Disney California Adventure Park

Klik hier voor de Nederlandstalige versie van dit tripverslag.

Not so long ago, a certain person said Make America Great Again. And although I’m not quite sure whether this statement was meant for Belgians as well (this person called our capital a hellhole, remember?), I’d love to help him making the USA great again. Yeah, I know… I didn’t visit your beautiful country during the past two years, as I was busy discovering Europe, Asia and Australia. But please accept my apologies and I’ll make up for it by travelling to the USA three times in 2017. And I guess spending money means that… well… I’m making America great again? Or actually I’m making Disney great again, because most of my savings are transferred directly to Mickey Mouse’s bank account. Is that okay?

This year is all about the rediscovery of America. In fact, I’m doing the same thing as Columbus did in 1492. Due to practical reasons, I’ve swapped the Santa Maria for an Airbus A380, but that’s about the only change I’ve made. Can you imagine how great Columbus must have felt? After arriving at the East Coast, he was able to experience some amazing rollercoasters. He discovered the airtime of ‘Fury 325’, he got to ride the mysterious ‘Alpengeist’, he experienced a blackout at ‘Intimidator 305’ and he noticed that those native Americans were having huge technical difficulties with ‘Lightning Rod’. Now, more than 500 years later, I’m finally able to make a similar journey. But before we commence our road trip between Charlotte and Washington DC, we’re having a short layover in Anaheim. This detour adds an astonishing 7000 kilometers to our itinerary, I’m well aware of that. But being in the United States without visiting a Disney resort…? That should be illegal.

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It’s Monday 3 April (of the year 2017, not 1492) and we’ve just arrived in Anaheim. I’m exhausted after a 12 hour long flight from Frankfurt, but I’m also excited to be back at this wonderful city. Anaheim lies in Southern California and that’s why any European would expect sandy beaches, handsome beachboys and lots of cocktails. But you’d better be warned: Anaheim is different. The streets are surrounded by old fashioned motels, questionable fast food restaurants and concrete parking garages. Despite its dated appearance, Anaheim is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s very strange to see little girls wearing princess dresses in a shifty night shop. But I guess that’s just the way things are in Anaheim. And there’s no need to worry: this weird situation suddenly disappears once you’ve entered the gates of the Disneyland Resort.

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I’m in love with Anaheim thanks to these four things: The Cheesecake Factory, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. And Disney California Adventure, that’s exactly the place I’d like to write about today. This second gate lies opposite the original Disneyland Park and it was opened in 2001. Disney actually built several theme parks at that time. In 1998, Walt Disney World Resort welcomed the stunning Animal Kingdom and a few years later, Tokyo Disney Resort opened the Earth’s most brilliantly themed amusement park. The resorts in Paris and Anaheim didn’t seem that lucky, since they both got simple and unattractive new parks. The French ‘Walt Disney Studios Park’ was (and is) the least appealing, but Disney California Adventure lacked the typical Disney touch as well. Disney noticed the mainly poor reviews and they quickly started to develop the park. However, the big expansion this place desperately needed wouldn’t come until 2012. The result is amazing and nowadays, Disney California Adventure Park is definitely at the same level as the neighbouring Disneyland. And what about us, Europeans? Well… nothing. Walt Disney Studios still sucks and we have to travel thousands of miles to visit a decent Disney park. So that’s why I’m here.

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After a good night’s rest, we’re back at the Esplanade, a giant square between both Disney theme parks. We turn left and we scan our 3-Day Hopper ticket for the first time. The very next moment, we’re amidst the hustle and bustle of Buena Vista Street. This beautifully designed main street is all about detailed facades, the Red Car Trolley and a stunning replica of the famous Carthay Circle Theatre. Buena Vista Street reflects the Los Angeles Walt Disney encountered in in 1920’s, when he first arrived there. I wonder if that Los Angeles was as busy as Buena Vista Street today. If so, I really hope Walt Disney instantly decided to grab some Fastpasses. Either way, we are headed to the Fastpass distribution for ‘Radiator Springs Racers’ and it takes about 15 minutes to get such a valuable piece of paper. Afterwards, we walk directly to Paradise Pier to secure our reserved spot for ‘World of Color’ tonight. Then, it’s finally time to enjoy. And that’s a lot easier with Fastpasses for two of Disney’s very best experiences in my pocket.

 

There’s one particular moment which always makes me realize that I’m actually in Disney California Adventure: the moment I see Paradise Pier. There are lots of visual highlights at the Disneyland Resort, but this skyline may be the most iconic to me. This area is all about a good-looking (though stomach-discomforting) ferris wheel with a backdrop full of clear white coaster tracks. The most popular ride of this area is mostly hidden underneath that rollercoaster and is called Toy Story Midway Mania. We are pretty lucky: we visit this park during the last week of non-Fastpass operations. The queue is about 40 minutes this morning, which is unimaginable at similar rides (with Fastpass) in Tokyo and Orlando. And honestly, I would not wait any longer for ‘Toy Story Mania’. It’s a fun ride and it’s always a challenge to break your own record. But on te other hand, it feels just like an enlarged computer game in a mostly empty room. That’s why one ride will do.

 

While waiting for ‘Toy Story Mania’, lots of colorful coaster trains were rushing by. That’s because its neighbour California Screamin’ has a considerably higher capacity: this coaster launches nearly 2000 people per hour. Despite a full queue and three improvised switchbacks outside the entrance, it therefore only takes 30 minutes to board the world’s longest Disney rollercoaster. And believe me: that’s a good one! ‘California Screamin’ provides an awesome sense of speed, the ride’s incredibly smooth and its on board soundtrack is great. It’s definitely no heavily themed coaster experience like ‘Big Thunder Mountain’ or ‘Expedition Everest’, but that doesn’t make this ride any less fun. Thanks to the quickly moving queue, this coaster is meant to be ridden again and again and again. It’s addictive.

 

I don’t need to ride the park’s wave swinger or the beautiful ‘Golden Zephyr’, but I’ll never refuse a visit to Ariel. Her attraction is called The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and I truly adore this ride. I admire Disney for their courage to build a classic darkride in 2011. This ride tells a story without abusive use of projections, 3D screens or laser guns (can you imagine shooting Sebastian?) and that’s pretty rare for such a recently opened darkride. Of course, Disney can take advantage of recognizable movie scenes and catchy music, but the end result is nontheless extraordinary. Most audio-animatronics move in such a natural way that it’s hard to believe they’re not real. This dive in the ocean is splendid in every possible way and I’m always a little sad when I need to exit. But in fact, there’s no need to worry. Even during these busy Spring Break weeks, the queue for this ride hardly ever gets longer than 20 minutes.

 

In Belgium, we feel lucky if a spring day gets warmer than 20°C. But here in Southern California, it’s very normal to reach 30°C for many days in a row. Yes indeed, I’m jealous. Anyway… it’s not surprising that both Disney theme parks got their own water ride. Here at California Adventure, the road to refreshment is marked by Grizzly Peak, an impressing mountain range towering over the park. On this mountain, there’s a wild river called Grizzly River Run. This is a pretty unique rafting ride which features intense rapids, two steep drops and a high theming level. It’s especially amazing to notice how this enormous ride has been perfectly integrated within the park. Since the actual ride experience is at least as enjoyable as the decoration, ‘Grizzly River Run’ must be one of my favourite rapid rivers in the world.

 

Grizzly Peak is an area in which Disney captures the beauty of Northern California’s national parks. A notable change since my previous visit is the fact that Soarin’ has been added to this zone. It’s a nice improvement: the passionless military ambiance was replaced by a more natural theme. But the modifications didn’t stop there. In fact, the entire ride has changed. It’s not about The Golden State anymore, but we fly past some of the world’s most recognizable sights. ‘Soarin’ Around The World’ premiered at Shanghai Disneyland on 16 July 2016 and was introduced at the American theme parks one day later. I already experienced this brand new version in the Chinese park and in my opinion, it’s on the same level as the previous version. The sublime soundtrack remained nearly untouched and most scenes are still powerful. It’s kind of sad that ‘Soarin’ Over California’ wasn’t preserved in this Californian themed park, but hey… change can be a good thing as well. And this update clearly gave a considerable boost to the ride’s popularity. The queue for ‘Soarin’ even goes beyond 100 minutes during our visit, so the public seems to love it. Luckily, we’re able to skip a huge part of this extremely long line thanks to a Fastpass.

 

Both Disney parks have XXL opening hours during our stay. The gates often open at 8 AM (even earlier for Disney hotel guests) and real fanboys stay until midnight. During these incredibly long days, it’s important to keep hydrated. And that’s why we need something like the ‘Food & Wine Festival’. It’s fun to stroll past all those cute little stalls, but it’s also very expensive to actually buy your food or drinks here. This event is only interesting If you don’t mind paying 16 dollars for a Californian Sauvignon Blanc in a plastic cup. Wine is always more expensive in the US than it is in Europe, but seriously? Sixteen dollars?!

 

Searching for a nice drink in a relaxing atmosphere? Then skip that ‘Food & Wine Festival’ and head over to Cove Bar at Paradise Pier. This cozy terrace was once a hidden gem for Disney enthusiasts, but eventually the big crowd started to find their way as well. We can’t blame them. At ‘Cove Bar’, we sip divine cocktails while enjoying amazing views of Paradise Pier. I really don’t want to encourage alcohol consumption, but a visit to Disney California Adventure isn’t complete without a drink at this place. If you’re a fanatic Instagram blogger, then be sure to order the ‘Mickey’s Fun Wheel’ cocktail, because its colorful layers look good on photos.

 

Okay, I admit… I had a drink. But the fact that we’re seeing huge ants has nothing to do with alcohol abuse. That’s just what A Bug’s Land is all about. This area is themed to one of Pixar’s most underappreciated movies ever and it’s especially interesting for younger visitors. The only major family attraction is a 3D-movie called It’s Tough to be a Bug. And although 3D experiences seem pretty old-fashioned, this may be the only version I really like. Even 15 years after its opening, the show manages to surprise me with a series of cool special effects. So believe it or not, but I’m one of those few people who enjoy this attraction.

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Please close your eyes if you’re a fan of original Disney E-ticket rides. Underneath this piece of text, a picture will show how seriously the facade of ‘Tower of Terror’ has been changed. During our visit, Disney is making the final adjustments to this new ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ ride. I don’t want to complain about the new exterior, but it will take some time getting used to it. Honestly, it’s quite sad to say goodbye to the ‘Hollywood Tower Hotel’. No other ride will ever exhale Californian grandeur as ‘Tower of Terror’ did. On the other hand, there’s an exact copy of that spooky hotel ride within driving distance from my hometown, so I’m good. And that new Marvel-ride could be awesome too.

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With ‘Tower of Terror’ closed down, you’d expect this side of the park to be dead. In a certain way, that’s true. A small-sized (but lovely) darkride about ‘Monsters Inc’ just won’t attract the crowds on its own. Yet, during the afternoon this zone becomes the epicenter of Disney California Adventure Park. And that is only because of some royalty from Arendelle. You can meet these famous ladies at the ‘Disney Animation Building’, but the queue takes quite a while. An other option is to see Anna and Elsa perform in their very popular musical Frozen – Live at the Hyperion. This show premiered nearly one year ago and it’s been getting positive reviews ever since. That’s why my expectations are fairly high today. And although I certainly want to confirm that the live singing is wonderful, this show didn’t astonish me as I hoped. The main problem is that Disney literally tried to copy most of the dialogues from the movie and that doesn’t feel natural in this setting. On top of that, it’s quite annoying that almost every popular song is performed within the first 30 minutes. After a very cool adaptation of ‘For The First Time in Forever’ and the visually appealing sequence of ‘Let it Go’, the show just seems to die a little. I’m fully aware of the fact that ‘Let it Go’ can’t be placed at the end of the story, but the second half of this musical really lacks an eye-catcher.

 

Please don’t get me wrong: ‘Frozen – Live at the Hyperion’ is a high quality show and I was very surprised by some of the special effects. But overall, this show isn’t on the same top level as its predecessor ‘Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular’. Aladdin nearly made me cry during ‘A Whole New World’ and most of Genie’s scenes were absolutely hilarious. The actual Frozen-show just doesn’t go all the way like Aladdin did.

 

Did you know that Disney California Adventure Park has officially opened twice? The first time was on 8 February 2001 and the second time was on 14 June 2012. This most recent date marked the official rebirth of the park, with the opening of Buena Vista Street and the highly anticipated Cars Land. Do you think that anyone camped in front of the park’s gates especially for Buena Vista Street? Of course not… everyone came for Cars Land. And there’s a good reason why. You probably already know, but this is one of the most amazing themed lands on Earth. The level of theming is comparable to that of Tokyo DisneySea, the world’s most beautiful Disney park. Every time I enter Cars Land, I believe that this is the real Radiator Springs. Disney has exceeded every expectation by taking care of the tiniest details. Every element of this land is designed with a good reason: to achieve absolute perfection. If you’re not fully convinced during daytime, please come back in the evening. Cars Land is at its prettiest when colorful neon signs blink and mountains are lit in an orange glow.

 

Cars Land features three different attractions, but it’s not necessary to ride them all. Just skip those turning tractors at ‘Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree’. You will probably find similar attractions in other theme parks without this lengthy queue. Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters is more unique and it’s worth a short wait. This ride opened last year and it offers considerably more fun than the attraction it replaced. You used to sit on a giant tire and you were able to choose your own route by moving your body. Sounds fun, but it didn’t work properly. Nowadays, this ride consists of dancing cars with a trackless ride system. It’s just like ‘Aquatopia’ in DisneySea: pointless and hilarious at the same time.

 

There’s one particular ride where you will need to queue anyhow and that’s Radiator Springs Racers. And honestly… that may take a while. On a certain moment, the wait for a race is nearly four hours (you could watch 12 episodes of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in that time span). Anyone willing to queue that long, is crazy. But luckily, there are some ways to tackle the crowd. Fastpass is the easiest option, but don’t expect it to be a walk-on situation. Even with a Fastpass, we need to wait half an hour. Well, everything is better than the standby queue, right? Another alternative is the line for single riders. Due to an awkward 3-3 seating, they need one or two single riders for nearly every vehicle. Therefore, this line moves surprisingly fast. We used it twice and we reached the platform within 40 minutes, despite a full queue area.

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It’s quite an achievement to get in to one of those cars. But when we finally get there, a few minutes of pure theme park perfection lie ahead of us. First of all, the size of this attraction is impressive: the rocks are towering 50 meters in the sky and the entire surrounding area is landscaped as a dusty desert. The theming is top class and so is the ride. It’s a wonderful combination of a leasurely joyride, a great darkride part, unique special effects and (of course) a semi-thrilling race against another car. ‘Radiator Springs Racers’ may be one of the most convincing experiences Disney ever created and it’s a true privilege to ride this amazing attraction. I certainly understand why this ride was almost entirely responsible for a dramatic attendance increase in 2012. But there’s also one thing I don’t understand: the fact that Americans got this wonderful attraction, while Europeans need to deal with a quite disappointing ‘Ratatouille’-darkride. Why?!

 

From refreshing rides at ‘Grizzly River Run’ and ‘Ariel’s Undersea Adventure’ to the dizzying heights of ‘Soarin’, the tempting liquids at ‘Cove Bar’ and the unique ‘Cars Land’. Disney has been spoiling us with once-in-a-lifetime entertainment today, but it’s not over yet. Right after sunset, thousands of visitors gather at Paradise Bay for another highlight: World of Color. After the lights have been dimmed at 9 PM, an extraordinary spectacle takes over the lake. It’s all about gigantic walls of water, colorful lighting, huge flames and a selection of wonderful Disney music. This performance is created with an American philosophy in mind: bigger is better. And I agree… ‘World of Color’ is without any doubt the best nighttime show I’ve ever seen. I love the insane magnitude and the fact that there’s another climax to be seen every second. If you listen closely to the show’s theme song, you’ll hear ‘To dazzle your mind and your eyes’. And that’s so true.

 

Wow. I’m really in love with this place. There’s just no other way to describe our visit to Disney California Adventure. It’s breathtaking to notice how much this park has improved during the last decade. I first came here in 2008 and back then, it certainly wasn’t the most exciting theme park on the planet. It offered a few good rides, but quality simply wasn’t on the same level as Disneyland. California Adventure was literally the second park. We came here for a few rides on ‘Soarin’ or ‘California Screamin’ and afterwards, we immediately crossed the Esplanade to spend the rest of our day at Disneyland. It’s incredible how things can change. Today, Disney California Adventure is a world class theme park which is on par with its neighbour. We are immersed in coherent theme areas, we’re experiencing some unique rides, entertainment is top-notch and there are some delicious food & beverage offerings. Projects such as Cars Land and Buena Vista Street have shown that Disneyland Resort wants to be in the lead and they certainly succeeded. That’s why Disney California Adventure Park is one of my favourite theme parks world-wide and I really can’t wait for future plans to unfold. I do hope Disney will do its best retain the Californian charm. I’m not interested in huge quantities of Marvel make-overs, but we’ll probably see how this hype evolves during the next few years.

 

Disney California Adventure Park… it’s been a true pleasure being here. And do you know what I like most? The fact that this Happiest Place on Earth consists of two state-of-the-art theme parks. Our visit is everything but over and tomorrow, I’ll take you to Disneyland. Deal? Alright then… good night!

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