ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Has Disney's California Adventure theme park -- Disneyland's younger, less popular sister -- finally arrived with the addition of Cars Land?
Richelle Durkop thinks so. The Modesto, Calif., grandmother, who renews her Disneyland annual pass each year and visits the Southern California theme park six times a year, waited with her sister behind two sets of roped-off enclosures at the theme park Wednesday evening to get a glimpse of the celebrities arriving for the Cars Land debut.
"I think it's going to rejuvenate the park," Durkop told The Huffington Post. "Kids love it. Nascar fans love it. And it's Disney -- more so than what California Adventure was before."
Crystal Yates, Durkop's sister (and fellow Disney-phile), gave a similar assessment of California Adventure before Cars Land's arrival. "To me, the park just didn't scream, 'Disney,'" she said. "It didn't have the fun, the imagination, the color. It was cheesy. It was cheap."
Disney CEO Bob Iger hopes that California Adventure's five-year, $1 billion overhaul (which includes Cars Land and several other attractions) can start changing people's attitudes as it did for Durkop and Yates.
Speaking inside Cars Land amid the clamor of a rock 'n' roll band, raucous laughter and thrilled screams, Iger acknowledged the challenges that California Adventure faces in trying to rebrand itself but was confident that the new additions would transform the park into a must-visit destination -- just like the "mother" park.
"More than anything," said Iger to HuffPost, "I just hope that they come and find it to be worthy of a Disney park -- that it creates an experience they're going to remember for a lifetime and that it'll stand tall against the mother of them all -- Disneyland."
The debut party at Cars Land on Wednesday evening began with a long, zigzagging red carpet outside the new Carthay Circle Theatre, studded with celebrities from the "Cars" films as well as a few Disney Channel stars. Comedian Larry the Cable guy, who performs the voice of Tow Mater in movies, and Cheech Marin, who does the voice of Ramone, were in attendance, along with ABC's young "Modern Family" actors Rico Rodriguez and Ariel Winter.
Outside the "A Bug's Land" attraction, a Disneyland band, whose members were dressed in red and yellow uniforms with race flag detailing, sang road-themed tunes like "Rocking Down the Highway" and "Route 66."
At dusk, Iger, Disney Parks and Resorts CEO Tom Staggs and Pixar creative head John Lasseter took turns on stage thanking the cast and crew of "Cars" and the people who helped overhaul the theme park (including Jay Rasulo, whom Staggs replaced in 2009, midway through the process).
Lasseter was so excited that at times he spoke with fists clenched and eyes closed. He became emotional while discussing a road trip on Route 66 with his wife and five sons. "To experience life on the Mother Road," he said with a sigh. "So many of the people and the places we encountered served as the inspiration for Radiator Springs," the town in the "Cars" film recreated in Cars Land. "It's an amazing feeling to stand here right now and see the world we created for the film actually come to life."
Then Lasseter proceeded to reveal on a big screen animated "Cars"-like alter egos for Staggs, Iger and himself. In tribute, Lasseter presented Staggs as an ice cream truck because he has been "bringing joy to millions" with his "good humor," he said. He called Iger a semitruck because of the "heavy load" he carries as leader of a massive company. And Lasseter's car-toon alter ego? John Lassetire, the wood-paneled pickup truck character, a movie-pitching, overly enthusiastic creative type.
While the speeches were short, the 15-minute ceremony left some members of the media restless as the light disappeared and photography opportunities seemed to dim.
Little did they know that Disney was about to create another spectacular effect. After a confetti explosion, fireworks and a triumphant opening of the gates, the crowd walked slowly toward the neon-lit recreation of "Cars" environs Radiator Springs and Ornament Valley.
It was all reminiscent of the moment in the "Cars" film when Lightning McQueen surprises Sally Carrera with a complete renovation of the town's neon signage. Just like in the movie, the park's neon signs lit up the darkened sky and transformed a tiny, forgotten plot of land into a luminous tribute to color and imagination.
So if you go to Cars Land, consider visiting at night.
Cars Land has three rides, Radiator Springs Racers, Mater's Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi's Flying Tires. Dining options include Flo's V8 Cafe, Fillmore's Taste-In and Cozy Cone Motel. Sarge's Surplus Hut and Ramone's House of Body Art are stores at the park.
Full disclosure: Willow Bay, Iger's wife, is a senior editor at The Huffington Post.