11-foot-tall letters welcome you
to Yester California Adventure

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2009

If your child’s name begins with the letter C, A, L, I, F, O, R, or N, this park has a perfect photo location for you. Chloe, Aiden, Lily, Isabella, Flynn, Olivia, Ryan, and Noah can pose in front of the glittering gold mirror surface of a giant letter corresponding to his or her name.

Sophia, Jackson, Emma, and Mason are out of luck here. Sorry.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Disney publicity photo © 2009 Disney

Entrance inspired by a California postcard

In truth, the giant letters aren’t meant to correspond to popular names of children. (Otherwise the letters “J” and “K” would surely be here.)

The letters are the first layer of the California postcard entrance to the park. The second layer is the world’s largest ceramic mural, which forms the mountainous backdrop. Next is the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting the two sets of mountains. If you’re standing in the right place, the final layer is the golden sun of Sunshine Plaza, shining behind the bridge.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2007

Approaching the park entrance

For most guests, however, this isn’t a gigantic postcard. It’s just the front of a park that looks very different than the nearby older park.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2009

The back side of letters

The letters aren’t as fancy from the back, but you’re not supposed to read them backwards. Instead, take a look at the pavement.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2008

Candy cane overlay for the Holiday Season

The letters have the magical ability to accept seasonal overlays. When it’s Christmas at Yester California Adventure, be sure to admire the candy cane stripes.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2007

Reflective surface with candy cane stripes

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2007

Mickey Mouse posing on the letter “C”

For a colorful way to begin your California Adventure visit, admire the rainbow hues of the World of Color overlay.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Chris Bales, 2010

World of Color overlay

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2009

Put a stamp on it...

Late at night, when the crowds are gone and you’re standing in the right place, it does look like a postcard after all.

The giant CALIFORNIA letters were an original design feature of Disney California Adventure when the park opened in February 2001. They served the park for almost—but not quite—ten years.

The letters were removed in January 2011 to make way for a new entrance to Disney California Adventure.

What would happen to the letters? Although they were not appropriate for the 1920s-era Buena Vista Street entrance Disney California Adventure, they were impressive pieces.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Artist’s rendering from press release, May 30, 2012

Cal Expo: new home for the giant letters

On May 30, 2012, the Disneyland Resort announced the letters’ fate:

Anaheim, Calif., May 30, 2012 – The Disneyland Resort donated the iconic “CALIFORNIA” letters previously located in the esplanade at the Disney California Adventure park entrance to the Friends of the California State Fair, a nonprofit organization that benefits California Exposition & State Fair (Cal Expo) in Sacramento, Calif. Cal Expo is the site of the California State Fair and hundreds of other events annually.

“As we near the completion of the Disney California Adventure expansion, it was important to us to find an appropriate home for the ‘CALIFORNIA’ letters,” said Disneyland Resort President George A. Kalogridis. “The letters were very popular with millions of Guests over the past decade, and Cal Expo is a fitting destination to continue their legacy.”

Plans are underway to make the letters an integral part of a new Cal Expo entrance. The “CALIFORNIA” letters will make their way to their new home sometime in late September and will be placed high enough at the entrance to be seen from Exposition Boulevard.

“The Friends of the California State Fair serving Cal Expo is honored to have been selected the recipient of this gift from Disney Resorts. We see this donation, and the relocation of these letters, a continued and fitting tribute to the celebration of this magnificent state,” said Norb J. Bartosik, Cal Expo CEO/General Manager.

Cal Expo is now the fairground for the 18-day California State Fair, the 5-day Sacramento County Fair, and other annual events. But the State of California once had a grand vision for the 1,063-acre former sheep pasture.

As described by the Los Angeles Times on March 10, 1968, Cal Expo was supposed to be “the Disneyland of the North,” with an unprecedented scope for a state fair:

A $34 million year-round exposition is rising on the banks of the American River four miles from the [Sacramento] Capitol.

No other state has ever embarked on a project quite like it.

Planned to the size and magnitude of a world’s fair, Cal Expo will deal solely with the exciting, widely diversified kaleidoscope of but one state.

Plans called for a wide range of attractions, including a 26-acre themed amusement park (“planned as a sugar-coated lesson in geography”), a 5-acre Teen Island (“where boys and girls will be able to thump their guitars as loud as they wish”), Fiesta Island (“where a gourmet restaurant will be surrounded by tasting booths spotlighting California wines, cheeses and fruits”), a 34-acre lake, and “several miles of inland waterways.” Expo Center would offer “a simulated flight by helicopter… from Crescent City to Calexico.”

Reading the descriptions now, Cal Expo comes across as a 1968 version of Disney California Adventure—complete with an early take on Soarin’ Over California.

Entrance Letters at Cal Expo, 2013

Photo by Scott Boccia, 2013

Cal Expo, the new home for the letters (2013)

The California Legislature had approved Cal Expo in 1963 based on a feasibility study by Disney Legend Harrison “Buzz” Price’s Economic Research Associates. Price is best known for guiding Walt Disney in the site selection for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and analyzing whether they would be economically viable. But Price had a long list of other clients.

Cal Expo even boasted two executives with Disneyland credentials.

Eugene R. “Doc” Lemmon, Cal Expo’s first general manager, had been Director of Operations at Disneyland from 1956 until 1961, when he left to become the general manager of Cedar Point in Ohio.

Louis H. Roth, Cal Expo’s first director of design and construction, worked for Disney Legend Joe Fowler as project engineer for construction at Disneyland and was in charge of the Disney exhibits at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. You can see his name on a window above the Market House on Disneyland’s Main Street: “Carpenters & Joiners, Surveying & Engineering, L.H. Roth.”

The first phase of Cal Expo opened on July 1, 1968, hosting the 58-day maiden run of the California State Fair at its new location. The more ambitious elements of Cal Expo were supposed to open in 1969. Plans called for a year-round exposition by 1970.

That’s not what happened.

By the end of September 1968, “Doc” Lemmon had resigned—before the Cal Expo board could fire him. What had been promised as a “pay as you go” project had instead run up a $1.5 million deficit from just the 58-day State Fair run, because the actual revenue and attendance were much lower than projected.

Once again, Cal Expo was compared to Disneyland, only now it was a politician calling it “a second-rate Disneyland.”

Cal Expo never became a year-round attraction.

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Tony “WisebearAZ” Moore, August 4, 2000

Beginning construction of the California Adventure entrance letters in 2000

Entrance Letters at Disney's California Adventure

Photo by Tony “WisebearAZ” Moore, November 10, 2000

Three months before the grand opening

The two construction photos bring us back to the other major California-themed attraction—the one that opened in Anaheim in 2001. It also started on the wrong foot. It was also characterized as a “a second-rate Disneyland.”

Fortunately, that one has now turned into something rather wonderful.

Here are the links to the other layers of the California postcard entrance:

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Updated October 28, 2013.