One of the most memorable scenes from Toy Story takes place at Pizza Planet. The arcade here is where Buzz Lightyear naively believes that he can board a spaceship and take an intergalactic journey home. Instead, he discovers a series of adorable zealots, squeaky toys with three eyes.
Sometimes called the Little Green Men, these aliens won over the hearts of movie viewers due to their love of The Claw, the entity that carries them into the great beyond. At Toy Story Land, Imagineers have recreated the premise with an attraction that delights children and parents alike. Let’s go behind the ride to learn why Alien Swirling Saucers is so much fun.
The Experience: Entering a toy playset come to life
The Trick: Shrinking guests down to toy size…figuratively
Have you ever been to a planet called Pepperonia? Those of you who have ridden Alien Swirling Saucers can answer yes. The premise of this attraction is that Andy, the owner of all the items that populate Toy Story Land, has won a prize.
The last time that he visited Pizza Planet, Andy picked up a playset featuring the Little Green Men and their overlord, The Claw. This toy set spins the Three-Eyed Aliens around in a swirling motion, almost as if they're pilots of colorful spaceships. And color is vital to this premise, as you'll see.
When Andy returns from Pizza Planet, he sticks his new playset in the backyard beside his other prize, the half-assembled roller coaster, Slinky Dog Dash. Due to his size, Andy could never fit in one of these vehicles. But that’s the genius of Toy Story Land.
When you enter this themed land, you shrink down in size to become a toy. As a miniature version of yourself, you're able to fit in the backseat of one of these intergalactic vessels, although it's not entirely clear how you're able to breathe. I guess toys don't need air.
The Experience: Bringing elements of Pizza Planet to life
The Trick: Building a line queue that immerses you in Andy’s fictional world
Alien Swirling Saucers wasn’t as positive as park officials had hoped. I’m here to argue that this attraction is one of the most subtle successes in recent Disney history. As always, the key to a triumphant attraction is the theming, and Alien Swirling Saucers is a grand slam in this regard.The early reception to
From the moment you prepare to enter the line queue, you’re already swept into a fully realized world. The guards “blocking” your path are Pizza warriors, planetary guards whose chests look like pizza pans. Their weapons of choice are pepperoni slices. These creatures are lifted directly from the film.
Standing to their left is the renowned toy explorer who discovered Pizza Planet, Buzz Lightyear. You haven’t even entered the line yet, and Alien Swirling Saucers is already telling a story. Early in the queue, the colors on the lamps and fences are Buzz Lightyear’s blues and greens. The images on the roofs are all from the Toy Story universe, too.
On one side of the first roof, a Buzz Lightyear “spacecraft” seems ready for launch. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that it’s the packaging for the Buzz Lightyear toy. On the other side, an easy-to-miss Toy Soldier is standing sentry beneath a satellite dish. In the middle, Buzz mans the helm. And you might not have noticed anything else. An essential rule at Disney theme parks is to remember to look up from time to time!
The Experience: Entering the Claw Machine
The Trick: Transitioning from Buzz to the Little Green Men
As you grow closer to the front of the line, the colors and style change. Buzz’s stronger blues and greens are less prevalent, replaced by the orange and red colors that indicate that you’re at a pizza place.
You’re now in the game called Space Crane in Toy Story, the place where The Claw chooses which alien is worthy of leaving the dome. I believe that Walt Disney himself would delight in this domed area, as it’s like an inner child come to life.
The artwork here is endearingly juvenile. Pictures of pizza toppings adorn some of the windows, which are in turn shaped like pizza slices. It’s actually a sight test of sorts, as you may notice the letter V or Roman numeral V more than the picture.
Once you reach this inner dome, it mirrors elements of the exterior of Pizza Planet shown in the movie. However, it primarily honors the interior of Space Crane in Toy Story.
You’re now inside a toy machine where a robotic crane dives down to scoop up toys and then lifts them into the air. The lucky few get removed from the machine and dumped into the sweaty hands of overly excited children, ones who have won this tricky game.
Elements of Space Crane are everywhere, whether you’ve noticed them or not. Look to the sky, and you’ll realize that The Claw has already chosen one of the Three-Eyed Aliens. It hangs from the center of the set. And its face is priceless. The Little Green Men feel a sense of euphoria when they get lifted in the air by their master.
Fittingly, The Claw itself looks like cut-rate plastic, as it should. Pizza Planet isn’t a place where you’ll find high-class arcade toys. And this premise is pervasive throughout the ride area.
Everything looks stubbornly cheap by design, something I worry that a lot of theme park tourists misunderstand. It's a playset that someone can win at an inexpensive family arcade. It should have an appearance that matches this concept.
Oh, and the vehicles are adorable. They even have tiny pizza slices on them to complete the theme! For that matter, the engine exhausts on the back of the spaceships come in sets of three, styled to look like the eyes of the Little Green Men! Once you see this, you really can’t un-see it.
The Experience: a smashing good time
The Trick: whipping effects that thrust passengers together
Disney suggests that up to three guests may ride in a single cabin on Alien Swirling Saucers. Unlike virtually any other Disney attraction, the number of riders directly impacts the experience itself.
When you have three people, you'll move less and also crash less. With two riders, you could make a mortal enemy during this ride. You will smash into one another repeatedly and violently. A single passenger suffers a different fate. Even with the elongated safety belt in place, you’ll still slide unencumbered from one side of the ride cart to the other.
Why does this happen? The attraction’s name is Alien Swirling Saucers, and the swirling part references the novel twirling system at play. While many analysts compare this ride to Mad Tea Party, it has only vague similarities.
On Mad Tea Party, guests are in charge of spinning a ride cart across a series of turntables. With Alien Swirling Saucers, your alien friends are the pilots. You’re simply along for the ride, and the ride gets rough. Imagineers don’t give riders control of the experience for a simple reason. It’s better from a scientific perspective.
When you board Alien Swirling Saucers, you’re ceding control of your body to the whims of centripetal force. In scientific terms, your ride cart must follow a curved path in a circle. Like Mad Tea Party, your vehicle spins around a turntable. However, the whipping aka the swirling occurs when your elongated spaceship stretches too far.
Centripetal force dictates that you whip back into place in the circle, which is the turntable. It’s a violent correction caused by natural laws of geometry and physics. And the logical outcome of this behavior is that you go crashing from side to side of the ride cart. Anyone in your way will get smashed.
With three people, you have less movement due to a lack of open space. With only two riders, Alien Swirling Saucers is like a car wreck. Your best hope is to give as good as you get during the human equivalent of a demolition derby.
With a single rider, you’ll ram into the doors of the ride cart but only after sliding all the way from side to side. It’s open-ended mayhem that your kids will relish. They finally have an excuse to pound on their parents!
The Experience: Changing colors and musical accompaniments
The Trick: Planning for different times of day/year
Imagineers knew far in advance that Alien Swirling Saucers would reside outdoors. While some park guests lament this situation, Disney turned it into a huge positive. The open air allows onlookers to witness the ride from the nearby walking path. And it’s gorgeous!
Well, I should say that Alien Swirling Saucers is gorgeous at night. During the day, you’ll only notice them if you look up (See? Always remember to look up!), but the ceiling of the main building features a series of spotlights.
These multi-colored lights fulfill the theming of the ride by swirling around and thereby illuminating the alien saucers. It’s a funkier setting that would seem right at home at a rave inasmuch at a Disney theme park. Even the signage for Alien Swirling Saucers is neon, giving the place a kind of glow after dark.
Imagineers created a set of eight unique songs from Toy Story movies that alternate during the rides. Disney artists remade the music so that it’s completely original to Alien Swirling Saucers. The spotlights twirl in league with the tunes to create a slightly different ride experience for each musical accompaniment.
A few months after Alien Swirling Saucers opened, Imagineers unveiled an even more impressive part of their ride overlay system. It can change with the season! Yes, this attraction includes a yuletide overlay, complete with remastered versions of holiday music!
The spotlight colors are distinctly Christmas-y, with red and green colors matched to songs like “Deck the Halls” and “Up on the Rooftop.” It’s just another way to improve the ride experience, one that proves an overall point here.
Alien Swirling Saucers is much deeper and more impressive than it seems at first blush. Imagineers have created one of the best children’s rides ever, and not enough people have realized it yet.