Cars Land Review, pt 1: The Theming of Cars Land

This is a multi-part review of Disney’s California Adventure’s latest addition, related to the PIXAR film, CARS.

Since it opened on July 17th, 1955, Disneyland has been classified by many as a Theme Park. With its high watermark for attention-to-detail, it has often been considered the pinnacle of what a great park is.

During the 1990’s, with The Walt Disney Company on a record uptick as its entertainment and merchandising offerings became wildly successful, several of the company’s higher-ups wanted to find a way to turn Disneyland into a West Coast resort destination, in much the same way that had developed with Walt Disney World in Florida. Numerous plans were made, including some that included a geodesic sphere similar to Florida’s Epcot Center (the West coast version in the concept art was named Westcot).

Plans for Westcot fell through after 1995, and the concept was re-developed in the late 1990’s, with construction following shortly thereafter. What was the brand new theme that would envelope guests in this new park? California. Yes, you’d go to a theme park in California, that would then tell you about the wonders of California.

Needless to say, when Disney’s California Adventure opened its gates in 2001, a number of Disney fanatics decried what was in essence, a park that seemed more about getting you to buy merchandise, than riding rides, or enveloping you in a fun experience.

Some said that people just had to get used to what the new park in Anaheim had to offer, but California Adventure often found itself not even able to bring in half the daily attendance of its big brother, Disneyland. It wasn’t until 2007, that plans were put in motion to ‘fix’ the park. Over the next 5 years, numerous additions would be made, that would slowly build people’s confidence in the park back up. These included:

2008’s opening of Toy Story Midway Mania, a ride/game similar to Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters

– 2010’s opening of The World of Color, an evening water and light show on the waters of Paradise Pier

– 2011’s opening of The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, a dark ride attraction based around the story of the 1989 animated feature

In June of 2012, the finishing touches were put on the park, with a brand-new themed entrance area with stores and restaurants (dubbed Buena Vista Street), and the 12-acre themed land that was a huge selling point for the park’s re-opening: Cars Land! As soon as I heard the announcement for Cars Land in 2007, and that John Lasseter (the Director of Cars and Toy Story!) was going to be involved in its creation, I knew I was going to be there sometime during its opening year!

That time came when I decided to attend D23’s Destination D event in early August (you can read about the experience here) With discounted admission to the parks for attending the D23 event, I put down money for a 5-day park hopper, which allowed me to go between both Disneyland and California Adventure during each day of admission. After spending a total of 12 hours out of my week-long trip to the Disneyland Resort in Cars Land, there’s plenty to talk about. So much in fact, that I’ve broken my review up into 3 segments. The first segment you’re reading now, will detail something that many Disney fans like myself swoon over: Theming.

The theming of Cars Land is on a level many of us have not seen around Disneyland since Mickey’s Toontown opened in 1993. Once you step onto the ‘Mother Road’ of Route 66, the atmosphere just brings you into that familiar world of Lightning McQueen, Mater, and their friends. This is what you get when you spare no expense to give your guests a place that really takes them out of reality, and into a place they could only imagine, or see on a movie screen!

The faithfully recreated Radiator Springs Courthouse, with the founders statue of Stanley right out front!

One of the key elements that helps, is the amazing view of Ornament Valley off in the distance, with its Cadillac Range tail fins that tower over Radiator Springs, seeming to beckon you to quickly get in line for the nearby Radiator Springs Racers.

I’ve included a breathtaking panorama I took, showcasing the rock work that borders the rear of Cars Land. Click on the image to view a larger and more detailed image!

A closer look at part of the massively impressive, vehicle-themed rock work, that serves as an entrance/exit to the nearby ‘Pacific Wharf’ section of the park. Entering ‘Cars Land’ through the gateway is about as awe-inspiring as coming up the main entryway.

I’d been eagerly reading several of the Disney Parks blog postings, not to mention articles at, as the towering edifices were constructed. Seeing it up close, I and many people around me marveled at how real it looked. The atmosphere put me in mind of the trips to California my family took when I was growing up, when we’d head west through New Mexico and Arizona. It almost made me wish to see Cars Land as the sun slowly rose up. During our family trips, that was usually when me and my sisters were roused, and we piled into the caravan to finish the trip to Grandma’s in San Diego, CA.

One of the elements of many PIXAR Animation Studios productions, is that the filmmakers go to great lengths to put so many things into their world, that you often find yourself going back and looking at things you missed. Cars Land is no exception, as John Lasseter seemed to treat this 12-acre portion of California Adventure with some of the most loving TLC one could imagine!

Looking out the windows of Luigi’s Casa Della Tires.

In the world of Cars, there were a number of objects that resembled cars or car parts in some form or another. Of course, Disney couldn’t recreate the tire tread contrails that appeared in the sky overhead in the first film, but throughout Cars Land, we see taillight flowers like the kind above. Plus, they even light up at night!

Sadly, the postcards on Sally’s desk were for display only. Not a single store in Radiator Springs sold postcards while I was there!

And speaking of theming, there’s plenty to be found around the Cozy Cone Motel. The Motel’s Office is laid out just like the film, with all sorts of cone-based paraphernalia inside. One fun little item, are the little cone-shaped alarm clocks (you can see them on the shelf with the little white door in the side), just like in the first Cars film (when the alarm goes off, a little car comes out, and gives a ‘beep-beep’ sound). I know a few people on the messageboards were eager to get their hands on some since they first saw Cars, and I can’t see why Disney doesn’t consider them for Cars Land merchandise. Also in the office, is a little ‘easter egg’ to another of Pixar’s films (you can’t see it from this angle, though). And of course, the entire Motel’s area has cone-themed items throughout, including the cone-based waterwheel near the Motel sign.

For those that are real sticklers about attention-to-detail, while many of the main structures we know from the film are here, some people may be disappointed when they find out some of the smaller out-of-business buildings that are near the Radiator Springs Courthouse are missing. However, other structures have also been added.

Between the Cozy Cone Motel and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, a large building has been erected, labelled as the Carburetor County Tractor Feed and Farm Truck Association Hall. This little addition is a nice play on the Junkyard Jamboree attraction. One could almost picture a stage inside, with Mater addressing numerous tractors and their little baby tractors (which are prevalent throughout the Jamboree). See? This structure got me using my imagination, and it isn’t even open to us tourists!

Flo’s V8 Cafe has had a larger dining area built, including a windowed-in and patio area that gives diners a great view of the nearby rock work, and the Radiator Springs Racers zooming by. Word is, John Lasseter liked the addition to Flo’s so much, that her cafe was altered in Cars 2 to include the area looking out over Ornament Valley.

I know Doc said they were just ’empty cups,’ but these suckers are pretty big, and pretty impressive!

Another surprise, was that an addition was also built on for Flo to expand her business into the Mechanical Clinic building of the late Doc Hudson. However, Flo and the town’s residents still keep mementos of Doc’s career framed on the walls (newspaper clippings, race pamphlets, etc), not to mention displaying his 3 Piston Cup trophies for all to see. The attention-to-detail had me wandering around for a good 20-30 minutes after I finished a meal at Flo’s (more to come about the ‘Cars Cuisine’ in Part 3). They even had an x-ray light box on the wall, lit up with an x-ray of Ramone’s engine!

Another element that helps the atmosphere, is that throughout the day, life-size characters from Cars can be seen around town.

Lightning McQueen, on his way to a photo meet-and-greet, surrounded by his entourage.

Lightning McQueen and Mater are usually trading off photo meet-and-greet duties in front of the Cozy Cone Motel’s main office. Both vehicles have pre-recorded dialogue that they speak in their character’s voices, along with a few bells and whistles. McQueen’s headlights light up, and Mater’s engine wobbles back and forth. McQueen is the only character whose been updated, wearing his World Grand Prix paint and stickers from Cars 2.

Red, the gentle giant of a fire truck, can be seen cruising around town as well. He usually sounds his siren, his rearview mirrors wiggle, and word is, that water cannon on top really works!


And, the trouble-making ‘Tuner’ named DJ rolls into town as night starts to settle in. His music brings out several waitresses from Flo’s V8 Cafe, who start groovin’ to his tunes, and inviting the town’s visitors to follow suit! The real fun come when DJ comes out after dark. His own neon lights come on, turning him into a jukebox on wheels!

I’ve been mentioning ‘night’ a lot in this review, and for a very good reason. One magical moment in the first Cars film, is when the residents of Radiator Springs fix their neon, and the town comes alive with a familiar and nostalgic glow that hadn’t been seen in a long while.

Every night, this same event happens in Cars Land! Just like in the film, we hear the song Sh-Boom (sung by The Chords), and pretty soon, the neon and streetlights come on, starting near the courthouse, and continuing on down the ‘Mother Road.’

The Cozy Cone’s neon was very inviting. Pity you can’t really spend the night there.

Lizzie’s Curio Shop is invitingly-lit on the outside, but on the inside, you won’t find any bumper stickers, snow globes, or other Route 66 knick-knacks.

At night, the rock work of ‘Ornament Valley’ is illuminated, providing a beautiful nighttime driving atmosphere for racers of all ages.

If you have a good camera that takes decent night pictures, I’m sure you’ll be snapping off dozens of them. Cars Land at night almost put me in mind of the old television episode of World of Color, titled Disneyland After Dark. In that special, we saw Disneyland’s Main Street USA as its lights slowly came on. Though unlike the turn-of-the-century Main Street, or California Adventure’s recently-opened Buena Vista Street (meant to evoke 1920’s Los Angeles), Radiator Springs is a more modern ‘Main Street,’ and is something that I’m sure will send many baby boomers into a time-warp, just as Walt had happen with Disneyland’s Main Street.

One of my favorite, and most unusual photographs: The underside of the traffic light at Radiator Springs’ four-way intersection.

One of the most fun details at night, was that the brightness of the town’s single traffic light was amplified. In the film Cars, Fillmore the VW bus claims that every third blink of the light is ‘slower.’ Well, I found myself timing the yellow light several times, and it seems ol’ Fill was correct!

At the end of the night, as the park began to close around 11pm, I found it hard the few nights I spent in Radiator Springs, to leave. I just couldn’t stop wandering around, admiring all the attention-to-detail that had gone into the new land. I was like a little kid again, rapping on some bricks (they seemed real!), listening to classic cruising tunes that reminded me of my parents (they were part of the ‘cruisin’ culture’ in Iowa, and that’s how they met), and just feeling so happy that with John Lasseter and his associates at the helm, the 12 acres I was standing in felt to be a true success to helping revitalize California Adventure. Prior to 2012, the park never offered me enough to make me want to spend a full day there. This year, I was surprised when on my first full day at DCA, I didn’t once cross the promenade to Disneyland. That truly is remarkable, and kudos goes to the many talented people who have finally given us something that is making the folks living down near Walt Disney World jealous.

Lightning’s too fast for my camera this time. “Ka-chow!”

( For Part 2, The Rides of Cars Land, click here )

( For Part 3, The Eateries of Cars Land, click here )

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About MWH1980

Growing up in the state of Iowa, one would assume I'd be enamored with pigs and corn. Well, I wasn't. Instead, I grew fascinated by many things that were entertainment-related. Things like movies, animation, toys, books, and many more kept my attention. This blog I hope to use to express myself regarding my varied obsessions. (P.S. There's no Photoshop involved in that Gravatar-I really am holding an Oscar)

One response to “Cars Land Review, pt 1: The Theming of Cars Land”

  1. Rich T says :

    Awesome review of the land! Can’t wait for the next installment! I agree — My family has found it very, very hard to leave Cars Land on our visits. We love the atmosphere so much, we could spend the entire afternoon and evening sitting at Flo’s watching the Racers, listening to music, and just relaxing!

    I love how that last photo makes it look like Lightning’s zipping through the crowd at 60 MPH! 🙂


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