LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After years of languishing as a construction zone masquerading as a theme park, Disney's Hollywood Studios this June will take its next step toward becoming the must-see destination that Disney is spending billions of dollars to create.
Toy Story Land opens on June 30 at Disney's Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort, kicking off a year (or so) in which the park will add two other major attractions: Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway and this little thing people are calling Star Wars land. But just like Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy's gang raised a little computer animation company called Pixar into an entertainment juggernaut 20 years ago, Disney is hoping that their new land in DHS will boost that park's fortunes, too.
Saturday morning, I was invited along with fewer than a dozen other reporters to go behind the construction walls and take a sneak peek at Toy Story Land, under construction. The glimpse culminated three days of previews of upcoming Pixar-themed attractions at Disney's parks in Florida and California. (See my other post for the California news.)
If you're looking at Disney's publicity video of the completed Slinky Dog Dash coaster track, and now reading about media like me being invited into the land, don't let that delude into thinking about an impending soft opening. Chill. This land ain't anywhere near done yet. The coaster might be built and testing, but nothing else in the land is close to ready. Structures are up, but facades are barely started. Yes, Disney will make its announced June 30 opening, but if softs happen, they will be during that month, IMHO. If you're visiting in April or May, I would not advise holding any hope of getting into the land. Of course, Disney will tell you not to plan on visiting a new land until its announced opening date anyway. (That's always good advice. Never book a trip for a maybe soft opening.)
But even if Toy Story Land isn't anywhere near its final form yet, it's still a treat to have that rare opportunity as a no-longer-cast member to step behind the construction walls for a sanctioned look at the progress. Getting to walk an attraction construction site is the theme park equivalent of looking at an ultrasound of your future child. Sure, it's a blob, but you can't help but falling in love with the potential.
We "walked" through the land in advance of our trip to Orlando in Walt Disney Imagineering's "The DISH" virtual reality room in Glendale.
By now, the basic contents of the land might will be familiar to Theme Park Insider readers: The entrance to Toy Story Mania (dropping the "Midway" from its name) flips to the now-back side of its building, which will become its front as part of Toy Story Land. A new Mack Rides family launch coaster, called Slinky Dog Dash, will wind through the land. A Little Green Men-themed "Mater's Junkyard Jamboree"-style whip spinner called Alien Spinning Saucers will round out the land's rides.
(Oh, Disney, about that name. Could you please at least try to remember than fans abbreviate the names of every attraction in your parks? Did you learn no lesson from naming the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor? Or are you just trolling us here?)
With the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land next door under construction for an opening in 2019, Toy Story Land will be a dead-end cul-de-sac at the end of the Animation Courtyard in Disney's Hollywood Studios at least for now. But at 11 acres, the land should have the capacity to hold plenty of fans, whether they choose to queue for any of the land's three rides or not.
Taking that virtual walk through the land, I saw the outlines of what promise to be Instagram-worthy moments with each step. There's Woody, standing atop the entrance sign. Look ahead, and there's Jessie and Rex atop the Slinky Dog Coaster. Round the corner and there's the colorful new entry to Toy Story Mania on the left. A giant lunch box stands down the street from that, with its lid held up by Andy's Thermos, revealing the counter service windows of the IRL restaurant within.
Look to the right, and there's Alien Swirling Saucers, with its light show flashing underneath its roof, from which The Claw descends to try and grab an LGM. Tinkertoys stand every few steps throughout the land, providing the support for the land's lighting, which includes Christmas lights strung across the pathways. Various Toy Story characters stand as icons above the attractions, while some of the characters will walk the land for meet and greets, as well. On the actual construction site, Jessie and Rex are in place, joined by Wheezy this week. But Woody and the rest of the gang are still to come.
You are an "honorary toy" in the land, which is themed as Andy's backyard, where he has mixed various toys and playsets to create a pretend amusement park that Disney has made real. But it's Andy's footprints you will see all over the land, stamped into the pavement. In Disney's backstory, he strung the lights over the Tinkertoys. He was the one who put a Slinky Dog on a build-your-own-roller-coaster track set.
Let's talk about that coaster. In Orlando, I got the opportunity to strap on a VR headset for a virtual ride on Slinky Dog Dash. (Yes, I now have ridden a VR roller coaster at Walt Disney World! Okay, well, sort of....) While this won't have the on-ride story elements that Disney is adding to the Incredicoaster, Slinky Dog Dash promises a frisky ride for a family coaster. The Imagineers explained that Andy liked the effect of watching Slinky Dog stretching over hills, so there are plenty of potential airtime elements on what's basically a terrain coaster.
My first thought was that Slinky Dog Dash feels a lot like a junior version of Mack Rides' Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, which is one of my favorite underrated coasters. That first banked hill after the initial launch looks a lot like Manta's, but Slinky then transitions into a helix before another banked turn. From there, the coaster stages for a second launch, but then clicks back a few feet on the track, like a an old Hot Wheels car getting ready to launch. Visitors waiting in the Alien Swirling Saucers queue (this is Disney's plan to keep me from ever abbreviating an attraction name again, isn't it?), should have a great view of this launch, which will send Slinky Dog riders up what looked to me like the highest hill on the ride. The coaster turns to the left from there, offering what should be a sweeping view of the entire Toy Story Land.
From that vista, the coaster track descends through a series of bunny hops which should keep fans bouncing in their seats on the way to a final pair of turns that set up their return to the station.
Look, none of Disney's Toy Story Lands — here, or in Hong Kong, or Paris, or soon Shanghai — ever has tried to create the visceral, emotional experience of a Flight of Passage. Or to build a fantastic world like Pirates of the Caribbean or even fellow Pixar franchise Cars Land. Toy Story Land is a hyped-up call-back to your childhood imagination. It's what you might have built if you had had millions of dollars and crack engineering and construction teams to scale your humble hack-up backyard amusement park into something big enough for you actually to ride.
Pixar's Roger Gould said that we guests were "honorary toys" in Andy's backyard world of Toy Story Land. But hard truth is that, we're really Andy here. Before we can pretend to be toys, we have to create the world for the characters of our imagination to play within. When Toy Story Land works, it reminds us of being Andy — playing with our toys in our yards or our rooms — and excites us with the opportunity to shrink down and walk inside a world of our imaginations.
Because if we can't our minds into that place, Toy Story Land is just a collection of basic carnival rides, surrounded by makeshift decorations. Okay, really, really big and wildly expensive depictions of makeshift decorations. Fortunately, even by that less imaginative standard, Disney delivers more with Walt Disney World's Toy Story Land than it has with its previous installations. TSM remains one of the most popular family dark rides in Disney's portfolio and the whimsical new entrance should only add to the fun. SDD looks like the best original attraction from any of Disney's Toy Story Lands. And with its light show and multiple original musical tracks, ASS should provide a great ride. (There! I did it. C'mon, if we're all eight-year-old kids like Andy here, you totally know he's making that joke. Please.)
But if remember the point that Toy Story 2 drove home, toys shouldn't be ends to themselves. Forget the thing. Think instead about what you do with it — what you imagine it becoming. Because when you reduce Buzz to his base identity, he not only is no longer Mrs. Nesbitt. He's not even a Space Ranger. He's a piece of plastic — a soulless collectible, maybe stored behind glass, or dusty on a shelf, or forgotten in a box in the attic.
Toys come to life only when you play with them. With Toy Story Land, Disney is hoping to entice you to remember being Andy and inspire you to come back into the yard and just play. How successful will this new land be at that? We will find out when it opens this summer.
Previously: A preview of Pixar Pier and Pixar Fest at the Disneyland Resort.Tweet
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