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