Skip to main content

How Disney California Adventure's Major Expansion Made It The Park It Always Should Have Been

Storytellers statue at Disney California Adventure
(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

It’s been over 20 years since the Disneyland Resort opened its second theme park, Disney California Adventure. While that’s a brief run compared Disneyland itself being around for more than 65 years, or Magic Kingdom’s 50 years that is being celebrated as we speak, few parks have undergone such a radical change in such a short period of time. June 15 marks only the 10th anniversary of the Disney California Adventure you will find if you visit today, i.e. how it exists in its current form.

If you visited Disney California Adventure in its early days, you walked into a very different theme park than you do today. Of course, if you walked into Disney California Adventure in the early days, you were one of only a few, because attendance was found to be significantly lacking early on.

Superstar Limo sign

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

Disney California Adventure’s Early Struggles 

Disney California Adventure was a park that struggled from the very beginning. From the initial concept, a park that celebrated everything about California which required guests to travel to California to experience, to a collection of largely “off the shelf” attractions, there was little to recommend DCA to the vacationing guest. Even CEO Bob Iger called the park “mediocre.” 

The fact is there just wasn’t a great deal to do there. The idea behind DCA was to show guests all the various elements of California in one place, but the problem was that this was done through a lot of “showing” and not as much “doing.” Traditional Disney attractions were limited, and while some, like Soarin' Over California or the California Screamin’ roller coaster, were loved by many, others, like the ill-fated Superstar Limo or the traditional carnival style rides, were seen as uninspired at best and cheap knockoffs at worst. Something needed to be done.

When Bob Iger took the Disney reins in 2005, he made fixing DCA a major initiative. A major expansion and redesign was then announced that went from 2007 to 2012. It would cost over $1 billion, far more than was spent to build the initial park in its entirety. When it was done, however, Disney California Adventure was almost an entirely new and special place to go. There were five major components in the expansion.

Toy Story Midway Mania 

The first new addition to Disney California Adventure was Toy Story Midway Mania, a new, interactive attraction that used both physical “pop guns” and 3D screens to create an interactive midway. It was an evolution on the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters attraction found at Disneyland, but that meant that it gave each park a fun “shooter” ride.

The game kept score, allowing guests to compete to be the best. The scoring mechanic has proven to be popular with guests at both Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World. Many guests are quite obsessed with their Midway Mania scores.

World of Color at Disney California Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

World Of Color 

When you leave Disneyland at night, you’re given a “kiss goodnight” in the form of a beautiful fireworks show, and sometimes a stunning nighttime parade. But with the exception of a short-lived fireworks show when Disney California Adventure first opened, DCA was largely without a great night time show in its early years. That changed in 2010 with World of Color.

Named after one of the iterations of the television show hosted by Walt Disney himself, World of Color used sheets of water as screens to project scenes from Disney films, combined with music. World of Color gave people a reason to stay late at California Adventure, which helped balance the capacity of the two parks. World of Color only recently returned to California Adventure following the pandemic closure, and it’s all the more clear now how important this show is to the park.

The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland Resort)

The Little Mermaid Ariel’s Under Sea Adventure 

At its core, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is a standard dark ride not unlike anything you’ll find inside Disneyland’s Fantasyland. However, it was only the second dark ride at California Adventure, so it was a desperately needed addition in 2011.

The ride tells the story of The Little Mermaid using animatronics that are, while largely still simple, are also, in the case of Ursula, quite massive. The “Under the Sea” number also just includes an incredible number of dancing animatronics, and seeing them all in one place is still impressive 10 years later.

Red Car Trolley

(Image credit: Image Courtesy Disneylandnews.com/Disney)

Buena Vista Street 

Buena Vista Street may not be the most exciting change on paper, but it is probably still the most important change when it comes to what the park is today. Buena Vista Street sets the tone for the entire park because it’s what you see when you first walk in, and it gives that distinct “California” vibe. It's done in a way that still feels like Disney storytelling, by setting the street in Southern California in the 1920s, the era when Walt Disney first arrived in Hollywood with his dreams of making it big in movies.

At the end of the street, instead of a castle, you see a movie palace: the Carthay Circle theater, the place where Snow White and the Seven Dwarves first premiered and changed everything. Inside the park, the Carthay Circle is the most upscale restaurant you’ll find. It’s got perfect ambiance, semi-private dining rooms, and a fantastic menu and bar. 

Radiator Springs Racers at Cars Land, Disney California Adventure

(Image credit: Disneyland resort)

Cars Land 

The biggest new addition to Disney California Adventure 10 years ago was Cars Land. The massive physical expansion to DCA brought Radiator Springs to life in all its neon glory. The new land featured three attractions, including the massive E-ticket dark ride Radiator Springs Racers. And while one of the original rides has already been replaced because Disneyland just can’t seem to catch a break with a hovercraft style attraction, Cars Land is still one of the most popular spots in the park today. 

Cars Land just added more of everything to Disney California Adventure. It gave the park more rides, both big and small, as well more places to eat and just more space. When walking through Radiator Springs’ Ornament Valley, especially at night, it's just one of nicest places to see in the entire park.

Officially, Disney California Adventure celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, but really, Disney California Adventure is only 10 years old now. It wasn’t a complete park before the major expansion, which is shown by the fact that 10 years ago, they didn’t simply open Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, or hold a dedication to the new areas, the rededicated the entire park. This was the DCA the park always should have been and finally became. 

Dirk Libbey
Dirk Libbey

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