A Brand New Day at Disney
With the opening of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street, Disney California Adventure is suddenly a theme park superstar. Plus, the best of the rest of the resort.
Life doesn’t grant many do-overs, sequels are rarely better than originals and most never get a second chance at a first impression.
Or so we’re told. And then there’s Disney California Adventure.
After a 2001 Anaheim debut that left even the most generous and forgiving of Disneyphiles significantly underwhelmed, the park has come roaring back so that suddenly there is truly a “there” there. What once was a not-so-happy place filled with off-the-shelf rides and tone-deaf attractions (a farm tractor exhibit, really?) that felt slapped together by accountants and copywriters replete with puns but little passion, the newly emergent and energized California Adventure features a much-needed injection of character-driven storytelling, blue sky Imagineering and good old-fashioned Disney charm.
You know the Matterhorn, Space and Big Thunder Mountains aren’t real. But when you first enter Cars Land, you may wonder about the desert range that rises there. Our mind knows it's man-made, rising out of a former parking lot.
But so painterly are the faux finishes and so perfect is the forced perspective of the peaks that even those who have hiked and climbed the rocks and crags of the desert Southwest will be in awe of the artistry of Disney's Imagineers.
Significant parts of the rest of the park have also been plussed, to use the vernacular of the original geniuses behind Disneyland. And though still a work in progress, with the stunning scenic setting of Cars Land and the soulful surroundings of Buena Vista Street debuting in June, it’s now official: That old Walt Disney magic is alive and well (finally!) at California Adventure.
Top New Attractions at DCA
Buena Vista Street :: The new entrance avenue to California Adventure will set the tone for the whole park by transporting us to another place, just like Main Street does in Disneyland. The scene is SoCal in the 1920s when Walt Disney first arrived in Los Angeles. The attention to period detail in the area will be spectacular. The new statue of a young, down-to-earth Walt and Mickey will serve as a well-photographed focal point of this grand new land and will warm the heart of all true fans of Disney, the man and the myth.
Carthay Circle Restaurant and Lounge :: Disney tried fine dining in California Adventure before, but this time it’s going to take off. Why? Because Executive Chef Andy Sutton, who has made the neighboring Napa Rose one of the best restaurants in OC, is in charge. And the interior is going to be a dream, with indoor and outdoor seating and a lounge that is so serious about its cocktail culture it includes your choice of ice cubes.
Clarabelle’s Ice Cream Parlor :: Every time we passed the vintage signs for this new establishment painted on the construction barriers around Buena Vista Street, someone would cry out for ice cream.
Cozy Cone Motel :: Almost against our better judgment, we tried a Fritos-and-chili-in-a-bread-cone concoction from this restaurant’s “all cone” menu. It was oddly delicious, like something you had in a childhood dream once. But the adults among us are looking forward to the vodka-spiked lemonade and other high-octane drinks sold here.
Flo’s V8 Café :: We predict this restaurant will serve as home base in Cars Land. It captures and amplifies the atmosphere of Route 66 diners of yore, with enough attention to detail to please design history buffs (check out the Googie-like light fixture at the entrance) and touches of whimsy kids will find irresistible. Oh, and the food? We’ve only had a sample, but we left impressed.
1901 Lounge For Club 33 :: For members, celebs, VIPs, and others with the right connections (including select media members, we hope!), this private area in Carthay Circle Theater will be the place to see and be a scenester.
Radiator Springs Racers :: This is what we who remember the old Disney days would call an E-ticket ride. We’ve never ridden it, but we love it already for the wildly ambitious rock sculpture that rises around it. The Disney Imagineers didn’t have to faithfully recreate the rugged rocks of the American Southwest just to put a high-tech car ride/coaster in. But they did it anyway, probably just to prove they could, and that’s a return to form that’s really sort of thrilling.
Red Car Trolley :: Back in the day there was a mass transit system that would take you from downtown L.A. to the Balboa Peninsula. Then the oil and rubber companies conspired to kill it and blah, blah, blah. Anyone who has seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit knows the rest of the story.Now those famed Red Cars are recreated on Buena Vista Street, complete with a storyteller onboard. It’s fitting, really, for anyone who recognizes how train and transit-centric the Disney Resort really is that this ultimate symbol of lost urban opportunity is back on track in Orange County.
And a few we wouldn't miss :: Now that the Cars Land phase of the California Adventure redo is done, what’s next? More thrill rides and classic Disney attractions are needed. We could do without Jumpin’ Jelly Fish and Goofy’s Flight School, two rides that are brutish (the herky-jerky Goofy coaster) and short (Jelly is a tiny tower of tedium), if not actually nasty. And can we please ditch the smoking section under the Screamer? Looks like Reality Show Reject-land in there, with sideshow types puffing away, often with toddlers and strollers in tow.
Best Disneyland Quote, Ever
“I was awash with the recollection of indelible nights where the sky was blown open by fireworks and big band sounds drifted through trees strung with fairy lights. I remembered my youth, when every moment was crisply present, when heartbreak and joy replaced each other quickly, fully and without trauma. Even now when I visit Disneyland, I am steeped in melancholy, because a corporation has preserved my nostalgia impeccably. Every nail and screw is the same, and Disneyland looks as new now as it did then. The paint is fresh, and the only wear allowed is faux. In fact, only I have changed. In the dream-like world of childhood memories, so often vague and imprecise, Disneyland remains for me not only vivid in memory, but vivid in fact.”
— Steve Martin, Born Standing Up
Route 66 is the inspiration for the movie Cars, and thus the highway that best informs everything about the world of Radiator Springs. The team of Imagineers who brought the film into virtual reality at Cars Land got their kicks on the mother road, visiting the diners, dives and wig wam hotels along the route that inspired Cars creator John Lasseter. But what about those amazing mountains? Though no one has said as much, the cliffs were surely inspired by the stretch of Route 66 that crosses the border between Arizona and New Mexico where the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post is built into the rocks just east of exit 359.
Top 10 Best Rides
Our favorite mix of classics, thrills and Disneyland design genius.
Space Mountain :: Fast flashbacks
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride :: Surreal as hell
Jungle Cruise :: So much pun!
Small World :: The ultimate earworm
Pirates :: Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho!
Disneyland Railroad :: It's all Walt
Thunder Mountain :: Still a wild ride
Haunted Mansion :: Hot at holidays
Monorail :: If only it went everywhere
The Matterhorn :: Hope we don't hate the new cars.
Plus This, Please!
We love Splash Mountain, we truly do. But it’s time to retire the Song of the South characters that populate it. No kid of the past couple of generations has even seen the film, which has long been relegated to the vaults for racism. Sure, we’d miss “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but let's make room for Up or WALL-E inside the caves and caverns. Or how does Marvel Mountain sound?
Five Rides We Skip
Indiana Jones is over-hyped and its illusions of speed and danger are unconvincing
Autopia is woefully dated and takes up valuable real estate
Gadget’s Go Coaster has too long a wait for what you get, even for kids
Astro Orbitor is awkward for kids young enough to enjoy it and too low to the ground for anyone else
Captain Eo is just too ‘80s to bear, though we do appreciate the quirk factor of this odd artifact
Endearingly Dated Disney Diversions
In this age of virtual reality inspired by Walt Disney and the Imagineers these older wonders shouldn't still work. And yet they do.
Enchanted Tiki Room
Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln
Grand Canyon and Primeval World dioramas along the railway
Casey Jr. Circus Train
Storybook Land Canal Boats
King Arthur Carrousel
The Fantasyland Dark Rides
Facts Disney Nerds Know
:: Perhaps the finest work of theme park art ever produced, Pirates of the Caribbean was one of the last rides Walt Disney worked on and the first to open AD.
:: One of the voices singing on Pirates is OC's own Thurl Ravenscroft. He played characters in many Disney films, and is still heard as the parrot Fritz in the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Haunted Mansion and announcing arrivals on the railroad. He's known for the “It’s grrrreat!” line for Tony the Tiger and for singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” But Ravenscroft, who lived in Fullerton, was best known for being the narrator of Laguna’s Pageant of the Masters and the Crystal Cathedral’s The Glory of Christmas.
:: The title of the Haunted Mansion theme song Ravenscroft sings is taken from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis: “Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean / To stifle beauty and to steal his breath.”
:: The giant faux fig tree that supports Tarzan’s Treehouse was modelled after a real one nearby on West Street in Anaheim that (last time we checked) was still standing.
:: A few of the orange trees that grew on 160 Anaheim acres where Disneyland is now were reused in the Jungle Cruise, buried with their roots in the air to support tropical plants. Walt wanted to use more of the groves in the park's landscape, marking specimen trees to save with colored ribbon. But a colorblind tractor driver ended those plans.
Top Tips for Less Stress at California Adventure
1. Enter the park through the Grand Californian Hotel gate. It's restricted to hotel guests before 11 a.m., but enter earlier with a receipt from a hotel restaurant or store.
2. Fastpasses for what will surely be the most popular (and best) new ride in Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers, aren’t at the attraction, but by the It’s Tough to Be a Bug theater.
3. The tables by the Paradise Garden Bandstand should give some respite from the big crowds expected to descend on California Adventure this summer, and the food is good.
4. Everyone grabs a cocktail at the Cove Bar behind Ariel's Grotto, but fewer know about the Al Fresco Lounge up the stairs behind Wine Country Trattoria.
5. If you need a break, a bite and a beer, get your hand stamped, exit through the Grand Californian and head to the shaded tables by White Water Snacks, a few steps away.
6.The park will open at 7 a.m. four days a week this summer for annual pass holders and resort hotel guests.
Top Disney Blogs & Books
:: The Disneyland Encyclopedia
:: Little-Known Facts About Disneyland
:: The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland
:: Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance
:: Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends