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Evolving Anaheim Disney park marks decade

Orange County Register

Original Article »

February 05, 2011

Ten years ago this Tuesday, Disney California Adventure opened with a sunny ceremony with fireworks, Mickey Mouse, top company officials and glitzy performances.

Then the rain started and lasted for weeks, dampening attendance at Disneyland’s sister theme park that received tepid reviews.

Seven months later, the Sept. 11 tragedy hurt tourism in general.

Even Disney’s current president has called California Adventure mediocre.

But the company is pushing to change that.

Last summer, the “World of Color” – a cutting-edge water-and-light show that features movie scenes projected onto large mist screens – debuted, part of a $1-billion makeover set to be completed next year. Disney says that show alone contributed to last summer’s 20-percent jump in visits.

Disney came up with ideas for a second theme park in the early 1990s, pondering a West Coast version of Florida’s Epcot, to be called Westcot. Officials instead made plans for a new hotel, a Downtown Disney retail and restaurant district and, of course, the theme park.

Surrounding streets were updated, with attractive palm trees lining them and street monuments; freeway ramps were added.

“Without California Adventure, you wouldn’t have seen that level of upgrades in the city and the investment,” said Curt Pringle, mayor from 2002 to 2010.

In the end, Disney greatly scaled back the development.

The company purchased “off-the-shelf” rides, ones already designed for elsewhere instead of Disney originals. Disney wanted to make it the “anti-Disneyland,” a place aimed more for adults, said David Koenig, an author of unofficial Disney books, including “Mouse Tales.”

Opening attendance

Disney had high expectations – 7 million visitors the first year. Instead, 5 million showed up, according to AECOM Economics, a research firm for an industry association. Immediately, visitors asked for more children’s rides – and a Disney feel.

“While they enjoyed the individual experiences, what was missing for them was the deep, emotional connection that they like to have with Disney parks,” said Mary Niven, vice president of Disney California Adventure.

Some changes came within the first year or two: Restaurant operators like Robert Mondavi and Wolfgang Puck pulled out. Attractions were altered or closed. In 2002, Disney erected A Bug’s Land with children’s rides.

The tweaks weren’t enough.

As of 2009, the last year that an attendance figure is available, the park had yet to reach its initial annual attendance goal of 7 million.

Expansion ideas

Disney president Bob Iger, who took over the company from Michael Eisner in 2005, knew the park needed something major, even calling the park mediocre in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

It surfaced that at one time officials considered merging Disneyland and California Adventure into one.

Instead, in 2007, the company announced a $1-billion, five-year makeover. That’s more than the initial cost for the entire park. A new theme will seek to turn California Adventure into a reflection of the California that Walt Disney experienced in the 1920s and 1930s; renovations are to be finished next year.

The march to improve California Adventure seems promising.

“World of Color” is wildly popular. Since its June debut, Disney has staged 500 shows for 2 million people.

“It finally worked for the first time, with ‘World of Color,’ ” said Koenig, the author. “It’s something you can’t see somewhere else.”

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