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.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
... or a giant golden spike (Which was supposed to be
referencing the California Gold Rush of 1848 - 1855.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
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)."
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.
Copyright TNR Studio, Inc. All rights reserved
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."
"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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.