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Adventure park needs some magic

You think you’ve got a tough job?

My first day back in the office after two weeks off, and what do they do?

They send me to an amusement park for a few hours.

Well, not exactly an amusement park -- Disney’s California Adventure.

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Ha, here come the jokes already.

Except that California Adventure isn’t very amusing. Least of all, apparently, to the Disney management team.

The Times reported Wednesday that the company will put $1.1 billion into remaking the sister park to Disneyland, a concession that the original grand design wasn’t so grand.

If I were a certain kind of person, I could say I told you so. In February 2001, I visited the park and was so moved I wrote a few months later: “I took a stroll through Disney’s California Adventure and immediately consigned it to the dustbin of amusement parks. Not enough fun stuff to do and too expensive -- $43 -- to do it.”

I strolled it again Wednesday, my first visit back since 2001, and noticed a big change: The price now is $66.

Six years ago, I qualified my critique by noting I knew nothing about amusement parks. That remains as true today as then, so maybe I just made a lucky guess in ’01.

But something is wrong with the park, and I have a clearer idea than ever who to blame: Walt Disney.

One of the 20th century’s true American visionaries, Disney set the standard so high with Disneyland that any companion park probably was doomed to fail. And it wasn’t just Disneyland itself -- it was the entire aura that engulfed it, stoked through a couple of generations by Disney’s TV show and its movies.

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When “Magic Kingdom” isn’t an overstatement, what chance does its next-door neighbor have?

However, rather than critique California Adventure -- a task unsuited to a middle-aged guy who’s only been to Disneyland a few times in 20 years -- I put the question to other people who plunked down their money to get in Wednesday.

Holli Messenger has given the matter some thought, and it came to her on her family’s first-ever visit to DCA: : “I don’t know that there’s anything wrong, but there’s nothing right, either.”

Noting that Disneyland opened more than 50 years ago, she said, “There’s very little here that speaks of the 50 years of innovations since then” in amusement park attractions. For example, she cited the watery Grizzly River Run and said, “They have the same thing at Silverwood,” an amusement park in northern Idaho.

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Messenger, visiting from Portland, Ore., with her husband and 5-year-old twin boys, said the family was having a “fabulous time” but that she “had huge expectations because Disneyland is so much over the top in so many ways.”

The sense of “theme” at Disneyland simply doesn’t carry over to California Adventure, she said. Messenger, 39, first visited Disneyland as a child, then again in high school, then on her honeymoon.

And no, she doesn’t expect a companion park to surpass the original. But, yes, she thinks a next-door park could be successful, if only. . .

“I expected some originality,” she said, “but there’s so much that’s exactly the same” as other amusement parks. In its present incarnation, she said, DCA is “just a collection of things” that doesn’t represent anything in particular.

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She seems to be reading the diaries of Disney officials. The Times story quoted an insider as saying Disney wants to give the park “some heart.”

DCA strikes me as more of a walk-through than an “experience.” It’s an amusement park and an arcade and a pier, all rolled into one. But when they rolled it all into one it didn’t come out as anything special.

You can find plenty of restaurants and rides and vintage Disneyesque signs, such as “Scarecrows Out To Lunch,” but they seem derivative.

And who else to blame but Walt?

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And now for the loyal opposition. Tim McNamara is visiting from Boulder, Colo., with his wife and two children, 6 and 9. Wednesday was their second visit to DCA, and he found nothing to complain about. They’ll gladly spend the whole day there, he said.

No heart at California Adventure? “I think that’s a fair assessment,” McNamara said. “You go to the main park. . . and it feels magical. This is not nearly as magical, but I never thought it was supposed to be. The original is magical, and this is its own experience.”

Christine Page is visiting from Australia and was tending to her 6-year-old nephew while on her first trip to California Adventure. No complaints from her, either, but she theorized that the power of Disneyland holds such sway over people that it’s hard for them to develop any sentimental attachment to another park.

“This has only been here, what, a few years?” she said. “You can’t expect the same kind of attachment to the characters.”

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The Disney Co.'s laments about California Adventure only go to show you that even Imagineers make mistakes. None of several people I talked to at the park Wednesday, including critics, thought spending $1 billion made much sense.

Maybe they were trying to say that a so-so day at an amusement park beats your best day at the office.

In that spirit, I’ll end on an upbeat note. I saw a couple kissing during the lunch hour on Paradise Pier.

So, you tell me: How bad can the place be?

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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