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Two candles, no cake – Disney's California Adventure turns 2

Tuesday, February 11, 2003
by Alex Stroup; Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix also contributed

One year ago, during a character-filled, confetti-covered first anniversary ceremony, Disneyland Resort President Cynthia Harriss and Imagineer Barry Braverman announced two new additions to DCA — A Bug's Land and Tower of Terror. This year, cast members did not even receive an anniversary button, a common gift for Disneyland cast members.

While a second anniversary is not the type of milestone that requires new parades, VIP speeches, and the giving away of new cars, cast members and regular visitors thought it odd that the day was allowed to pass without acknowledgment.

So although Disney has decided to let this date pass unceremoniously, we think that anniversaries are good opportunities to reflect on the years gone by, as well as the years to come.

And an interesting two years they have been.

Our story so far…

The park had been the subject of considerable pre-opening criticism in the online Disney community (including from this Web site), but DCA's troubles became national news on opening day, when the anticipated crowds failed to materialize. In fact, once the hordes of media guests departed, the park was nearly deserted. This trend would repeat throughout the following days and weeks.

Disney officials initially had a number of reasons for the low attendance: The weather was too cold, or too wet. Just wait until President's Day, or Spring Break, or summer, or Christmas.

Next came the finger pointing: “The park isn't being marketed well.” “People don't understand the theme.” “The media is being too harsh.” “The entire economy is slowing."

Then came September 11, and the entire travel and tourism industry went into a tailspin, from which it is only now beginning to recover.

Finally, Disney management stopped looking towards the next big opportunity, and the park's lackluster performance was explained away by the “all theme parks start slow and build” theory previously used to defend Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, Disneyland Paris, and Disney's Animal Kingdom — and the same excuse that was later discredited by the runaway success of the new Tokyo DisneySea.

It would be hard to believe if you only read about DCA on the Internet, but most people who visit California Adventure do enjoy themselves… just not enough to create good word-of-mouth for the park. Visitors cite the same concerns over and over again — the California theme is not very appealing, the park offers little for families and children, the rides and entertainment are, with few exceptions, nothing special, and the park costs too much.

Disney has put a great deal of effort into addressing these concerns, by creating new attractions for children, revamping the park-wide entertainment lineup, and by running frequent promotions designed to get people through the turnstiles. While park executives appear to understand that DCA needs a lot of help, are the changes addressing the underlying issues?

Theme

The park's “California” theme immediately caused many to scratch their heads. While the theme might make sense for tourists from out of the region, many wondered how attractive it would be to those living in California — or even to those simply living near California. Just about everybody in California is within a half-day drive of every landmark highlighted in the park. California is a big state, but one had to wonder if it was so big that seeing an imitation Golden Gate Bridge was much of an attraction compared to driving a handful of hours and seeing the original.

While nobody can say with certainty how much the theme affected the park's performance — though surely Disney's marketing research people have some interesting reports — it is pretty clear that people weren't flying in from Japan or the East Coast to experience this celebration of the Golden State. Nor did locals rush in to see a re–creation of a Hollywood that is only 30 minutes (or five hours in traffic) away. “Come see our Golden Gate Bridge; it's hours closer than the real one,” isn't the most effective marketing hook.

Although Disney has not announced an actual change in the park's theme — a change so drastic that it probably could not happen in the current penny-pinching Disney culture — the last two years have seen a slow dilution of the California theme, particularly noticeable in the Hollywood District and the Bountiful Valley area.

The Hollywood District opened with two attractions that were “about” Hollywood (the Animation Building and Superstar Limo) and two (the Hyperion Theater and Muppets 3-D) that were on-theme only in that they were entertainment: the product of Hollywood. The shows in the Hyperion Theater (Steps in Time, Blast!, and now Aladdin) were never California-themed, and the current show is more likely to highlight New York City (in its aspirations for Broadway) than celebrate a studio backlot.

The L.A.-themed Superstar Limo was an immediate flop, and has been closed for over a year. The ride is now expected to reopen in May, but that is less an affirmation of the theme, than a recognition that something has to be done with the space. Current talk is that the ride will close again after Labor Day and, perhaps, be reworked into a Monsters Inc. ride — a further dilution of the Hollywood theme.

Blue-sky rumors of possible Little Mermaid and Buzz Lightyear dark rides, operating on different levels of the same show building behind the California Screamin' roller coaster, seem to indicate that the California theme may continue to exist in the park's name only.

Other changes in Hollywood have also weakened the theme. Cashing in on its broadcast success, a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire attraction was quickly put in place, although it really has nothing to do with Hollywood, or even California. The filmmaking-themed, non-character show Lights, Camera, Chaos was quickly replaced by a more kid-friendly, and character-filled Goofy's Beach Party Bash.

Bountiful Valley Farm is now just a shadow of its former self — and that was just a shadow of a real attraction — as most of its space has been given over to create an expansive entrance to the new A Bug's Land area. An area with no California element unless you really stretch things and say “California has bugs.” This is undoubtedly true, but meaningless.

Throughout the park, numerous themed restaurants have been closed with little replacement. ABC Soap Opera Bistro closed last year and will be replaced with a children's show this spring. The very-California Wolfgang Puck walked away from his Avalon Cove restaurant as soon as possible, and Mondavi also escaped low sales and high maintenance costs by turning its restaurant over to Disney control.


In addition to all its other problems, Mondavi couldn't keep the grapes alive.
Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

DCA's highly themed shops have lost their individuality, becoming cookie-cutter stores offering a narrow range of similar merchandise. EngineEars Toys initially offered a large selection of trains and models, while Treasures in Paradise was all about the carousel horses and related carnival themes. Today, both stores are princess emporiums filled with toys and plush. Off the Page, which opened as a gallery store adjacent to the Animation Building, now devotes half its space to plush and toys from the latest Disney movie. Throughout the merchandise assortment, DCA icons were quickly replaced with Disneyland Resort logos, as the merchants realized that the DCA name wasn't enough to sell $25 T-shirts.

Now, these changes aren't necessarily a bad thing. The guest experience should ultimately be more important than maintaining a park-wide — or even area-wide — theme. Although most of the changes over the last two years have diluted the park's theme, overall the park of today is an improvement over opening day.

Children should not play on, in, or around DCA

As this column was being edited, an episode of The Simpsons was playing in the background. The cartoon family was walking through the halls of a prison. Looking nervously around, Marge says, "This doesn't look like a good place to bring children." To which Lisa replies, "At least it's not Disney's California Adventure."

Satire, to be sure, but DCA's child-unfriendly reputation has plagued the park since opening day. In designing the park, Imagineers seemed to forget Walt's ideal of a Disney park as a place for the whole family to have fun… together. There were very few attractions for the youngest children to enjoy — and most of them, like the water play areas, were not designed for older children or parents to enjoy as well.

This is an area that has received extensive attention from Disney since the park's opening, but unlike the theme–related changes, things have not been for the better. Certainly, if you are a 4–year–old, there is now more for you to do at DCA. Unfortunately, if you are accompanying a 4–year–old (or if you have no children), most of the new offerings are mind-numbing at worst and barely tolerable at best.

The first wave of child-friendly changes were mostly through the addition of more characters in the park (a good thing) and more character-based shows (a bad thing, it turns out). Under new Entertainment chief Anne Hamburger, DCA was “blessed” with an amazing number of character-based shows for children.

Unfortunately, these shows truly are for children; adults need only cringe at lame dialogue, stultifying stories, and thinly veiled commercials — could the Lilo & Stitch show have pushed Pizza Oom Mow Mow with any less subtlety? Crass commercialism and character shows can be combined to good effect (see the new Princess Cavalcade in Disneyland), but they cannot continue to completely bore the adults in the audience. If you are without children, at least you can walk away, but parents risk being stuck there because of an entertained 3-year-old.

Of course, the biggest child-related change to DCA is the new A Bug's Land area. Heavily (and well-) themed, this area tries to be DCA's Toontown. As with the new shows, however, the new rides lack adult-level entertainment. Heimlich's Chew Chew Train is amusing, but also so short that it seems like a few extra cars on the train and it would loop around on itself. Tuck & Roll's bumper cars are tamer than anything most 4-year-olds will already have experienced at the local county fair, yet they still have height requirements. Flik's Flyers is a tamer implementation of the amusement park standard already found in Paradise Pier's Golden Zephyr; and who would have thought tamer was even possible?


A Bug's Land and the upcoming Tower of Terror were quickly given the go-ahead when the crowds never came. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

It's fine for Disney to design the occasional attraction that is going to appeal to only a select portion of park guests, but management needs to be very careful to make sure that everything in the park is not a point of segregation. Whether it be something that only older children and adults can enjoy (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the upcoming Tower of Terror), or something that only the youngest children can go for (Flik's Flyers, and the new Playhouse Disney), many of DCA's current and future attractions leave someone behind, or bored to tears.

Superstar Limo probably had the greatest potential for bringing everybody together on one attraction — but for various reasons ended up being one of the worst rides to ever spring forth from the minds of Imagineers. Hopefully, some day someone will develop a great dark ride for this location.

Continues on page 2.

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