How do you fix a theme park?

April 20, 2011, 3:11 PM · 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.

Disney California Adventure's Paradise Pier

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:

  • Golden Dreams will become Voyage of the Little Mermaid on June 3
  • Mulholland Madness will become Goofy's Sky School later this summer

    Now let's take a look at the attractions Disney has added to California Adventure, the order of their debut:

  • Aladdin
  • Flik's Fun Fair
  • Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  • Toy Story Midway Mania
  • World of Color
  • Disney Junior - Live on Stage (originally Playhouse Disney; that show changed last month.)
  • Still to come: Cars Land

    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.

    Replies (24)

    April 20, 2011 at 3:43 PM · You're premature. DCA isn't finished yet. I agree it is much better than what it was back in 2001. I remembered it distinctly. The changes are bit by bit; however, it wasn't done and the good stuff still haven't replaced the stinkers notably what was in Paradise Pier.

    The many problems in DCA are still there.

    1. Too many carnival spinners.
    2. Muppets outdated.
    3. Animation (still no reason to visit).
    4. GRR (still no animated bears).
    5. Time wasting food exhibits (Boudin Bakery and Torilla).
    6. Hollywood's wasted spaces.
    7. Forgettable shows in backlot area.

    Again, why is it getting good reviews? Maybe it has to do with World of Color.

    Let's review it in mid 2012.

    April 20, 2011 at 4:46 PM · Walt Disney once said that "Disneyland would never be completed". That phrase applies to all Disney parks, especially DCA. So, you're right.
    April 20, 2011 at 5:47 PM · It's interesting how Disney gets it wrong the first time, but then they start to have good ideas e.g. California Adventure.

    Mickey Mouse on the wheel looks great!

    April 20, 2011 at 6:15 PM · if carsland is superior to harry, DCA win.
    April 20, 2011 at 6:48 PM · Overtake IOA in theming? Dem's fightin words!
    April 20, 2011 at 6:52 PM · Animal Kingdom had issues when it first opened, but has started to mature into a pretty good park. The same goes for EPCOT, which was the butt of jokes for years. I think any Disney theme park takes 10 years or more to tweak and grow into its own. Not many theme parks get it right the first time on opening day, and unfortunately too many are not allowed to mature, or get stripped of their themeing in favor of short term profits.
    April 20, 2011 at 7:07 PM · I agree that DCA has become a worthwhile park, and Mermaid and Cars Land look very promising. However, even with the billion dollar makeover, will the park be as good as it can be? No.

    * DCA's Tower of Terror is a solid attraction, but pales compared to the masterpiece at DHS.

    * The TSMM queue is pretty boring compared to the charming one at DHS.

    * The Monsters Inc. ride is pretty good, but why not replace it with a clone of Hide and Go Seek from Tokyo Disney? I watched a video of that ride, and c'mon, it's no contest. The Tokyo version blows the California one right out of the water, and 10 miles onto shore.
    Would it be expensive to replace the current ride? Sure. But so what? They replaced Superstar Limo, and Hide and Go Seek would be an equivalent upgrade over the current ride. Do they want a world class park next to Disneyland, or don't they?

    * DCA still has too many spinner and drop rides, as well as those painfully lame kiddie rides. Even 5 year olds must be bored by those anemic bumper cars.

    I do applaud Disney for reinvesting heavily into this park. But, considering the vast resources of this company, they should really strive to make every park as good as it can be. That's the ideal that Walt always strove for, far beyond the limited resources that were at his disposal. Today, the company is falling far short of that ideal for DCA -- or any other park, for that matter.

    April 20, 2011 at 7:15 PM · I will say it again. I still think TPI was too harsh on DCA from the get go. While I never got to ride Superstar Limo, I was there in 2005 and I was greatly impressed with the park. While I think the park has changed for the better, I still do not believe it was as bad as some TPIers made it.
    April 20, 2011 at 7:26 PM · There are too many midway spinners at nearly EVERY park in the world, but we expect more from Disney, so I guess that's why there's so much backlash.

    However, there is no doubt that almost every decision related to DCA has been spot on for the past few years. I am immensely impressed with the changes at DCA and very much look forward to visiting in 2012 or 2013 when Carsland is complete.

    Also, if Paradise Pier can be "fixed" then there is still hope for Dinoland USA at Animal Kingdom....

    April 20, 2011 at 8:59 PM · Never been to Disney Land but probaly when cars land comes I'll be there
    April 21, 2011 at 1:59 AM · Not bad, but I wouldn't say that's the way to fix a park. It's certainly a step in the right direction, but most of the changes thus far have been menial. Mickey heads, improved views, and toned down attraction clones aren't ideal replacements or upgrades.
    April 21, 2011 at 6:32 AM · The real problem is and continues to be ride count.

    Until DCA can get its ride count up to the point that it is a full day park, instead of a half day park, it will never be as good as DL, MK, CP, IOA, KBF, SFMM, etc.

    Disney has been in the habit of pulling out a ride and replacing it with a ride. That brings it back to a zero gain, even if the new ride is theoretically better.

    It would be extremely nice to have choices of what to ride instead of the only choice to ride everything and then complain about the stuff you didn't like.

    This is the problem that Disney has had at every park they have opened since Epcot. On opening day there are not enough things to do and then they spend the next 10 years adding things to the park.

    The problem also has to do with how expensive their rides are. It costs about 15-20 million to put in a good large roller coaster. But at Disney it costs 120 million to put in a small roller coaster. It seems like someone is a little top heavy if the split is that wide.

    April 21, 2011 at 10:11 AM · To Jeff, I agree that DCA has a low ride count, but ride QUALITY is just as important. Knott's and MM have LOTS of rides, but MOST of them can be found at your local carnival.
    It is also not fair to compare a 10 year park to 30+ year old parks. Was IOA perfect when it first opened? Their best attractions (Potter and Spiderman) were added years after their opening. Universal Studios Singapore has a low ride count and they even had problems opening the few that they had. Ferrai World doesn't have very many rides either. Hard Rock(or whatever it's called now)had(s) a very low ride count. Even DisneySea had a somewhat low ride count at opening. When you compare DCA to parks of similar (or younger) age, the comparsion is not as bad.
    I also agree that the park has a long way to go even after the extreme makeover is done in 2012, but Disney knows that too. The key is going to be attendance and money. IF the extreme makeover moves the attendance and money "meters" than they will go through with planned phase 2 projects, but that is the key. Disney is doing this makeover to make money, not because they are a charity.
    April 21, 2011 at 10:15 AM · Let's break down the ride count, using Islands of Adventure as comparison:

    IoA: 23 attractions, none planned.
    DCA: 22 attractions, 6 more planned to open with a year.

    Let's look at the top 20 attractions listed over on the right side of the page. IoA has the top two themed rides. DCA has two of the top three live shows. DCA also has a clone of the fifth-rated movie/animated show, and a lesser clone of the third-rated themed ride.

    Let's break down further by categories:

    Live shows: DCA gets the nod. Aladdin and World of Color beat Sindbad and Poseidon's Fury. I'll give Disney Junior the nod over Ollivander's only for capacity.

    Roller coasters: IoA wins with Hulk and Dragon Challenge over California Screamin'. Goofy's Sky School won't change things, as it's not as fun a kids' coaster as Hippogriff.

    Movies/animated shows: DCA by default. Soarin', Muppetvision and Tough to be a Bug versus nothing from IoA.

    Water rides: IoA wins with Popeye, Dudley and Jurassic park literally swamping Grizzly River Run.

    Dark rides: IoA. Monsters Inc. and the neutered Cat in the Hat are a wash, and while Midway Mania's a great ride, and Tower of Terror has its fans, they can't match Spidey and Potter. Mermaid will help, but IoA will continue to rule so long as it has the top two themed rides in the country.

    Kids' rides: This one's tough. While Seuss Landing offers better rides and atmosphere than Flik's Fun Fair, DCA offers several very worthy kids' rides over in Paradise Pier, making this one a wash for me. Cars Land will tip this to DCA, however.

    Playgrounds: IoA. Camp Jurassic and Redwood Creek cancel each other out, but DCA has nothing to counter If I Ran the Zoo. Me Ship, The Olive was better than S.S. Rustworthy even before Disney ripped it out, too.

    Other rides: DCA removed its launch tower, leaving Doom unopposed. But when Cars Land opens, Radiator Springs Racers might make this an easy win for DCA.

    The edge overall? IoA. But DCA's competitive with what TPI readers have voted the best theme park in America. A few years ago, that would have been inconceivable, even before IoA opened Potter. And the opening of Cars Land and Mermaid will make it even closer. That California Adventure is within shouting distance of a post-Potter Islands of Adventure is remarkable.

    If some people still have complaints with this park, fine. I can find complaints with any theme park. But I think we all should be able to admit that Disney's made major improvements to this theme park.

    April 21, 2011 at 10:31 AM · I'd agree that Disney has started to fix DCA... but it's far from being "finished". That old adage of Disneyland never completed holds true for all Disney Parks including DCA.

    This is way better than what was reality 10 years ago. I never made it to DCA in the first few years, so I have no concept of what it looked like, but the changes are fantastic so far! I can't agree that the ToT is better in Florida though... I see it as different. Correct me if I'm wrong, but load times are faster in Anaheim without the 5th Dimension, and with Anaheim having two cars operating in each shaft. I'm indifferent as to whether or not it's better. And the random drops I'm torn... the arguments for both sides are "legit"... consistency for one, and variety for the other.

    And while A Bug's Land may be considered a flop by most, at the moment, it's one of the few "kid's lands"... but that doesn't mean it can't be improved!

    April 21, 2011 at 11:08 AM · It's sort of a false comparison to say IOA and DCA should be compared to be TPI reader's favorite theme park. The favorite theme park has to compete with every other theme park in the world.

    There are a lot of minor points that was compared, but overall, I think it comes down to 2 things: Harry Potter and Spiderman.

    Harry Potter is the most ornate example of a themed area and dark ride done right in the best Disney tradition. It surpassed previous efforts by a mile.

    The double whammy of the HP ride and Spiderman is very hard to overcome.

    From the upcoming DCA's Buena Vista Street makeover and Carsland, will it match up? We will soon find out.

    The Radiator Springs Racers has to surpass the existing Test Track theming by a mile. Otherwise, it won't be enough to win.

    Will The Little Mermaid be much better than Haunted Mansion? Or will it fall short?

    DCA will be judged superior with its shows, but I think the shows will be discounted in consideration with the themed environment and rides.

    April 21, 2011 at 2:56 PM · The biggest change is that DCA is finally becoming a true Disney park. Something the company can be proud of instead of a red-headed stepchild. Now, because we hold Disney to a higher standard than any other theme park chain, there will always be criticism. However, it does not take a rocket scientist (or a would-be Imagineer) to see that DCA is a vastly improved park from what it was ten years ago.

    As for the argument about ride count, what does it matter if you have 100 rides when only a dozen of them are worth riding? Do you really think folks go to Cedar Point to ride the same Eli Bridge Scrambler found at every county fair and iron ride park in the nation? Or that the real draw at Magic Mountain is its round-up attraction, Wonder Woman's Golden Lasso? Nah, all that midway/carnival junk is just filler for the main event - the dozen or so attractions that we all ride over and over and over again.

    I'll take a headliner-packed park like DCA or IOA over a midway mecca any day of the week.

    April 21, 2011 at 8:27 PM · Radiator Springs Racers and Little mermaid are designed for never get old, it is a kind of point to exam.
    April 22, 2011 at 8:46 AM · One of the most important aspects to the fix hasn't been mentioned: the entrance. A proper Disney park has a way of transitioning you firmly into a new world as you enter the park. The outside world is banished and the visitor is taken to another place. The original DCA entrance failed to do that. Walking through the turnstiles didn't really create any new feelings or immerse you in a theme. It really didn't feel all that different from the outside world, just some loud tacky design and a big open space. The new Buena Vista street entrance should go a long way to setting the right mood and creating the grand entrance area Disney parks are known for.
    April 22, 2011 at 2:53 PM · Excellent points Robert - and I like your breakdown of DCA vs. IOA. I went to DCA before it opened officially and hated it - but over the years I've found myself spending an entire day there. World of Color is amazing - and I love the FastPass "reserved space" idea so you don't have the crammed - show up 2 hours early - issue like Fantasmic!

    There's still some weird areas (walk through to get a tortilla...weird), but overall I find DCA very enjoyable. I've been twice this year and both times I was actually quite taken with ElecTRONica - that was a nice touch for the teen set.

    Paradise Pier was troubled from the start - I only hit Screamin' and TSMM and then leave - I have no use for the Zephyr, the swings, the "extreme wait, lame ride" Mickey Wheel and the carnival games. And isn't Goofy's coaster just the same Mulholland Madness coaster with different theming? (which so disappointed me as it's the same exact coaster installed at every Cedar Fair park).

    But overall, DCA has really come into its own. Surprisingly, the previously hated Animal Kingdom is now my favorite park at Disneyworld. Once Carsland and Mermaid opens, DCA is going to seriously kick some a**!

    April 22, 2011 at 4:14 PM · DCA is much improved and will only get better. I'm not sure why people dislike Flik's Fun Fair. It's adorable. I love walking around and checking out the clever theming. And the little ones really enjoy the rides. I can easily spend a day or two at DCA. Combined with three days at Disneyland, it's the perfect vacation!
    April 22, 2011 at 6:19 PM · DCA is still a mix of good and bad. The first thing they should have done would be to get rid of the midway games and put in a ride. It is a waste of space, nobody I know is going to spend money to play games after paying several hundred to get their family into the park. Why not demolish that entire side and replace it with the rides that everybody misses and wants from the Old Time Disneyland. I.e. Country Bear Jamboree, People Mover, Etc, Etc. They already revived the electric parade why not continue with that theme. Remove the Tortilla Factory and bread exhibits and put in rides. Definitely needs more rides.

    The only things going for it right now are TSMM, ToT, the Rapids and Soaring. Besides that it is all just space to walk in. Honestly you can get the same amount of stimulation at Downtown Disney without the costly entrance fee. The park just isn't worth the admission at this point.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:54 PM · I also have to stick(bug) up for Flik's Fun Fair. Among the best theming anywhere and my 5-year-old would live there if we would allow it.

    Maybe they should have one of those height requirement poles and only allow entrance to only people UNDER a certain size. :)

    April 26, 2011 at 10:46 AM · I'm happy that they are making improvements to DCA. It was time for some things to be updated. I just wish that they would add the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, which is currently located in Magic Kingdom (Orlando). This would be a wonderful addition to the park. This is a family attraction where the Monsters Inc. characters interact with everyone in the room. They talk to the kids and the parents, the tell jokes and they play games.

    This attraction is enjoyed by all is ages. It would be nice if this was added.

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