get this concept off the ground. Across from this, and adjacent to the theater are bathrooms, phones and an ATM - all helpful to have.

From the San Francisco area to the Grizzly raft ride
From the San Francisco area to the Grizzly River Run raft ride

At the end of the San Francisco street is a pathway that crosses it, the left side taking you to the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail play area, the right side taking you under the ramp that goes up the hill for the bear raft ride boats, and then through a viewing area for the ride. Both pathways then eventually meet back up further down where you can continue into the Condor Flats area.

Exploring this area brings some major surprises in quality of theming - my guess is because this section directly interfaces with the adjacent Grand Californian Hotel. (Those $300-a-night rooms need some kind of view, right?). Thankfully the visitor benefits from this.

I was most impressed in the whole park with the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail play area - in this small parcel they had all the quality theming that is so sorely lacking in other areas of the park. The detail everywhere - from sculpted logs that kids can crawl through - to giant walkways made of netting - to tracks left on the walkways by the various woodland creatures - makes this a real fun section to wander through for both adults and kids.

Redwood Creek Challenge Trail entry
Redwood Creek Challenge Trail entry

Biggest hit that I could see here was the tire swings, amazing something that simple could delight folks so much isn't it? (They had longer lines than the Jumpin Jellyfish ride at Paradise Pier.) There is a small rock climbing area and storytelling outdoor seating area. (Although the stories told in the Ahwahnee Camp Circle are supposed to be native American, none of the story tellers themselves actually are - which is a little jarring initially. The one performer I saw made up for that with a charming performance though.) Hopefully as the trees eventually grow upwards in this section - they will provide more shade here for visitors, as it was especially lacking in the storytelling area.

As I understand it the play area will close at dusk, just like Tom Sawyer's Island does at Disneyland.

Further on down the walkway, across from the Grand Californian entrance to the park, is another surprise, the well themed and fun to ride Grizzly River Run raft attraction.

Note the detail in this queue area
Note the detail in this queue area

While this thing was being constructed I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about it from inside the company. Some of the items did turn out to be true - such as the rafts being a tight fit with more riders squeezed into each one (eight) than originally planned (six). (You will find them a hard fit if all eight seats are used.) But it seems that many concerns I'd heard from insiders seem to have been resolved as the ride was completed - in particular with the detail of theming - making this a much better experience.


Normally I'm not a big fan of raft rides - they tend to soak you to the bone for the most part, and you stare at cement walls most of the way around the canals. Big whoop. But this one breaks that mold, as it has great rockwork throughout the attraction, complete with a geyser area that rumbles and throws off steam. All throughout the detailing is at the same level of Big Thunder Railroad at adjacent Disneyland. (Complete with a patch of strawberries planted on the bear's nose). There are also themed displays in the waiting queue - of a raft expedition office for example - and the raft themselves look like they have equipment and backpacks hung on them.

The ride itself benefits from some new techniques - both in spinning the raft around a lot and in the use of two drops, one 14-feet high, the other 22. Be warned, you will get very wet - even when the ride is run in a less soaking "winter" mode. In some parts of the ride track, like the wooden ramp up to the top, there are also leaking pipes squirting you with water, and there are lots of bumps and smaller drops that scoop up water into the raft. In a very thoughtful move, the park has provided nearby lockers at the entry (for a fee) to store your cameras and other items that may get wet - you also need to be aware that the tight fit in the rafts will not allow you to bring much more than just yourself onboard.

One thing I hope they do not do here is put in the squirting coin-op guns where ride observers can aim at the rafts going by. I've heard nothing but complaints from folks who get attacked in Animal Kingdom's version of this ride about this.

Keep in mind that capacity could be an issue with this ride as the year wears on, due to the amount of rafts available for use. In Orlando they had severe problems with the units breaking down, and at one point I was told they only had one third of the fleet useable due to their falling apart (due to quality issues with their construction I understand). Hopefully they have more durable rafts used here.

Exiting this attraction after you visit the Rushin' River Outfitters shop (sort of like an expensive Eddie Bauer store) puts you back on the path to Condor Flats, and pretty much completes the tour of the park.

A few thoughts on other things related to both the park and the resort expansion...

You've all been enduring this long trip report, so I'll try to keep the ending section short for you.

Unlike Disneyland, where to save some money some attractions are opening late or closing early, DCA will have all attractions operating from open to close as much as possible. They are painfully aware of the limited capacity they have.

Food is very expensive in the new park - and apparently may even go higher as some of the now closed locations come on board. The variety offered is more extensive than Disneyland currently offers - but they really don't have the inexpensive side items that some people like instead of full meals.

I ate at (over the course of three visits as this series was being written) the Soap Opera Bistro, Taste Pilots Grill, the Mondavi Deli, and the Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill. The bistro is very expensive - and the food quality is good (not dynamite) - but you have to take into consideration this higher price gets you the improv entertainment. The price points I saw do seem to place it out of most families price range though.

The Taste Pilots Grill is very greasy comfort food, such as chili burgers and onion rings. Most everything on the menu starts at $8 - steep in my humble opinion for a burger joint. Taste is what you expect of it, portions are not huge.

Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill is fast food Mexican - the taco plates are very small, and the nachos are kind of skimpy on the toppings. Prices run about $6 and $7 dollars for each item - but I left hungry, unlike Disneyland's old Casa Mexicana.

The Mondavi Deli is expensive (priced like your local premium market, such as Bristol Farms or Gelson's) but the quality is much higher than anywhere else in the park for a walk up operation. Careful sharing of selected items may work well here for families that want something a step up, but can't afford the Wolfgang Puck Avalon Cove.

Briefly, Sam Andreas Shakes in the farm area is just soft serve in a cup with toppings for about five bucks, and the Baker's Field Bakery is a hit or miss, depending on the service you get. Sadly, this is the one time I got a bad CM helping me - her attitude in trying to figure out the coffee order I had placed was completely unwarranted. Hopefully she will come up to the fine standard most of the CMs at the park seem to have. Several popcorn carts throughout the park also serve up freshly made caramel corn - I liked the greasy stuff but it's priced at a very high $4.50 a serving.

Speaking of CMs - I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and variety of costuming at the park for all of them. As you may have known from past updates, there had been some debate at the company about this park even having any costuming at all, an important part (to me at least) of the detail that constitutes a Disney-quality park. All of the stuff seen was just great design-wise - from the theater ushers at the Hyperion to the Ranger outfits at the Redwood play area. My hats off to the people at the company who fought for this detail.

Downtown Disney (the adjacent mall) is pretty, but really not very welcoming for visitors on a budget. The two cheapest dining locations, Rainforest Cafe and ESPN Zone, start at price levels above the Plaza Inn-type of locations at Disneyland and go up from there. Lines seem to form at the three cheapest food stands - Wetzel's Pretzels, Häagen-Dazs, and Jazz Kitchen's outside service window. If I were running Downtown Disney I would look into one or two other inexpensive dining alternatives there. The shops are nice - but for every shop of one type, there seems to be another missing - i.e. they have a bookstore, but where's the music / video shop?

Parking will be a disaster this year, and probably will remain so all the way to next year. Just with regular weekend traffic alone they are now filling the structure and adjacent lots, and spilling over to the convention center. As the convention center finally opens up its renovated halls, they expect to house larger events on a more frequent basis - which will freeze out Disney's use of the lots. My suggestion is that if you want to get a space, you arrive before park opening, as any time from noon on, chances are you may have to drive around a lot to locate a space and you may still have a large tramless commute into the resort on top of that.

In closing...

California Adventure, as it stands now is simply a poor value for the consumer. It has dramatically lowered the bar for the quality we normally expect from a Disney park in terms of the variety and quantity of attractions, which face it, is what people do actually purchase their tickets for. It is a plush shopping and dining extravaganza that reflects the current mindset of Michael Eisner and Paul Pressler. However, one has to ask how they could expect to engender any return visits while the park is in its current state (that is, with so little to do from an attracttion standpoint). You can (with a bit of effort) hit almost everything they have to offer in less than a day.

I keep hearing over and over again from Disney's publicity honchos and people who designed California Adventure that they were NOT trying to duplicate Disneyland, they just wanted to compliment it. This is supposed to explain how the attractions are different and why there are not as many of them.

Well, if they didn't want comparisons to Disneyland, quite frankly they should NOT have priced it equally, which does invite exactly that. Unlike Orlando, where most people spend a week visiting the resort complex, and they purchase multi day park hoppers, the foreseeable market for the Disneyland Resort complex will still be a large base of locals who will purchase single day tickets, no matter how much they increase the outside visitor base.

By opening a park that has few things to do, and on top of that a few copied from other parks, and many of them questionable as to repeat viewings for visitors, they really seem to have thumbed their nose and said "Hey, it's Disney, you'll come anyway." The true test of this park starts on February 8th when the doors open to the public - they alone will determine from then on what really works here, and what does not.

Keep in mind that Animal Kingdom in Orlando faced a very similar mix of problems, and is now suffering attendance drops (of 8% I understand). Looking at the story behind the two parks, I see very many of the same things going on, what with budget reductions and what appears to be some bad judgment calls from Eisner, et al.

As Mouse Tales' David Koenig mentioned in one of his articles, DCA will probably get a lot of money spent on it in order to fix it should there be major problems - Eisner's track record has been pretty clear on this in the past, although he seems to have lost interest in Animal Kingdom.

One bit of info that has come to light indicates what the annual passholders have to look forward to in the next year - it appears that they will stop selling the single park Disneyland only annual passes in the near future. That's what they do in Florida - and it will be a fast way to jack up the income from the sales.

That's one way to insure visitors I guess.

DCA summary...

Attraction home runs - Soarin' over California (IMAX ride film), Grizzly River Run (raft ride), Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, Animation exhibit

Show worth watching - Get A Grip, (we'll have to see later if the new Hyperion show is worthwhile)

Quality area detailing - Hollywood Pictures backlot and the raft ride/Redwood play areas

Merchandise - The selection is impressive and buyers seem responsive to consumers

Dining - Bring lots and lots, and then even more money

Disappointments - Superstar Limo, the Paradise Pier area, Bountiful Valley Farm area, the parade, lack of lower priced dining alternatives

Re-runs if you've been to Orlando - It's Tough to Be a Bug and Muppet 3-D movies, Animation exhibit's Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite movie

Attractions that simply aren't - Tortilla making, bread baking, winery movie

Like the series title says, half park, full price. They'd better be ready for lots of complaints and a lack of return visits.

How would I have introduced DCA as it currently stands if I were in charge? I would have still offered the regular current price ticket of $43 to either park if you only wanted to enter into one.

But I also would have offered a $20 add on ticket - good either the same day or next - for DCA. By offering this kind of add on pricing, it would let the consumer know the company was very aware that the park is not a comparable value to Disneyland - and make it a great package for them. I would then, as attractions were added, up the price of that add-on ticket over the years until finally both parks gave (via surveys) what the consumer thought was a comparable value.

What the future holds... and the third park...

For California Adventure itself, expect the addition of Armageddon and Tower of Terror attractions on an accelerated basis (you can hear them moving dirt now behind the wall for Armageddon as a matter of fact). They also want another hotel in the Timon lot. At the panel discussion held for the DCA merchandise event, they also mentioned that the new Grand Californian hotel, and adjacent mall could be expanded out, and had planned for it.

Disneyland itself may probably only have a new nighttime parade this year, and the Haunted Mansion holiday makeover. Pooh and Buzz Lightyear may arrive in the next two years. All the company focus in the near future will be on DCA and then the Hong Kong Magic Kingdom.

Now about that third park - here are the rumors I've heard:

Expect many of the Tokyo Seas attractions to arrive here in one way shape or form for this park. (After all, the expensive part - developing and first building them - already had the bill footed by the Oriental Land Co.)

Here's what's so intriguing - Disney is fascinated by the Sea World Discovery Cove model, which for them would mean pretty much an appointment only limited admission park with a $300 (or more) per day premium price tag. If the economy holds - and DCA proves that people will pay Disneyland admission pricing for essentially what is high end dining and shopping - expect them to begin this project within five years. A water park and adjacent hotel looking into the complex will also be part of that package.

Now do you understand why Disney told the city of Anaheim they didn't expect a major impact on area traffic if they go ahead with the third park?

A final thought...

California Adventure simply was built too soon in my humble opinion. If the project had been delayed until after the Tokyo Seas park had opened, we could have had a shot at many of the Seas park quality concepts and dynamite attractions right across from Disneyland in what could have been a park that would justify the same admission pricing. Then later the DCA stripped down experience wouldn't have been so out of place in the strawberry field a few blocks away with a lower priced lodging solution. By locating and pricing this new park the way they did, you have to compare it to the original park, and most people will be doing that no matter how many times you say it, sorry Barry.

Paul Pressler, despite his limited vision, will go down in company history as the guy who got the project done, after years of it not happening. For that Eisner holds him dear, he sadly has his brownie points already. Too bad he wasn't the right man for the job, and that his boss appears to have somewhat lost his touch. The folks at Imagineering labored mightily under some very restricted circumstances to do what they could under this leadership, and they should be commended for trying.

With this series, I didn't set out to tell you if you should, or should not make a visit. That's for you to decide. Hopefully there is enough observation and information offered via these reports that will assist you in making that decision.

Readers respond to this series - read what they have to say

Part four


Part One - Entering the park and the Hollywood Backlot area

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

Part Three - Paradise Pier carnival area

Readers Respond

More Readers Respond!


Take a photo tour of the park

Take a photo tour of the Grand Californian hotel



Theme: San Francisco

Show: Golden Dreams California history film

Shop: Artisan's Workplace [will NOT open with the park]


Theme: Sierra Nevada mountains

Rides & Attractions: Grizzly River Run rapids ride, Redwood Creek Challenge Trail play area

Show: Campfire area for storytelling and small shows

Shop: Rushin' River Outfitters

Hotel: Grand Californian

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