The latest add to Disney California Adventure is worth the trip to Anaheim
- Last Updated: 5:45 PM, June 19, 2012
- Posted: 2:57 PM, June 18, 2012
Not since the opening of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a theme park given us such a lollapalooza: More than 2,000 people camped out last Friday for a first look at Cars Land, the latest and greatest thing going at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.
Inside, on the six-acre Radiator Springs Racers, six-passenger convertibles raced in tandem over hillocks and through caverns in a man-made, 280,000-square-foot canyon. Enormous Audio-Animatronic characters based the socio-mechanical stereotypes of Pixar’s popular ‘Cars’ franchise lithely sidled over on radial tires and conversed through flexible bumpers. Throughout the area, kids wore $25 tires as bonnets, guzzled root beer out of traffic cone-shaped sippy cups and glided in bumper cars on what can only be called the world’s largest air hockey board.
Disney’s $1.1 billion, 11-acre expansion, which also includes a new pair of red streetcars and the introduction of a new 1930s Hollywood district, is the company’s last-ditch, five-year effort to redeem a straggling theme park that was originally conceived, in the Michael Eisner area, to be a booster of the touristic virtues of California, a state guests were already in. That ill-advised 2001 version is history. From now on, California Adventure will be known as The Park With Cars Land.
There’s no telling how intensely Harry Potter’s superlative execution spooked Disney Parks into upping its game in Cars Land’s final two years of development. What’s clear is that it finds itself in the rare position of playing catch-up, and there’s a level of detail in Cars Land that comes close to (but can’t quite best) Potter’s Wizarding World, including racks of site-specific souvenirs (Mater teeth, Piston Cup trophies), Red the fire engine cheerfully hosing things down, and an Art Deco landscape of neon tubing worth a nighttime look on its own. If Cars Land goes down as a triumph, it’s because the company spent the money to do it right.
The new park also includes a masterstroke of upselling: “Glow in the Show” hats with illuminated mouse ears that respond with synchronized pulses of color to the park’s nighttime shows. Their $24 price is on top of the $87 adults pay to get in. In 1982, a ticket cost $12. Going by inflation, it should cost $28. That $59 spread is proof the stakes are spiraling ever-higher for the Mouse.
Since 2008, DCA has also seen a recent boom in original attractions, including lavish rides based on Toy Story and The Little Mermaid, and a spectacular evening light-and-water cannon show World of Color, the park’s memorable answer to fireworks. Now fully stocked with world-class things to do, Disneyland’s ugly stepsister, once cast aside after a half-day of lackluster touring, has become a princess worth a day or two of attention by herself.
Disney finally has that “second gate” it needed to transform its California clientele from day-trippers to far more lucrative multi-day resort guests.
This means that Anaheim has also arrived as a worthy -- and some might argue superior —- alternative to Orlando vacations. The proof is mounting: Compared to Orlando, many of the rides at Disneyland are more elaborate; better still, they’re usually the original version. Classic rides have been demolished in Florida but remain in California. The weather’s generally warm, but rarely oppressive. All three Disneyland hotels, plus its Downtown Disney nightlife area, are a few minutes’ walk from the side-by-side park gates, eliminating a need for rental cars entirely.
Then again, having a car opens up a world of possibilities, right at your doorstep. Ten minutes from Anaheim, in Buena Park, is Knott’s Berry Farm, in business for 92 years. Legoland is an hour away from Disney, same as it is Orlando, and SeaWorld is 90 minutes off in San Diego, where you also have the iconic San Diego Zoo and their worthwhile Safari Park. Anaheim even has an analog to Orlando’s wealthy enclave Winter Park: the idyllic, gastropub-and-antiques town square of Orange, 10 minutes east, not to mention the family-friendly coastal city of Huntington Beach, with its sparkling oceanfront and pier.
No major waterslide destination nearby? Not for long. The popular Great Wolf Lodge group of indoor parks breaks ground on its first California property on Harbor Boulevard near the Disney complex. Linked with the resort by Anaheim’s underutilized $4-a-day ART shuttle service, and joined this summer by a cycle lending program, Bike Share, that’s similar to New York’s upcoming Citi Bike, Orange County’s becoming downright manageable. It probably wasn’t planned for, but in meeting the bar the way it has, Disneyland may well wind up poaching guests from Disney World.
Not everything about the new California Adventure is perfect, let’s be clear. The people-sized air hockey ride, Luigi’s Flying Tires, the food court of the Cozy Cone Hotel, and the whip ride, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, are all too small, racking up bumper-to-bumper lines. And the whole back end of the park closes nightly for the World of Color lagoon show, taking three major rides out of commission each sunset. In Disney’s view, though, that may not be a bad thing. After all, the point is to get you to spend another night. On that count, Cars Land hits it out of the parking lot.