The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 13, 2012

Reinventing Disney California Adventure: An Early Look at Cars Land

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 10:38 pm

Since it opened in 2001, the Disney Californa Adventure park located next door to Disneyland has been widely considered to be a disappointment.  Although the park was the 11th most visited theme park in the world in 2011 and does have a number of notable rides (particularly Soarin’ Over Californa and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror,) it has never quite been able to shake a longstanding reputation of being little more than a place to retreat to when Disneyland is too crowded.  Since 2007, a $1.1 billion expansion of the park has been underway, which so far has added such attractions to the park as Toy Story Midway Mania, the Little Mermaid Ariel’s Undersea Adventure dark ride and the World of Color nighttime show, and has resulted in major retheming efforts on a number of areas and rides (as well as some removals, most notably the Maliboomer drop tower in Paradise Pier), particularly in the Paradise Pier area.  This Friday, the five-year project to reinvent Disney California Adventure finally comes to an end as the two biggest pieces of the expansion open to the public:  The new Buena Vista Street entrance plaza and Cars Land, an event significant enough that it is being celebrated with a rededication of the entire park. 

When the walls come down and Cars Land opens to the public, it is widely expected that record crowds will converge on Cars Land, but thanks to a bit of luck in a random drawing of Disneyland Annual Passholders, I was able to get the opportunity to preview Cars Land and Buena Vista Street a few days early.  This was a good thing, because I had already made my travel arrangements roughly a month in advance, not knowing whether or not I was going to make it into this (although I had planned to take this trip whether I got into the preview or not, so mostly it ended up being a nice little bonus. ) Naturally I took my camera along with me, and after the jump, you will find a tour of Cars Land.

Once Cars Land opens to the public on Friday, most people will be entering the land through the main entrance located just off the main walkway that leads from Carthay Circle.  During the time I was there this entrance was still fenced off with large shrubs (which did allow for peeks through the fence to the land inside, hence the title photo,) but since a temporary stage was being erected for the opening ceremonies in that area, the lucky guests attending the preview were instead entering the land through an entrance at Pacific Wharf, from which a road led to the town of Radiator Springs.  In my opinion, this actually makes for a more dramatic entrance to the land than the “regular” entrance would, and it really shows off the details on the Cadillac Range that serves as the backdrop for the land.

This road comes complete with full markings, guard rails, Rust-Eze signs that call back to the famous Burma-Shave signs that dotted roadsides throughout the US between the late 1920s up into the early 1960s, and even a scenic overlook.

But the most notable sight along the road will undoubtedly be the passing cars from Radiator Springs Racers.  Although at the time this photo was taken they were passing by one at a time, normally this would be two cars racing each other.  I got the impression that they were still in the process of working a few glitches out of the ride while I was there.  As someone who makes a living off of testing things, I would be surprised if they weren’t doing this, as the Passholder previews over the weekend probably represent some of the first opportunities to operate the ride under “normal” use conditions.  The ride was actually down for roughly the first hour of the time I was there, presumably as the result of one of these glitches.

Following this road a short distance further will lead you into the town of Radiator Springs, past Flo’s V8 Cafe and Ramone’s House of Body Art, and eventually onto Route 66 (or a reasonable facsimile thereof.)  If you keep following this road it appears you’ll end up somewhere between A Bug’s Land and the Tower of Terror.  I suspect that the Imagineers would just as soon not have the Tower of Terror visible in the background, but the options available for hiding a 183-foot haunted tower tend to be somewhat limited.

Our first stop here will be Luigi’s Casa Della Tires, which in addition to being a faithful replica of the tire shop as seen in the Cars movies, also serves as the queue  for Luigi’s Flying Tires. 

In addition to the various displays of tires on the walls, there is also a great deal of various racing memorabilia (in-universe, of course) along the walls as well.

Along another wall are several displays cases filled with plenty of other stuff.  There’s enough detail in here to almost make you forget you’re standing in what proved to be a rather slow-moving line.

Here’s a closer look at one of the display cases.

Ultimately, a combination of time constraints, fatigue from 2 1/2 days of prior time spent in the parks and general lack of patience kept me from actually riding this, but here you can get a look at what the ride looks like in operation.  The ride vehicles are actually small hovercrafts powered by jets of air coming from underneath the floor.  Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time that Disney has tried this type of thing; back in 1961 a similar ride known as the Flying Saucers was added to Tomorrowland, but was closed down only five years later, plagued by frequent breakdowns.  The site where the Flying Saucers were located is now the Magic Eye Theater, currently home to Captain EO.

Across the street from Luigi’s Flying Tires is found Lizzie’s Curio Shop (a relatively mundane souvenir shop) and the Cozy Cone Motel, which is used for a number of small snack stands, each serving various cone-themed snacks including Ice Cream Cones, Chile Cone Queso, Popcone and Churros (because you can’t be at Disneyland without being less than 50 feet from a churro stand at all times, right?)

The area in front of the Cozy Cone also gets used for character meet-and-greets.  During the time I was here, both Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater were taking turns here. 

Naturally, I had to stop for a photo.

Although there have been meet-and-greets in the park with Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater previously, they have generally been in fixed locations with limited interaction.  Here in Cars Land, the cars actually drive themselves, just the way you’d expect them to.  Don’t be surprised to see Lightning McQueen cruising down the street…

Another cool detail is this fountain in front of the Cozy Cone Motel, a detail carried over from the movies.  Interestingly enough, even though I’ve seen bits and pieces of the first Cars movie, I don’t think I’ve actually sat down and watched the whole thing all at once. 

Next on the agenda was Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which is an example of the ever-popular “spin around in circles” genre of amusement rides.  Once again, a great deal of attention has been paid to the queue, which highlights various memorabilia from Mater’s various alleged adventures over the years (as outlined in a number of the Mater’s Tall Tales cartoons) . as well as other various car parts and other things one might expect to find in a junkyard.

Throughout the queue area there are various junkyard-themed touches, such as these radiator caps atop the poles.  Remember, don’t open these when hot.

On the ride itself, riders sit in trailers being pulled by tractors, as they go around several adjoining circles, while various songs sung by Mater are played in the background.  The trailer is attached to the tractor by a large spring, which allows for a significant amount of side-to-side movement as the tractors go around the corners.  I imagine for most people this will be a ride to go on once or twice, but I suspect this one will be a hit with the kids.

Next up, since it was around lunchtime when I visited, I decided to pay a visit to Flo’s V8 Cafe, which is the main restaurant in Cars Land. 

Although necessary concessions had to be made in order to accommodate humans (and to add more indoor seating than the original design would allow,) the design is largely faithful to the Radiator Springs original.

Once inside, the food and the decor is done in the old roadside diner style you would expect from a place like this.  I’m reminded by both the style and the food of the 50’s Prime Time Cafe at Disney Hollywood Studios (which I visited back in 2008,) although this is a counter service place as opposed to 50s Prime Time’s full service restaurant. 

Although based on the theme I had expected the food here to be something along the lines of burgers and fries, most of the choices on the menu here wouldn’t feel too out of place in an actual roadside diner on Route 66.

I opted for the strip loin with mashed potatoes and baked beans for the sides, none of which was spectacular but was all done reasonably well.  Ultimately it’s not the cheapest place to eat in the parks, but it’s not too unreasonable either. 

As with many of the other locations in Cars Land, Flo’s V8 Cafe has its share of memorabilia of Flo’s past as a Motorama Girl.  The indoor dining area of Flo’s also has large windows with a nice view of the Ornament Valley and Radiator Springs Racers outside.

Speaking of Radiator Springs Racers, after lunch was done they had finally managed to get it back up and running, so it was next on the agenda.  The Fastpass machines weren’t in use yet during the preview (I suspect this will become the big “everyone rush to the Fastpass machines immediately” ride in the park once it opens,) but one thing to note here is that this ride does also have a single rider line, which should save some time for people traveling solo.

The queue for Radiator Springs Racers isn’t nearly as filled with little details as the queues for the other rides in Cars Land are, presumably because the detail here has all been saved for the ride itself.  That isn’t to say that they neglected the queue area; in particular there’s a number of interesting props and signs in the loading area.

I don’t have a lot of photos of the actual ride itself, but there are three parts to the ride:  The first is a relatively slow scenic drive through the Ornament Valley.  The second is a dark ride portion, complete with some of the most elaborate animatronics seen yet in a Disney ride and two different branching paths, and the third is a race against another ride vehicle in the lane next to you, with several banked curves and a number of hills.  Naturally, one car will win (our car won on this particular race, although thanks to some of the aforementioned technical glitches the car we raced against had no passengers at the time.)  As with many of the other E-ticket rides in the park, Radiator Springs Racers takes a photo (in this case, at the finish line) which you can then view and purchase at the end.

Unfortunately, since I had to catch a flight home I didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend here (although in hindsight I most likely would have had plenty of time to go on a second ride of Radiator Springs Racers without putting myself at risk of missing the plane,) but I’m already planning another trip with friends in August where I will get a chance to see Cars Land operating at full capacity (if the predictions are any indication, very full.)  All in all, I was very impressed with Cars Land, not only with how well they were able to replicate the feel of Radiator Springs from the movie, but also with how detailed they were able to make it, and especially with the ambiance created by the Ornament Valley that serves as the land’s backdrop.  In particular, Radiator Springs Racers is sure to be a big draw when it opens to the public later this week, and the estimated $200 million put into its construction shows.  Although it’s not quite what I would consider a thrill ride (it doesn’t get any faster than about 45 miles per hour, compared to over 60 for its Epcot sibling Test Track) it has some of the most elaborate animatronics seen on a Disney ride, and is sure to be the biggest draw in the park for years to come. 

Of course, the big question here is this:  With Cars Land and all the other additions to California Adventure, can the park finally shake its reputation as being the red-headed stepchild of the Disney Parks family?  It’s hard to tell just yet where things will end up in the long run, but it’s clear that California Adventure is a much different park than it was just six years ago when I first visited it.  At the time, there were about three or four legitimately great E-ticket rides, a number of lightly themed off-the-shelf amusement rides scattered around, and little of interest in between them all.  Now the park has a completely new entrance plaza that actually looks like a legitimate Disney park entrance, it has a top-notch nighttime show in World of Color, it has a completely new land with what may now be the best ride in the park, and a great deal of effort has been expended to try to rectify the cheapness with which the park was built by a previous Disney management regime.  Although it is clear that California Adventure will never surpass its far more famous neighbor to the North (nor should it, after all Disneyland was Walt’s park)  the work that has been done over the last five years has gone a long way toward making it into a park that is capable of standing on its own merits.

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