Cars land has been open for weeks now, and it’s a fair bet that many locals in Southern California have had a peek. Or, at least, they’ve been reading a number of reviews about the place. I finally got a chance to make my own road trip down Route 66 in late July. Call it a review by an Orlando local, if that provides the proper context. Meaning: as someone accustomed to uneven attractions of late (some good, some great, some mediocre),

Quite simply I was just blown away by Cars Land in particular and DCA in general. DCA has grown up. It’s not only a full-day park, it’s a genuine Disney quality experience that outstrips just about all the competition even among the Disney universe.

If you’ve seen the pictures, you know that Cars Land is immersive. It’s got a 360-degree mentality: anywhere you look, you see something “authentic” to the place you’re supposedly in.

The buildings look like they belong, and there are no shortcuts in detailing immediately apparent. The single stoplight is stuck in blinking yellow, indicating they paid attention to small details (as did the Buzz Lightyear figurine peeking out from under a road cone in the unused Cozy Cone Motel central building–theming that only a fraction of the visiting population would ever see).

The land comes with a mountain range. Yes, a mountain range. I’d known this for years, but still seeing it in person took my breath away. It struck me as the most impressive thing Disney has done since Mt. Prometheus (the volcano in Tokyo DisneySea), and probably the most impressive mountain structure at any stateside Disney park. It’s big, but it’s also proportioned to look even bigger. You know your forced perspective is working when a multi-decade veteran and Disney book author like me is STILL impressed with the forced perspective.

Even better, it looks real. My visit to DCA was preceded the day before by a visit to the Grand Canyon, so the whole look was very fresh in my mind… and it still looked fantastic and appropriate. I was also struck with how it looked in the twilight. The dying sunlight turned the rocks red just like it does in the Grand Canyon, and I marveled at the foresight. Even the way it’s artificially lit at night looks great.

The signature ride, Radiator Springs Racers, was delightful. I had read no reviews and knew no spoilers, so I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was like an upgraded Test Track, so I guess I vaguely expected a big race outdoors around the track. What I didn’t expect was so much of a dark-ride before that race. As a fan of dark rides in general and Disney-quality dark rides in particular, this put me over the moon.

A few effects weren’t working (Ramon’s reflection mirror, and the tipping cows), but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was, I was entertained. I was definitely drawn in to the story, and the pace of action was snappy enough that I never felt like anything was a waste of time. I do not automatically love everything Disney creates, nor do I naturally love Test Track type rides. The original Test Track is case in point: I thought it was a waste of time, by and large. But Radiator Springs Racers has story, dark ride characteristics, quality animatronics, thrill (and competition)–it’s the whole package.

The other rides in Cars Land were a lesser priority for us. We’d heard that Luigi’s tire ride (an updated Flying Saucer hovercraft) was not worth a long wait, so we kept skipping it (since it always had a long wait), and if you can believe this, in five park days we still ended up not going on it. We did like Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which whips riders around like a fairly common carnival ride, though it has a more innovative and intricate super-figure-eight layout and the vehicles are more themed. Plus, the Mater voiceover song is pretty hilarious.

Today’s DCA is more than just Cars Land. We last visited a couple of years ago, so there was a lot to see that was new. The Mad-T party seemed like a good use of a now-quiet corner of the park, and I couldn’t really object to the Disney dance party that at least in one way made use of the former Millionaire building. I’d seen the Little Mermaid ride last year, but my family wasn’t with me, so it was new for them (and a preview of what we’re about to get in Florida). The conversion of the corner of the lagoon into a classier style of decoration and transformation of Goofy’s Sky School was worthwhile (it’s minimal, but the theme is better at least).

Buena Vista Street, the trolley cars, and the Carthay Circle Theater restaurant were all first-rate. Nothing to complain about, and everything to admire about these conversions. They took a tacky, wrong-tone section of the park and made it arguably the best section of the park. Well done all around.

And seeing World of Color again after a year confirmed for me again that this show is pretty incredible. Maybe my feelings would change if I saw it weekly or even monthly, but when you see it just once a year, it overpowers and moves you in a way that few Disney shows do. The DHS Fantasmic, which I also see only about once a year, looks like a high school production in comparison.

In some ways, I might even place DCA in second place in the American Disney parks line up. It doesn’t exceed Tokyo DisneySea or Tokyo Disneyland (could anything?), so the global rankings belong in a different discussion. But nationally within the USA, yeah, I’d put DCA second.

Mind you nothing is going to displace Disneyland at the top of the list, and none of the Florida parks exceeds DCA presently. I can imagine this will be cause for consternation among some readers (and probably some disagreement too), but I think my opinion is pretty firmed up. The Orlando parks are great, and I love them all in their own ways. But none of them have the line-up of D-ticket and E-ticket rides that DCA has. And DCA finally has a fairly long list of C-tickets too, including two dark rides.

An argument could be made for the Magic Kingdom being “better” than DCA still. Certainly the MK has a lot of rides, including some great classics, and very-plussed dark rides like Haunted Mansion (which out here is unbeatable). But so much of the MK has that ‘forced’ feel that is missing in Disneyland (where Disneyland is small and charming, MK goes for full-sized and ‘grandeur’ – but sometimes feels a bit forced and corporate).

DCA used to be the very epitome of a corporate park. It was firing on basically zero cylinders in 2001 when it opened, and trust me when I say that I was on the front lines of disparaging the park, sometimes with despair and sometimes even mockingly. But I was also on record even in those early months of 2001 saying that “someday DCA could be a good park.” I even pointed out that 1955 Disneyland was, uh, not that magical if you look at the pictures. It was not very good escapism, frankly. A lot of the truly convincing theming (in other words, escapism) came later. So I said on message boards that DCA could, if they wanted to, eventually become something special. (I was promptly mocked for the opinion, in case you were wondering).

So I feel gratified and validated to report that DCA really has come around. Maybe I was pre-disposed to think that, given my predictions eleven years ago? It’s got all the theming you’d want (though I still think a seaside carnival is a mistake) and they’ve fixed the parts that felt the most corporate. The huge surplus of restaurants (most without any imagination) is reworked, and the huge lack of rides has been addressed.

Take it from me, a Disney veteran with thousands of park visits under my belt (not an exaggeration): today’s DCA cannot be seen in a single day. We spent 14 hours on our first day there and saw roughly half of the offerings, and we definitely know how to maximize time, use FastPass, and avoid crowds in general.

I found myself wishing I had DCA as a local park again. I realized that none of the Orlando parks individually could stand up to this one (except maybe MK). Collectively, WDW still has more to do than DL resort, and the greater Orlando area still has more parks than SoCal, so I’m not about to move back. But speaking of a single park, DCA seemed pretty high on the rankings.

In fact, I found myself enjoying the “hang out” time in DCA more than the hang-out time in Disneyland. That was definitely an odd sensation for me. Disneyland has ALWAYS been my happy place, probably going back to my earliest memories (so early 1970s or so), and suddenly, I found myself enjoying the time in DCA more than in DL? I found the DL walkways more crowded, the moving from ride to ride more rushed, the need to get on things more mechanical than exciting. This is probably a momentary blip rather than a permanent shift in my mind (PLEASE say it’s not permanent) and likely a result of the “newness” of today’s DCA to me versus Disneyland. But it definitely felt odd to experience that ground shift beneath my feet.

I wanted to buy more DCA merch. I actually said out loud “there isn’t enough DCA merchandise!” and then promptly slapped my own face (I really did). The irony is so thick. In 2001, DCA was all bland restaurants and tons upon tons of merch that no one wanted. Now the park finally tickled my wallet-bone eleven years later but there wasn’t enough branded merchandise. I was definitely not interested in buying “Disney Parks” merchandise, I’ll tell you that.

The “second gate” expansion to single-park Disneyland that started in the mid-1990s, with a conversion to a “resort” mentality, was always meant to challenge the primacy of Walt Disney World. People beyond a certain geographic point in the United States (say, Colorado?) seemed way more inclined to visit Orlando than Anaheim. In the 1990s, it seemed folly to challenge that thinking, and indeed in 2001 the critics looked right when DCA debuted and promptly underwhelmed. But the DCA turnaround came this year, and it is also the story of the Disneyland resort finally becoming a resort.

I can well imagine folks all over the USA now choosing to visit Disneyland Resort rather than Walt Disney World, and finding the weeklong vacation well spent in Anaheim. This is especially true for those who have a tradition of going to Orlando yearly, and may be getting sick of the place (not to mention folks who have seen a decline first-hand in the quality, theming, variety, upkeep, and simple VALUE for your dollar in Orlando).

Watch out, Team Disney Orlando. You aren’t necessarily the big dog in the fight anymore.

What are your thoughts on my observations? Speak up in the comments section below…

Book Review – Plants of Disneyland

The Field Guide to the Trees and Plants of the Disneyland Resort ($12.95 from Amazon) is 106 color pages covering the major plants, shrubs, and trees on display at the two parks, the hotels, and the shopping district. There are color photos of everything. In fact, most things have more than one picture, using insets to display sub-pictures.

The book is sometimes presented “sideways”, but it’s not consistent, so that you end up moving the book back and forth as you switch pages. This was presumably done to keep it interesting and different – no boring book here!

In fact, the author seems to have gone out of his way to make sure the book doesn’t veer toward boring. He provides scientific names (and phonetic pronunciations) for all plants, as well as a graphic of where in the world this plant normally comes from. Then he lists where in the resort you can find it, so the book could become something of a treasure hunt if you wanted. The remainder of the page is taken up by those big pictures and a small paragraph about the plant in question: its origins, what makes it special, or humankind’s history of interaction with this plant. It’s interesting, even for those with no particular interest in botany.

For Disney fans, he even tucks in a few humorous inclusions in his list of plants, such as the Tarzan tree or the Splash Mountain brambles (there are a few others, too)–they include fictional answers and a tongue in cheek delivery about this ‘history’ of these ‘plants’.

The book lists on Amazon as co-written by me. In reality my role was merely a consultant to the author on the process of book writing, and I also wrote the foreword to the book. I receive no compensation for books sold (though I did receive a complimentary copy of the final output).

Book Review – From Dreamer to Dreamfinder

If you know your Epcot history, you remember the Dreamfinder. This was an invented character prominent in the first Journey into Imagination ride, and also a walkaround “face” character that met people in the Imagination pavilion, usually seen cradling a puppet of his friend, the purple dragon named Figment. The Dreamfinder isn’t much visible in the pavilion today (there are a few nods to his former presence), but the man behind the walkaround character is very much on the scene. Ron Schneider, the performer who was the primary person scheduled to work as Dreamfinder, has a new book out.

From Dreamer to Dreamfinder: A Life and Lessons Learned in 40 Years Behind a Name Tag is a thick book (294 pages) offered at a very reasonable price ($15.95 on Amazon, often discounted – it’s $10.85 as I write this, but that could change). One thing it’s not is a picture book – this is strictly text and a few black and white pictures. But that keeps the price low, I think, so all in all that’s a good thing.

Much of the book is a memoir about Ron’s life as a performer and his various interactions with the key players in the industry over the decades. Like Forrest Gump, he gets to meet seemingly everyone, but Ron is no Forrest Gump in the mental department. He’s sharp, and he adapts to the needs of the jobs. More than that, he reflects, and in this, we all benefit. A majority of workers in Disney parks, even those in important roles and creators of things, often are so busy with life that they seldom take the time to think about what everything means. What’s the role of the performer vis-a-vis the guest? What subtle and unwritten rules exist, and why? Over the years, Ron not only came across (or invented) the answers, he ruminates here in the book about why they matter.

Not all of the book is Disney focused, or even theme park focused, for that matter. You’ll read about Ron’s other exploits, and it can be fairly stated that he calls it as he sees it (translation: he pulls no punches about various creative and cost-cutting decisions he’s been witness to). That’s refreshing, but more than anything else it helps you feel like you’re on the inside for a change, watching theme park (and entertainment) history unfolding on the sidelines.

For a WDW fan, the sections about Epcot and Dreamfinder are gripping, but many readers (including myself) find that the whole book is interesting. Some readers might find the individual sections in the chapters to be disjointed; essentially Ron switches to a new anecdote with only a section division (a whimsical symbol, usually) denoting that we’ve switched topics. That can interrupt the ‘flow’ of a chapter, but it also gives the impression that the book is a series of strung-together mini-stories, which it is.

Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book.

More information and updates

Readers are invited to connect with Kevin online and face to face at the following locations: