Does The Disney California Adventure Name Still Make Sense?

Of the six North American Disney Theme Parks, Disney California Adventure is one of my favorites. It’s such an odd little place that it has a charm that many of the other parks don’t have. It’s not the park with the best rides, though it has some great ones. It also doesn’t have the history that a place like Disneyland has, but its own history is just as worthy of note. 

However, as part of that history, Disney California Adventure has gone through more significant changes to its core identity than probably any other Disney park in its lifetime. Only perhaps Walt Disney World’s Epcot has seen as much change in its total lifetime, and Epcot has been around twice as long. California Adventure is still a great park, but does its name still make any sense? With the news that the final area of the original park, Pacific Wharf, is about to get rethemed, is it time to do something that hasn’t been done since Disney and MGM parted ways and rename a U.S. Disney park?

Grizzley Peak at Disney California Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

What Disney California Adventure Was Originally Designed To Be

From its inception, Disney’s California Adventure had the most unique concept for a theme park, possibly ever. It was a theme park designed to bring all aspects of a California vacation together in one place… in California. You had to travel to California to go to a theme park to experience California.

Ok, the idea maybe wasn’t quite that weird. Disney found that people traveling to California on vacation would frequently make Disneyland one stop on a larger vacation in the Golden State. So the idea was that if Disney could provide all the elements that vacationers were looking for, they could come to Disneyland Resort, stay there longer and still get everything they were looking for.

So the initial layout for Disney's California Adventure had areas inspired by the Napa wine country, Monterey’s waterfront, the Santa Monica Pier, the Northern California Redwood forests, National Parks like Yosemite, Hollywood and even central California farmland. It certainly succeeded in bringing the different parts of a diverse state to one place.

Some of these areas had attractions in the Disney style, many of them just focused on food and beverage from the particular location being represented. However, the initial response to Disney’s California Adventure was not great. The park fell well below initial attendance estimates, and the changes to the park began almost immediately.

Carthay Circle resataurant at Disney California Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

How Disney California Adventure Has Changed Over The Years

One important thing to mention about the original California Adventure is that, like Epcot before it, the focus of the park was not on Disney characters or movies. Unlike Epcot’s earliest days, there was some IP at DCA. The It’s Tough To Be A Bug 3D movie based on A Bug’s Life was there, and Disney references and films could be found in the Art of Animation building, but that was about it.

This all changed fairly quickly. Less than a year after California Adventure opened, the park’s least popular attraction, Superstar Limo, closed. It would eventually be replaced by Monsters Inc: Mike & Sully to the Rescue. Adjacent to the theater showing the Bug’s Life movie, a new land dedicated to A Bug’s Life was built, adding rides for younger guests, something the park desperately needed.

In 2007, a major redesign of Disney California Adventure began that would cost more than the initial park construction. It added major areas to the park and completely redesigned others. Part of Cars Land were built over the area that once celebrated California farmland. A movie about the history of the state of California was replaced by The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Various other attractions that remained would be rethemed to include Disney characters, such as the wild mouse roller coaster Mulholland Madness becoming Goofy’s Sky School.

This redesigning and retheming has only continued. In 2018, the Paradise Pier area became Pixar Pier, including a re-theming of the park’s marquee attraction, California Screamin’ into the Incredicoaster. 2019, of course, gave us Avengers Campus, replacing Bug's Land. Even more recently at the D23 Expo earlier this month, we learned that the Pacific Wharf area is set to get its own retheme into Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo.

Pacific Wharf was part of California Adventure on day one, and it's essentially the last part of the original park that has remained mostly untouched. Many of the elements that made up the original park are still there, but their direct connection to the Golden State is largely gone. So does Disneyland Resort’s second gate need a new name?

Storytellers statue at Disney California Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

Should Disney California Adventure Change Its Name? Yes, Sort Of…

At this point, while the bones of the original Disney’s California Adventure are certainly still there, as somebody who visited on day one would still recognize the park, almost all of it has changed in some fashion, and nearly all of it has changed in a way that makes the park more Disney and less California. This is why I would argue that Disney California Adventure actually should change its name, but only slightly. 

You see, there was another change back when all those other major renovations were taking place 15 years ago. It was originally called Disney’s California Adventure, but is now called Disney California Adventure. It was an odd choice because other Disney Parks, like Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, still use the possessive, and DCA should as well. 

The name should be changed back to Disney’s California Adventure because there is still a distinctly California vibe going inside the park, but it’s Disney’s version of what a California-themed theme park would be. To whatever degree it ever was, California Adventure can no longer compete with what California actually is, but it can give you Disney’s take on what California would be like through a Disney lens.

Pixar Pier still has similar amusements to what you’ll find at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or Santa Monica Pier, but with Pixar characters and Disney’s Imagineers taking those midway games to the next level. You can still feel like you’re walking through a National Park as you walk through the park with Grizzly Peak on one side of you and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa on the other. And Buena Vista Street doesn’t really look like Los Angeles did in the 1920s when Walt Disney arrived, but it looks the way you feel like it should in a Disney Park.

When San Fransokyo opens in a couple years, it will still have elements of San Francisco, just in the way the city was there in Big Hero 6. It’s not the real San Francisco, certainly, but it also isn’t entirely divorced from reality either.

California Adventure is now such a strange combination of places and characters that there's probably no name that will capture what the park is better than the name that it already has, but that strangeness is part of the park's charm. It is a Disney Adventure found in California, and that's all it needs to be. 

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.