Disney California Adventure Review: Hollywood Superstar or Superstar Limo?

Disney’s California Adventure opened in 2001 to lukewarm reviews. Okay, maybe that’s being overly polite. It opened downright negative reviews. It was a dud. The park that sat across the esplanade from Disneyland, the most revered theme park in the world, failed to meet expectations and had attendance issues from day one. Disney tacitly acknowledged this almost immediately with a series of fixes aimed at fixing and propping up attendance in the flailing park. Finally, in 2007, an explicit acknowledgement of Disney’s California Adventure’s problems was admitted by Walt Disney Company CEO, Bob Iger, when he announced a five year expansion plan aimed at reinventing Disney California Adventure. It was labeled an expansion plan by the marketing-savvy Disney Company, but in reality, it was a makeover so extreme that Disney even tweaked the park’s name.

On June 15, 2012, this five-year extreme makeover concluded with the opening of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street, the two largest aspects of the “expansion.” I was able to attend the media preview event and the first few publicly operational days of “Disney California Adventure 2.0,” and I’m happy to report that the one-time ugly duckling of the United States Disney theme park pantheon has been transformed into one of its crown jewels. Disney California Adventure is now a worthy peer to Disneyland. In fact, so many sweeping changes and improvements have been made at Disney California Adventure that it just might be the second best United States Disney theme park–to Disneyland, of course, and these improvements have made Disneyland Resort an incredibly attractive vacation alternative for those who might otherwise visit Walt Disney World.

Of course, no theme park is perfect, especially one that opened so imperfect, even if it has had a myriad of band-aids, thematic changes, and flat out replacements. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the good and the bad of Disney California Adventure 2.0.

The Good

When it comes to the “good” aspects of the incarnation of Disney California Adventure that reopened on June 15, 2012, everyone immediately points to the highly immersive Cars Land. While Cars Land is unquestionably the flagship land of Disney California Adventure around which vacationers will plan their trips, the work that has been done on the park’s opening act, Buena Vista Street, doesn’t seem to be receiving its due.

Quite bluntly, Disney transformed a sea of concrete, a giant sun-themed hubcap, some garish big-box stores, neon, and letters spelling out CALIFORNIA into a beautiful and details-rich 1920s Los Angeles opening act. Buena Vista Street is already drawing comparisons to Main Street USA at Disneyland. To put this into perspective, Sunshine Plaza (its predecessor) frequently drew comparisons to strip malls. Buena Vista Street has buildings at varying depths with intriguing facades, making it appear longer and giving guests the impression that they’re walking in Walt Disney’s footsteps.

Live entertainment and the Red Car Trolley give Buena Vista Street a sense of kinetic energy that makes guests want to linger about and enjoy the ambiance, which is a stark departure from Sunshine Plaza, which most guests rushed through in about 2.7 seconds. At the end of the street is the beautiful Carthay Circle Theatre, which houses a restaurant and two lounges that are all incredibly lavish and ornate, and serve the best food and drinks of any Disney theme park restaurant. Simply put, the restrooms in Carthay Circle Restaurant are nicer than all of Sunshine Plaza. Praise for Cars Land has eclipsed Buena Vista Street due to their simultaneous openings, but Buena Vista Street is the area that sets the stage for the rest of the new park to shine.

And shine the rest of the park does, especially as guests race from Buena Vista Street to Cars Land to start out their days. Cars Land is already proving true the mantra, “if you build it, they will come.” Disney essentially bet the farm with Cars Land, a 12-acre new land set in the town of Radiator Springs from the Pixar film Cars. Although the only public number released for the entire 2007-2012 expansion is $1.1 billion, rumors persist that the expansion budget ballooned well over that amount, and Cars Land alone cost nearly $1.1 billion. As the land is a visual gem and features the most amazing Disney E-Ticket attraction built in the United States in at least 20 years, this would come as no surprise to me.

Disney hit an absolute home run with Cars Land, and this is apparent as soon as you set foot on Route 66. It’s as if you’ve stepped out of a Disney theme park and, literally, stepped foot into the Radiator Springs that you’ve seen in Cars.  Seemingly every establishment from Radiator Springs is present: Mater’s Junkyard (Jamboree), a surprisingly fun whip ride; the Cozy Cone Motel, a low-capacity outdoor vending that offers “cone” food; Radiator Springs Curios, a gift shop; Luigi’s Casa Della Tires (Flying Tires), an underrated flying tires-based attraction; Fillmore’s Taste-In, a fruit and juice stand; Sarge’s Surplus Hut, a gift shop; Flo’s V8 Cafe, Disney California Adventure’s new best counter service restaurant; and Ramone’s House of Body Art, a gift shop. Other locations from the film are represented by false facades or cast-only buildings.

Flo’s V8 Cafe is the real standout of the restaurants and shops, as it has an ambitious comfort food menu, sports multiple rooms for dining, and an outdoor seating area with a wonderful view of Ornament Valley. Other shops and the Cozy Cone Motel (which has far too limited capacity) really add to the theming, but are nothing to write home about substantively.

There are three attractions in Cars Land, with Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (photos) and Luigi’s Flying Tires (photos) being the two less substantial attractions. Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is a surprise hit, with a hilarious and sometimes nonsensical soundtrack by Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), which plays through his Jukebox made of junk. Although it’s just a simple teacups style ride, it’s more exciting, especially with some “near-miss” moments with other tractors, and an elaborate queue.

Luigi’s Flying Tires is a more hit or miss hovering attraction that is best described as a cross between bumper cars and air hockey. It has a terrible hourly capacity (lines regularly exceed 2 hours) and many guests have reported having difficulties getting their tires to move. We tested Luigi’s Flying Tires 7 times, riding in separate tires each time, and never had any issues getting our tires to move. In fact, we were flying around the course and most other guests we encountered were doing the same. That said, it’s not worth a two hour (or anywhere near that) wait, so here’s hoping Disney addresses its issues with capacity.

Radiator Springs Racers (photos) is the crown-jewel of Cars Land, and sets a new bar for Disney E-Ticket attractions as it flawlessly combines a ride/race through Ornament Valley with dark ride sequences and Audio Animatronics that will leave you speechless. The ride system is similar to Test Track at Walt Disney World’s Epcot, but comparing Test Track to Radiator Springs Racers is like comparing a McDonald’s cheeseburger to filet mignon at a gourmet restaurant. Both come from the same place, but are decidedly different. Racing side-by-side with another car through the incredibly detailed Ornament Valley is a pretty fun experience, but it’s the dark ride sequences, the queue detail, and the full immersion of Radiator Springs Racers that put it in a league of its own. We experienced Radiator Springs Racers dozens of times to pore over these dark ride scenes, and noticed something new each time. On its own, Cars Land is a beautiful and immersive land where I could spend hours just enjoying the ambiance, but Radiator Springs Racers takes the land to the next level with an attraction that, like Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, will be a favorite of guests for decades to come.

The revitalized Disney California Adventure isn’t all 1920s Los Angeles and Cars. It also boasts six other lands, and just about all of those lands have seen enhancements that make their theme more cohesive with the park as a whole. This most notably occurred in Paradise Pier, where a conscious effort was made to create a more classic Victorian Pier setting, instead of a setting…well, I don’t even know how to describe it…one where giant hamburgers from outer space, giant oranges, and pink dinosaurs roamed the beach-side hand in hand, singing Kumbaya. The retheming here did wonders. One off the shelf attraction (Malibommer) was flat-out removed, while others were rethemed with characters to make them more “Disney” and less tacky and ostentatious. Similar projects took place in Hollywood Land, Grizzly Peak, and Condor Flats as part of a beautification plan referred to by fans as “Project Sparkle.” This widespread thematic scrubbing of these lands has removed an over-abundance of California puns and tacky signage, and helped to give the park a more timeless aesthetic.  On June 15, 2012 a number of other small shows or enhancements officially launched, including World of Color’s “Glow with the Show” (surprisingly, it’s not just a merchandising cash-grab) and Instant Concert, Just Add Water.

Better theming is meaningless without an increase in new substance. Nighttime entertainment in the form of World of Color, an impressive and crowd-drawing water show featuring montage scenes from Disney animated films was a huge addition to the park’s nighttime offerings when it debuted in 2010. Likewise, attractions have been added to the park’s original slate. Key additions including the Tower of Terror, Monsters, Inc. – Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular, Toy Story Midway Mania, and The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure also serve as tent-pole attractions to Disney California Adventure. The attraction lineup, including the aforementioned rides and shows plus Soarin’ Over California, Grizzly River Run, California Screamin’, and MuppetVision 3D gives a Disney California Adventure a pretty impressive lineup as compared to Disneyland, except in the category of classic Disney dark rides.

With so much to love about Disney California Adventure, is there really anything not to love? Yes. Read about “The Bad” on Page 2.

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20 Responses to “Disney California Adventure Review: Hollywood Superstar or Superstar Limo?”

  1. Prof. Brainard says:

    Thanks for the thoughtfully-written and well-rounded review. Your appreciation seems well-placed and your criticism just. In answer to some of your questions: yes, I would definitely like to visit the “new” park soon, though financial considerations will likely prohibit that; and, yes, I would definitely consider a visit to the Disneyland Resort instead of a visit to Walt Disney World. In the interest of full disclosure on this last statement, however, I have to sadly admit that I have been to WDW many times, including very soon after its opening, and have not ever been to Disneyland, an egregious sin for a man who is something of a historian of American popular culture.

    Your observation that Buena Vista Street feels almost like a 2012 reproduction of 1920s Los Angeles is of much interest to me and is not surprising. It seems like an an appropriate and normal reaction. We sometimes forget that Main Street U.S.A. is not an accurate recreation of an American small town, circa 1900, but is, in the case of Disneyland, a 1950s reproduction of such a town and, in the case of WDW, a late sixties/early seventies reproduction of the same. Both lands tell us less about real Main Streets than they do about the way people in later decades nostalgically imagined those streets to be. In this sense, Main Street is an expression of two time periods: the one it is meant to represent and the one that is imagining that representation. It’s what makes the “historical” places in the parks so utterly fascinating and satisfying: they show us not the true past, but rather the way we prefer to think about the past at a particular point in later time. It also means that imagineering a historical place or time period becomes an especially complex endeavor (though surely a fun one).

    You rightly pointed out that Radiator Springs Racers represents the best E-ticket attraction for at least 20 years. It might also be worth pointing out that the two new lands represent the first time that completely new lands with this level of theming and an E-ticket attraction have opened inside an existing park since New Orleans Square with Pirates of the Caribbean was added almost 46 years ago.

    That’s enough academic blather for one comment. When all is said and done, both the new lands look really great.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      That’s an interesting observation regarding Buena Vista Street and Main Street. I’m not speaking completely about what I’d describe as revisionist history (i.e. an idealized version of the era), but rather from the perspective of materials/quality and aging.

      That said, your point still makes sense, and even explains my qualm. It’s probably not as noticeable for me on MSUSA since I didn’t visit Walt Disney World until the 1980s, and didn’t have an eye for detail until the late 1990s. By that time, the land actually had aged, so it didn’t appear “1970s new” when I saw it.

  2. Mark says:

    OK, I do like Redwood Creek Challenge (it would be better if the parents could do the activity with their kids), but a dark-ride based on a 1955(nothing wrong with that year)Pontiac Station Wagon?How about starting with “Mickey’s Trailer”(1938), perhaps using the Dwarfs Coaster ride system under construction in WDW? Thanks for all the great shots. Mark

    • Tom Bricker says:

      For whatever reason, the 1955 Pontiac Station Wagon resonates with me as being the classic family vacation vehicle. I can picture it rolling through a park, windows down, as some unwitting tourist uses candy to try to lure a bear over to it (probably shouldn’t depict THAT in an attraction, though).

      That said, I think your idea presents the perfect ‘hook.’ Use Mickey’s Trailer and its characters in some show scenes as they explore the National Parks. That you wouldn’t be able to see in the real parks!

      The only issue I see with this is space. Redwood Creek takes up a fair amount of space, but does it take up as much as a dark ride would?

      • Clundgren says:

        I strongly disagree about getting rid of Redwood Challenge for a dark ride. I love rides, but kids can’t just sit in lines or on rides all day. They need to be active.

        Thus, every park needs one substantial area that is queue-free and kid-powered. My little guy loves the Redwood Challenge area, and as a parent I know that he needs time to run around and be active before getting in line for another ride or show.

  3. Maggie says:

    First, let me say, I have always enjoyed DCA, right from the beginning. The new CarsLand looks swell, from all the videos I’ve seen of it. The one thing that everybody seems to miss when discussing the lack of attendance in DCA is this: it’s not comfortable. It’s HOT in Anaheim, and there is almost NO shade in DCA. No trees, no little bodies of water at every turn the way there is in Disneyland. People happily spend a 12 hour day in disneyland because they can. There are LOTS of forms of transportation- the train, the monorail, the different types of vehicles that go down main street – to ride on when you get tired. NONE of that exists in DCA- The Red Car Trolley? It goes from the front gate down the closest street. NOTHING goes to where the Maliboomer used to be. After a couple hours at DCA, you look down that wide flat walkway and it’s hot hot hot and so you head back to the front gate to go back to the shade of New Orlean’s Square, or the refreshing freezing air conditioning of Great moments with Mr. Lincoln. I don’t understand, that with ALL the money they spent on DCA why they didn’t line that lake in the middle with trees and benches. Even the que for the Winnie the Pooh ride is more lovelty than ANYTHING in DCA. There is just no reason to hang around there. It’s not a park like Disneyland, it’s just a bunch of rides.

    • You know why the lake isn’t lined with trees… because then it would ruin the sight-lines for World of Color (just like the lack of trees on the edges of Rivers of America).

      Per my other post, I think they’ve done a lot with the Paradise Grill area to add shade, and there are lovely shady places in Grizzly Peak area (including the Challenge Trail), as well as Bugs Land.

      I agree, though, that it’s hard to beat the charm of the shady areas of Critter Country. Not so much shade in other areas of DL, such as ToonTown, Tomorrowland, or even Fantasyland. Just sayin…

      I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how not “just a bunch of rides” BV St. and CarsLand are.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I’m curious as to when the last time you visited DCA was, as I can’t say I agree with much of anything here. I think DCA is plenty lush, has a good amount of water, and has a fair amount of kinetic energy now.

      Even before 6/15, I could spend a lot of time at DCA.

      I think there are a lot of people out there who will never love DCA because, quite simply, “it’s not Disneyland.” Disney will NEVER have any success pleasing those people no matter what it does to improve DCA.

    • Dustysage says:

      I’ve got to agree with you Maggie. Although they have done a tremendous amount to make DCA more inviting with Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, the park is still not as inviting as Disneyland.

      I still find Paradise Pier to have a lack of Disney level theme and Hollywood and Bugs Land are downright depressing. They built Tower of Terror to address the issue of nothing to do in the park and then watered down the theme of the attraction and ride system to the point that it proved the original notion that the park was built on the cheap.

      There’s a huge albatross around the neck of this park and it will likely take them at least 10 to 15 years to undo all the terrible mistakes of the past.

      I absolutely think the park is worth another look and is a worthy 2nd gate to Disneyland. But it is still a park in need of major enhancements, likely equal to what they have just done with Buena Vista and Cars Land. Hopefully they are ready to plunk another 1.5 billion or so into the park over the next 5 years – it needs it.

  4. Could not disagree with your more about the Paradise Garden area. I love hanging out in the shade over there and really enjoy both of the restaurants and the beer stand over there (with very yummy pretzels). I think the kinetic energy of the Swings and Zephyr add some to this area too (and are no more off the shelf than Dumbo or any number of other “Disney Classics”).

    I don’t really disagree with Sky School, though my kids find it fun. Certainly the theming now is a step up from before and far above what you’d find at a typical seaside amusement park or fair.

    Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is so much fun for kids. My kids could spend HOURS in there – even more than they do on Tom Sawyer Island – because of all the tops and ziplines and slides. That needs to stick around, too.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I heard the same thing from someone else on Twitter regarding Paradise Garden, so perhaps I’m being too hard on it. I have nothing against the area (it’s a serious step up over what was there before), but it just doesn’t strike me as a “rich” Disney environment. It’s nice and a great place to relax, it just seems a little plain to me. I recognize that most people disagree with me on that. In any case, it’s hardly my biggest criticism of the park.

      As for Zephyr and Silly Symphony Swings, I have nothing against either.

      Goofy’s Sky School is definitely an improvement on what was there before, but I still find it lacking. To me it’s different than Zephyr and the Swings if only because it purports to be more (or *could* be more) than a simple pier ride.

      Redwood Creek is tough. It takes up a lot of space and Grizzly Peak is lacking on attractions, but it’s great for kids and incredibly well done. I’d like to see something there that everyone can enjoy, but I won’t complain if it sticks around. It’s a nice area, just not one I’d preserve in DLR, where there’s a shortage of space.

  5. rol says:

    I must say i really enjoy reading all your stories BUT most of all i LOVE looking at all the pictures you post!! While back you gave suggestions on taking pictures in the park, suggestions i might add that i have used not just for Disney trips to great feedback. Going forward could you tell us which lens/flash/film any information on how you capture your moments? Below the picture, on the side, anywhere I just want to know because they are Beautiful!!

  6. I miss the maliboomer, and no, supreme scream at knotts is *not* the same thing :(

  7. Disney Ish says:

    ” It has a terrible hourly capacity (lines regularly exceed 2 hours)…We tested Luigi’s Flying Tires 7 times, riding in separate tires each time… so here’s hoping Disney addresses its issues with capacity.”

    Denying 2 able bodied young adults asking for their own tire would be a good first step. As annual pass holders I’m kinda disappointed that you disrespect the rest of the kids trying to ride these rides so much. Respectful but sincere boo.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Each and every one of those 7 rides we took was on the June 13th and June 14th media preview days, and each time, the attraction was a walk-on, so I can’t say I ‘disrespected’ any kids waiting to ride.

      That said, numerous people with whom I spoke seemed to have better success piloting the tires by themselves rather than with others. If I were to wait in a 2 hour line for this attraction, I certainly would want to go alone to experience it at its best, rather than do the “polite” thing and go with another person, thereby waiting 2 hours for a mediocre experience. The capacity of the attraction and the maneuverability with one v. two people…those are both Disney’s problems, not guests’ problems. If guests are riding as singles because they get more ‘bang for their buck’ out of the experience by doing that (and I have no idea if others are, just theorizing), Disney needs to fix the ride system so that there’s no incentive to ride alone.

  8. Scott says:

    Tom, I usually am in agreement with you but I can’t belive you gave “a bug’s land” such a free pass! For me, this is one of the things that the park needs to take care of quickly if it ever want to legitimately claim to be about California!

    Still like you, I agree there is a lot to be done. Good point about the Mickey fountain in Hollywood Land, there must be a way to throw those nighttime parties without fully compromising the theme of that area during the day… Tomorrowland Terrace has it partially figured out, I would think that “appearing stage/party” concept could be made to work in DCA as well.

    Finally, I’m curious as to what you might think about the idea that has ben floated around about merging Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak into one land themed to National Parks? Could this be the fix these two small/single attraction lands need? Soarin’, with its hang-gliding premise, certainly could be made to fit with that theme I think…

    • Tom Bricker says:

      If budgets weren’t finite, I’d say that it needs to be addressed. However, the park needs attractions for kids, and taking out ‘a bug’s land’ would require adding 3-4 dark rides elsewhere (or there) so that there’s enough for kids to do. I just don’t see that being a realistic solution right now. I’d rather Disney allocate resources to tackling more manageable problems.

      I have heard the idea about merging Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak, but I’m not on board. To me, those are the two lands with the strongest themes in the entire park, so I want to see them both exist as distinct themes.

  9. Chirstian says:

    I agree with Buena vista Street being a tad too dark at night. I know this would go against the theme & time period of the the area. But I think lining the rooftops with popcorn lights, adding twinkle lights in the trees would add that extra “glow” that is needed.

  10. tristan says:

    Don’t eat at the Rainforest Cafe there! It’s dirty and we all got e coli disease from the food! And space mountain shut down at the very top again.

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