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"Disney's California Adventure Detective" looks back at the Park that was

Jim Hill

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"Disney's California Adventure Detective" looks back at the Park that was

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My daughter and I spent a somewhat wistful Wednesday at Disney's California Adventure last month. As we walked around that theme park, checking out all of the things that will disappear once DCA goes under the knife.

I know, I know. There are a lot of Disneyana fans who have absolutely no sense of nostalgia when it comes to California Adventure. They hated this Park in its original form. Which is why they won't be sorry to see it go.

I mean, these folks are so eager to see all of the new rides & attractions that are headed California Adventure's way -- like "Disney's World of Color," that night-time spectacular which will soon rise up out of the now-empty Paradise Bay -- that they can't take a moment to mourn for "LuminAria."

You remember "LuminAria," right? That cute little holiday fireworks display that was presented in & around Paradise Pier during DCA's first year of operation? "LuminAria" had the distinction of being Disney's first truly interactive waterfront show. In that seasonal artwork that the Guests had created that day was then projected on screens out in the middle of Paradise Bay while this fireworks display was being presented.

The metal frames that you see in the photo below -- the ones that are positioned along the bottom of this concrete lagoon -- are all that's left of "LuminAria." This seasonal show ran only for eight weeks, then closed. Never to return again, reportedly because of noise & smoke concerns.

Photo by Alice Hill

You see what I mean? Disney's California Adventure is not even eight years old yet. But this troubled theme park already has a truly fascinating history. And much of this history will soon disappear as WDI flattens entire parts of this Park to make way for "Cars" and "The Little Mermaid" -themed mega-attractions.

Don't get me wrong. I -- like many other Disneyana fans -- am genuinely looking forward to touring that fantasy version of 1920s LA that the Imagineers are cooking up for the front part of this theme park. But that said, I'm still going to miss bits and pieces of DCA's old promenade area. Like those beautiful 210-foot-long murals that flank the park's entrance which pay tribute to many of the Golden State's landmarks & natural wonders.

Photo by Alice Hill

Whenever I come into California Adventure, I always find myself slowing down. Marveling at all of the witty little touches that can be found here (like those ceramic deer that are leaping over the fence in order to gain entrance to this Park) ...

Photo by Alice Hill

Which is why it always makes me sad to see so many Disneyland Resort Guests just breeze right by. Never pausing to wonder who designed these works of art (i.e. Theodora Kurkchiev and longtime Imagineer Tim Delaney) or how many pieces of tile it took to create these beautiful murals (i.e. 12,000 pieces of hand-cast ceramic).

Which is why it's great that Kendra Trahan has taken the time to create "Disney's California Adventure Detective: An Independent Guide to Exploring the Trivia, Secrets and Magic of the Park Dedicated to California " (Permagrin Publishing, September 2008). This 214-page paperback ...

Copyright 2008 PermaGrin Publishing, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

... Well, it's almost like a time capsule for California Adventure. Allowing you to look back at what this theme park used to be like before the Imagineers reimagine it.

Mind you, if you've really been paying attention, you'll noticed that subtle changes have already taken place at DCA. Take -- for example -- those miniature movie marquees that are featured in that faux streetscape that's located at the end of Hollywood Boulevard next to the entrance to the Hyperion Theater.

Back when Hollywood Pictures Backlot was supposed to ape the look of a modern motion picture studio, the marquees of the Crest and the El Capitan always hyped the latest Walt Disney Pictures releases. But now that HPB is being rethemed as an area that celebrates Hollywood's Golden Age, check out the films are now supposedly playing at the Crest & the El Cap.

Photo by Alice Hill

It's this attention to detail (i.e. "Snow White" debuted in December of 1937. "Pinocchio" was released to theaters back in February of 1940. Which fits in perfectly with HPB's new mission. Which is to lock in on a specific period in California history when Hollywood was at its height) that helps the Disney theme parks stand out from the herd.

And as "Disney's California Adventure Detective" points out, the original version of DCA had lots of touches like this. Great bits of story-telling and/or innovative uses of technology that are about to disappear as this theme park gets revamped & rebranded.

I mean, sure. Most of us have already seen Sunshine Plaza at California Adventure and found this theme park's would-be icon -- that 60-foot-tall sculpture of the sun -- somewhat wanting.

Photo by Alice Hill

But before this oversized hubcap gets torn down to make way for a recreation of the Carthay Circle Theatre, Ms. Trahan has collected all sorts of interesting tidbits about this sculpture. Like ... Did you know that the surface of this DCA icon is covered with titanium & little bits of glass? So that -- when sunlight is directed onto this sculpture via six heliostatic mirrors -- it will then blaze ... Well, like the sun?

You'll find all sorts of gems like this within the pages of "Disney's California Adventure Detective." Kendra has separated all of her DCA anecdotes into entertaining sub categories like "Treasures & Trivia," "Hidden Mickeys" and "Lessons to Learn." "Lessons to Learn" was a particular favorite of mine, given that these sections of the book will often touch on the lives of various figures in California history. People like William Mulholland, the civic engineer who brought water to the LA basin via the Los Angeles Aqueduct system.

Copyright 2008 PermaGrin Publishing, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

The drawing above is an example of another of "Disney's California Adventure Detective" real bonuses. In that Brian McKim's portrait illustrations -- along with Debbie Smith's strong photographs -- give this paperback a very distinct look. Not to mention allowing you to look beyond the Park itself and see all the personalities & events that really shaped this place.

Anyway ... As Alice and I walked under that miniature version of the Golden Gate Bridge ...

Photo by Alice Hill

... (Which -- as Ms. Trahan points out -- given that this Golden Gate is 58-feet tall, it really ain't all that miniature), I couldn't help but feel a little bit blue. Given all the cool new stuff that we had just seen in the Blue Sky Cellar, I knew that DCA would be significantly different the next time I toured this theme park. And given the $1.7 billion (Or is it $1.4 billion? Lately I've been hearing that there's been some serious reduction-in-scope work being done on this Disneyland Resort project) that's being spent on this place, I wonder if I'll even recognize Disney's California Adventure in the coming years.

Which is why it's nice to have a copy of "Disney's California Adventure Detective: An Independent Guide to Exploring the Trivia, Secrets, and Magic of the Park Dedicated to California" on my bookshelf. So that -- in the years ahead -- I can then look back on the original version of DCA and remember that, in spite of what some Disneyana fans may say, this place wasn't a complete botch. There was -- in fact -- quality and innovation to be found inside of this theme park. You just had to look for it.

Your thoughts?

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  • Jim I agree that there are some things to like about this park. My family once owned Playland at the Beach in San Francisco which is included among the tributes on the King Triton's Carousel. I am also a railfan. My favorite railroad was the old Western Pacific Railroad and I have fond memories of the California Zephyr train. I even have some books that have photos of the original locomotive that the one in DCA is copied from.

  • I have never been to Californa Adventure. Maybe, this book will show me what I have missed before it completely changes.

  • WEC - that is so cool.  I spent many a happy day at Playland in The City....Laughin' Sal can tell you so!

    I remember (when I was a kid) the diving bell and that old wooden roller coaster...my last visit up was summer of 1972, just before it closed.

    As for DCA - there is very little I will miss about that which first existed...save, perhaps, the tiled entry way...which is the most beautiful ceramic mural I've seen since the Mary Blair murals graced the Tomorrowland buildings....

  • aww Jim, you're making me feel bad for never going!

  • I'm completely honest when I say that I will miss DCA. No huge crowds, good rides (containing the first in the Claifornia parks in a while to not be based on already-exsisting movies), and was able to make me feel like there was some genuine culture to my state. But I suppose it would be better to have those huge crowds if I want to keep going to it.

  • Jim Hill returns with even more answers to your Disney-related questions. This time around, he talks about DCA's lack of advance planning, what Dick Nunis once called Walt and why it's important to take a two-tiered approach when discussing Disney World

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