Robert's Tour, Part Five -- Disney's California Adventure
Are things getting any better at Disney's second Anaheim theme park?
Written by Robert Niles
Anaheim, California -- If you are under the impression that no one ever goes to Disney's California Adventure after reading reports on some other websites, allow me to relieve you of that notion right now.Tweet
Of course, lines don't always correlate to attendance. Shorter operating hours, coupled with lower attraction capacity, can force long lines at ever sparsely attended parks. And California Adventure opened two hours after Disneyland this morning, closing shop three hours before its older sibling tonight. While the turnstile numbers might not yet be eliciting smiles in Burbank, enough people are coming to California Adventure that a visitor can no longer expect to walk right on every attraction.
As usual, I arrived before the park opened, to get a jump on the crowd and bag as many attractions as I could before early afternoon. But a little reconnaissance the day before lead me to think that a counterintuitive approach might help me breeze through California Adventure more quickly.
Logic would dictate that you go to the big new attraction first, in this case, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. But Disney's operating Tower of Terror at full capacity throughout the day, leaving it with one of the shorter standby waits in the park at midday. So I opted to go the other direction, and visit several busy attractions in Golden State and Paradise Pier earlier in the day.
First stop: Grab a Fastpass for Soarin' Over California. That in hand, I hiked back over to Paradise Pier to ride California Screamin'. (Apparently, Vanna ran out of “g”s when Disney desi'ned this park. Which is appropriate, 'cause DCA's bank account hasn't been showin' many G's ever since.)
Five minutes later, I was on board. After Xcelerator's zero-to-80, two-second launch on Wednesday, Screamin's launch seemed as brisk as the morning rush hour on the Hollywood Freeway. (Which, for non-Angelenos, means not very at all.) Throughout the ride on this faux woodie coaster (it's really steel), each element seemed dialed back a notch from where it should have been. The launch is step slow. The dips are a few degrees too flat, the turns nudge you rather than shove. Even the visuals are obscured by sound barriers on the south side of every crest. It's as if designers decided that a “Disney coaster” needed not just to be clean and pleasantly staffed, but dulled-down as well.
I left the ride feeling more indifferent than thrilled. And that was a reaction I'd feel throughout my day at California Adventure.
Next up was Maliboomer, a moonshot ride themed to be one of those bells a strongman would try to ring by smashing down a hammer. Except that there's no strongman. And carnival attractions aren't among the first 57,000 things that come to mind when thinking of Malibu. The Santa Monica pier, maybe, but I guess no one at Disney could think of a dumb pun for that. (The Santa Moonica?) Anyway, the blast up was okay, I guess, but then we bounced harmlessly up and down for a few seconds, just like on the kiddies' Jumpin' Jellyfish (come on, Vanna, there's gotta be a “g” on that board *someplace*), but 50 feet farther up. Feh.
After Maliboomer, I picked up a Fastpass for the Grizzly River Run on my way back to the front of the park to ride Soarin'.
Soarin' reminds me of my wife's favorite attraction at Epcot, Impressions de France. Both films are travelogues, set to music, taking viewers on a whirlwind tour of scenes from around the cities, mountaintops, farms and countrysides of the two relatively similar regions.
But while moviegoers watch France from traditional theater seats facing a 180-degree screen, California Adventure visitors watch Soarin' from handglider-style seats, suspended from the ceiling, watching an IMAX-style presentation. Much, much more impressive.
Well, it would be if the nearly 25-year-old France movie didn't eat its lunch. Disney's opted against a voice-over on Soarin', forcing the visuals and music to carry the film's narrative. They can't handle the burden. The conceit of flying across the state traps the camera in the air, where it can never close in on the faces or expressions of the people on the ground. Visual acrobatics could save the effort, but after opening with an impressive shot along a Sierra river, the film mostly offers up fairly straightforward images, as if the aircraft could rarely swoop too far nor the camera pan too freely.
And Soarin's derivative score reminds me of the unimaginative strings one might hear as background music during a Matlock rerun. Hardly the Saint Saens organ symphony.
On to the Tower of Terror. Some readers have jumped over me for writing that I thought Universal Studios Hollywood's Revenge of the Mummy a more impressive attraction that this.
Well, having given Tower a second look, I still believe that.
Look, Tower boasts a more impressive introduction, and an outstanding queue. But as fellow TPI'er Kevin Baxter pointed out, it's all first act. The narrative never reveals an irony -- that Twilight Zone moment -- which would raise this attraction to greatness. You know, where we find out that the monsters are really just us. Or that while we're finally alone in the world to read now, our glasses are busted. Instead, we bounce up and down in the dark for a few seconds. Fans loved the Twilight Zone for more than spooky talk about fifth dimensions. They loved and respected the show because it exposed life's consequences to an indifferent world.
Tower of Terror never lays out any consequences for the rider. We walk into a haunted hotel, board a service elevator, bounce up and down, then get out and leave. Mummy, on the other hand, offers a complete narrative arc. (One paragraph summary: An eclipse unleashes Imhotep's curse. Riders succumb to it by entering his tomb and viewing his treasure. Imhotep claims the riders' souls, damning them to the underworld, but then the eclipse breaks, Imhotep is defeated and riders return safely.)
Don't get me wrong, Tower of Terror will entertain most any rider. No one who visits California Adventure should miss it. But while I enjoyed the ride, I do not consider it as impressive as Mummy, or the original Tower of Terror in Florida. Disney could have done better. Give it a go, though. Your mileage may vary.
From joining the standby queue to finishing the ride, Tower took just 30 minutes, leaving me plenty of time to walk back over to the Grizzly River Run for my Fastpass reservation there. Grizzly, along with Soarin' and Muholland Madness, offers a single rider line, which normally I would recommend to any solo visitor like me. But today, I wanted to test my tour plan, so I stuck with the regular standby and Fastpass return lines.
Grizzly soaks it riders better than any other tub ride in Southern California. Its flume design spins the tub throughout the ride more aggressively than any other such ride in the area. And Grizzly offers a few intentionally leaky pipes, along with a strategically placed geyser at the end, to mop up whatever dry patches the whitewater might have missed.
Yet, like Knott's Bigfoot Rapids, Grizzly soaks you in silence, without the music or characters that elevate Splash Mountain over the likes of Knott's Log Ride. How hard would it have been to give Disney's Country Bears a new home here?
Again, on every attraction, California Adventure comes up a step short. Perhaps that's why so many visitors seem frustrated, or at least left cold, by this park. Some may complain about the theme. And I agree that I'd rather see attractions tied to the extensive history and mythology of California than to contemporary themes. But half-hearted execution provides the greater problem here. It's as if the park was designed by a committee, worried about keeping costs down and not offending anyone, rather than entertainers with a strong vision they wanted to share.
So here we have a park for the lowest common denominator of Disney fan -- the ones who thought Atlantis and Home on the Range were just swell. For a couple bucks, I'll rent those flicks for my kids. But I won't spend $40 to take the whole family to see them in the theater.
And that's ultimately how I feel about California Adventure. Show me another aggressive discount -- like the ones Knott's offers -- and I'll bring the family back to this park. Without one, however, I'll save the full-price expeditions for Disneyland or Universal instead.
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