As the lights dimmed and the music swelled around Paradise Bay Lagoon, Kelly Speers and his wife, Amanda, quieted their two daughters and turned their attention to a darkened pool.
Never mind that the family from Alberta, Canada, had already seen World of Color, the newest attraction at Disney's California Adventure Park, the previous night. They were so impressed by the towering fountains, erupting flames and animated characters that burst from the lagoon that they came back for a second night.
"It blew our mind to see this," said Kelly Speers, as his daughters, ages 4 and 2, squirmed on a bench facing the lagoon.
After years of disappointing attendance, it looks as if California Adventure finally has a hit on its hands.
World of Color opened June 11, marking the first big-ticket attraction of a $1-billion makeover and expansion project designed to breathe life into the struggling 55-acre theme park. Already, Disney officials say the nearly half-hour show has exceeded expectations, drawing so many guests that they have added a third show nightly.
"This is the first piece, and it has been really well received," Disneyland Resort President George Kalogridis said.
Disney officials estimate that the water-and-light show attracts 4,000 to 7,000 visitors per show, most of whom crowd into a roped-off area on the banks of the Paradise Bay Lagoon. To get into the reserved viewing area, guests either arrive early to get a free "fastpass" ticket or buy a meal package, priced between $15 and $40, that includes entry to the reserved zone.
The expansion plan will continue next summer with the opening of the Little Mermaid — Ariel's Undersea Adventure, an indoor ride based on the classic 1989 Disney movie "The Little Mermaid." As part of the makeover, Disney also plans to remodel the park entrance by the end of 2012 to resemble Los Angeles of the 1920s, including new shops, restaurants and Red Car trolleys along Buena Vista Street.
But the biggest investment will be Cars Land, a 12-acre addition that pays tribute to the 2006 Pixar movie "Cars." Cars Land is scheduled to open in 2012.
Despite initial positive reviews and large crowds for World of Color, Disney officials say it's too early to declare the latest investment into the expansion — an estimated $75 million to build the new attraction — a success.
"We don't look at any one component, we look at the total investment," Kalogridis said. "It's going to be a couple of years before we can really see if the overall investment is paying off."
California Adventure, which opened in 2001, was designed to pay tribute to California's landmarks and landscape. The 55-acre park attracts an estimated 6 million visitors a year, fewer than the 7 million patrons that Disney officials had anticipated and less than half of the roughly 15 million people who visit neighboring Disneyland each year.
Theme park experts say California Adventure has fallen short of its attendance goals because it lacks a resonating identity and because park officials made the initial mistake of barring Disney images and costumed characters like Mickey Mouse and Goofy from the park.
Whereas Disneyland prides itself on being family-friendly, California Adventure has tried to distinguish itself by targeting thrill-seeking teens and older guests with adrenalin-pumping rides like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror — a drop-down coaster ride — and carnival attractions like a Ferris wheel.
Another difference: Disneyland does not sell alcoholic beverages, while California Adventure sells beer and wine.
"It doesn't have a distinct identity," David Koenig, author of several books about Disney's parks, said of California Adventure. "It seems like a generic carnival."
But in the last few years, Disney has tried to introduce more Disney images at California Adventure. For example, Mickey Mouse's smiling face replaced California's golden sun on the side of the park's Ferris wheel last year. The Orange Stinger, a swing ride that resembled a giant orange, was renamed Silly Symphony Swings in June, with Mickey Mouse, dressed as a maestro, replacing the orange.
Disney officials have conceded that California Adventure lacked attractions to keep guests staying —and spending — after dark. With shows at 9, 10:15 and 11 p.m., World of Color addresses that problem.
To keep visitors around between shows, the park also added a nightly dance party called Glow Fest led by wildly costumed DJs and dancers in glowing spandex.
But Disneyland enthusiasts wonder if the buzz created by World of Color will continue. They noted that attendance rose when California Adventure opened the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in 2004 but then declined.
"When they open up something new, there is always initial interest and big crowds," author Koenig said. "The key question will be, will it be a lasting fix?"
Whatever the future of the park, the new show has already won high praise from guests including Jannie Ho of San Francisco, who brought her three children to see the attraction on a recent weeknight.
"I heard about it for a while," she said, "but seeing it face to face is more real and dramatic."
Her son, Taylor Tran, 11, agreed. "It's amazing!" he shouted.