Twenty years ago today, Disney's California Adventure officially opened - adding a second gate to the Disneyland Resort with a gutcheck moment for Disney's theme parks and their fans.
The timing for California Adventure's debut could not have been worse. The Y2K computer programming bug had spawned an economic boom in the late 1990s, as companies hired IT consultants to reprogram systems and while also buying billions of dollars in new computer hardware. That in turn led to a massive boost in the use of the emerging Internet, further fueling a stock market boom in new "dot com" businesses.
The global effort to fix the Y2K bug was successful, leading many to dismiss the averted disaster as hype. But with January 1, 2000 past, companies laid off their consultants and stopped buying new hardware (since they were set with plenty of new or upgraded equipment), triggering an economic slowdown that accelerated once the stock market's dot-com boom busted.
Recessions are a lousy time to open a new tourist destination, and the United States officially entered one the month after California Adventure opened. This recession was especially tough on DCA, as the park was themed to - and housed in - the state that was the epicenter of the 2000-2001 IT and dot-com bust.
California Adventure did not help make its case to a cash-strapped public by offering what looked more like a low-budget Universal Studios spoof of a Disney theme park rather than a deserving sequel to the original Disneyland. Filled with signs featuring puns on California locations and show business references, the park lacked the earnest storytelling magic that made Disneyland an enduring success and cultural icon.
The park's one undisputed success was Soarin' Over California - a revolutionary new attraction that inspired countless "flying theater" attractions at theme parks and other destinations around the world.
Yet even Soarin' Over California fueled fan criticism of DCA, as its emotional finale was a fireworks show... at Disneyland. Why are you spending time here?, the show seemed to ask. All the fun is happening across the esplanade. California Adventure's best attraction effectively served as an ad for the resort's other theme park.
In 2007, Disney announced plans to overhaul California Adventure, including a redesign for its entrance plaza and the addition of a new land themed to Pixar's "Cars." When then-Disney CEO Bob Iger rededicated the park on June 15, 2012, Disney dropped the possessive in the name of Disney California Adventure and fans converged on the park like never before, driving attendance up 22 percent in that year.
Since then, Disney California Adventure has continued to stand on its own next to its world-famous neighbor. Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, and Toy Story Midway Mania rank among our reader's Top 25 theme park attractions in the world, and a new Marvel-themed land, Avengers Campus, likely will be ready when the park officially reopens to guests.
In the meantime, Disneyland's resort president announced to cast members today that Disney California Adventure will host a hard-ticket food festival for fans, starting next month. And Buena Vista Street is open to fans now as an expansion of the resort's Downtown Disney shopping and dining district.
It's not the 20th birthday celebration that anyone wanted - or anticipated at this time last year. But California Adventure demonstrates the resilience of Disney and its theme parks. The park overcame the troubles of its debut, as it no doubt will overcome the troubles of today.
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