With the “new” Disney California Adventure now a year old, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back on my original thoughts on the California theme, the redesign of the park, and the integration of Walt into it.  “Walt Disney: Theme Park Character” originally appeared in a slightly altered form on July 20, 2012 on my blog ThemedReality.

Though perhaps not outlined in marketing collateral, the California theme for DCA was tied into the state’s sesquicentennial and proved to be an easy theme on which to design a park on a budget.

In early 2002, CalTIA, now known as the California Travel Association, held an event at Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX Theatre for travel industry professionals.  They screened a rough cut of the IMAX film Adventures in Wild California, the official motion picture of the state’s 150th anniversary celebration.  Wild California (its working title at the time) was underwritten by a number of California corporations, including The Walt Disney Company.  In return for Disney’s investment, viewers could witness  an IMAX-sized Walt on the giant screen introducing his Anaheim Park and ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with Roy E. Disney.

The Disneyland Resort sponsored the Sacramento screening and used it as one of the first official introductions of the new resort and its California Adventure park to the travel industry.  Outside the theater, at a private reception under the stars, salads and chowder with Boudin sourdough bread, enchiladas made with Mission tortillas, and glasses of Robert Mondavi wine could be enjoyed, with each food station featuring a concept painting of that company’s respective California Adventure “attraction.”

Whether or not Disney intended to get sesquicentennial funding from the state for its new park is unknown on this end.  What is known is that a broadly open theme such as “California” fell right into the micromanagers’ hands at a time when penny pinching theme park executives where pushing Primeval Whirl and Triceratops Spin as the next big things.  A combination of off the shelf rides with minimal thematic coverings and corporate sponsored “attractions” likening to a grander version of Innovations would dramatically reduce construction costs.  Unfortunately, they would also dramatically reduce attendance.

The theme of California itself appears to be the result of a single event a decade earlier – Disney’s 1989 purchase of the Wrather Corporation.  Jack Wrather, a prolific television producer whose credits included The Lone Ranger and Lassie, began to invest in a number of hotel and resort properties around the country, in luxury markets such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and Newport Beach.  He was asked by Walt Disney to build an “official” hotel adjacent to the Disneyland park in Anaheim and the upscale Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955.  Over the years, Walt and his successors offered to purchase the hotel property, and over the years, Wrather refused them.  It was not until after Wrather’s death that Disney CEO Michael Eisner was able to work out a deal to purchase the Wrather Corporation.

Jack Wrather and family at opening of Disneyland Hotel
Jack Wrather and family at opening of Disneyland Hotel


With the hotel came another property – the Wrather Corporation also managed the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose attractions in Long Beach, including the Queen Mary’s on-ship hotel.  With the acquisition, management of the Queen Mary suddenly became the responsibility of Disneyland.  Imagineers worked hard on devising new tours and attractions while Disneyland began offering a multi-day pass that also included admission to the Queen Mary.

Then in order to finance his grand plans for expansion, Eisner started an unnecessary and farcical war between two municipalities.  In 1991, he and Disney President Frank Wells had announced the “Disney Decade,” which would include new shows and attractions, huge parking garages, a new Tomorrowland, an entirely new land – Hollywoodland, a shopping and entertainment district, live concert amphitheater, and WESTCOT – a whole new West Coast version of EPCOT.  In order to pay for the infrastructure, Eisner needed both the financial and governmental support of the City of Anaheim.  And to get his way, he threatened to cancel the entire project by building another huge theme park in another city – Long Beach – built around the Queen Mary.

Walt Disney and family traveling on Queen Mary
Walt Disney and family traveling on Queen Mary

The Long Beach park, DisneySea, never happened, although a modified version did become a hit at Tokyo Disney Resort.  And what about WESTCOT?  Well, it seems very few guests were purchasing those multi-park tickets that included admission to the Queen Mary.  Surveys were taken in the Entrance Plaza asking where they went when they left Disneyland.  The answers started coming in – Hollywood.  The beach.  Knotts.  Six Flags.  Yosemite.  San Francisco.  Monterey.  Napa.  Fresno.  Everywhere but the Queen Mary.

And thus California Adventure was conceived – a park that was a facsimile of a trip around the state in an effort to retain guests at Disneyland, a mirror of Eisner’s idea for Disney’s America on the East Coast.  Why visit the real thing when we can take you there in ways reality can’t?


Disneyland itself is a representation of the ideals that interested Walt Disney the man, as seen through the imaginative lens of 1950’s and 1960’s optimism.  There are no leaches in Adventureland, no horse manure lining the streets of Frontierland, and no drunkards haggardly stumbling home down Main Street.  Welcome to Walt’s sanitized utopian vision of the memories and fantasies of his mind.

Because the core blueprint of Disneyland has remained the same for over fifty years, children of each “generation of Walt” have been able to experience practically the same narrative.  For you see, there are four distinct “generations of Walt,” each based upon when our formative years took place and how we related to Walt Disney the man and to his company during those years.


First are those that grew up prior to the Second World War, at a time when the Disney Studio was exclusively an animation studio.  These souls lived through the Depression and the Disney characters held a unique position in their continued survival.  Second are the Baby Boomers, who experienced both the birth of television and the introduction of Disneyland, who considered the much more accessible Walt to be “Uncle Walt.”  Third are those who grew up in the late ’60’s and the 1970’s, at a time when Walt the man was not part of their lives, but the company continued under the stunted philosophy of “What would Walt do?”  Finally are those who grew up in the Eisner/Iger era, when the company went in radical new directions and Walt Disney the man progressed into the marketing and consumer products item of Walt Disney the legend.  Separated by decades of time, the marketing juggernaut turned him into a fanciful character whose true identity was lost to time – the new Lincoln or Shakespeare, if you will.


The new California Adventure park was designed by a group of Imagineers who, for the most part, never met Walt the man.  It is, again, a fanciful take on the themes that interested him disguised as a trip around the state through his “eyes.”  Within, one will find 1920’s and 1930’s Los Angeles and Hollywood, aviation (a huge interest, especially during and post-WWII), the mountains, nature, the automobile, and the amusement park where Walt sat on a bench while his daughters went on a ride without him, an idea that led to the creation of Disneyland as entertainment for the full family and of the new Dumbo at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where in the virtual queue parents can sit on a bench while their children also play without them.


Most ironic, is that every account I have read of Disney arriving in California says he did so by train and, as part of the redevelopment of the park, the only train in California Adventure has been removed.  But that’s ok, because the Route 66 in Cars Land can be used as a metaphor for Walt’s Journey – from Chicago to Missouri to Los Angeles.

There’s another place that traces the journey of Walt from Chicago to Missouri to the intersection of 66 and Los Angeles.  But in this case, the 66 is 1966, the final year of Walt’s life.  The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco uses actual documents and artifacts to trace the life of the man, not the character.  Exhibits start with his birth in 1901 and end with is death in 1966. While the museum isn’t completely without bias, it does cover some negative aspects of his life, such as the studio strike and his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The museum is lovingly designed to concentrate on his talents and achievements – and what incredible achievements they were!

Special Oscar for "Snow White" on exhibit at Walt Disney Family Museum
Special Oscar for “Snow White” on exhibit at Walt Disney Family Museum

So now there are two ways to experience the life of Walt Disney – through the fictional world created around the character based on the man, or through the collection of artifacts telling his true story.

Which Walt do you identify with?

  • eicarr

    It’s crazy that they got the state to pay to improve infrastructure for a new park that was designed to take away business from state attractions. Funny.

    I’ve never fallen for the notion that Buena vista st was what Walt experienced when he came to LA, just like Main Street was anything close to his true childhood experiences. But with the dramatic improvement over the DCA 1.0 entrance, I just love soaking in all the new atmosphere like Walt most have done in the actual 30’s LA.

    Great article. DCA 2.0 morphed into a park far more enjoyable and repeatable than WestCot or the small Long Beach Disney Sea park would have been.

  • JiminyCricketFan

    I’ve been to Disneyland throughout my life. I’ve always felt the presence of Walt while I was there. But DCA is something quite different. It may have statues of Walt but it does not have his spirit. Perhaps it’s just that the basic design concept. I really feel he wanted to take his guests to places and realms which they had never been. He never would have brought his guests from California to California. Where is the magic in that?

  • I love it that even after 58 years, you can still feel Walt at Disneyland. But I find it almost humorous how they attempt to make DCA feel like Walt was there. It’s just too much and comes across forced. I really like the direction the new DCA is going, but it’s a long way from where it needs to be. Now that they’ve created a great entry and Cars Land, they need to bring the rest of the park up to the same standard. They can start with a wrecking ball in Paradise Pier. 😉

  • realsurf

    I feel DCA is as big a success as the original was a failure. The Buena Vista street reminds me of riding around in the back of Dad’s ’49 Buick in Culver City. There were still Red Cars and traffic signals with semaphore arms and bells. My Grandad worked at MGM from the 20 to the 50’s, Mom grew up in Culver City. The first day I walked under the Pan Pacific entrance I felt Mom would have approved. She was a child of LA in the 30’s.
    True the layout is as bad as most non-Disney parks without the flow that makes DL magical but they can’t exactly pull down Bear Mountain and fill in the lake. DCA is an experience that I can enjoy walking around in without riding rides. For me that is the sign of a good show.

    Class of 1956

  • Marko50

    Funny how the article says there are no leaches (sic) in Adventureland. According to Ms Stacia Martin, legend has it that there are indeed leeches from the Main Street Apothocary washed away into the Jungle Cruise rivers. Or at least their progeny. (Do leeches have progeny?)

    • I’ve heard the leach story many times and in many variations. The one I like best is that when Disneyland opened, independent vendors were hired to run their own businesses on Main Street. After Walt died, the company opted not to renew the contracts so it could run its own businesses in that part of the park. According to the story, the owner of the Apothocary was so upset that he took the leaches he had on display (some variations state they were dead in formaldehyde and others that they were live) and dropped them into the parks waterway. Which waterway? Who knows! Because some variations on the story say Jungle Cruise and others say Rivers of America (with a side note that this is why castmembers on the ROA must be checked head to foot if they fall in the water).

      There’s another story that the leaches were imported to the Jungle Cruise when new tropical plants were brought in to landscape the attraction in the 70’s. And yet another that says those weren’t leaches, but rather large slugs that look like leaches.

      Nonetheless, leaches were never included as a thematic element by Imagineering when designing the attraction (or at least one that made it all the way to final design stage).

    • DobbysCloset

      Now I don’t feel so alone having laughed over the typo and, yes, leeches have progeny. I looked it up. It’s gross. But I doubt they’d survive long in Jungle Cruise rivers on the blood of animatronic hippos.

      • The joy of relying so much on spell checker and autocomplete, both of which played havoc with my comment above as well. Oy.