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Radiator Springs Racers: The Road to the Ride that Saved California Adventure

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we pride ourselves on having plenty to help the casual theme park fan. But for true industry enthusiasts, it's all about our In-Depth Collections, dedicated to telling the complete, full, unabridged stories of the best (and worst) rides on Earth and the interwoven stories of the industry that made them possible.

From a simple sketch to a world-class E-Ticket, our Modern Marvels features trace the behind-the-scenes stories of the making-of these masterpiece rides and how they came to be, then head in for a first-person ride-through to catch every detail along the way. Frequent readers have gotten up-close and personal with some of the best rides on the planet, traveling into the beguiling Mystic Manor, braving the curse of Shiriki Utundu in Tokyo DisneySea's Tower of Terror, raced through the Grid aboard the incredible TRON Lightcycle Power Run, and many more.

Image: Disney, via Mint Crocodile

But today's feature is perhaps one of the most important rides Disney's ever designed... Because Radiator Springs Racers saved an entire theme park, reversing the fortunes of Disney's costliest mistake ever. When this high-octance family thrill ride opened in 2012, some said that it stood amongst the best Disney dark rides on Earth – a return to Disney's dominance and an example of what Imagineering can do. So today, we'll dig into Disney's automotive history, from cars to – well – Cars, and how this larger-than-life E-Ticket at Disney California Adventure set a new standard for the industry.

In the immortal words of Luigi himself, "Now you will have the chance to make this the most glorious race of your lives! Uno for the money; due for the show; tre to get ready and quattro to... go!"

Disney’s cars

While it’s Walt’s long-standing affinity for trains that most Disney Parks fans are aware of, Disneyland’s connection to cars goes back about as far.

The reign of the automobile on the West Coast kicked off in the 1940s with the opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway linking Los Angeles with Pasadena – the first freeway in the Western United States (and a part of the fabled U.S. Route 66). Were it not for the emergence of California’s renowned “car culture” in the ‘50s, Disneyland wouldn’t have even taken shape. After all, those emerging freeways are what made Walt and his location scouts take notice of the pristine, orange-grove covered town of Anaheim thirty miles outside of Los Angeles. Plus, the rise of Walt’s little park in Orange County is practically its own chapter in the decades-long rise of the American middle class and the new “family road trip” vacations taking society by storm.

Put simply, cars were a major part of American society by time Disneyland opened, and it was clear that they’d remain an icon of American ingenuity and innovation, deserving a place in “a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievement.”

Autopia

Image: Disney 

Even though fans today may balk at the gas-guzzling Autopia that covers nearly four acres of the infamously landlocked park’s Tomorrowland, the seemingly simple car ride was a living demonstration of the future when it opened alongside Disneyland on July 17, 1955. At that time, America’s multilane, limited-access highway system was still being designed, and President Eisenhower wouldn’t sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act (establishing interstate highways) until a year after the park’s opening!

Image: Disneyland

So Autopia was ahead of its time. But more importantly, it become a hallmark attraction of the park – a first real chance for generations of Disneyland guests to get behind the wheel and test out the open road (albeit, not-so-open given that bumpers were added just before the park's opening and a guide rail was added in 1956 for now-obvious reasons). A product of – and living advertisement for – California’s car culture, Autopia was a hit and required a C-Ticket to ride.

In fact, children of all ages were invited to get behind the wheel in no less than four attractions during Disneyland’s earliest years. The Tomorrowland Autopia opened in 1955, then was joined by Fantasyland’s Junior Autopia in 1956, and the Midget Autopia in 1957 (in this case, referring to the diminutive size of the cars; the ride itself was for those too small to drive the Junior Autopia cars, with no adults allowed!). The grander Fantasyland Autopia then replaced the Junior version in 1959.

Image: Disney

The Disneyland Autopia we know today is a combination and restructuring of both the Tomorrowland and Fantasyland versions, and spin-offs of the ride are, of course, located at Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland (where the cars are all-electric), and even in the retro-futuristic Discoveryland of Disneyland Paris.

But cars were only the beginning. Naturally, Walt’s Tomorrowland changed with the times, culminating in the grand re-opening of a New Tomorrowland in 1967. Dubbed a “World on the Move,” this kinetic paradise continued to feature the Autopia, but now highlighted new prototypes for transportation of the future and the mass-transit systems that could sincerely mark our cities of tomorrow: the Monorail and the Lost Legend: The Peoplemover streaming overhead. And that brings us to our next car ride…

Future World (of Motion)

Image: Disney

From Autopia to the Peoplemover, it’s clear that Walt had always been fascinated with transportation. And while the Disneyland versions of the Monorail and the Peoplemover were meant to act as “gee-whiz” inducing showcases of what the future could hold, he planned to actually apply those technologies in the urban setting of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Images: Disney

To his thinking, Monorails would be the main transportation of his 'Florida Project,' carrying guests from a purpose-built airport to EPCOT and then to Magic Kingdom, with Peoplemover spurs then branching off from each stop to pulse into the finer corners of the resort and city. Walt hoped that his EPCOT – a real, functioning city – would act as a test bed, informing any world city to be built after.

Of course, we know that Walt’s death sidelined any hopes of EPCOT, though its core tenets of futurism, idealism, and industry became a backbone of the first major project explored without Walt: EPCOT Center. Disney’s own, permanent World’s Fair, EPCOT Center would highlight areas of science and innovation in massive pavilions, dispensing entirely with cartoons, castles, and fantasy in favor of real aspirations for what the future of industry could bring.

Image: Disney

And true to Walt’s DNA, the first partnership Disney secured for EPCOT Center’s Future World was with General Motors to build a pavilion dedicated to the history and future of transportation. From humble stone-age beginnings, to automobiles, flight, and the limitless possibilities of the future, the Lost Legend: World of Motion remains one of the most humorous and substantial dark rides in Epcot’s long list of closed classics.

But as the new millennium neared, the renamed Epcot entered a period of change. If you ask many guests, the sincere attempts at futurism based back in the park’s 1982 opening had… well… aged. As sponsors dropped out of the park and Disney sought cheap-and-cheerful answers to its once-educational Epcot, General Motors stepped forward with their own requirement.

Image: Disney

Times had been tough for the automaker, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify to shareholders and to laid-off employees that GM should continue to sponsor a dark ride through the history of transportation at Walt Disney World. GM offered to renew their sponsorship of Epcot’s transportation pavilion, but only if it would be updated to feature a headlining ride that would highlight – and sell – GM vehicles…

TEST TRACK

Officially opened in March 1999, Epcot’s newest entry looked quite unlike anything the park had done before. While each of its futuristic pavilions had opened with a lengthy, informative dark ride through its highlighted area of industry, the new TEST TRACK was different. Rather than leading guests through a feel-good, sing-song retrospective of Marc Davis-produced Audio Animatronic scenes, the ride was a thrilling tour of a GM safety testing facility aboard a car being put through the paces… with guests in the seat of test dummies.

Image: Disney

TEST TRACK was an unusually unskinned dark ride for Disney, hollowing out the former World of Motion showbuilding to create a cavernous, industrial proving ground filled with in-your-face tests sending’s vehicles swerving through cones, rumbling over rugged terrain, accelerating up hairpin inclines, and passing through environmental chambers of hot and cold just like a real test car would endure.

The real innovation of TEST TRACK, though, was in its hardware. Building off of the technology Disney had designed for the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure and its DINOSAUR clone, TEST TRACK would feature a new, revolutionary ride system.

Imagine the slot car tracks you might’ve had as a child, where small model cars are affixed to a track using a pin inside of a center guide groove. In these pint-sized slot cars, battery power charges the track, energizing a small motor inside the car through electrical pickups.

Image: Disney

On a human-sized scale, TEST TRACK’s six-passenger vehicles would ride along a track with a bus-bar fed down a central slot to guide tires and power supplied beneath. Each of Disney’s vehicles would include three on-board computers to track the ride’s progress and speed, activate show scenes and lightning, and control on-board audio and video cues. But this innovative new ride system really showed off its strength in the ride's finale, accelerating from 0 - 65 miles per hour – the fastest ride at Walt Disney World.

Admittedly, the high-tech hardware turned out to be a little more temperamental than Disney had expected. You can read more about the ride, its original incarnation, and its subsequent 21st century transformation in its own in-depth feature, Lost Legends: TEST TRACK.

But know that at an estimated cost of $100 million – one of the most expensive rides ever developed – Test Track opened on March 17, 1999… almost two years after its scheduled debut. Even still, it was far from the biggest disaster Disney would face at the crest of the new millennium. Disney’s costliest mistake ever was on the horizon, and it’s there that the promise of celebrating California’s car culture would return on a massive scale… but not in the way you’re expecting…

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