One of the cool things about writing for GeekDad, as I’m coming to learn, is that people start asking you if you want to do cool stuff. A couple of weeks ago, the people asking were from Disney Resorts, and the cool thing they wanted me to do was to be at the grand opening of Cars Land and the new Buena Vista Street at the California Adventure theme park that houses both of those attractions. I gratefully accepted the invitation. As it happens, I haven’t been to Disneyland since 1993, and have never been to California Adventure, so I was really coming into this with no expectations. I invited my friend Steve to come along as my photographer because (a) he is a huge Disney fan and (b) I tend to forget I’m carrying a camera around and end up with no photos.
First surprise: the fine Disney folk put us up for the night in the fantastic Grand Californian Hotel adjacent to California Adventure. As it happens, one of my areas of geeky fandom is the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century, and especially the work of the Greene & Greene architectural firm of Pasadena; you probably know their work from the movies — Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future is actually the famous Gamble House, and Brad Pitt’s house in Meet Joe Black is the Blacker House. Both are stunning works of design, and the Grand Californian is very much in the same style. The details and appointments are perfect. I could never afford to stay there, but when next I go back to Disneyland, I will plan on spending some down-time just loitering in the courtyard or enjoying a drink beside the massive stone fireplace in the lobby. After a long day of walking from one ride to another and standing in lines, the many Morris chairs are extremely welcoming.
After getting settled into our room, we ventured forth to the red carpet reception for Cars Land; all the voice actors from the Cars franchise were there, as well as all the young performers from the many Disney Channel programs (it’s been about ten years since anyone in my house watched the Disney Channel, so I have no idea who any of them were), most of the cast of Modern Family, and a few other celebrities with Disney/Pixar connections. There was much cheering, waving and hand-shaking, but the only stars I actually got to have a word with were John Ratzenberger and Cheech Marin, and that was only long enough to ask the former who he was playing in Brave (one of the castle guards) and to tell the latter that my grown kids still like his children’s record (seriously; “Cheech the Schoolbus Driver” is great stuff, and we still can be heard singing the mixing colors song every now and again, especially when coloring Easter eggs or decorating pastries). The reception that followed was a lot of fun, but the best thing was seeing Cars Land by night. It’s a sea of neon and wonderful mid-century design.
Actually, that was the second-best thing. The best thing was this: we got in line for the Radiator Springs Racers ride, and who should get in line behind us but Pixar director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, John Carter); we spent the next half-hour or so discussing movies and bloggers and Hollywood and Disney and a whole bunch more. He’s a very nice guy, and his daughter Audrey was completely charming. Stanton wanted one thing understood clearly; John Carter was never behind schedule or over budget at any point during the production. It was also the #1 top seller in DVD and Blu-Ray at the moment we spoke. So there, that record is set straight.
The next morning, I discovered that by day, walking the two-lane blacktop of Cars Land feels very much like stopping in some of the little desert towns along what’s left of Route 66, which was the inspiration for Cars in the first place, and the Disney Imagineers have nailed it. Cars Land isn’t very big, just three rides and a handful of shops, but the place looks fantastic. One little boy at the event was heard to tell his mother, “Mom, this is where they filmed Cars,” and it was a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It really does look just like Radiator Springs, from Flo’s V8 Diner to the Cozy Cone Motel (a food court in this version, with lots of great snacks like mini-churros with chocolate dipping sauce, nacho cheese or dill pickle flavor popcorn, and other tasty treats), and if I were five years old the place would have blown my mind. As for the rides, Mater’s Tractor Pull is better and more fun than it looks, Luigi’s Flying Tires (essentially like riding around on a giant air-hockey table) isn’t quite as successful as it sounds, and the Radiator Springs Racers is a blast. As is typical for Disney resorts, the concept of the ride is a trip though the highlights of the movie, concluding with a full-on high-speed race. It reminds me a bit of the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride attraction over at the other park, but with an aesthetic that I love, the retro-inspired neon and googie architecture of the Mother Road.
Around the corner from Cars Land is the new Buena Vista Street, which is an homage to the area of Los Angeles where Walt Disney set up shop in 1923, including a recreation of the famous Red Car trolley, the public transportation system that was deliberately destroyed by corporate-stooge politicians in a scheme very much like the one shown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (but I don’t believe the real Red Cars ever spewed forth a cadre of singing and dancing newsboys, as happens in Carthay Circle with alarming regularity). The centerpiece of the area is the Carthay Circle Theatre, which is, on the outside, a recreation of the theater where Snow White had its world premiere in 1937, and on the inside a very elegant restaurant. For those who are really into the arcana of Disneyana, beside the Carthay Circle is a fairly nondescript door bearing only the address number 1901, with no other identifying marks; this is a private restaurant, the new companion to the legendary Club 33, a very posh and expensive private club in New Orleans Square at Disneyland. Originally constructed as a place for Walt to wine and dine the corporate bigwigs who were bankrolling his theme park and other projects, Club 33 is the only place in Disneyland that serves alcohol. Dinner runs about $100 per person and the waiting list to become a member (which costs thousands) is over 10 years long. That may change soon, since the addition of 1901 essentially doubles the number of patrons that can be served, so I expect they will admit more members to the club.
When California Adventure first opened, there was a widely-heard criticism that it was a poorly-planned and generic amusement park with very little to recommend it, clearly not up to the Disney standard. The somewhat misguided attempt to recreate the various features of the state of California fell somewhat flat; most people didn’t really notice or care that one section looks like Monterey’s Cannery Row, another area recreates the redwood forest, and there’s the Golden Gate Bridge in miniature at another spot. (The Golden Gate Bridge has now been refurbished into an LA Overpass much like the one on Hyperion Blvd. near where Disney’s original studio once stood.) With the addition of Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, California Adventure is well on the way to being transformed. One by one, areas are being remodeled into more overtly “Disney” features, though more accurately in most cases they could be called Pixar features. California Adventure is in large part being turned into PixarLand, and that is a good thing. There’s a Bug’s Life area, the redwood forest is now “Russell’s Wilderness Adventure” (featuring the boy and dog from Up), and the Midway section has a great Toy Story ride.
I’m still not a big fan of Disneyland; there are too many people, the lines are too long, it costs too much, too much of it is devoted to selling you overpriced souvenirs or overpriced food, and the rest of it is essentially “television that you ride through.” I’m more of a thrill-ride guy; I’ll pick Six Flags or Knott’s Berry Farm over Disneyland any day of the week, because they have a lot more ways to scare myself silly. But even so, Cars Land and the revitalized California Adventure Park are well worth a visit.