Disney takes the plunge

With theme parks everywhere competing for dollars, the Mouse ups the ante with a new park right across the street from Disneyland.

Bigger, faster, more high-tech. In a word or four, that's where theme parks around the world are heading, just as fast as their space-age designers can take them.

"The challenge that theme parks face is to find new and intriguing attractions," says Paul Ruben, North American editor of the London-based trade magazine Park World. No theme park is going to rest on its laurels, he says. With the competition for entertainment dollars expanding daily, parks can't afford to stand still.

The granddaddy of them all is no exception. Yesterday, after spawning progeny and inspiring competitors for decades, Disneyland finally got an in-state sibling of its own in California Adventure, a highly touted second attraction just across a parking lot from the original. But in stark contrast to 45 years ago, when the original park opened as a unique attraction, the new venue shoehorns into a southern California theme-park market second only to Orlando, Fla., in competition for guests. Just up Interstate 5 in Valencia, Calif., Six Flags Magic Mountain is gearing up for its most extreme spring, ever. Three new coasters are coming online: "Deja vu," "X," and "Goliath Junior." The first two have G-force ratings of 4.5 and 4.0 (during takeoff, space-shuttle astronauts experience about 3.0 G's, three times their body weight).

As Disney broke ground on "Adventure," its nearby neighbor Knotts Berry Farm splurged on a $65 million water park, the nation's tallest flume ride, and a 320-room hotel. That's in addition to its $22 million, nationally recognized wooden roller coaster, "GhostRider," and its $10 million "Supreme Scream," offering the tallest "drop ride" west of the Mississippi.

These competing southern California parks are just part of the dash to own the bragging rights of being the world's hottest theme park, and they offer a good glimpse of the shape of things to come for theme-park goers everywhere, for better and for worse.

Same price, smaller park

The first reality check hits at the gate to California Adventure. Tickets cost the same as Disneyland ($43 for adults, $33 children), but the park is only two-thirds the size (55 acres) of its sibling and has 22 attractions, compared with three times that many in the Magic Kingdom.

And unlike Disneyland, "The Happiest Place on Earth," California Adventure is strictly reality-based.

"We want to celebrate the California Dream," says Barry Braverman, Walt Disney Imagineering executive producer for California Adventure, on a walking tour of the park. Mr. Braverman is a 17-year veteran of Disney's real-world-in-miniature, Orlando's Epcot Center.

"California has always been and continues to be a place that people are drawn to for a variety of reasons, so we created a series of lands and districts that are inspired by real places in California," he says.

This vision has produced an assortment of attractions to appeal to virtually every age and interest group. They are divided into three "lands": Paradise Pier (an homage to old amusement parks, complete with a pier and a midway); Golden State (mountain river-rafting, as well as an honest-to-goodness agricultural area with vineyards, fruit trees, and garden vegetables); and The Hollywood Pictures Backlot (moviemaking and Hollywood).

As for the big-ticket thrill rides, "California Screamin,' " a modern metal monster made to look like an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster, is the only high-speed entry. It stands for the moment as the world's longest looping coaster, but it is far slower (55 m.p.h.) than last year's new coaster at nearby Six Flags Magic Mountain, "Goliath" (85 m.p.h.).

Perhaps the most distinctive ride with the most sophisticated new technology is not a thriller, but family friendly. In a state-of-the-art simulated hang-gliding experience, riders on "Soarin' Over California" sail over a vast 80-foot screen - with double the resolution of IMAX screens - of California's most spectacular vistas, including Yosemite Park, desert ballooning, and High Sierra mountain peaks during ski season.

"This is the best of its kind," says Peter Reid, a product-development adviser for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, who investigates flight-simulation technologies worldwide. "I haven't seen any better in this format."

The park's reliance on realism and nostalgia has led to charges of a lack of creativity. "This park doesn't do anything as far as blazing a trail or redefining the theme park experience," says Rick West, editor in chief of Theme Park Adventure Magazine. It also turns its back on the signature Disney "magic," the fantasy experience of Disneyland. The midway rides, for example, are close to generic: Minus the Mickey silhouette on the coaster, it could be anywhere, he says.

"Where is the signature themed-ride experience on a par with Disneyland's 'Indiana Jones' ride?" Mr. West asks.

The presence of the Mondavi Brothers vintners, restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, and other outside retailers at the new park suggests Disney has broken faith with its legacy.

"The park will be a success, and it will send the message to [Michael] Eisner [Walt Disney Company CEO] that we don't have to spend money; we can build anything and people will come," West says.

Mr. Braverman defends the park, which has been his personal baby for the past 5-1/2 years during its development. "This park tells its own story," he says. "It's the story of California's richness and cultural diversity. That's a story worth telling."

Public relations snafus

As for skimping, while it is true that earlier, more-ambitious plans were scrapped for the current park, Braverman points to the park's richness of detail, such as $500,000 worth of smog-resistant pines in the Grizzly Peak area, not to mention the reported $1.4 billion total budget, as proof of Disney's commitment to quality.

The new park has had its share of early public relations gaffes. An overheated amplifier sent smoke through "Soarin' Over California" this past weekend and the "California Screamin' " coaster was in and out of service during the preview weeks preceding the opening.

The Grand Californian, a 750-room hotel modeled after the Ahwahnee Lodge, Yosemite Park's architectural masterpiece, is intended to turn the area into a resort destination where visitors stay more than a single day. Braverman says that's because parks are adapting to changing times.

"This is not the same tone palette that Disney did 45 years ago," he says. "We all have new technologies to work with, and the ante has been upped for all of us by the level of entertainment available at home."

Curiosity will guarantee big crowds in the beginning - thousands camped out for the privilege of being in the park on its first official day of operation.

But will they return? David Tamayo, his girlfriend, Kelly, and her two children, 14-year-old Caley and 11-year-old Calin, won their tickets to California Adventure in a local radio contest. "No way would I pay a Disneyland price for this," says Mr. Tamayo, from Temecula, Calif. "There's like a third as much to do here."

But his two teens say that they might choose California Adventure over a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

"I like having a lot of different things to do," Caley says. "Sometimes killer rides aren't enough for a whole day."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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