History of Disney California Adventure

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, The History of Disney California Adventure: From Burger Invasion to Buena Vista Street, 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!

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!

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

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

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42 Responses to “History of Disney California Adventure”
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