In 2016, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg staged a multimedia exhibit on the friendship between Walt Disney and the surreal artist. It paired Dalí’s colorful weirdness next to a flatscreen TV playing the march of the mops from Fantasia and pink elephants on parade in Dumbo.
It was a way to appreciate how surreal Disney cartoons really were and why the two artists naturally felt like kindred spirits.
As I stepped aboard the train for a preview of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which opens Wednesday in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it was not unlike that Dalí-Disney exhibit. Being inside Steamboat Willie’s world is trippy.
This is, remarkably, the first ride at any Disney park themed around Mickey Mouse, the cartoon creation that launched an empire. The ride is retro on one hand, paying homage to the cartoon style of the 1928 classic. But it also breaks new ground for theme-park technology, putting riders on a trackless vehicle that spins through a cartoon world.
At Tuesday’s media preview, the ride was down for about two hours. This also happened when Disney tried to preview the other recent trackless ride at Hollywood Studios, Rise of the Resistance in the new Star Wars land. Trackless rides are notorious for being touchy since the the smooth ride is created by millions of lines of computer code.
But once the Mickey train was running, it moved crowds quickly.
Visitors enter the attraction through the opulent lobby of the Chinese Theater replica in the center of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Music in the lobby features remixed symphonic scores from Mickey Mouse cartoons. Movie posters highlight classic Mickey Mouse film shorts such as Wonders of the Deep and Wish Upon a Coin.
Runaway Railway is based on the recent Emmy Award-winning Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts series shown on the Disney Channel. Critics have praised the series for nodding to the character designs of the 1930s while pushing the visuals to a new level of sophistication. That sophistication is evident in this dark ride as well.
A pre-show cartoon clip reveals Mickey and Minnie’s picnic plans and lays the foundation for the upcoming journey aboard the attraction. A blast of smoke sets up a great sight gag that reveals an explosive hole blown in the movie screen. That’s when riders are invited to step into the scenic illusion and climb aboard the ride vehicles inside the attraction.
Like any Mickey Mouse cartoon, things quickly go awry. The ride travels through a carnival, twister, waterfall, big city, factory and a stampede of bulls, with the trackless train cars splitting apart and reconnecting along the way.
“It’s just the very beginning of what we have in store for you,” Imagineering senior creative director Charita Carter said during a tour of the new ride. “A lot of surprises and a lot of opportunities to be delighted.”
The ride feels like an instant classic, which calls into question why no ride has ever before starred the mouse who started it all. Mickey has starred in previous theater shows at Disney theme parks. Mickey’s Philharmagic plays at several Disney parks and Magic Kingdom was once home to the Mickey Mouse Revue audio-animatronic stage show.
“Mickey and Minnie don’t really have particular jobs and they don’t come from a particular place,” creative director Kevin Rafferty said during an interview at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. “If you think about Anna and Elsa, they come from Arendelle. They have particular roles. If you go to Radiator Springs, Mater is a tow truck and Lightning is a race car.”
As an executive creative director at Imagineering, Rafferty also helped conceive, design and oversee the creation of a number of Disney attractions including Radiator Springs Racers, Toy Story Midway Mania, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Mickey’s Philharmagic and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
Mickey gets a new job in almost every animated short. Minnie has accompanied her beau around the world in many cartoons.
“Mickey and Minnie have been everywhere and they’ve done everything,” Rafferty said. “So there hasn’t really been a design hook to hang the whole attraction story or idea on.”
“Every scene is so jam-packed,” Imagineer executive creative director Kevin Rafferty said. “It’s 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound bag. There’s so much to see, so many Easter eggs, so many nods, such great stuff that hearkens back to the Disney Studio.”
Technology plays a big part in making the retro look more appealing. Goofy opens up the window in his locomotive to look at the guests and the effect makes the cartoon figure look real and in the space.
Guests are warned to remove their mouse ears and hats and are wise to heed the warning. When a tornado comes out of nowhere to interrupt the plans yet again, the wind is as strong as a real twister.
By adding five new rides in less than two years, Disney understandably expects a big attendance boost compared to the pre-Toy Story Land era.
The current quarter will be crucial. It will include three full months of impact from Rise of the Resistance, along with several weeks of operations from Runaway Railway.
No wonder Salvador Dalí once referred to Walt Disney as “the great American surrealist.”