On Monday, Disney California Adventure will turn 15. As we continue our #DCA15 celebration, I thought I'd share an abridged version of a chapter from my book about the first time I visited the park entitled DCA 1.0:
While I hesitate to speak ill of Disney in any way, it’s hard not to do so when speaking of my first trip to what was then called Disney’s California Adventure (the apostrophe ‘s’ was dropped in 2010). I should preface this essay by mentioning that Disney must have agreed with many of my assessments, as they transformed the park and even rededicated it in June of 2012. However, my initial visit will always stick with me. DCA opened in 2001 across the esplanade from Disneyland. The park was to be a more “adult” park than it’s neighboring Magic Kingdom (the original Magic Kingdom, that is) featuring more thrilling rides, less characters, and the availability of alcohol — even including an attraction all about wine. However, most of the “thrilling” attractions that Disney included were off-the-shelf and uninspired. This was especially true in the now-beautiful Paradise Pier area.
Further complicating California Adventures issues was that, upon opening, Disney did not offer a Park Hopper option. This meant that those wishing to go to California Adventure had to pay the same amount as if they were going to Disneyland proper. Because of this, many opted out of visiting the new sub-par park in favor of visiting the mainstay across the way.
My first visit to Disney’s California Adventure was in the October of 2001, when my family took a vacation to our timeshare in Newport Coast. Given that I was 16 and not nearly as plugged in to the Disney community, I was unaware of the bad reviews that plagued DCA at the time. Presumably my father didn’t either, as we decided to give the new park at chance and experience the “new hotness” (to steal a phrase from Men in Black).
Upon entering, I remember being genuinely excited. Not because of the postcard mosaic tiles or for the promise of a new Disney experience, but because The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and Randy Newman were playing over the speakers. I also got a kick out of the ice cream shop being dubbed “Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream.” Of course, while this would be the most personal, it would also be only the first of several puns I would spy in the park that day.
Unfortunately, the music and puns would end up being more enjoyable for me than the park’s roster of attractions. The first land we visited was Hollywood Pictures Backlot, where things started off well enough. Our first stop was the Animation Building, which, even back then, was gorgeous inside. Dozens of various sized and shaped monitors surround us as clips of some of Disney’s most famous works — and Atlantis, for some reason — played. Sometimes these montages even included sketches or stills from the film’s early production.
Following this, we visited the always enjoyable Muppet*Vision 3D. Being a huge fan of the Muppets and having not visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios in some time, this was a homerun attraction for me. I remember smiling from the moment the pre-show started until I exited the main theatre. It was also pleasantly surprising to watch a 3D attraction without being whipped by rats’ tails or feel bugs crawling under my rear.
Next to the Muppet’s theatre was Stage 17, which was home to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — Play It! Like the ABC show it was based on, the question mark was oddly absent from this incarnation as well. Anyone expecting to see Regis Philbin hosting the attraction would be sorely disappointed (although he was next door, but more on that in a minute). We took our seats in the studio and immediately investigated our answer keypads.
The show began with a “Fast Finger Round,” which would be used to choose an audience member to be in the “hot seat.” I don’t recall what the question was, but it involved arranging four items — a, b, c, and d — in order via the keypad. When the winner of the round was announced, it turned out to be none other than my father.
Of course, this would have been more exciting if it had been the real show and not a theme park attraction considering that he would only be playing for points (which would then be traded for pins) and not actual money. Having seen the show a handful of times, my dad attempted to engage in light banter with the host instead of simply giving his answers. This included giving his rationale for each selection and using lifelines even if he didn’t really need them just to keep things interesting. Admittedly, the “Phone a Complete Stranger” lifeline, which called a park guest at a nearby pay phone, was a fun twist on the real show’s “Phone a Friend” bail out.
Ultimately, he went out on the question, “What network aired the XFL?” The answer (which I, of course, knew) was NBC, but he went with Fox — a somewhat reasonable guess given the networks reputation. As we exited the show, my dad rejoined us with a lanyard full of pins featuring the different point levels he had hit. At the time, I had no idea about how big pins were in the Disney world, but we were proud of him just the same.
Our Disney day took a turn as we made our way around the rest of Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Next to Millionaire was a large facade for a ride called Superstar Limo. The ride was deserted. So much so, that we questioned whether it was even open. However, the Cast Member at the entrance “welcomed” us in and we walked right onto our vehicle.
I’ll just say it now: Superstar Limo may be the worst attraction Disney has ever built. In fact, it closed less than a year after it opened and had many of its animatronics scrapped and repurposed for Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue, which opened in its place years later. The dark ride took you in a limo through the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles, meeting several celebrities along the way. Unlike Pirates of the Caribbean or even the often-criticized Ellen Degeneres audio animatronic in Ellen’s Energy Adventure, the celeb animatronics did not open their mouths or move in any lifelike manner. Instead, the “carica-tronics” (get it? Caricature animatronics) did little more than move their head and, perhaps, bounce.
Featuring Drew Carey selling star maps (what?), a trip to a tattoo parlor (huh?), and a creepy agent who kept popping up via in-vehicle TV screen (why?), the ride had more cheese than Liz Lemon’s refrigerator. In fact, the only semi-clever bit in the ride was a parody of Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion, where a head in a crystal ball said, “Agents, execs, producers beyond — Give us a sign the green light is on.” It was now becoming clear that this park wasn’t going to meet the high standards we had for Disney.
At a certain point, we essentially shrugged our shoulders and concluded that our day had come to an end. However, I still felt unfulfilled. While I had varying levels of fun throughout the day (and more than I would have at most other places), I didn’t feel like I had a Disney-level experience. For someone who looked forward to visiting Disneyland once every couple of years or so, I felt that I was cheated out of that this time.
A few days later, as we drove down the 5 (that’s California speak for “Interstate 5 Freeway”), I asked my dad if we could possibly go back to “real Disneyland.” To my surprise, he agreed and we went the next day. It was then that I realized what was missing from California Adventure: the story. As much as I love puns (and I do), a pun is not a story.
To read the rest of this California adventure, including first reactions to Soarin' Over California, Eureka!, and California Screamin' as well as a feel-good conclusion, be sure to pick up you copy of The E-Ticket Life: Stories, Essays, and Lessons Learned from My Decidedly Disney Travels from Amazon or LaughingPlace Press today!