ANAHEIM — It was a fine Thursday afternoon in mid-June, yet throughout Disney's new California Adventure theme park, the crowds at best were modest in size, even thin. Except at the most popular attractions--the "Soarin' Over California" ride, the "California Screamin" roller coaster--lines tended to be short, when there were any lines at all. There was an off-season feel to the place, something like Palm Springs in August, maybe, or Yosemite in late February.
"I don't know why it's not busier today," a woman with a German accent remarked to the teenager working behind the counter at the Pacific Wharf Cafe.
The counter attendant did not respond at first. She appeared to be scrolling mentally through a training manual list: Appropriate Cast Member Responses to Guest Comments about SPARSE CROWDS.
Finally, she brightened and, with a winning smile, said only:
"It's such a nice day!"
And with that, she turned away to fetch another adventure meal.
Nice or no, the early days have not been exactly bonanza ones for California Adventure as the Disney Imagineers imagined it. The $1.4-billion park, set on 55 acres next to the original Disneyland, opened in early February with, as a Times report described it, "signature fireworks but unimpressive crowds." Only 3,000 California adventurers were waiting when the gates opened, a quarter of what had been expected.
In the months since, analysts who track such matters have reported daily crowds in the 9,000 to 12,000 range--significantly below the 19,000-a-day average Disney had anticipated. Explanations abound. A softening economy has been blamed, along with the weather and steep admission prices--$43 for adults, $33 for children ages 3 to 9--for what is a relatively small park.
Disney officials have countered that California Adventure should be judged, not in isolation, but as part of a larger push by the mouse high command to convert its Anaheim outpost into a multi-day resort destination--with a new luxury hotel and shopping district, in addition to the two amusement parks. They have expressed confidence that things will pick up for California Adventure in the summer, and maybe they will.
And then again, maybe they won't.
The fundamental premise always has seemed a bit strange to me. Without benefit of Disney market research, which no doubt was extensive, it's difficult to conjure up a natural clientele for a theme park version of California set smack dab in the middle of California itself. Certainly Californians know that the real thing--Sierra waterfalls, beach boardwalks, breathtaking coastline, whatever--are within relatively easy striking distance. Why settle for Michael Eisner's knockoff?
And as for out-of-state visitors, what are they to make of the experience? After a few hours in the park last Thursday, the Golden Land boosterism on display everywhere began to seem over the top even to me, a shameless California chauvinist. How would it play for someone from, say, Topeka?
How would such a visitor react, for example, to the crop displays in Bountiful Valley, each bearing informative signs that boast of California's agricultural dominance? Would the Kansan care that California ranks seventh among states in the cultivation of dry beans; that it grows 17% of the nation's sweet corn; that "Cowlifornia," as one marker noted, "is the nation's number one dairy state"?
And that big billboard on Paradise Pier, the one bragging about "another day in paradise," how would that sit with a tourist who had spent an hour fighting I-5 traffic to reach the joint? And what about the tortilla-making and bread-baking "attractions"--honest, they exist--would they make that $43 admission seem a bargain at twice the price for our man from Topeka?
I pondered such questions at visit's end, while waiting in the "Golden Dreams" theater for the start of a film tribute to the California dream or, as narrator Whoopi Goldberg took to calling it, simply "The Dream."
"The Dream," said Goldberg, cast in the role of the mythical Queen Califia, "has always been there. . . ."
There were only a few dozen people in the audience, and plenty of empty seats. They sat in polite silence through a series of high-gloss vignettes that visited all the obvious touch points of California lore. Prayerful padres were followed on the screen by plucky miners, and brave Chinese laborers, and savvy movie moguls, and stoic Dust Bowl refugees, and so on down history's lane. The production ended with a soaring ballad--something about dreams--and an invitation, or challenge even, from Queen Califia.
"You got a dream? Bring it on!" her golden highness beckoned. "Because this is the place!"
With this, though, the crowd did not rise to its feet and belt out a spontaneous round of "California Here We Come." No caps, or mouse ears, were hurled into the air amid whoops and huzzahs. A few people half-heartedly brought their hands together, clap, clap, oh why bother?, clap.
Most quietly gathered up their souvenir bags and, wearing the expressions of dinner guests who have just been forced to endure a showing of the host's vacation slides, they shuffled out of the theater and into the bright sunshine, the bright California sunshine, the sunshine of golden dreamers. . . .