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Disney California Adventure (DCA) is like Disneyland's older sister: Cheerful, pretty, and friendly but a bit more sophisticated and adventurous than her little sister Disneyland. She's also taller (watch for height requirements here) and enjoys a cocktail now and then (alcohol is sold here though of course children are still welcome).
When it opened in 2001, it was expected to draw such large crowds that they'd have to turn people away-- but it was kind of a fail.
People thought it was unfocused, didn't have enough stuff for kids (?), had too many restaurants and shops compared to rides, and maybe worst of all, it didn't have that Disney "feel". At Disneyland, there are trees and other natural barriers all around the park so you feel like Disneyland is the only place on Earth. At DCA however, you could see power lines, the convention center, and hotels from inside the park.
That first year (2001) it got 5 million visitors compared to over 12 million at Disneyland.
Six years later (2007), they began a BILLION dollar remodel (it only cost $600 million to build originally) where they created different "lands".
Before the redesign, each part of DCA was a spoof of modern
California culture. After the redesign, each part was more like a
snapshot of periods in California history. For example, Paradise Pier
was turned from a present-day California boardwalk into a model of
Victorian seaside amusement parks of the 1920s. Cute huh?
The redesign finished in 2012. Another 6 years later, in 2018, they redesigned Pixar Pier all over again!
Here are the 7 "districts" of California Adventure Land.
This is the Main Street, where you first enter. You immediately feel like you're on a 1920's movie set if not the 1920's themselves.
The buildings, storefronts, restaurants and streetcars are all vintage 20's and there are even Disney cast members dressed in period clothing, strolling or biking around. They'll stop to chat with you using all 1920's-era expressions. Jazz bands and singers perform in the street a few times a day.
There's also a re-creation of the Carthay Circle Theatre, one of the most famous Hollywood movie palaces. (Interesting Fact: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premiered in the original Carthay Circle Theatre in 1937.)
This replica is bigger than the one at Disney World but interestingly, smaller than the original building. There's no theater inside but there is an upscale restaurant called Carthay Circle Restaurant and a members-only club called Club 1901.
Grizzly Peak is about California's wilderness and national parks such as Yosemite.
The Grizzly River Run ride is surprisingly fast and wild. Instead of feeling like you're on a roller coaster track, you feel like you're in an untethered, out of control river raft bouncing around white-water rapids. You'll look like it when you're done, too. (Note: 42" or taller to ride.)
There's also a great big playground called the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail where your kids can run wild as long as they're 7 or older. There's even a zip line and rock-climbing wall.
Grizzly Peak also includes Grizzly Peak Airfield (formerly Condor Flats) which feels like an aircraft landing strip from the 1950's.
But the best part in my opinion is "Soarin' Over California" which is half movie, half ride. It's one of my favorites. Plus you get to be indoors most of the time you're waiting in line which is a nice break. Make sure everyone is at least 40" tall.
There's also the Pacific Wharf which is based on Monterey's Cannery Row and San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.
Paradise Pier was built to look, feel, sound and smell like a 1910 California boardwalk, complete with an old-fashioned carousel, ferris wheel, roller coaster, and boardwalk-style games. At 15 acres, it's the biggest part of Disney California Adventure.
This is where the World of Color show is hosted and where you'll find rides like Toy Story Mania, Jessie's Critter Carousel, Incredicoaster (my favorite roller coaster), Ariel's Undersea Adventure, Pixar Pal-Around (formerly Mickey's Fun Wheel), which is a giant ferris wheel with a spectacular view, and more.
The Pacific Wharf is all about food. There is Mexican, Asian, soups/salads, ice cream, upscale Italian, and picnic meals to take with you to the World of Color.
My 2 Quick Favorites:
OK people, this place is a really big deal. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of the Cars movies but I absolutely love this part of DCA. It is seriously cool.
Talk about being "transported"... when you walk into Cars Land you are IN a desert town along Route 66. The Cars movie was set in present-day but the town it took place in (Radiator Springs) had a very retro, 1950's feel, and Cars Land does as well.
It covers 12 acres but doesn't feel that sprawling, and I mean that in a good way. It's extra-neat if you're a fan of the movie but if you haven't seen it, you will still appreciate your surroundings if you like Americana, cars of any type, and good food.