An artist’s rendering depicts Cars Land.
A convoy of red, white, and blue SUVs turned the corner and headed down a quiet road just off Route 66. Having driven more than 1,000 miles from Los Angeles, often through desolate landscapes, the weary travelers encountered a memorable sight.
“There were two people in the middle of the street, wearing red-and-white-striped overalls, waving this giant American flag,” says Kathy Mangum, vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering. “The man had hair past his shoulders and six or seven teeth. The woman had very long gray hair.”
Harley and Annabelle Russell (a.k.a. The Mediocre Music Makers) were expecting Mangum, her team of Imagineers, and Route 66 historian Michael Wallis, who were on a research trip to find inspiration for Cars Land, a new attraction at Disney California Adventure Park. The flamboyant entertainers operate out of The Sandhills Curiosity Shop, an iconic Route 66 roadside attraction in the quiet town of
Erick, Oklahoma. “Michael had called ahead so they knew we were coming, but we didn’t know what to expect,” Mangum says.
The Imagineers followed the couple into an old brick building plastered on the outside with retro motor oil, Coca-Cola, and Texaco metal signs. Inside, signs, posters, pennants, and flags covered the walls. “Oddly enough, nothing in their shop was for sale,” Mangum says.
The Curiosity Shop was just one of the Imagineers’ many stops along their 10-day road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma—and it inspired one of the settings in Cars Land. During the journey, they met the proprietors of roadside diners, curio shops, and other Route 66 attractions. “We really sensed how proud they are of their towns,” says Mangum’s travel companion Kevin Rafferty, director of Walt Disney Imagineering. “We came away loving the Mother Road, and we wanted to bring that feeling of spirit and optimism into Cars Land.”
The genesis of a car-themed land began quite serendipitously. When California Adventure opened in Anaheim in 2001, the park’s poster included a red ’57 Corvette. It didn’t take long for Disney executives to realize that car culture should be part of the park. “It made sense,” says Rafferty. “There were so many songs and car clubs around, especially during the ’50s and ’60s.”
Brainstorming began in 2005. The original concept was to create Carland, an attraction set between 1955 and 1965 during the height of West Coast auto culture—a time of custom paint jobs, muscle cars, and drive-ins. Preliminary ideas included a thoroughfare called Cruise Street and a Road Trip USA ride that would travel through a miniature Mount Rushmore, a kitschy pink dinosaur, and a colossal chicken nesting atop a roof. In its early years, California Adventure was light on Disney characters so there was talk of incorporating Herbie from Disney’s The Love Bug and road-trip loving Goofy into Carland. But the concept still needed a compelling story line.
Then in 2006, Pixar released Cars, an animated movie set in the fictional town of Radiator Springs. It was such a huge box-office hit for Disney that Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter suggested: We should just re-create Radiator Springs!
“We decided to build an immersive world—a parallel universe cars live in—so our guests can actually step into the movie and experience it for themselves,” Rafferty says. “But we didn’t just build a cookie-cutter of the movie. We got to invent a lot of our own stories, many of them inspired by the Route 66 trip.”
Rev Your Engines
This June, guests will enter the 12-acre town of Radiator Springs, nestled in Ornament Valley, a 280,000-square-foot mountain range reminiscent of Lake Powell’s rugged backdrop—hand-sculpted and hand-painted by craftsmen flown in from Ireland, Japan, Hungary, and France. In a world where cars live, you can expect plenty of clever automobile references: Hood ornaments, car fins, garage doors, and flowers shaped like taillights (and watered by fire trucks) adorn the landscape.
In town are three new rides; retail stores, such as the Radiator Springs Curios shop and the Quonset-style Sarge’s Surplus Hut; and dining spots, including the Cozy Cone Motel, where you can get “cone”-tastic treats, like “popcone” and “chili cone queso,” and Fillmore’s Taste-In, which serves natural snacks and beverages.
“In our land, you spend a lot of time dwelling around and inside the buildings,” Mangum says. “We want you to feel like you’re in someone’s business or residence.” So Disney expanded the Radiator Springs residents’ backstories.
Flo, for example, a Tiffany blue show car with the license plate “SHOGRL,” owns Flo’s V8 Café, which serves comfort food, such as roast pork with Coca-Cola barbecue sauce and chocolate mud pie. Inside the auto showroom–like restaurant, guests learn that Flo was the lead singer of the Motorama Girls, so there are gold records on the wall, posters from past concerts, and Motown tunes playing in the background. Next to Flo’s V8 Café is Ramone’s House of Body Art, a car souvenir store owned by her laid-back husband, Ramone, a 1959 Chevrolet Impala Lowrider. “Ramone listens to a lot of Los Lobos and War,” Mangum says. “Malo’s ‘Suavecito’ is one of his favorite songs.”
Rides are geared to different age groups. Little ones should start with the giggle-inducing Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, where visitors sit in carts towed by square-dancing tractors. At Luigi’s Casa Della Tires, fans of Disneyland’s old Flying Saucers can hop on the hovercraftlike Luigi’s Flying Tires, which float aboveground like supersized air hockey pucks.
Visitors can learn the town’s history in the queue of the Radiator Springs Racers ride, which starts around the corner from the Courthouse. Fictional founder Stanley opened a radiator cap shop in 1909, offering wayward cars replacement caps and a drink from a product called “Nature’s Coolant.” Business was so successful that he went on to establish a service station. “In those days, they used to change oil with bottles,” Rafferty recounts. “And being the showman that he was, Stanley collected the bottles and arranged all of them into an oil bottle house, which became a roadside attraction, very much inspired by The Sandhills Curiosity Shop we discovered on our Route 66 road trip.”
Riders in six-passenger vehicles experience a scenic road trip before pulling into the Racers building where they meet Mater, Sally, and Lightning McQueen. The trio invites the visitors to join a race, and the cars take off on a high-speed roller-coaster-like ride around the mountain. “You go around this beautiful butte, do some camelback humps, dip down into a cave, and pop back up again before reaching the finish line,” Mangum says.
Building a real-world Radiator Springs took a five-year team effort by more than 600 contractors, craftsmen, tradesmen, designers, carpenters, architects, model makers, landscapers, and Imagineers. For a self-proclaimed “car nut,” Rafferty says working on Cars Land is a dream come true.
One night a few months ago, Rafferty and his coworkers were testing the Radiator Springs Racers. He says he remembers looking up and seeing the stars above the contours and silhouettes of the peaks of Ornament Valley. “I was transported to when I was a kid, lying in the backseat of my dad’s ’62 Bonneville, looking through the rear window, during a road trip through Utah,” Rafferty says. “That’s the moment I realized just how real and amazing this all is. I couldn’t believe we were actually building this thing.”
California Adventure’s New Main Street
This summer, workers will dismantle the plywood walls along Disney California Adventure Park’s main entrance, unveiling a brand-new Buena Vista Street. “Guests will be immersed in a nostalgic Los Angeles of the 1920s and 1930s as Walt Disney might have seen it when he first arrived in California in 1923,” says Paul Garcia, Disneyland Resort’s public relations manager.
Red Car Trolleys will make stops along the thoroughfare, go around a fountain, through Hollywood Boulevard, and all the way to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. “Shops and restaurants along the street have names that were either relevant to Walt’s early career or that might have inspired some of his early characters,” Garcia says.
Designers borrowed Spanish and art deco architectural influences from buildings prevalent in 1920s Atwater Village, Silver Lake, Pasadena, Westwood, and along Wilshire Boulevard. They sourced period-authentic materials from old shops, including stained-glass windows from 115-year-old The Judson Studios in Los Angeles.
New dining options include a bakery, an ice cream shop, and an upscale restaurant and lounge housed within a re-creation of the iconic Carthay Circle Theatre, where Walt Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered in 1937.
Rachel Ng is managing editor of Westways.
For Disneyland Resort discounted tickets, visit your local Auto Club branch.
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