Wednesday, June 06, 2007

All Hail Toad.

Over the last few days I’ve been finding my brain doing circles around Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, over and over again. Of course, I rode it when I was young and was utterly terrified and fascinated all at once at this totally irrational flow of images which was, along with Orlando’s Snow White’s Adventures pre its’ 1993 incarnation, probably one of the most brilliant and subversive things ever to rattle along on an electric drive track through “crash doors” ever put into operation by Disney.

The only attraction in history to entice riders with the prospect of donning the persona of a crazed amphibian, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a true anormality. Of the original 1955 “Fantasyland Three” dark rides, Mr. Toad has only been constructed twice – half the number of incarnations Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Adventures have received. And overall, it is not too surprising – while Snow and Pan told something like their original stories, Mr. Toad spun off on a weird alternate reality that relied on your familiarity with a not-heavily-publicized postwar short feature to even understand the basic elements of what was going on. All that being said, it’s then not too surprising that Orlando eventually declared open season on Toads in 1998.

But round and round my brain goes - I guess possibly because we’re staring in the face of ten long years without Toad - as to why the attraction was so brilliant and how accidental it all seemed. I have a distant memory of the original Snow White, a much stronger memory of 20,000 Leagues, but Toad stayed the longest and is the most vivid. When I first sat down to try and write about attraction design several years ago, it was Toad I gravitated towards first – I had to pay tribute first to him and not, ironically, to The Haunted Mansion or Dreamflight, the two attractions which most monopolize my collective unconscious and the two which I am still paralyzed to write about. But Toad? Perhaps because of the simplicity, the directness, the unpretentiousness or Toad, it has always seemed to me to be one of WED’s most accessible 1971 masterpieces.

Toad was always the most basic of the Fantasyland dark rides, even in 1955. While a number of characters appeared “in the round” at Snow White and Peter Pan, Toad featured entirely two dimensional characters. Depth in the sets was achieved through basic forced perspective and the spacing out of cut-out painted flats. Characters were often animated using the most basic methods, and there were not too many. What Toad depended on to be effective was the speed of the car, the twistiness of the track, and some basic simple effects like placing rubber lifters in the path of the car to simulate an uneven surface. This is still what makes Toad work today.

Of course, the attraction’s piece de resistance was its’ sinister and utterly absurd climax. Anybody of an impressionable age who has raced down that dark tunnel towards the oncoming “train” will never forget the terror of that scene, nor the surprise following when the cars deposited you in Hell to be accosted by rubber demons.

This concept seems to account for much of the reason a dark ride was even attempted of Mr. Toad to begin with. Certainly, the companion piece to the Mr. Toad segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad – Ichabod Crane’s intense and haunted journey home from the Van Tassel party – is much more suited to dark ride treatment than what was actually built, as the Ichabod Crane chapter is actually built around a pursuit through a darkened environment. It is said that Walt Disney wanted a scary attraction, a funny attraction, and a beautiful attraction for Fantasyland, but even within these parameters, Mr. Toad doesn’t necessarily seem an obvious choice. Alice in Wonderland, in particular, with the film’s production design of multicolored hues in stark contrast within black space, is the literal embodiment of the blacklit dark ride concept. Although Alice involves a certain degree of unease mixed in with its humor, it’s worth noting here that the final Mr. Toad attraction is much darker and more unsettling than its filmic version. Perhaps the error was noticed and rectified in 1958, when Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland attraction did finally open.

Is it possible that humans are simply hardwired in a way which, inevitably, certain tactile experiences are lasting because they’re essentially, innately appealing? Although much of the brilliance of Country Bears and America Sings, for example, is in their structure, they work because they are innovative variations on the time honored tradition of the proscenium arch. So, apparently, sitting still and moving your head from side to side to an effort to keep up with a show is innately appealing to the primordial ooze which we crawled out of. So, apparently, is sitting in a tiny car rattling down a dark rail waiting in mortal terror for the next bend in the track. Dark Rides have been popular for well over 100 years now, and possibly because they, moreso than the roller coaster or omnimover or anything else, most recall the dream state and the irrationality of our own collective unconscious. Great dark rides feel like the whole thing is totally out of control.

Is this why Mr. Toad works so well? Rather than being themed to riding through a jungle or a haunted house. Toad emphasizes the method of conveyance as the justification for the content, and the irrationality of the twists in the track are not because that’s what dark rides do, but because you’re a totally out of control amphibian riding a hot ticket to Hell. Form dictates content dictates form. And it increasingly seems like any way you cut it, Orlando Toad was a masterwork of a dark ride.

One example: while Toad Hall existed as only a few turns of the track in California, the Orlando version spread the setting out to its full potential. The two ride vehicles passed one another, headed off in apparently different directions, turned to almost collide, then shot off to their unique show sequences in the first room. While the left track very sensibly brought riders into a Trophy Room and Kitchen, the right track proceeded utterly illogically through the fireplace. It was the first of a seemingly endless number of utterly terrifying logical fallacies the attraction assaulted the riders with, who were always unsure if they’d push directly through an obstacle or simply “bounce” off it. Original Toad only tried this technique once – exiting Toad Hall – yet Orlando used it as the primary structuring element of the entire attraction.


Is this why the ride has stayed with so many so long? We all remember being young, turning that false wheel in a panic trying not to hit the library desk, the cow, and my god the suit of armor. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was the nearest to a totally irrational nightmare most young children got to experience in waking life, because the attraction offered a system of control – that wheel – which was utterly useless because no matter how much you turned it, the car would do exactly the opposite of what any sane person would want it to. This reached its’ apotheosis in the absurd but horrifying climax, where we were powerless to not go into the train tunnel and be killed. For all of the threats and shocks of Snow White, Toad was a masterclass in fatalism – I do not want to self destruct, but I have no choice.

And remembered it is, on Walt Disney World websites, on You Tube, and pretty much anywhere you can swing a cat you can probably hit somebody who is still embittered over “Toadgate”. I don’t need to repeat the story of “Toadgate” here, as it is recounted better and in detail elsewhere, but suffice to say it still casts a pallor over Orlando’s Magic Kingdom.

In a way, it may be appropriate that only the original remains. Disneyland, with its handsome 1983 update of Fantasyland, is far more friendly to the kind of strange, old fashioned attraction Toad represents. The Magic Kingdom, in its’ rush to accommodate more well known popular characters into the park on a regular basis, often throws its’ own unique attractions under the truck in the process. Mr. Toad, hopelessly outwitted by his own comparative obscurity among the Fantasyland elite, eventually did ride his car to glory in 1998.

Yet how could Toad have been expected to stand up against his competitors when the attraction his popularity was supposed to save was his only survival in American popular culture? Splash Mountain has not been closed because riders do not recognize B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox and B’rer Bear.

Perhaps in retrospect it was the sudden closing of the adjacent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with absolutely no fanfare, that ultimately caused all the ruckus with the Magic Kingdom Toad. One day the subs were plowing the lagoon, next they simply stopped, cargo nets were strung over the entrance to the caves, and the water was shut off. These people who grew up riding Toad weren’t going to let this classic slip away without a fight.

What is most sad is that there’s no reason Pooh couldn’t have been built elsewhere. 20,000 Leagues had been shuttered for four years by then, and Disney was widely circulating statements that it was impossible to dismantle the lagoon due to the amount of water that would pour into the tunnels underneath. Yet in 2004 the lagoon was drained and dismantled with no problems whatsoever. This could have occurred in the years between 20,000 Leagues’ closure and Toad’s closure, Pooh could have been built on the former lagoon site, and probably would have been a better attraction for it. Disney may have invested some money, but they would have saved themselves a public relations nightmare and gotten themselves a better show in the long run.

But they didn’t, and through several accounts I’ve learned that as soon as that last car rattled out of Hell they already were tearing down plywood walls and figures and, by morning, the attraction had been stripped down to the wall studs. It took them only a few hours to destroy something brilliant. I’m sure it didn’t take RKO more than ten minutes to burn the negative to Magnificent Ambersons, either.

And what does WDI say to all of this?

Take a close look at Walt Disney World’s pet cemetery. There’s Mr. Toad! What does the gravestone say? Here’s God’s Honest Truth, people.

Here Lies Toad

Sad But True

Much Less Profitable

Than Pooh

Touché.

19 comments:

Chris Stangl said...

I've wondered if Universal Studios didn't take a lesson from Mr. Toad. Nearly all their major attractions are built on the premise that a benign attraction vehicle is going berserk. In Toad's particular case, I think you're right, acknowledging the transport apparatus enhances the atmosphere of a low-grade nightmare. For West Coast parkrats, the Indiana Jones Adventure is particularly interesting as part of this trend, because in the narrative the riders themselves are blamed for the attraction going awry. Talk about a guilt trip.

Biblio Adonis said...

Toad was a great attraction. I was fortunate enough to have ridden Toad East and West in my travels (sounds so cool to use the word travels).

My wife and I laugh because whenever Toad comes up in conversation, we remember our first trip on Toad.

We were waiting in line and a car came by--right at the end of the ride. The youngling was howling at the top of his lungs, red-faced and obviously not happy. The mother was a little pale.

We looked at each other with a little consternation.

"What could be so scary about this attraction?"

Well, when we burst through the final panels after being condemned by the judge--we realized what the kid had been screaming about.

We were in Hell.

At first it was disturbing, but now it is a warm and wonderful story that we share.

chris stangle--this reminds me of Star Tours and so many other attractions where something goes wrong. And the Indiana Jones Attraction is one of the best experiences ever!

Biblio Adonis said...

Hey Foxxfur...

Is there another way to contact you?

I swear that I am not stalking you...or would a stalker actually say that?

Anyway, feel free to drop me a line at your convenience at biblioadonis AT yahoo.com

Jeff Pepper said...

Love the reference to Orson W. A very fitting analogy.

When they closed Toad, I was relatively indifferent to the whole matter. As time has passed, I find myself missing the attraction more and more. After reading this piece,I realize just how unappreciative of it I was.

kcnole said...

I never really understood why to this day I feel so sad when I stand in that area of Fantasyland between where this and 20k once was. I know why I miss 20k so much, but I couldn't figure out what it was about Toad that I missed so much. You hit them all on the head and as I read your article I vividly remembered that attraction.

It was the least technical of all of WDW's dark rides, but in a way of its own it was one of the most brilliant creations ever and one that I'm not sure WDI of today could ever match. How I wish I could go back to 98 just once, to reride this classic, to crash through that fireplace again, to have many near miss collissions, and finally to be condemned to hell. What great fun.

Adam said...

Favorite. Post. Ever.

Granted, I might be biased, as Toad was an absolute favorite growing up.

The memories of being on that line, late at night, hearing the loop of "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily to nowhere in particular..." Oh what fun.

Having rode both versions of the Toad, the DL, while still great fun, only makes me miss the WDW more.

Has it really been 10 years....wow.

FoxxFur said...

I must admit that when Toad closed, it was the least of my concerns that year - I also lost Dreamflight and Imagination that year, and that was really where much of my regret was focused. I do remember being at least interested in what Buzz Lightyear would be like, and finding Pooh acceptable (oh, how my opinions have changed...), but I admit it's taken me a few years to really come to terms with how brilliant Toad was, and how much it did with so little, and how WDI is really incapable of matching something like that again.

I've often thought of the use of the "Everything Goes Horribly Wrong!!!" gag in Disney attractions and I wish there were more to extrapolate from, at least for a longish article - it happens so often but for rather mundane reasons. IE: Stitch spits. The (guide/computer/driver/scientists) don't know what they're doing. Indy is a pretty interesting variation, as is Haunted Mansion, Toad, and Snow White. I think the nearest Disney ever came to making a totally irrational "Something Goes Horribly Wrong!!" is Pirates, where it really doesn't make much sense why you end up under New Orleans (I guess the Skull & Crossbones had it out for you), or that seeing treasure would send you back in time...

You know, I'm glad that Toad still goes to Hell at Disneyland, but I'm sad to say that the DL version, for all its' heat and voices and intertesting, redesigned judge, doesn't hold a candle to what made the WDW version so great and effective. And it wasn't the double tracks, although that was nice.

Chris Stangl said...

There's a fascinating DISNEYLAND episode in which Walt gives a preview of Pirates in development. He shows us some concept art and early work on the animatronics, and talks through the narrative. But the way Walt tells the story, the ride reaches a terrifying climax in which the spectator will be trapped in an underground cavern as the burning buildings threaten to collapse around you. How will you escape?! ... but in the final result, this seems to manifest as a couple of glowing timbers and a chair dangling over the boats.

Mr. Silly said...

Sadly, I never got to ride the WDW Mr. Toad, since my first trip to WDW was in '99. Alas.

I grew up in So. Cal., and Mr. Toad was always on the list of "must do" rides and still is.

I looked up "Toadgate" in Google and didn't find anything. Does anyone know of any links that explain what Toadgate is?

FoxxFur said...

http://www.math.miami.edu/~jam/toad/

Here's the whole sad saga.

Mr. Silly said...

Thanks.

Ivonne said...

Toad emphasizes the method of conveyance as the justification for the content, and the irrationality of the twists in the track are not because that’s what dark rides do, but because you’re a totally out of control amphibian riding a hot ticket to Hell.

I don't know why but this sentence had me laughing out loud.

Great article by the way. I still miss Mr. Toad and reading this article made me miss it even more because you pointed it some things I never really thought about. Especially in regard to how you never quite new where the attraction was going to go next, which I remember had me freaking out when I was a little girl. I guess it shows how a ride can be fun and very effective without having much in the hi-tech department.

:)

The Big Fez said...

This is a brilliant article.

Anonymous said...

This is certainly among the best articles I've read concerning Toad. I hope somebody at Disney will make an effort to bring the ride back.

P.S. I liked the reference to The Magnificent Ambersons, my favorite film.

Well Behaved Krissy said...

We're merrily, merrily, merrily on our way to nowhere in particular!

I was directed to your site as you've been declared to have a PHD in Disney World, which is quite a draw. :)

I miss Mr. Toad, and Mole, and rat.. ugh.

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VioletYoshi said...

"Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was the nearest to a totally irrational nightmare most young children got to experience in waking life, because the attraction offered a system of control – that wheel – which was utterly useless because no matter how much you turned it, the car would do exactly the opposite of what any sane person would want it to."

This made me laugh, because it's so true. The ride never really scared me, perhaps because I was raised as Jewish and didn't grow up with a full understanding of the threat of Hell. Actually, I thought the ride closed because Christian parents didn't like how realistic the Hell scene was, and how it upset their kids.

It was a fun ride, but I think that it was time for them to update it as many kids wouldn't really have known what the ride referred to, and that Winnie the Pooh is known internationally, so it would be a popular attraction to many visitors.

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was really great, for it's sheer craziness which you pointed out in the article. I think that's what I liked the best about it, it kind of made you want to laugh at how absurd everything was. Just how completely nonsensical everything was.

Robert Hillman said...

I was a ride operator on the Toad ride one summer in the late 60s. Best summer of my life. One of us operated the board, the other took tickets and lowered the bar. When things got a little boring the board operator would sometimes arrange for gentle crashes of the cars as people were getting out. On break, we would sometimes position ourselves inside the ride and hop on the back of a moving car and ride it for a bit, just to enhance the fright effect of the ride.

Robert Hillman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.