Old School Disney, Pixar Dominate Park Remodel

In 2001, Walt Disney Co. made a $1.4 billion bet on a different kind of theme park in Anaheim.

The company built Disney’s California Adventure as a slice of the golden state with a beach boardwalk, Golden Gate Bridge and fisherman’s wharf.

As Disney starts a $1.1 billion makeover of the disappointing park, it’s turning to tried and true themes in a bid to get people to identify with California Adventure, like they do with neighboring Disneyland Park.

Last month, the company offered details of its plan to replace the California vacation theme with a piece of Walt Disney’s early days in Hollywood, rides based on films by Pixar Animation Studios Inc. and attractions that draw on vintage Disney characters.

“Nostalgia is comfort food,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., which also follows Orange County.

Disneyland is largely developed, leaving California Adventure as an “entertainment driver for the Disneyland Resort,” Chief Executive Bob Iger said during a recent conference call with analysts and investors.

The five-year project is the biggest overhaul Disney has made to one of its theme parks. The company already has spent more than $100 million in the past seven years adding rides to California Adventure.

Overseeing the makeover—and keeping visitors coming to California Adventure during construction—will be the biggest challenge yet for Disneyland Resort President Ed Grier, who joined in 2006.

The park has been something of a weak stepchild to Disneyland since it opened seven years ago. California Adventure draws 5 million to 6 million visitors a year, versus the 7 million originally projected.

Instead of spurring longer stays in Anaheim, many visitors skip California Adventure altogether for Disneyland, which draws about 15 million people a year.

The company is looking to keep a good part of its initial California Adventure investment by transforming the park’s entrance into Southern California of the 1920s and ’30s, when Walt Disney first arrived in the state.

An Art Deco entryway will include a replica of the 1930s-era Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood, where Disney films “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” premiered.

“It will be just like walking in Walt’s footsteps,” said Bob Weis, executive vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney hopes the theme will better tie California Adventure to Disneyland, since Main Street in the park is built around a replica of Walt Disney’s Missouri hometown.

Pixar, which Disney acquired in 2006 after years of making movies for the company, is the inspiration for a good chunk of California Adventure’s makeover.

The biggest part of the overhaul is Cars Land, a 12-acre expansion based on the 2006 film “Cars.” It’s set to house three rides.

The first section of California Adventure’s makeover opened in June with Toy Story Mania, based on the “Toy Story” films of the 1990s.

In 2002, Disney added A Bug’s Land section of rides based on the 1998 film “A Bug’s Life.” In 2006 came a ride inspired by “Monsters, Inc.”

Disney is relying on some of most famous characters for the rest of California Adventure’s makeover.

At the park’s Paradise Pier section, several rides are getting new themes without changing the mechanics. A giant California sun on a Ferris wheel will be replaced with Mickey Mouse’s face and other Disney characters.

Mulholland Madness, a small rollercoaster that mimics a taxi ride in the Los Angeles hills, is set to be redone as a Goofy’s Sky Skool coaster.

The little used Golden Dreams Theater next to the boardwalk is set to become Voyages of The Little Mermaid, a ride based on 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Chief Executive Iger was emphatic on the company’s conference call that the California Adventure makeover would go forward, despite a worsening economy that’s starting to hit tourism.

Disneyland attendance and hotel occupancy slipped during the September quarter from a year earlier, executives said.

The California Adventure remodel is expected to create up to 1,500 jobs at its peak and set the stage for more visitors when it’s done, economist Kyser said.

“What this does is reinforce the strength of one of our premier tourist destinations,” he said.


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