News Column

Disney's Adventure Makeover

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Disney is betting a $1.1 billion tune-up of its Disney California Adventure theme park, including a brand-new 12-acre Cars Land, will put it in the winner's circle rather than stuck in Radiator Springs with a flat tire.

Just in time for the summer vacation rush, Disney today takes the wraps off a five-year project to turn its long-struggling California Adventure theme park into a worthy companion to its storied neighbor, Disneyland.

California Adventure is a theme park Disney opened 11 years ago in Anaheim, Calif., directly across from Disneyland. It's a sister park to Disneyland -- much like Epcot Center is to The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando. It features rides and attractions to celebrate California's geography, including its famed forests and ocean, to its diverse culture and history, including filmmaking.

The park was designed to lure Disneyland visitors to extend their stay from just a day or two and hopefully stay in Disney hotels nearby. Despite the high hopes, though, California Adventure has long failed to resonate with visitors or generate the financial returns the company expected.

Now, a major overhaul to the park represents a gamble by Disney to invest heavily in its worldwide collection of theme parks. New attractions, Disney is betting, will allow it to boost ticket prices as theme park spending creeps back.

Disney poured the $1.1 billion into upgrading the park and getting to the level visitors expect. The biggest investments went to building an entirely new entrance designed to look like Los Angeles did when Walt Disney arrived in the 1920s. California Adventure is also getting an entirely new "land," called Cars Land, sporting a themed racing ride and two other rides all tied to the Disney-Pixar movie Cars.

The California Adventure gambit will be one of the first large-scale tests of Disney's strategy to get consumers to open their wallets even wider if given inspiration. Even before the revamped California Adventure park opened, Disney in May announced large increases in ticket prices for its California parks. Single-day "Park Hopper" tickets were bumped up 19%: It now costs $125 for just one person to spend a day at California Adventure and Disneyland.

"Ticket prices are up because Disney expects this (remodeled California Adventure) to be wildly popular," says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "Demand will justify the higher price."

Disney's gamble in California comes amid renewed fears about the economy, unemployment and consumer confidence. Theme park attendance in North America grew 2.9% last year, but largely due to a Disney rival: a new Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios Florida, according to industry trackers Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM. Excluding the Harry Potter park, attendance rose a more anemic 1.6%.

Disney is looking to jump-start visits and ticket pricing by investing despite the uncertain economy. Along with the ambitious expansion at California Adventure, Disney is spending $500 million over this year and next to upgrade Fantasyland at Walt Disney World in Orlando, according to a report by Michael Morris at Davenport. Part of that upgrade also opens this year along with price increases there.

All told, Disney is plowing $3 billion of investment into its parks and cruise lines this fiscal year, ending in September, the biggest in the company's history, Morris says. It's a big bet: Disney gets nearly a third of its revenue from its parks and entertainment unit. The parks are also the source of the emotional attachment many consumers have to the Disney brand.

And that's why the success of the California Adventure revamp is a critical first look at how the major investment plan is working. Not only is California Adventure among the biggest investments, but it's Disney's chance to show it's still king of theme-park magic. California Adventure has been one of Disney's rare missteps in theme parks, and fixing it has been one of the objectives of CEO Robert Iger.

When the park first opened a decade ago, visitors complained it was missing the magic of Disneyland. Lines were short and disappointment high. Rather than being a lure to entice Disneyland visitors to spend more time in Disney's Anaheim complex, using the hotels and spending money on dining and toys, the California Adventure park ushered in heavy discounting. At one point, visitors who bought Disneyland tickets were practically let into California Adventure for free.

California Adventure lured 6.3 million visitors last year, up 1% from 2010, says Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM. But that attendance level is a far cry from the 16.1 million visitors who poured into Disneyland, and it places California Adventure as just the world's 14th-most-visited theme park.

Disney, though, tapped its "Imagineers," a team of specialized engineers and artists, to wave a wand over the park to show what Disney can do. "Disney let the creative people run the show. It's no longer the accountant's idea of a theme park. It's a creative person's idea of a theme park," Niles says.

By addressing some of the most troubling aspects of California Adventure, it is now a respectable neighbor to arguably the finest theme park in the world, Disneyland, says Al Lutz, editor of MiceAge.com, a widely followed watcher of Disney theme parks. "The park (California Adventure) is now a worthy companion to Disneyland," he says. "When California Adventure opened, Disney did it on the cheap with a poor concept."

Rather than starting over, Disney has slowly and methodically retooled the park's troubled aspects to bring it up to Disney quality. Visitors to the park will see some serious pixie dust sprinkled throughout the park, giving California Adventure Disney-quality star power, including:

Overhaul of the entrance. Visitors to the new California Adventure park are immediately transported to 1920s Hollywood, re-creating Los Angeles at the time Walt Disney arrived. The new entrance solves both artistic and business challenges.

The entrance, called Buena Vista Street, transports visitors to the street in Burbank where the Walt Disney Studios are located. A corridor of art deco buildings leads up to a replica of the Carthay Circle Theatre, the location of the premiere of Disney's breakout film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A Red Car Trolley rumbles down the street.

The entrance takes serious cues from the fabled Main Street USA entrance to Disneyland, which transports visitors to the early 1900s America of Walt Disney's youth. The Carthay Circle Theatre serves as an architectural centerpiece to the park, much like Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. "What lacked was the sense of place and time," says Kathy Mangum, vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Buena Vista Street is a brilliant example of how this park was transformed."

But it's also a potential revenue generator. Buena Vista Street invites visitors to linger, stroll and spend money in shops and on food, Niles says. A coffee shop on the street is a Starbucks, the first time the coffee company has a store inside a Disney park. "There's an old-timey feel with nice nooks and small places people will be comfortable hanging out in," Niles says. "When you're hanging out, you end up spending money."

Addition of a big draw. California Adventure's Cars Land will undoubtedly be the area that most visitors will head for. The new land features a complete rendition of Radiator Springs, the desert town Cars star Lightning McQueen finds himself stuck in on the way to Hollywood. Popular spots from the fictitious city, including Tow Mater's junkyard, Flo's Cafe and the Cozy Cone Motel, are re-created. The shops, rides and attractions take their cues from the Cars films, including a 125-foot-high mountain range like the one in Radiator Springs.

Headlining Cars Land is Radiator Springs Racers, one of Disney's most ambitious new rides in years. The ride features two cars in a high-speed race, but also with a heavy dollop of Disney storytelling.

Visitors are taken through ornate rooms that re-create parts of the movie, including animated versions of the characters from the movies. The ride is to the level of many classic Disney rides, Lutz says. "It's very well done," he says. "Cars Land gives a sense of place, which California Adventure never had."

Sense of completion to years of undoing mistakes. Over the past five years, Disney has been gradually dismantling many of the aspects of the park that turned visitors off. A vast pool of water in the middle of the park has been turned into a nighttime water and light show, called World of Color, that projects 50-foot images of Disney characters onto walls of water.

Addressing another big visitor complaint, Disney has injected a strong presence of its classic characters ranging from Mickey Mouse to Donald Duck. Several rides have been re-themed to highlight the connection to these characters.

For instance, the Orange Stinger ride, where visitors rode into a giant orange, is now the Silly Symphony Swings. Visitors see classic Disney character artwork and hear music inspired by the 1935 classic cartoon The Band Concert. Kicking the characters out of California Adventure to make it more for adults was a mistake, Lutz says.

Disney will find out if the investment will finally turn California Adventure into a draw that will persuade visitors to stay longer and spend more. "I don't know what they were thinking" with the original design of the park, Lutz says. "But it's come a long way, and credit is deserved for fixing it."

(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.



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