Disney park changes theme to attract kids
By Gary Gentile
ANAHEIM, Calif. When Disney's California Adventure debuted last year, it was touted as a park themed for older children and adults, sporting a working winery, gourmet restaurants and more sophisticated entertainment.
The Sun Wheel is among the attractions at Disney's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim.
Now, characters from the animated film "Monsters, Inc." cavort for kids and work is starting on a playground attraction aimed at 4- to 8-year-olds. The theme park also is adding a play area based on "A Bug's Life" and a 183-foot free-fall ride, "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror." More aggressive pricing lets guests hop between it and Disneyland for the price of one admission.
"This has been a challenging year," said Barry Braverman, Walt Disney Imagineering executive producer for the park. "You have to step back and say this is a brand-new park. It's still evolving. It's still finding its feet."
Besides the challenges it faced from the inevitable comparisons to Disneyland, California Adventure suffered because of bad weather, a downturn in the economy and the collapse of tourism after Sept. 11.
Poor attendance at other domestic parks resulted in a 17 percent drop in revenue at Disney's theme park division to $1.4 billion for the quarter ended Dec. 31. Disney said attendance at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., fell 20 percent during the quarter and remains 13 percent to 15 percent lower than last year's level.
California Adventure drew 5 million visitors in 2001, according to the trade publication Amusement Business magazine. That's below the 7 million that The Walt Disney Co. had projected, but enough to make it the10th most visited theme park in the nation. By contrast, Disneyland had more than 12 million visitors.
Disney's goal was to transform the area around its flagship Disneyland park, which had deteriorated into a strip of cheap motels, fast-food joints and souvenir shops a development that made Walt Disney himself cringe before his death.
Disney spent $1.4 billion on the new 55-acre park, a dining and shopping district called "Downtown Disney" and an upscale resort hotel, the Grand Californian.
It also worked with Anaheim to refurbish its convention center and create wide boulevards bordered by palm trees.
"From the very outset our whole vision around creating this renovation in Anaheim went beyond just building a theme park and beyond the results of a single year," said Paul Pressler, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
For its newest park, Disney took historical and educational concepts from the "Disney's America" park in Virginia that was never built and some proven attractions from Walt Disney World. It added thrills, including a simulated hang-gliding tour of California and a roller coaster that goes from a dead stop to 55 mph in about four seconds.
But almost from the beginning, people complained that the park was delivering less than Disneyland at the same $43 fee and did not offer enough for younger kids.
Analysts credit Disney with responding quickly to feedback, adding more shows for kids, bringing its much-loved "Electrical Parade" out of retirement and building new attractions.
"They have had to cave in a bit, they have had to refine it a bit, and they've done some fine tuning," said Tim O'Brien, a senior editor at Amusement Business. "But now I think they've got a very cool Disney park that is nontraditional Disney but still has the flavor of Disney."