DISCLAIMER: It would take far too long to write up the report I feel this park deserves (which is even more than I did for my original report on the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom a few years ago). So, instead, consider this a rough first pass at a short review of Disney's California Adventure park. I will complete revise and expand it later, as I barely scratched the surface of what I have to say.
February 2001 Update
The year 2000 kept me very busy, but I finally got to take a full week off for a vacation from February 17th through the 22nd.
It has only been a few months since my last visit to Anaheim but much has changed. The new Disneyland Resort is now officially open. Downtown Disney, the Grand Californian Hotel and Disney's California Adventure theme park now occupy space that was formerly the parking lot for Disneyland. What a major change from just a few short years ago!
Take nothing for granted. Normally I wait until a park visit before renewing my annual pass. Often enough months pass between visits after my pass expires that it would have been a waste to renew by mail, so I did not respond to the offer to renew/upgrade my Disneyland pass to allow me admission into the new California Adventure. Unfortunately, Disneyland decided to suspend sales of all new annual passes for either park before my vacation. This meant if I wanted to see the new theme park I would have to pay full daily ticket price at the gate like everyone else. I think having an annual pass at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World since 1995 has spoiled me.
The first partial day of this vacation was spent at Disneyland, but the first full day would be spent exploring DCA. Shortly before the 8am opening the new park was already letting visitors in. Using a ticket purchased the previous night (due to fears of long lines at the ticket windows which didn't happen), I entered.
Welcome to California
There is a certain feel you get when you walk into one of the post-Magic Kingdom Disney parks. Animal Kingdom and Disney/MGM Studios both have it, and I think that DCA does too. Entering through the gates and hearing California inspired songs ("California Sun", Beach Boys, "San Francisco", etc.) immediately gave this park a feeling of its own much like the African sounding music at Animal Kingdom or the Main Street audio at Disneyland. The entrance is supposed to look like a California post card which it does, though I don't believe I would have come to that conclusion if it had not been pointed out to me. Seeing the monorail pass across a scaled down Golden Gate bridge made me smile. The bridge immediately made me think of the Olden Gate bridge found at the entrance of Dinoland USA at Animal Kingdom. For the rest of the day I would be surrounded by bits and pieces that seemed to come from, at least in spirit, the other non-Magic Kingdom parks in the U.S.
Condor Flats - Soarin' Over California
Since crowds were low, the plan was to head to the big rides and get them over with first. A short walk led us to Condor Flats which felt a bit like the area around Indiana Jones at Disney/MGM and also a bit like Dinoland from DAK. Soarin' Over California was a walk on. The outside building looks like a large aircraft hanger and the ground appears to be a weathered landing strip complete with lights! Great attention to detail was everywhere I looked including on all kinds of signs. The queue to the ride itself was mostly industrial walls with some aviation pictures scattered around. It reminded me of the queue for the Tram Tour at D/MGM, actually. After lining up in one of three rows at each gate (like Star Tours, in a way), a video preshow comes on. The actor is the guy who will be playing The Tick in the new live action Fox series (based on the cartoon). He plays a flight attendant giving the preboarding speech which was quite humorous including a gag with a passenger in a Mickey hat. You will also notice one of the passengers in the video is dressed as a military pilot ;-) much like you find Ewoks and such in the video for Star Tours mingled amongst the tourist.
Upon entering the ride building you see rows of seats and a giant curve screen going many stories tall. After taking a seat, the lights go out as the seat gently rises and a few seconds later you are immersed in the film (and the seats have risen above the ground very high in front of the screen). The motion is superb with no harsh movements like Back to the Future or Star Tours. The scenes were from various California locations showing of desert, forest, snow and beach areas. During certain scenes you could smell the pine of the trees or the orange of the groves (most likely using the old system formerly found at Horizons at Epcot). It was an amazing and breathtaking journey that almost brought tears to my eye. I've never been on a simulator this good and anyone should be able to ride this one. If you fear heights, though, don't look down if you are in the first two rows. You go up several stories!
Paradise Pier - California Screamin'
Next stop was a quick jog over to the so-called "carnival section" of the park to hop on the super new coaster. The area is themed like a classic boardwalk (much like the area around the hotel at Disney World resort). The coaster had a rather bland queue (much like everything Disney has done in the past years including the zig-zag unthemed queues of Countdown to Extinction/Dinosaur and Rock N' Roller Coaster). The coast vehicles are quite roomy - I witnessed the largest person I have ever seen able to ride a coaster at this park! An onboard soundtrack (of surf guitar music with alot more in it than the Space Mountain soundtrack at Disneyland) begins as the car pulls out of the station. In one of the coolest coaster moments anywhere you find yourself pulling up near the edge of the water alongside the boardwalk. Mist generators turn off as the coast pulls into place and the music makes a dramatic pause waiting for launch. A second later and linear induction (magnets) blast the car across and up the first hill while waves splash to the right! Amazing thrill and it doesn't stop there. The first part is quick until you get to another lift hill which is completely silent. LIM is once again used to pull the coaster up this hill, all while the music slows down keeping pace with the speed you go. After this there are more smooth turns, bumps, drops, and a loop. The end run passes over some bunny hops with great airtime. It was a fantastic smooth ride with a soundtrack that followed it every step of the way. A picture is even taken (and for sale, though they have some issues getting the equipment to work all the time currently). What a ride! It is one of my favorite coasters of all time!
Hollywood Pictures Backlot - Superstar Limo
After the rush of the coaster, we hit the final "big" attraction - Superstar Limo. This is one of the few Disney-style rides in the park since it is a classic dark ride. Of course, "dark rides" were not Disney originals and existed in cheap carnivals ages before Disney ever dreamed up his first park. Anyway, the theme of Superstar is a comical journey from the LAX airport to the big premier of your new movie...sorta like Rock N Roller Coaster. In fact, as your limo themed vehicle winds through two dimensional sets of various LA landmarks the comparison to RNR is even more striking but, unlike RNR which just passes by some signs that light up, this ride has tons to see! Several animated figures which are way more complex than those in the Disneyland dark rides but nowhere near as fancy as full animatronics are seen along the way. Tim Allen, Cindy Crawford, Jackie Chan and many others are found in various animated sets. An on board monitor displays a computer generated puppet of your "manager" who talks to you about being late throughout the attraction. It is very weird. Think of it as a cross between the ancient Alice in Wonderland and Roger Rabbit. I have heard no good things about this attraction, but compared to virtually all other Disney dark rides (with the exception of Roger and the cool Pooh in Florida), this has got to be one of the most involved.
And now ... the rest of the park.
After the initial push to do all the "big" items, the rest of the day was spent exploring the park. The theming arranged from average to incredibly, but in no part of the park did it ever feel like a Six Flags. There were plenty of areas that seemed closer to Universal Studios but there were so many tiny Disney details to be found everywhere you looked. Anyone who thinks this isn't a Disney park has never ventured outside of Disneyland, methinks. Condor Flats, for instance, has cracked pavement and broken runway areas. The "road" to the Grizzly Peak area has highway signs (Interstate, Deer Crossing, etc.) and the same metal barriers you'd find along the interstate. Paradise Pier has the logo in the concrete and light posts. Around the Golden Vine Winery you see grapes being grown, and near Bountiful Valley Farm there is more produce than New Tomorrowland. Hollywood has more puns in signs than you could catch in a dozen visits. I will have to expand upon this report in the future with a breakdown of each section, but for now...
Eating and Drinking
Every U.S. Disney park other than the two Magic Kingdoms allows alcohol. It wasn't until 96 or so that Epcot started the "walk around with it" policy, so DCA seems more like Epcot did in the years before. Most places will serve beer or wine but you can't leave the area. The trick is the glass -- Taste Pilot's Grille serves beer in red cups which you can't walk around with. Security watches this carefully. Other areas, like the Beer Truck, serve it in a yellow cup which you can walk around with. Take note of the "don't take alcohol past this point" sign at the Grille. It's very temporary -- in fact, it's a foam board sign taped together, printed to look like it was a metal sign. I expect DCA to soon have an alcohol policy just like Disney/MGM, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom. This will be a great thing. I practically learned to drink at Walt Disney World and being able to tour the world at Epcot with an adult beverage was quite enjoyable. I believe the same will be true for touring California at DCA ;-)
The only full bars I found were at Wolfgang Puck's (an outside bar on the lower level overlooking the water) and at the ABC Soap Opera Bistro. Neither lets you leave with drinks, and the bistro only serves drinks with meals.
The Eureka parade was quite stunning. My favorite Disney parades have been the Main Street Electrical Light Parade and Lion King. The DCA parade doesn't compare (to me) to those excellent efforts, but it was one of the best parades I have ever seen at any Disney park. It actually reminded me alot of the Tapestry of Nations parade at Epcot during the 2000 celebrations. The parade features hip music and floats dedicated to all aspects of California: the Hispanic heritage, the Asian heritage, the surf generation, earthquakes, and so much more. See it again and again to catch all the details, like the Golden Gate Bridge (two stilt walkers) simulating the earthquake then checking to see if they are still intact with a sigh of relief. Great stuff! I loved it.
Other street entertainment was found throughout the day, such as odd "cloth people" around the Golden Dream theater. They were just like what I've seen at Epcot in Italy, actually. Speaking of the theater, several theater shows are available: Muppetvision 3D (just like MGM but with much improved animatronics and enhanced theater effects), It's Tough to Be a Bug (as far as I can tell identical to Animal Kingdom but with a better interior), Steps in Time (a mega hip updated Disney musical that was alot of fun), and Golden Dreams (a movie about California history featuring Whoopie Goldberg as the spirit of California). All of these shows were great, but Steps and Golden were in unfinished theaters. I am sure that was intentional, but the industrial ceiling (once I noticed it) did seem a bit cheap.
Disney Characters were all over the place! We saw Mickey and Minnie on the streets and also hanging out in the animation tour building. Goofy and his son Max, Cruela, characters from The Emperor's New Groove (which I haven't seen yet), Flik from Bug's Life, etc., etc. Wow! I saw more Disney characters at that park in two days then I did the other four I spent at Disneyland.
Live music was also happening with a street band that played off a stage pulled behind a classic "woody" station wagon. They played oldies on up to more modern songs. A giant street party was taking place with a very large crowd (much like a parade crowd -- hard to get around them). Great stuff, and having characters dancing around with the kids (and some adults) was pure Disney magic at its best.
Grizzly River Rapids was way more detailed and fun than the Kali rapids at Animal Kingdom. The area around it was amazingly themed and the little details in the Que. (like coffee cups and half eaten donuts, similar to Test Track) were everywhere you looked. Apparently the G.R.R. company loves donuts. The ride was wet but they had much of the water turned off due to the cool temperatures. During the summer this is going to be a total blast. Disney didn't pull many "cheap shots" at wetting the riders, either, other than some "leaking pipes" early on. Most of the wet was from actual truculence and the large spinning drop at the end (which Disney owns the patent on and you won't find it at any other raft ride in the world).
A water play area at the farm section was also attraction alot of kids, and the S.S. rustworthy (the "T" rusted off, you see) let kids fire water cannons at targets and each other. The detail here far surpasses Donald's boat at WDW Toontown Fair. Other minor "cool down" areas were to be found, such as one under a rocket engine at Condor Flats. Great stuff!
The nature section was the most amazing play area I have ever seen. Previously, I thought the same about the Dino Dig Site at Animal Kingdom, but this are far surpassed it. I think an hour was spent just walking around and climbing net bridges. There was a native American story told in a small theater (similar to the Pocahontas animal story from DAK) and plenty of slides and activities for the young (and young at heart) and healthy. What fun! The only part that stood out theme-wise was the walls along the back section of the playland to shield it from the mundane world.
A quick rundown of the other attractions: Orange Stinger is a typical chain swing ride, but in a themed enclosure that looks like a giant orange. A soundtrack (bees singing) plays during the very short ride, which I was thankful for. I can't ride spinny rides, but this one was short enough I enjoyed it and didn't even get queasy. Wait for the end to hear a bee hum "Small World" for a few bars. Maliboomer is a typical Space Shot (the same as Knott's and even Adventureland here in Des Moines, Iowa). No big deal BUT it is themed and does have a cool soundtrack that plays while the ride is shooting up. You can't hear it from the cars after the launch but it sounds great from the ground. Listen for the classic "Goofy laugh" which Disney uses in every movie and sneaks into things like the drop at Splash Mountain. Use the single rider line and practically walk on. Golden Zephyr was another chain ride that really reminded me of Rocket Rods for some reason. It isn't gold, either, but the models they sell (toy) are. Did they plan to paint it? Again, short enough I could enjoy it. The Sun Wheel gave a great view of the park (and surrounding area). I didn't ride the moving buckets since there was a "shortcut line" for the stationary ones. There is a film on wine at the winery which never turned into a commercial like I expected (due to all the Epcot films doing so). Thank you, Disney! The Bakery Tour has a hilarious video (and free sourdough bread to try at the end) which shouldn't be missed (once) but I can't say much about the Mission Tortilla Factory tour. Either way you only spend a few minutes going through them.
Disney outdid itself here. The main entrance plays a medley of California-inspired songs. Condor Flats has "flying" songs, such as Weird Al's "Airline Amy" and Skynnyrd's "Freebird". Check out the jukebox inside Taste Pilot's Grille for a partial track listing, and tell me what typo you find :-) Near the winery more instrumental (and beautiful) music plays, as does similar nature music around Grizzly Peak. Hollywood has tons of Hollywood inspired music mixed in with some of the stuff you'd hear at Universal Studios or Disney/MGM (movie/TV theme songs). All in all, the best area music I've heard outside of Isle of Adventure (which has a complete custom soundtrack for that amazing Universal park).
We drank beer. We drank wine. We ate chicken strips. We had an AMAZING time at the all you can eat Soap Opera Bistro breakfast (with full entertainment). We had drinks at Wolfgang's. We snacked. We had Chinese at Hollywood and Dine. Did I mention the wine? The prices were the same as I was used to from the Florida parks (I always found Disneyland to be cheaper). Folks, Disney just built a Florida park in California and themed it to California to throw us all off.
Final Thoughts Until Next Time...
I don't have room or time to type up a real report on this park right now. Suffice it to say I love virtually everything about this park. Compared to the "recent" Disney offerings (Disney/MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom) there is simply more to see and to at DCA than those parks had the first few years of their existence. Animal Kingdom is considered a "half day" park by most, and I'd certainly call DCA a full day park on those terms. And yes, it is $43 to get in the same as Disneyland, but so is DAK, D/MGM and Epcot and none of those have as much to do as the original Magic Kingdom in Florida. Figure it out, folks. DCA is the same stuff Disney has been cranking out for years.
Critics bash the theming, but I found it excellent. Critics bash the unthemed queues, but nothing since Tower of Terror or Indiana Jones Adventure has had a well themed queue at Disney...has it? There are so many new things to see and do, and for those who only grew up with Disneyland this may be a shock. Never expect a "Disneyland 2" -- even The Magic Kingdom in Florida didn't pull that off and it was opened just a few years after Walt passed away. The music isn't a "Disney musical" -- it is a musical using Disney tunes in a Disney park. The parade isn't a "Disney parade" -- it is a California parade in a Disney park.
The problem is not with what Disney opened. The problem is with how people look at it.
Look for a full expanded tour/guide to Disney's California Adventure to be added to this site in the future. For the first time I find a reason to do something like that. Thanks, Disney. I expected to hate the park (and almost didn't go!) but compared to the other Florida parks of recent history, this one just blew me away.
Check back later!