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Disney is done with its do-over of Disney California Adventure.
Wednesday marks the end of a five-year, $1 billion-plus overhaul to correct problems at the park. The venue, which was supposed to turn the Disneyland Resort into a multiple-day destination like Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., had become a source of embarrassment for the company almost from the moment it opened in 2001. Visitors grumbled that it had little connection to Disney and complained that it seemed built on the cheap.
Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger recently admitted the park had been "a brand eyesore." He told investors the revamp will fix what was "clearly a problem" and lift business across the resort area, which includes Disneyland next door.
Theme parks are more than just fun and games for Disney. Five park locations, including Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, along with cruise ships and vacation time-shares generated $11.8 billion in fiscal 2011, almost 30 percent of the company's $40.9 billion in annual revenue.
Disney had expected California Adventure would lead people stay in its hotels, extending their stays in Anaheim. Instead, it became a place for adults to get an alcoholic drink, or kids to spend a few hours on generic-themed rides, before going back to Disneyland.
The park's revamp has debuted in spurts since 2008. Most of its new features rely on characters that come from Disney's $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios, the San Francisco-area studio behind "Cars," ''Toy Story," ''Monsters Inc." and "A Bug's Life."
The park is now "a worthy companion to Disneyland at this point," said Al Lutz, a hard-nosed critic who is editor of the Disney blog called MiceAge. Lutz credits the overhaul with boosting attendance at Disney California Adventure, which is estimated by the Themed Entertainment Association at 6.3 million last year, up about 12 percent from 2007.
Disneyland attendance grew 9 percent over the same period to 16.1 million.
Having multiple parks in the same location gives Disney a way to charge visitors for "park hopper" privileges and to sell more single-day tickets that give access to one park only. The successful formula, started in the six-park goliath in Orlando, has been repeated in Tokyo and Paris as well.
The revamp replaced many California-themed rides with rides that have Disney storylines.
The Mulholland Madness roller coaster, named after an infamous California water baron, is now Goofy's Sky School.
Golden Dreams, an audio history of California, is now an animatronic ride called The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure.
A replica of the Golden Gate Bridge spanning two banks of stores that lined the entranceway has been made over to evoke the Los Angeles neighborhood where founder Walt Disney got his start.
And Cars Land, a 12-acre area based on the Pixar movie "Cars," opens Friday with three new rides and a re-creation of the fictional town of Radiator Springs on Route 66.
Tiny details such as radiator caps on stanchions or references to Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull (a neon sign says "Catmull Oil") give Pixar buffs endless fodder to revel in.
"If you're a little kid and you just want to have that visceral enjoyment ... you'll have that, but if you're a Disney-phile and you really want to get those deep, deep, deep stories, they're here too," said Lisa Girolami, senior show producer of Walt Disney Imagineering, on a recent tour.
Along with encouraging longer stays, the investment helps Disney's image, since the parks are a way millions of people are exposed to the Disney brand every year. Gate prices also rose last month, to $200 for a two-day "park hopper" pass for visitors aged 10 and up, compared to $173 previously.
"When you spend more time in a park, you spend more on drinks and food and souvenirs," said Gene Jeffers, executive director of the Themed Entertainment Association. "The perception of the value you got for that ticket goes up quite dramatically and it helps with repeat visits."
The new touches are part of a wave of investment by Disney in parks and resorts that is expected to top $3 billion in the fiscal year through September, the highest in company history.
Among the recent projects:
— the Aulani resort in Hawaii opened in August 2011;
— an expansion of Hong Kong Disneyland opened in November 2011;
— the Disney Fantasy cruise ship launched in March;
— the first phase of an expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., opened in April.
Disney is also building a new theme park in Shanghai.
In an interview with The Associated Press in March, Iger said that even though the parks and resorts division doesn't make as much in profit as the company's TV properties like ESPN and Disney Channel, they are a link in the Disney ecosystem that connects people back to its characters, movies and shows.
"It's not just about being in the media business. It's about being in the Disney business," he said.
The investment in parks and resorts has hit $10.5 billion since Iger became CEO in October 2005, significantly more than the $8.2 billion predecessor Michael Eisner spent in the last seven years of his tenure.
Over the same time, Disney's stock has nearly doubled from $24.13 to $46.24.
"They've set themselves up for long-term growth in the parks business through these strategic investments," said Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Capital Markets. "I would have thought it was a pretty mature asset but they're managing to squeeze some real growth out of it."
California Adventure visitors will now enter through a mini version of Buena Vista Street, where Disney set up an animation studio after arriving in 1923. It bears clues to the company founder's roots. A market named "Mortimer's," for instance, bears what might have been the name of Disney's mouse before his wife Lillian came up with "Mickey."
The new Carthay Circle Theatre restaurant pays tribute to the movie premiere of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937. It has an upscale decor and high-end dishes like "Cavatelli pasta with a Tuscan-styled braised lamb."
Slightly raised roofs on the street now hide jarring views of the Anaheim skyline.
In Cars Land, the Cadillac Mountain Range with its tail-fin peaks covers up what once were exposed power lines. Other attractions from the movie like Flo's V8 Cafe and the Cozy Cone Motel round out the fantasy.
"They're trying to impress upon you the environment and the immersion," said Lutz. "That's the key."
The land adds three new rides, although that still means California Adventure has around 35 attractions and rides compared to 60 at Disneyland.
Radiator Springs Racers pits riders in a side-by-side race through the mountain range. Luigi's Flying Tires lifts riders off the ground on an air-hockey-like arena, and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree swings riders side to side in a salvage yard "tow-si-do."
Jalynne Tapia, a 32-year-old baker from Modesto, Calif., is one of the many who weren't persuaded to spend a full day in the park before the final makeover. She said her family was a little turned off by the outdoor drinking and cigarette smoke, which is prevalent in a beer garden area by the Pacific Wharf at California Adventure.
By the second day of a three-day trip, her family had only spent a couple hours in the park, compared to more than a full day at Disneyland. She hoped the new Cars Land area would give her 5-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy more to do next time.
"We're willing to try it again next year to see what happens," she said. "They're both 'Cars' freaks."