A thought experiment. For a moment pretend we had the ability to modify the names in Disney parks. And thus:
- Thunder Mountain was named "Bryce Canyon Railway" in honor of the American canyon from which it derives its look. Frontierland was named "Westernland", in honor of the American west from which it was inspired.
- Critter Country Was renamed "The Deep South" as it represents the American Southern swamps/forest.
- The Jungle Cruise was modified to be more Bayou-like rather than rainforesty. The Temple for Indiana Jones was supposed to be an old Aztec temple found somewhere along the Souther border of the US.
- Tomorrowland is stated to be an American city of the future (say LA, just for fun).
- Main Street is already suppossed to be a fairly specific American city (idealized)
- New Orleans Square is already representing an American city.
- There's already a show (returning soon) that celebrates an American President.
- And so on....
I've done nothing but change a few names: nothing about the lands has changed at all. But now notice that everything in Disneyland "technically" represents America. By Disney's "California Adventure" logic, I could now rename Disneyland to "Disney's America Adventure." Everything is about America, right? All the lands have names and themes that come from American cities. I could now rename the candy shop to "Ameri-candy" and have a cart that sells french fries called "United Tates of America." Obviously this park is about America: everything is American themed!
But it wouldn't be. It would still be Disneyland. No matter what names I throw on these lands and food carts, the true themes of the lands would still remain. Disneyland isn't about "America", really. Strong American themes run through it, for sure, but it is not *about* America.
This is why I would argue that California Adventure was never truly about California. Yes, that was the original idea. Yes, the lands are based on places theoretically in California. Yes, they threw California cities and landmarks on the names of every restaurant and food cart. Yes Michael Eisner said it was about California. But doing so does not make a place represent California any more than Disneyland represents America. Which is to say they both do represent those things at some level, but it's only on a surface level. The much deeper level represents much deeper themes:
- Main Street represents an idealized small town and the time when technology and old-ideals were meeting. It is not "Missouri-town", which is what it would be under "California Adventure" logic.
- Condor Flats is about aviation and flight. These concepts transcend location and don't rely on California at all. It is not about "flying in California".
- Grizzly Peak represents a national park, redwood forests, and whitewater rafting. These themes are deep and could easily apply to Colorado or Yellowstone, which aren't in California. To this day many people assume this land represents Yellowstone National Park, which is not in California.
- Paradise Pier represents the theme of the sea, particularly seaside amusement and entertainment. It is not about Santa Monica Pier or anything specific like that.
- Carsland looks like it's going to be celebrating cars, deserts, and highways. Things very apparent in California to be sure, but again it's not "about" California anymore than it is about Arizona or Fronteirland is about Utah (Bryce Canyon).
- Even Hollywoodland, the most "California" of the current lands, is really about the glitz and glamour of the film industry and movies. Yes the movie industry is located primarily in "Hollywood", but celebrating films and moviemaking and celebrating Hollywood are two different things.
The point is that what makes Disneyland so powerful is that the themes it encapsulates run DEEP. They represent powerful ideas and emotions and encapsulate them in physical locations. That is (I think) what makes it a place so much of us love.
This applies to DCA as well. I think DCA has some strong themes to work with. But for some reason the imagineers (or maybe just management) and a lot of other people seem hung up on the surface properties of the lands and park rather than the deeper themes. I think this is what created the problems we saw in the past when the park first opened: throwing on some signs and paint and calling it a theme. We're seeing some of this again with some of the Paradise Pier stuff too. The "lipstick on a pig" argument about the DCA expansion essentially argues that the problem is focusing on surface characteristics without addressing fundamental problems. I'd argue that focusing on the "California" in the lands in California Adventure is a similar mistake: it's focusing on a surface characteristic rather than the true "meat" of a land/park. When Disneyland works well it does so because the lands and themes evoke emotion and spirit. Excitement, exploration, progress, imagination. These are much stronger themes than "random locations in California". This is why I support that California Adventure needs to focus on it's deep emotional themes first and worry about shoehorning California into those themes second. Paradise Pier needs to evoke a care-free spirit. The majesty of the sea and the fun and amusement one can have around it. The wonder of riding a huge roller coaster over the water. etc. It does NOT need to focus on screaming "SANTA MONICA!" and "MALIBU!" at the guest every two feet.
I'll leave you with another hypothetical: Let's look at expanding Condor Flats, which is a great little area with a lot of potential. If the imagineers approach a Condor Flats expansion by thinking "how can we represent California better?" then it will likely be disappointing. But if they approach it by thinking "how can we represent the beauty and history of flight and aviation?" then I bet it would turn out amazing.
I think DCA has some amazing themes to work with, but I think we'll only see the park reach its full potential if these themes are addressed directly rather than focusing on surface characteristics. California has strong themes, but calling a place "Brrrr-Bank Ice Cream" is not tapping into them at all.