Disney's Cars Land woos the kids with wheels
Taking a new ride in the California Adventure theme park next to Disneyland
The New York Times
As the father of a 7-year-old boy, I have seen the 2006 Pixar movie "Cars" approximately 6 million times. I know the movie's plot, I know its characters, I know who its assistant supervising sound editor was. But for the uninitiated, here goes: "Cars" is the story of a cocky race car named Lightning McQueen who stumbles into — and ultimately saves — a dusty little burg called Radiator Springs, a fictional one-horsepower town whose major problem is that no one wants to visit it.
And it is just such a challenge — being underappreciated — that has long dogged Disney's California Adventure, the Golden State-themed amusement park that sits adjacent to Disneyland in Anaheim. So it was that in 2007 Disney embarked on a five-year upgrade of the sibling park, the centerpiece of which is an elaborate re-creation of Radiator Springs called Cars Land, which opened to the public on June 15. And standing front and center at the opening ceremony was the ultimate "Cars" fan: my son, Jake.
Winning over such an elementary-age audience, of course, is vital for any amusement park, as they are the reason that most eager-to-please parents go in the first place. And children can be surprisingly quick — and fickle — critics. A roller coaster that goes too slow or too low is "for babies," but one that goes too high or too fast can result in a lifetime aversion to those terrifying machines. (I am, as you might gather, in the latter camp.)
But perhaps more than any other theme park's, Disney's rides rely not only on providing jolts of adrenaline for its visitors but also on immersing them in a story, in letting people live out the lives of characters they have learned to love.
"A Disney attraction," said Kathy Mangum, the executive producer of Cars Land and a vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, "is based first and foremost on a great story."
That may have been part of the problem with California Adventure, which opened in 2001 and features a collection of traditional — and commonplace — theme park fare, including roller coasters, a Ferris wheel and one area seemingly based on becoming an expert Boy Scout, an experience you could get by, you know, joining the Boy Scouts.
At first glance, "Cars" seems like a perfect antidote to this: a big hit with solid characters, an evocative folksy locale and plenty of merchandising possibilities. The movie itself had a wide appeal for both Jake's age and slightly older children, with actors like Owen Wilson and Jeremy Piven giving it a sheen of subversion. And unlike other Pixar hits like "Wall-E" or "Finding Nemo," it actually took place on the surface of the planet Earth, meaning you could actually build it.
And true to the Disney ethos, Cars Land provides not only thrills (there are G-forces, levitation and a wicked whipsaw effect) but also the chance to drive a mile in the characters' tires.
Jake had been to Disneyland before, in February, and loved it, particularly the fast rides like Space Mountain — the famed indoor roller coaster — and Splash Mountain, a water ride where the finale involves a wet, five-story fall. But California Adventure hadn't really appealed to him, with roller coasters that were too big and — in the case of Toy Story Mania, an interactive video shooting game — lines that were too long.
Built over 12 acres, Cars Land sits at the back of California Adventure and basically looks identical to Radiator Springs, complete with neon-trimmed 1950s-style facades against a backdrop of carefully constructed mountains shaped like the tail fins of old Cadillacs. The streets are populated by life-size characters from the movie like Lightning McQueen and his mischievous sidekick, Mater.
The preview day was open to members of the media (and their children) as well as to special Disney guests, and various promotional contest winners. Nicole Cann, 11, whose friend Ashley had won a trip through a local supermarket, said she was impressed by the verisimilitude.
"It's like real life," Nicole said. "But'Cars' real life."
Trippy. Jake, too, appreciated the décor ("It's Route 66!" "It's Mater!" "That's a nice cactus!"). But he was understandably more excited about Radiator Springs Racers, a ride on which passengers in six-person cars roll through the aforementioned mountains — the Cadillac Range — past a waterfall and into an indoor area featuring characters from the movie. Sound effects are piped in through the car's speakers, and the effect is alternately enchanting and eerie: Jake was wide-eyed with amazement, seeing the characters he knew so well in real 3D ... until he was wide-eyed with terror when a malevolent crop combine roared. (Mater, as usual, was to blame.)
The real surprise of Radiator Springs Racers came in its second half, when Jake and I suddenly looked over and realized that we were sitting beside another car full of riders.
"Are we going to race?" Jake asked me.
Apparently yes. And fast.
The Racers' top speed is about 40 mph, but when you are whipping around steep curves with a screaming 7-year-old it seems about twice that. Moreover, the Racers' computers randomly assign a winner to every race, something Jake attempted to influence by yelling for our car to go faster.
And at first, it seemed to work. With our opponents on our left, Jake and I quickly took the lead, then trailed, then led again. As we screamed through a misty tunnel, flashbulbs went off on a hidden camera (the pictures are for sale, of course). Seconds later, Jake — delighted — had only a few questions:
1. "Did we win?" (No.)
2. "Can we do it again? Can we do it again? Can we do it again?" (Yes. Yes. Yes.)
On a preview day, the lines were short, but our luck was bad. We never won. Hoping to break the cycle I decided to move on to another big-ticket ride at Cars Land — Luigi's Flying Tires — which essentially is a hovercraft-style bumper-car ride.
A what, you ask? This is a ride in which visitors sit inside what resembles a giant inner tube that floats a couple of inches above the ground, lifted by thousands of air vents. Cool, right? Well, yes, but also not optimal when the only way to move is to shift your weight and one person is 7 years old and the other hasn't been to the gym in a while. And unlike traditional bumper cars, the flying tires don't really collide so much as slowly sidle up to one another; it was difficult for us to shake the feeling that we were sitting in a very slow-moving Barcalounger.
With two rides down, Jake was ready for lunch, which in Cars Land includes both traditional theme park food and more progressive treats. For the former, there's another carefully recreated "Cars" locale: the Cozy Cone Motel, a collection of giant orange traffic cones that was home to Lightning's love interest in the movie but is home to various food kiosks at the park. Here puns abound, with signs advertising Cone-coctions (ice cream), Popcone (popcorn) and Churros (a snack that apparently defies cheap laughs).
Lines stretched past other nice little decorative details — beds of artificial flowers shaped like taillights, for example — while other patrons enjoyed drinks in cone-shaped plastic mugs. At the other end of the street, meanwhile, was Fillmore's Taste-In — a nod to the hippie character in "Cars" — a multicolored geodesic dome that offered fresh fruit and juices. It was sparsely attended.
Jake and I opted for the only true restaurant in town, Flo's V8 Cafe, which seems like a classic-looking burger joint, all chrome and aproned waitresses and doo-wop songs, minus one detail: burgers. Instead, the lunch menu includes various meats and loins — barbecue pork, strip steak, roast beef — and veggie sides and salads. All of which was somewhat disappointing until I noticed two other menu items: milk shakes and chardonnay.
The final stop of the preview day was Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, which Jake had initially dismissed as "a baby ride." And sure enough, that's what it looked like: small tractors with little wagons attached to the back. The tractors go in circles, the wagons follow. Kid's stuff, right?
The trick, however, is that there's more than one circle spinning underneath the tractors, and that every time a tractor meets another circle, it whips the wagon in the opposite direction. The result was summed up in one word from Jake: "Whoa."
After the third time through the jamboree, Jake and I had decided it was our favorite ride, and not for the weak of heart. Nor, it would soon become clear, was opening day. The preview day, after all, had been a true fantasyland: a theme park without the hourlong lines. For opening day, fans had camped out the night before, and by the time Jake and I arrived at the park on the morning of June 15, thousands of people, many in mouse ears and other Disney duds, were waiting to get in.
Jake had one goal: to finally win a race at the Radiator Springs Racers. And running at nearly a full sprint, he managed to get in front of the line, even as John Lasseter, a co-director of "Cars," cheered the first bunch of riders. Jake and I entered our car and took off toward the mountains, the waterfall and the "Cars" animatrons. We traveled through the beautifully recreated Radiator Springs, past that scary combine and to the starting line, where Jake and I looked over and realized that we were sitting beside ... no one.
"Are we going to race?" Jake asked.
No, it seemed. No other car appeared. It was a simple glitch in a very complex ride.
The ride was no less thrilling without a competitor, and when our car passed the finish line, alone, there was no doubt that we had won, albeit on a technicality. Jake seemed bemused; an unearned trophy, it seemed, was not much to ride home about.
All of which, for those of you who have seen the film, is exactly the message of "Cars." Walking against a crush of visitors now plowing down Route 66, we saw a Cars Land as Disney imagined it: deep lines for the Racers and Luigi's Flying Tires and at Mater's surprisingly exciting tractors. Judging from the crowds alone, it looked like a hit, with swarms like those across the way at Disneyland.
Which is exactly where Jake wanted to head next. After all, we figured the lines would no doubt be shorter over there now that Cars Land was attracting crowds — teeming herds, really — to California Adventure. And while Jake said he'd miss Cars Land, there's one thing no one in California likes, no matter how old or animated: traffic.