|Cars Land is a 12-acre replica of the setting of the Disney/Pixar movies Cars and Cars 2.|
While walking through Downtown Disney District in Anaheim, CA, at 8 a.m. on June 15, I saw something I’d never seen before: thousands of people waiting to get into Disney California Adventure theme park. Some had been camping out, waiting to get into the park, since 8 p.m. the previous night. Countless kids in the crowd kept telling moms and dads, “I wanna go to Cars Land!” Moms and dads, I’m sure, were most likely thinking, “This better be good.”
In this reporter’s opinion, what awaited them behind those gates was better than good.
The grand reopening of Disney California Adventure marked the end of a five-year, $1.1 billion investment by Disney to transform its “ugly duckling” of a theme park into a worthy neighbor of “the Happiest Place on Earth,” as well as establish Disneyland Resort as a multi-day vacation destination. Over the years, new attractions and rides (Toy Story Mania, World of Color) were added and, in June, Disneyland Resort saw its biggest expansion in years: the addition of Cars Land and a brand-new themed entrance area, Buena Vista Street.
|Carthay Circle Restaurant is a fine dining restaurant and lounge that emphasizes contemporary Californian cuisine.|
I remember distinctly when Disney California Adventure opened back in 2001. As a Southern California native, I’d grown up visiting Disneyland at least once a year since I could walk. When I visited the park for the first time shortly after it opened, I felt, well, disappointed. And I wasn’t alone.
The consensus, for many years, was clear: Disney California Adventure was no Disneyland. Put simply, it didn’t seem to have that special Disney touch—the type of magical ambiance and storytelling that Disney is famous for. Critics argued it was built too hastily and didn’t have a strong enough unifying, cohesive theme.
|A signature Red Trolley rumbles down the street, and jubilant performers sing and dance throughout.|
Since its opening, the park has struggled to attract visitors. While numbers have improved in recent years, they are nowhere near as high as visits to Disneyland. Last year, in 2011, attendance for Disney California Adventure topped out at 6 million; next door, at Disneyland, attendance totaled 16 million.
At the brief opening ceremony, held on a morning where June gloom was in full force, The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger rededicated the park, echoing the famous words spoken by Walt Disney at the opening of Disneyland back in 1955, describing his journey out west to follow his dreams. Flanked by Disney characters—including Mickey Mouse in 1920s attire—and dozens of dancers and cast members, Iger officially opened the park at 9 a.m.
Within seconds of the reopening, crowds poured through the gates and into the park, guided by Disney cast members as the majority of the crowds swarmed toward the new Cars Land. What they found when they finally arrived was a nearly exact 12-acre replica of the setting of Cars and Cars 2.
|Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree is a “tow”-tappin’ square dance hosted by Mater from Cars.|
“It’s just like Radiator Springs!” was a common refrain I overheard from guests, and I couldn’t agree more. Cars Land truly immerses you into the films as never before and no detail is overlooked. “The harder you look, the more you will find,” said John Lasseter, the creator of Cars and chief creative officer for Disney, at the opening ceremony for Cars Land, which was held on June 13.
Cars Land officially opened to select members of the media and special guests, including singer/songwriter Randy Newman and Larry the Cable Guy, the voice of “Mater” from Cars, on June 13. Iger and Lasseter, along with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs, officially opened the new area with great fanfare.
The marquee ride of Cars Land, Radiator Springs Racers, is a new classic: an ideal combination of Disney storytelling, character development and an adrenaline rush. The main eatery, Flo’s V8 Café, is impressive in its wide-ranging menu of comfort classics—rotisserie meats, apple pies—and more contemporary fare, including a veggie platter and a sensible turkey salad.
The new area just beyond the main entrance, called Buena Vista Street, re-creates the Hollywood of the 1920s, the same era when Walt Disney first arrived to Hollywood from Kansas City, MO. It’s also home to the first-ever Starbucks in a theme park, called Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Café, as well as the Carthay Circle Restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant and lounge that emphasizes contemporary Californian cuisine in dishes such as halibut ceviche with tomatillo sauce and a decadent banana Monte Cristo for dessert. The Carthay Circle Theatre is where Walt premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. A signature Red Trolley rumbles down the street, and jubilant performers sing and dance throughout.
|Luigi’s Flying Tires let guests float on a cushion of air aboard a larger-than-life tire.|
So, what’s next? Well, for Mary Niven, VP of Disney California Adventure and Guest Services at Disneyland Resort, it’s time to see what guests think of the new transformation. “Walt said that Disneyland would never be completed and it’s the same with Disney California Adventure,” she said. “We really want to hear back from the guests and then we’ll go from there.”
Many guests I spoke to on the public opening day were simply ecstatic about the new Disney California Adventure. Even with the massive crowds and the impending summer-like heat, they couldn’t stop smiling.
This summer, Disney hopes that its $1.1 billion-dollar investment will pay off and, if the lines during my visit were any indication, it looks like it’ll be a very happy summer indeed for Disney.