Pixar Pier is a “new” land at Disney California Adventure, and in this post, we’ll review this addition and assess what it brings to the table at Disneyland Resort. While it’s being marketed as new, Pixar Pier is better viewed as an overlay or refresh to parts of Paradise Pier, with the main change being that the Incredicoaster offers a re-skinned version the California Screamin’ roller coaster.
This review does not address the “fun level” of Pixar Pier. At all. None of the attractions in Pixar Pier have changed materially from their Paradise Pier incarnations, so there’s simply nothing to discuss in that regard. Just as its predecessor was, Incredicoaster is still a very fun roller coaster with a great track layout. None of the “plussings” to it change that for better or worse. No other attractions changed in any meaningful way, so that’s the substance of this Pixar Pier review for those who view theme parks solely as collections of rides.
I mention this because several readers complained that our Toy Story Land Review was overly long and didn’t say much…despite the warning from the outset: “what follows is critique for fellow Disney nerds who enjoy thinking critically about Disney parks.” If you disliked the style of that review, this one is even worse. It’s long and doesn’t say much. Don’t read it.
With this Pixar Pier review, I want to start out by conceding that Paradise Pier was far from the paragon of Imagineering. In our review of Disney California Adventure 2.0 from June 2012, we identified it as a lingering area in need of improvement. We lauded the place-making that was done in swapping out gaudiness for more Victorian stylization, but noted that most of the new details were bland, lacking in character, and devoid of thematic richness.
Our ultimate conclusion was that “Paradise Pier has exponentially improved from 2001 when it was a land of giant flying cheeseburgers and sunglasses-wearing dinosaurs, but it still lacks that inarticulable quality that makes the lands found in Disneyland special.”
At that time, Paradise Pier mostly got a pass, as it was widely assumed among fans that Paradise Pier was slated for a deeper makeover, with Maliboomer Park and Goofy’s Sky School both “Phase 2” replacements that would be dealt with in a few years. I say this upfront because this might read as a harsh review of what I feel was an ill-conceived project, but it’s still not as if Disney replaced New Orleans Square with Superstar Limoland.
While reasonable minds may differ, I think it’s fair to judge Pixar Pier by a higher standard than Paradise Pier. This is the case for the same reason fans subconsciously hold Cars Land to a higher standard than, say, Pacific Wharf. The latter aspires to fully immerse guests in the world of Cars. The latter attempts to be a glorified food court. At their respective ambitions, each is largely successful and fulfills a vital role in Disney California Adventure, even if their quality levels differ significantly.
Paradise Pier aspired to be an homage to classic California coastal amusement parks that populated beaches in the state from the turn of the 20th century until the 1940s. It was not a high bar, but it took a concept with which all Californians are familiar and strived to idealize it. Following the DCA 2.0 makeover, Paradise Pier was a modest thematic success, but nothing special.
By contrast, Pixar Pier strives to take guests into Pixar films. Judging it by the same high bar as Cars Land seems onerous and unfair given the significantly lower bar of Paradise Pier. Since Pixar Pier is a quick retrofit of that land, it can only be so good. Stated differently, the pier’s “quality ceiling” is a lot lower than Cars Land.
Pixar Pier was never going to be immersive or transportive in the vein of Cars Land. I don’t think anyone with realistic expectations thought that was even within remotely possible. At best, this was going to be a Condor Flats to Grizzly Peak Airfield level of redo. Nevertheless, Disney made the choice to associate the pier with the rich worlds of Pixar–places we have seen on film and that filmgoers have dreamed of visiting.
Part of the reason critique of Toy Story Land and Pixar Pier might seem so harsh to those who don’t like Disney being criticized is because Pixar has done such an excellent job of world-building in its films. Taking a thematically unambitious land and associating it with Pixar is a recipe for squandered potential and failing to live up to expectations consistent with the film studio’s output.
And fail to live up to them, it does. Marketing copy and PR fluff aside, I’m not sure it’s fair to say Pixar Pier strives to take guests into the worlds of Pixar. In fact, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Pixar Pier is aspiring to do anything whatsoever. There is no theme to speak of (Pixar is not a theme, it’s a studio).
Rather, there’s a bunch of different Pixar stuff (plus Mickey Mouse), most of which is presented in different styles that are incongruent with one another. The closest these areas get to feeling like lived-in places are when viewing the Incredicoaster queue from the outside and when walking through some of the Victorian areas. From a thematic perspective, Pixar Pier never even attempts to work at establishing a sense of place.
Contrast this with its closest counterpart, Toyville Trolley Park at Tokyo DisneySea. While it’s hardly the exemplar of themed design in the world’s best theme park, one of the reasons Toyville Trolley Park works is because it is fairly well-themed, in a way similar to Paradise Pier. However, Toyville Trolley Park is not themed to Toy Story, but to Luna Park.
Within that framework, Toy Story provides stylization and artifice, or a way of Disneyfying a real world place. It works (barely) not because of all the Toy Story elements, but because it follows the overarching formula of American Waterfront, just with some Pixar ornamentation.
As we noted in the original announcement of Pixar Pier, there was potential for Pixar Pier to work the same way. It could have really reinforced the notion of a Victorian, turn of the century boardwalk, but with a layer of Pixar characters slapped on top. This wouldn’t be ideal, but Paradise Pier never has been ideal.
Instead, it feels like the Pixar Pier place-making project is the result of about 5 competing visions, none of which are compatible with one another, that were all greenlit for some reason or another. There’s the aforementioned ‘enhanced Victorian detailing’ which is the unequivocal highlight of Pixar Pier. In areas around the entrance and bandstand, there are obvious improvements that provide a layer of richness and depth that were mostly absent from Paradise Pier.
Once you get past this, the wheels fall off. The most notable instances of thematic clashing are with the mid-century modern architecture of the Incredicoaster queue, the ‘oversized stuff’ of the food stands, and the repurposed hipster warehouse of Lamplight Lounge. Each of these styles could work on their own, but they definitely do not work together.
I’m usually one to grant a lot of deference to Imagineering, with the assumption that they were playing the hand they were dealt. After all, WDI recently gave us Cars Land, Buena Vista Street, and Grizzly Peak Airfield in Disney California Adventure, while making lemonade out of lemons in other areas. Those are demonstrable successes of the creative team in reinventing arguably the most half-baked concept of the late Eisner years.
With Pixar Pier, it’s entirely possible that the overlay is a mandate from on high, and Imagineering is once again trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Perhaps an influential executive (or former executive) within Pixar who has expressed an affinity for Disneyland Resort was irate when he heard of plans to replace ‘a bug’s land’ with Marvel. Perhaps that executive, known for meddling in the parks, demanded a concession and got Pixar Pier. Speculation, but certainly within the realm of possibilities.
That conceivably explains how Disney California Adventure ended up with the concept of Pixar Pier, but it does not explain away the design failures of the land. It’s difficult to fault anyone but WDI for the clashing concepts at play here, and the decision to incorporate so many disparate “neighborhoods” in such a small area where their transitions or distinctions would be imperceptible to guests. The neighborhoods explanation doesn’t pass the smell test when reading backstory copy in the abstract, let alone when walking through Pixar Pier.
That’s my biggest criticism of Pixar Pier, and a problem that was easily foreseeable to some random dude on the internet with no design experience. This would’ve been easily avoidable by choosing a singular, cohesive style for the different Pixar IPs. Instead, the end result predictably clashes, with the Incredibles and Toy Story areas being particularly discordant next to one another. I still have a really difficult time believing the creatives at Imagineering didn’t foresee that the finished product would be thematically jarring, and I really want to believe that their hands were tied here.
With all of this said, Pixar Pier was not nearly as awful as I anticipated. While my expectations were incredibly low, there was a decent amount that I liked. For one, the Victorian detail-work has been elevated in some areas, and looks really nice. If this makeover would’ve been solely about injecting Pixar into the boardwalk games, shops, and dining while enhancing the pier’s Victorian qualities, I think it would’ve worked a lot better.
The areas along the promenade–at least the ones that are now open–generally look nice and work thematically. The place-making that was done here back in 2011-12 to peel back the ostentatious and pun-laden signage and props was clearly done on a low budget. While it was “good enough” at the time, this all feels much more polished now.
Speaking of ostentatious, the new food stands that represent a reversion to DCA 1.0 (if we’re going tacky, at least give me a fly dinosaur wearing shades, Disney) are not nearly as noticeable as I feared. Yeah, they are hideous, but I didn’t find my eyes drawn to them like a train wreck while strolling along Paradise Pier. It’s possible I just tried to mentally block them out, but they did not stick out to the degree expected.
I’m a sucker for the boardwalk concept, and Paradise Pier has always been one of my favorite areas at Disney California Adventure, warts and all. California’s beach cities resonate with me on a personal level, and I love that Disney attempted to make romanticized versions of those promenades. Execution has always been suspect, but I’ve felt that the ambiance is pretty close to pitch-perfect.
With Pixar Pier, I still get that same vibe. Strolling through the land at night, under the popcorn lights with the kinetic energy of the roller coaster overhead, the Ferris Wheel to the side, and boardwalk games lining the promenade remains something special for me.
The Pixarmonic Orchestra–perhaps my favorite aspect of this place-making project–also helps with setting the perfect mood. After so much criticism of Pixar Pier, this might seem like a surprising concession–but just because I think the area’s overlay is half-baked doesn’t mean I think the land has been stripped of its charms.
At the end of the day, the oddest thing to me about Pixar Pier is its very existence. Setting aside my quibbles with its jarring thematic qualities, I really wonder how this moves the needle. I have no doubt that Incredicoaster is being well-received; it was popular before, and the core experience of a fun roller coaster remains unchanged. (Irrespective of my other opinions on it, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout is at least a materially new ride; the essence of the Pier’s roller coaster remains the same as before.) However, once you set aside cynics and Pixie Dusters, is the general public really going to view anything within Pixar Pier as markedly different than before? Are guest satisfaction numbers going to improve?
If a temporary shot in the arm via marketing was the goal, it seems like so much of what has “changed” could’ve just as easily been accomplished with seasonal menus and a temporary overlay to California Screamin’ (a la the various versions of Space Mountain). Adding infrastructure to California Screamin’ to facilitate quick seasonal overlays in the tunnels and a scattering of props elsewhere probably would’ve been a savvy move, as it would allow different versions of the attraction–as well as the original–all of which could be used to draw people at different times of the year. Call all of this the “Pixar Pier Takeover,” make it a limited time event, and I have a difficult time believing it’d be any less successful than the permanent Pixar Pier. But what do I know. Even after experiencing it, my biggest question with Pixar Pier remains, WHY?!
Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of Pixar Pier? Thoughts on the Incredicoaster, new games, dining, or anything else? Any questions? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!