Disney looks to 1920s to give new life to park

Times Staff Writers

Disney’s California Adventure is poised for a $1-billion makeover that’s designed to give the troubled theme park the main thing it lacks -- an emotional connection to keep people coming back.

The sweeping overhaul will transport visitors to the California of the 1920s, when Walt Disney first arrived in Hollywood. In the same way that Disneyland’s Main Street evokes Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Mo., a refocused California Adventure will follow the young animator’s journey to Los Angeles.

Disney’s sizable investment, to be spent through 2012, comes atop the initial $1 billion the entertainment giant spent to build the park, which opened in 2001, and $300 million more put into new attractions such as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Toy Story Midway Mania.


The stakes for Disney go beyond an obvious desire to boost attendance at California Adventure, which has always been overshadowed by neighboring Disneyland, and prolong the length of time visitors stay at its Anaheim parks.

“What’s at stake for Disney is their reputation,” said Gary Goddard, a Los Angeles-based theme-park designer who once worked for Disney.

The plans unveiled Wednesday provided the most detailed look yet at the expansion announced a year ago. Taken together, the updates and additions seek to tackle the most persistent criticism of California Adventure: its generic, done-on-the-cheap feel.

David Koenig, author of several books about Disney’s parks, said the second Anaheim park never took visitors beyond the place they started: contemporary California.

“It’s like buying your airplane ticket, getting in your seat, only to have your airplane sit on the runway,” Koenig said. “You’re already there.”

California Adventure’s planned nod to history, and the deepening connection to the company’s beloved founder, seemed to be an acknowledgment of that flaw.


“It’s interesting how wonderfully articulate our audience can be when they say they love to go to Disneyland, and they love to go to Disney parks because they feel they’re transported somewhere, transported out of their daily lives,” said Bob Weis, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering and creative leader for the park renovation and expansion.

“We’re taking them to a more idealized, more nostalgic feel of California,” Weis said.

Like Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland, California Adventure will feature a towering structure that recalls Hollywood’s golden era -- a re-creation of the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles where Disney premiered the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937.

The theater is the centerpiece of the new entrance, which will be redone to resemble the Los Angeles of old colorized postcards. Even the Red Car trolley that recalls the old Pacific Electric Railway will rumble and clang along Buena Vista Street, conjuring up the bygone era and winking at Walt’s love of trains.

Similarly, the Paradise Pier will take on a nostalgic seaside amusement park vibe, with glittering lights and new boardwalk games incorporating a mix of such classic and contemporary Disney characters as Goofy, Dumbo and Woody’s horse, Bullseye, from the Disney/Pixar animated film “Toy Story 2.”

“We’re putting a lot of focus on that feeling, that emotional connection,” Weis said. “And a big part of what we’re bringing in is more Walt.”

One of the major new attractions for Paradise Pier will be the World of Color nighttime display of water effects, lighting and music to bring new energy to the pier -- not to mention 1,500 fountains. A new Little Mermaid ride will plunge visitors into Ariel’s undersea world of the 1989 animated Disney film.


The most anticipated addition to the park is a 12-acre Cars Land that will bring to life the town of Radiator Springs, the setting for the 2006 Disney/Pixar animated film “Cars,” with three new attractions including the thrill ride Radiator Springs Racers.

Weis said “Cars” director John Lasseter encouraged the Imagineers to take the same eight-day trip along Route 66 that the film’s animators took, from Amarillo, Texas, to California, to capture the 1950s car culture.

Some visitors to the park on Wednesday said big changes would be welcome.

Greg Graham, 39, of Salt Lake City and his family were riding the tram, returning to their hotel after spending the day at California Adventure. The park had been a disappointment for them.

“Its too hot. There’s no trees,” he said. “Disneyland seems like a big park, and California Adventure is just like a big industrial area.”

Sitting on the ground between the two parks, Stephanie Dearing, 18, and Tony Perry, 22, of San Diego were preparing to head to California Adventure. The second park is nice, Dearing said, but it’s just a “bonus” after what she considers the main attraction. “Disneyland has more exciting rides. And it has the nostalgia factor.”

Visitors to California Adventure will get their first glimpse of this new vision for the park Monday, when the Disney Imagineers put dozens of working models, sketches and color illustrations on display in the Golden Vine Winery.


Ed Grier, president of the Disneyland Resort, said Disney was constantly renovating its theme parks to keep the attractions fresh and keep guests coming back.

“That emotional connection that we have to Disneyland,” Grier said. “That’s what we want to bring across to Disney’s California Adventure.”