Disney's Paradise Pier Recalls a Lost Era of Amusement Parks

Disney's California Adventure, which opened in Anaheim last February, is unique in that company's lineup of theme parks. For one thing, it doesn't highlight the familiar parade of Disney characters; if you want to commune with Mickey and Minnie, you'll have to go next door to Disneyland. For another, California Adventure, which is broken down into several discrete zones, is nevertheless themed to the single unified concept of California history. Thus the Hollywood Backlot celebrates the golden age of movies, Condor Flats recalls the early years of the aviation industry, Golden State pays tribute to the immigrants who settled California, and Pacific Wharf features an array of foods from San Francisco and Monterey. California Adventure has fewer rides than most theme parks, but the attractions are often more sophisticated — this is a park that older kids will like as much as their younger siblings. The Animation building uses interactive exhibits to teach visitors the fine art of creating Disney characters. The film Golden Dreams, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, paints a remarkably unsentimental portrait of the travails of the state's many minorities. The Hyperion Theatre is perhaps the first fully-rigged traditional proscenium theatre ever in a theme park, and currently presents a revue, Steps in Time.

But for pure unadulterated, old-fashioned fun, California Adventure's top attraction is Paradise Pier. It's Disney's tribute to the world of pre-World War II seaside (sometimes lakeside) amusement parks, those gaudy, glitzy, often slightly seedy funspots that were largely made obsolescent by the coming of Disneyland and its imitators. From Coney Island in New York to Euclid Beach in Cleveland, to Pacific Ocean Park in LA, these parks featured rides, games of chance, fun foods, and, always, a terrifying roller coaster constructed out of wood and engineered to seem as rickety as the traffic would allow. Legend has it that Walt Disney disliked such places, thinking them not suitable for families, which is one reason that Disneyland was built in landlocked Anaheim.

Nevertheless, Paradise Pier is Disney's tribute to the boardwalks of yesteryear, situated next to a man-made lagoon into which bathers do not enter. The lagoon is important in more than one way; it creates a space that gives visitors the rare opportunity to take in all of Paradise Pier in one look. And, at nighttime, what a stunning look it is — every ride, attraction, and restaurant is transformed by light. Thousands of light bulbs outline the structure of each attraction, while exterior architectural units are used to bathe the rides in saturated color washes. The lighting units on many rides are programmed to perform chase sequences, a series of effects that only heightens one's perception of Paradise Pier as a living, pulsating entity.

Michael Valentino, principal show lighting designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, worked with Linda Montgomery who, as lead lighting designer on Paradise Pier, led the Disney team that gave the park its glittering look. Valentino notes that Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and Coney Island's long-gone Luna Park provided inspiration for the look of Paradise Pier. Lighting is, in many ways, the key design element here; it's lighting that provides the visual link that pulls the entire park together. Valentino adds that Paradise Pier was designed as one big composition, with various attractions lit in blue, pink, green, and orange to create an overall effect.


However, certain attractions standout in the spectacle of lighting that is Paradise Pier. The first thing anyone notices about Paradise Pier, day or night, is the Sun Wheel, an enormous Ferris wheel with a whimsical sun face at its center point (the sun is a running visual motif throughout California Adventure). The perimeter of the Sun Wheel, and each of its spokes, is covered with what Valentino calls “carny lights” in yellow and amber. From sundown on, the bulbs are constantly in action, performing a varied series of chase sequences that create a sense of nonstop motion. Valentino and his staff created literally dozens of programmed sequences for the Sun Wheel. “We wanted the Sun Wheel to be elegant. It was important to be kinetic without being just a bunch of trashy chase sequences, so we created little stories and wrote programs to tell them.” The result is programs with names like Starburst, the Ripple, Hour Glass, Changing Shooters, and Juju. “We also maintained the storyline that this is the ‘Sun’ Wheel, so all the programs have the lights radiating outward, like rays from the sun.”

Interestingly, Las Vegas-based Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO), the firm that created the exterior signs for such hotel/casinos as the Flamingo and New York, New York, developed the control system for the Sun Wheel. “The sequences are run off of flasher cards, a very ancient technology,” says Valentino, who adds that they were painstakingly developed and written out. “We just imagined the different sequences, then sent them to YESCO,” where they were programmed.

There were other challenges in lighting the Sun Wheel. “We needed to light the sun face without throwing light on the rest of the structure and there was no position nearby.” The solution came in the form of VBMF units from Arc Sales Lighting. These units are placed on the top of the Golden Dreams Theatre, over 500' away, on the other side of the lagoon that divides Paradise Pier from the rest of California Adventure. “The unit has an incredibly narrow beam, and still packs a punch at 500'. Not bad for only 250W.” In addition to these units, two systems of neon tubing circle the sun's face, one interior and one exterior, with Altman Outdoor PARs placed behind the face (which is set apart from the rest of the wheel) to graze the sun's rays.


Equally important is the lighting for California Screaming, Paradise Pier's roller coaster. That the ride is effective is beyond question; you can hear the riders' screams from many locations in the park. The ride's lighting gives it a strong visual impact as well. The most obvious feature of California Screaming is the Mickey Mouse face on the facade of the coaster's biggest hill. The face and ears of the Mouse are outlined in LEDs from LED Lighting and perform a chase sequence as the riders pass by. Valentino says that the LED units were chosen because there are no catwalks on the ride and “we needed something that would last forever.” However, LED units are very small and can only be seen straight on. So, he says, “We took clusters of LEDs and stuck them inside gutted egg strobe units. They shoot light at the prismatic lens of the egg strobe,” which increases the size of the light and allows for off-access viewing.

There are two main hills on the coaster which Valentino calls “humps.” The first is the launch hill. It is covered with a sound tube, with its interior lined with DecoNeon, from Fallon Neon; the blue and green neon units perform a chase as the riders pass, just prior to making that first sickening drop. “It adds to the sense of speed,” claims Valentino. The central hump is uplit from below by eight ETC Irideon AR500 units. Under the direction of an ETC playback controller, the AR500s perform color changes, fan sequences, and so on. (There is a parkwide lighting control system from ETC, with individual nodes provided for interaction with specific show controllers for special effects lighting.) The rest of the coaster's track is uplit with EFX1000s, 1,000W units from Wide Light, that have been covered with blue glass filters from Special FX Lighting.

For vertical contrast to the circular Sun Wheel and the horizontal California Screaming, there's the Maliboomer, in which riders are placed in rows of seats, flung hundreds of feet in the air and then dropped. Structually, the ride consists of two towers, each of which is lit from the bottom by 12 Irideon AR500 units. The placement of these units allows for split color displays and for colors to chase up and down the towers along with the riders. Additionally, two sets of carny lights, one in white and one in red are placed along the edges of the towers. As the riders are shot upwards, the red carny lights chase up along with them. Then, as vehicle and lights reach the top, a series of strobes are fired off, quickly followed by neon rings radiating out, like sound waves, and lightning bolts are illuminated. Nearby is the Orange Stinger, a swing ride set inside a structure that looks like a half-peeled orange, with edges lit in neon. The Zephyr is an old-fashioned rocket ride, with a series of Deco-style ships hung on cables that take riders for a spin. The cables are lined in light bulbs. “They're coated with Teflon, so they won't shatter because of the vibrations from the ride,” says Valentino.

Elsewhere, as one walks through Paradise Pier, there are light bulbs everywhere, lots of 4.2W string lights from Tokistar all over the Pier's walkways. Various food and retail venues in the park are also lit with an eye towards funny, funky units. Pizza Oom Maw Maw is a pizza palace with a surfer-dude theme, with lots of whimsical string lights — some of them look like little illuminated Hawaiian shirts. PAR-38 units provide the necessary accent lighting, with Rainbow Bulbs — triple-colored lights from Special FX — hung in white pendant fixtures. Route 66, a souvenir stand, features a spiral channel of Tokistar LED units tied to random chase sequences. But everywhere you look, the park is filled with grace notes and visual surprises.

In creating Paradise Pier, Disney has, in a way, come full circle, paying tribute to the parks that came before the Magic Kingdom. The result may be the most purely entertaining Disney attraction yet.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.