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.

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