New faces and old places at Disney's California Adventure

May 12, 2009, 9:39 PM · Last month, Laurie and I visited Disneyland, me using my annual pass and Laurie her SoCal resident 2fer ticket. Today, we used the back half of her ticket on a visit to Disney's California Adventure.

The big news at DCA this month is the opening of Mickey's Fun Wheel, a retheming of the park's former "Sun Wheel" Ferris Wheel.

Mickey's Fun Wheel, with construction work for the World of Color lagoon show continuing, in the foreground.

Essentially, all that's changed on the ride is the replacement of the Sun face with an old-school Mickey face. It still offers the same ride, with a mix of stationary and sliding gondola cars.

But Disney's slapped a big red "NEW" next to it on the guidemap, so the ride posted a mid-day 45 minute wait, when the wait on days like today before the rehab rarely topped 15 minutes. (Like most Ferris Wheels, this is a sloooow loader, with low capacity.)

Like on our earlier trip to Disneyland, our main goal for the visit was culinary. Today, we planned a lunch at the Wine Country Trattoria, the last remaining non-character table service restaurant in California Adventure.

For a restaurant smack in the middle of the park, this place is a bit hard to find. It lies above the street level, in the old Mondavi complex, next to the Blue Sky Cellar attraction preview exhibit. I walked right by it on my first attempt.

When the park first opened, Wine Country Trattoria was the mid-range alternative to the fine dining Vineyard Room, now a special events lounge upstairs from the Trattoria. Today, the Trattoria offers salads, panini, lasagna and desserts, with most entrees in the $10-15 range.

The restaurant offers both indoor and patio seating, though the look of the interior is noting spectacular. It's a trattoria, after all; it's supposed to be more relaxed than a formal restaurant. The seating here reflects that tone, with dark metal chairs and travertine tables that one might find on any Orange Coast family's patio.

We were among the first seated in the restaurant when we arrived at quarter 'til noon (no reservations needed). California Adventure's running its annual Food and Wine Festival this month, but no events interfered with getting a table immediately at the Trattoria. Within two minutes of seating, a waiter brought us a basket of breadsticks.

At first glance, I anticipated something crusty and hot from the oven, with an open, airy crumb, accompanied by what looked like a roasted pepper spread. Instead, we found room-temperature bread, with no crust worth noting and the same dense crumb one would find from store-shelf bread. And a non-descript sun-dried tomato spread, to boot. We didn't finish a single stick.

Pushing the breadsticks aside, Laurie started her meal with a house salad.

She reported it fine, nothing spectacular. The speed with which is appeared, plus the temperature and taste, suggested that it had been plated well in advance, and kept in the fridge until ordering.

For our main course, I opted for the chicken panini, with provolone, spinach, artichoke hearts and roma tomatoes. It came with an olive-dressed pasta salad and grapes, with a stone-ground mustard on the side.

Laurie selected the chicken alfredo lasagna, layered with poached chicken, spinach, alfredo sauce and loads and loads of cheese.

While we both liked the taste of the lasagna, we agreed that the portion size was simply too much for such a rich entree. We both preferred the fresh taste and mix of texture in the panini. If we were to order the lasagna again, we agreed that one of us would order a salad as well and we'd simply share the two. (The Trattoria charges for split plates, but the charge is easily avoided if everyone orders one thing and shares.) But we'd probably split the panini and try a soup, instead.

For dessert, we took our server's suggestion and opted for the panna cotta, topped with fresh berries and honey.

We loved the choice, and plowed through the berries before I could snap a decent photo.

In all, we spent about $40 for one salad, one Coke, two entrees and a dessert. By Southern California standards, that's quite reasonable for a sit-down restaurant lunch. And by theme park standards, the Wine Country Trattoria beats anything else in California Adventure by a wine country mile. Still, the heavy hand with the cheese, the prefab house salad and the modest atmosphere place this in the middle of that country road: Good, but not great.

Replies (10)

May 13, 2009 at 2:29 AM · Robert
I agree that it's really disappointing when you get served pre-plated food that may have been lingering for a while in the fridge or under a heat lamp.
Salads especially don't like hanging around ( outside of a bowl of iced water).
I do understand that , to most of us, the onerous task of serving a large number of covers for lunch, is beyond us. But a restaurant has to be able to do this. It's their business and good food should be plated up freshly prepared.
I was also a little surprised to learn that they charge customers for split plates. I think this is outrageous..........but , as you point out, not an insurmountable problem. It's like when establishments that don't serve wine at all then want to charge corkage for bringing your own bottle. That should be charged only when they offer the option of buying their wine instead.
All in all then this wasn't a bad experience and one I'll try myself on my next visit. I like to think of myself being both a bit of a gourmet but am probably more a gourmand so I won't have a problem with overly large portions.
May 13, 2009 at 3:32 AM · Compared to the mall food court quality beef gyro I had at Worlds of Fun yesterday, your food looks like Manna from Heaven.

And Mickey's Fun Wheel looks like the proverbial lipsticked pig.

Thanks for the report, Robert, and order one of those delicious looking chicken paninis for me!

May 13, 2009 at 8:33 AM · I can appreciate Mickey's Fun Wheel. I completely understand what California Adventure is going for with a lot of their rides. The problem is that A) Disney unsuccessfully tried to apply some of their formulas to a classic amusement park design, and B) Disney fans and a lot of theme park fans in general want over the top cutting edge experiences all the time and don't have an appreciation for history. I think that Disney would have benefited by studying their history even more and taking a whole new approach based on that by making the whole park a sort of time machine. Instead they seemingly forced a lot of the traditional Disney ideals used in other parks, which in a lot of ways are the antithesis of the classic amusement park. They got some of it right in my eyes, but in other ways they fell flat.

The Mickey Wheel is obviously designed after the almost 100 year old Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. All of those art deco renderings that I saw recently are a nod to early 20th century park design. Somebody looked through the history books and saw photos of Luna Park, Rye Playland in New York and the now defunct Palisades Park in New Jersey as well as other examples. They did manage to screw up the roller coaster by doing it themselves instead of hiring GCI or the Gravity Group to design and build them a throwback.

Anyways, back on topic. $40 for that sounds about right to me, as long as it is good. I'm a sucker for good Italian food. Sounds like they could do well by cutting back on the portion and reducing the price a little.

May 13, 2009 at 11:09 AM · I agree completely with this review. The chicken panini and the Alfredo Lasagna are our favorite dishes as well. Everything else is a hit or miss. The breadsticks are extremely disappointing, and my jaw is often sore after gnawing on them. The meatball sandwich is average at best. Everything else is pretty good. It isn't the best Disneyland Resort has to offer, but it is far and away better than most theme park food. Prices are very reasonable for food and soft-drinks, but they sure make it up with wine prices. The Trattoria is a pleasant and enjoyable dining experience, with good quality food for reasonable prices. It makes for a nice, relaxing meal. I hope more table service restaurants are added if DCA's popularity improves with the makeover.

Speaking of the makeover, the "new" Mickey's Fun Wheel is a nice upgrade. No, it isn't new, but it is a nice refresh of a ride that lacked theming and a good paint job. It isn't the highlight of the overhaul by any measure, but these small little baby steps are just as important as the headline attractions in creating a Disney quality park. To nitpick, I'd have made the Mickey face a bit smaller, because I think it is disturbingly huge as is, but overall I think it is an improvement. Not worth a 45 minute line though.

May 13, 2009 at 11:46 AM · The biggest problem with a Ferris Wheel at a Disney Park is that it cannot accommodate the inherent large crowds. Almost no one hates a ride on a big wheel, but most everyone hates the long wait to both enter and exit the ride. Slow-loaders and Disney do not work well together.
May 13, 2009 at 12:39 PM · Great review of the food. The lasagna looked like one of the heaviest items I've seen at a theme park.

As for the California Adventure upgrades, are they still running on time, or is the economy slowing the process down? The Fun Wheel looks "meh". Maybe it will look nice once the Pier is completely finished.

May 13, 2009 at 1:18 PM · They're certainly taking things slowly, but they did make the strategic decision to do pretty much one thing at a time, rather than shut down the whole park, or major sections of it.

The big project now is laying down the lagoon infrastructure for the World of Color show for next summer. That's also why they did the Mickey Wheel now - they could do that when the lagoon was drained.

Once that and the DVC expansion of the hotel are finished, then I suspect we'll see more visible progress on other projects in the park. FWIW, nothing's being done on the park entrance now (the most problematic aspect of the project, given the fact that it is the entrance).

May 13, 2009 at 3:49 PM · The first anonymous post was me by the time I'll log in like an intelligent human being.
May 15, 2009 at 5:37 AM · Ive been to the Grand Flo... a few times and it is owrht every penny. As far as the wheel make over ...take a look on ebay ..and under tin toys you will find a Chang wind up ..wheel...themed to Disney ..even the retheming of the cares is a good copy of the toy...look up!
May 16, 2009 at 9:40 PM · More of a question than a comment.... Can someone maybe expand upon the sliding gondolas? I have never seen a feris wheel in person with this feature and I have a some curiousity about it. How fast do the gondolas slide (I assume it is based on as the wheel turns) and is there a different platform for these to load from?

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