The entirety of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure is highly detailed and immersive but even with all its unique shops, delicious dining, and variety of sights, the single most impressive draw is Disneyland’s new E-ticket ride, Radiator Springs Racers. This showcase of Walt Disney Imagineering talent is not only the most exciting part of the new theme park expansion but also simply the most impressive attraction Disney has created in years.
What makes Radiator Springs Racers so unique is its seamless blend of a variety of ride styles. It’s thrilling enough for all guests to enjoy but not so extreme that it prevents young or timid guests from riding. At times this attraction is slow and relaxing, surrounding passengers with gorgeous scenery. But it also features classic Disney storytelling and place making, transporting guests into the world of “Cars,” even more so than the rest of Cars Land, as Audio-Animatronics figures perfectly translate CG-animated characters from the big screen to real life. And then there’s the ride’s namesake finale, pitting groups of Disneyland guests side-by-side in a race to the finish line, all the while putting smiles on the face of each and every passenger.
Unlike so many new theme park attractions (Disney and otherwise), Radiator Springs Racers does not rely heavily on video screens, 3D imagery, interactivity, or virtual characters. Nearly every element of the ride is tangible, believably taking guests away from an Anaheim theme park and on a trip down Route 66. And because of this tangible nature of the ride, it translates rather well to recordings.
Though nothing tops witnessing in person the immense sights of Ornament Valley or the close encounters with “Cars” characters, the on-ride videos below offer a fantastic alternative for those who cannot be there. The full ride video features binaural audio, so wearing headphones while watching is strongly advised. And the second video below offers a closer, longer look at the ride’s many lifelike Audio-Animatronics figures.
Video: Full ride on Radiator Springs Racers with binaural audio
Video: Closer look at the Audio-Animatronics of Radiator Springs Racers
As with any good, classic Disney attraction, Radiator Springs Racers is successful because it relies on a deep backstory. Though not every guest will fully realize the story that’s being told, its importance cannot be understated, as it creates the basis on which the ride exists, producing the details necessary to make this fictional place feel real.
It all begins with a long, winding queue that takes guests through an area new to the “Cars” universe, invented specifically for the attraction. This queue tells the story of the ride and of Radiator Springs itself without the use of queue video or interactive elements, both far too common with many of Disney’s newest attractions. Instead, tried-and-true Imagineering, a bit of Disney music, and plenty of signs and scenery offer up the story of Stanley arriving to the natural wonder that is Tail Light Caverns and setting up shop to attract and cater to tourists visiting.
Within the many queue areas, guests will find elements of this story, from the “original Radiator Spring” to Stanley’s Tap and Cap store and the Comfy Caverns Motor Court. Again, it’s not necessary to pay attention to these details to enjoy the ride, but those who look closer will find a deeper understanding of its foundation.
For Imagineer Kevin Rafferty, who has been on the Cars Land project for all the years since its inception, seeing guests appreciate the fine detail work put into this queue is a proud moment. In an interview, Rafferty told a story of success from the Cars Land grand opening one week ago: “I think one of the greatest things I heard last night is somebody was going through that queue area, which is Stanley’s Oasis, and they looked around and said, ‘This is so Disney.’” That is the greatest compliment any guest could give to an Imagineer and an accurate one at that, with Radiator Springs Racers serving as a perfect example of a classic Disney attraction.
Once the story is established, the ride itself brings “Cars” to life via incredible Audio-Animatronics figures that surprise everyone riding for the first time. From watching the exhilarating moments when ride vehicles are dashing around the outdoor and highly-visible banked curves of Ornament Valley, many guests think this attraction only features that outdoor portion. But that’s just 45 seconds of the 4-minute ride, roughly 1/5 of the ride time.
The rest is a combination of slow and speedy, twisting and turning, and close encounters with many familiar characters from the Cars universe, beginning with a leisurely drive around Ornament Valley, inspired by the slow-paced moment that Lightning McQueen and Sally share in “Cars.”
Moving inside the “dark ride” portion of the attraction, Lightning, Mater, Sally, Sheriff, Ramone, Flo, Fillmore, Sarge, Red, Luigi, Guido, Mack, and more are all there, along with the triumphant return of Doc Hudson, absent from “Cars 2″ due to actor’s Paul Newman’s passing. Even beyond Doc, not all cars in the ride are voiced by the original actors, but most are and they all look exactly as they do in the film.
When all the elements are put together, Radiator Springs Racers is a fast-paced attraction with a clear beginning, middle, and end to the racing story that is totally satisfying and simply fun.
But more than fun, it’s a technological marvel. Disney fans familiar with Test Track at Epcot will instantly recognize the ride system in use on Radiator Springs Racers. But beyond the track and vehicle similarities, the rides are distinctly different. When details of Racers’ top speed being around 35 - 40mph leaked out, fans wondered why it wasn’t going to match Test Track’s 60+ mph speeds and whether Racers would be thrilling enough. But it is, particularly at night.
There’s more to a Disney ride than sheer thrills and the ride system is used wonderfully, not only showing off the semi-high-speed banked turns but also offering a smooth ride with a combination of slow and quick turns and paths quickly leading up and down hills with fast acceleration and deceleration.
Racing around Ornament Valley alongside another car is breathtaking and truly thrilling, so much more than riding around the steel structure that surrounds Test Track.
The timing of the attraction is no small feat either, requiring careful precision of each show scene to allow trailing cars to catch up and race side-by-side around the outdoor track. The dark ride section features quick moments with a variety of “Cars” characters, each lasting exactly 12 seconds. Nearing the end, the ride’s track course splits left and right into two different show scenes (Luigi’s Casa Della Tires and Ramone’s House of Body Art), slowing the rapid pace to bring cars next to each other before launching into the finale.
A winner is chosen in each race via pseudo-random algorithm. Winners are given a congratulatory message from crew chief Doc Hudson - as are the losers (with a slightly different message), encouraging everyone. And the final scene in Tail Light caverns is the same for all, win or lose.
The ride system is only part of the technology that makes Radiator Springs Racers a modern marvel. “Cars” characters are to scale, with eyes blinking and and animated mouths forming words they speak. Some characters remain in place, just gesturing their bodies back and forth, while others drive up or alongside ride vehicles.
From opening day, it’s been clear that Radiator Springs Racers is a hit for the Disneyland Resort, with early-morning wait times jumping rapidly from 15 minutes to 240 and beyond.
And the excitement witnessed on the face of single rider that passes over Racers’ hills and around Ornament Valley tells just how immensely popular and fulfilling this ride is.
Radiator Springs Racers is an enjoyable attraction even for those not riding, with stunning views spanning half of Cars Land, all part of the most extensive rock work Disney has ever created in the United States. After dark, it’s like no other sight around.
Interestingly enough, the archway pictured above that bookends the backside of Cars Land and perfectly frames the Ornament Valley track was not part of the area’s initial design. Imagineer Kathy Mangum shared that it was put there out of necessity to block the view of the Paradise Pier Hotel in the distance, only for her to discover the beautiful entrance moment it created. Happy accidents even happen at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Even Disney Parks’ top executives George Kalogridis, Bob Iger, Meg Crofton, and Tom Staggs took the time to look out over the impressive Imagineering-created mountain range on Cars Land’s opening day, marveling at what their team had accomplished.
But beyond the ride’s high and wide-spread praise, all is not absolutely perfect with Radiator Springs Racers. Its overwhelming popularity is leaving guests with 4-6 hour waits daily while it’s new. Eventually that number will dwindle as locals and tourists have their shot at riding - but not likely any time soon. Ironically, near the beginning of the long, winding queue is a sign reading, “ALMOST THERE!” Not quite.
Fastpasses disappear for the day in a matter of minutes of Disney California Adventure’s opening each day, requiring guests to either wait hours in line or be there before rope drop. The Fastpass machines next to the entrance of Radiator Springs Racers are currently not even in use, as the congestion in Cars Land streets prevents it. Instead, Fastpasses can now be obtained near It’s Tough to Be a Bug.
Even the Single Riders line has required 120+ minutes of waiting, though is generally 45-60 minutes, which is far better than 4-6 hour queues. A benefit of the single rider line is that as parties are split up to fill empty seats in each vehicle, the possibility of friends and family racing against each other is great, adding even more to the experience.
At the end of the day, guests who do stick around in the extremely long queue and are lucky enough to time their placement just right may catch glimpses of the Disneyland fireworks across the esplanade peeking out from beyond the Ornament Valley mountain range.
Radiator Springs Racers is now Disney’s must-see attraction. It has thrills, fun, family-friendly entertainment, comedy, enjoyable characters, memorable music, and awe-inspiring sights. The rest of Cars Land readies the track for guests ready to be immersed in the world of “Cars” while Radiator Springs Racers brings home the Piston Cup as the current champion of Disney attractions.
More photos from Radiator Springs Racers: