We enjoyed DCA much more than Disneyland. More fun, less strollers and little kids, more adventurous people. Just a different feeling all the way around.

-- Mom from Bend, Oregon

Disney California Adventure held its grand opening on February 8, 2001. Now known as DCA among Disneyphiles, the park is a bouquet of contradictions conceived in Fantasyland, starved in utero by corporate Disney, and born into a hostile environment of Disneyland loyalists who believe they've been handed a second-rate theme park. Its parts are stunningly beautiful yet come together awkwardly, failing to compose a handsome whole. And perhaps most lamentable of all, the California theme is impotent by virtue of being all-encompassing. But despite the long odds, just a decade after its inauspicious debut, DCA has emerged from a billion-dollar metamorphosis that has finally made it an honorable companion to its storied older sibling across the Esplanade.

The history of the park is another of those convoluted tales found only in Robert Ludlum novels and corporate Disney. Southern California Disney fans began clamoring for a second theme park shortly after Epcot opened at Walt Disney World in 1982. Although there was some element of support within the Walt Disney Company, the Disney loyal had to content themselves with rumors and half-promises for two decades while they watched new Disney parks go up in Tokyo, Paris, and Florida. For years, Disney teasingly floated the "Westcot" concept, a California version of Epcot that was always just about to break ground. Whether it was a matter of procrastination or simply pursuing better opportunities elsewhere, the Walt Disney Company sat on the sidelines while the sleepy community of Anaheim became a sprawling city and property values skyrocketed. By the time Disney emerged from its Westcot fantasy and began to get serious about a second California park, the price tag -- not to mention the complexity of integrating such a development into a mature city -- was mind-boggling.

Westcot had been billed as a $2- to $3-billion, 100-plus-acre project, so that was what the Disney faithful were expecting when Disney California Adventure was announced. What they got was a park that cost $1.4 billion (slashed from an original budget of about $2.1 billion), built on 55 acres, including a sizable piece carved out for the grand Californian Hotel. It was quite a small park by modern theme-park standards, but $1.4 billion, when lavished on 55 acres, ought to buy a pretty good park.

Then there was the park's theme. Although flexible, California Adventure came off like a default setting, lacking in imagination, weak in concept, and without intrinsic appeal, especially when you stop to consider that two-thirds of Disneyland guests come from Southern California. As further grist for the mill, before the arrival of Cars Land, there was precious little new technology at work in Disney's newest theme park. Of the original headliner attractions, only two -- Soarin' over California, a simulator ride, and Toy Story Mania!, a "virtual dark ride -- broke new ground. All the rest were recycled, albeit popular, attractions from the Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios. When you move to the smaller-statured second half of the attraction batting order, it gets worse. Most of these attractions are little more than off-the-shelf midway rides spruced up with a Disney story line and facade.

From a competitive perspective, Disney California Adventure was an underwhelming shot at Disney's three Southern California competitors. The Hollywood Land section of DCA took a hopeful poke at Universal Studios Hollywood, while Paradise Pier offered midway rides à la Six Flags Magic Mountain. Finally, the whole California theme has for years been the eminent domain of Knott's Berry Farm. In short, there's not much originality in DCA, only Disney's now-redundant mantra that "whatever they can do, we can do better."

Finally, after more than eight years of basically being in denial about Disney California Adventure, the Walt Disney Company seemed willing to admit that this theme park (which only pulled in about a third of Disneyland's attendance annually) needed some help. On June 15, 2012, the mouse held a grand reopening to celebrate the completion of a $1.1 billion effort, originally announced in 2007, to address DCA's problems. And that's only one portion of the $10 billion Disney has budgeted over 10 years for an extreme makeover of the entire Disneyland Resort.

Starting at the park entrance, the Imagineers have scoured every inch of DCA, injecting charm, character, and ride capacity wherever they could. A new entryway embraces the legacy of Disneyland's founder with a nostalgic re-creation of 1920s Los Angeles. That freshly poured-on theming flows all the way to Paradise Pier, where the tacky seaside amusements have been softened with new-old Victorian-era stylings. An original family-friendly dark ride based on The Little Mermaid has been added, and the central lagoon now sports a Vegas-quality water show, World of Color, designed expressly to keep crowds in DCA after dark. The final element of DCA's transformation fell into place with 2012's opening of Cars Land, an entire area dedicated to the best-selling Pixar property. Cars Land has shaped up to be the biggest project to hit theme parks since Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and appears to be the final puzzle piece needed to rehabilitate DCA's poor reputation. While the park spent its first decade as a punch line, DCA is now a legitimate destination in its own right and finally rivals its older brother for turnstile entry bragging rights on busy days—something that was once almost unimaginable.

Mind you, the rest of the Disneyland Resort is experiencing its own gussying up. look for Downtown Disney to increase in size, adding new shops, clubs, and restaurants to its lineup. likewise, the Disneyland Hotel completed a face-lift in 2012, which folded festive new furnishings and up-to-date amenities into the then-56-year-old resort. Disneyland Park is also rumored to see an expansion in time for its 60th anniversary, now that the major work on DCA is done. There’s also at least one new hotel on the drawing boards, plus a Disney Vacation Club property. According to the rumor mill, there might even be a third theme park in the works, possibly to be built on the Disneyland employee parking lot.

Meanwhile, as the Disneyholics churn up cyberspace debating DCA's theme and worrying whether expensive additions and patched-on personality can compensate for a flawed foundation, the rest of us will have some fun enjoying the park that is.

Arriving and Getting Oriented

The entrance to Disney California Adventure faces the entrance to Disneyland Park across a palm-shaded pedestrian plaza called the Esplanade. If you arrive by tram from one of the Disney parking lots, you'll disembark at the Esplanade. Facing east toward Harbor Boulevard, Disneyland Park will be on your left and DCA will be on your right. In the Esplanade are ticket booths, the group sales office, and resort information.

Seen from overhead, Disney California Adventure is roughly arrayed in a fan shape around the park's central visual icon, Grizzly Peak. At ground level, however, the park's layout is not so obvious.

From the Esplanade, where huge block letters spelling "CALIFORNIA" originally stood, you now pass through a new Streamline Modern entrance facade, designed after Los Angeles's Pan Pacific Auditorium. If it looks familiar, that's because it can also be recognized as the entrance to Disney's Hollywood Studios park in Florida. Once past the turnstiles, you'll find yourself on Buena Vista Street, a re-creation of 1920s Hollywood as Walt saw it when he first arrived.

There are seven themed "lands" at DCA, not including Buena Vista Street. A left turn at the hub leads you to Hollywood Land, celebrating California's history as the film capital of the world. Condor Flats, Grizzly Peak, and Pacific Wharf (formerly known collectively as the Golden State district) are a trio of separate themed areas that showcase California's architecture, agriculture, industry, history, and natural resources. You'll find Condor Flats by taking the first right as you approach the hub. Grizzly Peak will likewise be to your right, though you must walk two-thirds of the way around the mountain to reach its attractions. Pacific Wharf, the remaining Golden State–themed area, is situated along a kidney-shaped lake and can be accessed by following the walkway emanating from the hub at 7 o'clock and winding around Grizzly Peak.

A fifth land, a bug's land, is situated opposite the Golden Vine Winery and can be reached by taking the same route. The sixth land, Paradise Pier, recalls seaside amusement parks of the first half of the 20th century. It is situated in the southwest corner of the park, around the large lake. Cars Land is the seventh land, claiming a former parking lot behind the Pacific Wharf and Hollywood Land, with its primary entrance across from the Golden Vine Winery.

Single-Rider Lines

You can often save time waiting in line by taking advantage of single-rider lines, a separate line for people who are alone or don't mind riding alone or with a stranger. The objective of single-rider lines is to fill odd spaces left by groups who don't quite fill the entire ride vehicle. Because there aren't many singles and most groups aren't willing to split up, single-rider lines are usually much shorter than the regular line. Five attractions at DCA offer single-rider lines: California Screamin', Goofy's Sky School, Grizzly River Run, Radiator Springs Racers, and Soarin' Over California.

Park-Opening Procedures

Disneyland Resort hotel guests get a 1-hour jump on the public four or more mornings each week through the Extra Magic Hours program. You’ll be required to show a hotel key card before being allowed through. This entrance is often overwhelmed, especially on early-entry days, so you may save time by walking to the front gate. All other guests will be allowed through the main entrance onto Buena Vista Street up to one hour early and held at Carthay Circle until after a brief “rope drop” musical fanfare at the official opening time. A queue for Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses will form stretching through Hollywood Land as soon as visitors are allowed in the gates, and the crowd will be walked toward Cars Land at the appointed hour to avoid a stampede.