Will Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure be a hit or a flop?

March 15, 2018, 11:00 AM · Is Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure going to be a hit or a flop? Based on what I learned about the land seeing designs and models and talking with Imagineers and park managers last week, I suspect that Pixar Pier might be Guardians of the Galaxy, v2.0 — an attraction makeover concept derided on social media that actual visitors turn out to embrace.

Why do I think Pixar Pier will be a hit? If you talk with any designer at Disney, he or she inevitably will come back to the company's number-one talking point about new theme park attractions — story. But if Paradise Pier had a story behind it, no significant percentage of fans could perceive it. The land was an emotional callback to a setting (old-timey seaside amusement parks) that meant nothing to any visitor who is not now collecting Social Security checks.

Yes, theme parks can develop compelling attractions without using outside franchises. But that puts the burden on theme park designers to create compelling settings, characters, and conflicts to drive the narrative of their attraction. It's so much easier to lift an existing franchise and build upon the familiarity and emotional resonance that the audience already feels for that IP.

With Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, Disneyland was replacing The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction at Disney California Adventure with a new storyline featuring Marvel's popular science fiction franchise. When Disney announced the plan, fans on social media roasted the company as well as anyone who defended Disney's concept... including, yours truly.

I defended the switch for two reasons. First, DCA's Tower of Terror was a poor implementation of The Twilight Zone IP. That show was all about ironic punishment, but the Tower of Terror offered none of that. It affected the form of a Twilight Zone moment without supporting any of its narrative function. In my review of Tokyo DisneySea's Tower of Terror attraction — which does not use a Twilight Zone theme — I suggested that the original IP on that ride actually reflected the theme of irony from The Twilight Zone better than Disney's other towers did.

In the Tokyo tower, a ruthless explorer uses the tower to hold his collection of artifacts from around the world. But one of the items in his collection was not the lifeless idol that the collector took it to be. The living idol instead took his revenge on the collector for taking it from his people, in an ending that would have made Rod Serling proud.

That brings me to the second reason why I supported Disney's switch on the tower. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout uses the exact story beats as the Tokyo Tower of Terror. Throw in Chris Pratt's Star Lord and the rest of the beloved characters from the movies, some rockin' tunes that matched the era from the film's soundtrack, and you had all the ingredients for a hit attraction.

Which, when the ride opened last May, it immediately was... despite all the complaining from the social media critics who insisted that this switch would be the ruin of Disney.

Well, the naysayers are at it again, complaining about Pixar Pier on Twitter and Facebook. After I wrote my Orange County Register column about the changes this week, I also took some personal social media hits from some of the same people who attacked me for supporting the Guardians ride. Whatever. I'm an adult who writes for a living. I can take that.

I agree that Pixar Pier is not Cars Land 2.0. It's not an immersive, single-IP land like that, or Pandora, or Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But I would hate to see the theme park industry declare everything between the status quo and those high standards as "no-man's land" where parks should never attempt to tread. Parks should try to improve their existing attractions, even if they don't take them all the way up to the Pandora/Potter level.

And Pixar Pier provides certain improvement over Paradise Pier. My children are now 17 and 20 and as jaded as can be about theme parks, thanks to a life of their dad hauling them around various attractions. They could not care less about Paradise Pier, but they are psyched by the Pixar make-over.

Pixar the storybook of their childhood. And, thanks to the studio's ability to craft films with multi-generational appeal, Pixar is the storybook of my parenthood, too.

Instead of getting a mediocre steel coaster masquerading as a woodie on California Screamin', now fans will get to experience an Incredibles story on the refurbished Incredicoaster. That's an upgrade. Instead of a bunch of unthemed outdoor eateries along the boardwalk, now we will get vendors themed to Monsters Inc., Toy Story, and Inside Out. Now, they are not Be Our Guest, but they are an upgrade. The Lamplight Lounge is basically a plussed Cove Bar that expands to take over the hardly-beloved Ariel's Grotto restaurant. That's another upgrade.

I must add a disclaimer that all I have (or anyone else has) seen of this land are plans. The final show scene in the Incredicoaster that Imagineering would not reveal to us could be a dud that sinks the whole experience. The new eateries could suffer capacity issues that turn off fans. The Luxo animatronic atop the Pixar Pier marquee, the Jessie's Critter Carousel, and the still-unannounced Inside Out ride won't be ready when the land opens on June 23, which could undercut fans' acceptance of what will be an incomplete project.

But what will be open all will represent upgrades from what we have now. And the land will be unified by a collection of stories from might be the most powerful media brand among the young visitors and families that Disney covets. That says "hit," to me.

Look, I get it. Anger drives clicks online. There are some social media personalities who have learned that if they portray every change Disney makes as the coming Armageddon, fans will reward them with the shares, retweets, and traffic (which means money). And if anyone ever calls them out on that, they immediately portray themselves as the Holy Defender of All That Walt Treasured... then turn to attack whoever dares disagrees with them. (Ahem.)

Hey, I am the idiot who chose to get into the news business in the 1990s, just as that industry began to collapse. I'm as far from a seer or a prophet as it gets. Everyone is entitled to her or his opinion. But I know that millions of Disneyland fans will get to decide whether Pixar Pier is a hit or not, just as they were the ones who got to decide the fate of Guardians of the Galaxy. And I suspect that most of them are going to like what they see with Pixar Pier.

But we won't know for sure until this summer... despite what anyone else tries to tell you before then.

Replies (28)

March 15, 2018 at 11:20 AM ·

What I don't get is why Disney is spending money on retheming rides that still can command a lengthy queue, when what they really need is more capacity.

Their attendance increases every year regardless of how much they raise the ticket prices, but Disney doesn't seem to care about where those people are going to go and what they are going to do when they get to the park.

I'm sure the new land will be better than the old land, but turning a ride with a 20 minute wait into a ride with a 90 minute wait seems pretty dumb.

March 15, 2018 at 11:49 AM ·

I'm pretty meh on the changes. If Disney is intent on going completely away from the original DCA concept (celebration of everything California), then re-skinning Paradise Pier was a virtual necessity. The boardwalk look is ultimately out of place if the park is no longer embracing the California theme, so Pixar characters offer an easy (and cheap) way to make the transition. Pixar was a natural choice with TSMM already in place along the Boardwalk.

Since the actual ride experience of California Screamin' will be unaffected by the overlay, adding the Incredibles theme can be seen as nothing but a plus. (some theme is greater than no theme). I'm not impressed by the imaging of the food stands and some of the other re-theming in the area that appears to be limited to flat signage and cardboard-like cutouts. Again, something is better than nothing, so it will drive some interest, but it does seem like this is a budget retheme to pull away from the park's overarching California concept instead of the re-imagining Paradise Pier really needs.

As you say, anger drives clicks, but I think the question here will be can Anger sell hot dogs?

March 15, 2018 at 12:07 PM ·

“turning a ride with a 20 minute wait into a ride with a 90 minute wait seems pretty dumb.”

Not if you’re trying to go on Toy Story Midway Mania, which usually have the 90 minutes wait times today. Then you have the Racers ride that usually have 120 minutes waits get reduced to 70 minutes waits when Mission Breakout improved from 45 minutes wait to 60 minutes wait.

The attendance mix will ultimately drive California Adventure to a higher level. This is needed when Star Wars Land opens. People from the outside don’t see the bigger picture. Certainly, they hate Pixar as they always do, but hand drawn animation and Disney Animation is no more. This is how far the animosity originated.

March 15, 2018 at 12:22 PM ·

The complaints about cardboard cutouts are interesting. When you play with plastic or cardboard toys, they are really flat. They are disposable toys. So the theming is appropriate although the detractors have a point that they hate the theming for a THEME PARK. Then let’s go back to what is Paradise Pier. A seaside carnival that’s no more capable of being a theme park. This is a category error as they say. They need to completely overhaul it in the future. Everything must go. Start over.

March 15, 2018 at 12:39 PM ·

That's pretty much my point Anton...Disney is doing a cheap re-theme to try to get another few years out of the area before they have to put some serious money into fixing the entire design. Some may say going the Pixar Pier route is a good one as it revitalizes the ill-conceived land with a popular IP that fits in with the cornerstone attraction of the land (TSMM). Others would say they should just do it right from the get go, and do a full re-imagining. Disney's already decided to go the cheap route, so it's impossible to weigh it against a full redesign/rebuild, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're right back here 5 years from now trying to figure out what to do with this section of the park.

As far as the flat nature of the toys, I definitely agree. However, it appears that what Disney is doing at DCA is much more limited in scope and much flatter than what they are doing at DHS. I know it's hard to compare a re-theme to a completely new land designed from the ground up, but TSL, which still has a lot of those "flat" theming elements, has far more dimension and integration than what is happening at DCA, where they're putting up a few signs and little "weenies" in front of stands and rides. It's a very Cedar Fair approach IMHO.

March 15, 2018 at 1:08 PM ·

Disney always had the story first and then came the ride. That worked because the ride chosen was the way to tell the story.
The original story for Paradise Pier was...well that it was a pier with a bunch of carnival rides on it trying to provoke the old timy feeling while going on the cheap creating a second park. Putting a Pixar sauce on it is exactly what Six Flags is doing. A simple ride and light theming where the name of the theme is more important than the theme itself. That is not what Disney was about. Will it be better then before? Well it was never good to begin with. It has no place in a park with that price tag. I'd love to see a Pixar Land. I think Disney failed miserably in Orlando only using 1 IP for an 11 acre land. There are so much more and better movies then Toy Story but if we are ok with this level of entertainment and rides it won't surprise me the Company will go that much cheaper route in the future.

March 15, 2018 at 1:25 PM ·

Definitely going to be a flop. This is the antithesis of a Disney park.

March 15, 2018 at 3:18 PM ·

I wouldn't say 5 years. This may very well be a stopgap, but my reading is Pixar Pier is consistent with the Toy Story Lands around the globe. Unless Toy Story Mania goes, then they might reconsider, but it's staying and so is the rest of the Pixar characters. The anger is misplaced. It's in a corner of the park that's isolated from the rest of California Adventure that will get grander theming. Hollywood Pictures Backlot and Bug's Land are slated to be replaced soon with Marvel. I just hope it doesn't look like the repurposed warehouse buildings of Walt Disney Studios in Paris or the not better looking Tomorrowland in Hong Kong Disneyland. Not exactly a theme park pinnacle.

March 15, 2018 at 1:41 PM ·

This is (almost) unrelated... but... your kids are now 17 and 20????? WHAT?! I've been reading TPI since 2008, I think, and I swear your kids have been in elementary school this whole time.

Thanks so much for entertaining me with theme park love all these years!

March 15, 2018 at 1:56 PM ·

I want Pixar Pier to do well, but from what I've seen of the design it will probably be popular for about six months and then return to current crowd levels once the newness wears off. The fact that only half the area will actually be complete this summer doesn't help matters much, especially when it is being advertised as the big new project for 2018. I'm not against the idea, I just wish Disney took the time to properly think it out and didn't rush out something that is little more than a reskin of existing attractions and shops. There's plenty of evidence that they can create top notch attractions with Pixar properties (with the best example literally right next to the pier), but this definitely feels like Disney is more concerned with getting the IP into the parks to promote the Incredibles and Toy Story sequels (and to have something to combat Star Wars Land) than creating something that will be a major draw long term.

March 15, 2018 at 2:06 PM ·

"The land was an emotional callback to a setting (old-timey seaside amusement parks) that meant nothing to any visitor who is not now collecting Social Security checks."


March 15, 2018 at 3:33 PM ·

I think Pixar Pier will do just fine.

As was previously mentioned, Paradise Pier had a very generic theme......no one was going there to embrace the nostalgia of the days of yore...If anything, Pixar provides a stronger Disney connection (in terms of the "new Disney".....where IP's reign).

Plus, it gives the land a very loose thread where properties that don't necessarily connect (i.e Incredibles & Toy Story, etc.) can coexist. As long as it's Pixar, it can "fit, so the rules for "suspension of belief" aren't technically as strong. It's a loose collection of properties, so it doesn't have to make a strong case for uniformity.

I have a feeling we'll see something similar with MarvelLand (although on a much larger, expensive scale)

The attractions themselves aren't changing (& they'll be a new Inside Out replacement), so from a general standpoint, we're not losing anything, it's just a revamp of a generic theme.

Ultimately, I look forward to it......Yeah, it might just be a new coat of paint.....but it's still "new". That's not a bad thing.

March 15, 2018 at 3:57 PM ·

Pixar could provide enough material for a 5th gate at WDW.

March 15, 2018 at 5:02 PM ·

The problem with Pixar Pier is that it’s not an immersive environment that transports guests to a time and place. Paradise Pier, while FAR from perfect, transported guests to a 1920s boardwalk amusement park. What does Pixar Pier transport guests to? I think the honest answer is “nowhere,” which means the area has been downgraded from a themed environment to an amusement park - making it antithetical to the whole concept of Disney Parks, and helping weaken the Disney “brand” by further blurring the line between Disney theme parks and amusement parks.

March 15, 2018 at 6:26 PM ·

Ariel's Grotto was not "Hardly beloved" the restaurant was very popular. It was so hard to get a reservation there. Ariel's Grotto was the only restaurant where you meet Disney princesses. Every little loves Disney princesses,so dining there was a must for all families with little girls. Even grown women were huge fans of Ariel's Grotto.Disney princess dinings experience are usually the most popular of all character dinings just look how popular Cinderella's table is in WDW. I think it is very unfair to Disney princess fans that Disney took out this restaurant without making a new Disney princess character dining experience first. Also DCA needs a character dining experience because they have none since Ariel's Grotto closed. DCA does not need another lounge theres 5 other lounges in DCA why is the the light lounge necessary. Theme parks aren't just about the rides,it's about the dining and right now both Disneyland has very little sit down restaurants and only one character dining inside the park,so it's shame pixar pier won't have any sit down restaurants or character dinings because some people don't like quick service food places. Ariel's Grotto is a huge loss.

March 15, 2018 at 6:41 PM ·

I think DCA should make something else Disney princess themed since they got rid of all the Ariel themed things. Without Ariel's Grotto DCA doesn't seem as to appeal to little girls or Girly girls as much as it d appeals to boys. In DCA boys get Cars and Superheros but what do the girly girls get. I think I "Frozenland" should be made like in Disneyland Tokyo. Frozen is wildly popular so an Arendelle will be a big hit in DCA and they could place another princess restaurant to replace Ariel Grotto there. Without Ariel DCA seems very boyish they something more girly in the park,I am already losing interest in the park without any princesses.

March 15, 2018 at 7:58 PM ·

What do I think about Pixar Pier? Hmmm... Nintendo World can't open soon enough!

March 15, 2018 at 9:33 PM ·

On our last trip to Disneyland Nov 2017, we ate at Ariel's grotto for the first time. Hubby and I are in our late 30's with no kids and it was amazing! Food was fantastic, the under the sea theme was awesome and we loved meeting princesses.
So sad they got rid of this theme restaurant and character dinning. Just wish we eaten at Ariel's grotto every year we visited.

March 16, 2018 at 9:20 AM ·

I agree Robert. I can understand the lack of interest in the project, but the amount of contempt is baffling to say the least.

March 16, 2018 at 11:04 AM ·

Pixar Pier is basically going to be the "Pixar Land" of the Disneyland Resort. If you think about it in that context and then compare it with the others I think it will rate favorably. I think the transformation of California Screamin into Incredicoaster alone will worth it. Also it's pretty clear that a Bug's Land is going to be removed for Marvel Land soon and the park will need attractions that will appeal to small children. So I see it as almost a necessary move and predict it will be a hit.

March 16, 2018 at 11:16 AM ·

I was never a fan of the Pier to begin with, the idea of it is makes sense but the design turned out extremely tacky IMO. Paradise Pier and Dinoland have always been my least favorite areas of the Disney Parks.

I agree with others that the overlay is very Six Flags-ish and probably is a stop gap, but as we all know stop gaps at Disney Parks tend to take a long time, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this area there for 10+ years. I do find it kind of funny that they took out Maliboomer and are replacing it with a spinner. IMO it doesn't make the park any better or worse, but you can't just bulldoze the area because it is home to World of Color which needs to stay.

March 16, 2018 at 1:24 PM ·

I thought original idea for Pier was always lacking...Now im excited...So I'm fine...There will be enough of me to make park a hit I'm sure.

March 17, 2018 at 10:46 AM ·

Pixar Pier will be no Potterland or Pandora, it will be a nicely decorated area with a statue of Jessie instead of a 'real' Jessie that would make it more immersive. But I agree that not everything Disney does has to be totally immersive. It just has to be immersive enough to let you escape from the real world for a time.

Sometimes I think Disney tries too hard to make a back story. I remember the back story for Pleasure Island in WDW was kind of lame and stretching it.

All Disney has to do to make an upgrade 'incredible' is to add animatronics or cool special effects. The video screens in GotG Tower were well done, and clear enough that 3D wasn't necessary. If they add enough to the Incredicoaster, it will be a hit.

I always thought that Alien Encounter in Disney World didn't go far enough in terms of showing the alien. You get the alien breathing down your neck and you see him once in the center chamber. To be convincing, you should have been able to see him in a couple more spots, or at least one, around the room.

Another attraction that could use plussing is Grizzly River Rapids. It would be great to put the Country Bears in there. I know it's an outdoor ride with water, but there must be a way to do it.

March 18, 2018 at 6:44 PM ·

MarkSharp, A Bugs Land is NOT going away! It’s saying! The Marvel Land will not replace it!

March 19, 2018 at 4:27 PM ·

Disney's California Adventure was supposed to be everything you could experience in California except Disneyland. Those long-associated with the theme park have always considered it a half-day ticket. Hey, the monorail doesn't even stop there!
All the rides there are "off the shelf" meaning, they were purchased as complete with nothing more than paint and decoration so as to fit in to the Park itself.
The idea of an overlay making all the difference is kind of thin. The reality of the rides, what the Park itself is supposed to represent remains the same. CarsLand is hardly a reason to visit more than once. The real magic is DL itself. It might make a difference for a little while but layover is just that...new makeup, but same character.

March 20, 2018 at 2:04 PM ·

The argument with many is that Disney has always been about creating unique, themed environments that aren't specifically related to any one IP (or set of IPs). Yes, some of the attractions within those environments are based on IP (Adventureland featuring Indiana Jones is a perfect example of an IP that works). However, what many are upset about is the unneeded forced inclusion of IPs at a detriment to these general themed lands that are much broader and accessible to a wider audience. Universal's schtick was always to be the place where you can "ride the movies," while Disney build immersive environments that took you to a specific time and place. None of that applies here.

March 20, 2018 at 3:06 PM ·

There are so many great comments here I don't know where to begin.

Jeff Elliot, I am totally on board with the ride capacity issues. Attractions they built in the 60s/70s were created with capacities of 2500 to 3000 per hour. Now, they focus on 1200 to 1500 per hour? That doesn't make sense. Adding small attractions with smaller capacities only compounds these issues. Even the new attractions for Galaxy's edge will handle only 1600/1700 per hour. (That's if they are efficient with loading and unloading) What is the reasoning behind this?

And as for their anchor attractions such as Soarin and Radiator Springs. They did the same thing with Test Track and Soaring in Epcot. Those attractions should have been reworked,and triple the capacity. They have the land to do it at WDW and DLR. They finally clued in with Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios with 190 minute wait times by tripling the capacity.

It does not help imagineering when you are not getting the engineering part it of correct...

March 21, 2018 at 11:31 AM ·

I mean, you could have just used Matthew's name, right? ;-)

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