I spent the weekend with Stephanie's family at what is now known collectively as the Disneyland Resort. The occasion(s): Stephanie's birthday and her nephew Liam's birthday. Her parents, three sisters, one brother, one brother-in-law, three nephews and two nieces were also in attendance, so it was a massive affair. The kind that makes dinner plans difficult.
I'd been to Disneyland many times, but always as a day trip. I'd never stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and made a leisurely weekend of it. It was nice.
I'd also never been to Disney's California Adventure. The last time I was at Disneyland the new park had just been completed and was about to be previewed for VIPs, but was not yet open to the public.
The general consensus as I understand it is that California Adventure is an expensive folly, a park no one cares about that failed to attract as many new visitors as the Disney company had hoped for. This did not appear to be the case on Sunday:
If the park were any more packed, I wouldn't want to be there. Maybe the place has turned around. If this is a picture of failure, I think they may be setting the success bar too high.
Creatively, though, the place does not measure up.
There's a glorified Disney Store in Downtown Disney (another post altogether), where the windows display lofty quotes by Walt Disney about Disneyland--the timelessness of good fantasy, the goal of transporting people to worlds that no longer exist or never did, etc. Together, these quotes perfectly capture what is missing from California Adventure.
See, Disneyland was a really revolutionary thing. It was a theme park on an epic scale, with grand ambitions of different lands that would whisk you away to fantasy worlds. As a kid, I know I loved pretending that I was really journeying through a quaint Main Street toward a magical castle, or fantasizing that in Tomorrowland, I really was in the future. That I really was taking a passenger flight through space in Star Tours or exploring Tom Sawyer's Island. As the quotes in the store window emphasize, it's all about imagination.
California Adventure suffers from a serious paucity of ambition. It is a theme park built by people who couldn't think of an idea for a new theme park and then built one anyway.
The average person's first question is, "Why would you build a park where you can pretend to go to California when you are already in California?" If you go to California Adventure, you will leave without knowing the answer.
Not that there aren't some fun things to do in the park. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is decent if you like freefall rides, although its cheap, silly Halloween-style scares and old Hollywood decor are completely wrong for the Twilight Zone brand. Soarin' Over California is a refreshing twist on the "simulated movement" ride genre, forgoing bombast and thrills for simple dreamy exhilaration. It's like flying, and it's lovely and breathtaking. The Aladdin stage show is also quite good, with top-notch production value--like a condensed, highly economical Broadway show. Maybe a little rougher, but what do you want? They play it four times a day.
But California Adventure still lacks any unifying reason to exist. For example, one of the first areas you'll come across is the "Hollywood backlot."
It's a fake Hollywood street, get it? Full of punny businesses like Phil M. Noir Detective Agency, La Brea Carpets, Philipa Couch Casting Agency (explain that one to your kids), and plastic surgery by Dr. Nippantuck. Buy some junk at The Souvenir Itch. Get a smoothie at Shmoozies, where it takes one person to take your order, one person to make it very slowly, and five people to stand around watching!
Except it's not even really a fake Hollywood street. It's a fake fake Hollywood street--Hollywood as if it were a backlot. The buildings are purposely artificial. You see the facade when you look from the sides, the street ends in a big forced perspective backdrop, and there's even an area blocked off with fake cameras as if it's a closed set. So are we on a Hollywood street or on a studio set? No one seems to have really decided. It's conceptually muddled.
Not to mention, the real Hollywood is an hour away, along with countless real backlot tours. What's the point of faking fakery? This is the opposite of Walt's vision for Disneyland. This is falsifying a place that not only exists, but exists in close proximity and can be easily experienced for real.
The same is true of Paradise Pier, at the other end of the park:
This section of the park simulates boardwalk-style amusements in the vein of Santa Monica Pier or the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Big coasters, ferris wheels, cheesy carnival games...but again, why? These places exist already, all over the state. They're the kind of cheap second rate amusements that made Disneyland seem special in the first place.
Apparently now the best Disney can do to create a tourist attraction is to imitate other tourist attractions. Where Disneyland was ambitious and idealistic, California Adventure is lazy and cynical.
Oh, and there's a rafting ride where you get wet, just like in every other non-Disneyland amusement park in existence. So there's that.
California Adventure is fun, but also dispiriting. It's a 45-acre monument to how the Disney company has forgotten what made Disneyland special in the first place--even while enshrining that lost spirit in its gift shops. It's unlikely that California Adventure will have the legacy that Disneyland does 50 years from now. In fact, I'll be surprised if it's not demolished to make room for something better before then.