Original Grand Opening of Disney’s California Adventure

By Keith Mahne



In the summer of 1995, Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO at the time, gathered company executives in Aspen, Colorado to think of an idea for a second theme park in California. From those meetings, Disney decided it would build a park themed to the history and culture of the state of California. They wanted to make California into a theme park, hoping to create “precise reproductions of California landmarks, charming streets and gorgeous landscaping that stimulates the state’s forests and farmlands” and celebrate the California dream. It was intended to appeal to adults while Disneyland was intended to appeal to children. Construction of the park began in 1998; the park’s construction was accompanied by Downtown Disney and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, and renovations of the Disneyland Hotel and Disneyland Pacific Hotel. The park officially opened on February 8, 2001. Today, courtesy of Disneyland’s Cast TV, we will get a look at the openings and dedication ceremonies of the theme park, surrounding hotels and attractions…

Early Concept Drawing

Disneyland’s Cast TV, a resort-wide television network for Cast Members to stay informed on events around the resort, created a nice segment that featured all the dedications that went on during DCA’s grand opening in 2001. You will see the opening ceremonies of Downtown Disney restaurants, the Grand Californian Hotel, top attractions and speaches by Whoopi Goldberg, future CEO Bob Iger, Michael Eisner and the lovable Roy E. Disney among others. Let’s have a look:

 
 
 


The present-day site of Disney California Adventure was acquired by Walt Disney in the 1950s, and functioned as the parking lot of Disneyland for over 40 years. After succeeding with the multi-park business model at Walt Disney World in Florida, the Disney company decided to turn Walt Disney’s original theme park into a multi-park resort complex as well. In 1991, Disney announced plans to build WESTCOT, a west coast version of what was then known as EPCOT Center, on the site of Disneyland’s parking lot. The high price tag of the proposed park as well as the company’s financial and public relations problems with the newly opened Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris) led Disney to cancel WESTCOT in 1995.

WESTCOT Concept Drawing
 
 
 
 
 
The park was expected to draw large crowds when it opened on February 8, 2001. On January 14, a Los Angeles Times article titled “The most Jam-Packed Theme Park on Earth?” stated, “Senior Disney officials acknowledge that there will be days when California Adventure will have to turn patrons away, particularly in the first weeks after the park opens, during spring break and again in the summer.” However, the actual attendance that year was substantially less than expected due to poor reviews from early visitors, the lack of focus in the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, lack of attractions for children, large amount of off-the-shelf attractions (with Soarin’ Over California being the sole exception), a high number of stores and restaurants relative to the number of attractions, and having a redundant theme, given the park is located in California. The park also lacks a park berm to separate it from surrounding neighborhoods. The berm in Disneyland Park uses trees and earthen mounds to build a physical barrier around the park so that structures external to the park cannot be seen, thus encompassing guests in the setting. At Disney California Adventure Park, nearby hotels, power lines, radio towers, and the Anaheim Convention Center are visible, reducing the immersion in the park. Disney had originally planned the park to be aimed at adults rather than children which turned out to be its major criticism.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
The park opened to only 5 million visitors in 2001 while its sister park Disneyland saw 12.3 million visitors during the same time frame. Low attendance caused Disney to cut prices for California Adventure, slashing as much as $10 off of park tickets. In its first year, the park only averaged 5,000 to 9,000 visitors on weekdays and 10,000 to 15,000 on the weekends despite having a capacity of 33,000. Visitor surveys reported that only 20% of visitors to the park in its first year were satisfied with their experience. By October 2001 both Wolfgang Puck and Robert Mondavi closed their high-profile restaurants in the park, citing low crowds, though Mondavi remained as a sponsor.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
By 2007, Disney had realized that the park was not working and that something major needed to be done. On October 17, 2007, the Walt Disney Company announced a multi-year, $1.1 billion redesign and expansion plan for Disney’s California Adventure Park (against its initial $600 million price to build). Each area was reimagined to transform the park from a veritable spoof of modern California culture to a romanticized, idealized version of the state, exploring specific time periods and historic settings. The project began in December 2007 and was completed in stages. Toy Story Midway Mania! opened on Paradise Pier in June 2008, in space formerly occupied by a store and restaurants. World of Color, a nighttime water and lights show on Paradise Bay, opened in June 2010. The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure opened on the site formerly occupied by the Golden Dreams theater in June 2011.
 
 
 
 
 
Tom Staggs, Bob Iger and John Lasseter

 
 
 
The most drastic changes to the park included a complete overhaul of the main entrance as well as an expansion into the last of the parking area originally designated as future growth space for the park. The main entrance and Sunshine Plaza were turned from a “giant postcard” spoof of California into Buena Vista Street, a representation of Los Angeles as it appeared when Walt Disney moved there in the 1920s. The “CALIFORNIA” sign in front was removed and donated to Cal Expo in Sacramento. Paradise Pier was turned from a comical representation of California boardwalks into a representation of Victorian seaside amusement parks of the 1920s, and some of the area’s off-the-shelf rides were either removed outright (Maliboomer) or re-themed to have more of a focus on Disney characters (Mickey’s Fun Wheel, Goofy’s Sky School, Silly Symphony Swings). Cars Land, an area that simulates Radiator Springs from Disney·Pixar’s Cars film franchise, was added to the southeast portion of the park, and includes three new rides including the E ticket Radiator Springs Racers. Construction was completed in 2012 and the park was “re-dedicated” on June 14, 2012. The park received a modified name, Disney California Adventure, and a new logo, first put into use on June 11, 2010 and promoted in a commercial promoting World of Color a few days prior.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The redesign and expansion of the park saw attendance rates increase drastically. In 2012, Disney California Adventure reached a record high for the park of over 7 million visitors (a 23% increase from the year before), a number Disney had hoped the park would do in its first year. The day of the park’s re-dedication saw the park draw a record number of 43,000 visitors in one day. The night before the re-dedication, over 500 people camped outside of the park in order to be the first admitted in. Two days later, the park hit a new record of 45,000 visitors. Speaking on the attendance increase at Disney California Adventure, Jay Rasulo, Disney’s chief financial officer, said “We had a very uneven distribution where most people spent most of their time at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure was empty. Now, half of the folks go to one, half of the folks go to the other. It’s almost a dream come true.”


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