Let’s face it, Disney California Adventures at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim has needed a shot in the arm for nearly as long as it has been open. A bare minimum of thrill rides coupled with fully realized ticket prices made for low attendance from just about all but annual passholders. A ton of re-theming and park additions including the Pixar pairing of Cars Land puts the spark back in the park.
Originally, guests entering DCA (as regulars have come to know it) were ushered through nondescript gates and a bevy of otherwise benign stores and snack shops before branching out to one of the more solidly themed areas. Aside from the Golden Gate Bridge overhead nothing of the surrounding hub area was distinctly ‘California’. The reimagined entrance however feels more like a portal to a different time, in a way similar to the tunnels that lead to Main Street from the front gates at Disneyland.
The Buena Vista Street area has a distinct 1920′s Hollywood feel to it. The facades of the stores and restaurants, architecturally, received a California Mission treatment opening up to a courtyard with a replica of the iconic Carthay Circle Theatre where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937. DCA’s version houses an upper scale restaurant with entrees ranging from 18 to 41 dollars as well as a member’s only area known as Club 1901. West of the theater-turned-restaurant is a Red Car trolley station where guests can board a replica of the Pacific Railroad trolley endemic to the Hollywood of that era.
South of the entrance is where most of the action was. When DCA opened, a larger area than was necessary was dedicated to California agriculture. Actual vegetable and fruit patches grew amidst a mini water play area meant to simulate, I don’t know, irrigation? Kids couldn’t wait to board and pretend to drive a tractor and combine! I get the importance, but this is Disneyland, not the state fair. Fortunately someone finally figured that out and, with John Lasseter’s help, harvested the last of the pomegranates and paved a way for the Mother Road – Route 66.
Cars Land is the latest and greatest for the park. 3 new rides, a restaurant and several snack and gift shops make up an expansion meant to cruise guests into Radiator Springs, the once sleepy little town Lightning McQueen and his buddies call home from Disney/Pixar’s Cars. Everything is presented with an automotive twist as if inhabited by the cars themselves. And indeed life size characters like Mater, Lightning and Red the Fire Engine occasionally drive through town to greet guests and pose for pictures.
You’ll find the longest line leading to Radiator Springs Racers, a Sunday drive through Ornament Valley and into Radiator Springs that culminates in a high speed race around Willy’s Butte with another group of riders. Guests load into a 6-passenger Pixar-styled convertible a the entrance of The Wheel Well Motel, drive through a southwestern forest road (resembling areas of Flagstaff, AZ) and past a waterfall (reminiscent of Havasu Falls) before entering the dark ride portion of the trek. Easily some of the best animatronics I’ve ever seen, brief though they may be, are found here. Full size versions of the town’s inhabitants have articulated faces and bodies, though a few use projection techniques. After a quick stop into either Luigi’s for new whitewall tires or Ramone’s for a paint job, riders are in for a pep talk by crew-cheif Doc Hudson and off to the starting line. Riders are blasted through twists and high banking turns around Willy’s Butte dueling against guests in another car for road supremacy ending with a cruise through Taillight Caverns, with its beautiful “stalag-light” formations and back to the loading area.
The ride is fast and fanciful and feels similar to the flow and layout of Epcot’s Test Track (currently under renovation) at The Walt Disney Resort in Orland, Fl. It’s definitely a highlight for the park as a whole, though perhaps not worth the price of admission alone or the 3 hour wait this reviewer had to endure. Still, it does well to help relive the movie, especially for young guests, and shouldn’t be passed up.
Two smaller attractions, Luigi’s Flying Tires and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, are fun but lack the panache of their big brother. At Luigi’s Flying Tires guests board onto a giant radial tire hovering over a dance floor peppered by dozens of high powered air jets. Passengers lean back, forth and side-to-side in order to maneuver their tire into other tires like massive bumper cars. The addition of giant beach balls makes for a fun, if short, distraction, but not deserving of a 75 minute wait. Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is a Disney take on the type of traveling circus rides that whip riders around on a figure 8 track pulled by baby tractors while Mater sings through his Junkyard Jukebox.
Elsewhere in the park guests will find plenty of other changes. A brand new dining area near the recently re-themed Goofy’s Sky School (previously Mulholland Madness) coaster boasts a large, garden party style setting and two new cafe-like eateries. The Mission Tortilla Factory located in the Fisherman’s Wharf area is now home to a San Francisco staple, the Ghiradelli Soda Fountain, featuring plenty of ice cream and soda concoctions for every sweet tooth. Finally, the night-time entertainment found in Hollywood Land has transformed from ElecTRONica to The Mad T Party. Inspired by Tim Burton’s view of Alice In Wonderland, performers put on a rock and rave show with DJs, a rock band, brightly costumed characters and no shortage of appropriately themed food and drink, including alcohol. Personally, I really enjoyed the Tron theme, but the new Wonderland-look is much more colorful and energetic than its predecessor.
Only time will tell how the public accepts Disney California Adventure as a true destination on its own, but this year’s changes are welcome and impressive to boot. If you visit, make sure not to miss Cars Land after dark. The neon signs, especially at Flo’s V8 and Ramone’s are a sight all but gone from the real Route 66 and shouldn’t be passed up. DCA might not have that pixie-dust magic that makes Disneyland timeless, but it still out-sparkles other Southern California theme parks for families.