Disney California Adventure Overhaul Retrospective: From Burger Invasion to Buena Vista Street

Disney California Adventure has been the most troubled theme park ever built by Disney. The park first opened in 2001 and was immediately the subject of controversy and scorn amongst fans who felt that it was cynical and tacky. Some even proclaimed that the original Disney’s California Adventure was inferior to the parking lot that it replaced. This post features photos of Disney California Adventure as it was transformed from cheap off-the-shelf attractions and corny SoCal puns to a beautiful companion park to Disneyland. Join us as we showcase the changes to Sunshine Plaza, Paradise Pier, and the rest of Disney California Adventure, plus the additions of Cars Land, Buena Vista Street, and attractions and entertainment such as World of Color, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, and Toy Story Midway Mania.

Never has a Disney theme park faced such turmoil upon its opening, and never has a Disney theme park so radically changed over the course of a decade as Disney California Adventure has between 2002 and 2012. Even its name has changed, from the possessive Disney’s California Adventure to simply Disney California Adventure; an almost symbolic change to cleanse the palate of anything “2001” about the park. In places, Disney California Adventure is wholly different than it was in 2001, and the infusion of over 1.5 billion dollars into the struggling park has completely altered its course and now many opening day attractions are extinct and have entered “Yesterland.” The park that opened as a poorly organized concrete jungle with more puns than quality attractions has done a complete 180 as its grand reopening on June 15, 2012 quickly approaches. While some work still remains to be done (see Goofy’s Sky School and Maliboomer Park), I’m confident that over time Disney California Adventure will see the remaining TLC it needs and will open on June 15, 2012 as Disney’s third strongest park in the United States.

We’re really excited about all of the changes, as we’ve loved the ‘black sheep’ of the Disney theme park pantheon since we first visited in 2010, and it has been a lot of fun watching it evolve since then. Given all of the changes that have occurred since Disney first announced its massive “expansion” project in 2007, we thought it would be fun to look back at all of the expansion and changes made to Disney California Adventure in the last few years (and in some cases, beyond…I mean who could pass up a chance to share some Superstar Limo photos?!). We hope you enjoy this look back at the Disney California Adventure that once was!

For a view of the Disney California Adventure that “is” and will be, check out our Disney California Adventure Grand Reopening page! We’ll be there for all of the Grand Reopening festivities!

Since my personal photos of Disney California Adventure only date back to 2010, I couldn’t do this retrospective without the help of many other dedicated photographers who have documented Disney California Adventure since its opening in 2001. You can find more of their gorgeous photos by clicking on each of the photos here to go to their photo pages, or by checking out the photo credits on the last page of this post. To see who took a particular photo, hover your cursor over the photo–if the photo doesn’t link to a Flickr page it’s mine (with the exception of the watermarked “Dateline Disneyland” photos). A huge thanks to those photographers who graciously allowed me to use their photos for this post. It wouldn’t have been possible without them–please view their wonderful Disney-filled photo streams!

I plan to continue adding to this post over the next several days, so if YOU have any photos you think would enhance this post, please email me at tom@disneytouristblog.com or leave a note in the comments.

For each area of the park that has seen substantial changes, we showcase the rough timeline of the change. Let’s start out at the former entrance to the park, Sunshine Plaza!

Park Entrance:

Unless you waited until the wee hours of the night, it was difficult to ever take a clean photo of these CALIFORNIA letters. Guests loved them, as they were a great photo op. Unfortunately, they didn’t fit with the theming of the new park entrance, so they had to go. The beautiful California tile mosaic also understandably had to go, since it also didn’t fit the new theme. Part of me wishes these two elements of the park entrance would have been repurposed elsewhere in Disney California Adventure, but they would have been a constant reminder of the ugly entrance that once was, so perhaps it’s better that they went ‘extinct.’


DCA Entrance Right Side View HDR Merge 2

Disney's California Adventure - Anaheim (California USA)

surfing mural

California Adventure Entrance Construction

California Adventure Entrance Construction

California Adventure Entrance Construction

california adventure

The new Pan Pacific-inspired Disney California Adventure turnstiles have an understated elegance to them. They do pretty closely resemble the Pan Pacific-inspired entrance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, but that does not take away from their beauty. It’s also great have the top of Carthay Circle Theatre peak up above the turnstiles, as if foreshadowing the beauty that awaits down Buena Vista Street. Disney has since donated the CALIFORNIA letters to the Cal Expo in Sacramento, giving them new life outside of Disneyland Resort.

It’s just the start of our tour, though, so let’s explore the changes inside the park! You can navigate to specific lands and changes via the links below, or take the full tour by simply clicking the numbers below!

Park Entrance
Sunshine Plaza
Paradise Pier – Part 1
Paradise Pier – Part 2
Golden State
Hollywood Pictures Backlot
Parades & Events
Cars Land Construction

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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37 Responses to “Disney California Adventure Overhaul Retrospective: From Burger Invasion to Buena Vista Street”

  1. Jasmine says:

    As someone who hails from Los Angeles, California and who was there from the beginning of the evolution of DCA, I must say you did a great job with this project. You don’t sound like someone who’s been visiting the parks for only two years.

    You know something was wrong with DCA when KIDS didn’t even want to visit. That was the case with my family. As kids, whenever we would visit DLR, we would always go to DCA first and “get it over with.” As a kid, I didn’t like the park. My sister and cousin felt the same way. Something was definitely missing. We had felt like we were in some random park that happened to be across the way from Disneyland, which made it worse whenever we visited. We really didn’t like it. We would go and ride Soarin’ Over California, Mullholland Madness (now Goofy’s Sky School), and maybe Jumping Jellyfish. That’s pretty much it. After those three rides we would haul a** to Disneyland! It was like we were left with foster parents for months and we were finally being reunited with our real parents. That’s what it was like, whenever we left DCA and went to Disneyland.

    When it was announced the park would be getting a huge makeover, I couldn’t have been more happy. I kind of felt bad that I didn’t like Disneyand’s sister park. I wanted to like it but I just didn’t. It didn’t help that the legend of all theme parks sat right across from it. I’m glad it took only six years for TDA, WDC, the Imagineers, etc. to realize something needed to be done with this park. I’m beyond happy with the choices they made to reinvent California Adventure!

    I’ve got some memorabilia from the early days. I’ve got an opening day coin from 2001 and I still have an old, Big Mac Burger Invasion box. The design on the box is really cool and I’ve held onto it. I also have an old, McDonald’s french fry box from the time Disneyland used to sell McDonald’s fries in Frontierland (anyone remember that?!). The box looks pretty much exactly the same as a regular McDonald’s fry box but its got some images of classic Disneyland rides. Really cool.

    Sorry for the long post! I’m just so excited for the grand reopening, I, along with everyone else, have waited five years for this and I’m ready for it to open! Those five years flew by so quick and I know I’m going to be even more proud of my second home, the Disneyland Resort come June 15th. Great article, you did an amazing job, Tom! Hope your flight is a safe one when you come here to California and I hope you and Sarah enjoy yourselves at the new resort.

  2. Rachel says:

    Wow, I didn’t realize just how horrible this park was when it first opened. What were they thinking???

  3. Justin M says:

    Excellent article Tom! I enjoyed the last 45mins at work reading this and looking through the great pictures. I will have to reserve my final judgment on the expansion until I vist in June. I still think Epcot will remain my third favorite U.S. Disney Park though behind MK and DL. It will be hard for DCA to overtake Epcot in attendance as well.

  4. weepstah says:

    Fantastic post, thanks for putting this together. It’s really neat to see how things have changed at DCA since it’s inception.

  5. Amy says:

    I loved most of the things that were originally at DCA! I think I am the only one who is sad to see some changes…

    • Gerald says:

      I’m with you Amy!!!

      • Joyce says:

        Well, I found the early California Adventure plaza enchanting. I really did feel like I stepped back in time having been raised in Chula Vista, California in the 50’s and 60’s, then being transplanted to Eastern Oregon in the 1970’s.

        The sun icon was amazing and the sound of the water from the wave machine mixed with crystal clear Beach Boys songs blaring though out was like being in a time machine. I remember how immaculate the walkways were, and the short amount of time I had to linger there that lovely November afternoon in 2001–I will not forget. It made a huge impression.

        While the rest of the Disney parks were fun for the 3 generations of us that week, my favorite was the plaza at the California Adventure.

        Once a “California girl”…

  6. Phil says:

    There is a version of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree in the studios in Paris (called Cars Race Rally). When you are watching it looks for all the world like it is only suitable for children up to the age of about 4, but it is in reality very good fun and very silly. Don’t pass on it without giving it a try!

  7. Gerald says:

    Amy you are not the only one trust me! I was there in February of 2001 and am as sad as you to see all the changes. The original will always be special to me. Walking through the park hearing Beach Boys and other California based music while enjoying the history of California was great. God forbid that our kids might actually learn something while at a theme park. And personally I loved the fact that it was different from Disneyland. I always said it was more of an adult version of Disneyland that even served alcohol. Did it need updating including the expansion of Carsland? Of course! But it didn’t need the overly expensive revamp of the entire park or the change in theme. The new entrance and the new buildings in the formerly Sunshine Plaza actually seem boring to me. I’m willing to bet that a lot of what was removed like the California letters and Golden Gate Bridge are things the majority enjoyed the most. A big part of Disney vacations are picture taking spots and they took away three major picture spots in the revamping of the entrance alone. The revamp was clearly overkill. One of the biggest reasons given for the overhaul was the Park Hopper tickets. Most weren’t willing to pay the full price for CA as they were for Disneyland. Well when CA is only 67 acres of mostly unused space, and DL is 85 acres of packed rides and attractions, is it any wonder why?

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I understand and respect your attachment to Sunshine Plaza, but I far prefer BVS.

      At one point (before it opened), I might have agreed about the spending on Cars Land. However, after seeing attendance and reading mainstream media reviews, I disagree. Cars Land is already developing a reputation of its own. Like Wizarding World of Harry Potter, people will plan vacations around Cars Land, and tell friends they’re visiting “Disneyland and Cars Land,” without even knowing that Cars Land isn’t its own theme park. It’s already that popular, and word of mouth should be great on it.

      • Gerald says:

        I never said I had a problem with Cars Land at all. The park absolutely needed updating and expansion. There was also a lot of unused space that is now being used just like Disneyland’s history. But no one ever re-themed or completely made over the entire park of Disneyland. Like you say Cars Land alone is bringing people in so why the need for the total revamp? Nobody going for Cars Land is going to care about BVS. It has cost 3 – 4 times more to revamp than it did to build in the first place. Why take out rides like the Maliboomer and then do nothing with the space? I go quite often but I have friends and family who don’t and when they do go that was one ride they asked about when wondering why it was removed. If anything Cars Land would have fit perfectly into the 50′-60’s California feel and history theme the park had originally. I just personally think they went too far when Michael Eisner left. The powers that be hated the man even though he pretty much saved the company after Walt died. They couldn’t wait to change what was Eisner’s park. They just went too far in my opinion.

      • Gerald says:

        They even scrapped the Walt Disney Story in the Carthay Theatre which was the cornerstone of the revamp of Sunshine Plaza.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I LOVED reading this article. I had never been to DCA until September 2012, so I had no idea what it had changed from. While I agree to a limited extent that some of the original stuff could have been left and spruced up, overall I am SHOCKED at what the park used to be. No wonder no one ever went. Now it is amazing and my kids keep asking to go back to DLR instead of WDW!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      The original stuff is mostly cool from a nostalgic perspective. They definitely made the right decisions with the overhaul!

  9. Pete says:

    Kind of sad to see the re-theme, in a way…I understood the concept of relating everything to quintessential California (while bringing in all of the cookie-cutter types of rides that other parks had that Disney was lacking) but, I think the CA theme was lost on a large percentage of visitors to the park…from the prospective of staying true to an overall theme, the original park was spot on.

    Not really following how some of the re-theming ties together…Re-doing the Entrance to look more generic (like the Disney movie park in FL) is a big disappointment…Putting classic Disney on everything being re-themed doesn’t seem to tie anything together in the new park either…

    It seemed like DCA had been bringing on new attactions to draw visitors but, the Park’s theme wasn’t conducive to adding in Pixar themed attractions (which is what is reflective of Disney’s current sustained movie success)…I would like to see re-themes completely based around Pixar attractions (rather than trying to tie classic Disney into the new park)…

    Disneyland should be ‘classic’ Disney and DCA seems like it could be ‘current’ Disney themed (ie- Pixar)…this is already the direction they’re going (Bug’s Land, Car’s Land, Toy Story/Monster’s Inc. rides), I don’t understand why they’re not keeping this trend in mind in their re-theming, too.

    The DCA Park seems as confused (theme-wise) as ever…it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Staying true to the California theme didn’t pan out so if you’re going to spend money to get rid of the theme of the park, you should have an overall vision to unify things and be shooting towards matching attractions to that new theme…changing the Boardwalk theme (that made sense for a CA themed park) to generic classic Disney character themed rides, doesn’t seem to jive with the Pixar themed lands.

    I don’t know what the answer is. It seems like there is too much invested in CA themed attractions to sucessfully re-theme to something else. The Wharf area and Condor Flats/Grizzly areas are still tied to a CA theme and are separated by a re-themed boardwalk…the lands are all choppy theme-wise, now. Just seems like a mess…

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I don’t think the theme is necessarily more cohesive (if anything, it’s probably less), but overall, I think the park works much, much better. It’s a far higher quality environment.

  10. Mountain Sprite says:

    I went to DR on May 13th and was able to get on the Radiator Springs Racers. Disney got it right this time. I think this is one of the best rides in the park. The scenery is breathtaking and the live action fictures amazingly realistic. I don’t know how they did it but it was a great tribute to the movie. Downtown Radiator Springs is awesome at night with all the neon lights but it is still interesting during the day, however, night is still the best time to see & to ride the Racers. Mater’s Junkyard is cute for tiny tikes but an 8-year-old grandchild found it incredibly boring. Luigi’s Tire ride sounded fun in theory, but in reality it was a bust. I think the idea was for the tires to flow rapidly and seamlessly on the ground but they are cumbersome and slow. I hope they revamp this ride somehow. Still with these two less exciting rides I will still make a b-line for CDA first thing to ride the Racers. Grizzly Peak is a blast! But be forewarnd if you sit on the sides where you enter the “raft” you will get soaked. It’s now my favorite water ride at the the resort. Monster’s Inc, beats the limo ride hands down and also is an accurate depiction of the movie. It’s very cute. I just don’t understand why they buried it at the end of the street in Hollywood Land. It doesn’t have a noticeable entrance. If it weren’t for the park map I wouldn’t have know it was there. Hollywood Land could use some revamping with another ride to draw people there. Buena Vist Street is great. I love the nostalgic feel of it and the food and stores are inviting. I know it’s being compared to Main Street USA in DL, but it can’t compete with that because it is so short. Still it’s like walking back in time. The trolly is a fun way to save your feet if you are going to the Tower of Terror.

    That’s my opinion of CDA. I’m going again on June 3rd and intend to visit the pier section of the park.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks for sharing. Just so you know, Grizzly River Run’s rotation is entirely random, so whether you get soaked or not depends entirely on luck. Sometimes, you might stay completely dry. Other times, you may not have a dry spot on you after you get off the ride. Definitely put phones and any electronics in the (free) lockers before riding!

  11. Mountain Sprite says:

    Great blog!!

  12. Brittany says:

    Great article!! Although I have heard many people say they prefer the Sun Wheel to Mickey’s Fun Wheel, I stand by the change 100%. With all the changes on the pier that tell stories from the original Disney cartoons, the Mickey on the Fun Wheel is an obvious choice: it’s a larger than life image of the Mickey Mouse cartoons opening title! (This is especially obvious during the World of Color show, when that image is perfectly replicated on the wheel while the announcer says “Walt Disney Presents!…”)

    I think it’s brilliant :)

    Also, I agree that Screamin’ needs some new theming. After they took away the wave machine at the launch, the only theming left is the cast members saying “Surf’s Up, Screamers!” as you leave the boarding station. But I’ve heard rumors that they’ll be changing the theming in the next couple years, so stay tuned!!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      That’s a really great point about the Fun Wheel, and I hadn’t really thought about that. With that in mind, I think I can get behind the change.

      Thanks for the comment!

  13. Kevin says:

    Thanks for linking this old article on Facebook. Since we just experienced DCA for the first time a couple weeks ago, it’s quite interesting to see its pre-renovation history. I knew the added funds (~2x the original park cost) greatly enhanced the park, but these pictures show by just how much.

    I think it does great service as a companion park to Disneyland after the overhaul. Probably because of the entrance and the Buena Vista street theming, it most reminds me of DHS. but I enjoyed it much, much more than I ever have DHS.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      It’s really a night and day difference. It’s actually a bit crazy to stand on Buena Vista Street and think about what that spot *used* to be.

      It is a bit like Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but I think there’s enough beyond the “Hollywood” part of California in the park to make it quite different.

      • Kevin says:

        I just meant that as a first time visitor, I’m entering the same front gates that are used at DHS and seeing Buena Vista Street, which looks similar to Hollywood Blvd. at DHS. So part of my brain is thinking “Disneyland = west coast Magic Kingdom, DCA = west coast DHS”.

        Once you get past Carthay Circle, that comparison doesn’t really work any more.

  14. Ah Eureka… you gotta love a parade that includes the song lyrics “Like an egg gettin’ fried on a sidewalk…”

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Haha! I actually think that parade was probably one of the higher quality elements of DCA 1.0!

  15. Katie says:

    Great article! I visited the original DCA twice when I was young and was disappointed in the lack of Disney-ness! Although I still enjoyed the park, I went back as an adult in Summer 2013 and was blown away. I didn’t even notice many of the changes until reading this article, but just the subtle disney additions made the park more magical and gave it more of a disney parks feel. From changing the Sun to a Mickey on the fun wheel, the addition of Ariel’s Grotto, and of course CARS LAND, it was an overall a more enjoyable experience. I understand why some people liked the lack of a disney theme to the park (to make it more “Adult”), I found it lacked that magical feel of other Disney parks. Now it feels just as magical as DLR across the street and is well worth visiting!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Absolutely. DCA has come a long way since it opened. Here’s hoping more great additions are in store for it!

  16. Melanie says:

    Pardon my redundancy if you’ve covered the backstory of Superstar Limo in another post, but I was an Attractions Hostess (ride operator) at Disneyland back in the day when DCA was being conceived/built (“I gotta park *where* now?!”). The very early original idea for that attraction was a thrill ride (rumors included it being a simulator like Star Tours, and a ride vehicle system related to Indy in Disneyland) where you’re in a runaway limousine trying to outsmart the paparazzi chasing you… and then Princess Di and Dodi Fayed died. The opening of DCA was over two years later, and one would think that would’ve been enough time for WDI to come up with a better replacement, but one also would have thought Disney would’ve gotten a lot more things right with DCA 1.0 than they did.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I had heard that about Princess Di’s death causing a change to the attraction, but I’ve never been able to determine whether that is just an urban legend or what actually happened. Thanks for sharing! :)

  17. airyu says:

    I really miss Golden Dreams. That was always my favourite part of the original DCA – I would run and go get fastpasses for my mom and brother when they started doing that, go see Golden Dreams, get baby back ribs and smiley face fries at Taste Pilots Grill (WHYYYY did they change the menu??) and then go on Soarin’. It was perfect. I was always the kind of kid who liked shows and didn’t like fast rides, so I steered clear of Mullholand Madness and Tower of Terror and all that jazz. Muppets and Aladdin and were (and still are) great~ The new Cars ride literally made me cry – I came off that ride with tears streaming down my face. I liked the old DCA because I didn’t feel inadequate for going to a theme park and *not* going on a rollar coaster, and now that’s gone. Plus the main entrance area feels so empty and boring now.

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