What began as an homage to California’s historic and geographic diversity, Disney California Adventure (DCA) had its charm, but not much more to warrant more than half a day’s visit. It has since undergone a massive transfiguration from concept to construction, and as happy Californians, we’re that much happier for having a park that not only celebrates its theme, but which is now immersive enough to justify its own ticket.
Where the melancholy harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas had originally welcomed guests into the park—and often woefully, now it’s the snappy, jazzy tunes of the 1920s that get the adventure rip-roarin’ in a positive direction—whichever that may be—and there are several. But first things first: Welcome to Walt Disney’s Los Angeles: the one that greeted him upon his arrival, when Hollywood was in its infancy and hungry for talent and discovery. Eventually, each would become icons and destinations for California’s biggest business: entertainment.
Now back to the show…
The California adventure begins, as it did for Walt, in early Los Angeles, when “Deco” department stores and fresh fruit stands were plentiful and the “Red Car” transported people to all parts of the city, from Santa Monica to Pasadena. Now the “Red Car Trolley” transports Disney guests from Buena Vista St., near the Main Entrance, to Carthay Circle; down Hollywood Blvd, past the Disney Animation Bldg.; and on to Sunset Blvd., home of the legendary Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a thrilling visit to a once legendary hotel to the stars.
Yet not all visitors to the Golden State get to appreciate or visit the many natural attractions beyond Tinsel Town, like the national parks, desert, Pacific coast, and the wine country. These diverse terrains play an immersive backdrop throughout the park, unfolding with each step to reveal a vibrant vista with stunning detail and subtle nuance.
Where the Matterhorn extrudes from the Disneyland park as a landmark to all who approach, California Adventures’ Grizzly Peak may not be a beacon to incoming travelers, but is no less iconic to the park it inhabits. Nestled among indigenous pine and fur trees, the grizzly bear rock formation represents both an enduring state symbol and a tribute to California’s natural monuments.
Stand in front of this great bear, at the lookout point to a waterfall gushing over rocks and fallen tree limbs, and take in the grandeur. On windy days the spray may overtake the selfie, but otherwise it’s a perfect place to stop, maybe grab a seat, and contemplate your options:
Directly across from you is Bug’s Land. Take a stroll through a country landscape, where characters from the beloved Pixar film appear right at home. Enter Flik’s Fun Fair and become bug-sized relative to the lush flora and oversized objects, like pencils, popsicle sticks and bendy straws. Other than the must-see “flick” It’s Tough to be a Bug, there isn’t much in the way of ride attractions for the “adult child.” Still, the cleverness factor of the Fair is worth the visit, and you can follow the little path directly to the Tower of Terror as an alternate route.
Rolling right along…
Down the road a ways, right off Route 66 and set in the authentic and picturesque Pixar-scape of Monument Valley, the small town of Radiator Springs is happy and able to accommodate all the needs of a touring traveler: Flo’s V8 Cafe is a star attraction for a hearty and healthy meal, beverage or brew—and you can’t beat the view of the Radiator Racers hitting top gear framed by the splendor of the Cadillac Range. With plenty of seating both indoors and out, Flo’s is a place you can enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner—or sunset with a glass of wine as the canyon’s colors shift from coral to crimson.
Then there’s the Cozy Cone Motel, a campy site for enjoying a light bite, like sharing a soft swirl, as the sun goes down and the cones begin to glow bright. In fact, everything glows bright when the sun goes down and that’s when this sleepy little town really springs to life.
Yes, this is a place you can spend some time. It’s a place you can watch time change and feel like you’re beholding a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. And the catchy tunes that cemented Route 66 and Californians’ love of motoring in our collective consciousness—along with some “new” oldies written expressly for Radiator Springs—will make you wish you could check in at the Crazy Cone and stay a spell. After all, everything you need is right there.
But, since there are no vacancies…
Follow Route 66 to the Pacific Wharf, where the ducks and gulls hang out, then take Paradise Pier to the Boardwalk (The land is really called Paradise Pier and it includes the Boardwalk). You note the Cove Bar atop Ariel’s Grotto, where you could enjoy a cocktail and an ocean view (unfortunately the place fills up fast on nice days, and FastPasses aren’t available!) Hug the coast and you’ll come upon California Screamin’. This may look like a Boardwalk coaster from yore, with its compact wooden construction and wavy nature, but it has a takeoff that’s space-age; and once you’re in motion there’s no span of track that offers a moment of relief. If you like rollercoasters, this one’s exhilarating. If not, there’s still exhilaration to be had with your feet on stationary ground, as Screamers careen up, down and around the length of the Boardwalk, including you in the fun, just without the height and velocity.
For some, a ferris wheel is romantic. Mickey’s Fun Wheel might take that a step beyond should you opt for one of the “swinging” gondolas. But swinging or not, this is an opportunity to enjoy 9 minutes of sitting, while being treated to one of the most spectacular views of the park.
Circle back to the hub and this time take the other path, toward the “Eureka” water wheel. To the right is a nature walk that will take you past the remnants of the abandoned gold mine now boarded up. You’ll hear the sounds of indigenous birds and a thunderous waterfall in the distance. This is Grizzly Falls, which is part of the Grizzly River Run, a wet enough attraction to benefit from a hot day or an early FastPass. Lookout points abound for geyser gazing, catching the spray from the falls, and watching riders get drenched by unpredictable geysers and the power of the falls.
Come out the other side and you’ll see the exclusive entrance to the park afforded by the Grand Californian Hotel. Stay on the pine-flanked path and you’ll come to Soarin’ Over California. It may not look like much from the entrance, but a more immersive aerial overview of the state does not exist anywhere (except in EPCOT). You could just as easily have started your adventure here, and maybe next time you will.
As you find yourself back where you began, you consider extending your day into a cocktail hour that could easily convert exhaustion into a second wind. The Carthay Circle Restaurant and Lounge is a California classic with cocktails in character—but with a modern twist. A light bite in the downstair lounge might be just the thing to propel you back into Hollywood Land where there’s always a party on the backlot come nightfall.
Or, there’s the Trattoria at the Golden Vine Winery right beside the Grizzly Peak lookout point from which you officially started your day. A wine flight in a rustic Tuscan setting might be the perfect transition from evening to night (depending on the World of Color show, for which the Trattoria provides preferred viewing if you’ve booked a 3-course prix fixe reservation in advance).
The lights are coming on, the Red Car Trolley rings its bell as it pulls into the street, and tired families trade places with energetic newcomers eager to enjoy nighttime in the park.
You want to do all of it: to sit, to drink, to eat, to talk, to laugh, to celebrate, to revel in wow, look at all that you’ve seen that you didn’t expect, and you actually even learned some stuff along the way—and you didn’t even do half of what there was to do and see and discover and explore, and yes, you need to come back. And when you do, you’ll take an entirely different path.