Next month marks the 20th anniversary of “It’s Tough to Be a Bug!”, the first attraction inspired by a Pixar movie (1998’s “A Bug’s Life,” in this case) to appear in a Disney theme park. Since then, Pixar Animation Studios has released seventeen additional feature-length films through Disney, and numerous attractions based on them have opened at Disneyland Resort in California, Walt Disney World in Florida, and Disney’s overseas parks as well.
Which is to say, Disney Parks and Disney/Pixar have become natural, prolific partners, and not just because they both fall under the same corporate umbrella. The taste of guests at the parks overlap with Pixar fans at a nearly 1:1 ratio, and visitors have loved experiencing the rides, shows, and character meet-and-greets from their favorite Pixar animated films around the resorts. That lucrative history has made it a no-brainer that Disney Parks would dedicate the year of 2018 to bringing more new Pixar attractions to its theme parks on both coasts in America and in other locations across the globe.
This past weekend I had the thrilling opportunity to visit both Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World at Disney’s invitation, and step foot into a four-day bi-coastal preview of the upcoming Pixar Fest event, Pixar Pier overhaul, and Toy Story Land area coming to the parks all within the next few months. By the end of Sunday I was (and still am) beyond exhausted, but I left the experience with a better knowledge of what the company has planned for these expansions, conversions, and celebrations– and excited to see the finished products when they all finally make their debuts.
The media event began at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, where a panel of creatives from both WDI and Pixar presented a slide-show demonstration of the ins and outs of what we would be covering that weekend. Naturally, it was already overwhelming simply to be present on that campus for my first time, but I also wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of new information we received there that morning. Most of the big headlines went up on our website Monday morning with the embargo, and if you happened to be paying attention around that time you know just how voluminous the news was.
During the presentation, Pixar’s theme park creative director Roger Gould explained that the studio strives to “take people to places they’ve never been before” and talked about the similar transportive properties of both Pixar and the Disney Parks, which is to his mind what makes the cooperation between the two entities so fruitful. Executive producer Liz Gazzano then explained how the theme parks team at Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California work side-by-side with Imagineers to bring attractions to life.
Our visit to WDI also included a stop at the DISH (Digital Immersive Showroom), a high-tech virtual-reality simulation of new rides and areas around the parks that helps Imagineers “spot potential design issues before construction.” In this space our group was treated to a virtual ride on the upcoming Incredicoaster for Disney California Adventure, and a tour of the under-construction Toy Story Land for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The DISH is an incredible application of VR technology, and seeing it in person helped me better understand the process of putting together these attractions.
After our time in Glendale, the media group was shepherded down to Anaheim, where we had the opportunity to experience many of the existing Pixar experiences around Disneyland Resort and preview both Pixar Fest and Pixar Pier, both of which will be welcoming guests by mid-summer. Pixar Fest is a seasonal celebration that overlaps with Pixar Pier, but will end come September. It includes a Pixar shorts film festival, the return of the popular Paint the Night and Pixar Play parades, new food, beverage, and merchandise offerings, photo opportunities, and the main attraction– the all-new “Together Forever – a Pixar Nighttime Spectaular” fireworks show.
During the evening of our trip to Disneyland, after the park had closed, we gathered in the hub in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle alongside some Disneyland Resort technicians and our PR tour guides to watch a preview rehearsal performance of “Together Forever” and I have to say it’s already one of my absolute favorite fireworks displays among those I’ve seen in my over two decades of regularly attending Disneyland. The show contains dozens of “wow” moments (including Buzz Lightyear and Carl’s house from “Up” flying over the castle) and more than a few tearjerking scenes, accentuated by dazzling pyrotechnics and projections.
The overarching theme of Pixar Fest is one of friendship, and that concept is reflected in “Together Forever” as well as the merchandise and food that will be available for purchase throughout the festival. The big reveal during the weekend included the attractive “Monsters Inc.” Mike Wazowski sipper and Sulley popcorn bucket (carried over from Hong Kong Disneyland), souvenir “Coco” mug, “Finding Nemo” tumblers, Woody boot, and a wide selection of Pixar Fest logo-emblazoned t-shirts, pins, and other nifty-looking merch.
The next morning we were given a tour of the heavily-scaffolded Pixar Pier construction area on the grounds of the former Paradise Pier at Disney California Adventure. Pixar Pier is intended as a home for the Pixar properties that don’t already have a land dedicated to them at Disneyland Resort, or that they simply haven’t gotten around to yet. After having been told the previously-unannounced names of Jessie’s Critter Carousel (replacing King Triton’s Carousel of the Sea) and food stands like “Toy Story” Señor Buzz Churros, “Monsters Inc.” Adorable Snowman Frosted Treats, and “Inside Out” Angry Dogs, it was nice to see where all these locations would end up in the park.
We were also given more information about the Knick’s Knacks gift shop– inspired by the 2003 short of a similar name– and the classy Lamplight Lounge (combining the space used by the former Cove Bar and Ariel’s Grotto) in the Welcome neighborhood near the entrance to Pixar Pier. Lamplight Lounge was designed to resemble “a place where Pixar animators would hang out after work,” said Imagineer Jeffrey Shaver-Moskowitz. “You’ll see doodles, drawings, and sketches that Pixar artists have left there over the years.” Naturally, like its predecessors, the lounge overlooks Paradise Bay and provides guests with a wonderful view over to Pixar Pier as they relax.
The previous day at Imagineering we had learned almost-countless new details about the Incredicoaster, Pixar Pier’s E-ticket attraction that utilizes the track from the now-departed California Screamin’. The story of the ride will follow the Parr family as they attend the grand-opening ceremony of a seaside roller coaster dedicated in their honor. Baby Jack-Jack and costume designer Edna Mode are deemed not tall enough to board, so they wait behind in the VIP area. Soon things go awry, however, and Jack-Jack’s blossoming powers become troublesome for Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, and Dash during their thrill-ride adventure.
Having exhausted DCA’s other Pixar attractions (among them Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, Monsters Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, and the frenetic Toy Story Midway Mania in the heart of the pier) we boarded a shuttle to LAX and endured the five-hour flight to Orlando. I want to disclose here that the cost of this entire journey was covered by Disney, including airfare, food throughout the four days, hotel stay at both resorts, and some pretty cool swag. The idea is that we as media get the full Pixar in the Parks experience and then cover it on our respective outlets, and Disney encouraged us to be as transparent about that as possible.
The next morning at Walt Disney World was spent at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where we met with the park’s vice president Phil Holmes (who has been with the resort “since dirt”– his words) in front of the Toy Story Land model on display inside Walt Disney Presents exhibit. Holmes describes the new expansion as an “opportunity for our guests to be immersed in these fantastic stories.” The concept of Toy Story Land is that upon walking through the entrance you become an “honorary toy,” and the scaling of your surroundings is indeed representative of that idea.
Sarge of the Green Army Men characters then walked us backstage and through a side entrance into Toy Story Land itself, where we stood in the new land’s central hub next to the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster– characterized as a ride for everybody, not just for kids and not extreme enough to rule them out. I was initially taken aback by how much work it still appeared was remaining to be done, considering the area opens in just three and a half months, but I figure Disney works quickly– or at the very least, they’ll have to in order to get it completed in time. Unfortunately Slinky Dog was not undergoing test and adjust during our visit, but the track sure looks colorful!
Toy Story Land covers eleven acres and includes three rides: the aforementioned Slinky Dog Dash, the pre-existing Toy Story Mania (now given a shiny new opposite-side entrance themed to carnival games), and Alien Swirling Saucers– a souped-up clone of Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree from Cars Land. This ride has guests boarding spaceships being towed by those little green Aliens in saucers, and features a permanent overhead enclosure to protect the attraction from Florida’s frequent inclement weather. An added bonus of the darkened ride floor will be an energetic musical light show synced to the vehicles’ energetic movement, as the Aliens dodge the infamous claw hanging from the ceiling above.
Walt Disney Imagineering creative director Dave Minichiello was our tour guide during our brief stop in Toy Story Land, and he pointed out the giant figures of Jessie and Rex towering above Slinky Dog Dash, soon to be joined by Woody and Buzz elsewhere in the area. At this point we were also delivered the breaking news of Wheezy, the squeaky singing penguin from “Toy Story 2” having been installed next to Slinky Dog’s red track. Beneath us, embedded in the walkway pavement, were Andy’s giant footprints– Toy Story Land represents Andy’s backyard, after all.
Next up on our itinerary was a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where I’m somewhat ashamed to say I saw “Finding Nemo – The Musical” for the very first time. As a flimsy excuse, I’ll say I’m not an Orlando local and when I do visit Walt Disney World my priorities are rides and immersive theme park experiences over theatrical shows, but I have to say I was blown away by what we saw. I’m a big fan of puppets, and “Finding Nemo – The Musical” is chock full of some of the coolest-looking ones I’ve ever seen. After the audience exited we were given an enlightening demonstration of how the Marlin puppet is performed by show director James Silson.
We were also informed about the Incredible Summer celebration coming to Walt Disney World this year, with a superhero dance party taking over Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom (featuring new walk-around character Edna Mode from “The Incredibles”— also coming to Disneyland Resort), Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy appearing in person at Epcot’s America Gardens Theatre, and Russell and Dug from Pixar’s “Up” joining the educational fun in Animal Kingdom’s aviary “Flights of Wonder” show, now retitiled “UP! A Great Bird Adventure.”
The rest of our visit to Walt Disney World was spent experiencing some of the non-Pixar shows and attractions that have launched within the last year, like Pandora: The World of Avatar (I boarded Flight of Passage with Imagineer Tom Vazzana, who somewhat shockingly had not been on the ride before) and Magic Kingdom’s breathtaking “Happily Ever After” fireworks spectacular. We also blasted the menacing Evil Emperor Zurg on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and enjoyed a rematch on Toy Story Mania to bring the Pixar in the Parks media event to an appropriate close.
Upon returning home to Southern California and reflecting back on the whirlwind of a weekend at Walt Disney Imagineering, Disneyland Resort, and Walt Disney World, I felt more capable of understanding why this is the perfect year to celebrate Pixar in Disney’s theme parks. Fresh off the much-deserved Academy Award wins for “Coco” and hot on the tails of the highly-anticipated “Incredibles 2” this summer, park guests will be elated to see, hear, and feel these evocative reminders of the world-renown animation studio with such a stellar track record.
Disney is describing these events and expansions as exciting, fun “dimensional continuations of the Pixar movies,” and after having seen them in progress first hand around the parks themselves, I couldn’t agree more.
Pixar Fest begins Friday, April 13th at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
Pixar Pier opens Saturday, June 23rd at Disney California Adventure, part of Disneyland Resort.
Toy Story Land opens Saturday, June 30th at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.