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Disney’s California Adventure

Disney’s California Adventure is the comeback kid of California theme parks.

From its decidedly lackluster opening in 2001 through its troubled childhood and its eventual rise to popularity, Disney California Adventure has had a history you could only find in Hollywood.

Disney's California Adventure

History of Disney’s California Adventure

It all started back in the 1990’s, when The Walt Disney company was determined to turn the Disneyland Anaheim property into a true multi-destination resort.

For years, Disney executives had teased park patrons with the possibility of a West Coast version of the popular Epcot Center, but that promise was never fulfilled. Instead, Disney elected to build a $600 million-dollar homage to modern California. Instead of Westcot, they gave Disneyphiles Disney’s California Adventure.

Unfortunately, the only thing Disney about Disney’s California Adventure was the name.

DCA wasn’t meant for a young audience. The Walt Disney Company wanted to attract a more mature crowd to their new park, and it showed. There were few rides for younger children and no actual Disney characters to attract younger patrons.

Worse, while Disney is known for specializing in park environments that transport the guest to different times and places, Disney’s California Adventure failed to do that.

It also didn’t have the rides or technology to compete with its rivals Universal Studios or MGM Studios, and the nearby Knotts Berry Farm already had the California historical theme on lock. Mostly, Disney’s California Adventure tried to distinguish itself from the pack by using a whole lot of bad visual puns based on Hollywood movie titles and California landmarks.

The park struggled through a soft opening in January 2001 with poor reviews. The grand opening in February, 2001, was equally unimpressive.

Part of that reason was because when it opened, Disney’s California Adventure had about as many restaurants as it did rides and attractions. The park felt more like an outdoor mall than a destination theme park.

The rides Disney’s California Adventure did have in Paradise Pier were generally uninspired and un-themed copies of basic seaside carnival rides.

The confusing, tacky, and gaudy California park theme, bad rides, oddball parade, and lack of child-friendly experiences meant that Disney’s California Adventure struggled to attract any kind of crowd, much less the kind of crowds that were regularly swelling its sister park across the Esplanade.

The only real bright spot for the park was the flagship ride Soarin’ Over California. This flight simulator ride was so successful and so popular that it was copied over to Epcot in Florida.

Fortunately for DCA, Disney parks are in a state of constant evolution.

A 1.1 billion-dollar makeover that finished in 2012 brought Disney California Adventure – now revamped and rebranded – into line with the kind of experience guests expect from a Disney property.

Nowadays, Disney California Adventure is an entertainment phoenix that has risen from the ashes of the original park. The park is now a fun, immersive look at California from the 1920s to the 1950’s, celebrating the beauty of the state as well as the fun of some of the most popular Pixar movie franchises.

Keep reading for an overview of Disney California Adventure, along with some Disney trivia and Disney travel tips to make your park experience even better.


California Adventure Lands

Buena Vista Street

  • The Theme: The DCA equivalent to Disneyland’s Main Street, USA, Buena Vista Street is 1920’s Hollywood action and glamour. Buena Vista Street was deliberately themed after the way Hollywood looked when Walt Disney arrived in 1923.
  • Fun Fact: Both California Disney parks have bronze statues of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse; Storytellers stands in front of the Carthay Circle Theater in DCA as the counterpart to Partners, the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. The Carthay Circle Theater itself is the counterpart to Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. While the Theater isn’t a real castle, it does have Disney Princess connections… The real Carthay Circle Theater was where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs originally played.

Cars Land

  • The Theme: Radiator Springs
  • Fun Fact: Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters attraction was originally Luigi’s Flying Tires, and at one point, it actually had beach balls incorporated into the ride. Unfortunately, the balls caused a lot of collisions, so they were removed from the Flying Tires long before it got revamped and renamed.
  • Must See Attraction: Radiator Springs Racers. It is the only FASTPASS attraction in Cars Land, so make sure you get yours early.

Grizzly Peak

  • The Theme: The beautiful natural splendor of a California national park in the 1950’s. Grizzly Peak is home to the popular Soarin’ Around the World attraction.
  • Fun Fact:  The longest drop on Grizzly River Run is a stomach-churning 22 feet.
  • Must See Attraction: Soarin’ Around the World is a perennially popular flight simulator ride that really makes you feel like you’re flying. The other popular ride is Grizzly River Run, a wild water ride that takes its motto very seriously. What motto? “The Wetter, the Better.”  If you don’t want to get too wet, rain ponchos are available for purchase in nearby gift shops.

Pixar Pier

  • The Theme: Victorian era boardwalk and seaside amusement park.
  • Fun Fact: Pixar Pier was initially called Paradise Pier and was built to mimic popular beach amusement parks. Ironically, Walt Disney himself disliked those kinds of parks… enough that he built Disneyland to provide an alternative destination for amusement-hungry families.
  • Must See Attraction: The Incredicoaster, the fastest coaster in the park and the only one with an inversion, is a huge draw. If you’re not a roller coaster aficionado, the nighttime spectacular World of Color with its 1200 musical water fountains is a must-see. 

Avenger’s Campus (formerly A Bug’s Land)

  • The Theme: If you’ve ever wished someone from S.H.I.E.L.D. would approach you about the Avengers Initiative, here’s your chance. While there aren’t a lot of concrete details yet, Avenger’s Campus will be the first Marvel-themed land at Disney park.
  • Fun Fact: Slated to open in 2021, Avengers Campus in DCA will immerse guests in a unique storyline that links guests’ experiences to the global storyline for the three Avengers Campuses around the world.
  • Must See Attraction: We’d argue that all of Avenger’s Campus is a must-see attraction, but the W.E.B. (Worldwide Engineering Brigade) attraction will allow guests to help Spiderman with his web-slinging as he rounds up rogue Spider-bots.

Hollywood Land

  • The Theme: Classic Hollywood cinema of the 1930’s. Hollywood Land is all about the romance, glamour, and magic of the movies. This area is themed as a backlot for Hollywood Studios.
  • Fun Fact: The Disney Animation Building isn’t just a great experience with interactive exhibits… it’s also a great spot to cool off on a hot day.
  • Must See Attraction: The Frozen Stage Show in the Hyperion Theatre.

Pacific Wharf

  • The Theme: The waterfront of San Francisco and Monterey Bay’s Cannery Row.
  • Fun Fact: Pacific Wharf has no rides or attractions other than a bakery tour at the Boudin Bakery. The tour is worth it, though, to see how the bread is made. Plus, there are free samples of the bakery’s famous sourdough bread.
  • Must See Attraction: While it isn’t really an attraction, Ghiradelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop is a guest favorite because of the free samples.

Disney California Adventure Tips

Disney California Adventure is a fun place for families, but that doesn’t mean that travelling with small children is easy. Fortunately, DCA is pretty good at making parents’ lives as simple as possible.

If you’re a nursing mom, Disney California Adventure has an excellent Baby Care Center stocked with all the essentials. Located in Pacific Wharf next to the Ghiradelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, the Baby Care Center is open during regular park hours, is free for guests, and includes:

  • Nursing room with comfy chairs
  • Changing room with tables
  • Toddler-size toilets that don’t auto-flush and scare potty-training kids
  • A kitchen with a sink, bottle warmers, and a microwave (select use only)
  • A vending machine that sells formula, baby food, juice, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, and pacifiers. It even dispenses over-the-counter medicine for those sudden sniffles.

In addition to the fantastic Baby Care Center, most guest bathrooms are equipped with changing tables for guest convenience.


Disney California Adventure Hacks

If you’re looking for a few professional-level hacks to make your visit to the park easier, check out our handy list below:

  • Check the crowd level. It will be crowded, but this handy website gives you a look at exactly how crowded the park is likely to be. Check the Disney California Adventure Crowd Tracker at IsItPacked.com for the latest information on the day of your visit.
  • We can’t say it often enough…  dress comfortably! If you’re not wearing shoes you can stand for hours in, your feet will not be happy by the end of the day… and neither will you.
  • Disney California Adventure has an app. Get it. Not only does it give you the ability to buy your tickets and check maps, it also allows you to purchase food at select locations. Don’t want to stand in line for your #Arendelle Blue churro? Order through the app, then go pick it up.
  • FASTPASSES do sell out. Grab yours early for any ride you really want (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy and Radiator Springs Racers!)
  • Speaking of FASTPASSES, California Adventure does use them, but you can only hold one at a time in each park. The FASTPASS system is now integrated between the two parks, making it impossible to game the system.
  • The one exception to the FASTPASS rule is World of Color. You can hold a FASTPASS to this nighttime attraction and one to a ride at the same time.
  • Buena Vista Street is open 30 minutes before the park is, and stays open after the park closes, so you can time your shopping or morning munch without sacrificing fun time in the park.
  • Rent a locker. Seriously. If you don’t want to lug your sunscreen, jackets, and extras that you don’t need constant access to, the lockers are a wonderful way to lighten your load while still having your stuff whenever you need it.

Disney California Adventure is a fantastic park full of themed fun, iconic characters, great rides, and fantastic food. It’s well worth your entertainment dime to see what this ever-evolving theme destination has to offer.

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Kelly Smith is a freelance writer living in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side. Find her at www.bluerosecopywriting.com.