Meager Magic at Disney's Newest Kingdom

The rides at California Adventure are a yawn, the decor is hokey, and who needs a gigantic ad for Mondavi wines after paying $43 admission?

By Heesun Wee

As I approached the entrance to California Adventure, Walt Disney's (DIS ) new theme park, Randy Newman's I Love L.A. blared through hidden speakers. I was so excited, I found myself mouthing the words to the catchy tune. Just a few hours later, however, I was singing the blues.

Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, some of my best childhood memories were cemented at Disneyland -- Disney's original theme park in Anaheim. I remember hopping onto rides after dark and escaping to haunted New Orleans. I've returned to Disneyland repeatedly because it appeals to the kid in me. But Memorial Day Weekend, instead of feeling like a kid, I felt like an adult -- and a cranky one at that, intent on experiencing just enough of California Adventure to get my $43 worth.

Company executives envision Disneyland and California Adventure as a vacation destination -- visit both parks, stay at a park hotel, and spend money. The California park project began in 1990 as a West Coast version of the education-heavy Epcot Center in Orlando. After much wrangling with the local government and $1.4 billion later, the new park, located across the plaza from Disneyland, opened in February.

California Adventure is less about Mickey and Minnie and more about celebrating the Golden State's famous landmarks and history. While I can understand that Disney wanted to avoid making a copycat of Disneyland, I still wondered where were Disney's trademark storytelling details? Where was the magic?


  I looked for it, past the California Adventure turnstiles, in the bright red replica of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, one of the park's most prominent landmarks. Nearby was a wide water fountain, simulating ocean waves. I've seen the actual bridge and surfed in Orange County, so the landmarks appeared cheesy to me, but I remained hopeful.

Several hours later, my enthusiasm and optimism were gone. Overall, the California park fell short of my expectations. There were too many attractions that sounded promising on the brochure but didn't deliver. One example was Paradise Pier, a tribute to old-fashioned seaside amusement centers. Sure, Paradise Pier's roller coasters were fast and high. But that's not Disney's forte. For those thrills, you head north to Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.

Paradise Pier pales compared to dirtier, real-life amusement piers, like the one in Santa Monica. I missed Santa Monica's cheaper cotton candy. I even missed the bums harassing me for spare change.

One of the weakest attractions at the park was Seasons of the Vine, sponsored by Robert Mondavi. The whole thing amounted to one giant ad for Mondavi wine. I sat in a cold room -- set to the same temperature at which aging wine is stored -- and watched a movie about grapevines changing through the seasons. It was about as exciting as a Wyndham Hill CD.

To sample any wine at the adjacent Golden Vine Winery (which I declined to do) would've set me back an extra $24. (In fairness to Disney, I should point out the winery is an attempt to address a complaint among adults at Disneyland -- no alcohol allowed. Grownups can wander California Adventure with alcohol in hand.) I could've used a drink as I sat through Golden Dreams, a 20-minute film narrated by Whoopi Goldberg about the Gold Rush and California's immigrants.


  The Soarin' Over California ride -- by far the biggest attraction at the park -- was all right, but still no match for Disneyland's America the Beautiful. In both attractions, you watch a film inside a movie theater and feel like you're traveling across the country. In Soarin', you get the added bonus of sitting in a hang-glider-like contraption. Plus, your hang-glider is hoisted up, and your feet dangle in the air. At one point, you're blasted with a shot of wind and a vague scent of oranges. Granted, America the Beautiful doesn't have the smell effects, and you have to stand throughout the entire feature, but it was shot with a 360-degree camera and shown in an impressive 360-degree theater.

There were some bright spots. For instance, the team of some 300 designers who helped create California Adventure got something right -- the Hollywood Picture Backlot section, a recreation of such retro L.A. landmarks as the Pantages and El Capitan theaters, the Roosevelt Hotel, and Bullock's-Wilshire department store. This section is a must-see for architecture buffs. My favorite stop at the backlot was Disney Animation, which offered a tour of the company's most famous art form.

A highlight was a room filled with interactive computers that let guests answer questions about their personality. Then, the computer deduces which Disney character you most resemble. I apparently aim to please and therefore am bug-like, as in the It's a Bug's Life movie. The room was filled with kids and adults who shrieked and laughed as computers offered personality-type results ranging from Cinderella to Toy Story's Woody. The backlot was jam-packed with details and imaginative attractions -- Disneyland's trademarks.


  Sadly, this was the exception. Throughout the day, I kept on asking, "I'm paying how much for this?" The new park is roughly two-thirds the size of Disneyland and features 22 attractions, compared to Disneyland's 60. But the admission price is the same at each park.

David Miller, an entertainment-industry analyst at Sutro & Co., says Disney's game plan includes adding attractions at California Adventure to merit the $43 price tag -- rather than lowering the cost of admission in the meantime.

While Disney is mum on official attendance numbers, analysts estimate it could take a year for California Adventure to attract as many visitors as Disneyland, now drawing roughly 40,000 people a day. I hit the new park on a Thursday before the long weekend, and traffic indeed was slow. You could have found longer waiting lines at the outdoor Cabazon Outlet Mall in Riverside County, east of L.A.


  Hoping to boost attendance, Disney is bringing an old favorite to California Adventure beginning July 4 -- Disney's Electrical Parade. There also are plans for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- You Play It, based on the popular game show, to open in late summer or early fall. (ABC, which produces Millionaire, is also owned by Disney.)

After the backlot, the most promising area of the revamped Disneyland area was outside both parks and admission-free -- Downtown Disney. The quarter-mile long shopping and dining strip offers lots of eating options and live-music venues -- even games for sports fans at the ESPN Zone.

Analysts say they still have hope for California Adventure but admit Disney needs to add more big-ticket attractions like Soarin' Over California to draw crowds. They better get cracking before word spreads that California Adventure may be more of a misadventure. At the very least, it's an adventure you can miss.

Former Californian Wee is now a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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