California Misadventure

When it opens early next year, Disneys California Adventure is likely to be a lot like the crowded, strip-malled state for which it is named

The answer seemed obvious: people left Disneyland because they wanted to see more of California. They wanted to walk the boardwalk at Venice Beach, hike through the redwoods in Sequoia National Forest, ride the roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and take the tram tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. In short, these vacationers wanted to sample the rest of California.

For a moment, Eisner and his design team just sat there blinking at one another. The answer to their problem couldn't be that simple, could it?

A theme park that celebrated California. A place that re-created—in miniature—the very best of what the Golden State has to offer. Guests would no longer have to leave Anaheim to continue their California adventure. Everything they were looking for—and more—could be found right next door to Disneyland.

That's all Eisner had to hear. "That's it," he said. "Let's build it." Since Pressler and Braverman were the first to suggest a California-based theme park, Eisner put them in charge of developing the project. This, as events unfolded, appears to have been a mistake.

Braverman was determined to keep his star rising at the Walt Disney Co. Eisner wanted an economy-class theme park? Fine. Braverman would budget Disneyland's proposed second gate so tightly that the blueprints would squeak.

And Pressler, too, was an ambitious man. He was already plotting his next move up the Disney corporate ladder, hoping to parlay his position as Disneyland's president into something farther up the food chain. To do that, he'd really have to deliver the goods on Disneyland's second gate. So, insiders say, Pressler took Braverman's initial budget estimates . . . and slashed them by a third.

Pressler and Braverman's plan was to deliver their scaled-down version of the expansion project for just $1.4 billion—less than half the original Westcot proposal. While Eisner applauded their economies (and local critics approved of the new modest scale of the resort), many hardcore Disney fans expressed outrage with the constant cost cutting.

What particularly troubled Disney fans was the use in DCA of what Eisner liked to call "technology acquired from an outside vendor." What this meant was that the Mouse was purchasing off-the-shelf theme-park rides, lightly re-theming them, and trying to pass them off as Disney-quality attractions. DCA's Paradise Pier area—with its heavy use of carnival-type rides—particularly incensed core fans. Disney newsgroups on the Net were full of hostile chatter about the park, accusing Eisner and Pressler of selling out Walt's ideals just to make a quick buck.

But Disney dweebs weren't alone in their outrage. Imagineers also began voicing their concerns with the project. By making cost containment rather than show quality the most important aspect of Disneyland's expansion plans, they said, Pressler and Braverman had severely compromised the new park's chances of winning over the public.

Take, for example, the "Golden Dreams" show at DCA. The Imagineers had envisioned this attraction as the park's high point, a show that celebrated California's colorful history through the clever use of film, audio animatronics and in-theater special effects. According to WDI's original plans, "Golden Dreams" (then titled "Circle of Hands") was to have been presented in a building similar to Disneyland's "Carousel of Progress" theater (which now houses exhibits for Tomorrowland's "Innoventions" attraction). When an act in this proposed DCA show ended, the guests would have been moved to the next sequence by remaining in their seat while the show building rotated.

Neat idea, huh? Pressler and Braverman thought so, too—until they got the projected cost estimates for the rotating show building. They immediately decided that a revolving theater was too expensive, and they insisted that the Imagineers rework "Golden Dreams" so the show could be presented in a regular, non-rotating theater, using just audio-animatronic figures and film.

When they got the second revised estimate for "Golden Dreams," they announced that deeper cuts were needed. This time, Pressler and Braverman decided they really couldn't afford to have any audio-animatronic figures in the show. Now, keep in mind that audio-animatronic figures have been a standard feature in Disney theme-park attractions since 1963. But Pressler and Braverman wanted to bring DCA in on time and (more important) under budget. So kill the robots.

What was once supposed to be the centerpiece attraction of DCA—a multimedia extravaganza in a revolving theater that celebrated California history—is now just a movie. "Golden Dreams" will be narrated by Whoopi Goldberg (who has reportedly complained to Eisner about the cheapness of this DCA attraction) and may feature some in-theater special effects—provided, of course, they survive the next round of budget cuts.

This is typical of what worried Imagineers about DCA. By making the bottom line the top priority with the Disneyland expansion project (and, worse still, by being so blatant about it), Pressler and Braverman may have created a fundamentally flawed theme park.

What exactly are these flaws? Some point to Pressler and Braverman's decision not to develop many new rides and shows for DCA, opting instead for a lot of attraction recycling.

While it was undoubtedly more cost-effective to take shows that have already proved popular at other Disney theme parks (like Orlando Disney-MGM's "Jim Henson's MuppetVision 3D" and nearby Animal Kingdom's "It's Tough to Be a Bug") and tailor them a bit to fit DCA, is this really the best long-range strategy? Isn't it possible that using old Walt Disney World shows could actually have a detrimental effect on Disneyland Resort's attendance levels?

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