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Theme Park History: A short history of Disney California Adventure

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Published: September 16, 2013 at 9:58 PM

What if you opened a theme park, and nobody came? That's what the Walt Disney Company faced on February 8, 2001, when it opened the second gate at the Disneyland Resort, Disney's California Adventure. Park officials had planned for tens of thousands of Disney fans to visit the park on its first official day, but only a few hundred showed up for the opening ceremony. The park had soft-opened to Disneyland's annual passholders for a few weeks before and bad initial reviews, spread online through a variety of Disney and theme park discussion forums, knocked the park for thin theming, mediocre finishes, and generic rides, depressing attendance once the park opened officially.

California Adventure's old entrance
The Disney's California Adventure entrance, before the 2012 changes. The "CALIFORNIA" letters are now at the Cal Expo in Sacramento.

But California Adventure nevertheless stands as one more influential theme parks in industry history. In the early 1990s, Disneyland's then-President Jack Lindquist advocated for a second theme park next to Disneyland, in order to convince more tourists to extend their stay at the resort. In 1989, Disney had gained control of the Disneyland Hotel by buying the company that had owned the hotel. Along with getting the Disneyland Hotel, Disney obtained the lease to operate the Queen Mary ocean liner, which was moored as a tourist attraction in Long Beach.

That gave Disney two options for a second theme park in Southern California: One, to build a west-coast version of Disney World's Epcot, to be called Westcot, on the Disneyland parking lot, or, two, to build a nautical-themed park, to be called DisneySea (a play on "Disneyland"), next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Ultimately, Disney decided against building a second park so far away from Anaheim and gave up the lease on the Queen Mary, abandoning its Long Beach project. But the Oriental Land Company liked the plans for DisneySea so much that it decided to build that park as the companion for Tokyo Disneyland at its Tokyo Disney Resort. Anaheim would get Westcot, instead.

But Disney killed those plans in 1995, after the lackluster debut of Disneyland Paris. But Disneyland still needed an expansion to boost attendance and guest spending. Later that year, Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner revived plans for Disneyland's second gate, but with a much lower budget and less ambitious scale. The new version of the second gate would be themed to the park's home state of California.

California Adventure marked the end of the "Disney Decade" of hit after hit. The park's failure to live up to Disney standards for theming, popularity, or income fueled criticism of Disney management from fans and critics outside the company as well as from many influential persons within it. Disney management's case for California Adventure wasn't helped when Tokyo DisneySea opened to rave reviews later in 2001, eventually winning multiple Theme Park Insider Awards as the world's best theme park.

California Adventure wasn't the only disappointment at Disney back then. But unlike movies or TV shows that soon fade from public memory, theme parks stay there as a constant reminder of failure. The criticism ultimately boiled into to a public split between Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney and Eisner, which contributed to Eisner's exit as CEO in 2005.

In 2007, new Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a $1.1 billion makeover and expansion of the park, which concluded in June 2012 with the opening of a new park entrance plaza, Buena Vista Street, themed to the Los Angeles Walt Disney arrived in during the 1920s, and Cars Land, a beloved recreation of the town of Radiator Springs from the Pixar Cars movies. Along the way, Disney dumped the possessive in the park's name, which now is simply Disney California Adventure.

The new California Adventure entrance
The new Disney California Adventure entrance, today. The new entry is inspired by the old Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, which also inspired the entrance to the Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.

So a project was conceived as a way to get tourists to spend more time at Disneyland in California ultimately resulted in the creation of the world's best theme park in Tokyo and a change in management at the Walt Disney Company, before evolving into the wildly popular theme park that Disney California Adventure is today.

Previously:

Readers' Opinions

From Annette Forrest on September 17, 2013 at 4:37 AM
I must be the stupidest person in the world. Until I read this article, I never, ever got that "DisneySea" was a riff on "DisneyLAND". And it never made sense to me why DisneySea was called DisneySea in the first place. Now it make sense.

I always thought the Disney Cruise Lines should have been called "DisneySea"...since they were mini floating parks out on the oceans.

From 189.79.111.198 on September 17, 2013 at 7:25 AM
Annette, we are 2!
From 207.233.45.9 on September 17, 2013 at 8:09 AM
Nice overview of the short history of the park. I might have added that Disney management tried some smaller fixes to the park before deciding to spend the billion dollars starting in 2007. In the early years they added areas like Bug's Land (to address the complaint that there wasn't enough for children to do there) or a economized version of Florida's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (because people said there weren't enough "E" ticket rides in the park).

When the park opened in 2001, Disney touted that the park had the same number of attractions as Disneyland had when it opened in 1955 (which didn't address the quality of those attractions or lack of theming). I believe they even split the California section of the park into five or six "districts," to make it seem like the park had more areas than it really did.

From Robert Niles on September 17, 2013 at 9:40 AM
Annette, I don't want to confess how long it was before I realized that, either. ;^)
From Mike Saperstein on September 17, 2013 at 1:34 PM
My family has been to WDW many times over the years and love it dearly. But we haven't been to Disneyland/California Adventure since just after California Adventure opened many years ago. We liked it of course, but didn't think it came close to comparing to WDW.

We were in LA for the weekend and went to Disney for the day this past Friday, and WOW what a difference! The Entrance Plaza was beautiful, and set the tone for a great day. The improvements to everything, and California Adventure in particular, over the last 10-or-so-years are tremendous. We spent roughly 16 hours in the parks, mostly in California Adventure, and had a fantastic time.

The upgraded California Adventure definitely exceeded our expectations in a big way.

From 50.14.173.112 on September 17, 2013 at 9:55 PM
So how long before we get a DisneyAir park?
From 74.202.118.163 on September 18, 2013 at 1:36 PM
Or DisneySpace?!?!?!
From 72.67.214.157 on September 21, 2013 at 1:20 AM
I love Disney California Adventure. If someone had never been to California, obviously take them to Disneyland. But we've definitely added California Adventure into our Theme park rotation and most of the time we just go there. No park-Hopper. I think it's still missing another E-Ticket ride, which I've read their working on, but with rides like Tower of Terror/California Screamin/Toy Story 3D and Radiator Springs Racers coupled with shows like Aladdin and World of color(plus the hidden gem that is the Animation Academy) including Solid food options; California Adventure has established itself as a Stand-Alone park. PS-(Their gonna need to continue moving forward with new and exciting attractions with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter moving into Universal Studios Hollywood soon. I can tell you, were very excited about that.)

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