Today’s article about the opening of Cars Land in 2012 is the second installment in the “Mouse Memories” series, in which I will periodically cover some of the momentous occasions and my favorite gone-but-not-forgotten highlights of Disneyland Resort’s days gone by. The inaugural Mouse Memories contribution, about the former Springtime Roundup, can be found here.
Walt Disney once said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world. It is something that will never be finished.”
Since my first visit to Disneyland over four decades ago, I have had a lot of memorable experiences and have seen a lot of changes take place in and around the park. Beloved restaurants have come and gone. Popular menu items have been discontinued. Old attractions have been razed and shows have gone dark, while new ones have emerged to fill the void. Unique characters have vanished and become the stuff of Disney legend (I’m looking at you, Marsupilami!).
One very significant event was an ambitious transformation at the end of the ‘90s, which simultaneously eliminated a big portion of the Disneyland Hotel grounds and brought to us Downtown Disney, the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa and, of course, Disney’s California Adventure theme park (now called Disney California Adventure… because, apparently, that extra apostrophe and “s” were getting in the way).
Disney’s California Adventure Park was met with a lukewarm response after opening in 2001 – including from some California residents, who felt that a California-themed park in California was a quizzical direction to take when designing and building a whole new property in an area that does not have much room for expansion to begin with. Other critics believed that it was a park built on the cheap, and that the lack of careful thought and attention to detail for which Disney is known was blatantly obvious.
I did not set foot in California Adventure until it had been open for quite a long time, so I did not see it in its infancy and cannot speak to what it was like in the early years. However, when I finally gave it a try in 2007, I had mixed feelings. I liked the park, but felt it was unfinished, or, at the very least, underdeveloped. It was different from its predecessor across the Esplanade, which was the goal, but had a slightly more sterile vibe. I did not expect a carbon copy of Disneyland, but I thought there would be more of what I call “kisses of magic” in every corner; more nostalgia; more humor; more pixie dust sprinkled all around to make California Adventure appear Disney-esque, I suppose. Instead, the park lacked a bit of the warmth and character that make Disneyland so special.
By the time I got used to the different tone and layout of California Adventure, and began to really enjoy it for what it was, Disney announced that a billion dollar makeover was going to begin, primarily targeting that park instead of Disneyland. Although this overhaul yielded multiple changes to the reimagined California Adventure, including a nighttime spectacular (World of Color) and new rides (Toy Story Midway Mania and The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure), at the core of the project would be two lands — Cars Land and Buena Vista Street, with the primary focus being on Cars Land.
Confession time. Cars has never been one of my favorite Disney-Pixar movies. I don’t have an intense dislike for it, but I have seen it and don’t really feel the need to see it again and again and again… Or even just… again. It may be an unpopular opinion, and perhaps I should hang my head in shame, but I was on the verge of being very disappointed when I learned that Cars Land was the prized centerpiece of the sizable California Adventure facelift, because I thought that other Pixar movies would have been better subjects. A land with a toy theme? Yes! I am all about Toy Story and each one of its sequels. I still have to dry my eyes at the end of Toy Story 3, which is possibly my favorite entry in the Toy Story franchise to date. A land all about monsters and crazy creatures? Sign me up! What great potential a Monsters, Inc.-themed land could have during the Halloween Time season! An oceanic area featuring the fishy friends of Finding Nemo? Of course! California Adventure is a California-themed park, and California borders a stretch of the Pacific. It would make perfect sense, I told myself.
But a land about… Cars? A land with the very lackluster name of “Cars Land” (they couldn’t have come up with something a tad catchier?) to boot… just in case you were to ever forget that it’s a land about Cars. Despite the insistence of many supporters of this concept that a land about Cars would fit right in with California car culture and with the general theme of California Adventure — a logical argument, I will admit — I was skeptical and underwhelmed. My stance was that I didn’t care about California car culture, and Cars was not a movie I loved, so why would I care about this land?
As for Buena Vista Street, I didn’t really have much of an opinion before it opened because I was so distracted by what I was sure would be a huge misstep with Cars Land. I remembered that, back in 1993, the idea of Disneyland’s new land, Mickey’s Toontown, didn’t quite thrill me at first either, but when I set foot on its wacky streets and stepped on a talking manhole cover, I was sold. I loved it right away. I decided that I would have to keep an open mind and try to embrace California Adventure’s new lands too. I opted to attend a two-hour preview, so I could see Cars Land and Buena Vista Street right before they officially opened to the public in mid-June 2012 — which turned out to be a wise choice, as it allowed me to be able to take in the scenery and get a good look at the details of the two new residents of Disneyland Resort, before the masses descended soon after.
Today I share with you a sampling of the photos I took as I experienced Cars Land for the first time, five years ago. I will cover the Buena Vista Street portion of the 2012 preview in a future article. Join me as we stroll down “Mouse Memories” lane…
There are a few ways to access Cars Land, but on the day of the preview we were guided through the Pacific Wharf section of California Adventure and around to Ornament Valley.
And it was impressive, to say the least. But it was only the beginning.
The striking rockwork drew audible gasps from the crowd. Even I, who previously had almost no interest in a land based on Cars, stared in awe at the amazing scene before me. It was like stepping on that talking manhole cover in Toontown all over again – as soon as I saw what was beyond the archway, I was sold.
Just past the entrance, an abundance of treasures – including blatant sight gags and hidden gems – awaited me. I truly did not know where to look first, as everywhere I turned there was something interesting to see. It was a bit overwhelming, but in the best possible way. It was a veritable feast for the eyes.
Flo’s V8 Café was the next stop…
I was immediately mesmerized by the details, right down to the weathered and worn look of almost everything in the land. Who would have guessed that I – the Cars Land skeptic – would be riveted to deliberately applied oil stains and cracks in the pavement?
Inside the café, things were a bit more colorful.
From this point forward I will spare you my chatter and let the photos do the talking…
Much like Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland, Cars Land is full of clever humor and inside jokes. It is a very visual land, and it is impossible to spot every whimsical element on your first visit. You will notice things each time you are there, and will wonder why you never saw them in the past.
Cars Land, in all of its rusty and dusty glory, exceeded all expectations I had and turned a naysayer into a fan (of the land — I still don’t love the first two movies). More importantly, it infused Disney California Adventure with a much needed dose of Disney magic, as cliché as that may sound. It added an extra dimension to the individual personality the park had already established to distinguish itself from Disneyland. Cars Land somehow managed to make California Adventure feel connected to Disneyland, and yet very unique and separate as well. It also provides a wealth of interesting photo opportunities. Many people like to head to Cars Land when it is illuminated in neon after dark, and dusk is also a popular time to see the stunning display in Ornament Valley. Here are a few more photos to leave you with, taken on later trips.
Have you been to Cars Land in Disney California Adventure? If so, what is your favorite detail about it? Do you think it has improved California Adventure as a standalone park, as well as a component of Disneyland Resort? Or, were you a fan of the old version of California Adventure? Let me know in the Comments below. And stay tuned for a look back at Buena Vista Street’s debut, in a future Mouse Memories installment.
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