I'm writing from Disney's California Adventure Park in Anaheim California, where the Toy Story Mania attraction just opened. The same ride is also opening today in Orlando at Disney Hollywood Studios.
Three years in the making, the attraction is based on Disney's Toy Story franchise which launched in 1995, its first two movies bringing in 850 million dollars at the worldwide box office, the third movie due out in 2010. This new ride is just one way Disney is capitalizing on its 7.4 billion dollar acquisition of Pixar, drawing on the appeal of its franchise characters and the creativity of Pixar co-founder John Lasseter who I got a chance to interview while on the ride today, which was a real treat since he rarely talks to the media and his Pixar studios has only churned out hits- never a flop.
Toy Story Mania is nothing like a traditional theme park attraction. It's more like a ride-through 3D video game, and I speak with great authority because I rode it seven times yesterday (see the video clip). You're on a car going around a track, wearing 3D glasses so everything is 3D. The ride is designed to make you feel like you've been shrunk down to the size of a toy in a kid's bedroom, while you along with "Toy Story" characters Buzz Lightyear and Woody navigate classic kids games and play old fashioned midway games. You pull the rope on the shooter right in front of you to try to hit targets in a range of games- darts, ring toss etc- to rack up points.
And there are a couple of surprising things. One: not only does the 3D make it look like there are objects whizzing by you, but the game shoots bursts of air and water at you so those virtual objects seem very real. Two: it's competitive! You're battling to get more points than the other people sitting in your car (points displayed on a screen in front of you) and more than the all-time records displayed at the end of the ride. I've never heard of a competitive theme park ride (other than maybe bumper cars) but it makes sense. You engage kids by making the attraction truly active and interactive, and they want to come back so they can up their score. Key in appealing to the jaded generation that grew up on high-tech video games.
There's no question that Pixar is an increasingly important driver of Disney parks. The last big attraction Disneyland launched was its "Finding Nemo" Submarine ride last year, it's working on a big "Cars" attraction for Disneyland and a "Ratatouille" ride for Euro Disney outside Paris. All these rides further proof of the fact that Disney's acquisition of Pixar was about much more than just a movie studio, it was about building brands to exploit across all its platforms, which is CEO Bob Iger's big strategy.
Pixar's next movie, "Wall-E," is opening a week from Friday, and Lasseter tells me it's great. Perhaps even more importantly he also mentioned that it could make a great theme park attraction.