Disney banks on Pixar tune-up of California Adventure park

For Disney chief Bob Iger, the addition of Cars Land at California Adventure represents “a great example of why Pixar and Disney are together.”

But for John Lasseter, the creative force behind Pixar and chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Friday’s launch of the 12-acre themed park, based on the “Cars” franchise, is a “dream come true.”

Cars Land marks the first time Disney has dedicated a large themed area around one property at its parks. “For five years we’ve been talking about this day,” Lasseter told Variety during the park’s launch on Thursday.

Opening culminates a $1.1 billion makeover of California Adventure with the addition of new rides and attractions after the Disneyland neighbor, originally focused on California history and landmarks, struggled to catch on with guests after opening in 2001.

Park’s other new additions, also unveiled this week, include a 1920s-themed Buena Vista Street entrance, with a replica of the Carthay Circle Theater, where the premiere for Disney’s first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” took place in 1937. Carthay Circle also includes the first of six Starbucks stores the coffee chain will open in Disney’s parks.

Iger called Cars Land, which features animatronic characters, themed restaurants, shops and three rides — the Radiator Springs Racers, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi’s Flying Tires — “a wonderful physical embodiment” of the “Cars” franchise and “an example of our ability to take our characters and stories and bring them to life in new and unexpected ways.”

When Disney bought Pixar six years ago, “We wanted to bring California Adventure to the same level of the other parks,” Lasseter said.

That was “very important” to the toon titan, given that Lasseter, who grew up 30 minutes from Disneyland in Whittier, not only was a frequent visitor of the park, but worked as a skipper of the Jungle Cruise ride while in college. His son, Ben, has since followed in his footsteps on the same attraction.

Disneyland “was my favorite place on Earth,” he said. “When you came to Disneyland you were really transported to another place, another time.”

And now having the ability to see his own creation come to life in the form of a faithful recreation of Radiator Springs, the desert town seen in the films, “is a dream come true.”

Lasseter was actively involved in the design of the buildings, rides, merchandise and music for Cars Land, based on the “Cars” films he directed.

Overall, Cars Land is similar in scope to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, in Orlando, Fla., with its contained setting, themed rides and eateries.

Themed shops and restaurants recreate the films’ Flo’s V8 Cafe, Cozy Cone Motel and Ramone’s House of Body Art. Restaurants feature items consumed by Lasseter while traveling Route 66 with his family, including Ugly Crust Pies from the Midpoint Cafe, in Adrian, Texas. Owners of the eatery visited the park on Thursday.

On Wednesday night, Lasseter joined Iger and Disney’s parks and resorts chairman Tom Staggs to premiere the park.

There was no shortage of automotive references in Anaheim, with Lasseter and Staggs lighting up the Route 66-inspired neon signs on the street leading into Radiator Springs and triggering a fireworks display over the towering 125-foot tall mountain range, complete with Cadillac tail fins sticking out as peaks as the Goodyear blimp flew overhead.

Guests at the premiere included much of the voice talent from “Cars” and its sequel, including Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, John Ratzenberger and Cheech Marin, composer Randy Newman, as well as “Once Upon a Time’s” Ginnifer Goodwin, “Modern Family’s” Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter, Brad Garrett, country crooner Brad Paisley and Andy Garcia.

Staggs heralded the construction of Cars Land as “a journey to realize Bob Iger’s vision to add more of Disney” into the theme park. It now revolves around Walt Disney’s past, especially when he first moved to 1920s Los Angeles.At Cars Land, “We want guests to think they are on this great road trip and, in a way, almost like they are going home,” said Kathy Mangum, exec producer of the park. “Cars Land will feel very familiar in so many different ways. I can’t tell you how many people have seen it and said, ‘I can’t believe I am in Anaheim.”

“A lot of the places you will find only inside Cars Land, so we took the themes and storytelling all the way through, in a way that guests will feel as if the town is being operated by the characters,” Mangum said. “Everywhere you look there is a funny little car nod. After all, it is a land built by cars.”

On Saturday, ABC will promote the opening of Cars Land by airing “Cars,” along with interstitials of the opening of the park, hosted by Larry the Cable Guy, who voices tow truck Mater. Airing will also bow a new “Cars Toon: Time Travel Mater” that sends Mater back to experience how Radiator Springs began.

Plot point is integrated during the line for the Radiator Springs Racers ride, which borrows from the ride system that powers Test Track at Walt Disney World’s Epcot park in Orlando, Fla.

While Lasseter likes to point out small design elements found throughout the park or the puns used for the food in the Cozy Cone Motel (items like popcone, chili cone queso and cone-diment carts), he doesn’t have a favorite detail in the park.

Instead, he cites a moment, inspired by his son.

At sunset, the neon lights of the stores and restaurants in Radiators Springs come to life to the song “Sh-Boom,” or “Life Could be a Dream,” from the film.

“It becomes a moment,” Lasseter says. “You don’t need a Fast Pass. It’s just always there.”

Another, is the question posed by a young guest of whether “Cars” was actually filmed in Cars Land from a young visitor.

“Kids don’t know that things are made, they just are,” Lasseter said. “That’s so special.”

When entering the park, the first thing he sees “is happy people,” he said. “That’s why we built it.”

Even before Cars Land officially opens on Friday, Disney and Pixar already are discussing plans to create other themed lands around Pixar properties. Lasseter declined to disclose which pics, however.

For now, he’s relishing the moment of opening Cars Land to the masses.

“This thing’s going to be here forever,” Lasseter said. “This will live longer than myself, my kids.”

While walking through the park, Lasseter is often reminded of a comment Steve Jobs made to him during their 25-year-relationship.

“If you do your job right, this film could last forever,” he said when “Toy Story” was in production. “If we do our job right, Cars Land will entertain people for generations.”

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