History of Disney California Adventure

Sunshine Plaza

Disney, I suppose, had lofty intentions for Sunshine Plaza when it opened Disney California Adventure (I realize it technically opened as “Disney’s California Adventure,” but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to the park by its current name throughout this post).

The intended ‘look’ of the park entrance began outside of the main turnstiles, with the CALIFORNIA letters and continued through the main entrance into Sunshine Plaza, past the Golden Gate bridge and flashy neon signs all the way to the Sun Icon.

The goal of this area was to make the guest feel as if they were jumping into a graphic-style postcard. In fairness, when viewed with this in mind, you can sort of see it. However, the execution was atrocious, and guests frequently complained that Sunshine Plaza was little more than an eclectic mess of colors and concrete.

Before you start with the photo tour, I recommend watching this 11 minute video of Disney California Adventure as it was in April 2001, which will set the ‘tone’ of our tour:

Notice the complete lack of crowds, among other things?!

Golden Gate Bridge Area:

By itself, the Golden Gate Bridge looked pretty cool. In fact, I actually think it’s prettier than the new bridge on Buena Vista Street. However, it probably wouldn’t have worked in an area themed to “1920s Los Angeles,” so it had to go. It also would have drawn the emphasis away from the “wienie” that is Carthay Circle Theatre at the end of Buena Vista Street, so I can doubly understand the decision to remove it. As you can see in one of the photos below, when viewed from other areas of the park, it was the most visible aspect of Sunshine Plaza.

Beyond the Bridge itself, also in this area were a few shops covered with neon signs. These shops were some of the largest at Disneyland Resort. As a photographer, I’m normally a huge fan of neon, but I was never really all that drawn to this area. It was too wide open, the signs were on unthemed buildings–in short, it just didn’t work.

The "Southern" Golden Gate Bridge

Glowing away...

Everything Under the Sun

Disneyland Aug 09 - Welcome to California Adventure

Disney - Grizzly Peak

Disneyland Aug 09 - Wandering around Sunshine Plaza

Monorail Over Golden Gate at Dusk

Sun Icon:

In what became an infamous (you might notice the word “infamous” used in this post a lot…) entrance that typified the ‘cheapness’ of the original Disney California  Adventure, the Sun Icon was the centerpiece, and perhaps the lightning-rod for the most criticism. Ironically-enough, unlike a lightning rod, it didn’t actually attract light on its own, since it faced north. Disney wanted it to reflect light, so little reflectors were installed throughout the area to bounce light back to the Sun Icon.

Most Disney icons have iconic names. Sleeping Beauty Castle. Cinderella Castle. Spaceship Earth. On the other end of the spectrum, it seems that Disney doesn’t give names to the more notorious icons, knowing that fans will give them their own names (see the “Big Ass Hat” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Such was the case with the Sun Icon (I don’t even know why I’m capitalizing it, since I don’t think it’s a proper name…), which became the “Hubcap” to Disneyland locals. I don’t think I have to explain why it got that name.

Below the Hubcap was a pretty unique fountain that had, for lack of a better term, a wave machine. This was actually a pretty cool feature, and did enhance the low kinetic energy of the original Disney California Adventure entrance. But this little feature was not enough to save the entrance from extinction.

The Hubcap received seasonal and event-specific makeovers throughout the years. It received enhancements for Halloween, Christmas, Glowfest, World of Color, and perhaps other events throughout the years.

In the Warm California Sun

Sun Icon at Halloween (Red)

Sun Icon Halloween (Green)

here comes the sun

Disneyland Aug 2009 - Meeting California Mickey

Disneyland Aug 2009 - Sunshine Plaza

Ghosts of Christmases Past (2 of 4)

Disneyland Aug 09 - Heading to a bugs land

Disneyland Aug 09 - Wandering around California Adventure

Sunshine Plaza Glow Fest

Here’s a video of the wave machine below the Sun Icon:


Welcome, Carthay Circle

Carthay Circle Theatre — An Icon Returns

In late 2010, walls appeared around the Sun Icon and it was quickly removed. The Carthay Circle Theatre, Disney California Adventure’s new icon, went up in its place. In late May 2012, the walls came down around Carthay Circle Theatre, revealing the beautiful new park icon. This substantial positive change alone is very indicative of the sweeping changes occurring throughout Disney California Adventure to turn it into a much more detailed and well-themed experience.

California Zephyr:

The California Zephyr was by far the best done aspect of the original Sunshine Plaza. Unlike the train found at the entrance to Disneyland across the Esplanade, The California Zephyr was merely a clever building façade that served as the entrance to three shops: Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream, Baker’s Field Bakery, and Engine-Ears Toys. In an entrance area that was described as an unthemed ‘box’ stores and masses of concrete by many, the California Zephyr was a true bright spot.

Even though it was abundantly clear that the train couldn’t actually go anywhere since there was no track in front of or behind it, it looked cool, and was a good execution of the California theming. Had the rest of the entrance been this well-themed, perhaps Buena Vista Street would not have come to fruition.

The Color Train... [Explored #19]

California Zephyr

Disneyland Aug 09 - Wandering around Sunshine Plaza

Unfortunately, despite its great theming, the California Zephyr did not fit the Imagineers’ plans for Buena Vista Street, nor did it fit the 1920s-era theme for the street. It will be replaced by equally well-themed shops on Buena Vista Street, and this general area is also where the “Storytellers” Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue will be located. All in all, we can’t be too disappointed about the loss of the California Zephyr, given what will soon replace it!

The transition from Sunshine Plaza to Buena Vista Street will be the last area of Disney California Adventure to be complete, and we can’t wait to share photos from the finished Buena Vista Street with you.

Explore the rest of Disney California Adventure on the next page! 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


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