By the end of the 20th century, Pixar Studios had established itself as the premiere animation company in the world, briefly usurping a title long held by the Walt Disney Company.
The first indication of a changing of the guard occurred in 1995, when Toy Story became the number one North American release of the year. In 1999, Toy Story 2 faced some slightly stiffer competition in the form of Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace. Still, the second adventure of Woody and Buzz grossed 35% more than its predecessor on the way to becoming the third best global release of the year.
Over the next several years, Pixar asserted its dominance with a string of masterpieces such as Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. The genteel nature of Toy Story and its subtle but pointed storytelling permeated throughout the later Pixar releases. In January of 2006, Disney acknowledged the obvious. They were no longer the masters of the animated release. In the ultimate example of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, Disney purchased Pixar and named its leader, John Lasseter, as the company’s Chief Creative Officer.
The merging of Pixar and Disney has proven to be a masterstroke due to the evergreen toy revenue of their intellectual property. Not every aspect of the acquisition was about money, though. Disney executives sagely recognized that the bread and butter of the company, its theme parks, could be rejuvenated with the addition of some Pixar flair.
In fact, the strategy had already paid dividends prior to the merger. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin had been introduced in 1998, and the Omnimover shooter ride proved extremely popular, especially with the youngest visitors at Disney’s parks. The odd juxtaposition of a shooting gallery with a dark ride created an atmospheric videogame setting that thrilled the under-10 crowd while providing a relaxing, air-conditioned ride for parents.
Disney knew when they bought Pixar that they would want more rides featuring iconic characters. Still, the crown jewel of the company’s intellectual property library has always been a story about a cowboy and a space ranger. If they were going to do a ride designed for Toy Story fans, it would have to be a masterpiece. Imagineers quickly went to work on just such a ride.
In 2008, Toy Story Midway Mania! debuted at Disney California Adventure and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Over the past several years, it has become one of the signature theme park attractions, as demonstrated by its consistent hour plus wait times at Hollywood Studios. Everything about this self-proclaimed 4-D ride is triumphant, but how does it work?
A key part of the appeal of Toy Story is hidden in plain sight in the name. It is a celebration of childhood toys, one that adults love for the bittersweet memories and children love for the immediacy. In strategizing about how to attain the perfect tone for a Toy Story experience, Imagineers settled upon a carnival game. After all, the early, amateurish predecessor to the amusement park is the carnival, and the fact that they still exist to this day is a tribute to the warmth of childhood memories made. What is the most memorable part of the carnival experience? It is playing games for prizes, of course!
Disney’s designers faced an important question at this juncture. How would someone enjoy the down and dirty carnie game experience at a state of the art amusement park? The answer was obviously to recreate that same sensation but in a fresh way. Given the popularity of the Buzz Lightyear game, Imagineers understandably wanted to mimic some of the videogame mechanics in order to foster a competitive environment. It became the 21st century equivalent of trying to bust three plates to win a stuffed animal.
Toy Story Midway Mania! is a state of the art 4-D videogame ride masquerading as a simplistic shoot ‘em up. Thematically and symbolically, it even makes players “reach for the sky”. You’ve probably read it and maybe even bragged to your friends about getting a high score. Even so, there is a lot you probably didn’t know. Here are some of the tricks employed by the attraction.
5. Splashy Toy Story graphics
The experience: As they participate in a series of mini-games, riders view the Toy Story characters and their surroundings in three dimensions.
The trick: Simply wearing the 3-D glasses is not enough to create a 3-D environment. You are handed those dual-colored shades for a reason. In order to enjoy the effects of the splashy graphics, the behind-the-scenes computer system is overwhelmingly complicated. 154 graphics workstations are seamlessly integrated under a program that runs on – don’t laugh – Windows XP.
The system renders 60 images per second, the same amount used for HDTV broadcast. In other words, every moment of the Toy Story ride experience is the equivalent of a playing a videogame in HD. While that may not sound as impressive now, it was a mind-boggling accomplishment in 2008. I mean, Windows XP! Your phone probably has a more advanced operating system than that.
4. Swiveling vehicles
The experience: As they travel around the circuit, riders' cars swivel to face the screens and other ride elements.
The trick: Sure, this may not sound like a crucial component of the ride right up until you watch a YouTube video. When you are playing Toy Story Midway Mania!, you rarely stop to consider how much you are being spun around. Only when you watch video of the experience do you realize just often you get twisted. This is done to add a layer of difficulty to the playing experience. Without the swivels, any straight shooter would clean up.
The vehicles are equipped with programmable logic controllers, which alert the control system wirelessly as to the vehicle's current location and speed. A wired network embedded in the track is used to send instructions back to the vehicles from the central controller, ensuring that they are always in the right place at the right time.
3. Five different ride areas or “levels”
The experience: Five classic carnival games comprise the Midway Mania experience. Each of them provides a different gameplay mechanic.
The trick: In order to achieve this, no fewer than four gaming systems are required in each ride cart to maintain constant communication with the overriding network server. The Windows XP (*giggle*) infrastructure signals each computer monitor the appropriate information in order to display the appropriate game for the area where the cart is currently positioned. A series of 10” LCD displays are carefully positioned to allow players to track their performance during each round.