Disney to fix a major misstep

Times Staff Writers

California Adventure is getting a $1.1-billion makeover -- with Walt Disney Co. planning to spend more than it did to build the theme park just six years ago.

The struggling park, which sits in Disneyland’s shadow, was a disappointment from the start, failing to draw the crowds the company had anticipated. The idea behind the overhaul recently approved by the board of directors is to give it new attractions and a sharper identity -- and make it more like Disneyland.

“They’re trying to give it some heart,” said a person familiar with the plan who asked not to be identified. “Right now, you go through California Adventure once, and that’s about it.”


Rob Doughty, a Disneyland spokesman, declined to comment on the plans. Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger is scheduled to appear today at a news conference to provide details.

Like much-bigger Disneyland, sources at the company said, California Adventure will have more clearly defined theme sections and will tip its hat more frequently to the late Walt Disney, who built the first park in an orange grove and opened it to rave reviews in 1955.

Favorite California Adventure attractions -- including the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, one of several added in an effort to address criticism that the park had too few blockbuster rides -- won’t be dismantled. A host of new attractions will include several based on Pixar animated films such as “Cars” and “Toy Story.”

The entrance plaza will be redesigned and iconic structures reminiscent of old-time Hollywood will be added, including a replica of the Carthay Circle Theatre.

Disneyland’s younger sibling, which is loosely focused on the Golden State, attracted fewer than 6 million visitors last year -- short of the 7 million people the company said would attend every year and a far cry from the 15 million who bought tickets to Disneyland.

The brainchild of former CEO Michael Eisner, the park opened in February 2001 and soon became known as Eisner’s misadventure; critics seized on its poor performance when they campaigned to oust him in 2004. Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney accused the company of building the park “on the cheap.”

Even California Adventure enthusiasts were pleased to hear about the refurbishing, first reported on the Wall Street Journal’s website.

“I love it but not in the same way as Disneyland,” said Taylor Rockwell, a visual-effects production assistant who is an annual Disneyland Resort pass holder. “They tried to work the California angle but it wasn’t successful. What is there now just isn’t up to Disneyland standards.”

Al Lutz, who owns and edits the popular Disney fan website Miceage, said a renovation was long overdue.

“Finally, they’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room,” Lutz said. “They are turning it more into a companion to Disneyland as opposed to an afterthought.”

Anaheim Councilman Bob Hernandez said he found the timing of today’s news conference curious, given the entertainment giant’s heated battle with Anaheim officials over the direction of the resort district.

Disney wants to keep the district focused on tourist-related uses, while a majority of the Anaheim City Council supports construction of a 1,500-unit residential project that could help alleviate the city’s housing shortage.

Disney sued the city to block the housing project and a Disney-backed coalition has qualified anti-housing initiatives for an upcoming city election.

By touting its plan to beef up California Adventure with a $1.1-billion investment -- more than it has ever spent on a park revamp before -- Disney is clearly trying to sway voters, Hernandez said.

“It’s so obvious to those who don’t have pixie dust in our eyes,” he said.

California Adventure was part of a $1.4-billion remake of the Disneyland Resort that included a luxury hotel, the Grand Californian, and the Downtown Disney shopping district.

Disney has added to the smaller park since with, among other things, the Tower of Terror and “Aladdin,” a well-received Broadway-style musical patterned after the animated movie. The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, a climbing park for kids, was expanded with a tie-in to the animated film “Brother Bear.”

To lure visitors, Disney discounts the admission price, selling tickets to the two parks in pairs called Park Hoppers.

“It’s basically been half price since it opened,” Lutz said. “Nobody ever buys a ticket just for that park.”

Times staff writer Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.