Disney California Adventure tries to be more family-friendly

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(Susan Valot/KPCC)

As part of the renovation of the decade-old Disney California Adventure, the replica of the Golden Gate Bridge at the entrance of the park will be removed and replaced with a simple arch.

Disney’s California Adventure theme park is now 11 years old, and like all youngsters, it’s had a few growing pains. The park is currently undergoing a huge expansion that will cost Disney more than it spent to build it in the first place. The expansion addresses some flaws California Adventure has had since the beginning.

Families stroll the pathways of California Adventure, past obvious signs of construction. They meander past a tiny vineyard, some restaurants and a boardwalk. They ride the ferris wheel and a fast roller coaster.

David Koenig, who’s written about the Disney parks, says Disney walked a different path with California Adventure.

"They tried to go after teenagers and adults. ... It was filled with restaurants and shops and not too many attractions and little Disney theming as possible," Koenig says. "They considered California Adventure in the beginning to be sort of the un-Disneyland, the hip, cool place, where grown-ups would go while the kids were playing with Mickey Mouse across the way. Unfortunately, in doing that, they alienated the core audience of Disney in Southern California."

Meaning people who live here and can go to real California places and families with kids, says Koenig.

"A full third of the attractions had height limits, which prevented kids from riding them. And another third were designed, sort of adult-oriented, things like factory tours and films about wine, where kids would have no interest in seeing it anyway," Koenig says. "So fully two-thirds of the attractions on opening day, kids had nothing to do with. They were left with a carousel and a couple of movies. So it was a disaster from day one."

But Bob Weis of Walt Disney Imagineering points out some of the most popular rides in Anaheim are at California Adventure. But he concedes the goal of getting out-of-town visitors to spend an extra day at the new park fell flat.

"What people weren’t doing was enjoying themselves by staying longer," Weis says. "You could sort of come across from Disneyland and you could quickly move from attraction to attraction and there wasn’t a lot of this sort of spirit of lingering that you get at Disneyland."

Weis, who’s in charge of the California Adventure expansion, says Disney quickly realized the new park wasn’t working.

"I worked on Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando and we learned more about that park in the first five years after it opened. We almost doubled it in size. We’re almost doubling the size of Disney California Adventure here," Weis says. "We learn a lot about parks after they open, and once you see the audience, how they react and that becomes your agenda for how you’re going to do the expansions."

Weis says with California Adventure, they talked to visitors.

"They wanted the park to have more core Disney character presence. They wanted the park to have more of a heart, more, you know, emotional connection to you, which comes through the character relationships," Weis says. "They wanted it to be a more immersive world. You know, people say they come to Disneyland to get out of their daily life and be in another world. So they wanted it more like that. And they wanted more family ride experiences."

So four years ago, Disney began a $1-billion-plus overhaul of California Adventure. It took out some rides, re-themed others with Disney characters, and brought in “family friendly” attractions, like "Toy Story Midway Mania."

The slow-moving "Little Mermaid" ride just opened across from the fairly new World of Color show. A new "Goofy's Sky School" ride will be up and running soon.

Lisa Giralomi of Walt Disney Imagineering says they’re trying to create rides that appeal to everyone.

"Everyone’s different. There are some people that like to spin around and go upside down. I’m not one of them. And then there are other people who like to, you know, go on a nice Omnimover," Giralomi says. "The key is, everything is centered around a story."

The story of Disney California Adventure is a complex one. Estimates from the Themed Entertainment Association, which tracks theme park attendance, placed California Adventure as the 11th most visited amusement park in the world last year, but with fewer than half as many visitors as Disneyland.

"California Adventure has been a very expensive lesson to Disney," says Koenig. "They found out the hard way that you need a good idea for a park from the beginning, based on what the audience wants."

But with the changes to Disney California Adventure, including next summer’s opening of “Cars Land,” based on the “Cars” animated movies, a new adventure may be in store — one with a less “California” and more Disney character.

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