Fun Facts About Cars Land
In 2018, Disney’s pulling the trigger on a long overdue move. They’re switching the overall theme of Disney California Adventure away from California. Moving forward, this park will celebrate all things Marvel and Pixar. As Mickey Travelers prepare for this epic change, let’s take this opportunity to look back at the first domino to fall in the process. It was the moment when Disney chose to spend $1.1 billion on their first Pixar expansion. Here are four amazing facts about Cars Land.
The Biggest Disney Expansion Ever
Do you know how much Universal Studios spent to construct The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? According to the company’s financials, the answer is roughly $300 million. That seems like a lot of money until you realize that Radiator Springs Racers cost almost that much on its own. Yes, Universal Studios was notoriously frugal with their huge expansion, the one that singlehandedly turned them into a major player in the theme park wars. Disney executives laugh at that paltry amount, though.
Several Disney attractions over the years have cost $150 million or more, most notably Pooh’s Hunny Hut, the French version of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the Ratatouille Ride, and Test Track. That last attraction is important because Disney used it as the blueprint for their Cars Land expansion. They chose to spend more than $200 million building a single roller coaster, and they did so knowing that it would mimic Test Track in ride structure. Since that ride cost almost as much and was merely a re-theming of an existing attraction, park planners were really opening the wallets for Disney California Adventure.
Their investment of $1.1 billion is the most anyone anywhere has ever spent on a theme park expansion. In fact, it’s more than what the entire park originally cost to build. Yes, Disney California Adventure was a $600 million construction project. Cars Land alone was almost twice that amount. It was the most money ever spent at any theme park until the introduction of Shanghai Disneyland in 2016. That park had an even stiffer price tag of $5.5 billion…but that was with six themed lands. Assuming that they all cost the same amount, Cars Land is still the most expensive themed land ever.
A Lot of Those Costs Are Hidden in Plain Sight
Cars Land features three attractions and a bunch of stores and restaurants. Since you know that Radiator Springs Racers is the most expensive, you’re probably wondering where all that other money went. Luigi’s Flying Tires and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree are modest attractions, after all. To understand the answer, the next time you’re at Disney California Adventure, just look up.
Disney had to build the mountain backdrop for Radiator Springs from scratch. Those mountains are important to foster the illusion that a guest has entered Radiator Springs. This degree of immersion is a source of pride for Imagineers, but it’s also important here. After all, Radiator Springs is a fictional town from a CGI-animated movie. People have to feel like they’re experiencing something that’s incongruous: a town full of anthropomorphic cars but no humans.
In the original movie, the mountains signify that moment when Lightning McQueen leaves his fast-paced life behind and gets trapped in a small town. At Disney California Adventure, park planners chose the mountains as the way to persuade guests that they had left behind the rest of the park and entered Radiator Springs.
This sense of escapism wouldn’t have been possible without the mountains, and Disney didn’t have time to wait thousands of years for them to form on their own. They needed the 125-feet high mountains of Ornament Valley built within two years. They brought in an entirely new staff of master builders to put 4,000 tons of steel in a fake mountain structure. It took 28,000 man-hours, meaning that parts and labor alone were brutally expensive. Disney spent that much money so that you’d feel right at home in Radiator Springs.
Radiator Springs Racers Is a Better Test Track
Anyone who has ridden both attractions knows about the similarities between Radiator Springs Racers and Test Track. The latter ride debuted in 1999 with a key sponsorship. General Motors paid a lot of money in exchange for Disney constructing an attraction that showed the inner workings of automotive design. Riders experience some of the pitfalls that crash test dummies face during their jobs. Oncoming traffic forces quick stops and dramatic evasions.
When park planners decided to add a new Cars-based ride to Disney California Adventure, they chose Test Track as the model. They had one issue, though. Test Track is intense, with several near-misses and an open air acceleration that reaches almost 65 miles per hour. That’s not what Disney wanted for Cars Land, but they did want the underlying structure of Test Track.
So, Imagineers took an existing idea and re-skinned it. Radiator Springs Racers IS Test Track in most key ways. The track layout is even similar in a lot of places. The difference is that where the Epcot ride has GM vehicles as the focus, Cars Land celebrates the characters of the movie. It’s a more genteel version of the same premise, with neon lights and a few gags replacing the scary elements of Test Track.
Disney even reduced the speed to make Radiator Springs Racers more palatable for families. Its top speed is only 40 miles per hour, a full 25 miles per hour behind Test Track. What Disney proves with Radiator Springs Racers is that theming beats pure adrenaline. The homey comfort of a visit to Radiator Springs is more engaging than the rush of a nearly catastrophic Test Track experience. You feel more at home and a part of something in Radiator Springs, just like Lightning McQueen.
One Idea Failed Twice!
One of my favorite topics is failed Disney rides over the years. I love it because research into this subject shows committed Imagineers are to bettering the park experience. When something doesn’t work, they learn from it and try to do better the next time. Sometimes, that’s just not possible, though.
For example, Cars Land tried to redeem a failed concept from the 1960s. Disneyland first introduced Flying Saucers in 1961. Believe it or not, the idea was similar to air hockey. Ride carts would hover over air pockets that would lift them, creating the sensation of levitation. Guests were supposed to feel as if they were riding in Flying Saucers (thus, the name).
Unfortunately, Flying Saucers had a lot of problems back in the 1960s. Imagineers had an expected weight for each guest. Anyone who didn’t fall into that range had problems. Heavyset folks didn’t float, while small children had trouble making the ride work at all. It also had issues from the park’s perspective in that it was expensive to maintain and had terrible throughput. Disney paid a lot to keep the ride in operation, but few guests got to ride it during the course of a day. After barely five years, Flying Saucers closed for good.
When Disney plotted the Cars Land expansion, they wanted to redeem Flying Saucers. The plan was to utilize modern technology to perfect the previous ride concept. Imagineers drew up the blueprints for Luigi’s Flying Tires, a 2012 update of the Flying Saucers premise. Park planners effectively asked their Imagineers to make guests fly. It was just as ambitious in the 2000s as it had been during the 1960s, but ride designers did their best.
When Luigi’s Flying Tires opened, Disney quickly realized that the same issues still existed. They still couldn’t keep it running consistently, and it didn’t do a great job with throughput. They even had an extra problem. Someone thought that adding beach balls would be a great idea. The color of these balls would make the ride seem splashier. At least, that was the theory. In execution, they were targets that led to a high number of collisions and even a few minor injuries. The beach balls didn’t even last two months.
As for Luigi’s Flying Tires, it survived less than three years. At that point, Disney once again realized that the air hockey premise sounded great in theory but failed completely in practice. In its place, Disney added the current attraction, Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters. It’s basically bumper cars without the bumping. The vehicles slide along beside one another as if they are dancing. It’s a great family ride but nowhere near as ambitious as the attraction it replaced. I can’t help but wonder if Disney will once again try the air hockey attraction concept in another 40 years.
How impacting is the Cars Land expansion for Disney California Adventure? In 2011, the park claimed attendance of 6.3 million. The following year, that number increased to almost 7.8 million. By 2016, Disney California Adventure had 9.3 million guests. Attendance rose by 48 percent due to the presence of Cars Land. Sure, it was the most expensive themed land ever, but it was well worth the money!