In 2001, Disney California Adventure Park opened with high expectations as the newest member to the Disney Parks family. What happened instead was a financial and marketing flop leaving Disney execs scrambling to piece together some kind of semblance for Disney fans. Author Lisa Baxter was there at ground zero as a member of the Store Operations team and shares her experiences working in the fledgling theme park.
From torrential rains to guests searching out non-existent characters to the quick exits of high-profile partners Robert Mondavi and Wolfgang Puck, the first year of operation of Disney California Adventure was rough. Then came 9/11. Following the tragedy, Disneyland Resort fired off not one but two rounds of cast member terminations resulting in low morale and less cast members to perform the same amount of work. The magic had dimmed.
Quick fixes, such as the return of Disney's Electric Light Parade and character interactions (Mickey is on vacation in California!), helped sparked interest in the new park. The dirt settled and A Bug’s Land colonized for younger guests while Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular kicked off a 13-year run at the Hyperion Theater. From there, the park continued along with a few additions and removals until a 2012 overhaul brought in the much-needed Cars Land complete with E-ticket attraction Radiator Springs Racers. Buena Vista Street replaced Entry Plaza giving the park entrance a 1920s Hollywood vibe which included Red Car Trolley and the return of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Now, almost 20 years since that grand opening date, Disney California Adventure Park is considered a success. The park can look forward to positive changes for the next 20 years including the opening of Avengers Campus which is set to assemble soon.
Disneyland Resort Nomenclature
Chapter 1: A Golden Dream
Chapter 2: Creating a Golden Resort
Chapter 3: Setting a Golden Stage
Chapter 4: A Golden Cast
Chapter 5: California, Here We Come!
Chapter 6: Golden Guests: The Klepper Family
Chapter 7: California Day Dreamin’
Chapter 8: The Dream is Over
Chapter 9: Tragedy Unfolds
Chapter 10: Changes: 2002
Chapter 11: Metamorphosis in DCA
Chapter 12: Changes: 2003-2007
Chapter 13: Changes: 2008-2012
Chapter 14: Walking in Walt’s Footsteps
Chapter 15: Cars Park in DCA
Chapter 16: Changes: 2013-2018
Chapter 17: Just Call It Pixar Park Already
On February 8, 2001, the Walt Disney Company opened its gates to its second west coast theme park—Disney’s California Adventure. (Author’s note: Although the park was called Disney’s California Adventure Park from opening until 2012, for consistency it will be referred to as Disney California Adventure Park, DCA, or California Adventure. The possessive was dropped from the park name upon its re-dedication in 2012.) Built on the former Disneyland general parking lot, it sits facing directly south of Disneyland Park. The original concept was a park dedicated to the sights, sounds, and tastes of California, driven in earnest by then CEO Michael Eisner. Expectations were high with visions of a west coast Walt Disney World Resort teasing Disney executives. What happened instead was a diametrically different outcome—an unexpected failure. Where were the crowds clamoring to infuse themselves in the Golden State experience? Where were the throngs of Disney-philes and their Disney dollars? Disney California Adventure had suddenly become the Treasure Planet of the Disney theme parks.
What Disney upper management hadn’t taken into consideration was the west coast guests’ expectations of a Disney theme park, especially one toting the grandeur of the Golden State. Seeped in the history and traditions of Walt Disney and his original theme park, in-state residents viewed Disney California Adventure as an extension of Disneyland, not a separate entity. Plus, who cared about a theme park centered on California? Why visit a park about the state icons when you could drive 30 minutes (okay, 60 with traffic) north and be in Hollywood or Santa Monica?
I had just relocated from Las Vegas to Southern California after spending five years setting-up and working in The Disney Stores. Disneyland offered me an opportunity to join the Store Operations team headed to Disney California Adventure. Seriously? Why would I say no? How many people are handed the chance to be a part of a something so magical—OPENING A DISNEY THEME PARK?!
So I put on my hardhat, my fluorescent orange vest, and worked side-by-side with some of the best people who still remain friends this day. What followed was a period of memorable chaos from attractions going awry, torrential downpours which deterred any crowd, and for those guests who did step inside, endlessly telling them Splash Mountain was not in this park. We saw the rise and fall of the California theme and watched in dismay as changes swept swiftly through our newly established shops and restaurants. Locations came and went, bugs landed, and we lost our hearts on the morning of 9/11. Pixie dust or not, I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the Mickey beignets in the Disney kingdom….maybe.
In the culmination of the past almost two decades since its inauguration, Disney California Adventure has all but lost its initial identity—California—and now has become a cross hybrid of Marvel superheroes, Pixar characters, and a mermaid who isn’t quite part of that world. In fact, as of this writing (2019) only five of the original 22 attractions remain (including retheming). Golden Zephyr, Jumpin’ Jellyfish, Boudin Bakery Tour, Disney Animation Building, and Grizzly River Run—Wow! Where did the Golden State go? Hey, at least we still have Schmoozies!
I remained at Disney California Adventure Park through April of 2002 when I took a LOA for foot surgery. (Too many years in retail for me.) I returned a few months later but to Disneyland in the Main Street U.S.A. merchandise shops. By early 2003, I went on maternity leave then opted to stay home after my daughter was born. I parted ways with the company at that time.
Although I no longer worked for the Walt Disney Company, Disneyland Resort was still an integral part of my life. I became an Annual Passholder in 2004 and for the next 15-plus years, visited 2-3 times monthly. I followed along with every change implemented in Disney California Adventure. In late 2015 I was hired by MousePlanet as a contributing writer then in 2017 added MickeyVisit to my Disney portfolio. I’ve written more than 60 articles between the two Disney blog sites on everything Disneyland Resort-related which led me to the “why don’t I try to write a book?” And as they say, write what you know.
So, this book is a synopsis of my own account and personal experiences, as well as contributions from past co-workers and DCA cast members, interwoven around DCA’s colorful history. I’ll never be a Disney historian but maybe I know enough to sound credible (my family has learned to ignore me on any Disney subject). So, put on some Beach Boys tunes and immerse yourself in some California Dreamin’ with Disney California Adventure’s story.
While visiting Disneyland on her 9th birthday, Lisa Baxter fell in love with the Magic Kingdom and put “working at Disneyland” on her to-do list immediately. A few decades later, the wish was granted as she was hired for the opening team of Disney California Adventure Park. Since then, she has channeled her Disney experience and knowledge into a writing hobby, much to her family’s dismay as the Mouse has taken over her life. But then again, with teens in the house, it’s an escape for her.
After writing for Disney-themed blogs for five years, Lisa is thrilled to put together her first book highlighting the past two decades of DCA. More books are on the horizon.