Disney has a long history of investing in advanced technology that both dazzles guests and brings favorite stories to life in new and exciting ways. (When it comes to Disney, technological breakthroughs are always, always in service of story.) The Matterhorn Bobsleds, which opened at Disneyland in 1959, was the first tubular steel rollercoaster ever. 1967’s Adventure Thru Inner Space pioneered the Disney Omnimover system, which is still widely used today (in everything from The Haunted Mansion to Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters). Indiana Jones Adventure, which opened in 1995, was the first attraction to feature enhanced motion vehicles, essentially combining the motion simulation of Star Tours and the classic dark ride aesthetics of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. For a while, though, one thing was constant, no matter the technological advancement or storytelling technique: Rides had to run on a track.
But slowly, that began to change.
First there was Universe of Energy, which opened with the rest of what was then EPCOT Center in 1982 (now it’s simply Epcot). Originally, the attraction was to feature a vehicle that would switch between tracks, and have a walk-through component. Its final configuration would be different, but just as complex. In the finished version of Universe of Energy, the ride vehicles were “traveling theaters,” computer controlled, but trackless. Instead of riding a rail, the ride vehicles would be following a wire embedded in the floor. The vehicles could sit, like in a traditional theater, travel in a theater formation (pointed at the same spot), or split into a “train configuration” and proceed in a line. It was perfect for the attraction, which combined large-format film presentations with more traditional dark ride elements (like Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs) to tell the entertaining and enlightening story of energy consumption.
Less than a decade later these automated guided vehicles, as they are known, would be utilized again for The Great Movie Ride, which opened in 1989 at Walt Disney World in the Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). The concept was similar to the traveling theaters in Universe of Energy, but these were smaller, and with an additional component of interaction, thanks to the ride vehicle’s human driver. They would function similarly, splitting up at different times and then coming back together. And they would travel through massive showpieces in the same way. The complexity and functionality was greatly enhanced, and watching the way the ride vehicles work, to this day, is a marvel to be seen.
When The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at the same park in the summer of 1994, it also featured this automated guided vehicle technology. The attraction features the classic mechanics of a drop tower attraction, with an additional Disney twist and expert storytelling (this time centered around a “lost episode” of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series). During the “fifth dimension,” the vehicles appear to drive themselves across the floor before plummeting into darkness at the ride’s climax (following, like the previous versions of this ride vehicle, a thin metallic strip in the ground). This extra element is what makes Florida’s version of the attraction extra eerie. (Each version of Tower of Terror has its own unique flourishes, and technological and storytelling advancements.)
A truly trackless ride wouldn’t make it to a Disney Park until Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, which opened at Tokyo Disneyland in 2000. Many fans still hold this as the gold standard for trackless ride technology, and to this day, the attraction is one of the most popular in the entire park. Instead of following a silvery wire embedded in the floor, as was the case with past attractions, these ride vehicles were truly trackless, using a vast array of computer-controlled sensors to generate a randomized path for the ride vehicles to move through. That means there are literally limitless possibilities to the ride experience. (Up until this point, the trackless but wire-following attractions could only go in one direction—forwards.) If you want to see just how incredible this attraction is, look at this official video of the ride and pick your jaw up off the floor.
A year after Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, another trackless attraction was unveiled at Tokyo DisneySea. This is Aquatopia, and like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, no two rides on Aquatopia are the same. Saluting the popular Autopia attraction at Disneyland, which opened, with the rest of Disneyland, in 1955, as well as the Motor Boat Cruise, which opened in Disneyland in 1957 on the border of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, Aquatopia combined trackless technology and water for the first time. The ride vehicles rest in water (the water is moving to create the sensation of not only motion but also depth) and appear to change direction and speed randomly, just like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. As an added bonus, in the summer, a “wet course” opens up, that enables the vehicles to traverse a path that crosses in front of hidden water jets. So, to add to the unpredictability of the ride, you can also get soaked.
When Mystic Manor opened at Hong Kong Disneyland in 2013, it became the first attraction to build a backstory of the trackless system into the attraction’s central narrative. The ride vehicles are Mystic Electro-Magnetic Carriages, designed by the namesake inventor of Mystic Manor, Lord Henry Mystic. This would explain the ride vehicles’ magical movement and tie into the overall theme of the ride, which is a playful variation on the classic Haunted Mansion. Like other trackless ride experiences, what makes Mystic Manor so breathtaking is the fact that, depending on which car you’re seated in, your experience is totally different, highlighting aspects of the magically possessed rooms with different effects, animation, and Audio-Animatronics triggered at different points.
Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy, which opened at the Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris in 2014, added yet another dimension of technology with the introduction of 3D screens. Riders board rat-shaped vehicles, similar to those seen at Mystic Manor or Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, and wear 3D glasses. Since the entire conceit of the attraction is that you’re the size of Remy the rat, the ride vehicles pass through rooms filled with giant props, and the motion is a reaction to what’s happening on the screens in front of you. It’s a testament to the malleability of the trackless ride technology in that it can go into attractions that are seemingly so disparate, and bring that same kind of zippy energy and fun.
All of which brings us to Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters. The new attraction takes over Casa Della Tires in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. The premise of the attraction is ingenious: Luigi has invited his family from Carsoli, Italy, over to Radiator Springs. And it’s here that they take part in a traditional, oh-so-festive dance. Guests board ride vehicles that look like they leapt straight out of one of the Cars films, and dance along to original songs and classic tunes given a decidedly Cars spin. Each song has different choreography, with the cars crisscrossing past one another and dancing in jubilant glee. What’s great too is that you can see this synchronized vehicular display from the sidelines, so even while you wait, you can get a taste of what’s to come. There are also possibilities for new songs and configurations; the technology allows for additional music and choreography. So the sky is really the limit.
I rode the attraction the day before it officially opened and was totally floored. The ride is deceptively simple; knowing about the technology that went into it makes it even more fun, but you don’t have to know anything about the impressive history of the ride system to have a blast. The rhythm of the ride is truly impressive, and the way the vehicles move is smooth and flawless. It also seamlessly fits into the rest of Cars Land. It’s a terrific companion to Tow Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, another excellent attraction where the ride vehicles themselves have a lot of personality and maneuver in a similar configuration, and of course Radiator Springs Racer, which also uses state-of-the-art technology to tell an unforgettable story. Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters is a landmark experience because it’s the first stateside Disney Parks attraction to use the trackless ride technology, but it will become a fan favorite because it’s so much rollickin’ fun.