PIXAR. For a new generation of animation fans, that word appearing against a sky-blue backdrop is as comforting and familiar as "When You Wish Upon a Star's" grand crescendo against a glowing Disney castle; a squeaking, bouncing, articulating desk lamp as recognizable and iconic as Tinker Bell; Cars Land as obvious, classic, and beloved as Frontierland.
But it wasn't always that way... and increasingly, some fans are wondering aloud if Disney Parks are becoming Pixar Parks, favoring the computer-generated stars of Pixar's modern classics at the detriment to Disney's own animated favorites... So today, we'll dig into the story of Pixar, its relationship with Disney (including some epic breakups and multi-billion-dollar make-ups), and – most importantly – trace the timeline of Pixar attractions joining Disney Parks. Is there too much Pixar in Disney Parks? That'll be up to you to decide. But along the way, we'll also uncover some surprising stories.
When did Disney's connection to Pixar first begin? Longer ago than you might imagine... How many Pixar-themed attractions have Disney Parks hosted? More than you might think... How far will Pixar permeate into Disney Parks? Think, "to infinity and beyond..."
Days of Pixar past
Before Cars, Bugs, or Monsters, Pixar wasn’t Pixar at all.
Truthfully, the story of the making of Pixar is nearly as compelling as that of Disney itself. What we know today as Pixar began as the Computer Division of Lucasfilm – yes, the Lucasfilm of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame. George Lucas had recruited New York Institute of Technology computer scientist Ed Catmull (today, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios!) with a goal of enhancing computer-produced special effects and mastering digital editing.
Lucasfilm’s Computer Division is itself responsible for a number of technological breakthroughs in the ‘80s. Its hardware and software developments were used not only by Lucasfilm, but by its Industrial Light & Magic sister, creating a number of cutting-edge, never-before-scene computer-generated sequences in films (like a 60-second continuous “computer-generated imagery” shot in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn – the first ever fully-CGI sequence in a feature film).
Lucasfilm’s Computer Division also attracted a few young minds eager to explore this new potential art form. In particular, a young animator named John Lasseter migrated to the company after having been fired from Disney…
Why did a big-thinker and dreamer like Lasseter have no place at Disney during the ‘70s? Because the decade had been perhaps the darkest in Disney’s history. After Walt’s death in 1966, Walt Disney Productions had become notoriously rudderless. For the better part of two decades, Disney just couldn’t seem to get a foothold at the box office, releasing big-budget duds like The Million Dollar Duck, The Island at the Top of the World, The Black Hole, and The Watcher in the Woods.
Disney’s theme parks had stagnated after Walt, mostly relegated to inexpensive thrill rides (like Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain) in the ‘70s, rather than the elaborate, ambitious Audio-Animatronics masterpieces of the ‘60s (like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion).
Worse, Disney’s once-fabled animation studio was dying. The era of Walt’s hits was over, and middling animated films of the ‘70s and early ‘80s failed to leave an impression (crescendoing with the film that almost shut Disney down for good, The Black Cauldron). Put another way, ambitious and expensive ideas about incorporating costly and experimental “computer generated” films were out of the question, and it’s no surprise that Lasseter was asked to leave.
In the early ‘80s, Disney would endure a series of hostile takeover attempts that would’ve seen the company’s assets split… the only thing that stopped it was Roy E. Disney (Walt’s nephew, on Disney’s board of directors) leading a coup against then-CEO Ron Miller and hand-selecting someone with the right resume to revive Disney’s filmmaking: Michael Eisner. Coming from a time as CEO of Paramount Pictures, Eisner was brought in at Disney’s darkest moment. And to reinvigorate the studio, he needed help: Frank Wells (who became Disney’s President and COO) and Jeffrey Katzenberg (who headed up Walt Disney Studios).
Eisner came on board in 1984 and immediately began reversing Disney’s sinking fortunes. Eisner is the CEO who acquired ESPN, ABC, and Miramax (literally turning Walt Disney Productions into the international Walt Disney Company media empire we know today). He diversified the studio with the adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures banner; he revived Disney’s theme parks by bringing in the stories that mattered to modern audiences… even if they weren’t Disney stories(!), and he lead the “Disney Renaissance” – the period during which the company’s animation studio was reborn with hit after hit at the box office beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
In 1986 – just as Eisner’s plans for Disney were really beginning to heat up – Lucasfilm decided to spin off its Computer Division group into an independent company… one that ended up in the hands of creative visionary and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs. For just $10 million, Jobs acquired the small, 40-person team of the Lucasfilm Computer Division and renamed it… PIXAR.
From that moment on, the stories of Pixar and Disney become entwined. After all, Pixar was testing a new Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) and Disney bought in right away, eager to see how this computer software could speed up the more mundane ink and paint moments of the traditional animation process. As Eisner’s Disney Renaissance began, some early test shorts made by Pixar’s animators (including the fabled “Luxo Jr.” featuring the eponymous articulating desk lamp) legitimized this new CGI animation.
In 1991, Pixar and Disney signed an agreement. Pixar would produce three computer-animated feature films to be released by Disney. In one of the most spectacular business decisions of the decade, Pixar only required that anytime “Disney” appeared on marketing collateral, “Pixar” and its logo be presented as well, and at the same size. (Disney•Pixar was born!) In exchange for the massive distribution, Disney had its own requirement: they would retain the rights to create sequels based on the three Pixar films covered in the contract… with or without Pixar’s input.
1989 – The Little Mermaid. 1991 – Beauty and the Beast. 1992 – Aladdin. 1994 – The Lion King. 1995 – Pocahontas.
As the Disney Renaissance continued, the animators at Pixar went about their own business, ready to introduce the world’s first full-length computer animated film.
The first three
No one had seen anything like 1995’s Toy Story before, including Disney executives. Few knew what to expect. Would families want to see a computer-animated film? Steve Jobs said of the project, "If Toy Story is a modest hit—say $75 million at the box office, we'll [Pixar and Disney] both break even. If it gets $100 million, we'll both make money. But if it's a real blockbuster and earns $200 million or so at the box office, we'll make good money, and Disney will make a lot of money."
Toy Story ran away with a box office of $373 million – a higher gross than Disney's own Pocahontas released six months earlier.
And due to Pixar’s clever requirement for equal billing opposite Disney, Pixar became a household name. While competing animation studios from Warner Bros. (Quest for Camelot, The Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones…) and Fox (Anastasia) tried throughout the ‘90s to match Disney, they couldn’t. Only Pixar did. Jobs said, "[W]e are only the second studio in 60 years to produce a blockbuster animated feature film – and we're doing it in a new medium of 3-D computer graphics."
Even more spectacularly, Toy Story wasn’t a fluke.
The next two original stories created by Pixar and distributed by Disney were A Bug’s Life (1998) and Monsters Inc. (2001) – both of which went on to score big at the box office. And it’s no surprise…! Pixar’s stories were unique, casting aside the tried-and-true fairy tales of Disney’s Renaissance in favor of quirky worlds, unusual scale, and truly original stories that (at first blush) don’t appear to fit into the so-called Seven Story Archetypes.
While the completion of Monsters Inc. also technically fulfilled the contract between Disney and Pixar, Disney had secured the rights to produce their own sequels to the three Pixar films… which meant that no matter what happened going forward, the Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc. intellectual properties were as good as theirs. And per Eisner’s cinematic understanding of the Disney theme parks, that meant that it was high time to bring Pixar to the parks… We’ll jump into the first Pixar attraction at Disney Parks on the next page…
Do bugs live in trees? (1998)
The first Pixar attraction added at Disney parks was actually based on the second Pixar feature film…
Though ideas of a double decker carousel or Noah’s ark had been floated (no pun intended), ultimately Imagineers decided that Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom should feature a gargantuan baobab tree as its central icon. In fact, the Tree of Life features more than 130 carved animals throughout its intricate trunk and roots. So when it was determined that the Tree of Life should house an attraction, The Lion King was an obvious choice. Between its “Circle of Life” theme, its billion-dollar box office four years earlier, and the Tree’s harmonious central message, it seemed like a no-brainer.
According to Disney Legend Marty Sklar in his book Dream It! Do It!, Eisner just wasn’t very enthusiastic about the Lion King idea and left a meeting with Imagineers coolly before popping his head back in to ask, “Do bugs live in trees?”
It had dawned on Eisner to use valuable real estate inside the Tree of Life to cross-pollinate with Disney’s then-upcoming A Bug’s Life Pixar film. In fact, “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” opened alongside Disney’s Animal Kingdom on April 22, 1998 – seven months before A Bug’s Life would be released in theaters! That’s why the 3D special effects show / musical revue is positioned as a prequel to the film, meant to help introduce audiences to Flik and the antagonistic Hopper (who meets a frightful – but not fatal – end at the 3D show's conclusion).
Just three years after the opening of the ambitious and enigmatic Animal Kingdom, Disney opened its next stateside theme park… one of a much different caliber: the subject of the in-depth Declassified Disaster: Disney's California Adventure feature. In 2001, California Adventure infamously featured very few recognizable characters and practically nothing for families with small children. However, it did have a clone of It’s Tough to be a Bug (albeit, in an anthill rather than a tree, placed in the park’s “Bountiful Valley Farm” section).
Pixar helped fill in the gaps. In the park’s second year, it opened a fifth land called “a bug’s land.” Mostly made of nicely-dressed carnival rides plopped among “giant” props, overgrown grass, clever details, and towering clovers, “a bug’s land” wasn't exactly a Disney Imagineering masterpiece. However, the land did supercharge the park with enough family attractions to help reverse its earliest bad reviews, and – in retrospect – "a bug's land" admittedly had a more consistent scale (and was arguably more fun) than any of the Toy Story Lands to follow. However, California Adventure’s “bugs land” and It’s Tough to be a Bug were squashed in 2018 to make way for the Marvel-themed Avengers Campus (which doesn’t really make sense in the California park, but neither did bugs. Wait… do bugs live in California?)
Shoot ‘em up (1998)
It was not-so-long-ago that Imagineers bristled at the idea of arming guests – children! – with guns and sending them into the belly of an industrial spacecraft to battle aliens (which is why the Lost Legend: Alien Encounter was created instead). But obviously, they got over their fears thanks to Toy Story 2, the inspiration for a new ride at Magic Kingdom.
Debuting a full year before the sequel that would inspire it, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin at Magic Kingdom replaced the park’s Lost Legend: If You Had Wings and its aviation-themed successors. The ride essentially recruits guests to Buzz Lightyear’s intergalactic Star Command police agency, repurposing the former ride’s Omnimover path through aviation history into a day-glo, flat, blacklight, toy-sized outer space.
The reason the ride is “inspired by” Toy Story’s sequel is that it features the notorious Emperor Zurg (a clear play on Darth Vader) as its antagonist, sending us into the farthest reaches of plastic space to retrieve batteries stolen by the bad guy.
Any critical dissection of Space Ranger Spin, of course, reveals it as the first crack in Tomorrowland’s once-authentic veneer; the first piece of its quick descent into being a creative catch-all. At least Buzz feels tangentially related to the future (if “space = future,” which we’re not sure it does) compared to later additions like Lilo and Stitch, Marvel super heroes, and some Pixar picks we'll get to soon...
While fans argue, Imagineers seem to approve. A version of the ride has the rare distinction of being one of the few attractions to have appeared in every Disney “castle” park. It opened at Tokyo Disneyland (2004) and Disneyland Paris (2006) replacing the Lost Legend: The Timekeeper at both resorts...
...In 2005, it mercifully took over the spot that had recently served as the queue for Disneyland’s Declassified Disaster: Rocket Rods (humorously and coincidentally positioning it opposite STAR TOURS, pitting Vader and Zurg as neighbors); and a new version built for Shanghai Disneyland in 2016 graciously removed some of the cartoon plastic glare in favor of looking at least a little more serious.
Hong Kong Disneyland’s version opened alongside the park in 2005, but closed in 2017. Its showbuilding was annexed to the Marvel-themed Stark Expo section being built on the outskirts of Tomorrowland, with the ride redressed as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Nano Battle.
Disney and Pixar signed a new contract that would run through 2006, assuring three new feature films (what would become Finding Nemo, Cars, and The Incredibles). Fittingly, in 2003, a small change came to Epcot’s The Living Seas. Turtle Talk with Crush was a quaint “hidden gem” attraction allowing small groups an audience with Crush, the surfing sea turtle from Nemo by way of Disney’s live digital puppeting.
A digital Crush swimming on the other side of a glass window to the Pacific interacts with guests in real time, calling them by name, asking and answering questions about the turtle world, and more. While simple, the attraction was a hit, and was quickly added to Disney’s California Adventure (2004) and later at Tokyo DisneySea (2009).
You have to imagine that – for fans in the early 2000s, It's Tough to be a Bug, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (and its successors), and Turtle Talk with Crush were as controversial as STAR TOURS or Indiana Jones Adventure had been in the decades prior. After all, these new stories being inserted into Disney Parks weren't even Disney stories! Would Woody, Flik, and Nemo replace Snow White, Tom Sawyer, and Mr. Toad? It felt possible... And yet, these "flavor-of-the-week" properties hadn't yet proven their staying power beside big box office reciepts.
But even still, a HUGE change was about to overtake the Disney • Pixar relationship... One that threatened to derail the whole thing. Would you believe we almost saw an age of Warner • Pixar? That's where we're heading next... Read on...
(Pixar) Peaks and (Disney) valleys
Let’s stop for just a second to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Disney and Pixar had officially extended their three-film agreement to six, ensuring their distribution partnership to 2006. But internally, tensions were beginning to boil.
Tarzan’s 1999 release is commonly understood as the definitive end of Disney’s second golden age, and in retrospect, we can easily see the early 2000s as a period of decline at Disney Animation… Dinosaur, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range…
Put simply, Disney's winning streak was definitely over. Like back in the '70s – they seemed to face nothing but disappointment at the box office with uninspired concepts, apparently having run out of worthwhile fairy tales to adapt for the screen.
Worse, while Disney was releasing half-hearted and forgettable films and instead focusing on inexpensive direct-to-video sequels, new competitors were arising... When Eisner refused to promote Jeffrey Katzenberg after the death of Frank Wells, Katzenberg left in disgust and started his own animation studio – DreamWorks SKG – whose 2001 film Shrek proved that Disney wouldn’t be alone in the animation game anymore, or even in computer animation. (Increasingly inexpensive, CGI would soon overtake traditional animation, creating room not just for DreamWorks, but Blue Sky, Illumination...)
The ingredients were set: Disney in yet another decline; a new, emerging CGI animation market; and, for Pixar, a near perfect track record for box office blockbusters, critically-acclaimed films, and beloved, heart-wrenching, global phenomenon films.
It stood to reason that not only could Pixar go on without Disney, Pixar could be the new Disney.
Both Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs were (of course) deeply competitive and invested business people who were (deservedly) fiercely protective of their products, so it’s no surprise that Jobs was willing to renegotiate for a new contract with Disney… but only with some new terms. For example, Jobs wanted Pixar to retain creative control of its franchises going forward, and wanted to retroactively own Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc., too.
A fourth Disney•Pixar release was mere months away – Finding Nemo – and Eisner began internally suggesting that the film wasn’t going to be a hit. He hadn’t liked early cuts he’d seen of it, and, according to the LA Times, began to suggest that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have Nemo fail; that it would give Steve Jobs “a reality check.”
... But Finding Nemo – Pixar's fourth original film – earned $940 million at the box office, becoming the highest grossing animated film ever.
Disney’s leverage was sunk.
Just like that, it was official: on January 30, 2004, Disney and Pixar announced their intention to cut ties. While two remaining films – Cars and The Incredibles – would be delivered by Pixar and distributed by Disney, Pixar was officially a free agent to find a new partner post-2006. More of a battle of CEO egos than numbers, the two companies parted ways. Of course, that’s not quite the end…
In 2004 – right after the impending split between Disney and Pixar was made public, Disney announced a new division of its animation studio: Circle 7 Animation. This new arm of Disney’s filmmaking business would specialize in computer-generated animation. Coincidence? Of course not.
While it’s hard to imagine today, sincere plans were made to release sequels to the six Disney•Pixar stories (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, and The Incredibles) without Pixar’s team involved at all. While Pixar would go on to create and release new films of its own (perhaps as Paramount•Pixar or Sony•Pixar), Disney alone would control the fate of the six original films, simply paying Pixar a small fee.
Circle 7 started right out the gate with three films on its docket: Toy Story 3, Monsters Inc. 2: Lost in Scaradise, and Finding Nemo 2.
However, in 2003, our old friend Roy E. Disney returned. The man who’d heralded Eisner’s arrival at Disney now called for his resignation. Roy himself resigned from his position on the Disney Board and initiated the “Save Disney” campaign, calling out Eisner for his micromanagement at the studio that had led to all those box office flops in the early 2000s; for cutting costs at the Disney theme parks to never-before-seen lows; for turning Disney into a “rapacious, soulless” company.
In March 2005 Eisner stepped down a year before his contract was up (even declining his contractual right to keep an office at Disney’s headquarters and use of a private Disney jet – evidence of how frosty the relationship was). His President and COO, Bob Iger, stepped into the CEO role.
The story goes that when Bob Iger attended the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, he staked out a spot to watch the celebratory parade that marched down Main Street and – to his surprise – found that the newest Disney characters in the parade were from movies that were at least 10 years old, whereas the "new" generation of characters recieving the most applause from the crowd were exclusively Pixar characters. That's all the proof he needed to start his financial executives exploring... beginning with some sincere, heart-to-heart conversations between Iger and Steve Jobs himself.
On May 5, 2006, Disney announced that it would purchase Pixar outright for $7.4 billion – all stock. Steve Jobs (who owned 49.65% of Pixar) would be catapulted to Disney’s largest shareholder with a 7% share – worth nearly $3.9 billion – and a seat on the Board of Directors.
The Pixar Push
In 2006, it became official. For more than $7 billion (nearly what Disney paid for Marvel and Lucasfilm some years later combined), Disney acquired Pixar outright. Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios were now partners under the same umbrella, though they would retain their individual identities. Disney• Pixar would become a permanent brand mark beginning with Cars.
(Circle 7 Animation was dissolved, of course, without ever having created a film. 80% of its animators were transferred to Walt Disney Animation. Pixar show-runners intentionally chose not to look at Circle 7’s script treatments for a third Toy Story, Monsters Inc. 2, or Finding Nemo 2 when they created Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Finding Dory.)
Now, Pixar was Disney. Disney owned Pixar. And that meant that Pixar’s place in the parks could expand... Read on...
“P-Ticket” Rides (2006 – 2010)
After Disney's full-out acquisition of Pixar in 2006, a wave of "P-Ticket" rides spread across Disney Parks. Why "P"-Tickets? Ranging from small encounters to full-on anchor attractions, this period of Pixar's integration was largely made of a few new additions, and a wave of cloned attractions across the globe. Now that Disney and Pixar's future was assured, Pixar characters were slowly folded into the parks in classic dark rides, new-age attractions, and headliners. As might be expected with a quick roll-out of popular properties, there wasn't always a lot of care or thought put into these "P-Tickets" placements, which is why some are tied to the frustration of fans...
In 2006, Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue opened at Disney’s California Adventure, replacing the abysmal ride that some call Disney’s worst dark ride ever – the Declassified Disaster: Superstar Limo. The relatively simple, Fantasyland-style dark ride set in the park’s Hollywood “studio” backlot area pre-dated the park’s $1.2 billion facelift, but served to bolster its family-friendly offerings just as “a bug’s land” had and remains a gentle, ambivalent aside for families.
In 2007, a handful of Pixar attractions (no doubt green-lit after the 2006 purchase of the studio) came online. For example, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor came to Magic Kingdom, replacing the Lost Legend: The Timekeeper. The attraction – another live-puppeted production like Turtle Talk – invites guests into a Tomorrowland night club where guest-submitted jokes told by comedy club monsters are meant to gather "laughs" to power Monstropolis.
Okay, so Monsters Inc. made even less sense in Tomorrowland than Buzz Lightyear and Toy Story 2 had ten years earlier, but by that time, Tomorrowland was largely seen as a lost cause anyway. The careful “world-building” that had accompanied New Tomorrowland in 1994 (with Timekeeper, Alien Encounter, and more all united under one overarching continuity) had fallen, so Monsters Inc. set alongside Toy Story 2 and Lilo and Stitch was just a sign of the times.
That same year, Pixar served as the backbone for an extension of Disney’s most pathetic theme park ever, the Declassified Disaster: Walt Disney Studios in Paris. There, an expansion of the ‘Toon Studio’ area added a flat ride themed to Cars and a more elaborate indoor Crush’s Coaster based on Finding Nemo.
Speaking of Nemo, for years, Disney had been looking at the potential of “plussing” Epcot’s “sterile, scientific” Future World with characters as a solution to its admittedly aging appeal. 2004's Turtle Talk with Crush had been a proof of concept, and now it was time for the Lost Legend: The Living Seas to become home to the cartoon clownfish.
Disney’s new ownership of Pixar meant that the billion-dollar Finding Nemo could take up full residence in the Future World pavilion, and in 2007 The Living Seas became The Seas with Nemo and Friends. One of the first (and most egregious) character “invasions” in a park specifically designed without characters, The Seas with Nemo and Friends is admittedly an odd juxtaposition of the whimsical, colorful, Australia-set adventure film with a distinctly-80s Seabase interior of the pavilion.
In the third Nemo attraction for the year, Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage (a Walt-original dating to 1959) had been closed by Eisner’s penny-pinching regime back in 1998. Just as Magic Kingdom’s version of the ride was ultimately sunk for its high operating cost and low capacity, fans simply expected that Disneyland’s subs would eventually bite the dust… especially when a briefly-planned Atlantis: The Lost Empire overlay was axed (for obvious reasons). But in 2007, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage surfaced, saving the historic ride for a new generation… even if it was yet another chip away at Tomorrowland’s foundation.
(In 2017, Nemo would overtake StormRider at Tokyo DisneySea as well, transforming the massive STAR-TOURS-style simulator into Nemo and Friends SeaRider.)
A final (and perhaps most noteworthy) attraction of the "P-Ticket" era was Toy Story Midway Mania! The ride opened in 2008 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the red-bricked Pixar Place land, meant to emulate the look and feel of Pixar’s Emeryville, California campus. A few weeks later, a clone of the ride opened at Disney California Adventure, dressed in the elegant trappings of a Victorian boardwalk – part of the park’s rebirth and transformation of Paradise Pier from a sleazy modern carnival to a turn-of-the-century boardwalk. (A third Midway Mania opened at Tokyo DisneySea in 2012 in even more elaborate dressing: an east coast electric trolley park.)
Pixarlands (2012 - Today)
It just so happens that the rise of Pixar parallels a big change in themed entertainment design as a whole. In 2007, the announcement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure proved that the future of theme parks lay not in E-(or "P"-)Ticket rides, but in lands. Its 2010 opening only further exemplified that a new standard had been set. Guests wanted to do more than ride a ride with their favorite characters; they wanted to live their lives, step into their worlds, eat their food, and (if operators chose the right property) buy their stuff.
The world of Harry Potter was a natural fit, bringing to life the snow-capped village of Hogsmeade nestled into the Scottish countryside beneath the iconic Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry reigning overhead.
But following on the coattails of the Wizarding World’s announcement, Disney had one of their own. The long-suffering Disney’s California Adventure would undergo that $1.2 billion reconstruction, fixing the park’s fatal flaw in each of its themed lands. But of great importance, the park would also add a new, from-scratch land: Cars Land. Cars Land would bring the remote Route 66 desert town of Radiator Springs to life exactly as it had been seen in the films. Forget the caricatured flat ride from Walt Disney Studios in Paris… Cars Land was the real deal, with two fully integrated family rides and the E-Ticket Modern Marvel: Radiator Springs Racers.
And like the Wizarding World, guests would no doubt want to shop at Ramone’s Body Shop; dine at Flo’s V8 Café; swing by the Cozy Cone Motel. It worked. Despite being based on Pixar’s 16th highest grossing film (out of 19), Cars Land was a hit, the highlight of the “new” park we explored in Disney's California (Mis)adventure: Part II.
Though much less ambitious, Toy Story Lands opened across Disney Resorts, too, at Walt Disney Studios Park (2010), Hong Kong Disneyland (2011), and Shanghai Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (both 2018). While each has a unique set of rides (with Florida’s being the most ambitious by nature of having a family roller coaster and Midway Mania, rerouted from its old Pixar Place entrance), Toy Story Lands are mostly recognized by fans as “cheap and cheerful” distractions meant to add ride capacity to parks inexpensively, not as Wizarding-World rivals.
In 2014, the same underbuilt Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris got another shot in the arm by way of one of Disney's most high-tech rides yet, the Modern Marvel: Ratatouille – L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy. But more than just an E-Ticket ride inside of a beige studio warehouse, Ratatouille turned the Studio park's failing foundation on its head by being placed in a new Parisian courtyard with authenthic atmosphere, food, wine, and shops.
Though small, this new Ratatouille-themed "mini-land" would set the stage for the park's next era of transformation, when it'll be joined by lands dedicated to Marvel, Star Wars, and Frozen, each continuing Ratatouille's tradition of undoing the park's dated "studio" style.
Of course, Epcot at Walt Disney World already has a France pavilion among its World Showcase lineup, so it's no surprise that a clone of Disneyland Paris' ride is earmarked for a new Ratatouille-themed courtyard off of the Parisian street in Orlando. Though less controversial than Frozen replacing the Lost Legend: Maelstrom that once stood in the park's Norway pavilion, Ratatouille nonetheless continues the strategy of inserting Disney and Pixar into Epcot, which was once strictly off-limits for characters. Whether that's brilliant or blasphemous, we wouldn't dare argue.
The most recent Pixar push at Disney Parks is perhaps the oddest one. Disney California Adventure’s Paradise Pier (remember, recently renovated as part of the park’s epic rebirth to more closely resemble a historic, reverent, idealized, turn-of-the-century boardwalk with a few classic, pie-eyed Disney characters) got a third facelift in 2018, becoming the unusually ecclectic Pixar Pier.
What it amounted to is an odd double-dipping situation wherein Imagineers seemed to push the pier even further toward that elegant, timeless, beautiful “Victorian” look and feel… while simultaneously slapping Pixar brands on the rides, adding the Animatronic Luxo Jr. lamp to disconnectedly stand over the pier’s entrance, and creating four dissimilar Pixar “neighborhoods” (a fancy marketing cop-out for a mid-century modern Incredibles ride next to a Victorian-styled Midway Mania next to Inside Out being unceremoniously stuck on a carnival spinner).
Pixar Pier actually seems to go against the “Wizarding-World” model. If there’s a “story” to be told by Pixar Pier, it appears to be “The modern Walt Disney Company owns a California boardwalk and has decided to overlay its popular Pixar franchises overtop of the rides and food stands there.”
So while guests queue to buy “Jack Jack’s Cookie Num Nums” (from The Incredibles) or “Adorable Snowman’s Frosted Treats” (from Monsters Inc. – “It’s lemon!”), themed entertainment insiders can’t help but balk at the unusual setting and “story” that seems so antithetical to the billion dollars Disney just spent to re-do the park and cement its careful, historic Californian narrative.
Attraction-wise, Pixar Pier still includes Toy Story Midway Mania as well as the Incredicoaster (achieved with a disappointingly low-budget overlay to the park’s classic California Screamin’) and (most curiously) the Pixar Pal-a-Round – the new name for the land’s towering Ferris wheel that continues to feature a pie-eyed Mickey on its face, leading to Mickey Mouse reining over Pixar Pier… Huh?
In a phase II expansion in 2019, they were joined by Jessie’s Critter Carousel, plus the Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind – a carnival spinner ride (reclaimed from the closed “bug’s land”). Altogether, the latter exemplifies most Disney Parks fans' feelings toward the land. One of the most emotional and beloved Pixar films of all time recieves not a heart-wrenching dark ride through the psyche but... a relocated and re-stickered yo-yo swing?
In the last decade, Bob Iger has overseen acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm to name just a few, and while all three are seeing increased presence in Disney Parks, there’s just no denying that Pixar continues to rise (albeit, with Disney Animation itself coming a pronounced comeback alongside it, and in computer animation to boot).
In the end, does it matter? Pixar is Disney, after all. But increasingly, fans wonder if Pixar’s booming success has overshadowed the parks’ classics and “authentic” Disney characters. And even ardent Pixar apologists must sometimes wonder: do Monsters Inc. and Toy Story belong in Tomorrowland? Should Woody and Jessie be wandering around Frontierland? Shouldn’t Pixar Pier be a temporary overlay rather than a permanent (and perhaps, short-sighted) installation?
From humble origins to a dominant box office power increasingly pulsed into Disney Parks, Pixar may very well be the future of Imagineering… But should it be?
What does the future of Pixar in Disney Parks look like? Think “to infinity and beyond.”
On the last page, we'll include a year-by-year breakdown of Pixar attractions at Disney Parks.
- It's Tough to be a Bug – April 22 (Disney's Animal Kingdom)
- Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin – November 3 (Magic Kingdom)
- It's Tough to be a Bug – February 8 (Disney's California Adventure)
- A Bug's Land (featuring Flik's Fun Fair) – October 7 (Disney's California Adventure)
- Flik's Flyers
- Heimlich's Chew-Chew Train
- Francis' Ladybug Boogie
- Princess Dot's Puddle Park
- Tuck and Roll's Drive 'em Buggies
- Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters – April 15 (Tokyo Disneyland)
- Turtle Talk with Crush – November 16 (Epcot)
- Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters – March 17 (Disneyland)
- Turtle Talk with Crush – July 15 (Disney's California Adventure)
- Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters – September 12 (Hong Kong Disneyland)(closed)
- Monsters Inc. MIke & Sulley to the Rescue – January 23 (Disney's California Adventure)
- Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast – April 8 (Disneyland Paris)
- The Seas with Nemo and Friends – January 24 (Epcot)
- Finding Nemo – The Musical – January 24 (Disney's Animal Kingdom)
- Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor – April 2 (Magic Kingdom)
- Cars Quatre Roues Rallye – June 9 (Walt Disney Studios Park)
- Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage – June 9 (Disneyland)
- Crush's Coaster– June 9 (Walt Disney Studios Park)
- Pixar Play Parade – March 14 (Disney California Adventure)
- Turtle Talk with Crush – May 24 (Hong Kong Disneyland)(closed)
- Toy Story Mania!– May 31 (Disney's Hollywood Studios)
- Toy Story Midway Mania! – June 17 (Disney's California Adventure)
- Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek – April 15 (Tokyo Disneyland)
- Turtle Talk with Crush – October 1 (Tokyo DisneySea)
- Toy Story Land – August 17 (Walt Disney Studios Park)
- RC Racer
- Slinky Dog Zigzag Spin
- Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop
- Redwood Creek Challenge Trail: Wilderness Explorer Camp (Disney California Adventure)
- Toy Story Land – November 18 (Hong Kong Disneyland)
- RC Racer
- Slinky Dog Spin
- Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop
- Cars Land – June 15 (Disney California Adventure)
- Mater's Junkyard Jamboree
- Luigi's Flying Tires (closed)
- Radiator Springs Racers
- Toy Story Midway Mania – July 9 (Tokyo DisneySea)
- Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival – December 23 (Epcot)
- Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy – July 10 (Walt Disney Studios Park)
- Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters – March 6 (Disney California Adventure)
- Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue – July 16 (Shanghai Disneyland)
- Nemo and Friends SeaRider – May 12 (Tokyo DisneySea)
- Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue – July 16 (Shanghai Disneyland)
- Pixar Short Film Festival – April 13 (Disney California Adventure)
- Together Forever – A Pixar Fireworks Spectacular – April 13 (Disneyland)
- UP! A Great Bird Adventure – April 22 (Disney's Animal Kingdom)
- Toy Story Land – April 26 (Shanghai Disneyland)
- Rex's Racer
- Slinky Dog Spin
- Woody's Round-Up
- Pixar Pier – June 23 (Disney California Adventure)
- The Incredicoaster
- Pixar Pal-a-Round
- Toy Story Land – June 30 (Disney's Hollywood Studios)
- Alien Swirling Saucers
- Slinky Dog Dash
- Lightning McQueen's Racing Academy – March 31 (Disney's Hollywood Studios)
- Pixar Pier, Phase II (Disney California Adventure)
- Jessie's Critter Carousel – April 5 (Disney California Adventure)
- Inside Out Emotional Whirlwind – June 28 (Disney California Adventure)
- Remy's Ratatouille Adventure – 2020 (Epcot)
- Cars Route 66 Road Trip – 2020 (Walt Disney Studios Park)