There’s a grand “Happy Birthday” and many congratulations in order today — for Disney California Adventure, the problematic second park at Disneyland Resort in California which opened back on 8th February 2001 and is currently nearing the end of an enormous $1 billion makeover project that will transform the original, mediocre gate into a park worthy of the Disney name. If you’ve not been following progress, you’re missing out — be sure to check the official site, Yesterland, MiceAge, this fantastic infographic and all the other great Californian fan sites — it’s a fascinating look at what can happen when Disney really, truly puts its money — and more importantly, its heart — into making something work. Those three beautiful new attraction posters above, a Disney tradition brought forward for a new generation, are the final signature of intent.
What’s the relevance to Disneyland Paris? Well, it’s looking more and more like our own second gate, a similar project of early 2000s misguidedness, has just lost its running partner; been left behind at the starting block. Whatever analogy you want to use, Disney California Adventure is finally getting really good, really fast — and Walt Disney Studios Park, well, it’s still ambling along like all is well. Of course, though they’ve been lumped together for years as Disney’s follies, the two parks were very different. Where California Adventure had in many of its original areas and attractions a disheartening sheen of “hip” tackiness that Imagineering are now having to steam-clean out of the place, Walt Disney Studios was (and still is) simply massively under-built. And not under-built in the rather charming “there’s plenty of room to expand” style of 2005’s Hong Kong Disneyland, either. As a member on our forum succinctly put it, it’s like “a place filled with nice Disney attractions still in their boxes, waiting to be put in a Disney park.” Ironic, then, that Toy Story Playland, probably the best (at least, most fully-realised) themed area in the park is based around toys being unpacked from their boxes.
Even that expensive new land has almost entirely failed to be integrated into the park around it, as seen above. When Walt Disney Studios doesn’t even get a themed path leading to its new land, what hope is there for going back and readdressing the original, lacking areas, like California is doing? What for the original portion of Toon Studio — the barren, soulless area in front of Animagique — do Euro Disney SCA really consider that to be Disney quality? Will Studio Tram Tour: Behind the Magic ever be given a raison-d’être beyond being an extended drive out to Catastrophe Canyon? Whatever happened to those plans Imagineering dreamed up to turn the depressing and utterly theme-less corner of Production Courtyard into a buzzing Theater District to match Hollywood Boulevard, complete with Soarin’, a new period-specific façade for CinéMagique and new dining and retail? At one time, we we seemed sure to see the terrible, emotionless “Production Courtyard” name become “Hollywood Studio”, to match its “Toon” neighbour, with Backlot following suit. Where Disneyland has “lands”, the Studio would have a collection of different theme “studios”, and finally some vision.
Yes, Walt Disney Studios has been given Toy Story Playland whilst California Adventure will get an expensive Little Mermaid dark ride and an enormous Cars Land, but right now this isn’t about size or scale, it’s about vision and intent. Disneyland Paris doesn’t have the money for a Cars Land, but it probably doesn’t need it. The best part of the California makeover isn’t the new attractions but the sensible and thoughtful re-touching of the original park — adding detail, atmosphere, charm and soul. Paris could spend as much as it likes on that mythical Ratatouille dark ride to be nestled at the back of Toon Studio, but it will just be another self-contained patch of quality. The park as a whole still won’t work if the original areas remain unfinished. Luckily, these corners of the park are so devoid of anything that they’re practically a blank canvas. There’s no giant tile mural needs knocking down here. The attractions are top quality, they just need to be unpacked from their boxes, wrapped in a cohesive theme. So where is the vision for Walt Disney Studios, the intent? Maybe it’s still to come. We’ve heard rumblings of a “30-year plan” — but that means if you’re in your 30s today, you’ll be just about retiring by the time the park has moved forward. Today, to the eyes of a visitor, the Studios isn’t going anywhere — and the worst thing a Disney park can ever be is static.