Why Disney California Adventure Failed

Disneyland Resort is comprised of two theme parks — Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. Disneyland Park, of course, is the original Disney theme park, which opened in 1955. It would take over 45 years before the resort opened its second park, California Adventure.

Pixar Pier in Disney California Adventure

The road to get to California Adventure is long and winding, and even once it was open, the park was faced with unique challenges. Let’s take a look at the original concept behind California Adventure, and why it took several years AFTER the park first opened before it truly took off.

To talk about the failure of the original concept and execution of Disney California Adventure, we have to go back to the 1990’s and the opening of Disneyland Paris, at the time referred to as Euro Disney Resort. Euro Disney, located just outside of Paris, France, was a bold move made by then-CEO Michael Eisner to bring the Disney parks to Europe.

Disneyland Paris ©Disney

The French resort got off to a rocky start, with a heavy dose of controversy surrounded the American-based Disney Company coming to France. The unsuccessful launch of Euro Disney was also a costly one, and led to more frugal decisions being made down the road.

Disneyland Paris covered in snow © Disney

When discussions took place surrounding the adding of a second theme park to California, several ideas were tossed around. One idea was known as Port Disney, which would have been built in Long Beach, California, approximately 20 miles away from Disneyland Park in Anaheim. That project was scrapped in the early 1990’s in favor of WestCOT, the west coast version of EPCOT in Disney World. This park would have been located in Anaheim, much closer to Disneyland.

WestCOT Concept Art © Disney

The overall cost for developing and building WestCOT — a rather ambitious project for the company — would have been too costly, and with the company taking a more frugal approach to building parks following Euro Disney, the plan was ultimately scrapped.

WestCOT concept art © Disney

Eventually, the Company settled on the parking lot space located just outside of Disneyland for a new park themed after the state of California. This concept was based on the idea that a guest could “visit” the massive state of California all in a single day — why spend so much time driving around California, when you could come to Disneyland and experience it all in a much shorter amount of time?

California Adventure

The concept seemed solid enough, but bringing the vision to reality was another story. Construction on California Adventure began in 1997, and it ultimately was done on the “cheap.” According to recollections from Imagineers and others working for Disney, “word spread among the Disney websites of the day that Eisner and the Imagineers were buying “off-the-shelf” attractions from other companies. Then once the rides were delivered…they would be spruced up with a few Disney flourishes.”

Superstar Limo

Eventually, Disney California Adventure would have its grand opening on February 8th, 2001. Right away, guests had plenty to say about this park, noting that there was a severe lack of rides for kids, no true E-ticket attractions, and an overall lack of “Disney”theming.

The original entrance to Disney California Adventure

Two initial responses to this criticism included the addition of Bugs Land and Tower of Terror, but much of the park needed a massive overhaul in order to bring California Adventure up to the standards that Disneyland guests had come to expect over the years.

A Bug’s Land

Bob Iger took over as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 2005, and two years later he announced a $1.1 billion expansion of California Adventure. This included the addition of Cars Land as well as a re-theming of the front of the park to Buena Vista Street.

Buena Vista Street

The result of that investment is what we know California Adventure to be today — and even since then, the park has gone through additional expansions and re-theming as it continues to shape its own identity. Two notable changes in recent years is the re-imagining of Paradise Pier into Pixar Pier, and of course the recent grand opening of Avengers Campus, located on the former site of Bugs Land.

California Adventure

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about California Adventure over the years, it’s that this is a unique American Disney theme park in its ever-evolving identity and guest offerings. Of all of the domestic Disney parks, California Adventure may have gone through the most amount of changes, second only to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando.

Lamplight Lounge

There’s a sort of quirky charm to Disney California Adventure that, while it’s not as popular as its neighbor Disneyland Park, it’s as loved and cherished by locals who enjoy its laid back vibe, wider walkways, and adult-friendly thrill rides and activities.

What’s your favorite thing to do in California Adventure? Let us know in the comments!

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21 Replies to “Why Disney California Adventure Failed”

  1. I wish DCA had more trees. The charm of DL is the lush foliage in areas. It’s so hot at DCA and the recent Avengers campus seems under developed… esp the queing line for Webslingers! I feel like I’m at Knott’s when I’m in that line. Wth?!

  2. I like DCA perfect for both kids and adults! Wish it had more rides but all in all it’s fun. Disneyland will always be my favorite!

  3. I’m a local and we LOVE it! Grateful that Disney made it through Covid! So many awesome creative rides: Ariel, silly swings, incredi-coaster cars, and more; and even World of color when they could do it. Animators, monsters – this is an awesome park for people who are creative. NOT a failure!!!

  4. I’m a local and I’m very disappointed with the avengers campus…nothing much to enjoy! Such a waste! Also, theater is closed. My kids were very disappointed with avengers campus as well.

  5. Soaring over California was the best ride in California Adventure Land. Not Soaring over the World. Disney should have done a sequel to the original California video but included only other areas in the State. If not, bring back the original.

    1. How about Soarin’ in outer space? I’m certain that with the recent flights of fancy by trillionaire CEOs and other space exploration that there could be some excellent footage that could be used

  6. I never understood the point of Bugsland, I wasn’t to bothered when they got rid of it. However, I absolutely love Carsland even though I have never seen the movies, it just shows what proper investment can achieve.
    I was worried when Tower of Terror was changed into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride, even though I am a massive fan of the MCU, but, I was worried about nothing, it is a phenomenal ride and the theming is fantastic. If people took time out from taking selfies and checking their social media perhaps they would realise how great CA is

  7. Yeah, and Disney took a big step backwards with the Avengers Campus: Small, common looking modern architecture that is thin on theming, lackluster attractions and reconstituted mediocre thrill rides. Tokyo Disney parks are owned by OLC. When they expand, they do it right and spare no expense. Disney US is apparently taking the opposite turn again and doing it on the cheap, then raising prices endlessly so that they can spend tons of money on marketing and PR to cover for it. But don’t air it to the board. If the freaking stockholders are happy, that’s all they care about anyway. Personally, I don’t go anymore because there are MUCH better ways to spend that kind of money.

  8. We visited California Adventure ( all the way from the UK) way back in 2003 and it had a slightly awkward feel to it. A bit like being the only adult at a kid’s party. Still it had some attractions that we felt were pretty good. What was California Screamin’ but is now the Incredicoaster is a good coaster with inversions and “bunny hops” and one of the fastest launches we’d experienced. The Grizzly Rapids are also noteworthy for it’s speed and an exciting drop.
    Unfortunately the rest of the Park seemed pretty non descript back then Now, of course, they’ve added their version of Tower of Terror, Cars and Marvel to make it more attractive.
    The Taste Pilot’s grill was one of our favourite Park diners anywhere providing those latticed fries and possibly the best salad and condiment carts around.
    So it has a great platform and just needs to be more eclectic in it’s approach.

    1. I grew up in the ’80s going to Disneyland many times a year. I got to see the never ending parking lot turn into mountains of dirt during DCA’s construction, even though I was a teenager I expected a land the size of Disneyland. What they actually did was divide the land into three portions. Downtown Disney, a gigantic hotel and the rest was DCA. I really hated it that the new park had four times the shopping Disney land even though the park was a third of the size.

      It most definitely was a knock-off Disneyland and despite some good architecture splashed around it generally felt like a state fair.
      That being said when they spent a billion dollars to remodel the entire park, added Car’s Land, a huge theater for Aladdin, Buena Vista Street a trolley car, little mermaid, toy story mania, 1920’s Hollywood returns and best of all that huge dancing waters night time show. DCA really grew on me as a second Disneyland. Before it just t like a system designed to collect and extract as much money as it can… Now it actually feels like a walk in the park just like it’s big brother Disneyland 😁

  9. Here’s a tip..
    Locals hate it..
    Have you’ve ever seen to DisneySea Tokyo??
    It was built at the same time..
    We were ripped off..

    1. I’m a local, and we like it, we usually bounce around from one park to the other, different vibe but it just feels more chillax at California Adventure.

      1. I’m a local and I hate it. By “chillax” I assume you mean less crowded. That’s a given and the only thing going for it.

    2. To be honest,my favorite thing to do in CA Adventure is drink alcohol. After a few hours in Disneyland we head to CA side so I can have few drinks,and relax. Some adult time,while kids get on rides.

  10. The incredicoaster & toy story midway mania are my favorites but I liked pretty much everything there when we went fir the first time in 2019. I’m an east coast’r so WDW is my “gold standard” but I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I love Ca adventure.