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New Toy Story Mania! ride is a midway marvel

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Is it a ride that's a game or a game that's a ride?

Actually, Toy Story Mania! is both. But you can make your own judgment now that Walt Disney World is opening this garish, 3-D virtual shooting gallery at Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park.

After Disney unveiled the attraction to the media Wednesday, it opens to the public Saturday.

Disney invested three years and more than $80-million creating the first pair of identical Toy Story Mania! rides that open within days of each other at Walt Disney World here and Disney's California Adventure at Disneyland.

"It's like nothing we've ever done before," said Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney World.

Housed in a copy of the Pixar Studios soundstage with oversized Green Army Men figures scrambling on the roof, the ride features Toy Story stars Woody, Buzz Lightyear and a realistic 5-foot-tall Mr. Potato Head robot.

It's all built on a scale that shrinks humans to the size of toys stashed under a kid's bed. If you're 5 foot 6, you're only 14 inches tall in a surreal forest of Lincoln Logs, massive Crayolas, Tinkertoys and 13-inch Christmas lights.

The action part bears some resemblance to the Buzz Lightyear ride or Men in Black at Universal Studios Florida. But this time riders aren't shooting laser beams at inanimate aliens hiding on a stage set.

Toy Story Mania! riders shoot virtual eggs, darts, balls and rings at a fast-paced, high-definition cartoon of a midway shooting gallery. The targets are plates, barnyard animals, water balloons and ring-toss hoops. Smells, sound effects, water spritzes and air guns cement the illusion that bits of stuff shot are flying back past your head. LCD screens in each tram keep riders' scores. For practice, the spring-loaded cannons on the lap-bars shoot virtual cream pies at targets held by Woody and Buzz, who end up wearing most of the misses.

The five-minute shoot-'em-up whisks trams past five carnival games. You get 30 seconds at each to rack up points and unscramble the tricks. Small targets are worth more. Hidden Easter eggs are worth big bonuses. But, like cheats on a video game, they become evident only after repeated trips. The last game is the easiest and racks up points the fastest because the designers wanted people to leave smiling.

Disney estimates patrons will shatter 1-million plates daily.

"I think Disney really nailed it," enthused Bob Henley, a vacationing 41-year-old homebuilding executive from Cooksville, Md., after he tripled his score by his third spin.

"The only thing they could do to make it better is make it longer," said his wife, Pam.

The ride is the most sophisticated Disney has built, run by 150 computers — 90 of them inside the trams — linked by a secure wireless network.

"We've done many of the parts before, but we never did all in one," said senior producer Chrissie Allen. "It turned out not as simple as we thought."

It's a tame enough ride so there is no minimum age. But lap-sitting is banned for kids.

For Mr. Potato Head, sardonic comic Don Rickles recorded a 750-word script that includes jokes, four songs and enough descriptive detail about people likely to be in the crowd ("You in the red shirt!") that a hidden operator orders phrases so there seems to be a personal dialogue.

Walt Disney refused to allow carnival games in his theme parks because he thought they made the place look tawdry. But that part of his legacy was relaxed when the company installed midway games at Animal Kingdom. So Toy Story Mania!'s creative team started their work playing every midway game at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

"I hadn't been there in years," said Lori Coltrin, Toy Story Mania! art director. "Now I don't miss it."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Dodging the downturn

Besides setting the stage for a 3-D Toy Story sequel in 2010, the Toy Story Mania! ride is geared to help carry a good year for Walt Disney World through what promises to be a dicey summer for the Florida tourist industry.

In the quarter ended March 31, Walt Disney World attendance was up 7 percent, per-guest spending rose 3 percent and the Disney hotel occupancy rate was a robust 88 percent, even after a 7 percent bump in rates.

Disney officials credit three strategic moves: big investments in new rides and upgrades of dated old-timers Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth and Haunted Mansion; a customized discount pricing strategy that prods visitors to stay longer; and a shift to more moderately priced hotels.

"Despite the economy, we've been resilient partly because we are a unique experience," said Robert Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney Co. "But we're better positioned to weather a recession now than we were in 1991."

During the 1991 recession, 55 percent of Disney hotel rooms were in the premium price range. Today, 75 percent are in the budget to moderate price range. Including theme park tickets, a seven-day, six-night vacation for a family of four starts at $1,600.

"We've seen no impact from gas prices yet, so we have nothing planned to offset them this summer," Iger said.

New Toy Story Mania! ride is a midway marvel 05/14/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 3:40pm]
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