As one series ends, another begins. After our group of posts that ranked attractions at each U.S. Disney Park, I thought the natural progression would be to do a group of posts about what ties those attractions together. That glue is thematic design.
Theme is the difference between a local amusement park and a… well, theme park. Amusement parks would be a group of rides or attractions that are just thrown together while theme parks will usually have attractions with a cohesive subject or style that make up different lands throughout the park. Those lands will then, in turn, fit together to make up an idea for the whole park.
I’m sure some of you are already bored with this post and I know this series won’t be as popular as the attraction rankings. Theme doesn’t matter, or is of little interest, to some people and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Speaking for myself, I find thematic design in a park fascinating. I love to see how well (or poorly) a park flows from one land to another.
I’m going to start this series in California Adventure and work my way through all of the U.S. Disney Parks. I’ll give a brief overview of each land, how it correlates to the park’s theme, and how that land flows to the areas around it. The goal of the posts are to give people who haven’t thought much about how all themes mesh a better understanding. Also, because this is the internet, I will give a rating of the land based on these things below:
- How well do the rides fit the area? There are rides that are great but do they fit the theme of the land? We’ll see in this category.
- Flow – I mentioned this above, but how well does this land flow into the areas surrounding it.
- Does it fit the park’s theme? Not all lands fit into their park’s theme.
- Is this a good idea? Sure, a land can have a nice theme but that doesn’t matter if the area looks terrible.
- Cohesion and intangibles – Does the architecture match the inspiration? Does something stick out like a sore thumb? Does the land feel inviting? Do I feel like giving out bonus points? That’s what this category is for.
All of those categories are out of 10 points each. The ratings are just my opinion and nothing serious so let me know where you disagree in the comments. Alright, let’s get started with a brief overview of the theme behind California Adventure!
California Adventure’s Theme
As a fan of practical names, California Adventure nails it. The park is a celebration of California. The goal is to showcase the different aspects of California to park guests. Is this a good idea for a theme park? I’m still somewhat split on that. I love California and gladly endorse a trip there (with a stop at Disneyland, of course) but a whole park built around the state it resides in is still pretty strange to me. It’s not as if California doesn’t have enough in it for a whole park to be based around. We aren’t talking about Kansas, Toto. There are different climates, terrains and cultures all around the state. But this is definitely the most close-ended theme of all the U.S. Disney Parks. Hollywood Studios can go into any movie they want. Animal Kingdom can take you to any place that has animals. California Adventure is (supposed to be) stuck in California. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that right now but we’ll see if they’re able to stick to theme down the road. When it comparing it to all the other Disney Parks I think California Adventure earns points for being unique but loses some for not being very broad. Whether you like the thematic design will depend on your personality. I do like it although I tried to point out the flaws in it with this long paragraph.
Let’s get to the individual lands.
Buena Vista Street
The entrance to the park takes its name from the street that Walt Disney Studios is located. Instead of being present day, Buena Vista Street is set in the early 1900’s and leads guests to the park icon, a recreation of Carthay Circle, before dispersing to different lands. The shops and dining stops along the way have facades to match the time period they are in, even if the merchandise inside of them don’t (that’s not a reasonable expectation). The gas station in the front of the park is a fun little touch and I think the scale is done well.
I really like this entrance to the park (probably my 4th favorite entrance after the two castle parks and Animal Kingdom). There’s a little bit of hiding the park icon which always leads to a nice moment when it comes in to full view. The street looks beautiful and the entertainment going up and down it fit the time period. I think Carthay Circle is an understated icon but still great. It does a good job of being Disney, this theater is where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered, while also being Californian. It was a good choice and much less cheesy than the original park entrance.
Another of my favorite aspects of the entrance is the 4-way stop (hypothetically) that the park takes before jetting out to the different areas. Because this is an actual street leading throughout California there is a 4-way stop right as you reach Carthay Circle. Assuming you’re headed into the park, on your left will be Hollywood Land, on your right Grizzly Peak and straight ahead will lead guests back into the park. All in all, I think the entrance does a nice job in setting the tone for the rest of California Adventure. To the grades!
Rides Fitting the Land – 8/10
There are no rides so this isn’t really applicable. The store facades look good as does Carthay Circle. The stuff inside these places doesn’t fit the time period (again, unrealistic to think that it would) so I guess I’ll knock it down a few points.
Flow – 9/10
I already mentioned the flow with the 4-way stop because it’s a street. I think it’s a really nice touch and gets guests effectively to other areas of the park. Hollywood Land fits in really well with Buena Vista Streets Theme. Grizzly Peak doesn’t fit in as well but it’s nothing egregious, I’ll knock off a point for that.
Does Buena Vista Street fit the Park’s theme? 10/10
Yeah, no doubt about it.
Is Buena Vista Street a good idea? 10/10
Yes. As I said, it’s a nice blend of Disney and California for guests to enter to.
Cohesion and Intagibles – 7/10
The architecture here fits the time (although I’m no expert) and there are no eye sores at all. The one knock I have of this land is that I don’t want to linger and soak up the environment here. Sure, everything looks great but there isn’t as much to explore as some parks and not a lot of space to sit and enjoy the limited views.
Buena Vista Street Thematic Score – 44/50
We’ll go the left next because I’m left-handed. Hollywood Land is inspired by the same time period as Buena Vista Street and celebrates Hollywood’s Golden Age. The area itself is a hodgepodge of a Hollywood Street, a studio backlot and a theater. All somewhat fitting until the icon of the land, The Hollywood Tower Hotel (Tower of Terror), was turned into some weird-looking structure that doesn’t match the rest of the land. I think the land still has some of its appeal but it is a bit of a mess right now, at least thematically.
Hollywood Land houses the Animation Building, Monsters Inc., Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission Breakout! and several theaters, most notably the Hyperion where Frozen Live currently resides. Some of these rides fit, some of them don’t. Eventually this area will turn into a Marvel Land and it remains to be seen what of Hollywood Land will stick around. For now, the theaters and the Animation Building are on point, the other two not so much although Guardians is not yet known.
The shops and eateries (especially Award Weiners! – what a weird thing to put in their park) all fit the area. The studio backlot section is more or less a disaster at this point, thematically. The Monsters Inc. ride is thrown back there and doesn’t fit at all. And the area has a funky stage that, again, doesn’t fit the theme of the land. I’m guessing this is where the aforementioned Marvel attractions will take up and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
There are some cool details throughout the land, including the toilets! The restrooms here are inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Storer House in Hollywood Hills. I think it’s a nice nod to some of the architecture in the area.
Rides Fitting the Land – 5/10
Frozen and the Animation Building are great. Guardians gets a skeptical TBD. Monsters Inc. and the weird backstage area get a 2. We’ll just call this a 5.
Flow – 8/10
The flow in between Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Land is good. It used to be great when you could see the Tower Hotel in the distance but the new structure somewhat throws this off. Still the time periods really fit each other. To no fault of its own, Hollywood Land goes into A Bug’s Land but it does seem to keep its distance so I can’t knock it for that too much. With that being said, those two lands go together as well as lice and a celebrity’s hair.
Does Hollywood Land fit the Park’s theme? – 7/10
In theory, yes it absolutely fits. In reality there’s too much not Californian stuff here from Monsters Inc. and Guardians. Still the overall design fits.
Is Hollywood Land a good idea? – 9/10
Yes, Hollywood is in California. In fact, it’s a big part of Californian culture. One point knocked off because some of the stuff in the actual land isn’t a good idea.
Cohesion & intangibles – 4/10
I don’t think Hollywood Land has much cohesion right now. One part has you walking through old Hollywood the next part has you hanging out with Mike and Sulley in Monstropolis. The next area sees you in a weird dance party and then you’re defending the galaxy. I don’t really get it. Plus, I’m annoyed about it so this only gets a 3 from me. Actually, I’ll give it a 4 because of Award Weiners.
Hollywood Land Thematic Score – 33/50
A Bug’s Land
A Bug’s Land is based on the movie A Bug’s Life. I’m pretty sure you’re shrunk down to the size of a bug when you enter the land and am seeing things from that viewpoint? I don’t know and don’t care much to find out about this. There are a bunch of kids rides here and I still wouldn’t recommend it for parents. I don’t have much to add other than that. To the grades… This should be fun.
Rides fitting the land? – 8/10
I mean, I guess. There’s nothing ambitious here but all of the rides fit in that they’re seen from the eyes of a bug. Actually, I don’t know how the bumper cars fit. Maybe I’m missing something. Please advise in the comments.
Flow – 3/10
Going from the glitz of Hollywood to being a bug is humbling. Maybe they’re trying to make a statement? Likewise, you can go from here to a place where cars talk. So, no this doesn’t really flow.
Does A Bug’s Land fit the Park’s Theme – 2/10
Well, there are bugs in California. I don’t think there is a bug problem in California though. I mean, the bug rate doesn’t seem too high whenever I’ve been in the state. I must admit, I’m not up to date on my bug rates though.
Is A Bug’s Land a Good Idea? – 1/10
Cohesion & Intagibles – 3/10
The only reason this gets a 2 is because one time my buddy and I were way too hot and we stood at the little splash park for about half an hour. Only the splash park wasn’t working other than a big pole that just had water running down it. We would take turns walking up to the pole and hugging it. There were way too many kids around to be doing this but when it’s 100 degrees out my brain shuts off. Actually, I’ll give this a 3 because the land is very green.
A Bug’s Land Thematic Score- 17/50
Cars Land is an area themed to Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie Cars. That area is inspired by Route 66 which is a part of California so it fits in somewhat. Cars Land also has a desert look to it, which you can find in eastern California.
This land is known for looking so much like what you see in the film Cars. All of the shops and food options fit the area and most serve items that are inspired by what their buildings facade is. At night the land lights up in neon.
Cars Land is home to three different attractions, each inspired by the movie. The land is known as one of the first to perfect the immersive environment that take guests into the movies that they have seen. That has now become a trend in the theme park industry.
On to the grades!
Rides fitting the lands? – 10/10
I guess this is one of the benefits of having mini-lands inspired by movies. The attractions have to come from the movie, therefore making them fit the theme of the land. There are negatives to this but that’s a discussion for another day.
Flow – 10/10
The cool thing about being modeled after Route 66, or a road, is that roads can lead to anywhere. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the park is the back road from Cars Land to the Pacific Wharf. It’s a quiet, beautiful stretch, especially at night. I was going to give this a 9 but I bumped it up to a 10 when I remembered the multiple ways Cars Land gives you in avoiding A Bug’s Land.
Does Cars Land fit the park’s theme? 8/10
I’ve already covered how Cars Land fits in with California Adventure. I think the Route 66 thing is reasonable, as well as the desert aspect. But, when you think of Route 66, California isn’t the first thing to come to mind. Because of that, I’m going to knock it down a little bit but I think the land fits in pretty well overall.
Is Cars Land a good idea? – 10/10
On paper, no. It’s one of the worst Pixar movies (in my opinion, of course) and a desert isn’t exactly the most inviting atmosphere. But then they made the land and it was unequivocally a great idea. One of the best ideas that Disney has executed in years.
Cohesion & Intagibles – 10/10
The land looks great, everything works together and I could stay here for hours. An easy 10 here.
Cars Land Thematic Score – 48/50
Paradise Pier is inspired by the famous Southern California piers (like Santa Monica) that sit on top of the Pacific. While not sitting no the Pacific, Paradise Pier offers up a fun roller coaster, boardwalk games and novelty rides. At night, the area comes to life with World of Color as crowds gather around the pier to watch the show.
As far as themes go the area certainly fits the Southern California pier inspiration. In fact, this area does this almost to a fault. There are some dark and uglier sections of the pier. There are also some rides that are certainly not the most creative. All in all, the area works well but that’s not to say it’s perfect. Let’s see how the grades reflect this.
Rides Fitting the Land? – 9/10
Like I said, the rides fit the land almost to a fault. The only blemish here is The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure doesn’t really fit in with anything else. Sure, it has to do with water and that’s why I only knock it down a point.
Flow – 9/10
The flow is a little bit weird in that there’s only one way out of Paradise Pier. That way out takes you right past Pacific Wharf which is a nice transition because that is a Northern California version of a pier. By the way, no Pacific Wharf review because it’s a weird little sub-section of the park. I like it, thematically, for what it’s worth.
Does Paradise Pier fit the Park’s theme? 10/10
Yeah, no doubt about it. In a way it almost feels too easy but I won’t fault this category for that.
Is Paradise Pier a good idea? 6/10
This is a tricky one. For the most part, I think Paradise Pier is a good idea. But I think it led to some lazy designing that Imagineers have now been trying to fix since the park opening. Once in a while, easy ideas aren’t the best ideas and that’s the case here. Although Paradise Pier has become much better over the years.
Cohesion & Intagibles – 7/10
Paradise Pier flows pretty well, aside from the aforementioned Little Mermaid section. There are also nice places to sit and enjoy the scenery. There is some wasted space and ugly areas but for the most part Paradise Pier is pleasant.
Paradise Pier Thematic Score – 41/50
The last land we’ll cover is a beautiful, sprawling land inspired by northern California, as well as national parks.. The area holds Soarin’, Grizzly River Run, and the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. There are references to Yosemite, the Gold Rush, and a restaurant named and paying tribute to smokejumpers. More than anything, the area looks much different from the adjacent Hollywood Land and adds variety to California Adventure.
While much of California Adventure focuses on the southern half of California, Grizzly Peak does a beautiful job of showing off Northern California. There are many places to explore and, while there’s not a lot of seating, the area offers many pretty sights. Grizzly Peak itself is also the park’s second icon and a worthy one at that. To the grades!
Rides fitting the land? – 10/10
Surprisingly well actually. Grizzly Peak Airfield is home to Soarin’ as well as Smokejumpers Grill. Then, you head up towards the national park segment of the land for Grizzly River Run and Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Beautifully thought out and designed.
Flow – 7/10
You could pick nits about this land coming straight from Buena Vista Street. There are some details that lead us to believe Grizzly Peak Airfield might be set in the past but not many. Still, I don’t think the transition is egregious. I like where the land lets out better, by the Pacific Wharf and vineyard.
Does Grizzly Peak fit the Park’s theme? – 10/10
No question about it. A beautiful tribute to California’s national parks.
Is Grizzly Peak a good idea? – 10/10
See previous answer…
Cohesion & Intagibles – 9/10
As I said above, the land comes together really well. The area is beautiful, with many places to explore. There isn’t one jaw-dropping moment, which keeps this from a perfect 10 but the area is absolutely beautiful and worth spending some time wandering around in.
Grizzly Peak Thematic Rating – 47/50
Overall, California Adventure is a bit of a mixed bag thematically. Cars Land and Grizzly Peak are some of the best lands you can find at any Disney Park, while A Bug’s Land and Hollywood Land don’t fit in very well. DCA has followed its thematic design pretty well overall though and has become a park with some substance to discover.
If you read this novel, I applaud you. Also, you might be crazy but I still appreciate it. I’d love to hear some feedback on this post and what you’d like to see in these thematic guides going forward. We’ll move on to Disneyland sometime in the next couple of weeks.
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