California Adventure turns 6

On this day 6 years ago my future wife and I were camping out waiting to be among the first official guests of Disneyland Resort’s second gate the following morning. Tens of thousands of guests were expected to camp out over night for
the chance to get in the next day. Less then 2000 chose to do so (a few
more thousand showed up the next morning). We survived a 33 degree night camping out in Disneyland, a horribly managed march to the new park, and the indignity of not even being in a position to see the opening ceremonies, nor actually being the first guests into the park. The history of California Adventure goes downhill from there.

The funny thing is the park had been in soft openings for most of a month. I had been five times already. So I knew what I was getting into. But it was my first chance to be at the opening of a brand new Disney theme park. Boy did I learn my lesson.

So where is California Adventure on it’s sixth year anniversary? In limbo, it appears. Darkbeer, ubiquitous Disney enthusiast, has written a great post over at where he sums up the current state of the park.

Less than a year ago, Disney’s chief executive officer, Robert Iger went on record during the company’s annual stockholder meeting on March 10th, 2006, when someone asked about a potential third park being built in Anaheim. "We’re still working to assure the second gate is successful", Iger said, referring to California Adventure. "In the spirit of candor, we have been challenged."

What is the challenge? Well, it has been reported that the Senior Execs now are looking into “The DCA Problem” and how to fix it.

Disney fans have known what the problems were from the moment plans were leaked to the internet. The plans for the park were conceived during an executive retreat in Aspen. Disneyland President Paul Pressler and rising WDI star Barry Braverman (known for his ability to build attractions on the cheap) came up with the idea for the park during a brief walk down to the corner. There was no story, no need to be filled (other than the company’s coffers), and no theme park design experience in the original group. Then they handed the park off to the a new group of Imagineers who were brought in from Disney’s Development Company (the folks who built Hotels and Resorts). Essentially, they were flying blind.

There were three main problems. One, on Michael Eisner’s orders they went cheap. They spent $1.4 billion expanding the resort, but only around $650 million of that went to the new park. Tokyo Disney Sea, which opened later in 2001 spent $1.6 billion just on the park. There are a host of problems that come with going cheap. No birm (or creative building placement) to block out the outside world, over use of lightly themed buildings and off the shelf attractions, very little shade, and more. Some of this is easy to fix (better themeing) and some of it isn’t. The lack of a birm let’s Disney’s hotels, neighboring hotels, and the convention center loom over the park constant reminders of the decidedly unfun world they’re trying to escape.

Problem number two was the theme. The theme of California past and present, hip & edgy, was supposed to appeal to international visitors who would either visit California Adventure as a launching point for a larger visit to California, or as a surrogate for the real thing. Turns out the percentage of international visitors who cared for this theme was small. And the percentage of locals who were interested even smaller. And Disneyland Resort remains largely a local’s destination. In reality the design of the park was largely based on Disney’s failed attempt to build a theme park in Virginia called "Disney’s America". The parallels are eerie.

Additionally, even if you liked the theme, it was poorly executed. The Paradise Pier theme used stucco fronts instead of authentic looking materials. Plus Walt built Disneyland to avoid the kind of seedy feel that came with pier based attractions of the past. It was very bad taste to build that in the former parking lot of Disneyland. The San Francisco area is so small as to be pointless and the Route 66 area relied on off the shelf rides that were themed soley because the area was themed to being off the shelf. Etc., etc., etc. Guests catch on to that stuff really quick when they’re looking for the Disney high quality emmersive theme experience they can get just 500 feet away at the original Disneyland.

Then there was the park layout and the attractions. Choosing to avoid the hub and spoke concept that works so well, they went with the weird ‘zone’ concept. This lends to endless guest confusion. The "performance corridor", while technically well done, was poorly suited to showing off the large floats that were now capable of being paraded through the park. The lagoon was crying out for a water show, but with no viewing area and a size just a tad too small to utilize fireworks, they’ve never been able to get anything that really works in there. The Grand Californian sits ‘inside’ the park, which is a cool concept if you’re staying at the hotel or want to grab a quick bite outside the park, but in reality takes up a huge footprint that could otherwise have gone to attractions and entertainment in a park that is already starved for acreage.

When the park opened there was very little for toddlers to do. They had to build a whole new land just for the kiddies. Superstar Limo suffered, first as the theme was changed in reaction to Princess Diana’s death, and then as the attraction was deemed too goofy, even for Disney. Lines for the park’s Three real E-Tickets were always unbearably long while the minor attractions suffered for attendance. Plus there were no classic audio-animatronic Disney style attractions (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, etc). What there was plenty of was shops and restaurants. So many that quickly it became apparent they had overbuild in that regard.

So if I’m doing all this critiquing do I have a solution? I do (look at DisneySea to start). But it involves time travel, lots of dynamite, and a lot more money. It’s also pointless to discuss. Disney management is going to do what they’re going to do. Whether it’s an incremental approach, fixing a few small things every year hoping they build positive returns, or a large investment to overhaul the park quickly, at least they know they need to be doing something.

Darkbeer thinks something might be announced at the Shareholder meeting this March. We’ll see. Hopefully they won’t be afraid to really look at the problem.