In March 2020, less than two weeks before Walt Disney World closed its parks due to COVID-19, the resort opened a flashy new ride, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Rotowriter Blake got to experience the attraction during its first few (and only) days of operation, but in light of the pandemic it felt odd to celebrate something that no one could access anymore. As Disney prepares to re-open, it’s perfect timing to take a deep dive into this might-as-well-be-brand-new ride.
Disney’s newest ride was supposed to open 25 years ago. In the mid-90s, the Imagineers planned an expansion for Disney’s Hollywood Studios (at the time known as Disney-MGM Studios) that would integrate the immensely popular Roger Rabbit character into the bustling, vintage 1940s Hollywood depicted in the park. Guests would travel from Hollywood to Toontown and find themselves immersed in the middle of a cartoon come to life via a madcap simulator adventure (think Star Tours, but on a trolley instead of a spaceship). The attraction never materialized, but over two decades later, the crux of that idea forms the foundation for the park’s newest addition, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
Utilizing a trackless ride system made up of several vehicles traveling together as if different compartments of a train (#WaltLovedTrains), Runaway Railway begins innocently enough: Mickey and Minnie are going on a picnic. How swell! When Goofy offers to bring us along for the ride and be our personal train conductor, it isn’t long before things get, well, off the rails. It’s a high-energy, gag-heavy, whimsical ride and a hyperbolized example of the theme park industry’s favorite classic trope: being promised a plan and everything going horribly, hilariously wrong. We’re in the world of a cartoon, and, as its marketing campaign implores to us, mouse rules apply.
The ride is a dazzling showpiece of 21st-century Imagineering that focuses on the version of Mickey and Minnie depicted in the Emmy-winning, self-titled Mickey Mouse shorts from Disney Television Animation. (You can catch the entire series on YouTube and Disney+ if you’re unfamiliar.) For fans of the series, getting to step foot into that world recalls a similar feeling of when your favorite TV show got turned into a movie and you got to go the theater to experience it. That’s just as well, because Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is housed in a massive building under the guise of being Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Everything inside serves as a canvas to truly surround riders in the action using some amazing tech that doesn’t require 3D glasses to be multi-dimensional. Our train runs amuck. Sound effects abound. Entire sets completely transform before our very eyes. We are truly smack dab in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon short, and it is glorious.
Runaway Railway was developed by Kevin Rafferty, the same Imagineer who pitched the Roger Rabbit attraction all those years ago and whose credits also include helming Cars Land for Disney California Adventure. (We reviewed Rafferty’s book a few months ago, which chronicles all of his major Disney projects, including the abandoned Roger Rabbit concept.) Co-leading the Runaway Railway effort with Rafferty was Charita Carter, who since has been announced to be orchestrating the transformation of Splash Mountain into a Princess and the Frog ride on both coasts. Rafferty and Carter brought intentionality and innovation to Runaway Railway, pushing new boundaries while still honoring the 90-year legacy Mickey and Minnie carry. For example, the prop used to create the train’s whistle was the same device used to create the boat’s whistle in Steamboat Willie. These folks know how to do it right.
And speaking of sounds, the ride has a new song written by Chris Willis (who also composes music for the Mickey Mouse series). Catchy, cheery, and embodying everything about Mickey and Minnie’s unwavering optimism, it’s titled “Nothing Can Stop Us Now.” Given its prominence in the ride and the importance of these characters to Disney’s identity, this song is destined to be remembered alongside “Grim Grinning Ghosts” and “One Little Spark” as one of the great theme park songs. At first I thought it was morbidly ironic that Disney declared such a thing mere days before closing for a pandemic, but the more I think about the phrase, the more it speaks beyond the context of the story to be a charging reminder that nothing can stop us when everyone does their part, and as Walt Disney World begins phased re-openings at the time of this writing, that’s certainly an important message to remember.
As a bonus, guests can continue to celebrate Mickey and Minnie beyond just the new ride. Vacation Fun is a new extended “short” made just for the park. It’s comprised of clips from the Mickey Mouse series, stitched together by a new storyline and exclusive animation. It plays throughout the day in the newly dubbed Mickey Shorts Theater, near Star Tours and formerly the home of the mini-doc Path of the Jedi. Seats in the renovated Mickey Shorts Theater even match Mickey’s, um, shorts, and photo-ops at the exit offer fun moments for fans of the shorts. It’s an adorable cherry on top to the sweet new ride.
Runaway Railway is the finishing touch, for now, of a multi-year re-imagining of Disney’s Hollywood Studios that also included Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and the Skyliner, a new gondola transportation system connecting the park to neighboring resorts and Epcot. The park has effectively transformed from emulating a real-world working movie studio to instead focusing on stepping into the fictional worlds that those movies take place in. Inadvertently, this meant removing some of the park’s staples. Runaway Railway replaced The Great Movie Ride, at one point the park’s centerpiece attraction, a journey through classic movie moments recreated with Audio-Animatronics, many of them MGM-affiliated.
It’s worth noting that while Runaway Railway is already open in Florida, it will eventually come to the west coast, too. Currently slated for a 2022 opening at Disneyland, the ride’s California counterpart won’t just emulate Toontown, it will physically inhabit it, residing in the Mickey’s Toontown area of the park. Don’t worry, nothing’s being replaced. The ride is being built on a plot of land formerly occupied by backstage facilities. (For what it’s worth, Florida formerly had its own Toontown, albeit a much smaller-scaled version than the one in California. The east coast Toontown closed in 2011.)
As someone whose fondest Mickey memories are of me and my siblings as children roaring with laughter watching some of the mouse’s earliest work from the 1930s on rainy Saturday evenings, I’m thrilled that the big cheese and his gal are being stewarded with such finesse on such a grand scale for a new generation. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is bonkers in the most highly praisable sense of the word. If you were to tell those kids on those rainy Saturdays that they’d one day get to ride through the world that brought them so much joy… well, I was about to say “I don’t know what they’d tell you,” but I suppose they’d tell you everything in this post, because I was one of those kids, thus rendering this sentence anticlimactic. Anyway. Whether you’re headed to Walt Disney World as soon as you can, or if you’re ok waiting until COVID abates a bit more, the studio’s most iconic characters will be waiting for you to take you on an all-new adventure that knocks it out of the (theme) park.