Over more than a decade of writing about theme parks, I’ve made it a bit of a sport to ask ride designers, such as Disney’s vaunted Imagineers, what ride made them want to spend their life bringing these attractions to life. What specific alchemy of placemaking and storytelling and possibly thrills sunk its teeth into their brains at a young age and made it so that the better part of their creative lives would be devoted to this strange experiential medium?
The answer, with vanishingly few exceptions: It was either a dark ride (such as the Haunted Mansion) or the cluster of classic dark rides that fill the Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland sections. There, past and present attractions like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Snow White’s Scary Adventure—some of which have been in operation since Disneyland first opened its doors in 1955—use whatever technology was available to their designers to bring visitors inside a story.
Dark rides are where creativity and storytelling live. Where dioramas and scenes and memorable (and often merchandisable) characters conspire to transport you out of the Orlando sun and into a fairytale world. And while there are certainly thrill rides that successfully wrap in many of these elements—Disney’s Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror is far more than just a drop tower—the classic dark ride is still a singular medium, and the one that inspired a generation of ride designers.
Which brings us to Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a brand-new ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (also coming soon to Disneyland park) that takes the bones of the classic Fantasyland dark ride and brings it firmly into modernity. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, the very first ride to star Disney’s most iconic characters.
“We didn’t throw away any tools Imagineering has used in the past,” says Ryan Adams, a show systems engineer with Walt Disney Imagineering. “We brought them all into the fold, as well as a lot of new ones.”
From the classics, you have a familiar structure: A swift and simple story filled with memorable and iconic characters that seeks to take you to a far-off or fantastic land. In this case, that destination is inside a cartoon. But while many classic dark rides are inspired by cartoon worlds, their dioramas and audio-animatronics are never going to make you feel like you are truly transported inside an animated world. The experience, by its nature, requires a suspension of disbelief.
This is where Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (let’s just agree to call it MMRR) shines. Finally, technology is at a place where a ride can make you feel like you are physically stepping foot inside a cartoon—and do it in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re staring at a screen.
And the result is kind of amazing. Before you even board the ride vehicle, you’re treated to a pre-show featuring an all-new Mickey and Minnie cartoon short, driven by an original song that is unlikely to leave your head anytime soon. As is typical with cartoons, you watch it on a flat screen. Until—and I won’t spoil the details here—something happens that allows you to walk through the screen and inside that very cartoon (you know: just like in Last Action Hero). The set-up is simple enough for young children to follow, and works remarkably well.
But the real fun begins once you board the ride vehicle. Creative use of projection-mapping along moving objects brings robotic characters and physical sets to life in a way I’ve never experienced on a ride (or anywhere else) before. At times, two-dimensional animated characters appear to sit like holograms atop three-dimension sets. And the use of trackless vehicles (similar to those found in the mind-blowing new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride) creates a feeling of unpredictability and chaos that would simply be impossible on a vehicle creeping along a visible track (it’s hard to imagine any 50-year-old dark ride actually feeling like a “runaway railway”).
And let’s talk about those trackless vehicles for a minute. One can be forgiven for wondering why the lack of a physical track is a big deal. This ride makes it very clear very quickly how the freedom of movement allowed by these vehicles can create a new type of ride experience.
Instead of ambling along the same predictable path each time, different ride vehicles might offers guests dramatically different experiences, providing a surprising amount of re-rideability as guests find themselves in different cars. Natural movement through the world is anything but linear, and the ability to freely sweep through a space on a trackless car, interact with other vehicles, and even (quite literally in this ride—though I won’t ruin the surprise) turn other cars into your dance partners, makes things feel more alive and more real—even if the world you’re in as a patently artificial cartoon.
And this ride truly is re-rideable. The best modern rides are built with the knowledge that fans will want to ride them again and again. With countless cartoon characters swirling around you in all directions at all times, there’s simply too much to take in at once. But as you ride it for the second or third or fourth time, you’ll notice the details. And I don’t mean “details” as in “look at that hand-carved prop”. I mean entire storylines that you’re likely to miss if you’re not paying attention.
“Right off the bat, you’ll find the density of detail is incredible,” Adams says. “From a story standpoint, we have a true B story going the whole way. You’ll want to keep your eye out for Pluto—he has his own story going through the entire attraction.”
Of course, none of this answers the most important question of all: Is the ride fun? The answer is a simple yes: It’s a blast. It’s also the rare ride that uses every bit of whiz-bang technology in the book, but will still likely appeal to theme park fans who insist that things aren’t quite as good as they used to be. MMRR is proof that new technology can be used to create a classic experience—and one that will legitimately appeal to almost any conceivable age group.
As theme park fans, new technology isn’t our enemy—new technology that serves no purpose and quickly comes off as dated is. MMRR is the product of creatives who seemed to know their entire arsenal of available tools, and how to best utilize them to create an experience that is fun, frantic, and (at times) awe-inspiring. Most impressive of all, it’s also one that might just age as well as the classic dark rides that inspired it.