The Evolution of Disney California Adventure
This week, Disney California Adventure (DCA) quietly celebrated it's 14th birthday. Walking around the park with my husband, I couldn't help but be struck with the long journey this young park has been on.
I remember being there on Opening Day. As a Disneyland Attractions manager, we were all given direction that we would support this 2nd gate, by working a shift on opening day, February 8, 2001. The expectations were very high. The last time Disneyland had an Opening Day was July 17, 1955.
I found this old map from 2001 and decided to go with MacSparky to explore DCA then and now.
Think about some of these numbers. It cost $17 million to complete Disneyland in 1955. The amount allocated for the expansion of Disneyland that would be known as DCA was $1.4 billon. On a cold February day in 2001, DCA welcomed its first guest.
My Opening Day Story
Disneyland was on the brink of an evolution by having two theme parks, two separate gates. There was a lot of planning that went into Guest Control in anticipation of a huge crowd wanting to be part of history and to get into a brand new Disney park on its first day of operation. It happened to be one of the coldest day on record (as far as cold days go in Southern California) on February 8, 2001.
I remember putting on my brand new costume ready to work a busy opening day. I had been assigned to work the new Muppets Theater for an evening shift. I left early in anticipation of a crowd. I had little to no traffic and made it to work in plenty of time. I got to my assigned location to check in. My manager friends, who had worked hard and long hours to prepare for this day, were all filled with energy. There were excited Cast Members everywhere ... and that was about it. I thought I could here crickets. At times it felt like there were more Cast Members present than Guests. Opening day at DCA was a dud. After a few hours, they told me to go home.
The very cold weather was blamed for a lackluster Opening Day crowd. In time, that excuse was proven false. The weather got warmer; the crowds stayed small. DCA, as it opened, fell flat. The second gate lacked a Disney story that connected with people.
This initial reception wasn't a surprise in the Sparks household. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times leading up to the building of DCA (that I've searched for online and never found) talking about how Disney management–primarily Michael Eisner and Paul Pressler–spent a lot of time figuring out how to lower DCA's costs in the design and construction phases.
The second gate at Disneyland was at one point contemplated to be something like Epcot Center but then it got scaled down. It was even referred to as as WestCot. Then they made another slash through the budget by using off-the-shelf ride systems slightly Disney-fied. When I read this article I couldn't help but think that DCA was being reduced to mediocrity before the first shovel touched soil.
Soarin' Over California was really the only original attraction that a chunk of money and Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) resources were allocated to. Most of attractions in the new park were either ones that already existed in a current Disney Park (eg. Muppet Vision 3D and "It's Tough to Be a Bug") or where rides that were purchased off the shelf that WDI put a Disney overlay on. All the attractions at Paradise Pier were reminiscent of carnival rides and that area had the stink of county fair about it. Disney even hired an outside company to help with the slogans, signs and Games of the Boardwalk.
There is an interview that Walt Disney did back in the 1960's where he talks about how he got the idea for Disneyland. Walt says "I felt that there should be something built. Some kind of amusement enterprise built where the parents and the children could have fun together."
If anything Paradise Pier was exactly the place Walt was trying to flee when he built Disneyland.
After Opening Day, DCA continued to have only lukewarm attendance. Disney finally had enough and in 2007, $1.1 billion was allocated to make DCA a park worthy of the Disney name. Over a period of five years, a new area - Cars Land, improved entertainment that included World of Color, a reconfigured main entrance, and Buena Vista Street all dramatically improved the Guest experience.
The investment yielded results. As I toured the park on its 14th birthday this past weekend, people were everywhere (and about half of them were wearing Frozen apparel!) Restaurants were full, attractions were busy, and it occurred to me that DCA is now … finally … truly a fitting compliment to Disneyland.
It has taken Disneyland almost 60 years to be the park that we all have come to love and know. I think that Disney California Adventure is just getting started to creating its own legacy.
Happy Birthday, Disney California Adventure!