For more than a decade, Disney California Adventure Park has been putt-putting along in the slow lane, trailing its neighbor Disneyland in the race for big attendance numbers.
A new 12-acre expansion called Cars Land, set to be unveiled June 15, is the latest and by far biggest attempt to get the laggard theme park up to speed.
Based on the hit animated "Cars" movies made by Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar studio, Cars Land will include a racing convertible ride, square-dancing tractors and plenty of opportunities to buy themed merchandise.
It's the crowning effort of a $1.1-billion, multiyear attempt to turn California Adventure into a park where visitors will want to stay at least an entire day.
"I believe the completion will result in a park that will both stand on its own," Disney Chief Executive Robert A. Iger recently told financial analysts, "but also serve as an important and worthy neighbor to Disneyland."
The investment highlights the importance of theme parks as a powerful revenue engine for Disney. In the first three months of this year, parks and resorts generated nearly $2.9 billion, representing a 10% increase from the same period in 2011.
That strong performance helped Disney overcome a 12% drop in revenue from its movie studio division, which that quarter took a huge write-down from the disastrous "John Carter" flop.
Still, Disney's parks face aggressive competition in the race to create attendance-boosting attractions.
Universal Studios Hollywood last week opened a high-tech, 3-D ride — estimated to cost $100 million — based on the "Transformers" movies. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia will debut a record 400-foot-tall drop-tower ride named for Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor.
California Adventure has been an underperformer almost from the time it opened amid much hype in 2001. Visitors entered under a mock-up of the Golden Gate Bridge to the park that included a boardwalk-style roller coaster, river rafting ride and Ferris wheel, all themed to celebrate the culture and lifestyle of the Golden State.
What was missing, said many park guests as well as analysts, was Disney.
There was almost no trace of the studio's hallmark movie characters, such as Mickey, Goofy and Donald. And the high-tech wizardry that awed crowds at other Disney parks was mostly missing.
"The problem was that there was nothing iconic in that park," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based consultant to the industry. "Here is a company that knew how to build a spaceship but instead they built a Piper Cub" single-prop plane.
Over the years, attractions were added or adapted to Disney-fy the park more. One of the original rides, the Orange Stinger, was wrapped in a shell that looked like a giant orange. After a few years, the shell came off. The ride was redecorated with images of Mickey Mouse, and the name was changed to Silly Symphony Swings after an early Disney series of animated cartoons.
Two years ago, the park unveiled World of Color, an attraction that projects Disney movie scenes on hundreds of jets of water that shoot up from a man-made pool, highlighted by eruptions of fire.
Attendance still lagged. In 2010, California Adventure drew slightly more than 6 million visitors, while Disneyland welcomed about 17 million, according to estimates issued by the Themed Entertainment Assn. and the AECOM engineering and consulting firm. Disney does not release attendance figures.
To make matters worse, analysts said, many of those who visited California Adventure probably owned annual passes that gave them access to both parks. Disney had hoped visitors would spend a full day in each park and stay at a Disney hotel overnight. But pass holders such as Pam Wycliffe tend to visit California Adventure for only a few hours, diminishing the opportunities to sell them merchandise or food.
"I would only go for a handful of rides and then leave," said Wycliffe, a graphic designer from Novato, Calif.
Construction of the major overhaul and expansion of the park — including Cars Land, a new entryway depicting 1920s Los Angeles and the already opened World of Color — began in 2009.
"We knew that California Adventure didn't measure up to what we knew it could be and should be," Thomas Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, told reporters during a preview tour of the expansion. "So we set out to change that."
Cars Land followed the tried-and-true tradition — a success at Disneyland and other parks — of basing attractions on popular movies. Examples include Indiana Jones Adventure and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Disneyland took its classic submarine ride that ran from 1959 to 1998, and reopened it in 2007 as Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
The original "Cars" movie released in 2006 grossed nearly $462 million worldwide. The sequel, "Cars 2," came out last year and, though not as big a hit, took in nearly $200 million.