So how could Disney's California Adventure, a redacted, prettified collection of West Coast cliches, have turned into a billion-dollar misadventure? I'll tell you how. Because who would pay $69 for a sanitized, lite version of what locals and visitors could get for free any day right outside Disney's gates?
"California to the extreme" would be Charles Richter and Charles Manson, the Castro's camp and Camp Pendleton, Nob Hill and Quartz Hill. Instead, California Adventure is California in the way that Vegas' Eiffel Tower is Paris: a charm-bracelet of some signature landmarks -- like the mock Golden Gate Bridge and a giant orange -- with souvenir shops where you can buy stuff to remind you that you had seen the mock Golden Gate Bridge. The mock part isn't the problem, but where's the adventure?
Take those twin elephant sculptures flanking the gate to California Adventure's "Hollywood Pictures." They're modeled on the set of the 1916 film "Intolerance." But you can see another copy of the same pachyderms posing at Hollywood and Highland, where they stage the Oscars, in the real Hollywood, so why bother with Anaheim's pair?
I do like the Grand Californian Hotel; Disney's homage to the Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley doesn't have a three-month-long waiting list like the original. And the Tower of Terror has one thin claim on my affection: I won a bet with a 7-year-old who dared me to take the ride.
What is authentically Californian about California Adventure is that Disney will be wiping the slate clean and starting afresh -- this time with 1920s nostalgia, going back to the days when the original fake great wall from "Intolerance" still stood at the corner of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.
Take some pointers from a real lover of California: Put an edge in the Adventure. Disney producers don't flinch from scaring us when it suits them. So throw a little 1920s bad our way in the new attractions.
Cars Land, announced with the rest of the plans last week, takes its cue from the Disney/Pixar animated film "Cars." But in the Roaring '20s, America became mobile just as L.A. discovered oil big time. They took oil out from under a cemetery in Signal Hill and sent royalty checks to the deceased's next-of-kin. Anyone with two dimes to rub together invested in "sure thing" oil speculation. So send visitors on the wild boom-and-bust roller-coaster ride of backyard gushers and the Julian Oil Co. scandal that fleeced Angelenos out of $150 million.
Carthay Circle Theatre, the movie palace where Disney premiered "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937, was torn down in 1969 but will live again at California Adventure. If they're going to bring back the glittering Carthay, bring back the shady side of Hollywood's golden age too.
The place was a scarlet village where drugs, sex and jazz finally didn't get squelched until after the bluenosed feds stepped in. Comic Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted of a starlet's murder in 1922, but the salacious charges ruined him nonetheless, and, as a reader reminded me, the lurid 1922 murder of ladies' man director William Desmond Taylor is still unsolved -- a perfect "murder mystery tour" for the PG-13 crowd.
At Paradise Pier, Disney's adding a World of Color nighttime water display. How about something to evoke the World of No Colored People -- the 1920s world of segregated beaches, sundown towns with "curfews" for minorities and, right there in Anaheim, a city council and police department that, for one year, were run by the KKK? OK, burning a cross among the orange and walnut groves is not exactly a Disney experience, or anyone else's in the here and now.
I love the Napa Rose restaurant at the Grand Californian, but a real 1920s California Adventure would serve up a menu of the authentic L.A. food fads from the era: "non-devitalized" raw fruits and vegetables of the Bragg diet, nearly a dozen kinds of exotic salts, loaves of alkaline bread and cups of fig coffee.
Please, Disney. This time, give us the California we can't visit, the California of memory, the land of sunbaked optimism and hucksterism, innocence and rascality that inspired Walt to give us that true California character, Mickey Mouse.