Just Published: Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
After a couple re-rides on Tower of Terror we headed to the attraction formerly known as Superstar Limo (one of the worst attractions WDI ever imagined): Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully to the Rescue. What a pleasant surprise this dark ride turned out to be! Visually stunning, well imagined, paced, and presented, Mike and Sully to the Rescue is a hidden gem. Even the queue area (once you get inside the building) is creative and fun. Along the ride I found the doors room to be especially interesting which leads me to expect big things from the oft rumored flying doors coaster that will eventually make it to DCA as part of the upcoming Monstropolis expansion.
Side note: it strikes me that Disneyland Resort's Imagineers are very good at second chances. First they built the debacle that was Superstar Limo, but realizing their error, they rebuilt it into a Monsters Inc. dark ride that is pretty amazing. Similarly, the first incarnation of DCA was like a clean version of a basic Six Flags park, but the rebirth, $1.2b later, has catapulted the park to be in the top five of all the North American parks, which should make any theme park operator proud! Once these guys own up to their mistakes, they produce amazing stuff! Anyway….
From Monsters Inc., we headed back to Paradise Pier and rode the Little Mermaid dark ride. It was okay. The ride itself is definitely too short, the narrative stilted, and while the animatronics may be superb, to me they just looked a little bit creepy. Maybe the inclusion of another scene or two would really help things out, but as it is, I can see why some folks are disappointed in this attraction. The Little Mermaid is definitely not an E-Ticket, and probably not much more than a C-Ticket in my humble opinion.
After the Mermaid letdown, we visited the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. This playground is very well done. I have always felt that Camp Jurassic at Islands of Adventure was the best attraction of this type but Redwood Creek sets the bar even higher. Rope bridges, slides, rock walls, caves, this play area has it all. I was thoroughly impressed. And for the younger kids the cast members hand out a list of things for which they can search and when they have completed their searching the kids earn Wilderness Explorer Badges as a reward. Even my kids, a little older than the target crowd, had fun running around and burning off steam. I highly recommend the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail to families with kids of all ages.
Today was our wet day, so our next stop was Grizzly River Run, DCA's much-vaunted white water raft ride. Now, I have long considered Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges to be the king of white water rides, but after riding GRR several times in a row, I can boldly state the king is dead and a new king occupies the throne. GRR's watery course is absolutely beautiful and quite stunning (although it would be so cool if there were a few animatronic bears along the course). The raft winds around and though Grizzly Peak, passing though dark caverns and along the peak's edge before it takes its final plunge (there are two) spinning down a 22-foot drop to a big splash down. GRR is a heart thumping ride, easily the best of its genre, and I believe it has set a new standard that won't be bested in the near term future.
After a couple re-rides on GRR we were thoroughly soaked, so we skipped out the back exit of DCA, passed through the Grand Californian and went back to the Paradise Pier Hotel to clean up, dry off, and change. Thirty minutes later, we were back in the park and on our way to Radiator Springs, the gem of DCA's $1.2B crown.
Being Theme Park Insiders, we have long known that the best "reveal" for Radiator Springs is when you enter through the Pacific Wharf section of the park, which is the dining center of California Adventure. Think of it as a fancy, outdoor food court. Choices at the Wharf range from Ghirardelli's to Boudin Sourdough Bread, plus some Mexican and Chinese food, and a pretty fancy Italian restaurant to boot. The Wharf also houses the Blue Sky Cellar which features a look at some of the Imaginers' upcoming attractions (although currently it's closed). Lastly, and most importantly, the Pacific Wharf features a back door into Cars Land with an unbelievable view of Ornament Valley. I highly recommend first time visitors to DCA use this approach as it is truly amazing.
After many pictures, we proceeded into the packed streets of Radiator Springs. WOW. Cars Land is truly a state of the art example of Disney Imagineering at its finest. A place that makes visitors feel as though they have been transported to another place and time. Only the most jaded haters would have anything bad to say about this part of DCA. Cars Land is just amazing, even better than I anticipated and expected.
Our first stop was the Cozy Cone Motel. I had one thing on my mind: Red's Apple Freeze. Remembering how much my family liked the Boysen Apple Freeze I was anxious to get my hands on the DCA version of this frozen concoction with its toasted marshmallow flavor in place of the boysenberry flavor used in the Disneyland version. Red's Freeze was equally compelling, though much sweeter and less refreshing. Tip: ask for an extra shot or two of the marshmallow flavoring, as it really sets the beverage off and makes it quite addictive. In my mind, it is a toss-up between the two signature drinks, but if push came to shove I would probably prefer the more refreshing Boysen Apple Freeze to its sweeter DCA counterpart. While at the Cones, we tried several other drinks and snacks, and despite all of them being good, Red's Apple Freeze was the standout.
Drinks in hand we headed across the street to Flo's V8 Café for dinner. Another well executed restaurant, Flo's is one part table service dining (real silverware), one part counter service, and all old school diner. Quite a unique eatery for a theme park! We ordered several entrees and shared. The Pork Loin with Coca-Cola BBQ Sauce was quite good, but so was the Citrus Turkey Breast with Old Fashioned Turkey Gravy. The surprise of the meal was the Veggie Tater Bake (roasted veggies, bulgur wheat, soy crumbles, and smashed red skin potatoes topped with cheddar cheese) which was very good despite the absence of the meat we all love so darn much! Still nursing our collection of beverages from the Cozy Cone Motel, we skipped dessert, though the offerings looked very good. I recommend a stop at Flo's for anyone not happy with standard theme park fare and willing to try something a little bit different. Flo's is great.
Bellies full, it was time for a spin on Mater's Junkyard Jamboree. This take on the traditional whip ride is actually a very good family attraction. The ambiance of the ride is great, the songs a lot of fun, and the motion of the whip is exciting but not forceful enough to cause anyone to lose their lunch (or dinner, in this case). I was also impressed by the number of ride vehicles, turning a typically slow loading attraction into a real people eater. While not worth a long wait, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree is a fun diversion for the whole family.
Next up, we went to the infamous Luigi's Flying Tires, which, even with no wait, was lousy. Sorry, John Lasseter, but this concept and this ride just need to go away. We rode the darn thing twice to make sure we gave it a fair shake, but it really is not fun. I mean, even when you do get your tire moving, it goes SO SLOW there is no thrill. And once you hit someone else, it takes another 10 -15 seconds to get moving again. Full disclosure, I hate bumper cars, but I would rather ride bumper cars than Luigi's Flying Tires. This attraction is just a waste of a time – pretty and well decorated, but a waste nonetheless. I am not sure what Disney should put in its place, but something needs to be done, and soon.
About this time, dusk was setting in so we stationed ourselves at the center of Radiator Springs to catch the evening lighting ceremony. Remember in the movie Cars when Lightning McQueen arranges to turn on all the neon lights and make Sally's wish come true? Disney California Adventure has captured that excellent moment in a neon lighting ceremony set to the song "Shh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)". Attraction by attraction the neon lights come on as the town of Radiator Springs is brought to vibrant life. We watched it live, and it was very cool.
Finally, the moment of truth had arrived – it was time to experience the crown jewel of Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers. We used our Fastpasses and sped past the waiting throngs up to the point where four lines merge: Fastpass users, single riders, those who need special assistance, and the outcast stand by riders. Disney cast members did an AMAZING job of managing all these lines. It was impressive to watch. These folks must have been the best of the best as they were efficient, fair, and completely cool under the pressure of thousands of folks waiting to visit this signature attraction.
About 10 minutes after getting in line, as darkness swept over the park, we boarded a red, six person convertible, and began our scenic tour of stunning Ornament Valley. As the music swells, the car rolls past massive rock formations and a stunning waterfall, then proceeds into the show building where we encountered the residents of Radiator Springs. While the show scenes were not the same type of expansive, awe inspiring sets you find in Pirates of the Caribbean, they were impressive nonetheless. And on this particular ride, it looked like everything was working, including the tipping tractors. We then moved on to the next section of the ride where your car is prepped for today's big race. Paint job or new tires? For us, it was the paint job, then after some advice from Doc Hudson we lined up opposite another carload of guests and waited for Luigi's countdown. The last third of the attraction is a race over camelback hills, under outcrops, and around banked curves where a randomly chosen car wins the race. It was an exhilarating rush, and while not as fast as Test Track at Epcot, the close quarters of the rock wall, those sharp turns, the air time humps, and that nearby competing car, all combine for an amazingly fun and thrilling ride. Everyone in our car was cheering, "Go Go Go!" and pumped their fists high in the sky when our car blasted through the finish line first. What a rush! Just amazing. Sometimes you experience an attraction that reminds you why you like theme parks in the first place, and Radiator Springs Racers is that type of ride. It renews your faith in Imagineering and gets you excited for great things to come. WDI may have been down, but they were not out, and they proved with RSR that they still have it when they need it. Wonderful. Radiator Springs Racers is a poster child for an E-Ticket attraction. If you don't have plans to visit DCA and experience Radiator Springs Racers first hand – why not? It is an absolute must do. Wow.
Coming down from our high, we headed laughing and cheering to our last stop of the night, World of Color. And as much as we had enjoyed everything about DCA on this our first visit to the park, and as excited as we were after winning our race just a few moments before, there was no end to the disappointment we felt when we experienced Disney's handling of the World of Color viewing area. It was just a total mess of gridlock and lost people wandering without direction or clue into an area far too small to comfortably support the large number of people who wanted to see the show. What a debacle of unbelievably bad planning, and un-Disney-like customer service. I was shocked and for a moment, just a moment, I thought I was in a Six Flags park. Ugh. Horrid.
Thankfully, I had completed my research before ever stepping into the park, and I already had a plan in place. So I gathered up my family and quickly worked my way to a centrally located spot at the top of a flight of stairs where we waited, unmoving for the next 45 minutes as the masses swelled around us. We had a great, central view, and we were up high enough that people in front of us could not block our line of sight. While there is no doubt the World of Color viewing area would be a nightmare for people with claustrophobia, my family does not suffer from that ailment. We waited patiently, chatted with some nearby Disney fans, and bided our time.
Once World of Color started, the disappointment of the viewing area, and the total lack of Disney-quality customer service and people moving management, was forgotten. World of Color is simply breathtaking. The technology of the show is stunning with more than 1,200 fountains spanning the length of Paradise Bay that shoot bursts of water upwards of 200 feet in the air and showcase a 50-foot-high water screen that stretches out to almost 400 feet wide. Additionally, dozens of flame cannons are used judiciously throughout the proceedings, with lasers and lights bringing the vibrant colors alive per the shows moniker.
However, as the show unfolds, the technology of World of Color fades into the distance and the audience is immersed in the timeless sights and sounds of Disney Magic from films past and present (and sometimes future, though not on this occasion). And while the presentation is a series of unconnected vignettes instead of a linear story, the transitions are smooth, flawless, and transparent. The viewer is caught in a gentle wave of emotions that ebb and flow just as the fountains ebb and flow, raising to plateaus of complete delight (the Pirates scene) and falling into the depths of sadness (the Lion King death scene). World of Color is an awesome spectacle, unlike anything my family has ever seen before. It is majestic, inspiring, thrilling, and quite simply the best way I can think of to end a day at a park. To say World of Color is better than Fantasmic or Illuminations is like saying chocolate is better than mud. It is an understatement of Biblical proportions. While Disney may have a crowd control nightmare on its hands, and while fans may get irritated at the completely unorganized mess that is the viewing area, the show certainly does not disappoint. And as you watch, all your frustration and irritation will fade as you realize World of Color is exactly what we expect from Disney: pure magic. Furthermore it is a show I am certain no other theme park could produce. It is exactly the kind of attraction that makes Disney the King of the Hill, and leaves everyone else following in their wake. Do not miss World of Color when you visit DCA, no matter how much of a pain it is to navigate to a good spot in the viewing area. It is worth the frustration, I promise.
Once World of Color ended and we figuratively descended back down to earth, it was time to go back to the hotel. How could we ever top such a wonderful day? To be honest, we couldn't. But we could certainly match it if we tried, and try we would. We had three more days on this vacation, and while we had obviously reached a peak of sorts, there was still a lot of fun to be had.
We visited DCA one more time on this trip, two days later on Thursday, September 26th. It was essentially a "best of day" for us since we are not completists and we saw no reason to waste time riding attractions like the Silly Symphony Swings that are common at iron ride parks across the nation. Instead we revisited favorites like Radiator Springs Racers (we rode a total of six times thanks to the single rider line and won 50% of the time), California Screamin' (we sat in a variety of seats in a variety of different colored trains), Tower of Terror (ah, those amazing cast members just kept us coming back for more) , Soarin' (we finally got the top row for once – and to be honest I think the middle row, center offers the best ride), and Monsters Inc. (wow, what a pleasant surprise). We also visited It's Tough To Be A Bug (identical to the excellent 3D show in Orlando), and rode in the swinging cars on Mickey's Fun Wheel (quite a neat feeling as your swinging car falls, weightless during the spin, but sadly it only happens once per cycle which makes the attraction a complete waste of time). And while we enjoyed our best of day it did not include another show of World of Color so there is no way it could beat our initial visit (however, we did watch World of Color from our hotel, which was quite an amazing view in its own right).
Our second trip to DCA included a few different dining choices as well. We visited the Paradise Garden Grill with its wonderful, open, spacious courtyard and had beef gyros with rice pilaf which were made to order fresh and very flavorful. We also stopped by the Corn Dog Castle and shared a Hot Link Corn Dog and a Cheddar Cheese Corn Dog (the hot link was delicious, but I wasn't crazy about the cheese dog). For dinner we ate a variety of soup bread bowls at the Pacific Wharf Café. Again, fresh, flavorful, and totally unexpected from a theme park venue. And of course, we couldn't resist more of Red's Apple Freeze, or some Churro Bites with cinnamon spiced chocolate sauce. Finally, we closed the night by sharing a couple sundaes from the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop. My favorite was the Gold Rush which was basically a peanut butter hot fudge sundae (reminiscent of the No Way Jose at Beaches and Cream at WDW), but the Sea Cliff, essentially a hot fudge sundae served over a warm chocolate chip cookie, was no slouch. Overall, the food at DCA is really very good. I was impressed. Sure, the food is expensive, but no more than at any other theme park. Haters can complain all they want, but as long as theme park companies provide variety, high quality, and great flavor, I don't mind paying a little extra to eat on site. Disney has obviously invested a lot of time, research, and effort into its food offerings at the California resort and it shows.
So, my closing thoughts on DCA are that it is a wonderful theme park, reflecting Disney's high standards in most everything it presents. However, the park is not perfect. As I wrote previously, more work needs to be accomplished in the Paradise Pier area by removing common midway rides and replacing them with world class attractions. The World of Color viewing area situation needs to improve. Bugs Land needs to disappear forever (but keep It's Tough To Be A Bug, if possible). Monstropolis must go forward to flesh out the Hollywood Land area and provide another headliner to take some pressure off of RSR. Luigi's Flying Tires needs to be slashed and removed, replaced with something worthy of the rest of this amazing new land. And Grizzly River Run needs some animatronic grizzly bears to flesh out the story. But, even if none of these changes ever happen I can whole heartedly recommend a visit to DCA to any fan of theme parks. You will not be disappointed. When DCA's attendance climbs into the North American top five by the end of 2013, I for one will not be surprised. It is a great park, one of my favorites, to be sure.
Tomorrow: The finale, with a visit to Mickey's Halloween PartyTweet
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