Disney California Adventure: The Best Disney Park Glow Up Ever

Pixar Pier, Disney California Adventure Park, Disneyland Resort / Credit: Disney
Pixar Pier, Disney California Adventure Park, Disneyland Resort / Credit: Disney

Disney California Adventure has had a rough history in terms of Guest and critic reception, but recently it has been among favorite theme parks for many fans. Early attractions at the park often came across as rushed and campy, and opening year proved to be a challenge with economic downturn and the tragic events of September 11, 2001 taking place before the year’s end. Still, Disney California Adventure Park has undergone some serious transformations over the years, and the park is actually beloved by many fans today. Let’s take a look back at the park, and how it became one of Disney Parks’ greatest glow-ups.

Credit: Disney

The addition of Disney California Adventure is one of the greatest expansions to date at the Disneyland Resort taking over what was originally an extension of Disneyland’s large parking area. The original idea for a second gate in California was for a concept that fans of Walt Disney World would have been familiar with called “Westcot,” essentially a new version of Disney World’s EPCOT.

Bringing a new EPCOT to life was a dream for then CEO Michael Eisner and the Imagineers who had begun the early phases of design on the project, however, due to a number of factors at the time it was not financially possible. With Westcot tossed to the side, Imagineers focused on a new concept and began designing Disney California Adventure Park as a celebration of the unique cultural and historical background of the Golden State.

Guests who visited the park shortly after its February 8, 2001 opening were mixed. Some Guests really enjoyed the attractions, especially the more thrilling ones that didn’t really exist in any capacity next door at Disneyland Park (like California Screamin’) but others felt the park was so geared toward older audiences it excluded families, which obviously made up a large part of the Disneyland Resort’s market.

Credit: Disney

Even worse, early reports from the park’s opening shared that Guests felt there were simply not enough attractions at the park, especially in comparison to the number of shopping and dining opportunities at Disney California Adventure. Without enough attractions, it is difficult for many Guests to justify using a ticket at the park when Disneyland is right next door, along with other amenities at the Disneyland Resort, and Downtown Disney.

As for attractions, select rides like California Screamin’ and Soarin’ Over California were met with positive reviews, but at the same time, there were some notoriously bad reviews. Superstar Limo for instance, which has gone down in theme park history as one of the worst attractions of all time, did not even last an entire year at the park!

Attendance numbers for the first year that Disney California Adventure was open showed roughly half the attendance of Disneyland with about 6 million people visiting in 2001 to Disneyland’s 12 million. It was clear by the end of 2001 that the park needed some attention to make it the best it could possibly be for Guests, but it would still take some time to get there.

Opening of A Bugs Land. Credit: Disney

Family-friendly attractions added to A Bugs Land helped with the impression that there wasn’t enough for young children and families to do at the park, and Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train and Flik’s Fyers became new family favorites in 2002. In recognition that Guests do want thrill rides, but Disney-style thrill rides specifically, a new version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was added to the park in 2004.

Credit: D23

Another hole in the park early on was the lack of nighttime spectaculars, especially when compared to Disneyland which offered its classic nightly fireworks show. World of Color, an electrical water show in celebration of all things classic Disney, helped to solidify Disney California Adventure as an after-dark destination in 2010.

Very few opening day attractions from Disney California Adventure exist today, at least in their original form, but the park’s glow-up as a result of the new attractions is tough to argue with. California Screamin’ has been rethemed to the Incredicoaster, which fits in nicely with the reimagined Pixar Pier from the original Paradise Pier. Tower of Terror eventually became Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, while A Bugs Land is now the home of Avengers Campus.

The park saw the greatest component of its glow-up in 2012 with the addition of Cars Land. One of the most immersive lands of any Disney Park, Cars Land places Guests right in the middle of Radiator Springs and includes the incredibly popular attraction, Radiator Springs Racers.

Credit: Disney

Radiator Springs Racers uses the same ride system as Test Track, with more immersive storytelling and of course, a race against another car. Another technological Marvel can be found at Cars Land in Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters which uses a trackless ride technology developed for Tokyo Disneylands Aquatopia attraction.

If you were skeptical of Disney California Adventure earlier in the 2000s, it’s time to give this park a chance! With all of its new additions and expansions, the park is barely recognizable as its former self, and is now home to some very popular attractions, shops, and restaurants.

Credit: D23

Disney California Adventure still shadows Disneyland in terms of yearly attendance (9 million in 2019 vs. 18 million at Disneyland. We won’t look at 2020 and 2021 because they are impacted by the pandemic) however the reality is that the park is booming. Avengers Campus has some of the greatest technological advancements in terms of Audio-Animatronics of any Disney theme park, and Cars Land is incredibly popular, especially for seasonal events when unique treats and decorations take over.

While we tend to think of attractions like Superstar Limo as sort of ‘laughably bad,’ we are glad that Disney California Adventure has had such a glow-up, and we can’t wait for our next trip!

About Brittany DiCologero

Brittany is a New England-based writer focused on the history of the Walt Disney World Resort. She is the author of "Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Reality of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort," and "Brittany Earns Her Ears."

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