Last summer’s opening of Disney California Adventure® Park’s 12-acre themed Cars Land, together with new entrance area Buena Vista Street and the Carthay Circle Theatre (here a restaurant and lounge), was the culmination of a five-year renovation for the theme park. Based on the Disney-Pixar animated film Cars, Cars Land features three attractions, most notably the Radiator Springs Racers, in which riders speed toward a finish line through a desert landscape; opening day wait times tallied up to six hours.
The attraction utilizes technology similar to Walt Disney World’s racing-themed Test Track. It’s that desert setting, named Ornament Valley as in the film, that’s the new stunner, with its 280,000sq-ft. of sculpted rockwork, the largest ever for a domestic Disney theme park.

It took a full five years, beginning with the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) “blue sky” brainstorming process, to transform the former parking lot into Ornament Valley. Landmarks include the Cadillac Mountain Range, 125' tall at its highest, with peaks representing Cadillac tail fins on models from 1957 to 1962; Willy’s Butte, which resembles a Pontiac hood ornament; Radiator Cap Butte, named for the auto part it symbolizes; and Radiator Falls, a waterfall whose rockwork is designed to prevent splashes onto racers. There are other auto attributes incorporated into the design, among them parts of car bodies and an arch, the portal to Cars Land from the adjacent Pacific Wharf area, which resembles a car hood.

For Ornament Valley and the rest of Cars Land, WDI senior concept design director/Cars Land art director Greg Wilzbach says the team studied the movie in depth. “And we worked with [Cars production designer] Bill Cone, who was the colorist for the movie and styled the movie rockwork,” he says, adding that Imagineers also consulted with Cars director John Lasseter, chief creative officer, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Wilzbach and others from WDI and Pixar also took a ten-day tour along Route 66, soaking up the culture and environment, and taking detailed reference photos.

For the rockwork, “We really wanted people immersed in a natural setting,” says rockwork art director Zsolt Hormay, a former Imagineer who now heads his own Florida-based company. Hormay spent time with Lasseter at Lake Powell and used photos of Route 66 and Zion National Park as reference for the rock sculpture and color. He began with the project’s model, ½" to 1' scale, “to figure out the layout, pathways, and guest flow,” he says. That model was broken down into smaller modules, scanned with a laser scanner in 3D, and digitized.

Before construction began, two months were spent on what Hormay calls “the sample program,” where mockups of various sections were created and cement mix and color experiments conducted. “We did a special mix of cement to help us achieve particular textures,” he relates. “We tried out different materials and techniques.”

Construction of the basic structure required 4,000 tons of steel, comprised of 23,000 pieces whose shapes were determined in the digitized version and then cut by a metal lathe. The computer model created a system of what Hormay calls “chips,” sections of steel and rebar mesh, generally 6'x7', that were fitted together and welded to the structure to form the framework for the rockwork.

The cement plaster used for the rockwork was sprayed on in layers, each section then sculpted by hand over a two-hour period while it was still malleable. “Cement will change its qualities every half-hour to 45 minutes,” Hormay remarks. Paint was also sprayed on in layers and refined by hand, topped by a layer of silver leaf to reflect light.

“There are about 25 colors in the palette,” Wilzbach says. “We first painted the whole thing in three basic colors—gray, brown, and yellow—and then built up with four, five, or six different washes, depending on the area.” Hormay directly supervised a team of 25 to 30 artisans: sculptors and painters who hailed from Japan, Portugal, France, and Ireland, among other places. Sections of the model were brought to the site daily for reference.

Enhancing Ornament Valley is the landscaping, which throughout Cars Land includes more than 450 trees and cactus and 20,000 shrubs, grasses, and smaller cactus. “Each one is a ‘character’ to tell the story,” says Russell E. Larsen, Cars Land principal landscape architect along with Jennifer Mok. The landscape team worked with nurseries in Arizona and California to procure or custom-grow trees and plants authentic to the desert, though just as in a film, some of the characters have stand-ins.

“The saguaro, the iconic cactus, is highly protected and was difficult to get,” Larsen says. “We found a role player; those are Argentinian saguaros.” Larsen worked closely with Hormay; in one case, trees were removed from their intended spot to provide a rockwork photo op for guests waiting in line. With different species in bloom depending on the time of year, he notes, the landscape changes from season to season.

Ornament Valley becomes even more stunning at night, thanks to its dramatic lighting. Cars Land principal show lighting designer Ken Lennon utilized LED lighting exclusively, along with gels, to illuminate the rockwork, using long-throw fixtures for the top of the Radiator Cap butte and medium throw fixtures for the rockwork’s first 15' to 20' height along the ride track. There is also asymmetrical cyc lighting, custom developed at Lennon’s request, for, he says, “a beautiful color wash light [from the ground] up, that is not glary.”

Particularly striking is the view of Willy’s Butte, seen through the portal arch. “We made the foreground much paler,” Lennon says, “and lit the background with more saturation. It helps the butte pop and stand out against the night sky.” Equipment is concealed in the rockwork and foliage. The DMX control center is located in a room inside the Radiator Springs attraction; a fiber network runs to the rockwork.

Cars Land was the first project for which WDI used what it calls DISH (Digital Immersive Show Room), a virtual walkthrough of the entire land, projected onto a large screen, which could be stopped and resumed as necessary to view particular elements.In all, more than 40 WDI departments contributed to Ornament Valley. The greatest surprise? “How smoothly it went,” Hormay says.

Editor’s Note: In addition to original interviews with all those quoted, the author was referred by WDI to reporting by Mark Eades and Molly Zisk in the Orange County Register, used as reference.