Home » Behind the Ride: Roger Rabbit’s Toon Car Spin

Behind the Ride: Roger Rabbit’s Toon Car Spin

The 1980s were a grim time for Walt Disney Studios. Their animation division had collapsed into disarray, while most of their box office hits were modest ones. Unless you lived through the era, you’re unlikely to know the biggest blockbuster Disney movie released during the decade. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the tenth largest box office hit of the 1980s but has since largely vanished from Disney parks save for one significant exception. Let’s go behind the ride to learn about Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.

The experience: bringing Roger Rabbit’s Toontown to life

The trick: overcoming Hollywood power struggles to build a ride

Image: DisneyRemember a few years ago when the Frozen craze swept over Disney theme parks? Elsa and Anna were ubiquitous for a time, particularly at Epcot, where Imagineers altered the Norway Pavilion to highlight the fictional land of Arendelle over the actual country of Norway.

Older Disney fans understand that this was far from a first at the parks. Perhaps the most interesting phase was the brief period from 1988 through 1991 when Disney went all-in on the biggest recent blockbuster of the era, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The quirky comedy married traditional cartoon concepts with the real world, leading to oddities such as an anthropomorphic rabbit interacting with Eddie Valiant, a hard-boiled detective.

The 1970s and 1980s were the low point in the history of Disney animation. They struggled mightily to create memorable movies worthy of the Disney legacy. Who Framed Roger Rabbit signified the company’s desperation, as they purchased the rights to an unpublished novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Then, Michael Eisner crafted a unique arrangement with one of his Hollywood pals, Stephen Spielberg.

Image: DisneyThe famed director and his team at Amblin Entertainment agreed to work on the project in exchange for a large degree of creative control. This contractual concession explains why Roger Rabbit enjoys only a minimal presence at Disney parks today. After the success of the film, Eisner tried to push Roger Rabbit animated shorts with upcoming Disney movies, much to the frustration of Spielberg.

The auteur rightfully believed that he should have some say in the appearance of the character in films, one of which probably should have been a Spielberg production. Since the Amblin team had veto rights in the licensing of Roger Rabbit merchandise, the rift led to promotional issues. Spielberg stopped authorized Roger Rabbit products, preventing Disney from using them.

As the break-up occurred, Disney canceled its massive plans for the character of Roger Rabbit. They’d originally wanted to construct an entire themed land around Toon Town. Their chosen locale was their newest park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As you know, this park never even got a Roger Rabbit attraction. That’s how much the Eisner/Spielberg split impacted the character’s fate.

Image: DisneyFor a brief period of time, roughly three years, Roger Rabbit was omnipresent at Disney theme parks. Just as quickly, he vanished. Park officials even introduced their own knock-off character, Bonkers D. Bobcat as a way to keep the premise alive. Disney wholly owned their imitation bobcat and would have happily used it in parks as a replacement had consumers liked it even a little bit. Alas, they preferred the real deal, Roger Rabbit, to its cheap clone.

In the wake of all this Hollywood ego-stroking nonsense, Disney moved forward with one version of a Roger Rabbit attraction. The lone surviving concept from Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood, a themed land that never got built, was something called Benny the Cab. Amusingly, Benny didn’t wind up as an integral part of the ride named after him. Disney would ultimately substitute his previously unknown cousin, Lenny. Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin suffered a seemingly endless series of concessions prior to its construction. Somehow, it’s wonderful anyway.

The experience: entering the cartoon world of Roger Rabbit

The trick: taking elements from the film and bringing them to life

Image: DisneyOnce park officials finally settled on a ride concept, their primary goal became building a believable version of Toontown on the ride. It’s no easy feat since the conceit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is that cartoon characters are real and interact with humans on a daily basis. Disney did something obvious but also brilliant to achieve their goal.

They built a ride cart similar to Benny the Cab from the movie. For some reason, they chose not to use the established character of Benny, though. They went with Lenny instead, presumably to allow for an appearance of Benny during the ride. Still, the appearance of the anthropomorphic cab is critical not just to the attraction but also to Disney as a whole.

Image: DisneyPixar’s Cars would eventually borrow the same visual concept of vehicles with human facial characteristics. When Disney purchased Pixar, they gained the rights to Cars. The influence became clear when Cars Land appeared at Disney California Adventure. The vehicles at Radiator Springs Racers are unmistakably kindred spirits to Disneyland’s Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin. Cars Land became what Disney had intended decades earlier with the planned Roger Rabbit’s Hollywood themed land.

From the moment that you board Lenny, which is to say that you get in the ride cart, you feel like you’ve entered a cartoon world. Then, your first character interaction is with Roger Rabbit himself, who is with Benny, the identical cousin of your vehicle. The two gentlemen (?) warn you of an element that we’ll discuss in the next section. Then, you whiz away into the world of Toontown.

Image: DisneyDisney took care to recreate the impossible world in plausible fashion. You’ll encounter 17 different Audio-Animatronics throughout the attraction. You’ll see approximately 60 animated props, too. Along with the 20 special effects in place, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is unmistakably a kindred spirit to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Both attractions employ bright colors and cartoonish set pieces to build an immersive environment wherein you honestly believe that the world around you is real, at least for a time. There’s even a scene set in a palatial manor, the kind you’d expect Mr. Toad to live in.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is how well it develops a theme from the film. Eddie Valiant makes no attempt to display his disdain for Toontown throughout the movie. Several elements of the attraction demonstrate why the detective despises the place. You’ll encounter weasels, drive through DIP, and make an unwelcome trip through Bullina’s China Shop. You’ll almost die in an explosion at the Gag Factory, also. After only three minutes, you’ll hate Toontown every bit as much as the detective does. That’s a sign of phenomenal theming.

The experience: a cab that spins in place

The trick: an active steering wheel that enables the proverbial Toon Spin

Image: DisneyRoger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is a dark ride at its core. You’ll board a ride cart aka Lenny and then move from set piece to set piece, just as Walt Disney had intended back in 1955. But the ride’s name is explicit. It has a spinning element, too.

This attraction is a kindred spirit to Mad Tea Party in that you can spin Lenny. Once you see Roger Rabbit and Benny, you’ll travel through DIP, a viscous substance akin to oil. It’ll cause you to careen out of control, at least theoretically. In reality, your steering wheel gives you complete control of how much movement your car makes.

Most people would agree that Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is much calmer than Mad Tea Party. Even reckless spinners can’t force Lenny to turn enough to match Mad Tea Party. It’s more of a fun ancillary feature than a critical component of the attraction.

Image: DisneyImagineers didn’t have to do anything special for this trick, either. They’d had the technology since Mad Tea Party’s had opened 40 years prior to the Roger Rabbit attraction. They simply had to modify it to work with a dark ride structure, a relatively easy task for the masters of design at Disney.

Thanks to this feature, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is an odd hybrid of two attractions while prophesying a third. The roots of the attraction unmistakably go back to the opening of Disneyland. You could draw a straight line from the design of both Mad Tea Party and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to the 1996 attraction. And it hints at the look and style of Radiator Springs Racers, a concept that wouldn’t even come to fruition until the film’s debut 10 years later. For these reasons, it’s a historically significant attraction.

Image: DisneyTo a larger point, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin is a fascinating exploration of what might have been at the Happiest Place on Earth and Walt Disney World. For a short period of time, it was the dominant movie at both parks. Then, backdoor politics collapsed its potential, leaving only one ride. It did have surprising ancillary benefits, though.

The stunning box office success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit led to a re-evaluation of the golden age of animation. In turn, it gave Disney executives the confidence to double down on the format, leading directly to The Little Mermaid and the resurgence in popularity of animated cinema.

Image: DisneyRoger Rabbit as a character burned out quickly, at least at Disney parks, but his sustained presence at this attraction aptly reflects the critical importance of the character. For a brief time, it was THE signature Disney property. In a perfect world, the studio would reboot the concept as a new film. It deserves a better fate than being a footnote in animated history.