The park's initial raison d'etre -- celebrating California culture -- didn't muster much enthusiasm from visitors. What's more, in those early days DCA didn't offer enough attractions for visitors to justify spending a whole day there. By adding a second park in Southern California, Disney execs sought to create a multiday destination resort similar to its Florida megaplex.
Another early problem: DCA didn't feel Disney enough for families who wanted to see more costumed characters. Cars Land joins an existing area devoted to Pixar's "A Bug's Life." There's also a "Monsters Inc." ride, a daily Pixar characters parade and a play area featuring characters from Pixar's "Up," so the Pixar influence over DCA is noticeable but not yet overwhelming. The face of Mickey Mouse still beams over the park from the side of a giant Ferris wheel ride; Minnie Mouse appears in a new song and dance show, and that's on top of last year's addition, "The Little Mermaid" ride.
But the real showpiece of Disney's $1.1 billion, five-year makeover of DCA is a new 12-acre land devoted to Pixar's "Cars."
Creating Cars Land
Strolling down the main drag of Cars Land -- Route 66, naturally -- a visitor feels like he's wandered into Radiator Springs, setting of the first "Cars" movie. It's an immersive experience that feels complete during the day -- it's hard not to get drawn in by the 125-foot-tall Cadillac Mountain Range made up of six peaks inspired by Cadillac tail fins -- and maybe even more so at night when 16 huge vintage-inspired neon signs illuminate the town.
Cars Land is home to three new rides. Mater's Junkyard Jamboree features ride-in tractors that do a "tow-si-do" square dance with a swinging motion reminiscent of The Whip at Kennywood.
At Luigi's Flying Tires park guests sit atop giant tires that float like pucks in an enormous air hockey game. Riders lean left and right to move themselves about, angling to grab giant beach balls to toss at other tire jockeys.
In Radiator Springs Racers, the Cars Land E-ticket attraction, guests cruise in car-shaped ride vehicles on a gentle trek through Ornament Valley before they head inside to meet audio-animatronic versions of the "Cars" characters. Then the track splits, sending some riders into a paint shop and others into a tire shop before the cars emerge for a side-by-side race outside over hills and around banking turns until one of the two cars is declared the race victor.
Cars Land art director Greg Wilzbach said Radiator Springs Racers employs an advanced version of the same ride technology used in Test Track at Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center in Florida. Technical problems plagued Test Track when it opened in 1998. In three visits to EPCOT since then, it's been broken each time. (Test Track is currently closed again for refurbishment and due to reopen in the fall.)
"Test Track went through a lot of debugging," Mr. Wilzbach acknowledged. "[Radiator Springs Racers] had the benefit of that. The thing we added here was the side-by-side aspect of it and that it's an actual race. We've never done that before. With Test Track it's strictly one track with one car in front of the other."
Imagineers began designing Cars Land after Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Previously, executives had planned to develop a new section of DCA devoted to Southern California car culture in keeping with the park's original California theme.
"It actually had models and sketches and they had concepted it out; we were just waiting for approval to go ahead to the next stage, and at that point Pixar came on and it shifted and we started over," Mr. Wilzbach said. "The only thing we held over was the notion of a big race attraction."
Mr. Wilzbach said the biggest challenge in creating Cars Land was fleshing out the details of Radiator Springs.
"There's so much in film we can get away with visually -- if you have a background shot, you don't have to worry about it being detailed out," he said. "But for an attraction, especially when people are waiting in a queue, they're looking at every little thing."
Improving the entrance
In addition to Cars Land, DCA executives ordered an overhaul of the park's entry street as part of its do-over. Themed to Walt Disney's early days in California, complete with Red Car Trolleys, the new Buena Vista Street replaces an entry boulevard that was plastic-y and resembled a 1980s-era surf shop.
"When we saw that Disney California Adventure wasn't performing as well as we wanted it to, we wanted to rethink some of the basics of what Disney is all about and use our main street as kind of our template," said Lisa Girolami, a senior show producer and director for Walt Disney Imagineering. The goal was to complement the entrance to Disneyland, which has a main street based on Walt Disney's vision of Marceline, Mo., where he spent a chunk of his childhood. "Buena Vista Street is an idealized Los Angeles street from 1923, which is the year Walt stepped off the train to start his adventure in California."
Renamed shops evoke early Disney creations, including Mortimer's Market (Mortimer was Walt's original name for Mickey) and Clarabelle's Hand-Scooped Ice Cream (after animated Disney character Clarabelle Cow).
At the end of the street, where a castle is traditionally located at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, DCA now has a re-creation of Los Angeles' Spanish Colonial Revival-style Carthay Circle Theatre, which houses an upscale restaurant.
"That brings you to 1937 when Snow White premiered at that theater, a significant moment in Walt's life," Ms. Girolami said. "When he came up with the idea of the first feature-length animated film ... no one thought anyone would want to sit through 90-minutes of cartoon."
Buena Vista Street is populated with an array of citizen characters, including a strolling photographer, who pretends to take your picture with a vintage camera before exclaiming, "I'll see you in two weeks when it's developed."
Newsboys dance and sing (including a song from the Disney movie/Broadway musical "Newsies") and you can flag down a woman riding a messenger bike and ask if she has a telegram for you. It turns out she does -- and the telegram is from Mickey Mouse.
Disney planners have gone to great lengths to add this depth of character detail, salvaging DCA from the previous generic California experience that necessitated this big-bucks remodel.