On a sunny Southern California afternoon, I found myself inside Disney California Adventure Park in a state of disbelief. Before me stood a half-completed attraction celebrating the one-and-only Spider-Man. The thing is, I grew up in the ’80s reading Marvel comics when doing so could get you mocked—or worse. In fact, I’d hid comics in my middle-school textbooks just so I could read them on the bus undisturbed. So, I never dreamed that Marvel would become mainstream cool and materialize inside an actual Disney park.
Yet, here I was inside the new Marvel superhero–themed Avengers Campus, which opens at Disney California Adventure on June 4. And if I had any doubts that my eyes were deceiving me, the land’s executive creative director, Brent Strong, put them to rest. “This is a place where you can become the hero,” he said. “We are going to empower you. You get to live out your superhero fantasy.”
At the time of this behind-the-scenes visit—in March 2020—we thought the new land would open in a matter of months. Of course, that didn’t happen. The pandemic would soon bring the world to its knees, and Disney California Adventure and Disneyland would shut down for more than a year—the longest closure, by far, since Disneyland opened in 1955.
Fortunately, both parks reopened this spring, and now, Avengers Campus is ready for its close-up. The immersive new land, which is dedicated to “discovering, recruiting, and training the next generation of Super Heroes,” brings the world of Marvel to life with two key attractions, WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure and Guardians of the Galaxy–Mission: Breakout!, which opened in 2017. A number of superheroes will interact with guests—or “recruits”—around Avengers Campus. Four spots will offer food and beverages, and two shops will sell merch. The 6-acre “campus” occupies the former site of A Bug’s Land, the kid-friendly home of Flik and friends that closed in September 2018.
Superheroes in history
With the massive health emergency, economic freefall, and other challenges brought on by the pandemic, one might question whether there’s still a place in the world for superheroes. If the past is any guide, the answer is a resounding yes. After all, Captain America, Marvel’s first best-selling superhero, provided a vital dose of optimism during World War II, when Cap battled Nazis and urged readers to invest in war bonds. Now, 80 years later, classic superhero themes such as empowerment and victory over adversity might be more relevant than ever—and certainly more so than when the Imagineers began to dream up this new land in 2017.
Back then, the Imagineers working on the project at their Glendale, California, campus faced a difficult question: The Marvel Universe is the product of tens of thousands of comic book stories and dozens of movies and TV shows. How could Imagineers narrow that expansive universe to a single theme park experience?
In the end, they decided to focus on essential elements that have defined Marvel since the company sprang to life in 1939. “We didn’t follow any one story line that was in a comic or in a film,” said Scot Drake, portfolio creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. Instead, the Imagineers focused on “the core values of the Marvel characters,” he said, while also making sure they “delivered on the superpowers, but also the levity and the humor” that are distinctive to Marvel storytelling.
The campus is composed of several key spots, each tied to a different Marvel character or team. In addition to Spidey’s WEB Slingers, visitors will find the Ancient Sanctum, a luminous outdoor ruin inhabited by Doctor Strange.
Across the way is the Pym Test Kitchen, a restaurant that uses Ant-Man and The Wasp’s growing and shrinking super-tech (a.k.a. Pym Particles) to offer food in strange and abnormal sizes. And at the center of it all is Avengers Headquarters, accented with the signature “Avengers” logo on the facade and, on the rooftop, a Quinjet—the sci-fi jet that carries the Avengers from one battle zone to another.
The Imagineers designed the campus so visitors could meet their heroes, see them in action, and even engage in some superheroics themselves. Spider-Man will swing high above the WEB (Worldwide Engineering Brigade) building and emerge at ground level to interact with guests.
Doctor Strange will perform and teach mystical illusions and tricks. General Okoye and the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s elite bodyguard squad, will offer training in Wakandan battle tactics. And characters making regular rounds will include Captain America, Black Widow, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Black Panther, and Thor.
All of this sounded good to me, but what really spoke to my inner nerd was WEB Slingers, in which riders travel around a track on vehicles and “shoot” virtual webs at interactive screens. While the story line is simple—help Spidey capture his out-of-control Spider-Bots before they wreak havoc on the campus—the technology behind the attraction is inordinately complex. The Imagineers wanted to create the experience of slinging webs, but without guests using handheld devices, as they do on Toy Story Midway Mania! In short, the Imagineers wanted riders to feel like they had superpowers.
The Imagineers spent 2 1/2 years researching ways to accomplish this. In the end, they developed gesture-tracking technology that’s built into each ride vehicle. Sixty times per second, cameras identify the location of riders’ heads, shoulders, elbows, and wrists, so that when they reach out an arm to sling a web, a virtual web shoots from their wrists onto interactive screens. Guests can sling webs to pull doors off shipping containers, to activate conveyor belts, or to grab objects and move them around. “The level of control that you have is amazing,” said Strong, the executive creative director. “It feels just like being Spider-Man.” That’s a compelling draw, I thought. After all, as Strong put it, “Spider-Man is such a wonderful gateway for all of us to take our first steps into being a hero.”
Now may be the best time to take those first steps. Shortly before the pandemic hit, Dave Bushore, vice president of Franchise Creative and Marketing at Marvel Studios, waxed rhapsodic about the new land under development: “The optimism inherent in Avengers Campus captures the diversity, power, and teamwork these extraordinary characters possess, and now they come together to unite people from all over the world under one guiding principle: We are stronger together.”
At the time, the statement seemed little more than a good sound bite. But since then, the world has waged an unprecedented battle against the deadly coronavirus, and today, his words seem almost prescient. Superheroes still matter because they remind us that strength—the kind required to defeat powerful, even deadly enemies—comes from working together. Along with delivering fun and thrills, Avengers Campus just might help drive home that stirring message—at a time when we all need to hear it.
Jordan Raphael is coauthor of the 2003 biography Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. An attorney, he practices intellectual property law.
Eat and drink like a hero
Disney has gone all out to create a menu of Marvel-themed food and drinks at Avengers Campus. Will these items give you superpowers? Probably not. But they do make for some eye-catching—and tasty—fare. Some highlights:
At Pym Test Kitchen, where Ant-Man and The Wasp have developed unusually sized foods, The Not So Little Chicken Sandwich features a giant breaded chicken breast on a tiny bun, with teriyaki and sriracha mayo, and pickled veggie slaw.
Vegetarians can chow down on Impossible-brand extra-large and extra-tiny meatballs with pasta, served in an oversize spoon with a miniature fork. And if all you crave is a “light snack,” you can nosh on the massive Quantum Pretzel, which weighs in at three-quarters of a pound.
Next door, the Pym Tasting Lab slings grown-up beverages pulled straight from the Marvel Universe. Case in point: craft beer poured into mugs using a “reverse draft system” that fills mugs from the bottom up, inspired by Thor’s magically refilling stein from the end credits scene of the Doctor Strange movie.
The Pym Tasting Lab will also serve five specialty cocktails, including the Molecular Meltdown, a marshmallow milk stout with vanilla ice cream and mini marshmallows, and the Regulator, with Patron Silver Tequila, lime juice, habañero and mango syrup, and Golden Road Mango Cart Wheat Ale—garnished with mango-flavored boba Popping Pearls.
Hidden in plain sight
Just like the Marvel movies, Avengers Campus is packed with Easter eggs—small details to reward hard-core fans or anyone paying attention.
In the queueing area for WEB Slingers, the walls are decorated with scrawled notes about experiments conducted by Peter Parker’s fellow young engineers Doreen Green (Squirrel Girl) and Lunella Lafayette (Moon Girl), two fan-favorite characters from comic books who have yet to appear in any Marvel movies.
In a partnership with Coca-Cola, Disney created Pingo Doce, a green soda with hints of lime and vanilla. Served at Pym Test Kitchen, the drink is a semi-obscure reference to the drink of the same name from The Incredible Hulk, the 2008 movie starring Edward Norton.
The campus also has Shawarma Palace, a food cart inspired by the Middle Eastern joint where the Avengers refueled after the Battle of New York in the end credits of the first Avengers movie. The California Adventure version serves a chicken shawarma wrap and an Impossible-brand falafel wrap with crusted cauliflower. Both wraps come with a creamy lemon-yogurt-tahini dipping sauce and pickled vegetables.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.
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