Ride review - Radiator Springs Racers and Cars Land at Disney California Adventure

June 14, 2012, 4:58 PM · Pixar's "Cars" provides what might be Hollywood's purest depiction of story from a child's perspective. Like a child imagining a narrative for his collection of toy cars, "Cars" creates a world where every character is an automobile, from a Porsche working as a lawyer to a Fiat who sells tires. It's as if Douglas Adams' Ford Prefect actually got it right in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy," and the cars really are the dominant life form.

Lightning McQueen

Yet unlike other movies where toys come to life - most notably Pixar's own "Toy Story" - there's no attempt in "Cars" to ground the movie's narrative in a human world. The cars don't revert to inanimate form when the people happen by. In "Cars," there are no people, so the cars are free to go on being whatever imagination dreams them to be. It's pure fantasy, with no concessions - or apologies - for its conceit.

But now, people are entering the land of "Cars," in Disney California Adventure's simply just-as-simply-named Cars Land, the new theme park land which opens to the public tomorrow.

Cars Land

As in the movie, Disney's made no attempt to explain how Cars Land fits into the human universe. Cars Land is just here, and now you can visit it. Disney didn't take the route Universal Orlando did, when it stretched Harry Potter canon by explaining that Professor Dumbledore had invited us "Muggles" to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the day. Hey, we're playing here. There's no need to explain it.

Not that "Cars" didn't have its conflicts. Fitting with its child-like perspective, "Cars" told the story of a child-like racer named Lightning McQueen, a spectacularly talented rookie who turned away his crew and many fans with his selfish immaturity. Heck, Lightning McQueen was so young, so inexperienced, that he didn't even know how to make what might be the most basic move in auto racing, driving in "opposite lock" to carry maximum speed through a turn. But when Lightning's selfish insistence on rushing to California for a championship race landed him in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, he was forced to grow up, by learning how to make friends.

In Cars Land, Disney's Imagineers have faithfully recreated the entire town of Radiator Springs, from its courthouse square, framed by the towering rockwork "tailfins" of Cadillac Range, to Mater's weathered junkyard on the edge of town. Disney's even shown us more of Radiator Springs than we saw in the movie, with a queue for its centerpiece Radiator Springs Racers which shows us for the first time the "Original Radiator Spring" which gave the town its name.

Radiator Spring

While the physical setting dazzles, the time setting for Cars Land looked to me a bit fuzzy - the Lightning McQueen that drives around town greeting guests sports "Allinol" stickers from "Cars 2," but Doc Hudson, who died before the events of "Cars 2," appears in Radiator Springs Racers. Then again, it's just play. There's no explaining Cars Land's place in the human universe, or in the human timeframe.

So what of the rides? We often joke here on Theme Park Insider about that moment in every theme park attraction when something goes terribly wrong. But Radiator Springs Racers is one major theme park ride where nothing ever does go terribly wrong. It's a day in the "Happily Ever After" instead - when Lightning McQueen's made his friends, there are no villains to be found, and there's nothing more important facing us than a high-speed race around Carburetor County.

Racing through Cars Land

We're along for the ride as 'toon convertibles race through the desert surrounding Radiator Springs. Using the same high-speed, flat-track ride system as Epcot's Test Track and Tokyo Disney Sea's Journey to the Center of the Earth, Radiator Springs Racers starts us with a drive past the Ornament Valley waterfall before returning us to Radiator Springs at nightfall, where Mater's tipping tractors, and Lightning McQueen and Sally await us before we prepare for our big race.

At this point, the track splits and we are sent into one of two alternative routes on the ride - a visit to Luigi's tire shop for fresh whitewalls, or a trip through Ramone's body shop for a fresh coat of paint. (Ride enough times and you might also notice the interior colors in Ramone's shop changing to match your car's color.) From there, Doc Hudson offers you a last-minute tip before Luigi and Guido drop the green flag for our high-speed race through Ornament Valley. At the finish line, we pass through Tail-light Caverns, where Lightning and his best friend Mater congratulate us before we exit.

It's all in good fun, without the high-stakes, good-vs.-evil conflict that defines Universal Creative's Transformers ride, which debuted at cross-town rival Universal Studios Hollywood last month. That absence left me without the same adrenaline rush I felt after riding Transformers for the first time, though I remain amazed at the animation quality in Radiator Springs Racers' Audio-Animatronics. The lifelike eyes and mouths of the cars leave you completely convinced that these are the animated characters of "Cars" brought to life in front of you. The rich detail throughout the ride rewards repeat visitors (keep your eye on the moon after you escape Frank in the tractor-tipping scene), and for the best experience, ride at night, which not only better fits the narrative of the ride, but also gives you some sweet views of the awesome neon display that Disney's created for the town of Radiator Springs.

The land's other rides - Luigi's Flying Tires and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree - offer simple physical thrills, each with its own twist. On Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, one of six original songs crooned by Larry the Cable Guy (the voice of Mater) serenades you as you whip around the junkyard behind one of Mater's tractors.

Mater's Junkyard Jamboree

On Luigi's Flying Tires, you're floating on a cushion of air (like on an air hockey table), which forces you to learn how to shift you weight to change the angle that your tire sits on the air, allowing the air to push it in different directions. Get the feel right, and Luigi's rewards you with a truly unique ride experience, where you can bounce and glance off other tires to race your way around the yard. Get the feel wrong, though, and you'll stay glued in place, unable to get your tire moving.

Luigi's Flying Tires

But the greatest attraction in Cars Land is the land itself - a buffet of eye candy that keeps rewarding visitors even as they slow down to linger over its details. That planter over there? A tire on its side, filled with "flowers" of tail-lights. The waterwheel in front of the Cozy Cone? Upside-down traffic cones. And Cars Land's greatest highlight might be that moment in the twilight each evening when the land's abundant neon comes to life - bathing the land in waves of color.

Cars Land at Night

For in a land where nothing goes terribly wrong, it's nice to get to savor a moment, instead, when something goes wonderfully right.

Replies (8)

June 14, 2012 at 5:19 PM · Okay sooooo you said before that Journey to the Center of the Earth and Spiderman the ride are amoung your top favorite rides ever. Where does Radiator Springs Racers fall on that list? I mean does the whole component of nothing going wrong kind of take away points? Also, was there a little bit of air time during the race portion of the ride?
June 14, 2012 at 5:29 PM · Airtime is minimal. If that's what you seek in a new attraction in Southern California this year, Manta at SeaWorld San Diego has RSR beat by a Mojave Desert mile.

Yeah, the lack of conflict leaves me a little cold - conflict is the heart of all great stories, after all. RSR is a scene, not a story. That makes it something I like, but not love, in my book. That said, the scene is spectacular, and RSR is immensely fun to ride. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Forbidden Journey and Transformers remain my three favorite rides in the world. But Radiator Springs lurks not too far behind those.

As always, I will need to continue to conduct much, much more research before I can answer this question for certain. ;^) Time to go on more rides!

June 14, 2012 at 5:47 PM · The land looks beautiful! I think RSR looks great and is definetly in Disney's top 3. I'm thinking about going to SoCal next Spring, and this is what I am most looking forward to.
June 14, 2012 at 6:32 PM · So, Robert. If Radiator Springs Racers, at present, doesn't quite make it into your top three attractions, how does Cars Land stack up against other detailed themed lands such as, of course, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter?
June 14, 2012 at 9:15 PM · Go Potter during the day, and Cars Land at night.

How's that for a crispy waffle? :-)

June 15, 2012 at 8:05 AM · Journey it is about 2 minutes ride so it is must be a great attraction and a great wait line.
June 15, 2012 at 8:45 AM · I'm glad to see new rides with AAs instead of Screens.
June 17, 2012 at 8:14 PM · Did Cars Land last night and it surely impresses. Unfortunately, one of the tall cacti that sits a little too close to the queue had already been broken off about a foot above the ground. This was a beautful cactus and it was sad to see that it had already been attacked by some idiot from the queue. Going back Tuesday. Crowds on Saturday were pretty minimal but, once 6:00 came around, so did the crowds.

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