The real Route 66 inspirations behind Disney’s Cars Land
I’ve been trying in vain for the better part of a decade to get my family to take a road trip along Route 66.
Nothing worked until my wife and daughter stepped onto the fake Route 66 in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure — and suddenly their interest piqued in the Mother Road.
In an attempt to close the deal on my dream vacation, I decided to search for the real-world inspirations behind the fictional town of Radiator Springs.
Fortunately for me, the folks at Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Imagineering have already made the trip several times — all in the name of research, of course.
Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter, a car junkie and son of a onetime Chevrolet parts manager, dreamed up the idea for what would eventually become the 2006 “Cars” movie after a family road trip along Route 66.
Lasseter sent his Pixar team on several fact-finding tours along Route 66 to garner inspiration for the film from the real people and places along the fabled road. In his capacity as Imagineering’s chief creative advisor, Lasseter also sent a Disney team out to explore Route 66 when Cars Land was still just in the planning stages at Disney California Adventure.
The trips were led by historian and storyteller Michael Wallis, author of “Route 66: The Mother Road” and voice of the Sheriff in the “Cars” movies.
“We went through towns just like Radiator Springs,” Wallis said. “I took them out on the road and exposed them to the places they never would have found and people they never would have met.”
The fictional movie town of Radiator Springs, faithfully replicated at Disney’s Anaheim theme park, draws inspiration from a number of locations along a 1,000-mile stretch of Route 66 between Kingman, Ariz., and Tulsa, Okla.
“In a Disney theme park, story is everything,” said Kevin Rafferty, a senior concept writer at Imagineering and one of the lead developers of Cars Land. “We made sure there were no contradictions with the film.”
The scavenger hunts sought to track down the sights, sounds, textures, kitsch, charm, warmth and heritage of Route 66.
“We wanted to capture the vibe and feel of road,” Rafferty said.
The experiences of the road — recorded in notebooks and sketchpads and captured in photos and videos — helped inform the narratives, architecture, merchandise and even menu items found in Cars Land.
“We don’t go inside any of the buildings in the movie and see the interiors,” Rafferty said. “It was a tough but fun challenge to make up the stories and fill in the blanks of the land.”
While a few of the buildings in Radiator Springs are exact replicas of landmarks along Route 66, most of the businesses populated and operated by the automotive characters in the movie are a pastiche of places found along the fading but still popular road.
I decided to organize the real Route 66 inspirations here by the buildings and attractions in Cars Land.
Radiator Springs Racers
The $200-million E-ticket ride sits on a six-acre swath of man-made rock work dubbed the Cadillac Mountain Range.
The tailfin ridgeline draws inspiration from the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, a public art installation featuring a row of graffiti-covered Cadillacs half-buried nose-first in the ground.
“Cadillac Ranch is a must stop for any road warrior,” Wallis said.
The radiator cap mesa at the center of the road race ride is based on Tucumcari Mountain in Tucumcari, N.M. Even the “RS” painted on the butte mimics the capital “T” on the side of Tucumcari Mountain.
The rusty red striated grooves of the Cars Land mountain range look just like the real cliffs looming above the Teepee Trading Post in Lupton, Ariz. The ride’s load and unload stations are dead ringers for the arched caverns hovering behind the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post, also located in Lupton along the New Mexico border.
The sequential Rusteze signs placed consecutively along the front of the Racers ride are an ode to the Burma Shave roadside advertising campaign — remnants of which can still be found along Route 66 between Ash Fork and Kingman, Ariz.
Cozy Cone Motel
The snack stands in Cars Land serve chili cone carne, cone on the cob, popcone and other food pun novelties.
The five oversized orange safety cones that double as snack stands are an obvious reference to the Wigwam Village in Holbrook, Ariz. Another teepee-style motel can be found in San Bernardino.
The Cozy Cone office, run by Sally the Porsche in the movie, recalls the Blue Swallow Motel, a neon beacon in Tucamcari, New Mexico.
For the time being, the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla., remains home to the real-world inspiration for the Sally character — restaurant proprietor Dawn Welch. After rebuilding following a 2008 fire, Welch has put the Rock Cafe up for sale.
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 in Cars Land owes its DNA to a number of diners on the Mother Road.
Much of the chrome and stainless steel Streamline Moderne decor of Flo’s V8 Cafe (and even the 1950s-inspired waitresses uniforms) can be traced back to the 5 & Diner in Tulsa, Okla., and the 66 Diner in Albuquerque, N.M. Both diners serve American comfort food — chicken fried steaks, turkey pot pies, patty melts and meatloaf — to hungry travelers.
But if you’re searching for the true spirit and personality of Flo’s, look no further than the Midpoint Cafe located midway between Chicago and Los Angeles in Adrian, Texas. Former cafe owner Fran Houser was the inspiration for the Flo character in the movie and her signature Ugly Crust Pies can be found on the menu of the Cars Land carhop. Houser has sold the Midpoint Cafe since her brush with fame, but the new owner still serves the same food (including the famous pies).
Radiator Springs Curios Shop
In Cars Land, the exterior of Radiator Springs Curios Shop is covered with “last chance” pleas while the interior is filled with souvenir tributes to Route 66.
There’s certainly no shortage of souvenir stands along the historic highway bursting with knick-knacks celebrating the self-fulfilling legend of the fabled road.
The Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Okla., was one of the first stops for the Pixar and Disney road trips. Dressed in their red-and-white striped “Redneck Tuxedo” overalls, proprietors Harley and Anabelle Russell would greet each of the caravanning creative corps from California with a raucous welcome that included hand-made signs and personally penned songs.
You could almost imagine Lizzie, the matron of Radiator Springs and the owner of the Cars Land curio shop, rolling up to the Hackberry General Store after a long drive on Route 66. There’s even a Model T that looks just like Lizzie amid the jumble of roadside artifacts and vintage gasoline pumps in front of the Hackberry, Ariz., store. Known as the “mother lode of Mother Road memorabilia,” the souvenir shop is pretty much all that’s left of the former mining town.
Next door to the Radiator Springs Curio Shop is a billboard that recalls the “Here It Is” advertisement associated with the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, Ariz. The Cars Land version of the sign replaces the rabbit icon with a jalopy.
Ramone’s House of Body Art retail shop
Ramone’s paint and body shop, which serves as a retail store in Cars Land, is an exact replica of the U-Drop Inn, a restored Art Deco gas station and restaurant in Shamrock, Texas, that now serves as a tourism bureau and chamber of commerce office.
Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree
Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree combines an old-fashioned whip ride with a spinning teacup platform. Themed to the beloved rusted tow truck from the “Cars” movies, the attraction features ride vehicles designed to look like the herd of baby tractors that raced through Radiator Springs in the first movie.
That’s a rather long set-up to get us to Oatman, Ariz., probably the closest correlation to Radiator Springs, the fictional town represented in Cars Land. Oatman is known for the wild burros that wander the streets and even into shops. Those same burros were the movie inspiration for the baby tractors - and the connection to Cars Land.
The bottom line, according to historian Wallis, is you can’t fully appreciate Cars Land without a visit to Oatman, located just west of Kingman.
“I sense a lot of Oatman, Ariz., in Radiator Springs,” Wallis said.
The geodesic dome drink stand in Cars Land looks similar to the former Ortega’s Indian Market in Lupton, Ariz.
Luigi’s Flying Tires
The tilting tower of tires in front of the levitating bumper cars ride in Cars Land recalls the intentionally leaning water tower near the Texas panhandle town of Groom.
Sarge’s Surplus Hut
Several Quonset huts can be found in the Mojave Desert near Barstow that resemble the retail shop in Cars Land.
Wallis suggests that any Route 66 travelers that complete the journey from Chicago to Santa Monica can now continue a bit farther down the road to Cars Land in Anaheim for a true Hollywood ending.
“The first time I walked into Cars Land, it looked like a movie set,” Wallis said. “It’s so well done that people ask, ‘Is this where they shot the movie?’ ”
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