How do you fix a theme park?
Written by Robert Niles
If you've not visited the Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim since it opened 10 years ago, you'd likely be surprised by how Disney's transformed this park.Tweet
You might have heard about the billion-dollar transformation taking place at DCA. Even though the highlight of that makeover, the new Cars Land, is still a year from opening, California Adventure's already charged toward the upper reaches of the list of best-reviewed theme parks among Theme Park Insider readers.
How did this happen? How did the park so many of us loved to hate become one that many of us now love to visit?
The formula's simple, really: Close the bad stuff, and open more good stuff.
But as with most changes that are simple in concept, the real challenge lies in the execution. But Disney's nailed it with its changes to date at California Adventure, posting a batting average that would lift even the LA Dodgers into playoff contention.
Let's take a look at the changes:
SuperStar Limo became Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue
This has been California Adventure's biggest win to date. A truly awful ride, meant to be sarcastic but coming across as cynical, went away, to be replaced by a charming dark ride with a nice touch of personalization at the end.
Here's the lesson: Disney is culturally incapable of snark. Leave that to Universal. Whenever someone at Disney suggests a new ride or show using the adjectives "hip," "contemporary," "edgy" or "sarcastic," someone needs to walk that person from the building and e-mail his or her resume over to Universal Creative. They can pull off that stuff. Disney can't. So it should stop trying.
Disney Animation becomes Animation Academy
A series of small changes, including the addition of the interactive Turtle Talk with Crush, made this behind-the-scenes look at Disney animation more accessible to visitors, though it's not paid off in any larger crowds that I can see.
Seasons of the Vine becomes Blue Sky Cellar
Another solid hit: Disney replaced a boring promotional film with a Disney geek's dream - a look at blueprints, concept art, models and videos of upcoming attractions at the park. Sure, it's also a commercial, just like Seasons of the Vine was, but theme parks would rather see a commercial for a theme park than for a vineyard, wouldn't we?
Sun Wheel becomes Mickey's Fun Wheel
All Disney did here was change the logo on the side of the wheel. But having a 30-foot, old-school Mickey head in the park? Winning!
Orange Stinger becomes Silly Symphony Swings
I'll rate this the second biggest improvement for an attraction at California Adventure to date. By freeing this waveswinger from its orange peel shell, Disney's opened up some wonderful aerial views of the park. Look at the images at the top of the waveswinger, too. They're sequential animation from the Silly Symphony episode that inspired the make-over. That's a nice Disney touch. I love the classical music accompaniment, too.
Still to come:
Now let's take a look at the attractions Disney has added to California Adventure, the order of their debut:
That's two world-class shows (Aladdin and World of Color, currently rated number two and three by TPI readers), two solid rides (Tower of Terror and Midway Mania) and just one flop (the Flik's Fun Fair collection of kiddie rides in A Bug's Land.)
Over the years, Disney's removed the forgettable S.S. Rustworthy play area, as well as the flawed Maliboomer space shot ride. A space shot's not a bad idea in a theme park, but slapping plastic "scream shields" inches from people's faces makes what should be an exhilarating experience feel claustrophobic. Sneeze guards are for salad bars, not theme park rides.
Disney also added, then removed, the Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Play It! game show after that fad played out.
Even the food's improved at California Adventure, despite Disney closing more than half a dozen restaurants over the years. We'll see how the upcoming Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta and Paradise Garden Grill turn out. But California Adventure's current line-up of restaurants offers more variety than the sandwich-and-sweet-potato-fries combinations that seem to be everywhere across the esplanade at Disneyland Park.
Add the Little Mermaid, Cars Land, and the two new restaurants to the mix, and it's possible that Disney California Adventure might approach, or even overtake, Universal's Islands of Adventure as Theme Park Insider readers' favorite theme park.
This is how you fix a theme park.
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