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Disney California Adventure's original entrance complex gets ready to make its exit

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Disney California Adventure's original entrance complex gets ready to make its exit

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I know that this is going to sound strange to all of you folks out there who absolutely hate Disney California Adventure, who have been happily sitting back and watching as this theme park undergoes its $1.4 billion makeover ... But it kind of makes me sad that they've begun dismantling Sunshine Plaza.  That - starting later today -- those two huge, beautiful mosaics that flank that miniature version of the Golden Gate Bridge are getting pulled down.

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But maybe the reason that I'm feeling so down about this particular aspect of the DCA redo is that I know how long & how hard the Imagineers struggled to come up with a suitable entrance complex for the Disneyland Resort's second gate. Believe it or not, WDI fretted about this particular creative decision for almost 15 years. Which is why many pieces of this particular puzzle didn't actually come together 'til 18 months shy of Disney California Adventure's grand opening back in February of 2001.

Strange but true, folks. This story actually begins back in late 1984 / early 1985. Which was right after Michael Eisner had come onboard at Disney as the Company's new Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. And one of Eisner's first orders to the Imagineers was to find ways to expand Disneyland. So that it could then go from being just a stand-alone theme park to becoming a multi-day destination resort.

Obviously this plan was put into play before January of 1988. Which was when The Walt Disney Company acquired the Wrather Corporation so that the Mouse could then own the Disneyland Hotel outright. But I digress ...

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Anyway ... The easiest way to expand Disneyland was to build a second gate (i.e. theme park) in Disneyland's old parking lot. But that then raised issues about where Guests would park once they arrived in Anaheim. More to the point, how thousands of people would transition from The Happiest Place on Earth to ... Well, whatever theme Disneyland's companion park was going to be built around.

Back when Westcot 1.0 was in the works, Disneyland Plaza (as the area between the two theme parks was then known) was supposed to have been this world-class public space. A seven-acre area that would not only provide Guests with a Dramatic Entry Sequence (which then created a sense of place as well as providing notable gateways to the theme parks) but would also serve as the transportation hub of the Disneyland Resort.  Giving DLR visitors the option of walking (if they wanted to visit Disneyland Center. Which was supposed to be this version of the  Resort's retail, dining and entertainment district), boarding a Monorail (if they were headed to one of Disney's on-site Resort Hotels) or hopping an elevated PeopleMover (if they wanted to return to their car. Which was located in one of the Disneyland Resort's peripheral parking structures).

Now as for what the entrance plaza of Westcot 1.0 was supposed to have looked like ... Given that the Imagineers now felt that Epcot's original entrance plaza was rather austere (which is why "Leave a Legacy" was eventually added to the front of that theme park), they were looking to create something lush and green.

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So the original entrance complex for this first iteration of Disneyland's second gate ... Well, you were to have crossed this highly stylized bridge and then walked under a cascading waterfall.  After you'd have done this, you'd have found yourself in this enormous lobby. Where you could then have boarded Westcot 1.0's signature attraction. Which was to have been housed in Spacestation Earth. Which was this 300 foot-tall golden sphere that would have loomed over the horizon in most of Anaheim.

But when Orange County residents began carping about the size of Westcot 1.0's icon (Based on how big Spacestation Earth seemed to be from the Disneyland Resort model, one Anaheim wag quipped that this 300-foot tall golden sphere looked like a Sunkist Orange on steroids), the Imagineers then decided to revise their plans for the Disneyland Resort. Opting instead to go with Westcot 2.0. Which (it was felt at the time, anyway) would have been a far better fit with that world-famous theme park right across the way.

Mind you, one of the reasons that it was felt that Westcot 2.0 would be a better fit with Disneyland is that the portions of these two theme parks that faced into Disneyland Plaza would share a similar sort of architecture. With Disneyland's train station obviously reflecting Main Street U.S.A.'s turn-of-the-century stylings while Westcot 2.0's entrance complex was to have been modeled after those beautiful glass-and-iron structures that were built to house Philadelpia's Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. Which was the first official World's Fair to be held inside of the United States.

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But after Euro Disney struggled to meet its initial attendance & financial projections after that $4 billion Resort opened in April of 1992, Eisner lost his enthusiasm for ambitious multi-billion dollar projects. Which is why - in January of 1995 - Michael pulled the plug on Westcot (which - at one point, anyway - was to have cost $3 billion to build) and then asked the Imagineers to come up with a more affordable alternative. Which is where the idea for Disney California Adventure came from.

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Now for a while, the plaza that Disneyland and DCA were to share did retain some of the features that had been initially designed for the Westcot versions of the Disneyland Resort's expansion plans. To be specific: A huge fountain that - just like Epcot's Innoventions Fountains (which are located in Future World's Innoventions Plaza) - were to have presented elaborate water ballets to entertain Disneyland Guests every 15 minutes.

But - over time - as the Imagineers struggled to stretch the $1.4 billion that Michael Eisner had given them as far as they possibly could (Because - let's remember - this wasn't just $1.4 billion that had been set aside for construction of a new theme park. No, this money also had to be used to build the Grand California Resort & Spa, the Downtown Disney shopping & dining district, that six-level Mickey & Friends parking structure as well as DCA), certain decorative elements got dropped along the way. And among those items were the fountains that supposed to have been built at the very center of Disneyland Plaza.

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Now as for the entrance complex for Disney California Adventure itself, this area went through 5 different iterations on the next four years. As the Imagineers struggled to get a handle on what the icon for this theme park should be. Should it be a huge ornamental fountain shaped like the State of California ...

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... or a giant golden spike (Which was supposed to be referencing the California Gold Rush of 1848 - 1855.

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Though - truth be told - this icon was actually a carry-over from the massive Future World show building that the Imagineers had initially designed for Westcot 2.0.

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Which - to be completely honest - had been inspired by the Trylon and the Perisphere, the Theme Center for the New York World's Fair of 1939-1940. But - again - I digress ...)

The only problem with the first five versions of Disney California Adventure's entrance complex is that they were clearly inspired by the all of the Spanish & Mediterranean-style architecture that you already see throughout Southern California. In short, while this type of design was entirely appropriate for a theme park that celebrated the Golden State, it was also nothing special. It just didn't stand out.

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Or so thought Tim Delaney. At that time (circa 1998), this veteran Imagineer was already the Creative Director, Producer & Field Art Director of DCA's Paradise Pier area (which was supposed to be this affectionate recreation of California's seaside amusement piers of the 1920s). But as Delaney watched WDI constantly flailing and then failing to come up with a suitable concept on Disney California Adventure's entrance complex, Tim finally felt that he had to intervene.

Back when I interviewed Delaney at DCA's Grand Opening in February of 2001, Tim talked about how concerned he was.

"After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And the designs that WDI had come up with previous to my coming onboard this project were ... To be honest, they weren't special enough," Tim explained. "I mean, this is the theme park that's being built right across the way from Disneyland. People have been coming to Anaheim for almost 50 years now for the magic and the fun. Which is why they're going to expect that the Park that Disney builds right next door to Disneyland is going to be magic and fun as well."

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And to get that point across, Delaney suggested that WDI step away from all of the Spanish & Mediterranean-style architecture and instead turn DCA's entrance complex into this giant 3D postcard version of California. So that - even while they were standing outside of this theme park -- Disneyland Resort Guests could get a sense of some of the Golden State-themed fun & magic that lay just beyond those turnstiles.

So Tim pitched this design to Imagineering management. Who liked it and then immediately passed this concept along to Eisner. Who quickly signed off on the 3D picture postcard idea for Disney California Adventure's entrance complex.

The only problem was ... Again, this was 1998. And - what with the Paradise Pier project -- Delaney's plate was already very full. So could he really pull that part of the theme park off as well as supervise the design & construction of DCA's entrance complex?

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Tim didn't even think about it. He just plunged right in. With one of his first tasks being determining how high that miniature version of the Golden Gate Bridge should be.

"We were originally going to make those bridge supports 79-feet tall. But then when we did some balloon tests and stood at the Partners statue at the Hub, we found that a 79-foot tall support would have stuck up from behind the Main Street Train Station," Delaney continued. "So we lowered the height of those two supports to 72 feet. And that way, DCA's entrance complex didn't visually intrude into Disneyland.

Determining the proper height for those enormous letters that are used to spell "CALIFORNIA" just outside of DCA's entrance led to one of the funnier moments on this construction project. As senior principal construction designer Charlie Kowalski recalled:

"(Mock-ups of the letters C and A had been constructed in both 12-foot and 13-foot heights). It was early one Sunday morning and we had both sets of CAs next to one another. Within half an hour, Operations comes running over yelling 'Quick, knock one of those letters down! Our Spanish-speaking Guests at Disneyland are upset about the giant CACA they can see from the Monorail! (So we quickly knocked down that second A)."

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As for the 210-foot long mural portion of this project, Delaney decided that the left side would represent Southern California from Mount Whitney & Yosemite Valley down to San Diego. While the west side would depicts Northern California landmarks from San Francisco north to Mount Shasta. Tim also included all sort of witty touches as part of his design, like those whales & mule deer that appear to be jumping over DCA's security fence in order to gain entrance to this theme park.

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And to turn his design (which drew its inspiration from the artwork that you used to see on those citrus labels that California's fruit packing plants used to slap on packing crates back in the  early 20th century) into ceramic tiles, Delaney turned to Theodora Kurkchiev and Dimitri Lazaroff  of TND Studio, Inc. Which is this San Pedro-based art studio that specializes in the design and production of ceramic works of art.

In a February 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Theodora recalled what it was like when Tim initially came to TND Studio, asking if they'd be able to pull off the mural component  of the DCA entrance complex project:

"Dimitri told (Tim that) it would take at least 19 months to do this, but Disney wanted it in half that time. We started work in February of 2000 ... I worked seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, hand-painting each and every tile (for this project). I couldn't take even one day off in the last six months because I was afraid we would not make it."

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"And why was that?," you ask. Because translating Delaney's design into individual pieces of ceramic tile was a fairly labor-intensive process. It involved taking Tim's design (which had been broken up in this series of 8-foot-long paintings) and then blowing those images up into 16-foot-tall posters. Which then had to be enlarged 105%  (because clay shrinks 5% when it's being fired).

After each piece of clay was baked, it was then hand-painted and glazed (sometimes with 14-carat gold paint). Afterward all 14,500 ceramic tiles were alphanumerically encoded so the Imagineers would then know just where to put each piece of ceramic once it arrived on site.

And did I mention that - as Delaney, Kurkchiev and Lazaroff were designing and then building what eventually became one of the largest hand-crafted tile murals in the world - that they had to take the sometimes brutal Southern California sun in account? Which is why - to prevent all of those exquisitely painted pieces of ceramic from cracking - these two giant murals feature expansion joints.

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Anywho ... From the moment that Disney California Adventure opened, this theme park's 3D picture postcard entrance plaza was a hit with the public. People immediately began using the enormous "CALIFORNIA" sign outside of this Park as a point of reference at the Resort (i.e. "Meet me at the Letter F at 4 o'clock"). They also happily took pictures of friends & family as they climbed on and/or posed in front of these over-sized letters.

But all of that goes away starting today. DCA's original entrance complex and Sunshine Plaza will be pulled down to build Buena Vista Street. Which will be this romanticized version of the Los Angeles that Walt Disney encountered in the 1920s after he made that fateful train trip from Kansas City to Hollywood in 1923.

And while I'm sure that people will enjoy entering Disney California Adventure through a recreation of the entrance of LA's old Pan-Pacific Auditorium (After all, WDW Guests have enjoyed Disney's Hollywood Studios' entrance for over 20 years now. Which also draws its inspiration from the Pan-Pacific), I know that - me personally - I know that I'm going to miss DCA's original entrance complex as well as its Sunshine Plaza area.

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Mind you, not all aspects of this part of Disney California Adventure worked for me. That large metal sunburst statue and fountain located towards at the back of Sunshine Plaza were pretty ineffective icons. I don't know if this was because of their positioning and/or because (to be honest) these pieces were kind of on the puny side. But that sunburst statue & fountain never worked as weenies. At least for me. They never made me feel like I had to go deeper into that theme park, find new things to experience and explore.

That said, what did work for me (at least in DCA's Sunshine Plaza area) was that replica of the California Zephyr. Looking at this thing, it's hard to believe that the Imagineers found this engine rusting in a pond next to a rail salvage yard in Moline, IL. I've spent many a happy afternoon seated right outside of this beautifully restored engine  enjoying a sweet treat from Baker's Field Bakery or Bur-r-r Bank Ice Cream.  Or looking down at DCA's feral cats (which - for some reason or another - just love to sleep in the sun right on those train tracks that are directly in front of the California Zephyr. As if to say "Go ahead. I dare you. Try and run me over.") Or just sitting in the shade there, taking notes, chatting with friends, smiling whenever I'd hear Al Jolson start to sing "California, Here I Come!"

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It's sad to think that this part of DCA is now going away. I mean, I'm certain that Walt Disney Plaza will have its charms. And it'll be interesting to see what eventually winds up being installed of that recreation of the Carthay Circle Theatre (Which was where the Imagineers had initially hoped to install a West Coast version of "Mickey's PhilharMagic." Until they realized that this show building wouldn't actually be big enough to house that 150-foot wide seamless projection screen which Disney needs in order to properly present this 3D film).

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But until that happens ... Well, at least I'll have those pictures of my daughter Alice seated in the gap of the letter A in DCA's old "CALIFORNIA" sign to remind of what the entrance complex of this theme park used to look like.

But what about you folks? Is there anyone else who's going to miss Disney California Adventure's entrance complex after it exits? Or are you all just focusing on what Buena Vista Street and Walt Disney Plaza will look like once they open in 2012?

Your thoughts?

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  • I'm really sad to see the CALIFORNIA letters go.  I wish there was some way they could have kept that feature.  So what I want to know is, where are the letters going to?

  • I'm certainly one who will miss the murals.  I knew it was going to happen when I was last there in May of 2009 so I made it a point to photograph as much as I could.

  • Any chance the Golden Gate bridge will be resized and moved over to replace that very non-descript bridge going into the Pacific Wharf area?

  • Are they not going to sell of the tiles?  Looks like an opportunity to make money is being missed.

  • I sure am going to miss it.  The new entrance will be nice, but the original still had its high points.  I hope the letters and murals are still partially up on Friday so I can snap a few pictures before they go away.

  • Great article.

    I like the various elements of the entrance but I think it's kind of a jumble of unrelated ideas.  A very realistic Golden Gate Bridge, impressionistic murals, and modern letters.  The images on the murals are not clear standing at the entrance -  you really need to turn to look at them, which is not what guests are doing in that area.  For what it's worth.

    I love the train.  It would be nice if they worked it in.

  • I never thought the entrance worked. It never looked like a postcard. The tiles were only interesting up close. I like the bridge and letters.  I hate the entrance past the turnstiles. Nothing but a tacky shop, restrooms and lockers. UGH.  I too will miss the CA Zephyr.  I like much of what is planned except for the entrance. It looks too industrial.  And it's already been done at Disney Studios.

  • Wish they would find a way to salvage and reinstall the murals elsewhere... beautiful works of art.

  • Sorry to disagree, but while the tiles are a work of art, and the art-deco train is lovely, the rest of the entrance is just ugly (and I am, overall, a DCA fan). I'll be glad to see it go.

  • Jim, this was a fantastic read.  I never "minded" the entrance to DCA, but I would say that in it's current (now soon to be old) incarnation, it's probably only ahead of Epcot's entrance for stateside parks.  The traditional main vista that's featured in Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Disneyland and Hollywood Studios works effectively.  Frankly, the DCA entrance isn't substantial enough.  The plus side is that it's quicker to run in for that Soarin' Over California Fastpass before going back to Disneyland for most of the day.


    Co-Host of the WDW Fan Boys Podcast

  • I'm not sure the sunburst should have regarded as weenies. They are mere decorations. Of course, they do have background on what it was supposed to do like be brightly lighted with mirrors that turn with the sun. This feature was botched and ignored.

    I dislike the replacement entrance. The Pan Pacific Auditorium entrance was lifted from the Florida Studios park. Why couldn't this park be completely original? They are not the same parks although they have many similar attractions.

  • It was a treat to read a great, "Old School" Jim Hill article again; Lots of pictures, lots of info, and interesting peeks behind the scenes. Thank you, Jim!

  • They're getting rid of the CALIFORNIA letters? I don't understand why a redesign in the theme park can't still incorporate those at least... they were iconic (and yes, great places to meet up).

    Yes, I'll miss the murals, but despite the incredible amounts of work required to create them, I'll miss the letters more.

  • Despite what the general thought is/was of the entrance plaza, I never had an issue with it. I do believe that the theming will get better with all that is happening past the gates, but the front was kinda of special to me and my family. I too have a picture of the family within the letters of California, and those will be treasured for many years.

  • I'm with you, Jim - I'm sure the new entrance will be cool, but it's a shame that stuff like the murals and the California Zephyr will be going away.  Actually, my views toward the entrance kinda reflect my feelings toward DCA in general - I wasn't all that thrilled about it at first, but little by little, I've grown to appreciate it, in spite of the flaws.

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