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Can Cars Land revive California Adventure?

By Brad Morris, Special to CNN
June 15, 2012 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Radiator Springs Racers, one of three new attractions that make up Disney's Cars Land, takes riders on a slot car adventure. The park opens June 15. Radiator Springs Racers, one of three new attractions that make up Disney's Cars Land, takes riders on a slot car adventure. The park opens June 15.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Updates to Disney's California Adventures open June 15
  • The centerpiece, Cars Land, makes the most of the popular movie
  • Revamping the park cost an estimated $1.1 billion

Anaheim, California (CNN) -- Disney's Cars Land opens June 15 at Disney California Adventure, and it's big, bold and amazing. As Mater says, "If I'm lying, I'm crying." Kids of all ages will rev their engines and step on the gas.

Cars Land is the capstone of a five year, estimated $1.1 billion dollar reimagining of Disney California Adventure. While Cars Land shifts California Adventure into the fast lane, only time will tell if it will save the town (as Lightning McQueen did for Radiator Springs) and turn Disneyland into the world-class destination it aspires to be.

No doubt the top dogs at Disney hope the renewed focus on movie magic will mean magic for the resort that executives have admitted is not up to brand standards.

Cars Land is the centerpiece to the relaunch of California Adventure. During the past five years, Disney has added more than 20 attractions, including Little Mermaid and Toy Story rides, upgraded hotels and new shops.

The upgrades are important considering a big complaint about California Adventure was that the attractions didn't measure up to other Disney parks. It didn't have enough of the Disney magic: strong themes, characters and stories.

Perhaps the main problem was that California Adventure was too nostalgic for the California of yesteryear, especially Paradise Pier. Nostalgia doesn't appeal to the younger audience. The makeover embraces the movie icons the younger generation has grown up with. Considering that Disney is rumored to have spent more for the relaunch than it cost to build the original park (which opened in 2001 and cost approximately $1 billion), everyone's expectations are going to be high.

Along with Cars Land, other changes being unveiled on June 15 include the addition of Buena Vista Street, the new entrance to the park and a nostalgic look at Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s, when Walt Disney arrived.

Again, it's not just nostalgic, but connected to the movies. The park's icon has changed from Grizzly Peak (a man-made mountain in the shape of a Grizzly Bear, California's state animal) to the Carthay Circle Theater, the theater where "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" debuted in 1937. "Cars" itself is a movie about nostalgia. Good old Route 66 with its zany cast of characters changes the brash Lightning McQueen into a racer with heart.

Cars Land invites guests to cruise low and slow down the main street of Radiator Springs. Thankfully this is the version Lightning repaved. The major attraction is Radiator Springs Racers, but fans will also love Luigi's Flying Tires and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree.

The estimated $200 million Radiator Springs Racers ride is a giant slot car system that also features elements that take place in the dark. The cars are electric, and work much like a gigantic version of the slot cars kids play with. This is the same technology that powers Test Track, an Epcot ride. After boarding the six-person car, you take a leisurely, scenic tour of Ornament Valley. Soon you enter a nighttime section, where you'll find old friends from Radiator Springs and have adventures including tractor tipping with Mater. Next, after an upgrade of tires or paint, and a quick visit to Doc Hudson, your crew chief, the ride turns into a thrilling race for Piston Cup glory.

Disney has brewed a potent mixture here, a cross between the animated character fun of Peter Pan's Flight with the thrilling excitement of a 40 mph race through the desert. The scariest (and most fun!) part was when the car plunged through a wall of fog. This ride is destined to have long lines for years to come. (My kids went crazy, then immediately demanded to ride again.)

Though not as thrilling as Radiator Springs Racers, Luigi's Flying Tires is still unlike anything you've ever ridden, unless you happened to ride Flying Saucers at Disneyland between 1961 and 1966. Or you have shrunken down and ridden on an air hockey puck. In this update of the Flying Saucers concept, giant tires float on a cushion of air supplied by a bunch of small air jets. Riders lean to make their tires move. Adding to the fun is a bunch of beach balls that riders can run into, poke and bat at each other. (Thumbs up from the kids.)

Riders of Mater's Junkyard Jamboree sit in a cart mounted to a baby tractor and the tractors square dance to seven songs sung by Mater himself. (A simple ride, but it got big smiles from the kids).

Cars Land spends a lot of time on the little details, including funny set decoration. There is excitement enough for the kids and humor for the parents. Also, Cars Land embraces an important "Cars" cast member that people forget, Radiator Springs itself. The movie wouldn't be the same without Route 66, Radiator Falls or the Cadillac Mountains. Cars Land really embraces the scenery, right down to the blinking stoplight.

As Sally says in maybe the most poignant line in "Cars," "Well, the road didn't cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn't drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time."

Disney seems to be taking this to heart.

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