Disney Returns To Its Roots

Yes, Disney’s California Adventure could be better. But Disneyland’s newest park and Tokyo DisneySea illustrate that Walt Disney Imagineering has finally remembered what an amusement park is supposed to be like.

It didn’t take long for public opinion to turn against Disney’s California Adventure. It’s not just because of the negative Internet talk—it’s common for Internet discussions to trash everything in their path—but the mainstream press deemed California Adventure a disappointment, and the general public picked up on the attitude. Low attendance combined with high ticket prices, a few lackluster attractions, and the fact that it competes with the greatest amusement park in the world directly across the street all conspired to give California Adventure the scent of failure.

Most of the Internet criticism centers on the park’s budget, suggesting that Disney built it on the cheap. (More money means a better park, they say, and as evidence, look at what money did for Tokyo DisneySea!) Many complain that the attractions are off-the-shelf, and that even the custom attractions aren’t very special. Secondary criticism revolves around the theming. A simulation of California—in California? What happened to the ambitious west coast cousin to Epcot? Or Disney’s “America?”

Well, wait a second. True, California Adventure isn’t the most ambitious project Disney has undertaken. But where has ambition gotten them in the recent past? The last two parks Disney built in the U.S. were California Adventure and Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Of the two, Animal Kingdom would be considered by a lot of people the “truer” Disney park, with heavily themed, custom attractions that you won’t see anywhere else. California Adventure, on the other hand, takes many standard amusement park rides and repackages them in prettier designs. The attractions that aren’t off-the-shelf amusement park rides are exact replicas of attractions found at other Disney parks. Using the rationale that a lot of the DisneySea/California Adventure critics are using—custom rides plus bigger budget equals better park—Animal Kingdom should be the clear winner. But the results show the formula to have shaky foundations.

The plain fact is that I found California Adventure a whole lot more fun than Animal Kingdom, and it stands to expand Disney’s audience in a way that Animal Kingdom—or even DisneySea—can’t. It aims lower, but hits its target more squarely. And like Tokyo DisneySea, California Adventure doesn’t get bogged down in trying to impart an educational experience to its guests. It’s about having fun, and that’s a goal that’s been lost in Disney’s recent efforts.

There’s a lot to be improved at California Adventure: it could use a few more attractions, and the two Disney-like attractions that are unique— Soarin’ over California and Superstar Limo —were both disappointing to me. But Paradise Pier, California Adventure’s standout area, is filled with enjoyable rides (the California Screamin’ roller coaster is particularly outstanding) and I felt an exciting ambiance while walking along the pier that I hadn’t felt at any of Disney’s other recent efforts. Although it may not be yet, I think it’s easily on track to be a better park than Epcot ( see my related article here ). I think it’s already a better park than Animal Kingdom ( see my related article here ), where real animals defer to audio-animatronic poachers, and an amorphous environmental message oversimplifies important issues. In the end, the problems that plague California Adventure will be substantially easier to solve than the ones facing either of Disney’s “educational” parks.

Disney’s concept for a second park—the best of California, in California—could also have been better, but it could have been a whole lot worse, too. Ideas for the space formerly hosting the Disneyland parking lot included a west coast version of Epcot and Disney’s aborted “America” park, originally planned for Virginia but possibly to have found a home in Anaheim. It’s good that neither concept was realized: they’d both be doomed to the limbo that Epcot finds itself in now, where the temptation to add thrill rides threatens to retreat from rather than advance the park’s mission. The “America” concept would have been particularly disastrous, and Disney executives should thank their lucky stars that that park wasn’t built in Virginia, California, or anywhere else. One can imagine after the first two years of lackluster attendance (as evidence, think for a minute: can you come up with any great ideas for new attractions in Disney World’s Liberty Square? Have any of your most promising ideas for future Disney attractions been situated there?) roller coasters, white water rafting rides, and simulators would flood the park, trivializing its mission and thereby becoming exactly what its detractors said it would be all along.

The potential of the new “Disneyland Resort” is exciting as well. As the first additional gate at a Disney resort outside of Walt Disney World, it’s tempting to compare California Adventure to all of the “second gate” parks at Disney World. But because of California Adventure’s close proximity to Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom, it functions in a capacity that Disney World’s wildly spread-out parks can’t: as an adjunct to the Magic Kingdom, not a competitor. The freedom to bounce back and forth between the two is a luxury that Walt Disney World’s guests can only dream about, where a decision to travel from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot can easily cost an hour in transportation time. Look at California Adventure not as another park on par with the Magic Kingdom, but view its themed lands as additional themed lands that complement the Magic Kingdom’s (especially Paradise Pier’s thrill rides), and it starts to make more sense.

Furthermore, the criticism that there’s “nothing to do” at California Adventure should be an easy one to address: compared to its more elaborate parks, California Adventure should be inexpensive for Disney to expand. It’d be hard to argue against the fact that Paradise Pier is the most popular area of the park, and it can be enlarged quickly by the simple addition of more souped-up amusement park rides. I can see Disney fans cringing when I say that, but admit it: those rides are fun, just like they’re fun when they’re experienced at Magic Mountain or Knotts’ Berry Farm. The idea that these attractions are truly “off-the-shelf” is misleading, too, since Disney’s implementations are really quite special: California Adventure’s Sun Wheel and Zephyr look far more beautiful than their more traditional amusement park cousins. And these “standard” rides certainly fit better in the context of Paradise Pier than they do at Animal Kingdom’s Dinoland U.S.A., where tacking on a roller coaster seems like a cheap “out” rather than an enhancement of the park.

California Adventure and DisneySea are a revival of—and maybe a retreat to—a more classic amusement park formula, and in my book, it’s a laudable move. The term “amusement park” is one that Disney aficionados like to turn down their nose at: Disney’s parks are “theme” parks, and as such, are positioned as an inherently higher form of entertainment. I personally don’t feel such an attachment to the “theme park” designation; I go to Disney’s parks not so much because they’re themed, but because they’re amusing. Disney’s theming certainly adds a lot to that amusement, but in and of itself, the theme isn’t enough to make me enjoy myself. (Think of all the horrendous copycat Disney attractions you’ve seen at other parks, science museums, etc. around the country, and ask yourself how much enjoyment the theming brought you there.)

Some Disney fans may look at California Adventure, compare it with something as ambitious as Epcot, and sigh: “Disney’s just not aiming for the same heights they used to.” Well, yes, that’s true. But at least Disney has created something they can deliver on, not just for today, but for tomorrow. This also might sound like Disney is “settling,” but as I said earlier, I had more fun at California Adventure than I did at Animal Kingdom. Delivering more fun doesn’t sound like “settling” to me. Epcot and Animal Kingdom try to be both educational and entertaining, and we can see the end result: lacking for new ideas or the astronomical budgets needed to pull off their aspirations, the parks get a Dumbo clone and dancing fountains. The parks’ ambitions end up being strait jackets.

By exercising Disney’s most tried and true formula—our nostalgia for places and things that never truly existed (a perfect seaside boardwalk, a fictional Hollywood, Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island”)—California Adventure and DisneySea are true extensions of the Magic Kingdom franchise. These new parks don’t try to teach, they just try to be fun. That’s an easy-to-achieve goal that bodes well for the new parks’ long-term success, just as that same goal brought success to the Magic Kingdom parks years earlier.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.

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