Walt Disney Imagineering has successfully added another piece to the unfinished puzzle that is Disney California Adventure with the combination of two smaller lands into a cohesive thematic area that makes more sense from a storytelling standpoint.
The modest makeover of Condor Flats has transformed what was once a test pilot's airstrip set in the Mojave Desert into the Grizzly Peak Airfield with a California High Sierra theme.
Thematically, it never really made much sense to have a barren desert landscape incongruously transitioning into a lush wooded mountain region.
Now the larger Grizzly Peak area feels more like a complete land with three attractions, two shops and a restaurant.
The area surrounding Soarin' Over California now has a national park theme that better fits with the timber and mining company motif of Grizzly River Run and the wilderness campground feel of Redwood Creek Challenge Trail.
The casual observer might not even notice the subtle but substantial thematic changes. As one stroller-pushing mom put it, the new look is "more campy" (presumably in a naturalistic rather than satirical way).
Soarin' Over California, the lone attraction in the former Condor Flats land, has become less a jet-age test pilot's hangar and more a firefighting smokejumper's headquarters.
The new music pumped into the Soarin' queue still maintains elements of the old melody but is now less aspirational jet fighter anthem and more contemplative nature film soundtrack.
What remains to be seen is if the digitally upgraded hang-gliding travelogue film eventually gets a new international-themed movie as has been expected for some time.
Except for a few nods to Smokey the Bear and camping, the new Humphrey's Service & Supplies gift shop still sticks mostly to standard-issue Disney souvenirs, leaving Rushin' River Outfitters to hawk the more outdoors-oriented merchandise.
Speaking of Rushin' River Outfitters (a play on Russian River), now would seem like the perfect moment for Imagineering to further strip the park of all those bad puns that still remind us of the woeful early days of DCA.
My favorite post-makeover detail in the rethemed Grizzly Peak Airfield area is a powder-yellow Rambler station wagon parked next to Humphrey's with a canoe strapped to the roof. On the inside, Imagineers stuffed the classic car with the ephemera of a family road trip: A map stretched out on the passenger seat, fishing gear in the back seat and suitcases crammed into the way, way back.
The former Taste Pilot's Grill (another bad pun mercifully retired) has been replaced by Smokejumpers Grill, which pays tribute to firefighters who battle remote wildfires in California forests.
Much like the other changes to the former Condor Flats land, Smokejumpers Grill looks subtly different but really hasn't changed its purpose. The counter-service restaurant's menu remains largely unchanged.
But throughout the rethemed area details both big and small combine to change the mood from hot desert oasis to cool mountain retreat.
The smooth cement runway that once served as the main pathway through Condor Flats has been transformed into a weathered mountain road that matches up with the path leading to Grizzly River Run.
A rusty red Mt. Muir watchtower has replaced a steam-spewing jet engine as the focal point out in front of Soarin'.
A repainted billboard proclaims Grizzly Peak the "Land of Scenic Wonders." A propeller plane sitting nearby has been rethemed with park service logos.
Employee costumes have undergone a transformation as well, with Soarin' attendants donning beige pilot jumpsuits and restaurant servers wearing floppy fisherman's caps.
The signage has been replaced with hand-carved trapezoidal signs with rounded corners in the national park style.
And even the bathrooms have a more naturalistic brown and green color scheme with inspiring double-entendre quotes from John Muir painted on the wall: "Come to the woods, for here is rest."
Imagineering transformed the overall atmosphere by paying attention to the smallest of details. Posted handbills feature admonishments (Don't Feed the Bears, Keep Grizzly Peak Clean, Be Fire Safe) as well as enticements (Fly-fishing Lessons, Stargazing Trips, Canoe Rentals, Nature Hikes).
One cleverly subtle poster encouraging everyone to prevent forest fires featured Bambi, Thumper and Flower — familiar Disney characters I didn't notice at first glance.
It's amazing how a few simple touches like ax-hewed lampposts and a scattering of pine trees can turn a desert outpost into mountain getaway.
I realized just how much I'd been whisked away to a rustic retreat when the serene mood of this escapist fantasy world was pierced by the futuristic monorail passing through like an alien spaceship heading for a highland hideaway.
The changes to Condor Flats/Grizzly Peak Airfield are part of Disney's continuing effort to revitalize the underperforming Disney California Adventure theme park.
A $1.1-billion makeover of DCA saw the additions of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street and significant changes to Paradise Pier, but much remains to be done to bring the park up to the standards of its more famous neighbor.
Much of Hollywoodland still consists of half-empty studio backlot soundstage buildings. Pacific Wharf is little more than a food court void of attractions. The built-on-the-cheap Bugs Land needs to be torn out to clear a path to the one remaining unused plot of land at DCA. And parts of Paradise Pier still need to be improved or removed (I'm looking at you Goofy's Sky School).
All those fixes will take much more than the light touch the Imagineers applied to Condor Flats. But for now, the new Grizzly Peak Airfield is a step in the right direction toward making DCA feel like a more worthy neighbor to Disneyland.
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