Disneyland California Adventure Park
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

When Disney California Adventure began working on Pixar Pier, the delightful cinematic land unveiled this past weekend, it didn’t build from the ground up.

Instead, it followed in the footsteps of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: BREAKOUT! opening, elaborating upon what was already there. In only five months time, the Marvel-inspired replacement for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror successfully filled its queue with hidden comic references and retooled its formerly spooky experience, quickly becoming the most popular attraction across both Disneyland Resort parks.

Now, California Adventure is hoping lightning will strike twice. This summer’s biggest draw, a waterfront homage to Pixar Animation Studio touting Buzz Lightyear churros, Edna Mode wigs, and hugs from Mike Wazowski, adds a familiar thematic layer to the loosely tied-together Paradise Pier that debuted with the park’s 2001 opening.

Pixar Pier shows how Walt Disney Company wants to insert more of its intellectual property into park experiences, but introducing new experiences frequently rather than hold on to sentimentality isn’t a move to meet annual numbers. It’s what will make Disneyland and Disney California Adventure attractive to visitors for years to come.

When California Adventure builds something from scratch — 2012’s Cars Land being the foremost example — it’s generally spectacular, but when you factor in the stringent timelines and design limitations involved in retrofitting a ride from the park’s early days, Disney’s recent feats almost prove more impressive.

Incredicoaster’s special effects and show scenes provide a more exciting experience than its seaside-inspired predecessor, and while these rethemes might not be done under ideal circumstances, their outcomes continue to exceed expectations. Mission: BREAKOUT! saw The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s ride system pushed to the limit, reinventing itself as a frenetic journey that doubled down on thrills. The Incredicoaster feeds context and an action-packed storyline into an attraction that essentially never had one, upgrading the coaster from its amusement park roots while leaving the original structure intact.

Vocal fans often lament the introduction of film characters into longstanding attractions, but these integrations go beyond an inevitable future from a company also creating the world’s biggest blockbusters. The ability for guests, particularly young ones, to grow up watching Star-Lord, Tow Mater or Elastigirl on screen — and then join them on high stakes adventures within the parks is the imaginative core that sets Disney’s properties apart.

Locals may have grown to love the disjointed theming of Disney California Adventure, but packing a park with familiar characters from children's films, comic books or captivating movies only heightens the experience of vacationing guests.

These recent retrofits aren’t seamless processes, however, especially when it comes to deadlines. Tower of Terror’s transition was so tight that it operated elevators to the “fifth dimension” as The Collector’s facade covered the building exterior, and Paradise Pier’s overhaul was allotted just six months for the redevelopment of multiple rides, a table-service restaurant, carnival games, food stands, and outdoor spaces. Pixar Pier made its deadline ... mostly: An Inside Out candy shop is delayed until late summer and two smaller rides will open in 2019.

Creating attractions set to Pixar’s plentiful characters without creative limitations or time constraints is ideal, but in Anaheim, it's next to impossible. Disneyland and California Adventure are surrounded by other businesses (and highways), and it’s immensely difficult to expand. Often, the only way to bring beloved franchises in is by taking other storylines out, a process that appears to mark the direction in which California Adventure is heading.

With A Bug’s Land shuttering four attractions this fall to make room for a Marvel-themed expansion, quickly repurposing attractions while developing longer, in-depth projects may just be the key to perfecting the park's offerings. On the heels of multiple immersive franchise-led experiences coming to Disneyland in next few years — and crowds continuing to reach record-breaking numbers — there’s no time to shutter multiple areas of the park for lengthy reinventions.

It’s why Flik’s Flyers, currently residing in A Bug’s Land, is almost certainly being transformed into Pixar Pier’s forthcoming Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind ride. Flipping attractions into something refreshed and renewed that still fits within its surroundings is the ticket to long-term success not only in real estate, but here, too. Pixar Pier may not have a budget as vast as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or Cars Land, but it stands on its own, providing more robust entertainment, dining, souvenirs and attractions than the coastally inclined boardwalk ever did.