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We're not amused

Disney's California Adventure has fizzled, proving that consumers don't like to be taken for a ride.

April 05, 2008

The first question about Disney’s California Adventure was so obvious that it seemed downright stupid: Why would anyone pay Disneyland prices to go there?

When the park opened seven years ago, its deficits were clear even to the children who visited. One fabulous ride -- "Soarin' Over California" -- was buttressed by a small array of standard county-fair attractions, albeit given a Disney gloss: the ubiquitous flume ride, a Wild Mouse coaster, centrifugal-force swings, a giant Ferris wheel. Compared with Disneyland, where delights are tucked into every corner, California Adventure seemed barren, low on rides and big on restaurants and souvenir shops. Mainly, it seemed as if the Imagineers had taken the day off to go to Knott’s Berry Farm.

Somehow, Disney's marketing gurus and sales mavens failed to notice what so many others did: California Adventure didn't give the customer his money's worth. Maybe they missed the value issue because they didn't have to pay the admission price -- which has reached $66 per person, even for kids as young as 10. Maybe they figured working stiffs were too dumb to know when they'd been had.

Over the years, though, the park gave off periodic distress signals. Two restaurant operators pulled out because of low attendance. California Adventure installed a "Twilight Zone"-themed ride to draw thrill-seekers. It opened kiddie rides to draw families. It yanked Disneyland's old Electrical Parade back from retirement, and it lowered prices temporarily.

Finally, late last year, Disney announced a $1.1-billion overhaul -- more than it had invested in California Adventure in the first place.

Even on a recent sunny Sunday, though Disneyland was so crammed that the regular parking lot was full, California Adventure was relatively empty. The only line -- a mere 15 minutes -- was, predictably, for "Soarin' Over California." Visitors wandered back and forth among the attractions, riding each several times. Many said they were annual pass holders for the two parks and would come to California Adventure when they got tired of the lines at Disneyland. Sad commentary, when an amusement park's best attribute is that it's something of a dud.

But the fizzle of California Adventure is encouraging in its way. Too often, consumers have been snookered into killer mortgages or expensive cholesterol medicines that are no more effective than dirt-cheap generics. It's nice to know there are times when the law of giving people their money's worth prevails, and when the stupid question is, in fact, the right one.

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