Cars Land – Kevin Yee’s Road Trip

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Cars Land, Disneyland Resort

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Published on August 14, 2012 at 5:30 am with 39 Comments

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.

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About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida.

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  • SpectroMan

    I have to agree with Dusty; the awe value of Cars Land has already worn off for me, and it truly only has one future classic attraction for taking up such a large space. I’m finding that with each visit since, I’m starting with Disneyland once again and then heading to DCA after the fact.

    I enjoyed 1.0 quite a bit – in fact there’s many features I miss terribly such as Eureka! (Gregg – have you been able to find more than the 1 full length video of it on YouTube?), The Vineyard Room, Strips Dips & Chips, the Food & Wine Festival, Soap Opera Bistro and even Superstar Limo (a little).

    I knew it all had to change, but I wouldn’t go around calling DCA in the Top 3 parks in the U.S. or anything.

  • bizlib

    Kevin, thanks for your great review. As lifelong East Coasters, we seldom make the trip to Anaheim. This year, though, we had the chance to visit Disneyland and California Adventure just days after the Carsland grand opening, and we were amazed. We also felt that sense of nostalgia, as if it were a place we always knew — particularly in the two new “lands.”

    One thing your piece reminded me about our trip was your comparison of the wide walkways. With my son in a wheelchair, we were extremely delighted by something that most guests probably never notice. At Disneyland (and Disney World), our family is typically funneled through a side door or alternate “holding pen” area when we go to board a ride. It is something we have become used to over the last few years. But when we approached a cast member at Radiator Racers to ask about a wheelchair entrance, he said, “Come right on in!” The entire queue was wide enough to accommodate our boy right up until loading into the vehicle. Unlike Star Tours and Pirates, where we missed the fun of the queue areas, in Radiator Racers we felt a little less marginalized and that much more special.

    I asked my daughter last week, “For our next Disney vacation, should we go to Florida or back to Disneyland?” She said, “Disneyland! I feel like there was so much we didn’t get to do!”

    Even not having grown up in Southern California, I completely understand that emotional connection you describe. This was only my second time visiting Disneyland — ever!

    Thanks for another great column!

  • Orange Co Native

    I originally visited DCA in the summer of 2003. I did not think much of it then. I thought I would give it a second chance this past June after all the hype and re-do of the park. Sorry to say that I did not think much of it again. Granted, it is an improvement over the original DCA, but when it comes down to paying the same amount to enter DCA in comparison to the original Disneyland. The original Disneyland beats DCA 10 x over. Myself, my family and our group of other more distant family members where done with DCA after about 4-5 hours. It just doesn’t have it to warrant the same ticket entrance fee as Disneyland. It is worth more like a gate entrance charge of about $20.00. Why?

    1. The DCA park does not have acreage to provide enough attractions.
    2. The DCA park lacks imaginative attractions.
    3. Myself and family members feel that DCA has a couple of good attractions with a majority of mediocre carny rides mixed in. The bugs land area reminds me of the strip mall parking lot carnivals that blow into town once in while.
    4. Overall, the park does not come across as being worth 80+ dollars worth of entertainment.

  • Timchat2

    It’s good to hear I wasn’t the only one finding my time at DCA to be more relaxing than Disneyland. I can completely attest to how strange that realization feels. This isn’t to say that Disneyland is somehow lesser, just that DCA has more room to breathe and isn’t as potentially overwhelming. Disneyland’s smaller walkways and countless attraction do tend to create a more frantic feel despite the immeasurable charm that the entire park is soaked in. The new DCA complements its legendary neighbor quite well now, making the entire Disneyland Resort a potent destination indeed.

  • DuckyDelite

    Thanks for a great article, Kevin. I definitely agree with your thoughts on DCA. As I told my friends after my first post-DCA2.0 visit, it finally feels like a real Disney park.

    Are there areas of the park that still need work? Sure. But so does DL. Innovations, anyone?

    I think the biggest change for me, now, is I actually want to stay in the park. Previously, it was hit the major attractions and get the heck back to Disneyland. Now I want to stay, enjoy a nice dinner, see if I can catch Mickey on the trolley, hang around for Mad T Party, enjoy some music and a cocktail, and see the amazing lights of Cars Land at night. I wish it would stay open even later because this has become such a great nighttime park, there isn’t enough time to see everything after dark.

    Previously I would tell people DLR is only a 1.5 day destination. I could easily see 3 days here now.

  • Kamerun


    Sometimes I have felt you have been a tad too harsh yet always felt you were at least honest about what you truly wanted out of the Disney Parks. I so enjoyed reading this review of California Adventure. I joking told friends I was never going to visit California Adventure until Disney decided they wanted to build a real theme park and not the carnival they had put into the parking lot.

    After your review, I guess I should start saving up my money. I have been following the improvements for years and I have to say the third act of this “promise” to fix California Adventure has been the best act of all.

    Thank you for your dedication to integrity and to truth.

  • ttintagel

    “Tickled my wallet-bone” is my new favorite phrase.

  • Empress

    Dear Kevin,

    Your review is timely as we are going to Anaheim in two weeks. We are east coast people and staunch WDW loyalists but as much as I don’t want to admit it, I have to say some of the luster has come off of WDW. We’ll still take our yearly visit though secretly wishing they make some improvements. I have been to Disneyland and truly love that park for the sheer number of rides that I wish were at MK even with part of me feeling disloyal to my happy place but not to include EPCOT in the top 3?! Maybe EPCOT doesn’t have enough E ticket rides but I think this park is more than about rides. It’s the atmosphere, the different pavilions, the countries, the uniqueness of the park like no other, and the events they hold like the Food and Wine Festival, etc. My list presently is Disneyland, MK, and EPCOT though I haven’t been to the new DCA yet. We don’t get to Anaheim as much as we like so this trip we are taking was a bonus especially when the new land opened. We never thought we would have the chance this year and are very excited to see it. Thanks for the review, it certainly is helpful to see things from your perspective.

  • ParadeDude

    Too bad you missed the Fying Tires. Many folks do not like the ride, but I had a blast and was impressed. Perhaps not worth more than a 30 minute wait, but still worth riding.

  • jacksonsmommy

    Kevin, you were right on with your reviews of DCA. I was absolutely mesmerized walking into the park. I had waited for 5 years for Carsland to open, but was blown away by Buena Vista Street. I have never been to WDW, but have gone to Disneyland since I could crawl growing up in S Cal so I cannot compare the 2. I believe that Walt left more than a little bit of magic when he built Disneyland and nothing can quite compare to this original landmark even with all the technology the imagineers can add to the newer parks. With the expansion of DCA I too did not have enough time to truly experience all the beauty this “new” park had and found myself wanting to spend more time there than we allotted, 6 days in total for the 2 parks.
    As for the cost to go into the park, I was saddened by the increase esp. being APs for a family of five, but in my opinion it is still by the best value for your money and nothing can touch the overall experience and magic a visit can make.
    For those who have not yet visited DCA, run don’t walk- you will not be disappointed

  • 1WaltFan

    Kevin, as a native Angelino and former DLR season pass holder I have enjoyed your WDW reports. Especially because I will be taking my 2nd trip in two years back to WDW after about a 25 year hiatus from WDW.
    Your article reminds why I love DLR and why our parks are so much better than the expansive WDW parks. My family hasn’t gotten to DCA this summer because of the pending east coast trip, but you are making me count the days until we get our passes. It’s great to get such a great right coast perspective and appreciation of the left coast parks.

  • BigBobxxx

    Kevin Yee wrote:

    “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).”

    True words, Kevin.

    I let my WDW annual pass expire 20-months ago, and, based on what I’m reading regarding NextGen, I may never go back :(

    I’m tired of paying more-and-more for less-and-less — and, I’m talking specifically about those of us who go impulsively for a day or two.

  • Herc

    Kevin, I have to agree with all your points made in your article. I just came back on Sunday from a 10 day trip to the Disneyland Resort (used both DVC Grand Californian and Disneyland Hotel). We didn’t leave the resort area. We had such a great time in DCA. I had to pry my kids away from DCA just to visit Disneyland. After the night was over, I asked how they liked Disneyland, and all they could say was when they were going back to DCA. They finally warmed up to Disneyland but the feel of the park to them (ages 5 and 8) seemed like they did it before (8 year old has been to WDW 9 times and 5 year old 5 times) was familiarity, not that much new. Ok, once they rode the Matterhorn that changed. I think we rode it at least 10 times.

    Carsland was our big draw out there and we enjoyed it immensely. Being resort guests offered us the ability to enter the park early at 7 am so we were able to ride Radiator Springs Racers and get a fastpass for later in the morning. Luigi’s Flying Tires was fantastic. We leaned this way and that way and boy did we move. We still had the beach balls (heard they were removed in the past few days) and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboreee, although a glorified whip ride, it was fun and very well themed.

    My kids were drawn also to Paradise Pier and Silly Symphony Swings in particular as I was drawn to California Screamin.

    I have to admit that I am a WDW fan, but after seeing the two West Coast parks, I see the theming differences and the quality of work that I don’t see it Florida. I know that is changing with Fantasyland Forest and Storybook Circus, but too much gets cut by TDO. Mentality in WDW is to not spend full amount since most are tourists and visit once in a lifetime, while DL has a ton of annual passholders that expect quality theming.

    Although we skipped our annual WDW trip this year for DL, we plan to return to WDW next when the new areas are complete (sans dwarfs mine ride).We hope that in the future, WDW would build a similar area like Carsland at the Studios. We just need TDO to get off the pile of the tourists money and spend.

  • CrystalKnapp

    I’m so bummed that you were out this way and I didn’t get to meet you! I’ve been reading your articles ever since I was a teenager living up in Massachusetts. The Army blessed me with the chance to live within driving distance of Disneyland. Totally wish I could have made it out your way. The Disney community loves you, Kevin!