Disney hopes Cars Land makes California Adventure a golden state

For more than a decade, Disney California Adventure Park has been putt-putting along in the slow lane, trailing its neighbor Disneyland in the race for big attendance numbers.

A new 12-acre expansion called Cars Land, set to be unveiled June 15, is the latest and by far biggest attempt to get the laggard theme park up to speed.

Based on the hit animated “Cars” movies made by Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar studio, Cars Land will include a racing convertible ride, square-dancing tractors and plenty of opportunities to buy themed merchandise.

It’s the crowning effort of a $1.1-billion, multiyear attempt to turn California Adventure into a park where visitors will want to stay at least an entire day.

“I believe the completion will result in a park that will both stand on its own,” Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger recently told financial analysts, “but also serve as an important and worthy neighbor to Disneyland.”

The investment highlights the importance of theme parks as a powerful revenue engine for Disney. In the first three months of this year, parks and resorts generated nearly $2.9 billion, representing a 10% increase from the same period in 2011.

That strong performance helped Disney overcome a 12% drop in revenue from its movie studio division, which that quarter took a huge write-down from the disastrous “John Carter” flop.

Still, Disney’s parks face aggressive competition in the race to create attendance-boosting attractions.

Universal Studios Hollywood last week opened a high-tech, 3-D ride — estimated to cost $100 million — based on the “Transformers” movies. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia will debut a record 400-foot-tall drop-tower ride named for Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor.

California Adventure has been an underperformer almost from the time it opened amid much hype in 2001. Visitors entered under a mock-up of the Golden Gate Bridge to the park that included a boardwalk-style roller coaster, river rafting ride and Ferris wheel, all themed to celebrate the culture and lifestyle of the Golden State.

What was missing, said many park guests as well as analysts, was Disney.

There was almost no trace of the studio’s hallmark movie characters, such as Mickey, Goofy and Donald. And the high-tech wizardry that awed crowds at other Disney parks was mostly missing.

“The problem was that there was nothing iconic in that park,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based consultant to the industry. “Here is a company that knew how to build a spaceship but instead they built a Piper Cub” single-prop plane.

Over the years, attractions were added or adapted to Disney-fy the park more. One of the original rides, the Orange Stinger, was wrapped in a shell that looked like a giant orange. After a few years, the shell came off. The ride was redecorated with images of Mickey Mouse, and the name was changed to Silly Symphony Swings after an early Disney series of animated cartoons.

Two years ago, the park unveiled World of Color, an attraction that projects Disney movie scenes on hundreds of jets of water that shoot up from a man-made pool, highlighted by eruptions of fire.

Attendance still lagged. In 2010, California Adventure drew slightly more than 6 million visitors, while Disneyland welcomed about 17 million, according to estimates issued by the Themed Entertainment Assn. and the AECOM engineering and consulting firm. Disney does not release attendance figures.

To make matters worse, analysts said, many of those who visited California Adventure probably owned annual passes that gave them access to both parks. Disney had hoped visitors would spend a full day in each park and stay at a Disney hotel overnight. But pass holders such as Pam Wycliffe tend to visit California Adventure for only a few hours, diminishing the opportunities to sell them merchandise or food.

“I would only go for a handful of rides and then leave,” said Wycliffe, a graphic designer from Novato, Calif.

Construction of the major overhaul and expansion of the park — including Cars Land, a new entryway depicting 1920s Los Angeles and the already opened World of Color — began in 2009.

“We knew that California Adventure didn’t measure up to what we knew it could be and should be,” Thomas Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, told reporters during a preview tour of the expansion. “So we set out to change that.”

Cars Land followed the tried-and-true tradition — a success at Disneyland and other parks — of basing attractions on popular movies. Examples include Indiana Jones Adventure and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Disneyland took its classic submarine ride that ran from 1959 to 1998, and reopened it in 2007 as Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

The original “Cars” movie released in 2006 grossed nearly $462 million worldwide. The sequel, “Cars 2,” came out last year and, though not as big a hit, took in nearly $200 million.

The popularity of the films makes them good candidates for a theme park spinoff, Speigel said.

“They are capitalizing on a market that was successful at the box office and they can bring that entertainment value to the public,” Speigel said. “It keeps feeding on itself.”

Cars Land will feature three new attractions:

Radiator Springs Racers: a ride that puts visitors in convertibles that race past sunburned canyons and desert scenery.

Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree: a ride featuring small tractors that pull guests around in trailers.

Luigi’s Flying Tires: a remake of a Disney 1960s attraction, the Flying Saucers, that lets riders steer tires that float on a cushion of air, similar to an air hockey game.

Speigel, whose company has analyzed the time spent by guests at theme parks for other clients, said the added rides in Cars Land could solve the park’s short-visit problem.

“I think it’s going to extend the length of stay for several hours,” he said. “There is enough critical mass now to keep people there.”

In addition to the rides, there will be dozens of shops and restaurants, many of which will have a retro, Route 66-inspired design. Visitors will be offered about 300 new “Cars"-related items to buy, including T-shirts, backpacks, hats, car-shaped popcorn containers and drinking cups that resemble traffic cones.

Merchandise sales typically generate about 20% of theme park revenue, but that percentage usually spikes when parks unveil new items with the opening of a new attraction, according to theme park industry experts.

“If you are Disney and you are fortunate enough to have a theme for a new land or big ride that you can get the synergy from both ticket sales and merchandise, you go for it,” said Jerry Aldrich, an Orlando-based amusement park consultant, who previously worked for Disney for 27 years.

“You can’t make merchandise an afterthought.”

Food sales will also be an important revenue stream. While designing Cars Land, Disney officials took a road trip along Route 66, stopping at mom-and-pop joints and coffee shops for meal ideas.

At Flo’s V8 Cafe in Cars Land, guests can order apple pies with cheddar cheese and chocolate mud pies, two dishes inspired by the “ugly crust pies” served at the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, Disney officials said.

If visitors do stay around the park for extra time to take in all the attractions, it can build loyalty, said Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Assn. trade group.

“When people stay longer, the attachment to the park grows stronger,” Jeffers said, “and so the likelihood of returning grows stronger.”

Returning will cost more this year.

This month, Disney executives announced higher ticket prices to California Adventure and Disneyland starting May 20. One-day passes to one park jumped from $80 to $87. The biggest increase will hit visitors who buy premium annual passes that includes parking. The pass increases to $649 from $499, a 30% jump.

Al Lutz is one of the best-known and most acerbic bloggers who concentrate on Disney parks. He has particularly skewered California Adventure, which he said seemed built only to promote shopping and dining.

“There were a few days after the opening,” Lutz said, “when you could fire a cannon down the main street and not hit anyone.”

But even Lutz, who has been writing about the parks online since the 1990s, is excited about the new attraction.

“Cars Land finally gives them the E-ticket ride that they were missing,” he said, referring to the ticket that Disneyland sold in the 1960s and ‘70s for the newest and most popular rides.

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