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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: Disney California Adventure's Little Mermaid Ride

The cute, new $100-million Little Mermaid dark ride is just what Disney California Adventure needed: a D-Ticket attraction geared toward moms with young children.
Ursula's lair scene from Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure.
Ursula's lair scene from Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure.

While neither groundbreaking nor awe-inspiring, Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure is the type of audio-animatronic ride sorely lacking at the built-on-the-cheap Anaheim theme park, which is undergoing a $1.1 billion renovation.

In execution, storytelling and quality, Little Mermaid compares favorably with the classic Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight attractions found next door at Disneyland.

Although the new attraction is more encompassing and ambitious than California Adventure's Monsters Inc.: Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, it doesn't redefine the dark ride genre like the Anaheim theme park's Toy Story Midway Mania.

With its simple and straightforward narrative, Little Mermaid reminds me of Snow White's Scary Adventures and Pinocchio's Daring Journey at Disneyland – and in time will likely join those classic ranks. But for now, the new ride falls into the category of necessary.

Related: Scene-by-scene preview of Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure

During a preview ride last week, I found Ursula’s lair to be my favorite scene by far, with the 12-foot-wide villainess squishing and bulging as she sang “Poor Unfortunate Souls” with a mix of menace and wit.

From a technical standpoint, I was most impressed with Ariel, considering the amazing amount of animatronics stuffed into her diminutive figure. In the opening grotto scene, Ariel’s mesmerizing animated hair flowed as if it had a life of its own, much like Donald Trump’s pompadour.

I was pleased to see only a limited number of video screens throughout the ride. They were used to add atmosphere and propel storytelling rather than in place of animatronics.

Ultimately, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure felt more like a theme park ride than an all-encompassing journey through the movie. I blame the long and bare transitions between scenes for chopping up the story and breaking the continuity. Along several stretches, riders see only featureless rock-work with sparse outcroppings of seaweed.

Also lacking were the smaller details often discovered on repeat rides – such as the treasures stuffed into Ariel’s grotto or the puckering frogs in the "Kiss the Girl" scene. Hopefully future “plussing” by the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering will fill in some of the blanks.

I found the pace of the clam-shell vehicles to be particularly plodding on preview rides during the attraction’s test-and-adjust phase. Hopefully the speed will pick up when the ride officially opens Friday.

While the new Little Mermaid attraction will likely never be a must-ride for me, it’s  a much-needed addition to California Adventure. What’s sad and disappointing is that it took Disney 10 years to add the kind of traditional dark ride that should have been one of the basic building blocks of the park on opening day.

An identical version of the ride, called Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, is expected to open in 2013 at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.


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