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The History of Disney California Adventure

Jack Spence Masthead


Last week I wrote a piece trying to persuade those of you who have never visited the Disneyland Resort to give it a try rather than continually visiting Walt Disney World year after year. In that piece, I pretty much omitted discussing Disney California Adventure (DCA) as there is so much new in this park that I wanted to devote several articles to it. So here we go with a story of a Disney park that went from failure to success.

Before we get started, I want to share a small fact that can cause confusion. The park’s name was changed from Disney’s (possessive) California Adventure to Disney (non-possessive) California Adventure as part of the park’s transformation. For simplicity sake, I’m going to use the new, non-possessive name for continuity throughout this article whether or not the time frame calls for it.

As I so often do, I must lay a little ground work before I discuss DCA.

I have often said that Michael Eisner was the best thing to happen to the Disney Company during his first ten years of service. When he and Frank Wells came on board as CEO and CFO, the company was foundering and on the verge of being chopped up and sold in pieces due to hostile takeover attempts. Eisner and Wells saved the company. This dynamic duo functioned much like Walt and Roy. Eisner was the creative genius and Wells the financial guru.


Michael Eisner & Frank Wells


One of their early endeavors was to plan and build Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris). This would be an ambitious project that would include a theme park, a shopping district, six hotels, and a campground. No expense was spared when designing and building this resort. All Eisner and Wells had to do to justify spending so much money was to look at the success of Tokyo Disneyland to realize Europe was another success story waiting to happen – or so they thought.

Each aspect of the project would be innovative -- especially the theme park. At Disneyland Paris the Imagineers were able to blend the charm of Disneyland California with the size of the Magic Kingdom to create a fantastic park like nothing seen before. Intricate details and fascinating elements were crammed into every nook and corner. The finished project was magnificent beyond compare. In my opinion, Disneyland Paris ranks second only after Tokyo DisneySea as the most beautiful of the Disney parks.


Disneyland Paris


Unfortunately, when Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, Europe was in the midst of a recession. In addition, there really wasn’t a need for six hotels with only one theme park. Paris was merely a 30 minute train ride away and many visitors made the City of Lights their base camp and commuted to and from the park. Even though the theme park was well attended, the hotels were losing money. At one point, the loss was $1 million a day. However, with time and an infusion of cash from outside sources, Disneyland Paris was eventually turned around – but it took years.

Eisner learned his lesson well and from that point on, he became much more frugal with the company’s purse strings. To further complicate and cloud Eisner’s thinking, his partner Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash in1994 while returning from a ski vacation. No longer did Eisner have his friend and confidant to guide him through financial waters. This new, frugal attitude would play a significant role when it came time to build Disney California Adventure.

It’s interesting to note, when Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, the Disney Company only built two hotels. Disneyland Paris had taught them well.

Stepping back in time even further, we find ourselves at Disneyland California in 1954. Walt knew there needed to be some sort of lodging near his new park. Remember, at that time, most of Anaheim was covered in orange trees and there were very few options for overnight guests. But since all of Walt’s capital was tied up in his park, he did not have the means to undertake the building of a motel/hotel. So he turned to his friend Jack Wrather to build a motor lodge next to Disneyland. With this deal, Wrather also owned the rights to the name “Disneyland Hotel.”


Disneyland Hotel


When Eisner came to power, he realized that the Disney Company needed control of anything that carried the name Disney. So in 1984 he started negotiations to buy the Disneyland Hotel. It took five years, but eventually in 1989, a deal was struck. The Disney Company would buy all of the Wrather organization. This included the Queen Mary and Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, both located in Long Beach Harbor.


Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose


Shortly after the acquisition, Disney announced that they wanted to build a second theme park in Southern California. Two possible locations were mentioned. The first would be next to the newly acquired Queen Mary and would feature a park to be called DisneySea. The second proposed park would rise in Disneyland’s parking lot and would feature a park to be called WestCOT.

This announcement pitted the cities of Long Beach and Anaheim against one another. Disney played them both to see which would offer the company the most lucrative deals and the most perks. I don’t know if Disney ever really seriously considered Long Beach, but eventually Anaheim won out.

Once the dust settled, Disney quietly sold the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose. However, the plans for DisneySea did not go to waste. This park was eventually built adjacent to Tokyo Disneyland in Japan.


DisneySea


WestCOT was to be a West Coast version of Epcot that would even contain its own adaptation of Spaceship Earth. It was also to be the first Disney park to contain hotels within its boundaries. However, a number of obstacles for building this park proved insurmountable. Chiefly among these were local resident complaints and money. At an estimated budget of $3 billion, the price tag was unrealistic in lieu of the Disneyland Paris debacle. Another idea was needed.


WestCOT

WestCOT


To come up with a new concept, Eisner held a three-day executive retreat in Aspen, Colorado. After much discussion, he and his team settled on California Adventure, a park that would showcase the Golden State. It was estimated that the park could be built for a mere $650 million, a bargain compared to the $3 billion price tag for WestCOT.

Although the idea for a hotel within the borders of DCA never materialized, this idea was realized at Tokyo DisneySea with the MiraCosta Resort. Some will argue that the Grand Californian lies within DCA, but this is not true. It sits adjacent to the park, not within it. The MiraCosta is literally within the boundaries of Tokyo DisneySea.


MiraCosta


One of the first things Disney needed to do in order to build DCA was ready the parking lot for construction. But before they could do that, they needed to come up with somewhere else for guests to park. To that end, they built a multi-story parking garage at the north end of their property at the corner of West Street and Ball Road. The “Mickey and Friends” parking structure can hold over 10,000 vehicles.


Mickey and Friends Parking Structure


The next order of business was to relocate the high-voltage electrical towers that marched across the existing parking lot. These towers didn’t present a problem when all you wanted to do was park cars beneath them, but you certainly couldn’t build a theme park under them – both aesthetically and legally. Disney paid Southern California Edison a small fortune to reposition these towers to jog around DCA and the adjoining land across West Street where the Disneyland Hotel and the Paradise Pier Hotel are located.

This next picture was taken from the Disneyland Main Street Train Station looking south toward the parking lot. The old electrical towers are clearly visible. The second picture was taken from the cab of the monorail after the towers and the asphalt had been removed from the area. The Disneyland Hotel can be seen in the dead center of the picture.


High Voltage Towers

DCA Under Construction


The idea of a park that showcased California was not received well by the critics. Many argued, “Why build a park about California, in California, when you have the real thing at your doorstep.” And from there the criticism only got worse.

When actual construction of the park began in 1997, word spread among the Disney websites of the day that Eisner and the Imagineers were buying “off-the-shelf” attractions from other companies. Then once the rides were delivered to DCA, they would be spruced up with a few Disney flourishes.

Disney’s marketing team touted DCA as a magnificent park that would complement Disneyland. They predicted that guests would be turned away in the months immediately after opening and during spring break as the park would reach capacity early in the day.

Disney California Adventure officially opened on February 8, 2001. But the mind-blowing crowds did not materialize. Both the media and the early guests panned the park. They complained about the redundant “California” theme, no rides for young children, the lack of “E” ticket attractions, and the lack of a “Disney” ambiance. Although not something they could admit to the public, the Disney executives quickly came to realized that the deep budget cuts imposed on DCA had affected the park.

The average guest was smarter than Disney realized. People could easily see the difference between the magnificent Disneyland next door and the lackluster Disney California Adventure – which brought further complaints. Guests questioned why they should have to pay the same admission price for DCA as they did for Disneyland. However, to cut the admission price for DCA would be admitting that the park was a lesser attraction. This was a step the marketing team did not want to take. Something needed to be done to fix DCA. But unfortunately, much of these early fixes were simply Band-Aids placed on hemorrhaging wounds.

The first fix Disney implemented was “a bug's land" and area aimed at small children. Once again, Disney bought off-the-shelf rides and themed them with characters from the Disney/Pixar film “A Bugs Life.” Although the rides filled the needs of very young children, they were not comparable to the dark rides found in Fantasyland. Guests were not impressed.


A Bugs Land

A Bug's Land


Soon after “a bug's land,” Disney added the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” attraction that was already playing at Disney's Hollywood Studios. They converted the abysmal “Superstar Limo” attraction into “Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!.” The show at the Hyperion Theater was revamped and improved. And in 2004 they finally added the first truly “Disney” E-ticket attraction, “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.” But overall, none of this had a significant effect on the park.

On March 13, 2005, Disney announced that Bob Iger would succeed Michael Eisner as CEO. Much would change with this new leadership.

On October 17, 2007, Iger announced a multi-year $1.1 billion expansion for DCA. The plan included modifications to the park’s entrance, Paradise Pier, Golden State, and Hollywood Pictures Backlot. In addition, Sunshine Plaza would be transformed into Buena Vista Street and a whole new area, Cars Land, would be added to the park.

With the work complete, Disney California Adventure was rededicated on June 15, 2012. This rededication was Disney’s way of acknowledging that they had goofed in the beginning and were ready to start anew.


DCA Dedication Plaque


A huge press event was held for the rededication and both guests and media personnel could see the difference. The massive crowds that never materialized at the park’s original opening finally showed up this past summer. For the first time in history, DCA occasionally hosted more people than Disneyland on given days. The Disney Company had gone back to its core values and it showed. DCA was no longer an outcast stepchild, it was a full member of the Disney family.

Next week I will discuss Disney California Adventure in detail and show you some before and after photographs. I think you’ll be amazed at the changes.


The previous post in this blog was Visit Disneyland - Part Two.

The next post in this blog is Disney California Adventure Part One of Six.

Comments (13)

Colleen:

True to Jack Spence form, this was a really interesting article. I am one of those lifelong WDW visitors, but I finally had a chance to visit Disneyland and DCA about two years ago. I instantly fell in love with Disneyland, and although I was mentally prepared to be disappointed by DCA, I remember walking around and thinking "okay, this isn't THAT bad." But I'm sure I would have been whistling a different tune if I'd visited in 2001! Really looking forward to seeing the before and after photos. Thank you!

Brian:

I enjoy your articles on subjects like these. I've visited DW numerous times, but haven't been to DL since 1993. I'm trying to decide which one I'll take my 3yr old to first. I enjoy the "escape" that DW gives me and I'm not sure that DL will do the same. I've spent as many as 10 days in Florida and never left Disney property, but can only see us spending 2-3 days in Anaheim. I'm looking forward to hear what you have to say in your future blogs. Keep up the good work. It's much appreciated.

Greg H.:

Hi Jack,

This blog entry is very encouraging.

I've only visited DCA once in early 2002. I was so very disappointed in what I saw. It didn't even feel like a Disney Park. The only thing I truly enjoyed was Soarin' Over California. I also felt it was a bit redundant to travel to California and visit a park about California. My family moved from Southern California to Northern California later in 2002, so I haven't been back to Anaheim since.

As you know, I grew up with, and worked at Disneyland as a teenager. I feel very protective about Disneyland Park, especially after October 1, 1971, when we seemed to have become the "red-headed step-child" to Walt Disney World, overnight.

Over the years after WDW opening, I watched Disneyland Park run down, with peeling paint, and poorly designed "upgrades," and then it would improve somewhat. It seemed as though all the other Disney Parks took priority, and Disneyland Park was put on the back burner. I can't tell you how much this saddened me. It was like being disrespectful to Walt himself.

It has now been over ten years since my last visit to Anaheim, and twelve since Disneyland Park. I know that it will be a while until I'm able to visit Anaheim again. I hope within the next couple of years I will be able to spend a few days in Anaheim, so I'm really looking forward to next week's blog entry. You've really peeked my interest and hope for DCA, so I really am hoping for a significant transformation.

Thanks again for all of you hard work on these blog entries. °o°

Greg

Mel:

I'm loving this ongoing series of articles, thank you Jack. I am wondering about one thing though, what was the "Superstar Limo" attraction, and why was it abysmal?

Jack's Answer:

I will be discussing Superstar Limo a week from Tuesday (December 18). Check back then.

Interesting post, Jack. I was at California Adventure in May right before the re-dedication, and it was pretty much a mess. I enjoyed checking it out for the first time, but I spent probably 80% of my three days at Disneyland. I really just hopped over to DCA to do a few rides and see World of Color. From what I hear, the new Cars Land and Buena Vista Street help it out a lot. I can't wait to get back out there in a few years!

A very interesting article. Somehow you managed to condense a ton of "happenings" into a single easily digestible blog. Seriously, Jack - EuroDisney, WestCOT, The Disneyland Hotel, Tokyo DisneySea, the history of Disneyland,& the history of DCA all in one article? Those subjects have all had BOOKS written about them (possibly excepting WestCOT).

Wonderful Job! I'm really looking forward to the before and after photos.

One of your readers inquired Can't wait for part 2!

Dan

Josh:

hey Jack
I love learning about the history of Disney parks and now I can add Disneyland to the list. There is so much history that I have yet to learn and I probably will never learn it all but it sure is fun learning. can't wait for your next blog and as always keep up the great work.

Mike:

Really have enjoyed the DL articles. My family and I visited DL for first time in August after over a dozen trips to WDW. I have told everyone since returning they must see DL. We had such a great time and now all look forward to returning someday. I agree with you - everyone really needs to visit DL at least once. It's where it all began, it's the only park that Walt himself actually built.

I don't know what DCA looked like a decade ago of course, but we enjoyed it - especially Cars Land! I think you also mentioned this as well - the Aladdin Show is the best show we've seen on Disney property.

A trip to DL also includes a lot less walking and absolutley no busses! I cannot stress enough how easy is was to get around. When you add it all up a trip to Disneyland should be on every Disney fan's list.

Thanks Jack - for another in a long list of great articles!

Stephanie $:

My husband and I visited in May of 2011, just a few weeks shy of discovering my pregnancy with our first child. I hated I wasn't able to ride most of the "E" ticket rides, but we really enjoyed the parks. We have been to
WDW over 20 times, and can navigate all parks on the East Coast without a map. We've helped countless "lost" newbies with directions and tips. Obviously, on our trip to DL, we were the newbies! Before our trip, we had several friends tell us they didn't think we'd like it, but I didn't trust their opinion. It always looked awesome when I read articles here and on other websites. And boy, I'm glad I kept that open mind! To be honest, I love the compactness of the park. Getting from Tomorrowland to Frontierland isn't a 10-to-15 minute fast paced walk. And, we loved Pirates there so much more! But, we like WDW's Haunted Mansion more, so there was some give and take. Of course, when you're accustomed to the grandeur of Cinderlla Castle, Sleeping Beauty Castle takes you a little off-guard when you can barely see it from the train station. For us, the airfare is what prevents us from returning as soon as we'd like, but we do plan to return. In the meantime, I have your posts and 'Salute to all things Disney but mostly Disneyland' to keep us abreast of the West Coast action! Thanks for sharing the love!

Wendy Crober:

Great article Jack - I love the history lessons in all your stories.

Like everyone else I can't wait for the next installment.

Wendy

Great post, lots of neat insight. I find it interesting that the expansion cost nearly twice as much as the whole Park's initial opening did! So glad they realized their mistakes and fixed them instead of expanding elsewhere. Truly one for the history books.

Brian M.:

I never quite understood the decision to drop the possessive 's from the title.

Jack's Comment:

I don't understand either. My only thought is Disney wanted to change the name to designate the "new" park from the "old." But this is just a guess on my part.

Rafa:

Great article as always, Jack -- looking forward to the next six! :-)

One question, though: since the ill-fated "WestCOT" was meant to be the west coast version of EPCOT, was its full name supposed to be "West Community of Tomorrow"? Or was it more of an attempt to sound and look like "EPCOT," but without the literal meaning of the original acronym?

Jack's Answer:

To be honest, I really don't know. However, I NEVER heard the concept referred to as West Community of Tomorrow. I only heard it referred to as WestCOT. This makes me believe it was simply an attempt to look and sound like EPOCT.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 10, 2012 6:43 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Visit Disneyland - Part Two.

The next post in this blog is Disney California Adventure Part One of Six.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.