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Preview: Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure

Radiator Springs Racers

The race is on as a proverbial army of mechanics, architects, artisans, craftsmen, electricians, and Imagineers put the pedal to the metal to finish the $1.1 billion reconstruction of Disney California Adventure on a high note. The park, criticized from conception to opening for its lack of rides, lack of characters, and shortage of Disney-quality storytelling, will finally give its sister park, neighboring Disneyland, a run for its money.

In a much-publicized change, the park’s entrance (formerly, the Sunshine Plaza), will be re-themed to an idealized Los Angeles of the 1920s, with warm, sunset shades, adobe walls, a city park, and the Red Car Trolley. In effect, the new Buena Vista Street will be the Southwestern version of Main Street U.S.A., so guests passing from park to park will literally travel through time and space as they step between the parallel cities.

Disney's California Adventure left much to be desired when it opened in 2001, lacking many E-Ticket attractions and with sparsely themed districts, especially compared to neighboring Disneyland Park. Image © Disney.

The announced renovation revitalized the once carnival-style Paradise Pier area into a Victorian era boardwalk with classic incandescent white light bulbs, new midway games (including the massively successful Toy Story Midway Mania! dark ride), the re-themed Sun Wheel, and the wildly popular World of Color nighttime water spectacular. Recently, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure brought a much-needed classic touch to the Pier and the park.

The Hollywood Pictures Backlot area (themed to a behind-the-scenes, cardboard-façade-style movie studio) is about to undergo a transformation designed to cement the area into the architectural and thematic style of the more recent Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The area, renamed Hollywoodland, will recall the glitz and glamour of the bustling young movie town of the 1920s with roving spotlights, elegant dress, and timeless classic cinema.

The Race Begins

Radiator Springs Racers will occupy much of the new Cars Land, and will feature prominently in the park's attraction line-up when it opens next summer. Image © Disney.

But easily the largest change guests can expect is from an entirely new land, built from scratch, and built to last. The massive Cars Land will be the anchor of the reinvigorated park, and at its center, the brand new E-ticket Radiator Springs Racers will be California Adventure’s newest calling card. The ride is estimated to be costing some $200 million – the most expensive single attraction ever constructed by the Walt Disney Company – and all reports suggest that it should be worth it.

The attraction, set amid (and within) the massive Southwestern-style mountain range looming over Disney California Adventure will pay homage to the characters and setting of Disney/Pixar’s 2006 film, Cars, while also recalling the classic car culture of California. It will re-use the technology most recently used on Epcot's Test Track wherein vehicles holding six passengers navigate a dark-ride before accelerating (in Test Track’s case, up to 65 miles per hour) around an outdoor track.

What Happens Inside

Like Test Track at Epcot, Radiator Springs Racers will feature a length dark ride featuring scenes from and inspired by the Disney / Pixar film Cars before accelerating along the outdoor track. Image © Disney.

Little is known about the scale or style of the attraction in Cars Land, but there are a few hints and rumors. Riders will encounter many of Radiator Springs’ famous inhabitants, including Mater (on a tractor-tipping spree), Luigi (for a tire change before the big race), and Ramone (for a quick spray of paint to keep the car looking fresh). These indoor scenes will undoubtedly mimic many of Test Track’s well-known effects, including near-collisions, an “extreme” test under heat lamps, sprays of mist, and the limited enhanced motion capabilities of the vehicle (which can simulate rough terrain, tires popping, or swaying).

And of course, the ride’s climax is a speedy burst out of the show building and along the outdoor tracks (visible to onlookers) as the cars race through caverns, around hoodoos, and past near misses with rockwork.

The "photo finish" of the outdoor race portion will see a different vehicle "win" every time. Image © Disney.

Part-dark ride and part-thrill ride, Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land will be a fantastic anchor for the new Disney California Adventure, and its presence will certainly draw crowds from Disneyland Park. The new ride may even be enough to keep the infamous second gate open as long as Disneyland’s, giving the two parks equal operating hours which they haven’t seen in years (Disney California Adventure typically opens two hours after Disneyland, and closes two hours earlier).

Our Thoughts

The "new" Disney California Adventure will look significantly different than the park of 2001, changing it from a spoof of California to a celebration of the state's history and future. Image © Disney.

The Test Track ride system is a massive hit at Epcot, so we can only imagine that, combined with the well-loved cast of characters from Cars, Radiator Springs Racers (and indeed, all of Cars Land) will be a hit. Of course, Cars has entered a certain sector of pop culture as “the Pixar movie people didn’t see.” Indeed, numerous jokes have been made by all manner of television show and film that folks loved A Bugs Life, Wall*E, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc, with characters suddenly thinking aloud, “Wait, isn’t there another one?”  Many people I’ve asked seem to have the same reaction.

But the Cars franchise is massively successful with children of a certain age, so that alone will probably be enough to draw the crowds in droves. Disneyland, after all, is meant for families. Plus, as we’ve seen with the underwhelming Toy Story Playland areas at Walt Disney Studios, Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland, a franchise’s popularity isn’t always the best indicator of its translation to a theme park. There’s more than a film’s popularity to account for, and it seems that Radiator Springs Racers has also brought to the table a unique and high-capacity ride system and a visually stunning setting (elements that the Toy Story Playlands may admittedly have been missing).

Construction walls herald the arrival of Radiator Springs Racers in 2012. Image © Disney.

Our only lingering fear is that the park may find itself in a thematic corner. Disneyland almost exclusively features “old” Disney classics, while California Adventure’s call for “more Disney characters” has truly resulted in more Pixar characters. It’s a long-fought battle of Disney purists, but maybe it’s worth thinking about. Disney California Adventure, after all, is home to Monsters Inc (Mike and Sully to the Ressue), Finding Nemo (Turtle Talk), Toy Story (Midway Mania), A Bug's Life (A Bug's Land and “It’s Tough to be a Bug”) and now, Cars, with The Little Mermaid being the only "classic" exception. The question is, should one park cater to the classics while another focuses on the new age of animation? Where should a line be drawn? Perhaps Radiator Springs Racers should be the last Pixar addition for a while as Disney California Adventure re-adjusts to its soon-to-be-newfound popularity.

In the meantime, we can’t wait to find out what surprises this mega attraction has in store, and we’re sure Radiator Springs Racers will be a welcome addition to a park given new life.


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