No, Disney’s California Adventure Does Not Suck

I know the headline seems like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t intended as such. It’s just that “I Really Do Like a Lot of the Aspects of Disney’s California Adventure Park” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. 

The other day, I spoke about the changes at It’s a Small World and today we’ll discuss Anaheim’s other big construction project taking place across the plaza at Disney’s California Adventure (hereby abbreviated DCA). I’d like to discuss this from the perspective of a native Californian and yearly visitor to the Disneyland Resort since 1994.

Grizzly Peak at Disney's California Adventure Park
Grizzly Peak at Disney's California Adventure Park

Even before it opened, DCA drew ire from the Disney community but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t so much for what DCA was, but for what it wasn’t. You see, Disney had floated an idea of an Epcot-style park called WestCot. But, for a variety of reasons, that project was shelved and instead they build DCA as the “second gate” in Anaheim. This upset fans who really wanted to see WestCot.  Rather than dust off an already existing theme for park (ala Florida’s Epcot), they went with an original concept that was a “salute to the Golden State.”  Geared more to adults and teenagers, the original version of DCA eschewed Disney characters, perhaps to fault. But, mostly DCA has underperformed due the lack of attractions, not the quality of them. Let me attempt to persuade you.

As a native Californian, I really like the theme of celebrating our state. Best exemplified by the Soarin’ Over California attraction, the diverse nature of the state does lend itself to wonder and a variety of themes and locales. Probably my favorite part of DCA is the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area (technically part of the “Golden State” land at DCA). The signature attraction is the Grizzly River Run, a rapids ride under the majestic Grizzly Peak. I usually ride this and although you get wet I still think it’s a blast. The craftsmanship of the rock work is exemplary and I really like the “national park” style theming. Right next to this attraction is the similarly themed Redwood Creek Challenge Trail and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, two big areas that continue the theme. The current home for Soarin’ is a Golden State section called Condor Flats, a tribute to California’s aviation industry. But concept art for the revised DCA park shows the Grizzly Peak area extending all the way through what now is Condor Flats. A re-themed Soarin’ building with craftsman architecture elements would be outstanding.

Grizzly Peak Recreation Area Entrance - Concept Art
Grizzly Peak Entrance - Concept Art

I also like the idea behind Paradise Pier, a tribute to the seaside amusement parks of the early part of the twentieth century. California Screamin’ is probably my favorite roller coaster and definitely has the right feel as something that was inspired by classic wooden coasters that I am familiar with, like The Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz. I also like some of the “carnival” rides like The Golden Zephyr, Mulholland Madness, The Orange Stinger, and The Sun Wheel.  There are lots of thrills in these rides, certainly on par with D tickets at other Disney parks. 

“But wait Kevin” you might say. “Where is the ‘imagineering’ with those attractions? Aren’t they just ‘cookie-cutter’ attractions?”  Yes. And no. The ride systems are no unique, but I think the theming of The Orange Stinger, Sun Wheel, and the Golden Zephyr are actually well done with the overall look of the Paradise Pier area. It’s true that Mulholland Madness could use something more imaginative, however.

All of which brings us to the changes currently underway at Paradise Pier. First, the entire Paradise Bay is drained to install a fountain-based show called The World of Color (think: fireworks on the water). This addresses a major complaint about DCA, which is that it lacks a night-time show equivalent to Fantasmic! or Illuminations at Epcot. This is a point I’ll agree with the purists on, since trying to shoehorn the old Main Street Disney’s Electrical Parade as a major “draw” didn’t really cut it. Once this show is operational in spring 2010, the hope is that nobody will complain that DCA isn’t a “full day” park. 

Paradise Bay Under Construction - February 2009

Of course, the critique that DCA is only a “half day” park is quite annoying, especially when it comes from proponents of other Disney theme parks like Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. That’s a park that has a great amphitheater for Fantasmic! but I’d still say that DHS isn’t worthy of “full park” status. People point out all the people who only visit DCA after going to Disneyland Park or who leave DCA and head right over to the original Magic Kingdom. But you know what? If Epcot was a couple hundred feet from Disney’s Hollywood Studios, don’t you think you’d have a lot of cross-over there, too?

My original thoughts about DCA years ago were that there was nothing wrong with the theme that more attractions couldn’t fix. As such, in the past few years DCA has seen an upgraded “dark ride” based on Monsters Inc, a whole new section of kiddie rides based on A Bug’s Life, Turtle Talk with Crush, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Toy Story Midway Mania. All of these have really rounded out the quality and quantity of attractions, though at the cost of the California theme. They’re great attractions, but I wish more could have been done like the “original and only in California” attractions like Soarin’, California Screamin’, and Grizzy River Run. 

Which brings us full circle with Paradise Pier – an area that will have Disney character overlays on The Sun Wheel (Mickey’s Fun Wheel), The Orange Stinger (Silly Symphony Swings), and Mulholland Madness (Goofys…).  Maybe this will mean they’ll continue to make these rides more appealing to families (a recent addition of a double-swing on The Orange Stinger allowed my son Quinn to ride this year). At least they aren’t messing with my beloved Golden Zephyr. 

Other changes at DCA in the future include a new land based on the movie Cars – Cars Land. Three more attractions will be added, including an E-ticket called Radiator Spings Racers. This whole area looks great and while again the California theme is at the very least stretched to accommodate, we take solace that this isn’t based on an existing attraction from Florida. 

The biggest upcoming change to DCA is a completely revised entrance plaza. The mish-mash of “picture postcard” themes will be replaced by a replica of the Hollywood that Walt Disney encountered in the 1920s. This should create much more a immersive and homey feel and is one change that I really agree with.  The current entrance plaza is not particularly charming and worse the musical cues are a “greatest hits” of pop songs about California. Unfortunately the playlist is pretty small so chances are you hear them over and over again. If I never have to hear “Hollywood Nights” or “California Dreaming” again it’ll be too soon!

DCA's "Picture Postcard" Entrance

Call me a “homer” if you like, but I really do enjoy visiting DCA.

I love hanging out in the Grizzy Peak area and I might be the old adult who loves hanging out in A Bug’s Land. Both feature immersive theming that are on par with New Orleans Square or Fantasyland. I have always enjoyed DCA’s E-tickets (I’m even starting to like the stomach in your throat aspects of Tower of Terror), and think Toy Story Midway Mania really fits in well to the Paradise Pier theme.  View DCA on it’s own merits, and resist the temptation to compare it to it’s much larger and established neighbor Disneyland Park.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Disney is spending major $$ to improve the park. But I’ve always liked the park and continue to view it as a major destination for any Disneyland Resort visitor.

3 Replies to “No, Disney’s California Adventure Does Not Suck”

  1. I agree with most of this, but There are two things I don’t agree with. I think the entrance is breathtaking and very cool. I think maybe they should have a longer playlist, but I think the entrance is a really cool idea that should stay, a perfect vision of the dream of california from the outside. If I could so anything, I’d put the Walt’s Hollywood parallel to the current hollywood pictures backlot, and connect them with “Hollywood tower Blvd.” with the tower of terror in the middle. a good transition, if you ask me.
    Yeah, I really don’t like the paradise pier retheming either. I think that if people understood how many details and work went into these rides, they’d like it. I do agree some of the games of the boardwalk and Man Hat n Beach needed rethemed, but I don’t see how a mickey face is any better than the sun face.
    Anyway, I really do agree this is a great park, they don’t need to retheme, they just need to improve. (KEEP THE ENTRANCE PLAZA!! haha.)

    Great Post, thanks!

  2. P.S. I really don’t think MGM studios is a half day park, nor do I think Animal Kingdom is. I had no problem spending an entire day at each, and would have certainly come back to each of them to experience new things that I missed the first day.

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