Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Inside the mouse house

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway revealed

by Martin Palicki

ABOVE: Vehicles pass through projected and animated scenes, like this city streetscape. Photos ©Disney

[Editor’s note: This article references Josh D’Amaro, who at the time of writing was President of the Walt Disney World Resort. He has since been named Chairman, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.]

As Walt Disney World Resort President Josh D’Amaro referenced while opening the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway (MMRR) attraction, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is no longer just a park that takes guests behind the scenes of moviemaking. Now, the theme park puts guests right in the middle of popular movies and stories to create their own authentic adventures alongside their favorite characters. Perhaps that is most evident on the new MMRR ride, where guests literally walk through the cinema screen and into the world of a Mickey & Minnie cartoon.

The attraction accomplishes this through the combination of state-of-the-art technology in projection and ride vehicles. Baked into all of that is classic Disney storytelling and artistic attention to detail. Much is written about creating more immersive environments, and lots of attention is paid to the technical side of things. But it’s really the blending of all of these things – the technology and the artistry and the storytelling – that results in the inviting and immersive experience that is Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The experience

Guests arrive at the iconic Hollywood Studios Chinese Theatre, ostensibly to see to see the latest Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Perfect Picnic.” Guests are led into the theater, which is actually the pre-show to the ride. In the cartoon, Mickey & Minnie prepare for a picnic in the park and croon about how absolutely nothing could possibly go wrong. Of course, something does: a small explosion in the cartoon blows a giant hole in the theater’s movie screen. An attendant opens the gates at the front of the theater and guests walk through the hole in the screen and step into the world of the cartoon themselves.

Immediately passing through the screen threshold, everything begins to look as though it were drawn by hand. Colors pop, most lines curve naturally, and the catchy theme song from the cartoon follows guests everywhere.

The ride begins with engineer Goofy captaining his train (and guests) on a tour through Runnamuck Park. Riders soon see Mickey & Minnie on their way to the perfect picnic, but yet another unforeseen mishap causes the locomotive to veer off course and the remaining ride vehicles “runaway” from the railway. The ride then takes guests along on Mickey & Minnie’s cartoon adventures through the Wild West, into a carnival, through the jungle, under the sea and more. Just as vehicles are about to be crunched inside a menacing factory, Mickey and Minnie save the day, transforming the factory into a bucolic park scene. Reunited with Goofy, the train passes the mousy heroes at their penultimate picnic before stopping at the unload station.

All aboard!

Each train consists of four trackless vehicles. Two rows in each car comfortably seat eight adults total. The vehicles arrive on the boarding platform appearing as a conjoined train, with a separate locomotive car piloted by Goofy. The cars are slightly reminiscent of the original The Great Movie Ride cars that occupied the same building from park opening in 1998 until 2017. Those vehicles held dozens of guests each and traveled together in pairs for most of the ride. They were trackless vehicles too, and also somewhat ahead of their time, technology wise. Those original automated guided vehicles followed wires buried in the floor, with minimal deviation from the set path. That same vehicle style was also used in the original Universe of Energy pavilion at EPCOT from 1982 until 2017.

The new MMRR vehicles are much smaller and utilize a different system that allows each vehicle to operate independently and follow a unique path. This is similar to rides Disney has built in Tokyo (Pooh’s Hunny Hunt) and Hong Kong (Mystic Manor). The MMRR vehicles are technological twins to the cars in the Rise of the Resistance attractions at both Hollywood Studios and in California. [Disney doesn’t get into the details of how their trackless technology works, but you can learn how another similar modern trackless system technology works in “Cool Moves,” InPark Magazine issue #48.]

Depending on which vehicle a guest is in, the action they see might change from ride to ride, although the story arc remains the same.

The technology of the trackless system isn’t just “cool,” it’s also a creative opportunity. Imagineers utilized the flexibility the trackless system provides to create vehicles that become characters within the story. The seats rumble at points, the cars dance with one another, and they move fluidly through and around each scene. They have personality. At one point the last car backs away from the rest of the train, almost as though it is trying to avoid the certain calamity that lies ahead.

Seamless storytelling

The projection systems throughout the attraction deliver a central element of the experience. After all, what better way to bring a cartoon to life than by using the platform for which cartoons were created. Imagineers use a blend of extensive projection mapping and painted props, oftentimes black light illuminated, to further blur the lines of reality. What is scenic and what is projected? In some cases, several rides are necessary before those distinctions can be perceived.

As mentioned, the ride’s climactic scene instantly turns a dirty, crowded factory into a delightful garden park in front of guests’ eyes. The secret? Several set pieces retract to reveal garden accoutrements while others collapse into stylized trees, all while the projector system effortlessly swirls in images of a beautiful park setting. The effect is magical.

Of particular note is the use of projected, animated characters in dimensional spaces. Walt Disney pioneered the use of a multi- plane camera to create dimension and realistic spatial movement in his animated films. It changed how animated films are made, how characters move in environments and how audiences perceive scenes. In a way, the same revolutionary impact can be found within the MMRR attraction. Like the multi-plane camera, characters appear on one plane while background images appear on a different plane. The character still appears 2D, but is living in a 3D world. The effect is used throughout the attraction and it’s impressive. The most obvious example is when Goofy swings open the shutters on the back of his locomotive. His 2D character appears in the middle of the cab, with the wall appearing a bit behind him, just like a real conductor would.

Several animatronic characters exist in the attraction, namely Mickie & Minnie, Pluto, and Daisy. They blend in well with the surrounding scenery, and all utilize interior projected face technology for a realistic animated face effect.

Disney artistry ties it together

While the technology is the brains that make the ride hum, the artistic perspective applied to the technology is what brings heart and charm to the attraction. In this context, tech design becomes storytelling, and it’s apparent both technology and creative professionals collaborated on the attraction from the beginning.

The authentic cartoon-style painting throughout the ride combined with the animation embedded everywhere evoke a retro-Disney charm. The versions of Mickey and Minnie are also stylized in a current, yet nostalgic, form.

The blending between scenic props and projection is what truly makes the screens disappear. Many modern media-based attractions have stark distinctions between the screen and the set. But when the whole set becomes the screen, a more convincing level of immersion results.

With an attraction that takes such a deep dive into the cartoon world, there are unlimited possibilities for “easter eggs” and, naturally, hidden Mickeys. They appear everywhere throughout the queue and attraction. Mickey’s mug even appears in a more artistic format in the chandelier metalwork above the queue.

After riding multiple times, other secrets start to become apparent. Pluto can be found in nearly every scene, anxiously trying to catch up to his owners, and a small crab also makes subtle appearances throughout the ride. A small homage to The Great Movie Ride can be found in the Carnival scene.

There are certainly many more secrets hidden throughout the ride, and therein lies a key element of the attraction’s charm: while every ride vehicle affords different views, every ride also allows for new details to be discovered. And the best part is they don’t require extensive backstory or deep IP brand knowledge to be enjoyed. They are there for all to enjoy.

Of course, for those that have a deeper knowledge of Disney trivia and history, the ride is chock full of references…to Ub Iwerks, Imagineering’s headquarters, and significant dates in Disney’s timeline (among others!) Both the general and superfan “easter eggs” together help drive ride repeatability and long-term success for an attraction.

Even more than being a repeatable, fun, family-friendly experience, MMRR is a loving tribute to the characters upon which the entire Disney empire was founded. The technology and artistry within MMRR are great complements to the historic legacy of Walt’s iconic characters. • • •

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