How would you like to ride inside a Mickey Mouse cartoon? You can, aboard Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the groundbreaking attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, one of the four theme parks at the Walt Disney World resort in Florida. Using a variety of attraction, storytelling, and theatrical design techniques (and a fair amount of Disney pixie dust), the Imagineers have conjured a wildly imaginative and engaging E-Ticket experience that is among the highlights at the park.
Introduction to the Ride
You should have no problem finding Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. It’s located inside the ornate Chinese Theatre that stands in the center of the Studios park and is its icon. Past visitors know that the building used to house The Great Movie Ride, a beloved dark ride that was closed in 2017 to make way for the Mickey-themed attraction, which opened in 2020.
The theater helps establish the story. Audiences are invited to attend the world premiere of the latest Mickey cartoon short, “Perfect Picnic.” After making their way through the lobby, small groups of guests are led into one of a series of pre-show rooms to stand and watch the animated featurette. It all starts innocently enough with Mickey and his sweetheart, Minnie Mouse, getting ready to embark on a trip to Runnamuck Park for a leisurely picnic. They load up Mickey’s roadster and take off, unaware that Pluto is along for the ride in the car’s trunk.
Along the way, they encounter Engineer Goofy at the helm of a train. The perfect picnic gets waylaid when, in typical cartoon fashion, calamity derails everything and, literally, blows a hole in the theater’s screen. The effect is done so seamlessly that it left us scratching our heads in admiration and disbelief.
Having broken the screen, Goofy breaks the fourth wall and invites audience members to hop aboard his train. Guests walk through the hole in the screen, which serves as a portal into Mickey’s cartoon world.
In the loading station, guests enter the ride vehicles, which appear to be train cars on a track. From his engine, Goofy talks to his passengers and announces that he will be leading them on a relaxing ride through the park. Mickey and Minnie drive alongside the train in their convertible. Just as Goody rhetorically asks, “What could possibly go wrong?” (foreshadowing the inevitable theme park attraction storyline catastrophe), Mickey triggers a track switch.
This is where the runaway railway part of the experience kicks in. The railroad cars separate from the engine and from each other and proceed through the attraction on their own paths. The scenes that follow include a jaunt through the painted desert of the Old West, a stroll along a carnival midway, a retreat into a tropical paradise, a dive underwater, and more.
All the while, Mickey and Minnie desperately try to save the railcar passengers from one potential disaster after another, including a precipitous drop down a waterfall, an exploding volcano, and an ominous, giant industrial stamping machine that threatens to obliterate the railcars–and its guests–in a factory.
Why does the action proceed from the Wild West to the tropics to an urban cityscape in willy nilly fashion? The sequence of events surely doesn’t follow a logical narrative flow. But, that’s the point. Guests have entered an animated alternate universe where the rules of cohesion and reality have been thrown out the window.
“It’s zany, cartoon logic,” explains Kevin Rafferty, a veteran Disney Imagineer and executive creative director for the attraction. “Forget the laws of physics. It’s one surprise after another.”
The surprises do come at a furious clip, with all kinds of details packed into every scene. It’s virtually impossible to take it all in during one ride. And since the vehicles take unique paths through the show building, passengers will see different elements depending on which car and in which seat they find themselves. “It’s 10 pounds of showmanship in a five-pound bag,” is how Rafferty describes the frenetic action.
Could You Handle Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway?
Yes, the action is frantic. And yes, passengers are aboard a “runaway” railway. But this is not a high-thrill attraction like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror or even a moderate-thrill one such as the Magic Kingdom’s own runaway railway ride, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It is nothing like a roller coaster. The vehicles themselves move at a relatively slow pace; it’s the action that takes place all around the vehicles that is frenzied.
On TripSavvy’s 10-point thrill ride scale, where 1 is “wimpy” and 10 is “yikes,” we give Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway a 1.5, mostly for the simulated waterfall plunge and the slightly menacing factory scene (both of which are really more cartoon-silly than scary). In fact, there is no height requirement for the attraction. While virtually anybody could ride, very young children may find the cacophony a bit unsettling.
Behind the Magic
To pull off the E-Ticket ride, the Imagineers incorporated a number of techniques, some tried and true, and some more cutting edge. Like any good attraction (and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is a very good attraction), the technology and trickery largely fade into the background and allow the story and the experience to shine. But there is some very cool technology at play.
For example, Runaway Railway uses trackless ride vehicles, a trend featured in a number of recent attractions, such as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Rather than following a set course along a track, the vehicles are individually programmed to move through the scenes. Each vehicle can move in any direction, accelerate or decelerate, pivot, move in tandem with or independently from other vehicles, and perform other functions. They help convey a sense of runaway railcars that have veered off course and are careening, albeit at a fairly gentle clip, haphazardly from scene to scene. Through their idiosyncratic movements, the expressive vehicles become characters in their own right. In one scene, for instance, the cars enter Daisy Duck’s dance studio and proceed to waltz and conga in time to the music.
Perhaps the most intriguing innovation used in the attraction is digital projection mapping. The technique, whereby static and video media are projected onto dimensional surfaces, has been used for a number years at parks and elsewhere, mostly for grand-scale nighttime presentations. Disney has been wowing its guests with shows that combine projection mapping along with pyrotechnics, lasers, and other effects for shows using buildings such as the Chinese Theater at Disneys Hollywood Studios and Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom as the focal point. Projection mapping has also been used, somewhat sparingly, on attractions such as Expedition Everest.
“Of all the attractions that I’ve helped to bring to life in parks all around the world, it’s a bold statement, but I want to say, this is my very favorite." – Kevin Rafferty, Imagineer
We believe that Runaway Railway, however, marks the first time that projection mapping has been used to such great extent. Rafferty has described the effect as “two-and-a-half-D,” in which the imagery pops without the use of 3-D glasses. The hand-drawn animation is projected onto dimensional surfaces which envelops guests in the cartoon world. Massive sets are bathed in 360-degrees of lushly rendered animation, which is quite spectacular. In a startling display of projection mapping’s capabilities, some of the rooms completely (and “magically”) transform from one scene into another.
Sound and music play an important role in the attraction. The chirpy theme song, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now,” is an instant classic. Rafferty says that all of the sound effects were created by hand in the classic style of Disney’s original animated shorts. Many of the effects were recorded using equipment invented by the studio’s pioneering sound legend, Jimmy Macdonald (who also succeeded Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey Mouse). The tri-tone whistle used for Runaway Railway’s train is the actual whistle used in “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey’s 1928 debut cartoon.
The attraction also uses black-light paint, props, theatrical lighting, fog, and a host of other elements in attraction designers’ bag of tricks to help tell the story. Animatronic versions of Mickey, Minnie, and others are employed too, although the effect of the 2-D video that is rear-projected onto the characters’ 3-D faces is a bit clunky and doesn’t quite ring true.
Why Does Mickey Look Like That?
The Mickey featured in the attraction is not exactly the same mouse ambassador that guests can meet in the parks. His look as well as the aesthetic of the entire ride is modeled after the “Mickey Mouse” cartoon shorts that Disney Television Animation has been airing for a few years. The “Fab Five” characters featured in the shorts and the attraction draw inspiration from the studio’s design of the late 1920s and early 1930s, complete with the distinctive “pie-eyes,” but demonstrate a modern sensibility.
“This is a timeless kind of Mickey. Disney pushes forward to the future, but relies heavily on the past,” says Jeff Kurtti, an author and Disney historian. As with the early cartoons, the characters are “put in a lot more situations of peril and adventure. But it’s also a brand new Mickey because there’s an irreverence about it,” Kurtti adds.
If you are not familiar with the new cartoons (or even if you are), you can view a hilarious example of one in the new Mickey Shorts Theater located at the Studios park, just around the corner from Runaway Railway. The theater presents “Vacation Fun,” which combines travel-themed clips from the series with new footage created for the short.
Tips to Experience Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
The e-ticket attraction is sure to be wildly popular, so try to score advance Fastpass+ reservations for it. If you are unfamiliar with the process, you should read up about the My Disney Experience website and app.
Even if you can’t get a reservation, Runaway Railway appears to have huge capacity, so standby lines should never get too long and they should move relatively quickly. You could beat at least some of the crowds by staying at a Disney World hotel and taking advantage of Extra Magic Hours, times before or after normal operating hours that Disney’s Hollywood Studios would be open exclusively for hotel guests.
If you do find yourself in a long line, consider downloading the Play Disney Parks app to your mobile phone. You could while away the time by challenging your park mates with the special trivia packs about Mickey and the gang that are inspired by the attraction.
Rafferty, the Imagineer, has worked on some pretty heady Disney park projects through the years, including Toy Story Mania, Test Track, MuppetVision 3D, and Radiator Springs Racers. “Of all the attractions that I’ve helped to bring to life in parks all around the world, it’s a bold statement, but I want to say, this is my very favorite,” he says.
A bold statement indeed. But Runaway Railway is quite a bold–and wonderful–attraction.