Disney California Adventure is not Disneyland. It is not meant to be. Therefore, if you go to Disney California Adventure and feel disappointed that it’s not the same as Disneyland, you have been properly warned.
I love that it’s not Disneyland. We already have one of those. People groaned when it first opened in 2001, saying it didn’t have the same magic. All the Disney characters that we hold dear were mostly non-existent. Well, Disney California Adventure is a celebration of California. The wharf, the wine, the glitz, the wilderness, and the beautiful coastline.
With the most recent reboot, it is a celebration of California as Walt first discovered it and the park is now infused with more of the Disney characters we love. As you enter the new streamlined front gates, you come into Buena Vista Street. This is Art Deco Los Angeles with high-end department stores and booming businesses. Inside a Macy’s-like Elias & Company, you will see re-imaginings of 1920s light fixtures, geometric wall designs, and a very cool display of figures in the finest fashions of the time. The shops along Buena Vista Street house a variety of souvenirs. There is also a cafe where you can pick up Starbuck’s coffee and a sandwich. Or you can stop by the ice cream shop and get a yummy scoop of dessert.
At the end of Buena Vista Street is Carthay Circle. Here you will see the Red Car Trolley glide by, the new Carthay Circle restaurant, and the entrance to Hollywood Land. The Carthay Circle restaurant is a fine dining experience. Dim lighting, wood paneling, and vintage decor give this space a classy ambience. Downstairs you will find the lobby, the restaurant front desk, and the lounge. I recommend reservations as the line up for dinner was quite long. Even so, get there early and enjoy an old-fashioned beverage in the lounge. For those looking for an “authentic” experience, order the Scotch Mist, supposedly Walt’s favorite. The upstairs dining room is just as classy as the lobby below, but with less hustle from the street. We dined there mid-December and there was a promotion – if you order a two-course meal (i.e. salad and entree), you automatically get tickets to see the water show World of Color. I had only seen the show in passing, so getting prime standing space was ideal. Therefore, I ordered a small salad and for my entree, I ordered the Pork Pot Roast. It was incredibly tender and very flavorful. The food was superb and the quiet ambience made you forget that you were even in an amusement park. In general, our dining experience at Carthay Circle was a success. I must note, however, that the service was slow. It took a very long time for us to even get our breadbasket. I suspect that the mix of the holidays and this being a new restaurant, resulted in the staff being overly inundated. Hopefully, that smoothes out. Regardless, I highly recommend this dining experience. We did use the World of Color tickets later and enjoyed the water show very much. I should note that the content of the show is regularly updated to include the latest films, most recently Brave. Also, if you stand close to the railing, you will get you wet.
I like Hollywood Land. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a thrill (good place to scream) and I like the Aladdin show at the Hyperion Theatre. Hollywood Land has a nighttime edge. Their Mad T Party is a DJ’d dance experience, formerly known as ElecTRONica. We have done the New Year’s Eve countdown here three times. It’s fun and unlike that other park, there are bars sprinkled around the festivities. Not that you have to drink to have fun, but I like that it’s available especially for a champagne toast at midnight.
Pacific Wharf is a great place to eat. The main area of the wharf is a food court with Mexican food, Asian food, and a café featuring Boudin bread. The new Ghirardelli soda fountain and chocolate shop is nearby with plenty of decadent treats. Be sure to stop in and get your free chocolate square. Keep your eye on the mural behind the counter. It’s animated and changes every few minutes. For those looking for an adult beverage, you have a beer truck, margarita stand, and a winery at the wharf. I am a fan of the Golden Vine Winery. On a date night, it’s nice to get a cheese plate, a couple glasses of wine, and watch the crowds pass by.
Paradise Pier is your fun beach boardwalk. My new love in this area is the Little Mermaid dark (indoor) ride. It is Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and goes through the whole movie. For rollercoaster lovers, California Screamin’ has just the right amount of kick. That first take-off gets your heart racing and its drops/loop/curves are exciting. I can pass on all the fair-like games, but don’t miss out on Toy Story Midway Mania. This zippy indoor ride is a virtual contest. You and your pal will shoot passing ducks, try to pop bouncing balloons, and throw rings on three-eyed aliens. You will see all the favorite Toy Story characters as you fight for the best score. I pride myself on being a pretty good shot, so I give it a good fight. The only other ride I like here is Goofy’s Sky School. It looks like a kids ride, but the tight turns and little dips are still fun for bigger “kids”. My husband would be sad if I didn’t mention the corndogs. They have really tasty corndogs. There. You can also get flatbreads, salads, and marinated meats at the pier. To the right is a photo of how it used to look.
I really like the ambience of Grizzly Peak. The woodsy atmosphere is refreshing and with the trees, it even seems quieter. Sometimes you can see the feral cats wandering around in the foliage. I also like watching people get slammed with water as they take the final drop on the very wet Grizzly River Run. I did this ride once. Not one person in our raft remained dry. I was staying at the Grand Californian Hotel and changed out of my drenched clothes afterwards. I was head to toe wet. It’s not my cup of tea. I am more of a coffee-drinker anyway. Speaking of drinks, the entrance to the Grand Californian Hotel is in Grizzly Peak. Not a bad idea to break off from the crowds, grab a drink at their lovely Hearthstone Lounge and maybe even get a bite at Storyteller’s Café. But that’s really another article.
A few steps from Grizzly Peak is Condor Flats. Here you will find the ride that is perfect for all park goers – Soarin’ Over California. This ride is like a ski lift and it floats over a large, curved screen. The smooth flight takes you over state landmarks while spraying scents of oranges, trees, and the salty ocean. Keep your eyes open for hidden Mickeys. There are at least two that I’ve seen and there are probably many more. The last time I rode Soarin’ a cast member mistook me for Ariel. Yep, she thought I was the Ariel working near Paradise Pier. This has happened to me three times in the park.
So I’ve saved the best for last. My favorite part of the park is Cars Land. Cars Land debuted this past summer and exceeded my expectations in many ways. Cars Land is located beyond Buena Vista Street, adjacent to the wharf. Cars Land is, of course, themed after the 2006 Cars movie set in an Arizona-like town called Radiator Springs. Beautiful rockscapes frame this new land and visually draw you into its world. There are two entrances to Cars Land and I recommend taking the one from the wharf. Go ahead – get your free Ghirardelli chocolate square, walk through the wharf food court, and then make a left. This is the ooh and awe entrance with the gorgeous rockscapes in perfect view. You will also see the waterfall and bridge in the distance. The Radiator Springs Racers is the main highlight of Cars Land – don’t miss it. A portion of the ride is outside and a portion is dark. I was impressed by the interior scenes. They put you right in the middle of the movie. I’ve ridden it twice and “won” the race both times. I also really like Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree. It’s not only cute, but it whips you around for a little thrill. Skip Luigi’s Flying Tires. It looks fun, but it only moves when you and your riding pal put all your weight into a specific direction. It was surprisingly challenging. I did it once. I’m set. Overall, Cars Land is brilliant. The whole town of Radiator Springs is beautifully done with very thoughtful details. Even if you are not big on rides, take a stroll down the street and see all the shops. I have heard that Flo’s V8 Café is really good, but have yet to try it.
So there you go. Thus endeth our tour of the non-Disneyland Disney California Adventure. I must officially say that I loved the park when it first opened. All the grumpy people that didn’t like it, left it crowd-free for Aaron and I to wander with our plastic wine glasses. It became our date night. Most people flock to Disneyland to find that classic magical experience. I agree – it’s classic and it can’t be recreated. Yet, Disney California Adventure is truly that – a whole different adventure. There is even more to discover at the park. I haven’t talk about every single attraction because there has to be something for you to find. Go discover your own adventure there. See what you love about this celebration of the Golden State.
You know, it’s funny…with all the latest upgrades, sometimes I forget what the park originally looked like. Luckily, I have a travel poster and personal photos from when it first opened. I loved it then, I love it now, and I will continue to love it. With or without free Ghirardelli chocolate.