In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the so-called normal people are often nonessential.
We get in the way, we muck things up, we need help, we get turned to dust and in the case of last year’s “WandaVision,” we mortals exist mostly to be playthings for those with powers. Disney California Adventure’s Avengers Campus aims to flip the script. Superheroes, they’re just like us, the land argues. They get captured, they need our help, they make mistakes and sometimes they just have to do dreary, daily work.
Here’s Black Widow on security detail, patrolling the silver-sleek Avengers Headquarters building, a multitiered structure with a slanted base and an airship up top. There’s Ant-Man, apparently now a restaurateur, whose secret recipe, we’re told, is behind the fried chicken sandwich with a tiny bun atop an outsized fillet. And there’s Iron Man, making corny jokes and asking for photos.
At times, the luckiest among us see superheroes spring to action as the land becomes activated with awe-inspiring, high-flying stunt shows or battle sequences. In one of these scenes, Black Widow and Black Panther are in a bout with Taskmaster, the villain from next month’s “Black Widow” film, a performance Disney had long teased but had been vague on whether it would launch with the land.
It did. In five hours Saturday I caught it three times, and fans clapped each instance Black Panther jumped from the side of a wall.
“It’s just very cool seeing these experiences realized in real life from when I was a kid,” says Louis Lopez, 35, who came down from Vacaville for the opening, and was taking a break to enjoy a beer-infused cocktail in a plastic beaker from the Ant-Man-inspired Pym Tasting Lab. “I saw Black Widow fighting on the rooftops. That’s really cool. Then I saw Spider-Man web-slinging. That was amazing. Here, it’s very hero-focused and they’re having shows. I was hoping Galaxy’s Edge would have more of that.”
Avengers Campus, at six acres, isn’t a 14-acre transportive place such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge next door at Disneyland. It is, instead, a spot that is more homely, earning comparisons to an office park. When stepping into Galaxy’s Edge for the first time, guests tend to stop and stare, entering a place that looks like a mash-up of “Star Wars” planets but is also something alien and unreal, a world none of us has seen before as a fully realized physical environment.
Avengers Campus, based on Disney’s largest global brand, goes for something more familiar, more down-to-earth — converted warehouses, city-like structures and a sanctum that, if it weren’t for Disney’s special effects prowess, could be a themed urban yoga retreat. Design details abound — I like the implication that odd-looking plant life is the result of Hulk-worthy gamma radiation — but at Avengers Campus we enter a relatively bite-sized land that looks like our world.
Disney acquired Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012, but settled on a plan for “Star Wars” in its parks earlier. That is perhaps an indication of the challenge of representing a brand that reflects present-day realism, albeit one featuring characters with extraordinary feats, in theme parks based on our collective, idealized imaginations.
Over the years, alternate Marvel plans have leaked, and those no longer with the company have regaled me with tales and rejected concept art for a grand New York set that could have sat in one of Disneyland’s off-site parking lots. Imagine a mock elevated Metropolitan Transit Authority train in Anaheim.
Consider Disney California Adventure’s Avengers Campus a place influenced as much by San Diego Comic-Con as it is by any of the past endeavors of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s secretive arm dedicated to theme park experiences.
And if opening weekend is any indication — a launch that wasn’t without its share of issues — Imagineering has tapped into the idea that fans today want photo-ready characters, and lots of them, as much as astounding rides. While many theme park guests like to be thrilled, perhaps what is most appealing about gathering in these meticulously designed environments is their sense of community.
While Disneyland curtailed its annual pass program in the pandemic and has yet to announce a replacement, Avengers Campus is most certainly designed for the park regular. At its center is a beer garden, implying this is as much a grown-up hangout as a place for kids, and even the stunt and training shows make a point to call attention to adults as much as little ones. On Saturday, I watched a performer acting as “Black Panther” character Okoye give a sermon about the importance of educators after the male adult she called upon revealed himself to be a teacher.
The new ride, the video game-like Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, is specifically tuned for repeat visits, with interactive challenges baked in for players to best their previous score. We wave our arms and flick our wrists to shoot imaginary webs at digital robots making a muck of the Avengers Campus, a sort of next-generation take on the aging Toy Story Midway Mania!, an attraction with carnival games that are increasingly less sophisticated than anything we can do on a mobile phone. The Toy Story ride was an early experiment in merging digital games and theme park rides, and it put video games in a theme park rather than aiming to solve what theme parks can achieve with video games.
Web Slingers is a video-game ride that shows the power of theme parks, giving us something we can do only in a physical realm — that is, eject virtual webs from our wildly motioning hands. We can even purchase plastic arm bands that can change the type of web we flick into digital domains. The high $30 buy-in for the toys — accessories for them are $25 each — would make sense only for those visiting the parks weekly or monthly, since they’re essentially video-game skins equivalent to those for purchase in games such as “Fortnite” and “Animal Crossing,” which can change appearances and interactions.
Guests, however, are ready to call Avengers Campus their new hangout, especially those former passholders eagerly awaiting a new program that makes visiting the park regularly an actual affordable endeavor.
It sounds weird to say this, but we’re all family.
Mayra Gutierrez, 35, Disneyland and Marvel fan
“It sounds weird to say this, but we’re all family,” says Mayra Gutierrez, 35, of Los Angeles.
Gutierrez, in a Black Panther-inspired outfit, had already ridden the new ride, declaring its arm-waving a “work-out,” and then immediately stumbled upon the Black Widow/Black Panther stunt show, where the once park regular was now people watching, hoping to catch a performance from the female Dora Milaje warriors of “Black Panther.” This was one of Gutierrez’s first times venturing out in our pandemic world.
“It’s really nice to see another fan with another fan,” Gutierrez says. “I imagine that’s what musical festivals will be like and concerts will be like. You’re just happy to be around like-minded people and people with the same interests. Disneyland has definitely always been one of those places. It’s really dope just to be here and take it all in.”
Spider-Man soaring 60-plus-feet in the air never gets old to watch, all the more impressive knowing that it is in fact a stunt robot, not a human. A Doctor Strange show in which the illusionist shows off some magic tricks is good theatrical fun, as are the royal guards of the “Black Panther” films, here stoic, philosopher warriors who offer a training session that’s more about boosting your self-esteem than it is teaching you to spin a spear.
The first Marvel ride to open in a Disney theme park was the Iron Man Experience in early 2017 at Hong Kong Disneyland. California Adventure’s Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission Breakout! opened later that year, a re-theme of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that is now part of Avengers Campus (multiple Marvel attractions do exist at Universal’s Orlando, Fla., theme park via a deal that predates Disney’s acquisition of the brand, and impacts what characters can appear in Disney’s Florida parks).
In an interview in 2017, a Walt Disney Imagineering creative said the Iron Man ride posed a challenge, noting that early concepts set the attraction in New York. Then Imagineering credited former Pixar chief John Lasseter, who left the organization after allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018, for suggesting that the Marvel lands and attractions essentially be self-referential places set in the Disney theme parks.
“He posed the question to us,” said Ted Robledo at the time, the Imagineer who was the creative lead of Iron Man Experience. “He said, ‘Guys, it’s in Hong Kong. Why not Hong Kong? Why are we going somewhere else?’”
Avengers Campus takes that concept and runs with it. We are, most definitely, in Anaheim, inside a land that is baked-in with flexibility to accommodate the Marvel characters and stories still to come to theaters and streaming service Disney+. While shows inside the land happen randomly throughout the day, there is rarely a moment when some Marvel character isn’t out and about for a meet-and-greet.
“We set up the land in a certain way as a campus that allows us all in, but it allows other characters and other power sets and addresses,” says Scot Drake, a creative lead on the Disney California Adventure project.
“This can evolve over time and it will,” Drake continues. “Every time you come, there [will] be new fun, surprises — mash-ups of stories, interconnected stories. These things are unique to Avengers Campus that we … can do here and now. We can do a global story and a neighborhood story. That’s what is fun about this platform.”
There were, of course, some real-world hiccups on opening day.
Lines to get in the Avengers Campus on Friday stretched up to seven hours, and some jumped it by mobile ordering food to get in the land, a process that Disneyland curtailed Saturday, when lines were a lengthy but more manageable three-to-four hours.
Still, Friday was marked with long lines, heavy crowds and confusion. Theme park fan sites erroneously reported Avengers Campus ran out of food, when in fact there was always plenty of shawarma to go around. Disney on Saturday began to fix its operational snafus, as mobile order slots for the Pym Tasting Kitchen and next-door bar opened only every two hours, thus targeting those in the land.
Currently, however, Web Slingers requires a reservation via the Disneyland app in order to ride, similar to Galaxy‘s Edge’s Rise of the Resistance. This means that those who fail to score a ride time for Web Slingers are forced to wait in line just to get in the land for the older Guardians ride and a chance at seeing one of the Avengers shows. But at this time, schedules for the shows aren’t posted, so you may not find the experience worth the wait.
“I think if I had waited six hours, I would have been a little disappointed,” says North Hollywood’s Gary Warren, who was in an Avengers sport coat and gave his age as mid-40s, saying his favorite thing about the land is the existing Guardians ride.
“But the Spider-Man ride was a lot of fun,” Warren adds. “My arms were so sore after we got off that thing.”
Warren and his partner, Sharon Wright, both expressed surprise at the relatively pint-sized feel of the land, with Wright wondering if it will be unmanageable when pandemic crowd restrictions are lifted June 15. “I think it’s good but it’s small. I wish the land were bigger and I’m glad it’s at a reduced capacity.”
Disney and Marvel fans, of course, have long memories, and many fans expressed excitement for the still-to-come Avengers-focused ride that will feature the Quinjet that sits atop the Avengers headquarters.
When asked directly about the status of the attraction, Imagineering’s Drake pivoted and didn’t mention it, reiterating only that the land is a platform that will be home to many stories. The ride, however, was promised in 2019 by Disney CEO Bob Chapek at the company’s D23 Expo.
“Avengers Campus will be home to not only the Spider-Man experience and Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! but a brand new E-ticket attraction,” Chapek said then. He added: “For the very first time, we all get to step aboard a Quinjet and fly to Wakanda.”
The ride was one of the first things on the mind of Lopez: “I’m just looking forward to that potential Avengers ride. Just wall-to-wall heroes. Seeing Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and Black Panther all on one ride. I’m very excited to see how Avengers Campus grows, when we can get a couple years into the future and get more experiences.”
It was a reminder that while the opening weekend fans at Avengers Campus were happy to see their superheroes in the flesh and ready to roll with any hiccups, the land that opened still has a smaller footprint than even the nearby Cars Land. And when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney has trained fans to expect a blockbuster.
Avengers Campus: Complete coverage
A look at the Times’ stories on Disney California Adventure’s Marvel addition to its Anaheim theme park.