Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway uses innovation to deliver old-school Disney
Part old-school theme park attraction, part love letter to animation and part modern showcase of projection technology, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at long last landed in Disneyland’s Toontown, its second but most-fitting home.
The Walt Disney World import is a nostalgia-fueled charmer, albeit one that celebrates the Walt Disney Co.’s most recent animated shorts featuring the corporation’s biggest star since more or less 1928.
There are plenty of nods to modern theme park flourishes in the trackless attraction — characters look at us, talk to us, direct us, dance with us and give the illusion of responding to us — but the newest addition to Toontown, opening Friday, is an immediate standout in the Anaheim park’s portfolio for its they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to ethos.
Relatively slow-moving, family friendly and full of tiny, blacklighted details, the attraction serves as a fully realized animated short sprung to life. While overrun with screens, Walt Disney Imagineers worked to ensure this wasn’t a flat, passive, 2-D theater, as digitally animated water fountains sprout around us and tropical flowers seem to open and close among us.
If nostalgia is often a ruling factor at Disneyland, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway works because it transcends it, focusing on the winning, hyperactive animated style of the company’s most recent “Mickey Mouse” series. And yet it still manages to tonally feel more like a screwball 1930s short, with a train springing apart and taking riders into tropical hideaways, down waterfalls and into a dance lesson with Daisy Duck. It isn’t deep but it is silly, focusing on light themes of friendship and love, culminating in a romantic outing between Mickey and Minnie Mouse that makes its pre-Valentine’s Day opening ideal for lovers and perhaps less so for those struggling with heartbreak.
But even the ride’s happily-ever-after comes with a few Goofy-fueled hiccups. Walt Disney Imagineers spoke of the ride as fitting in with a lineage that dates back to the earliest attractions in Fantasyland, home to rides themed after “Peter Pan” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” films. “This particular attraction is really important to us because it sticks to that traditional storytelling while looking to the future of how we can modernize it,” says Marnie Burress, a portfolio project management executive with Imagineering, the division of the company responsible for theme park experiences.
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway follows a school of theme park design where vignettes take precedence over a definitive plot. The ride definitely has the latter — a Mickey Mouse accident causes the train to split — but after its opening moments we’re whisked from scene to scene, one minute in a carnival and the next a factory. It deviates, blissfully, from the more cinematic school of attraction design to focus on what theme parks do best, which is transport us to various environments that can enhance, exaggerate or put a heavily fantastical spin on our own.
It also serves as a work of alternative history. While the ride itself is virtually identical to its Florida counterpart, the ride’s extensive queue is significantly different. Here, we enter a museum housed inside a theater, one said to be curated by Minnie Mouse, of Mickey Mouse history. There are nods to many of the once rascally rodent’s appearances — “Steamboat Willie,” “Fantasia” and “Mickey and the Beanstalk” are just a few of the dozens of works mentioned.
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Befitting of its Toontown setting, works such as “The Skeleton Dance” are treated as ones created and crafted by living toons rather than skilled animators. It’s a museum-like setting, but don’t expect an animated history lesson, as plaques are filled with eye-roll-worthy puns rather than any true facts. Still, clever details abound, such as a tiny robotic figurine of a lesser-known character such as Erica, a cruise director in the Mickey short “Shipped Out,” in the concession stand’s popcorn machine.
“This is a Mickey Mouse exhibit that we call ‘Through the Ears’ and put on by Minnie and the Hysterical Society of Toontown to commemorate the occasion,” said Imagineer Manny Chavez. “The Disney history buffs will find so much in this queue,” as there are allusions to Mickey’s disco era, “The Goofy Movie” and even “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
Pre-show special effects abound, such as a ghostly mirror and, carried over from Florida, a theatrical screen being blown apart. Across the country, the attraction is housed in the resort’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway feels as if it were always destined for Toontown, where it will join the somewhat underrated Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin as the land’s second showcase attraction. Both are celebrations of animation, but Roger Rabbit does so with physical sets while Runaway Railway uses the art of animation itself.
When the ride debuted in Florida in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced theme parks the world over to close, Runaway Railway faced the unenviable task of replacing that park’s The Great Movie Ride, an audio-animatronic showcase that was a cheerleader for the legacy of live action cinema. Runaway Railway further altered that park’s theme, pushing it away from cinema history and moviemaking into a collection of Disney-owned properties, and it did so by replacing a fan favorite, unique attraction with elements of live theater.
No such hurdles are present at Disneyland, where Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is a new addition that will anchor a remodeled Toontown, set to fully reopen in March. For a park that was largely originally envisioned by animators who were thrust into a new craft of theme park creation, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is an honorable tribute to the medium that built the Walt Disney Co.’s first 100 years.
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