California Adventure gets $1.1 billion overhaul

Disney is ready to reveal the results of its $1.1 billion makeover of California Adventure.

After five years, the Mouse House has completed upgrades to the Anaheim theme park, which include this weekend’s opening of a 12-acre Cars Land, and a replica of Buena Vista Street with the Carthay Circle Theater that hosted the premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937.

Park has been undergoing an overhaul since 2007, when Disney developed Toy Story Mania as the first of a series of new attractions to help attract more guests to a property that’s been struggling since opening in 2001.

After its launch, visitors grew bored with the focus on California history and the state’s tourist destinations. They wanted more Disney-branded attractions and the company’s characters — more Mickey Mouse, less Golden Gate Bridge.

“We knew that California Adventure didn’t measure up to what we knew it could be and should be,” Thomas Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, said last year during an early look at Cars Land’s construction. “So we set out to change that.”

As a result, Disney’s Imagineers have worked overtime to develop attractions like the Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and the nighttime World of Color water-and-light show, which integrates scenes from Disney’s films. It also rethemed rides like the Mulholland Madness rollercoaster as Goofy’s Sky School, based on the 1940 short “Goofy’s Glider,” and added other shows like “Minnie’s Fly Girls,” a Pixar Play Parade and “Mad T Party,” which replaces the “Tron”-themed ElecTRONica nighttime rave.

A new 1920s-themed entrance sends guests down Buena Vista Street, which serves as the park’s version of Disneyland’s Main Street USA, complete with red trolleys. Shops and restaurants include Disney’s first Starbucks outlet, part of a new deal with the coffee chain. However, signage will be scant, with the store housed inside the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe.

The biggest draw is expected to be Cars Land. Themed area is housed inside a replica of Radiator Springs, the desert town from the animated films, with Cadillac fins carved into the surrounding mountains, and features three rides — Radiator Springs Racers, Luigi’s Flying Tires and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree — as well as eateries including the Cozy Cone Motel (selling popcone and chili cone carne) and Flo’s V-8 Cafe.

After two films and a strong merchandise line, Cars Land is Disney’s latest attempt to grow the animated franchise, with “Planes” in the works as a straight-to-homevid spinoff.

“It’s one of the biggest attractions, frankly, we’ve ever done with a land around it,” Jay Rasulo, the Walt Disney Co.’s senior exec VP-chief financial officer, said at the Nomura U.S. Media, Cable & Telecom Summit in May.

Cars Land and Buena Vista Street will give California Adventure eight themed lands, adding to Hollywood Land, A Bug’s Land, Pacific Wharf, Paradise Pier, Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak.

Disney needed to make changes. While theme parks typically don’t reveal attendance figures, California Adventure struggled in 2010, luring 6 million guests vs. Disneyland’s 17 million, analysts say.

“We had a park that was not up to the standards that Disney parks need to achieve,” said Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger at the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in May. “Its return on invested capital for the initial investment was not that impressive. It was a bit of a brand eyesore as well. We felt we definitely could benefit from increasing capacity in Southern California, decided that we could both grow the overall Disneyland resort, fix what was clearly a problem and, hopefully, get to a much more respectable return on invested capital for the whole resort.”

California Adventure “did not hit on the cylinders that we needed it to hit on,” Rasulo said. “From a concept perspective, it did not retain the guests at the Disneyland Resort long enough. We were starting to see rejection from Disneyland because it was simply too crowded everyday. And we built (California Adventure) to expand the Disneyland resort in terms of its offering but also to pull people away from Disneyland, to have them spend a lot of time at this new park and then backfill and sort of raise the whole level. Well, the concept wasn’t strong enough. ”

Disney already saw an attendance boost after World of Color began nightly performances in 2010, and the park’s upgrades have continued to attract tourists — with the uptick in attendance enabling the company to raise ticket prices.

In fact, Disneyland set a new attendance record in the second quarter, “reflecting the success of our continued expansion of Disney California Adventure,” said Iger in May during Disney’s second quarter earnings call with analysts. “I believe the completion will result in a park that will both stand on its own but also serve as an important and worthy neighbor to Disneyland and finally enable the two to become the destination resort we once envisioned.”

The park will continue to see updates. For example, the World of Color show will add segments based on Disney’s films: The latest is “Brave” after material from “Tron: Legacy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” was added in the past.

But with California Adventure now complete, Disney can turn its attention to upgrades at other parks, including the expansion of Fantasyland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, Fla.

“We hadn’t touched (the park) in four years,” Iger said. “And it was time. We were overdue,” he said, given that it’s the most popular theme park in the world.

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