Happy 20th Anniversary Disney California Adventure Park

by Lisa Stiglic, contributing writer
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Earlier this month, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, and Downtown Disney District celebrated milestone anniversaries—20 years. Now, it's Disney California Adventure Park's turn. On February 8, 2001, Disneyland Resort opened its gates to the second Disney Anaheim theme park—Disney California Adventure Park. As an original cast member, I find it hard to fathom it's already been two decades since we welcomed guests into the new location. It really does seem like yesterday.

DEVELOPMENT

The idea for a second West Coast theme park had been floating around Disney since the 1970s after the opening of Walt Disney World. Using Disneyland as a base, ideas were introduced for an onsite secondary theme park, as well as capitalizing on nearby local locations. It wasn't until newly-minted CEO Michael Eisner and COO Frank Wells did any ideas come to fruition. A DisneySeas idea immediately came to mind, but the proposal fell through, and a secondary idea, a proposed Westcot project, took on a new life. This concept was based on Epcot in Walt Disney World, but due to the steep cost of almost $3 billion, and the financial flop of Disneyland Paris, Westcot was grounded. After a weekend of brainstorming, a California-themed park idea won the consensus.

FIRST YEAR

As a new cast member to the Disneyland Resort, it really was a magical time. Setting up a Disney theme park was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, filled with team-building, location set-ups, and working through the bumps to get everything perfect for opening day. The excitement was contagious. But, the euphoria of the opening of a new park began to wane quickly.

The first-week crowds diminished, leaving a trickle of guests visiting each day. The complaints started rolling in. "Where were the characters?", "There's nothing for kids to do!" "Why would I visit a faux Hollywood in a theme park when I can drive an hour and be in Hollywood?" Changes were immediate. Several foods, attractions, and merchandise locations were either on limited hours or closed completely. Robert Mondavi and Wolfgang Puck parted ways with Disney due to the low attendance. Suddenly, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy were in the park, dressed in tourist attire. They were on "vacation" in California! Clever. The Resort tried lowering ticket prices for the new park (there wasn't a hopper pass available yet), then someone thought of bringing in an old favorite. By mid-summer, the familiar strains of "Baroque Hoedown" filled the air as Disney's Electrical Parade returned to the West Coast. Who Wants to be a Millionaire- Just Play It!, joined Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Just when it seemed Disney California Adventure Park had turned a corner, tragedy struck. September 11, 2001. The aftermath of 9-11 led to cast member layoffs and downsizing management teams. The outlook for a new year was dismal.

FIRST DECADE

But, 2002 turned out to be positive for the fledgling theme park, with the help of some buggy critters. A Bug's Land opened that summer, adding the fifth district to the theme park after Entry/Sunshine Plaza, Golden State, Paradise Pier, and Hollywood Pictures Backlot. The land, based on Pixar's A Bug's Life, was buzzing with kid-sized activities and attractions. (The section remained a fan favorite until its closure in 2018, to make way for Avengers Campus.) In 2003, Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular debuted at the Hyperion Theater, starting a 13-year run.

Flik's Flyers were one of the five attractions of A Bug's Land. After the land closed, Flik's Flyers were repurposed as Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind for Pixar Pier. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Over the course of the next few years, Disney added more crowd-pleasers, including The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (2004), and Monsters, Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! (2006). In 2007, Disney announced a $1 billion overhaul to expand and retheme parts of Disney California Adventure Park. As construction progressed, Paradise Pier welcomed Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the Toy Story gang with the new Toy Story Midway Mania! (2008). In the meantime, Golden Dreams, the short film showcasing California's history, went dark to make way for The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventures (2011). Also in 2009, the Sun Wheel lost the sun and added Mickey's face, as Paradise Pier began part of its transformation into a Victorian seaside amusement park. The last big alteration of the first decade was the loss of part of Bountiful Valley Farm. This agricultural section, which included an irrigation play station, closed down in September 2010 to make way for Cars Land. Construction walls went up the next day.

SECOND DECADE

The renovations continued into the second decade. In 2011, Mission Tortilla Factory shut its doors in Pacific Wharf. (Ghirardelli's Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop opened in this location the next year.) In the midst of construction, Paradise Pier welcomed what has become Disney California Adventure's biggest nighttime extravaganza—World of Color. Inspired by Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color television show from the 1960s, this $75 million installment consists of 1,200 musical fountains, pyrotechnics, lights, music and color, lots of colors. As the back section of the park added elements to attract more crowds, the front entrance saw the loss of perhaps, the most iconic feature of Disney California Adventure Park—the CALIFORNIA letters. Demolition was underway to Entry Plaza to make way for Buena Vista Street. The golden CALIFORNIA letters were dismantled and shipped up north to Cal Expo in Sacramento, where they remain today.

Finally, in June of 2012, Disney California Adventure's front gates opened to a brand new look. Buena Vista Street, inspired by Walt and Roy Disney's early years in Los Angeles, offered new shops, a fine-dining experience (Carthay Circle), and even a Starbucks (Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe). But the biggest draw was Cars Land, a straight-from-the-movie representation of Radiator Springs. Three new attractions debuted, including Radiator Springs Racers, a fast-paced racing attraction throughout Ornament Valley a definite first-place winner for Disney California Adventure Park.

Race cars fly over the race track on Radiator Springs Racers, reaching a speed of up to 40 mph. Photo by Lisa Stiglic.

The park remained at status quo over the next couple of years, other than Kermit and the rest of the Muppets bade farewell to Hollywood to explore parts unknown. Hollywood Land lost a frog, but gained a snowman. In 2015, Frozen fever took over the land with meet-n-greets, and a sing-along in the newly-named Crown Jewel Theater. Elsa's and Anna's popularity swelled so much that a stage version of the movie was slated to debut in Hyperion Theater. In January 2016, almost to the date of the premiere 13 years earlier, Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular performed its last show. Frozen– Live at the Hyperion stepped on stage for its first presentation five months later.

Meanwhile, in theaters, the Marvel Cinematic Universal had a super hold on moviegoers. So, what better way to capitalize on the popularity than bringing the heroes to Disney California Adventure? (During 2015-2016, Disneyland Park hosted Super Hero HQ, so Marvel was already a presence on property.) Summer of 2017 was declared "Summer of Heroes" with a kick-off unveiling Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!, a retheming of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Superheroes everywhere! 2018 was the year of Pixar. Summer saw Paradise Pier transform into Pixar Pier, and on a sad note, guests said farewell to A Bug's Land which scurried away to make room for a Marvel expansion—Avengers Campus.

The new district was scheduled to open in 2020, but as we all know, Disneyland Resort closed its gates to the public on March 14, 2020, due to the world-wide pandemic. At this time, the Resort remains shuttered.

Peter Quill, Gamora, and Groot discuss escape plans in front of Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!. The new attraction landed in summer of 2017. Photo by Lisa Stiglic.

CELEBRATION

Disney California Adventure Park's 20th anniversary is just a week away. Even though the park is currently open for shopping on Buena Vista Street and in Hollywood Land, it's certainly not what many of us hoped for as a celebration. But, Disneyland Resort will reopen. And, hopefully, with a little recognition for the theme park that through years of growing pains has solidified its place in Disney theme park destinations. Happy Birthday, DCA! You've earned it!

ORIGINAL

Just for fun, here are the initial lands and lines of businesses in each. Do you remember any of these originals? Which were your favorites?

Entry/Sunshine Plaza

  • Greetings From California
  • EnginEars Toys
  • Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream
  • Bakersfield Bakery
  • Disney's Eureka! A California Parade

Golden State (Six different areas)

Condor Flats

  • Fly N Buy
  • Taste Pilots' Grill
  • Soarin' Over California

Grizzly Peak Recreation Area

  • Rushin' River Outfitters
  • Grizzly River Run
  • Redwood Creek Challenge Trail

The Bay Area

  • Golden Dreams

Pacific Wharf

  • Pacific Wharf Cafe
  • Cocina Cucomonga Mexican Grill
  • Lucky Fortune Cookery
  • Rita's Baja Blenders
  • Mission Tortilla Factory
  • Boudin Bakery Tour

Golden Vine Winery

  • Seasons of the Vine
  • Wine Country Market
  • The Vineyard Room

Bountiful Valley Farm

  • Santa Rosa Seed 'N Supply
  • Caterpillar Cart
  • Sam Andreas Shakes
  • Bountiful Valley Farmer's Market
  • It's Tough to be a Bug!

Paradise Pier

  • Treasures in Paradise
  • Pacific Ocean Photos
  • Point Mugu Tattoos/Man Hat 'N Tees/Sideshow Shirts
  • Dino Jack's Sunglass Shack
  • Souvenir 66
  • Avalon Cove by Wolfgang Puck and Cove Bar
  • Catch-a-Flave
  • Boardwalk Betsy's World Famous Strips, Dips 'N Chips
  • Malibu-ritos
  • PIzza Oom-Mow-Mow
  • Burger Invasion (McDonalds)
  • Corn Dog Castle
  • California Screamin'
  • King Triton's Carousel of the Sea
  • Games of the Boardwalk (Angels in the Outfield, Boardwalk Board, Cowhuenga Pass, Dolphin Derby, New Haul Fishery, San Joaquin Volley, Reboundo Beach, Shore Shot)
  • Sun Wheel
  • Orange Stinger
  • S.S. Rustworthy
  • Jumpin' Jellyfish
  • Mulholland Madness
  • Golden Zephyr

Hollywood Pictures Backlot

  • Gone Hollywood
  • Off the Page
  • ABC Soaplink
  • Rizzo's Prop and Pawn Shop
  • Award Wieners
  • ABC Soap Opera Bistro
  • Schmoozies!
  • Fairfax Market
  • Between Takes
  • Ice Cold Refreshments
  • Hollywood and Dine
  • MuppetVision 3D
  • SuperStar Limo
  • Disney's Animation Building
  • Hollywood Backlot Stage
  • Hyperion Theater- Steps in Time

 

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    I love the changes to DCA except for the preponderance of Marvel crap which isnít Disney in my book. Having said that Iím glad I visited the park in Ď04, Ď06 & Ď07 to see how it was. The park definitely had a certain charm in those days, but what qualified as ďattractionsĒ was laughable. Iím a big soap fan so Iím sure I would have loved Soap Opera Bistro, but alas, it was gone by the end of 2004. Except for Superstar Limo, I believe all the original attractions were still there at the time of my first visit.

  2. By BeckyinOR

    I loved Soap Opera Bistro!! Even though I don't watch soaps. The actors at the restaurant were so entertaining!
    I miss ToT theming, but after I tried GoG I admit I really enjoyed the new ride.
    I miss the tortilla factory but I can see that it wasn't a big draw. I also greatly miss the Golden Dreams movie. It was really well done. But again, not theme park draw, I know. Replacing it with Little Mermaid though?
    I do have many photos of friends and I posing with the big CALIFORNIA letters out front. Still kind of bitter about that change.
    Radiator Springs/Cars Land area is the best new addition. I love hanging out there and enjoying the theming and music.
    The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail remains a hidden gem.
    I like DCA a lot but I do miss the early days when it wasn't crowded. It was a nice adult place to just hang out. Now (I mean, not NOW, but before) it is just too crowded to relax like we once could. Too bad about that but I understand the need for change.

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