Trip Review: Disney California Adventure
Published: June 23, 2014 at 6:31 PM
Disney California Adventure
In 1998, Disney looked to expand its dominance over the Southern California theme park market with the addition of a second park and shopping village. Disney was looking to turn a one day park into a multi-day resort tourist trap. Construction was finally finished in 2001 and with much fanfare Disney opened their second gate and transformed Disneyland into the Disneyland resort. Unfortunately the crowds Disney projected never materialized due to the cartoonish pop culture theme of the park. Once the "ugly step" sister to the original Magic Kingdom across the breezeway, Disney California Adventure was given a 1.1 billion dollar renovation to help band-aid it's lackluster image. The reworked areas have helped boost attendance in the park, and brought in some Disney charm that was certainly lacking up till now.
We began the day entering the park at the soft-open with a line that had the terrible iPhone picture check. This is what Disneyland Resort uses as opposed to the fingerprint system used at its sister parks in Florida. While I applaud Disney for trying to evolve and jump on new technologies, this process is too slow and cumbersome. Relying on a wireless network to attempt to take pictures of every single guest with a multi-day ticket breaks one of Disney's four keys which is "efficiency." The older main gate operators in our line continued to hold the line until each and every picture went through which took forever. The lines to both our left and right with younger cast members took note of the issues they were experiencing, ditched the iPhones and proceeded to let guests in so long as the hard ticket scanned properly trying to be as efficient as possible. They'd stop the line every 20 or so guests and see if the devices were coming back up, which they never did, but they did their jobs the best they could given the situation. Meanwhile our line stopped moving all together due to our the ditzy main gate lady, whom kept plucking away at her iPhone trying to make it work, clearly being as inefficient as humanly possible. Now I realize she was "just doing her job," but "her job" also requires her to take initiative, and if the technology has failed her, she needs to find a leader and look for guidance if she can't get something to work. Don't hold the line there for 45 minutes to take a damn picture.
So after missing most of the soft open and standing in a horrible iPhone line, we finally made it into the revamped Buena Vista Street 15 minutes before park open. It's a much welcomed sight after the horrible postcard mural entrance that had been there for so many years. The buildings are very nicely detailed inside and out. On display in Elias & Co. are pigskin leather footballs and soccer balls with other old sports memorabilia. The hat section has fedoras for men, and floppy hats for women with loads of hat boxes about. It just looks all so wonderful. Sadly all these cool little displays aren't for sale, they are just for show and theming. What is for sale is your typical Disney mouse ear hats and "2014" mini footballs. Other than being really nice looking stores, nothing being solid has any class, charm, or character to it. So while the buildings in the area are beautiful to look at, they offer nothing unique to the items contained in the Emporium or World of Disney, which is a shame. I really wish Disney would go back to selling more unique items at the park, but after working merchandise at Epcot I also know unique just doesn't sell as well as the "2014" crap. The Carthy Theater is a tremendous improvement compared to the "hub cap" that was originally there. I was looking forward to eating here at some point but California Adventure still has reduced hours compared to Disneyland thus limiting our chances.
After exploring the shops and watching the "running of the bulls" dissipate at the rope drop, we decided to explore the rest of this renovated park. We shot straight to the back for Paradise Pier and walked right on to California Screamin'. This roller coaster while always being nice looking in my opinion needs a little bit of love. The ride has basically had to run non stop since the park opened in 2001, as it was one of only two "E-ticket" attractions when the park opened. Sure it's been down for routine things, and there was collision a few years back, but the ride doesn't have the crisp smooth experience it once offered. How could it really since it hasn't been refurbished extensively since opening? The loop in particular has always been rough, though that's due to the weak support structure that causes the loop to sway quite a bit as the train races through it. Hopefully the stale concrete generic 1990's station will get redone at some point as it clashes with the area. I personally think it'd be ok if the entrance clashed somewhat with the area so long as it was done in a tasteful style. I always pictured the ride would blend nicely yet be different from the surrounding buildings if Disney modeled the entrance on Lakeside Amusement Parks Cyclone which has a wonderful Art Deco entrance. That being all said, the new Paradise Pier and Sun Disc on the ride give it some much needed charm. The coaster is still fun, and there is always laughs and smiles coming off the ride which makes my gripes sound like serious nitpicking.
Mickey's Fun Wheel is still offering gentle and fun swinging rides above Paradise Pier with a theme that's not much different than the previous Sun Wheel. A lot of people give this ride crap for being slow loading and boring. I see it as being the "sky ride" of California Adventure as it is slow loading, mostly calm, and offers nice views of backstage areas that aren't visible from ground level. If not a fun ride, you can at least cool down with the nice breeze and views the ride offers. While we didn't ride the carousel, I'd just like to point out that it looks totally out of place amongst the Victorian buildings, and hopefully will receive a refresh at some point in the near future.
Toy Story Midway Mania resides right across the causeway and while the queue is lacking Disney charm, I like the placement of Mr. Potato Head here more than Hollywood Studios. A barker should be calling your attention to an attraction and Potato Head does it better outside the main building. The line is boring though, there isn't much to look at, and it's mostly outside. The ride thankfully is fun, and props to my girlfriend for crushing me in the score department. My only excuse is I see double with the older styled 3D glasses, but alas I gave her the bragging rights for the day.
Heading toward the other half of Paradise Pier we passed the old Maliboomer location. While I applaud the removal, the character meet and greet doesn't hide the empty space too well either. If memory serves me right, the Jumping Jellyfish ride was to move into this area according to the reimagined blueprints. That hasn't happened yet, but it'd be nice. Jumping Jellyfish doesn't fit great with the area, but it's popular and the roller coaster supports would help blend the ride without losing it completely. The new Silly Symphony Swings look a ton better than the original Orange Stinger, and the new eating areas looks phenomenal. Golden Zephyr fits better now with the Victorian aged area, though still not "fun" by any means.
The one eyesore here is still the wild mouse coaster. The orange eyesore once known as Muholland Madness is now a blue eyesore called Goofy's Flight School. I'll admit the ride is smooth, fun, and the theming is much more entertaining than it original incarnation. But the wood cut outs and exposed super structure just look cheap. The only method I could see to improve this ride would be to lower the foundation and box the ride in. There's some old blueprints of a Mickey Mouse themed funhouse, with just a little reworking could fit this area. I personally think a wild mouse coaster would be a cool idea since Mickey Mouse still doesn't have a ride at this resort yet and it'd hide the ugliness.
Further down the Paradise Pier loop is the Little Mermaid ride. Unfortunately it was closed and I didn't get a chance to ride it. The show building looks wonderful and compliments the area very nicely. It's nice to see that dark rides are at least making a return back into the Disney parks now that the "extreme" 1990's are finally behind us. I'm also glad they kept the Presidio recreation capturing the Northern California approach to Pacific Wharf.
When California Adventure opened, Pacific Wharf was the best themed area in the park. There are no rides, or attractions, just restaurants. What Disney managed to do is capture the Fisherman's Wharf vibe in Monterey nearly down to every detail. The only thing missing is the smell of the ocean, which can be forgiven, as the smell of Mexican food and Sourdough Bread bowls fill the air instead. Across from the Wharf is the winery area with the now defunct Blue Sky Cellar and The Golden Vine Winery. We decided to eat here outside on the terrace in the sunshine the day brought. I always insist on doing full service restaurants since the food is always better, and in my experience comes to be about the same cost as the quick service not including a tip. On top of all that you usually get a nice break, and can chat up the host or hostesses who usually in return reward you with "magic moments" or freebies.
We were seated at an outdoor table and you are rewarded with bread, with the ever so classic basaltic vinegar and olive oil for dipping the bread. The lunch menu runs a bit cheaper than the dinner menu, but don't let that fool you. The quantity and quality are all there of what you pick, and the bread is refillable if you still wish to pack on some more calories. I opted for a salad without chicken. I was in the mood for something a little lighter but what I got was a very large salad with some of the tastiest Roma tomatoes I've ever had. We opted out of dessert and for 40 bucks including a tip we walked away, stuffed to the gill and satisfied.
After our nice lunch we went to Cars Land which is a wonderful little recreation of Radiator Springs. The detail is all very well done and the paths are spacious making the area not feel as crowded despite how many people are actually there. Radiator Springs Racers is the big "E-ticket" ride is this area, and the line was a lovely 90 minutes. You have all the wonderful teenagers in these long lines with their friends always at the front of the lines for some reason. It's a shame there isn't really a way to prevent this cause the queue is so wide that the good old firm stance with your arms on the rails doesn't work. There's also no cast members from the entrance all the way till the loading platform so you're just stuck dealing with it. The ride itself is fun and totally immersive, from the music, to the animatronics, and finished off with the "race" at the end of the ride. I think I would have liked it more if the teenagers were not allowed to just cut in line, which sort of ruined my mood for the remainder of the day.
Leaving Cars Land we went to "a bug's life theater" which was showing a preview of Maleficent. The preview was way more entertaining than "it's tough to be a bug" ever was. It's only a temporary cosmetic change of course, but I'd love to see this show building bulldozed as it's an eyesore. It's neither a nice looking building nor is it well dressed up with the painted grass, and the attraction it provides was never unique. We cut through "a bugs land" which still looks totally out of place in this park. It's just not well done from the awful rides to the lack of buildings with shopping or food. The bumper cars have no force, and hardly "bump," Heimlich's Chew Chew Train is just pathetic, and other than all giant bamboo shoots, nothing makes you feel like you've shrunk. If it's going to be a "fair" set up some booths and merchandise areas made of "cardboard" and maybe a quick service restaurant in say a picnic basket. This is just a weak area of the park that could use a refresh at some point.
After cutting through the kiddie land, we entered the backside of the rechristened Hollywood Land. The transition from the 2 lands is awkward and harsh. There's not a well thought out blend as of yet, with Tower of Terror right at the front door of a kiddie land. Regardless we walked onto Tower of Terror with hardly any wait. It's not as long as it's Florida incarnation but it still packs the fun with the awesome drops. I also always have loved the "wave goodbye" feature of this ride as it gives it a sort of interactive aspect. I don't consider this a downgrade compared to Florida as many suggest, rather I just consider it just different, as the main aspect of the ride is still intact and it offers different scenes. The only trouble this ride is going to have is when phase 2 hits and the ride sits in a 1930's Hollywood. The storyline will have to be adjusted and the old run down hotel will need to be changed as the current storyline has the ride existing in the present day, untouched since the 30's.
We walked past the Hyperion Theater facade which is another eyesore compared to the main strip. We checked show times for Aladdin and then shot toward the back half of the Hollywood loop. There's still absolutely nothing in this back area of the land. There are some walls, a closed arcade, and what appears to be defunct "House of Cards" refreshment stand. The Monsters Inc. ride has a terrible entrance that clashes with the entire park, and the queue looks like a ride inside an office building, not capturing an atmosphere at all. It's a shame because the ride is actually cute once you're on it. It's colorful with fairly simple animatronics following the story of the movie. It's much much better than the Superstar Limo that once stood here which I have had the privilege of riding.
Further down this loop is yet another empty studio building that once housed Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Across from this is a hardly used stage that sits behind the facades on the main strip. It's a shame that Disney has done nothing significant with either of these areas. Next up is Muppet Vision 3D which I've seen dozens of times since I worked at the Florida parks. While I'm fine with the attraction itself, the cold steel look of the building will need to be reworked once the phase 2 renovation finally takes place. Rounding out the loop is the main breezeway which has Disney Junior Live, the Animation Studio, and more empty facades. Most of this causeway will fit the planned phase 2 rework when and if it comes. The Animation building while it is not true to a 1930's style, the building facade and color palate should mesh fine overall despite its somewhat cartoonish appearance. The left side of this breezeway is all fake buildings. The facade poorly disguises the hardly used stage behind it. A new cable car that travels down the center of the street is a wonderful little addition and adds that Disney charm to a mostly charmless avenue.
We finally had waited long enough for the next showing of the Aladdin show. As I mentioned before this theater is in dire need of a makeover. The entrance and faux street that lead to a steel side entrance is a weak design, especially for the show that's offered inside. The wait was well worth it, and it was the first time I have ever seen the entire theater packed in. Previous visits I never understood why they needed the top decks and balconies since there aren't enough people in the park to even fill those seats. Now I know why! The show was packed in and the lights dimmed out and the presentation was a delight. It's nice to know the show is still running strong since it's 2003 debut. The Genie was fresh with new material, going more for Disney jokes rather than the previous pop culture jokes from the last time I viewed the show. My girlfriend and I both agreed if there was one reason to come to this park, it would be to see this show.
Heading back out to the main hub we headed over to Condor Flats. The area is nicely themed in my opinion though I have always thought the Grizzly Peak side of Condor Flats was a bit lacking. The other side of Condor Flats contains two hangers, one is a dining area, the other is Soarin' Over California. Soarin' was the one hit ride that came out of California Adventure when the park opened. The show building is painted like a hangar unlike Epcot's which is a giant blue obnoxious eyesore. The ride itself is also in need of a significant rehab similar to California Screamin'. The screen and ride vehicles are pretty much covered in a thick layer of dust. That is also due to the fact the ride has been unable to have a long downtime period due to the overall lack of "E-ticket" rides throughout the park. Other than the dusty and fuzzy aspect of the video, it's still the same old Soarin' that has delighted its passengers since 2001.
Heading around the bend you get some nice views of the Grand Californian Hotel. This leads you towards the entrance to the Grizzly River Run which is the second best river rapids ride I've been on, coming only second to Popeye at Islands of Adventure. This river rapids has a far better layout than any other I've been on, but it lacks theming or animatronics which would give it that extra push to greatness. Rumors are abound that animatronics are to be added at some point, which will be a welcomed addition. There is also the recreation area in this land which we didn't bother going to, and perhaps will explore on another visit. It was starting to get a little too dark and the entrance had been closed off by the time we arrived there.
At this point we were near the end of our day as the park would soon be closing. We raced for one more ride on California Screamin' and after that headed back to the viewing area for World of Color. Call me spoiled for having worked at Epcot, but I just wasn't all that impressed with the show. It's some water jets that go fairly high, and some water screen projections. It reminded me of a cross between Illuminations and Fantasmic, but not being as good as either one. I'm assuming this is due to their lack of fireworks for this show, which I happen to be a fan of. I also don't understand the reason why there needs to be fastpasses for this show. Fantasmic doesn't use them, and there was a ton of open space where people snatched tickets but didn't attend. It all just seemed like a waste of utilizing available space. World of Color was just mediocre in my opinion, though everyone else seemed impressed so I guess Disney finally scored a winning night show for their park. Thus concluded our night at 8:30. We decided to exit via the Grand Californian turnstiles to take a shortcut to Ralph Brown's Jazz Kitchen to round out our night.
So the overall experience we had during our time visiting California Adventure was enjoyable. I'm going to say that this is still my second least favorite Disney park, but it has improved vastly in some aspects. Other areas you can clearly see are awaiting their day to be revamped. Highlights were the detailed Buena Vista Street, the revamped Paradise Pier and Cars Land, while areas such as Hollywood Land and "a bugs land" will require entire overhauls in order to bring them into the new decade. The absolute best part of this park though, is it's continual growth from an ugly duckling into the swan we as theme park fans always wanted it to be. The future seems to be the most exciting aspect of this park, and one we can all look forward too.
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