With new park, Disney goes back to basics

The list of reasons to stay grounded in reality - real reality - just shrunk by one.

In a cavernous warehouse, about 60 reporters and guests are strapped into rows of hanging seats. As the lights go out, a blur of cool, white mist clears to reveal - courtesy of an 80-foot projection dome and double-resolution IMAX cinema - a hawk's-eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sudden, disconcerting dives convey the sensation of hang-gliding over Yosemite falls, Sonoma vineyards, and finally, Disneyland itself.

"This might be the single most exhilarating, and interesting ride I've ever been on in my life," says one man.

Five years in the making, and even longer in conception, Disney's newest, $1.4 billion theme park represents something of a departure from the childhood fantasy most often associated with the global entertainment giant.

Chosen from a host of other ideas as the best way to shore up Disney's global theme-park business, the park, which officially opens tomorrow, is far more reality-based - albeit, "enhanced" reality, along the lines of current TV hits like "Survivor." Called California Adventure, it offers a kind of one-stop virtual tour of the state of California.

"This park has a contemporary, pop-culture feel to it that is not fantasy-based," says Barry Braverman, executive producer of Walt Disney Imagineering. "This is a sampler of everything that is great about a state that is known all over the world for geography, entertainment, freedom, trends, ideas, and dreams."

The park also indicates a renewed focus on a steady bottom line, amid the ups and downs of other Disney ventures, from the Internet to consumer products.

In recent years, Disney has watched its fortunes fall dramatically, dropping so precipitously in 1999 that some began to question both its creativity and its future. Missteps include the failure of its online portal service Go.com, slumping merchandise sales at Disney stores, the closing of its Club Disney chain, and faltering movie income, which has forced a 50 percent cut in the number of annual movies the company will produce.

"This park yells loud and clear that Disney is back," says Tim O'Brien, editor of Amusement Business Magazine. Two Disney parks have opened in the past two years, and more are slated in Paris and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2004. "In the early '90s, they hit a creative slump, but now they are on a roll."

While signature California pop tunes from the past 50 years blare from loudspeakers, Mr. Braverman offers a brief tour of the 55-acre park, divided into three, themed districts: Paradise Pier, an homage to the great American beachfront amusement park; Hollywood Pictures Backlot, a collection of movies, exhibits, and restaurants with 1940s art-deco facades; and The Golden State, a series of pavilions and exhibits that recreate famous locales from Steinbeck's Cannery Row in Monterey to the high Sierras and Napa Valley.

Such pavilions have the feel of a small-scale world's fair, with historical movies and displays describing winemaking and avocado growing, or exploring topics such as irrigation and growth.

Some say this smaller, more family-oriented park - located just a few hundred yards from the entrance to the original Disneyland - may not be worth the same $43 admission charge. But local industry analysts estimate 5 million to 6 million annual visitors will make it a hit. There are still 30 acres of undeveloped land on its borders, where the 55-acre park could expand further if things go well.

Although Disney is clearly attempting to create a slower-paced park that can appeal to both tots and seniors, it has not neglected to put in a few gems of cutting-edge technology. Besides "Soarin' California," the hang-gliding tour, the park boasts a state-of-the-art, looping roller coaster (the world's longest, at 6,000 feet) which zooms from 0 to 55 m.p.h. in four seconds. A Sierra raft ride takes rafters higher than any other and drops them further, with the added wallop of a 360-degree spin. There is another giant roller coaster, midway games, and restaurants all ringing a lake.

True to its desire to reflect the ethnic diversity of its home state, Disney parades here feature Asian, Hispanic, and African-American themes. And music. At every turn, loudspeakers blare any and every song with a California reference played since the 1950s - from the Beach Boys to Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The entire park is also crowned with a 990-room hotel. The first inside a major theme park, the mammoth structure is modeled after the famed Ahwahnee Lodge, which sits on the valley floor of Yosemite. Room rates range from $250 to $2,800 per night - a price sure to bring some fantasy-seekers back to reality.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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