When you think of classic Disney dark rides, you might imagine yourself soaring over London in an enchanted pirate ship, racing through the dark forest to find Snow White before it's too late, climbing through Wonderland aboard a most unusual caterpillar, or facing Monstro's razor-sharp teeth with Pinocchio. These Fantasyland dark rides are standards – decades old, classic in every sense, rooted in Walt Disney's style, and beloved by generations of fans. But when it comes to the most beloved, lost classic Fantasyland dark ride, one sentence comes quickly to mind:
Toadi Acceleratio Semper Absurda
From the start, our Lost Legends series has set out to celebrate and remember forgotten attractions before they’re lost forever. We want these Lost Legends features to build connections; to introduce a whole new generation of theme park fans to rides that otherwise would’ve been lost to time. With your comments and stories, we’ve crafted the definitive entries on lost rides like Alien Encounter, Maelstrom, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the original Test Track, Journey into Imagination, STAR TOURS, and so many more.
We’re building a library of memories, and you’ve been part of it. It’s been a wild ride reliving these beloved attractions, but those stories have nothing on today’s. All along, we’ve asked you which rides you’d like us to include in the Lost Legends series, and you’ve answered. So today, we’ll finally go whipping around the streets of London aboard Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride... Disney fans fought to save this Magic Kingdom classic from the wrecking ball... and lost.
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was an outlier in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. Based on a little-known animated double-feature film and including one of the strangest and most surprising finales of any Disney ride ever, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a true wonder. Despite being one of the oddest stories featured at a park otherwise populated by beloved heroes and well-known stories, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride gained (and earned) a cult-like following based on its wacky, whimsical, wonderful nature. So now, let’s put pedal to the metal and see what mayhem we can cause en route to nowhere in particular!
The Wind in the Willows
The story begins more than twenty years before Magic Kingdom would open. Remember that, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theater, it was more or less assumed that Walt Disney would be finished. After all, Snow White was the world’s first full-length animated feature film and right from the start, it was called “Disney’s Folly.” Critics assumed that this would be Walt’s first big misstep – the thing that brought it all down.
Of course, Snow White was received with great acclaim. Walt was even awarded an Honorary Oscar for his work and the continuation of Disney Animation was assured. Soon after Snow White’s release, Walt was approached by animators James Bodrero and Campbell Grant about adapting Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book The Wind in the Willows into a film. The story (centered on a host of anthropomorphized animals including Mr. Toad) could only be brought to life through animation. Walt objected, saying the idea was “corny,” but acquired the rights in June 1938.
By time 1941 rolled around, the script was complete. The Wind in the Willows would be a budget film (like Dumbo) but it would employ many of the prestigious animators currently finishing up Bambi. By the middle of the summer, more than 30 minutes of the film had been animated.
Then, World War II cooled the animation industry. Disney was tasked with producing propaganda films for the US government and the studios entered into a period focused on package films – several different short films presented together, often united by a common theme or a frame story. Films like The Three Caballeros (1944) and Melody Time (1948) exemplify this unique cost cutting undertaken during the War, when animators were drafted and overseas releases were cut off. When production re-started in 1945, animators finished off whatever footage they’d created for The Wind in the Willows and decided to release it as a package paired with another short film: an animated version of Washington Irving’s 1820 Legend of Sleepy Hollow, introducing the dreaded Headless Horseman.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was released in 1949 as Disney’s eleventh animated feature film. It was also the last of Disney’s War-era package films. (They’d return to their full-length format the following year with 1950’s Cinderella.)
Just six years after the release of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California.
In the diminutive park’s Fantasyland, great Disney stories came to life through a very special medium: dark rides. Disneyland was far from the first to use dark rides to tell stories. In fact, the unique storytelling medium dates back to the late 1800s when boats would drift through caverns and “old mills” lit by theatrical lighting and special effects. But the dark rides in Fantasyland were certainly definitive for the genre – brilliant, artistic rides through blacklit backdrops, glowing scenes populated by simple mannequins, and delicately-recreated settings from Disney’s already-beloved stories.
Equal parts nostalgic and timeless, Disney Parks around the globe operate these fairytale dark rides today, often intentionally recreating the simple, 2-D blacklight style of the 1955 originals. So classic is this cutout style that fans ask for it – when the new 21st century dark rides based on The Little Mermaid opened at Disney California Adventure and Magic Kingdom, guests quickly noticed that, even if the ride tried to emulate the style of Fantasyland’s mid-century dark rides, it didn’t look or feel right. The culprit? Disney hadn’t use blacklight paint.
(Both versions of The Little Mermaid ride closed a few years after their respective openings to get an intentional re-do: blacklight paint, static figures, and cutout elements that disguise lighting rigs, rid the ride of awkward incandescent lighting, and help it to blend in among Fantasyland favorites. A look at the before and after shows just how much of a difference the “classic” lighting look can make.)
The wild ride begins
On Opening Day, Disneyland’s Fantasyland was home to three such dark rides: Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Adventures, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
By 1955, Disney had already released such classics as Bambi, Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Alice in Wonderland, so it’s clear that the lead of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was chosen intentionally and not simply because of a lack of worthwhile properties.
Mr. Toad’s portion of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad chronicles the wayward stories of the well-meaning but eccentric amphibian J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq. An upper-crust elite, Mr. Toad is maniacally attracted to whatever the current fad might be, and he’ll bankrupt himself out of the majestic Toad Hall to get it. While he's known to zoom across the English countryside on his horse and buggy, lately Toad is abuzz about the newest craze sweeping society: the horseless carriage. One look at the brand new, sputtering, guzzling, rumbling motorcar and Toad is struck by “motor-mania” and offers to trade the deed to Toad Hall for a car of his own.
Aboard Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, guests are seated aboard early 1900s motorcars and sent barreling through the foggy streets of London where mischief abounds. Unlike Fantasyland’s more subdued and subtle dark rides, Mr. Toad’s ride is wild indeed, bursting through a fireplace, whipping around turns, rumbling over a boardwalk, and zipping through town as cutout figures appear to dive out of the way! The mad dash through the countryside ends with us being sentenced to jail but, en route, we're struck by a train and detour into... well... nowhere in particular.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was at once a classic, somehow perfectly at home among the more enchanting, fairy tale stories and settings of Fantasyland. And that made it an easy for choice for duplication at the brand-new Walt Disney World being built in Florida. As we've seen time and time again, Imagineers did better than to simply copy Disneyland's rides bolt-for-bolt. Given the benefit of limitless land, bigger budgets, and the invaluable gift of foresight and master planning, Imagineers knew that Mr. Toad in Florida deserved a bigger space and an even grander adventure.
So what awaited guests inside of the unique, super-sized Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom? Read on…