The self-proclaimed "happiest place on Earth" is about to become a whole lot happier.
When Disneyland Resort's new 12-acre Cars Land opens in time for next summer's tourist blitz, it will represent the latest achievement in the world of "imagineering" a word that was coined to emphasize the imagination of Disney engineers.
Presently under construction in the Disney California Adventure park, Cars Land is the centerpiece of a $1.1 billion expansion that will bring throngs of visitors into the fictional town of Radiator Springs, Ariz., via fabled Route 66. If you've seen the Disney/Pixar movies "Cars" and "Cars 2," you'll know exactly what to expect.
Every character in Cars Land has headlights, fenders and four tires. You'll meet race cars Lightning McQueen and the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, chic and sleek Sally Carrera, the hippie van Fillmore, the low rider Ramone, and many more favorites from the 2006 movie and its 2011 sequel.
Also scheduled to open in May 2012 is Buena Vista Street, which will give California Adventure a welcoming boulevard on a par with Main Street, U.S.A. an integral part of Disneyland since the seminal Disney park opened in 1955.
Featuring art deco and Mission-style facades typical of Burbank, Calif., in 1923 when cartoonist Walt Disney first moved to California, soon to create Mickey Mouse and so many other beloved characters Buena Vista Street will include a recreation of the theater where "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premiered in 1937.
At a meeting of the North American Travel Journalists Association in Anaheim in September, I was fortunate to get a preview of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street from the Disneyland Resort's Imagineering Department. Although the new segments themselves were closed to advance tours, artistic renderings made it clear that these will stand on their own as Disney attractions.
The most exciting element of Cars Land will no doubt be Radiator Springs Racers. Estimated to cost more than $200 million by the time it is completed, it will be the most expensive attraction ever built in the Disneyland Resort, and one of the most expensive theme-park attractions in the world.
Featuring a more advanced version of the test track technology employed at Epcot Center in Florida's Walt Disney World, Radiator Springs Racers will take guests on a thrilling ride through the red-rock country at the foot of the imaginary Cadillac Range.
Characters "Doc" Hudson and Lightning McQueen will brief the passengers in each six-person vehicle as they head out on a casual desert sightseeing tour. But the trip goes awry, as theme-park attractions often do, and riders suddenly find themselves negotiating steep banks and screeching around hairpin turns in an outdoor race against another guest vehicle. A photo-finish is guaranteed.
Also in Cars Land, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree will be a Mad Tea Party sort of ride featuring tractors rather than tea cups, and Luigi's Flying Tires will be an updated version of Fantasyland's original flying-saucer ride. And there will be restaurants such as Flo's V-8 Cafe, and several shops that continue the automotive theme.
Besides the continuing construction on Buena Vista Street, plenty of other changes have already been made in the 55-acre Disney California Adventure, which itself opened as an appendage to the original Disneyland only in 2001.
To me, the most impressive new addition is an evening sound-and-light show called "World of Color," which debuted in June 2010. Combining water shot from 1,200 fountains, colorful electric lights and lasers, fire and fog, this $75 million "hydrotechnic" extravaganza projects scenes from dozens of animated Disney classics.
Such beloved characters as Simba ("The Lion King"), Aladdin's Genie, Buzz Lightyear (from "Toy Story"), Nemo, Wall-E and even Bambi and Dumbo appear upon ever-changing sheets of mist above Paradise Bay in the heart of California Adventure.
When the show was being installed, the manmade lagoon was drained for a full year, and Paradise Pier one of the principal components of the park was redesigned as an early-20th-century seaside boardwalk and midway, with a 150-foot-high Ferris wheel and roller coaster.
In June of this year, it added Ariel's Undersea Adventure to its list of attractions. Based on "The Little Mermaid," it takes riders through an underwater passage accompanied by music from the animated movie.
Also in California Adventure, the Golden State section features a wet-and-wild whitewater rafting adventure known as the Grizzly River Run. But its more subdued pleasures include an international selection of restaurants serving California wines and beers.
A Bug's Land is geared to the youngest age group, members of whom seem to love the 3-D movie, "It's Tough to Be a Bug." This is adjacent to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, filled with movie-themed attractions such as live-action stage musicals and an animation academy and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a very frightening elevator ride.
California Adventure also has direct access from a pair of resort hotels. Disney's Grand Californian Hotel with 750 rooms captures the mood of many national-park lodges, while Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel, with 489 rooms, overlooks the midway.
The original Disneyland, meanwhile, has continued to change and evolve since it opened its gates to worldwide acclaim in 1955. Its principal elements have remained the same Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland huddle around the central hub of Main Street, U.S.A. with the addition of a child-oriented area called Mickey's Toontown on the far side of Fantasyland in 1993.
Perhaps the area most subject to change, as technology advances, is Tomorrowland. The House of the Future envisioned by Monsanto sponsors in 1955 is a far cry from the Innoventions Dream House presented in 2011.
Some rides, such as the Autopia mini-cars and Space Mountain roller coaster, have been essentially the same for decades. But "Captain EO," a 3-D science-fiction movie created by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, pays tribute to a performer who wasn't even born when Disneyland opened: the late Michael Jackson. And Star Tours: The Adventures Continue opened in June of this year to replace the earlier Star Tours attraction, taking passengers on a thrilling, simulated ride through the "Star Wars" universe in the years prior to the emergence of Luke Skywalker.
Sleeping Beauty's Castle and the King Arthur Carrousel remain the spiritual hearts of Fantasyland. Frontierland continues to recall the pioneer spirit of the 19th-century American West with its riverboat, its Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and its Golden Horseshoe Saloon.
But New Orleans Square, which provides a practical link between Frontierland and Adventureland, has made a few changes to keep its appeal contemporary.
Pirates of the Caribbean one of the park's most popular attractions, and the one upon which the recent series of major motion pictures of the same name were originally based has now come full circle to incorporate features from the movies. Certainly, the character of Captain Jack Sparrow (as played by Johnny Depp) is highly visible.
And the nearby Haunted Mansion has been transformed at least for the three months before Christmas into director Tim Burton's "A Nightmare Before Christmas," another popular Disney film.
Adventureland's newest major attraction, complementing the stalwart Jungle Cruise and the audio-animatronic Enchanted Tiki Room, is the Indiana Jones Adventure. But even this is far from new; it opened in 1995 and, based upon my recent visit, is clearly in need of an overhaul.
Between Disneyland Park and the Disney California Adventure extends Downtown Disney, an outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment district that opened simultaneously with "Adventure" in 2001. Its 15 restaurants include the Rainforest Cafe, the House of Blues and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. There are also 20 retail shops and a 12-plex cinema that often shows, not surprisingly, the latest Disney movies.
Downtown Disney was created, in part, to invite members of the local Orange County community to share in the Disney experience. As such, it is served by the Disneyland Monorail System, which gives access to the park itself.
But as a visitor, I discovered that the best way to reach the Disneyland Resort when arriving either at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or at Orange County's John Wayne Airport (JWA) is via the Disneyland Express.
Operating hourly from LAX between 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., and half-hourly between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., the luxury bus line charges only $32 per person ($25 for children) for round-trip transportation to and from more than three dozen Anaheim-area hotels.
From JWA, the round-trip adult fare is $27, with hourly departures from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., every half hour between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Lodging and dining
My conference group stayed at the Red Lion Hotel Anaheim, merely one long block south of the Disneyland Resort's east entrance on Harbor Boulevard. The hotel is good value ($99 per night at the time of my visit), but I chose to take my meals except breakfast outside of the property.
From previous visits to the area, I recalled that the Anaheim Gardenwalk complex between Disney Way and Katella Avenue has several excellent restaurants found in key locations around the country. These include McCormick & Schmick's, P.F. Chang's, Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, the Cheesecake Factory and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
But my best meal on this visit to Orange County was delivered in the heart of downtown Anaheim, just a block from City Hall. Long operated by chef Bruno Serato, the manor-like Anaheim White House Restaurant a local landmark for more than 100 years serves a contemporary Italian bistro menu that on my visit included a portobello mushroom ravioli, Pacific whitefish and beef short ribs slow-braised in a wild-mushroom cream sauce.
Serato, who bought the restaurant in 1989, is renowned in Orange County not only for his cooking. He is a tireless supporter of regional charities, particularly a girls' club that he founded to benefit under-privileged young women. In fact, he prepares 300 dinners every night to be served to homeless children in the Anaheim area.
And there's nothing Mickey Mouse about that.