Disney's California adventure

February 8, 2011

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Disneyland. When I was a child my family would visit the park at least once a year, and to this day I still get butterflies every time I see the Matterhorn from the I-5 freeway.

Yes, the Matterhorn. A 15-story, snow-capped mountain just a few hundred yards from the freeway. Walt Disney recreated the Swiss peak in 1959 not because he wanted to build the world's first steel roller coaster, but because he wanted a genuine bobsled ride to carry guests down from a majestic peak to an icy alpine lake below.

This is what has made Disneyland, and the Disney brand, so special: the design, the experience, the storytelling. And that’s why it was so unfortunate when the company unveiled one of its most glaring mistakes right across the turnstiles from Walt's original Magic Kingdom.

Disney California Adventure opened ten years ago today on the site of a former parking lot. Through decades of planning to turn Disneyland into a multi-day destination like Walt Disney World in Florida, the company explored several design options, including a West Coast version of Florida's Epcot Center (called WestCOT) and a lavish water-themed park. (This was later modified and built as Tokyo Disney Sea in Japan.)

They ultimately settled on "California" as a theme, celebrating the richness and heritage of the Golden State with several themed "lands," including Paradise Pier and Hollywood Pictures Backlot.

But simply recreating smaller versions of existing landmarks wasn’t enough, especially when the park is right here in the Golden State. (Why visit the real Hollywood just 45 minutes away when you can visit Disney's version? Or how about Disney’s version of a seaside park less than 15 miles from the Pacific?) “California” by itself wasn’t an idea that could easily evolve — it needed something more, something that guests couldn’t experience anywhere else. They left the Disney out.

The park didn’t incorporate the beloved characters into its attractions, nor did it include the lush attention to detail that you expect from a Disney park. With fewer attractions but the same admission price as Disneyland, it was apparent to guests that they weren’t getting the same value. The park was so poorly designed that when John Hench, one of Disneyland's original designers and engineers, first visited the park he reportedly stated, "I liked it better as a parking lot."

Recognizing their mistakes, in 2007 the company announced a multi-year, $1.1 billion renovation and expansion of the park to infuse more "Disney" into the park... literally. They decided to integrate the company's founder into the main storyline and recreate California the way Walt saw it when he first arrived in the early 1900s.

Disney California Adventure Construction

Today, the park is two years into the renovation and big changes can already be seen and heard. Long gone are the cheap stucco façades and industrial pipe railings, replaced with intricate molding and detailed iron work. Classic Disney characters — some long forgotten — have been brought back to enliven otherwise ordinary, off-the-shelf attractions. New Victorian-style building fronts covered in twinkling lights and period-specific music have brought to life an otherwise bland Paradise Pier. At the park entrance, the turnstiles have been bulldozed to help make way for Buena Vista Street, a slice of 1920s Los Angeles with its clanging Red Car trolleys, brick-lined streets, and Spanish and Streamline Moderne architecture.

Never before has the company rebuilt one of its parks while still in operation. It’s such a fascinating process that when I visit the parks I find myself glancing first at the Matterhorn and the gleaming white spires of Space Mountain — but quickly make a detour into the maze of walls and through the gates of California Adventure to see what progress has been made. With bulldozers, cranes and mounds of earth in plain sight, and with vast sections of the park behind 8-foot high construction walls, this is uncharted territory for Disney. But I think it has the makings for a great story.

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