Home » Behind the Ride: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Behind the Ride: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Did you know that the Happiest Place on Earth contains a portal to Hell? No, this isn’t metaphorical and no, I’m not joking. A cheeky attraction at Disneyland has the darkest ending imaginable for a dark ride. People get run over by a train and sent to Hell. How is that even possible? Let’s go behind the ride to discover the tricks that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride plays on unsuspecting guests.

The Experience: Bringing the story of The Wind in the Willows to life

The Trick: Choosing to have form follow function

Image: DisneyFittingly, Ichabod Crane is partially responsible for the journey to Hell. Had his tale of woe taken longer, Walt Disney would have created an entire movie from the premise. Instead, Uncle Walt chopped the tale of the Headless Horseman into half of a film called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The second half of the animated classic retold the story of The Wind in the Willows, the classic children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame. And a simple modification of that tale became the basis for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

When Disney constructed the Happiest Place on Earth, he chose Fantasyland as the themed area that would replicate his movies. It’s the reason why Fantasyland at Disneyland has so many attractions. They’re largely based on Disney animated tales, and it was especially true for the rides available on opening day.

As Imagineers culled the list of potential attractions, they realized that the arrogant J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq. and his passion for motor vehicles naturally led to the perfect ride construct. They could recreate the wild ride that led to Mr. Toad’s incarceration in the books, but the way they chose to implement it was surprising.

The ultimate form was a modification of an earlier concept. Did you know that Mr. Toad’s Wild Road was intended as the first roller coaster at Disneyland? Yes, years before the Matterhorn debuted, Disney executives had already debated a coaster, one that would have been there on opening day!

Image: DisneyArrow Enterprises, the construction group that built the hardware, was an expert in coaster design. Disney spoke with them about the idea of a roller coaster that would bounce haphazardly through the park and offer guests the fear that they were about to wreck into vehicles at Disneyland’s parking lot. For understandable reasons, Uncle Walt felt this idea wasn’t family-friendly enough, but he still loved that elegantly simple concept that drove the pitch: a wild ride. The question was how to bring the idea to life.

Three of the original Disneyland attractions show rather than tell events from famous Disney films. Those attractions are Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. In each example, Imagineers attempted to place the audience in the shoes of the protagonist. For Peter Pan and Snow White’s presentations, many guests left the ride feeling a bit confused. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, on the other hand, received instant acclaim due to the cleverness of the design.

Guests bordered a vehicle, and then they hurtled along a seemingly random path of unlikely places, each of which presented more danger than the last. The form of the ride naturally followed its function. It was a chaotic trip through London that caused harm to Toady, his friends, and virtually everyone else in his path. In short, the title of the attraction aligns more tightly with its underlying premise than anyone had ever seen before or ever would again at Disneyland.

The Experience: Bringing the city of London to life

The Trick: Detailed art work and breathtakingly colorful illustrations

Part of the reason for the ride’s triumph is its attention to detail. From the start, the theming at Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride sets it apart from other early attractions. Imagineers transferred all of their illustration skills from years spent making animated movies to the design of the ride. They crafted meticulously detailed sets that brought the vision of Grahame’s novel into the real world.

From the moment that guests boarded their vehicles, they got swept into this artificial reality due to its believable design. The little touches sprinkled throughout the attraction pulled guests into this colorful mansion and forced them to believe that they were on an ill-fated journey through the London countryside.

The journey begins in Toad Hall, the mansion owned by Mr. Toad. Perfect details like a brick fireplace and elegant chandeliers bring the world of The Wind in the Willows to life. Murals hang from the walls, the décor is immaculate, and you’ll totally believe that you’re in the stately manor of an established professional. Then, the jalopy starts…

Image: DisneyThe trick of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is also its conceit. On most dark rides, the vehicle controls the pace in a way that you have plenty of time to take in the sights. The ride cart is a timed mechanism that takes you from set piece to set piece, ensuring that you see what you’re supposed to see at the perfect moment. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is like that, only it works with a significant degree of difficulty.

Your ride is wild, which means it whizzes through several sets at breakneck speed. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss a key element. This explains why Imagineers pulled out some unusual tricks for the sets. The colors are brighter and more vibrant because they have to be. To follow the story as intended, these visuals must grab your attention quickly. They only have a brief instant to do so before you’re careening down the path to the next thing.

Whether you’re rumbling through the library of Mr. Toad or bouncing through the countryside (and terrifying innocent sheep), everything on the ride happens FAST. There’s a distinct “blink and you’ll miss it” vibe to this attraction that is rare today and was absolutely unprecedented in 1955. The ride takes less than two minutes, and it feels even faster due to the adrenaline rush of breaking through brick walls, triggering explosives, and crashing into trains.

The imagery of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is everything on this ride. Without those colorful displays, the imperiled MacBadger’s tenuous ladder would mean nothing. You wouldn’t care that Moley’s chicken dinner is ruined. Those pesky weasels wouldn’t seem like unwelcome home invaders. Why, you wouldn’t even notice that you’ve finished a lightning-fast descent into Hell. The vivid, dazzling artwork is what brings the wild ride to life. Of course, it has a little help…

The Experience: Making the ride wild

The Trick: Engaging in a bit of Motormania

Image: DisneyThe kinetic nature of the wild ride dictates that your vehicle keeps you on a fast pace. You’re not supposed to have time to catch your breath. Mr. Toad is driving poorly, and you’re stuck in the jalopy with him!

The car is integral to the ride experience. Imagineers went out of their way to craft a memorable buggy that looks the part. It’s a stubborn throwback to classic cars of yore, ones that didn’t have roofs. When you’re on this ride, there’s nothing between you and the ground, amplifying the stakes as you rumble out of control through the London sights.

Motor Mania is the cheeky term used for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and the car seems right out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s a classic buggy with a steering wheel that does absolutely nothing. The bright color of the vehicle blends well with the overall scheme of the attraction, where every visual stimulates the eyes.

The cute factor of the Motor Mania lineup is that each vehicle has its own name. While many of the characters from The Wind in the Willows appear during the ride, even ones that don’t have a token presence as vehicles. You’ll know which car you’re in by the name printed on the front. Options include Toady, Badger, Ratty, Mole, MacBadger, Cyril, Winky, and Weasel.

Originally, there were 12 Toad cars in the fleet. Nine would operate at once while the other three would stand by, waiting to take new riders off on a thrilling journey into eternal damnation. The first vehicles were remarkable achievements in theme park design, too.

Arrow Enterprises used roughly 200 pounds of fiberglass and sheet metal to build the fleet. These parts were among the first ones to arrive during Disneyland construction, which means that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is in the conversation for the first true theme park attraction. And the Toad cars were very well constructed at that. These vehicles lasted almost 40 years (!) before Disneyland finally had to replace them. To the very end, they still reinforced the mayhem that is Mr. Toad’s journey into Purgatory.

The Experience: Hell on Earth

The Trick: Creating the ultimate hot spot at Disneyland

There’s a tongue-in-cheek element to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The attraction draws inspiration from the novel and the movie adaptation, but the final scene on the ride is its own creation. Imagineers chortled at the thought of a proper comeuppance for Mr. Toad, a man whose obsession with reckless driving led to his imprisonment.

In the book and the film, he managed to escape. At Disneyland, he’s…less fortunate. The wrong turn at the wrong moment causes the wild ride to end in tears. Mr. Toad suffers a head-on collision with a train. He doesn’t survive. Yes, this is the odd quirk of storytelling sends the rider straight to Hell! How very Disney, right?

While no one can know for sure why Walt and his team of Imagineers went so dark on this particular dark ride, Mr. Toad’s Hell is an unforgettable scene. The key is that Disney plays the scene for comedic effect. The judge who just sentenced you to prison is in Hell, too. In his new role as ultimate arbiter of souls, the judge is basically the same  save for his horns and more sinister pointing.

Image: DisneyTo create the effects of Hell, Imagineers didn’t have to work very hard. It’s one of the simplest tricks on any Disney attraction. They simply had to turn up the heat to make the place feel like a furnace…well, an eternal furnace. Other than that, the tricks are still the same: colorful paintings and a hellscape of a set.

Well, okay, there is ONE trick that’s a bit different. A fire-breathing green dragon ominously torments you with flame. Of course, it’s just backlit. Fire doesn’t shoot out or anything. The green dragon is the final ghoul before you escape from Hell and return to the Happiest Place on Earth, ending your wild ride safely.

Well, you’re safe from a physical perspective. You might be emotionally scarred by the cardboard cutouts that just attacked you and then damned you for eternity. Seriously, this ride isn’t what you’d expect from a Disney ride. I’m not sure that an Ichabod Crane/Headless Horseman attraction would have been darker in tone.