Celebrating Twenty Years of Disney California Adventure Park: The Entertainment by Todd Pickering

I am thrilled that our resident Disney California Adventure expert, Lisa Stiglic, has given me permission to list my top 20 entertainment offerings at Disney’s – and Disney – California Adventure Park (It was originally called Disney’s with an apostrophe S) as a companion piece to her fantastic article on the Top 20 Attractions at DCA. See if you agree with her. And let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my picks.

I have decided not to include parades. I did really enjoy the Disney Eureka Parade as it was in the era before Disney characters came into the park and was a fitting tribute to California. One of the first things they did to get folks through the gate was bring the Main Street Electrical Parade across the street and call it “Disney’s Electrical Parade.”

I don’t recall seeing the show “Chance to Shine” when 3 women performed on Hollywood Blvd. and sang about getting into the movies. Watching it on YouTube wasn’t really fair. The costumes were a bit baffling and the audience participation never translates. A live performance cannot be beat and no amount of recording can give you the same feeling of butterflies in your stomach as seeing something in person.

Since World of Color has no live performers I will also not be including that. I will not include The Citizens of Buena Vista Street as they are officially listed as “streetmosphere”. There were only a few groups that I did not see so I feel this is a pretty fair representation of the past 20 years.

Let’s begin!

20. A Musical Celebration of Coco

Best Día de los Muertos celebration at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

A Musical Celebration of Coco is a simple show with a quick overview of the hit Pixar film. The Mariachi Divas perform in Día de los Muertos makeup. Dancing life-size puppets of skeletons and a folklórico dance ensemble make this a fun street show. The marionette in the style of Mexican folk art is a highlight.

19. Phat Cat Swingers

Phat Cat Swingers win for best big band sound at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

This big band used to play in Downtown Disney, and when World of Color was on the fritz they performed during the Festival of Holidays. Their blasting horn section can be heard from all around and draws in droves of dancers. We dare you not to clap along or tap your feet. We hope to see them more and more in the future.

18. Green Army Men

The Green Army Men wins for the best beat to hit the parks, non-seasonally speaking. MousePlanet file photo.

Ahhhhh the beat of the drum. It is the universal sound. Like a heartbeat. These green men drive in an adorable toy jeep and you cannot help but march along with them. Lots of audience participation that feels more playful and not so cringe-y. At ease!

17. Frozen–Live at the Hyperion

Frozen–Live at the Hyperion wins for biggest budget in the park. MousePlanet file photo.

I’ve already done a full critique of Frozen–Live at the Hyperion. Disney put some serious money into these sets and costumes. Elsa’s quick costume change is magical when it works, but the sparkly dress alone is simply radiant and made especially for each actress who plays the part. “Let it Go” is not a song that can be sung by an amateur. All the performers are exceptionally talented. The production values are top drawer and are sure to please your little princesses age 8 and above.

16. Miner 49ers

Miner 49ers win for the most missed group at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

This group played some fine down-home country music. Walking along this part of the park truly immerses you in the feeling of the great parks that are so abundant in the great state of California. This music really added to that ambiance, but when Buena Vista Street opened up these talented musicians were let go so entertainment could thrive along DCA’s new entrance. We were too busy clapping and dancing and singing along to have ever snapped a picture.

15. Pixarmonic

Pixarmonic wins for best set of Pixar songs in the park. MousePlanet file photo.

The summer Pixar Pier debuted brought along this very fun and very talented group. They only played Pixar songs. The brass section seemed a bit much until they played the theme from The Incredibles, but then stand back. The diversity of these films and their musical styles was so apparent. They closed with a very traditional folksy duet of “You Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, and then the xylophone player went to town on the finale playing double time and using so many bells and whistles (quite literally) it brought the house down. But unfortunately this whole area is land-locked in the back and underneath a roller-coaster, and even though they lasted a year after the celebration ended they just didn’t gather the audiences. They are missed, indeed.

14. The Mad T Party

The Mad T Party wins for best design. Just look at those fun costumes. MousePlanet file photo by Frank Anzalone.

Disney did a dance party on the Hollywood Back Lot to promote the new film Tron: Legacy. It had amazing lighting effects but did seem more like a promotion. The next year, The Mad T Party debuted. While it was also clearly a promotion for the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland film(s) and a way to sell pricey cocktails to adults, the children really loved to dance to the very talented band with a very rock vibe, fronted by the Mad Hatter and of course Alice. The costumes were fantastic! Many familiar faces were up there playing from other groups and bands from around the Disneyland Resort, and when the band took a break the White Rabbit spun the tunes as the DJ so the energy never dropped. The sets and lighting were also amazing. One could say this was more fun than the films that inspired this dance party. I believe one just did.

13. Toy Drummers

The Toy Drummers win for the best beat to hit the parks, seasonally speaking. MousePlanet file photo.

These four toy soldier drummers start a very traditional, military and precision performance. All fine. All dandy. But then one drummer starts getting a little too rock-n-roll and all…heck breaks loose. The music flips into guitar riffs and faster rhythms. The audience goes wild. The power of drums.

12.Five & Dime

Five & Dime definitely wins for the best entrance out of any act ever at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

A guitar, saxophone, trumpet, drum and bass make up the five fellows who play the music. Five of them. They are the Five. Dime is a sassy songstress. Five & Dime! They drive around in a jalopy and pull up at the fountain on Buena Vista Street. With tunes like “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “I Got Rhythm” they just can’t be beat. The teens and younger kids might not find them the “cat’s pajamas,” though, so that is why we didn’t rank them higher.

11. Disney Junior Dance Party!

Disney hit it out of the park for little kids to enjoy the re-staging of this show with favorite Disney Channel characters and two live hosts. MousePlanet file photo.

Disney Junior – Live on Stage! was a cute enough show with puppets from three of the Disney Junior television programs. It was then transformed into Disney Junior Dance Party! This was a great improvement. I gave it the full critique treatment. Colorful screens, lots of dancing taught to the little ones and two great hosts that aren’t too treacly. This would rank higher but as enjoyable as it is for adults to watch, it is truly intended for the little ones. Your 8-year-old might find this a bit too “baby-ish” for them.

10. The Sound

The Sound wins for best a cappella group at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

The Festival of the Holidays is truly about entertainment and music. The Sound might not have the catchiest of names or costumes but they are all about…well…the sound. A cappella. Rhythm and Blues. Representing the holiday Kwanzaa, their set has more popular music and seasonal songs sung in beautiful harmonies and energy for days. A cappella groups really need to have time to tune up together but we have seen many performers come in and out of this group during the season flawlessly and that is some serious talent to be that in tune. They should not be missed.

9. DJ’s Dance ‘n’ Drive

Hadley, Zaida and Willa were the perfect example of how well DJ’s Dance ‘n’ Drive worked in Cars Land. MousePlanet file photo.

Unlike Disney Junior Dance Party!, this had some serious adult appeal. The DJ car would pull up glowing with lights and blasting tunes. He would play all of those great songs like “Life is Highway,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Car Wash,” and of course “Route 66.” A bunch of gals dressed as waitresses would grab the kids and dance with them while Mom and Dad could groove to these tunes. Unfortunately DJ hit the Mother Lode and headed to Walt Disney World. Haven’t you been there long enough, DJ? Drive on back to DCA!

8. Tale of the Lion King

Tale of the Lion King wins for the best all-around entertainment in the parks; song, story and dance! MousePlanet file photo.

This ranks high as a very clever and original telling of the classic film. A very talented team of music, costuming and dance was involved in this show. A lithe and nimble troupe of dancers really made a great impact. With a lack of dance in Frozen–Live at the Hyperion, this was a welcome addition to the park’s entertainment. The wonderful casting of Timon as a woman was a lovely touch. The musical arrangements were so fresh, including a clever mash-up of “Be Prepared” by Scar and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” sung by Simba. The two downfalls were the hot summer sun beating down on the audience and performers and the cutting of the dancers towards the end of the run. This would have been fantastic at the Hyperion.

7. Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession

Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession wins the most colorful celebration ever to hit DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession is a blast of color that is truly spectacular. Lunar New Year in Asian cultures is like our Christmas in the United States. There are dancers with umbrellas. There are dancers with ribbons. There are dancers with drums. The traditional dragon is thrilling and performed beautifully. They truly are the stars of this show. But Mulan and Mushu are there along with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Chip and Dale, all dressed in their holiday finery, so the kids will be pleased as punch. For the year of the dog we had Pluto, and for the year of the pig we had all Three Little Pigs! So depending on the Zodiac animal, you might see some substitutions or additions. This is a processional that travels to Paradise Gardens Park (neither a garden or a park…discuss), which is directly across from Pixar Pier in front of the Little Mermaid attraction. The only problem with the January/February timing of Lunar New Year is that it is the rainy season. Performances are oftentimes cancelled. It would be nice if it was performed in the Hyperion Theater when it gets rained out.

6. Mostly Kosher

Mostly Kosher wins for best eclectic set to hit the parks. MousePlanet file photo.

Another Festival of the Holidays offering is this krazy, kicky Klezmer band to represent the holiday of Hanukkah. Cleverly highlighting the many cultures where the Jewish people live all over the globe, the traditional is mashed up with the modern. The lead singer, Leeav Sofer, has an indefatigable voice that soars from traditional to Spain to The American South and rocks and rolls in “Ain’t No Sunshine.” This talented band truly shows that it doesn’t matter what holiday you celebrate, because in the end they are all about the joy and the music!

5. The Power of Blast!

The second show to appear at the Hyperion Theater at the end of Hollywood Blvd. was The Power of Blast! Photo by Todd Pickering.

The Disney characters were arriving into the park, but the second show at the Hyperion was an off-shoot of the Tony Award-winning Blast! from Broadway called The Power of Blast! Drums, horns and flag twirling. Don’t roll your eyes at flag twirling because this was not your High School football flag corps. This was high energy, pounding rhythms, blasting horns and a jump up in your seat feeling that is lacking at the Hyperion Theater these days. The audience literally danced out into the street for the finale of this show. This was the beginning of a feeling that Disney’s California Adventure was on to something and would mature into a theme park of its own.

4. Mariachi Divas

My personal hands down favorite is the Grammy Award winning Mariachi Divas. MousePlanet file photo.

We recall seeing a trio of the Mariachi Divas over at the Día de los Muertos tribute over in Frontierland that is present at Halloweentime. It didn’t take Disney long to hire on the Grammy Award-winning troupe to become permanent in California adventure. They play traditional Mariachi songs and sing in Spanish, but also do Disney songs including the most palatable version of “It’s a Small World” we have heard. They play along with A Celebration of Coco and have their own stage and Navidad show at Festival of the Holidays. They can also be found regularly roaming about, as Mariachi bands are wont to do, in the Pacific Pier dining area. We have been known to follow them from table to table. Definitely our top favorite of must-sees at DCA.

3. Red Car Trolley Boys

Best dancing and singing in the parks goes to Red Car Trolley Boys (and gal!). MousePlanet file photo.

This singing and dancing gang of boys (and girl) makes it in our top three. They arrive aboard the Red Car Trolley, with Molly from the Citizens of Buena Vista Street introducing Mickey Mouse for the finale. This show is a fan favorite. Singing such cracker-jack tunes as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Make ‘Em Laugh,” it was pretty clear that this act was inspired by the Disney film Newsies. When they sang “Seize the Day” the crowd went wild. They didn’t just sing; this group could dance. When construction began on Avengers Campus the Red Car Trolley was inactive, so they did their act without it, but it just wasn’t the same. Then the group went away. We want them back! Say, maybe a full production of Newsies in the Hyperion Theater would be the ticket when the parks re-open?

2. ¡Viva Navidad!

¡Viva Navidad! is the winner of the most festive celebration at DCA. MousePlanet file photo.

The Disney trio of Donald Duck and his two pals Jose and Panchito are the hook for some of the most energetic, joyous and authentic dancing to hit the Disneyland resort. Giant Puppets whirl about, and there’s traditional Mexican dancing with colorful swirling skirts and gigantic sombreros placed on the ground and danced around, ending in a secretive kiss so as not to upset the children. Pounding Brazilian drums with giant pink-skirted dancers all culminate in a grand finale with a meshing of cultures, and Mickey and Minnie zooming by in bicycle driven floats. The banners are waved and flags are twirled as we all sing “Feliz Navidad” and the confetti shoots to the gleeful cries of children. It just doesn’t get more magical…or does it?

1. Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular

I don’t think the number slot of Aladdin over at the Hyperion Theater is much of a surprise. MousePlanet file photo.

Our number one pick is the sheer joy, sheer laughter, sheer magical theatricality that was Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular. The show ran for 13 years. While some of the effects weren’t as fancy as the Hyperion Theater’s current show, what they lacked in the high-tech department they made up for in theatricality. Aladdin walking down the stairs into the Cave of Wonders was clearly an actor on strings but we believed. We knew that the Magic Carpet was played by a gymnast in a costume but we believed. We could see the strings on the Magic Carpet when it came out but we believed. And when the Genie peppered his lines with jokes from the news of the day (sometimes literally from the morning news) the adults split their sides with laughter and only laughed harder when the little ones asked “What? What was so funny, Dad?”

Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman knew how to write a movie musical score that translated into the rhythm of the stage and build properly. Jasmine’s song “To Be Free” might have been one song too many for a movie but it had to be reinserted onto the stage so Aladdin could make a costume change. What a treat to hear something new! There was some really great Broadway dancing that we truly miss. Disney has so many rich musical properties that we hope there might be something new at The Hyperion when entertainment makes its full return at Disney California Adventure.