Turner: With arena to rise, Old Sacramento has chance to shine like never before

In coming months, a wrecking ball will level much of Downtown Plaza to make way for a new arena. And while much of the focus will be on new developments that will take shape nearby, one of the oldest developments in town stands to gain too.

Old Sacramento lies just a few blocks from the arena that promises to attract more than a million visitors annually. This is an extraordinary opportunity to reintroduce our historic district to the thousands of patrons who have, for 29 years, rarely ventured past the arena parking lot boundaries in Natomas.

Old Sacramento nearly was leveled by a wrecking ball itself in the pre-preservationist 1950s, and survived the city’s most boneheaded urban planning mistake – cutting off the city from its riverfront with Interstate 5. The district steadily has found its footing, starting with its original modern-era tenant, The Firehouse Restaurant, which opened its doors in 1960 (when most of the area was still considered a slum), and most recently with the Theatre of Lights, the annual Disneyesque holiday celebration.

But with all its historic charm, unsurpassed riverfront location, and ever-improving tenant mix (though it still hosts too many T-shirt shops), it could still benefit from what Walt Disney himself used to call “plussing it.” Even when a film or attraction was great, Disney wanted to push it just a bit further. Old Sacramento needs to do the same.

Now, I realize that mentioning Disney’s name in the presence of preservationists or historians are fightin’ words worthy of an old-fashioned cowboy shootout. But in the context of Old Sacramento, I believe that’s a misguided reaction, especially in a historic district that doubles as a commercial one.

Just hear me out.

Did you know, for example, that Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade was inspired by the world’s first electrical parade, held in downtown Sacramento in 1895?

Or that the engine of the Disneyland Railroad train was based on a locomotive produced in Sacramento’s historic railyards?

Now it’s Old Sacramento’s turn to borrow a few ideas from Walt.

First up: music. Its contribution to Disney’s success can’t be overstated. Music subconsciously sets the tone for visitors in every corner of Disney’s parks. Whether it’s coming from live performers or emanating from hidden speakers, it’s always there, elevating your mood even when you don’t even realize it.

In Old Sacramento, except for the occasional street musician or annual events such as the Sacramento Music Festival, the district is nearly always devoid of music, relying solely on the fleeting, albeit wonderful, sounds of horses clomping down cobblestone streets or a train’s whistle puncturing the silence.

The fact is, this historic district that looks like a Hollywood movie set begs for the sound of music. The magnificent wooden boardwalk along the river is the perfect spot for, say, Dixieland jazz bands to play every weekend. (Speaking of jazz, please bring back the jazz festival. A “music festival” is a fine idea, but the word “music” is hardly unique.)

On other days, encourage street performers to play on every corner, or pipe in recorded music. Old Sacramento deserves its own soundtrack (as a bonus, it will drown out the vehicular buzz of the ill-placed freeway next door).

Next up: performers. In Disney parks, employees aren’t called employees. They’re “cast members,” because they’re on “stage” all the time. Old Sacramento does a fantastic job with its Gold Rush Days, and you can spot a few historical characters from time to time. But having staff in period costume should be an everyday occurrence, from shopkeepers to cowboys who can double as storytellers, bringing history to life.

Another key ingredient: food “experiences.” There are plenty of great places to eat in Old Sacramento, but in Disney parks, you can see and smell the food everywhere.

Candymakers and bakers are positioned in front of large plate-glass windows that face the sidewalk, and Disney blows scents through air ducts so that the aroma of, say, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies envelops passers-by.

Old Sacramento has the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and its candymakers do create some of their confections on site. But they need to push that table right up against the window and create a public performance space.

Another crowd-pleaser: light. As mentioned above, the district’s annual holiday show, Theatre of Lights – the story of Old Sacramento and “The Night Before Christmas,”are told while projecting a light show on buildings – is quickly becoming a Sacramento tradition, but it plays only during the holidays.

In 2010, the Walt Disney Co. descended on Old Sacramento for a few days to build buzz for its then-new “World of Color” water attraction in Disney’s California Adventure Park. They set up shop on Second Street and projected an eight-minute animated show (some of it Old Sacramento-specific) on the facades of several buildings, complete with music.

It was an extraordinary spectacle (look it up on YouTube), and one that, in some form, should become a regular feature here.

On the topic of light, how about flickering streetlamps? Also, a few years ago, the district floated the idea of illuminating a sunken Gold Rush-era ship and building viewing platforms to allow visitors to see it. Perhaps this is the perfect place to re-create the electrical light parade that Disney borrowed from us.

Old Sacramento is a true civic treasure, but it also remains a partially buried one. With millions of new visitors coming to downtown soon, there’s no time like the present, or in this case, the past, to “plus” one of our region’s top tourist draws and make it a bigger attraction for locals, too.

The new arena promises to be the most technologically advanced in the world, a virtual urban Tomorrowland, if you will. But we have America’s original Frontierland right here at our doorstep. Let’s bring back that pioneer spirit and make sure Old Sacramento doesn’t get lost in time.

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