This year, Disney California Adventure Park brings a burst of Christmas creativity that transforms the neon gulch exuberance of Cars Land into a whimsical winter wonderland — which answers a question few have ever thought to ask: How would cars decorate for the holidays?
“When cars decorate, they don’t decorate the way humans would decorate,” said David Caranci of Walt Disney Imagineering, who helped write the backstory for the Cars Land holiday makeover. “You have to think like a car. So you have to remove everything you would normally think about as a human. You have to think in a way, ‘What would a car do?’ and ‘Why would they do it?’”
That means all the holiday decorations in the 12-acre land at the Anaheim theme park are assembled using spare cars parts and accessories like spark plugs, hub caps and oil cans.
The garland stretching across the main drag of Radiator Springs is composed of spare tires, air filters and crescent wrenches. Santa Mater (Tow Mater is one of the main characters of the “Cars” movies) poses for photos with an oversized red and white fur hat atop his passenger cab. And a snowman car named Snowy stands sentinel at the Cars Land front entrance unaffected by the warm temperatures of the Southern California winter.
The seasonal makeover adds a weird and wacky twist to the traditional holiday festivities found at California Adventures, across the promenade from Disneyland, and has turned Cars Land Christmas into a must-see annual event.
The fictional movie town of Radiator Springs, faithfully replicated from the movies, draws inspiration from a number of locations along a 1,000-mile stretch of Route 66 between Kingman, Ariz., and Tulsa, Okla.
The creative conceit of Cars Land Christmas is that all of the holiday decorations in the Route 66-themed land are “created” by the automotive residents of Radiator Springs. The resulting tacky and tawdry vehicular bric-a-brac — cobbled into crescent wrench ornaments, air filter garland and hubcap Christmas trees — reflect the unique personalities of the “Cars” characters and the goods they sell in their shops.
“There’s specific reasons why the decorations are in each area and there are little backstories that go onto each one,” said Caranci, Imagineering’s creative development manager at Disneyland.
Many visitors do a double take when they realize the garland, wreaths and snowflakes hanging above Cars Land’s Route 66 are made of air filters, white wall tires and crescent wrenches.
“It’s what we call a double read: Those aren’t actually snowflakes, they’re wrenches,” said Caranci, who worked with the Disneyland design and enhancement teams on the Cars Land holiday installation. “That’s what makes Disney different than so many other entertainment venues. It really is the details. And our guests know to look for the details. They expect the details and so we try to deliver on it.”
Nobody at Imagineering believed 18 crescent wrenches and a dozen lug nuts could ever look like a giant snowflake until the welded creation returned from an automotive garage, according to Caranci.
“The snowflake wrenches were a huge a-ha moment,” he said.
Of course, it wouldn’t be safe to hang a 200-pound wrench snowflake over visitors’ heads in Cars Land, so the Imagineers took a mold of the original and added their own creative touches to the automotive ornament.
Caranci still has one Christmas wish on his list of Cars Land decorations for the next holiday season: Snow caps along the ridge of the Cadillac Range.
“That would be awesome,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at the holiday decorations and Christmas trees related to the “Cars” characters at each of the Cars Land businesses:
Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree
Themed to the beloved rusted tow truck from the “Cars” movies, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree combines an old-fashioned whip ride with a spinning teacup platform. During the holidays, the ride becomes Mater’s Jingle Jamboree with a soundtrack featuring “Christmas in Radiator Springs,” “Radiator Rockin’ Holiday” and “The Gifts of the Mater.”
Mater’s snow-dusted Christmas tree is built out of a pile of retread tires with a spark plug “star” on top. The garland on Mater’s attraction is made from oil cans, oil spouts and old license plates.
“Mater’s really all about the stuff he’s found in his junkyard,” Caranci said. “Even his Santa hat is a little dirty and a little dingy because we’re right in the middle of Mater’s junkyard.”
Themed to the psychedelic hippie Volkswagen van in the movie, the geodesic dome near the entrance to Cars Land serves as a drink stand. Fillmore’s welded-metal yard art Christmas tree is adorned with peace symbol ornaments. Rusted holiday bows match the dangling mufflers that form the shop’s entry sign.
Sarge’s Surplus Hut
Themed to the World War II army jeep from the film, Sarge’s quonset hut bursts with high-voltage red, white and blue patriotism during the holidays. A pulsating fireworks light display rims the roof of the gift shop. His American flag-festooned Christmas tree has a military jeep hood on top painted with a red star.
“Sarge is really red, white and blue to the core,” Caranci said.
Cozy Cone Motel
Sally the Porsche runs the Route 66 motel with rooms made out of oversized orange highway safety cones, which serve as snack stands in Cars Land.
“Sally’s really pulled out all of the stops,” Caranci said. “Everything is a cone-related style: All the ornaments, the lights and the garlands. Sally is all about cones.”
Over-the-top orange ornamentation covers every corner of the of the honky-tonk motel. Along the road, the orange cone tree is trimmed with orange cone ornaments and topped with an orange cone star. A car battery and jumper cables power the cone-crazy tree. Inside the motel lobby, a gingerbread house made out of holiday candy replicates the layout of Sally’s distinctive roadside attraction. During the holidays, the snack stands serve seasonal twists on the typical menu fare of popcorn, churros and ice cream.
Radiator Springs Curios Shop
Lizzie the Model T matron of Radiator Springs calls the souvenir shop covered with “last chance” pleas her home. Lizzie’s chock-a-block Christmas tree is made of Route 66 road signs and decorated with hub cap ornaments and a string of tail lights. Her knick knack shop is one of the only places in Cars Land with a hint of faux snow along the roofline.
Flo’s V8 Cafe
Designed to look like a Ford V-8 engine with architectural elements recalling a circular air filter, spark plugs and pistons, the whimsical quick-service restaurant is run by Flo, the 1950s tail-finned custom show car from the film. Naturally, Flo uses strings of air filters for the garland hanging from the covered outdoor dining area. The big metallic holiday bows match the chrome and stainless steel Streamline Moderne decor of the cafe. Her Christmas tree is formed by a stacked pyramid of oil cans. The holiday menu at Flo’s V8 Cafe includes an open-faced turkey sandwich, chocolate peppermint pie and a chocolate peppermint shake topped with crushed peppermint “road gravel.”
Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters
Themed to the 1959 Fiat 500 who runs Casa Della Tires, Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters is a trackless dancing car ride that zigzags, weaves and spins to Italian music. During the holidays, the ride becomes Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl with a soundtrack featuring “We Wish You Season’s Speedings,” “Jolly Joyous Santa Car” and “Carol of the Horns.”
The 40-foot-tall tilting tower of tires in front of the shop doubles as a Christmas tree with the help of green, white and red Italian-inspired strands of garland. A Horn-a-Plenty roadside attraction billed as the largest car horn in the world is filled with a “horn-a-copia” of automotive gifts such as motor oil, spark plugs and pistons. A few brake pad gourds and pumpkin gas cans fill the bottom of the giant car horn, a holdover from the previous holiday season.
Ramone’s House of Body Art
The Art Deco automotive paint and body shop operated by the 1959 Chevrolet Impala low-rider from the film serves as a retail store in Cars Land. In keeping with Ramone’s design aesthetic, the electric purple garland trimming his shop is accented by pinstripe flames. A pair of rooftop Christmas tree are made from simple light strands strung from a pole and topped with a crescent wrench star.
Radiator Springs Courthouse
At the head of the street, a statue of Stanley, the founder of Radiator Springs, has been outfitted with a bronze Santa cap and bag of presents. Beyond the courthouse, the rusty red striated grooves of the Cadillac Range mountains form a backdrop of Cars Land and the home to its marquee attraction, Radiator Springs Racers. Next to Stanley, the hubcap Christmas tree topped with an exhaust pipe star is one of the most popular photo spots in the Instagram-ready land bristling with loads of eye candy details.