In 1969 Los Angeles’ Carthay Circle Theatre was demolished, and its grand Spanish Colonial Revival tower collapsed into a swirl of vaporous architectural memories. But this month you’ll be able to have dinner inside, or rather inside its very close approximation, as part of a five-year-in-the-making expansion of Disneyland’s California Adventure, 26 miles southeast of LA.
On June 14, the California Adventure park, which is adjacent to the original Disneyland, revealed the additions of Buena Vista Street and the Carthay Circle Theatre, both featuring close facsimiles to 1920s-era LA landmarks. A third new exhibit area, Cars Land, will not feature Los Angeles architecture, but instead the Pixar town of Radiator Springs.
Buena Vista Street replaces the park’s original entryway, Sunshine Plaza, which featured references to California but didn’t have a unified concept, said Coulter Winn, Imagineer and architect for the project.
“Although the previous entry was unique, it didn’t resonate with our guests because they didn't feel like they were transported to a place and time,” said Winn. The Imagineers redesigned the LA-inspired entrance to have the same transformative effect of Disneyland’s Main Street, modeled in part after Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, at the turn of last century. “We wanted to create the spirit of Los Angeles that [Disney] saw when he arrived in 1923 with $40 and a suitcase.”
As guests enter the park, varied architectural styles work together to create a convincing 1920s-era environment. Retail spaces like Los Feliz Five and Dime and Atwater Ink are meant to feel like the mom-and-pop storefronts in the neighborhoods where Disney lived and worked. Turnstiles have been reimagined to echo the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Streamline Moderne theater in the Fairfax district that was destroyed in a fire in 1978.
A large bridge spanning the entrance (previously the Golden Gate Bridge) has been converted to the Hyperion Bridge, over which Disney himself often drove as he traveled from the Disney studios in Silver Lake to his favorite restaurant, the Tam O’Shanter, in Atwater Village.
The centerpiece of the plaza is a compelling rendition of the Carthay Circle Theatre, the mid-Wilshire Avenue movie palace constructed in 1926. It was here that Disney premiered his first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. Inside the theater will be a restaurant and lounge.
The Imagineers spent months exploring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library and Metro’s Transportation Library and Archives, while also drawing references from existing buildings in Silver Lake, Atwater Village, and Westwood. For added authenticity, they used locally sourced materials from Southern California artisans. Winn estimates they used 430 different kinds of tile, working with East LA ceramic shop California Pottery and Tile Works to create accurate historical reinterpretations of the original designs.
They also took care to bring LA’s dismantled transportation system back to life. Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway run through the park, and besides the decoy catenary wires (they’re battery powered, not electric), Winn said the gleaming trolleys are probably about as authentic as it gets. “It’s basically a real Red Car system in here,” he noted. It especially works because Buena Vista Street is adjacent to the existing Hollywood Land, which already features some excellent interpretations of Hollywood Boulevard architecture. A ride on the Red Car includes a seamless transition between the two old LAs. Yes, confirmed Winn, “you can take the Red Car to Hollywood.”
Winn is careful to note that these buildings are not replicas but “narrative-driven architecture.” Still, he’s inspired by the fact that they might trigger real nostalgia. During D23, an expo for Disney fans, Winn gave a presentation on the project and was inundated by questions from historic architecture fans. “These individuals could remember riding the Red Cars,” said Winn. “They said they couldn’t wait to take their grandchildren on them.”