ANAHEIM, Calif. - Natalie Horvath has a tattoo on her back of Lightning McQueen, a character in the "Cars" animated movies, and her fiance, Cyle Stearns, collects toys from the films.
Horvath and Stearns, who met online through their devotion to the films, might be a bit extreme in their fandom, but they had plenty of company at the Disney California Adventure Park for the opening of Cars Land, the first major new "land" at Disney's Anaheim parks in 10 years.
Hundreds of fans camped out overnight to be among the first through the gates to the attraction based on the "Cars" films, and so many thousands more joined them by midmorning that visitors could move only slowly through the main thoroughfare designed to look like Route 66 in its glory years.
"We saw teaser pictures for Cars Land before it opened," said a wide-eyed Stearns, 21, who traveled from Detroit with Horvath for the occasion. "But it's nothing like seeing it in person."
Horvath added, "I saved everything I could to get here."
Disney needs plenty of people willing to spend their hard-earned money to finally make a success of Disney California Adventure Park, which has been an underperformer since it opened in 2001. "Cars Land is the final and largest piece of a $1.1 billion, four-year upgrade to the park.
Disney executives have been uncommonly frank about how Disney California Adventure Park has been a financial disappointment, and how they are hoping that Cars Land will help turn that around.
"We knew that this was going to be an important attraction," Kathy Mangum, executive producer of Walt Disney Imagineering, said a few days before Cars Land opened to the public Friday, "because it was going to have to make the park."
Parks and resorts, an important driver of Disney's business, took in $2.9 billion in revenue - much of that in merchandise sales - in the first quarter of this year, up 10 percent from the same period in 2011.
The new "land" comes after a similar move by Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., which boosted attendance with a Harry Potter-themed expansion that opened in 2010.
Theme park consultant John Gerner of Leisure Business Advisors said a park like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter can help tell the story and bring characters to life. The section re-creates familiar locations in the films and creates a "more immersive experience," Gerner said.
"It gives you a three-dimensional re-creation of what was in the films, allowing people to essentially step into the movie. It is, in the end, about stories, and Disney theme park operators tell stories as well as anyone," Gerner said.
"When you watch the movies, you see all these characters," said Aimee Grimaldo, 25, a kitchen assistant in the San Fernando Valley, "and when you're here, it's like walking into their homes."
Fire Capt. Brad Amaral and author Elizabeth Amaral of Roseville, Calif., brought their 5-year-old son to Cars Land. They arrived Thursday, not realizing the park wouldn't be open to the public until Friday.
So they decided to stay an extra day, and they camped out on the concrete.
"We thought it was too important to make sure he got the experience of being there on opening day," Amaral said. "The smile on his face is worth a million dollars."
Disney's goal for the park is that it become a true second gate, with visitors staying there at least a full day in addition to time spent at the classic, far more successful Disneyland next door. But it's about more than selling tickets to both parks.
The longer visitors stay in a park, Gerner said, the more they will spend at restaurants and gift shops, which have higher profit margins than ticket sales.
On Friday, Disney had a special opening day gift shop in Cars Land to sell limited-edition merchandise. The store was packed with visitors, including Terri Herrera, a self-described Disney fanatic who was shopping with a friend.
"We got every available item from commemorative pins to T-shirts," Herrera, 48, of Long Beach, said as she pulled a fistful of pins from her bag.
"I've spent $1,700 so far," she said. "To be honest with you, I'll probably end up spending over $5,000 today."
There were other parts of expansion in place, including the nighttime World of Color attraction that shows Disney visual effects on walls of water.
Also opening Friday was Buena Vista Street, which the park considers a new "land," although it mostly consists of re-creations of 1920s Los Angeles architectural landmarks that no longer exist, including the Carthay Circle Theatre.
Grimaldo, 25, had visited Disney California Adventure several times before, even though she didn't find it enthralling.
"It's been neat to see it completely change over the years," she said, but "after an hour or two, you were, like, 'OK, we're done.' "
Now she and her friend, Vincent Gutierrez, 24, a Cal State Northridge student, said they think the expansion might finally make the park a place where they would spend more time.
"Before, it didn't feel like a Disney park to me," Gutierrez said. "Cars Land really completes the park."
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.)
© 2012 Los Angeles Times
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