Last time I had a blast sharing all of the exciting ride news to come out of the D23 Expo. Everything from Guardians of the Galaxy to Ratatouille to Star Wars and more is coming to Walt Disney World over the next few years. If you missed that episode you will definitely want to click here and check it out so you know what to expect. With the announcements of the new rides, we learned it will be time to say goodbye to a couple of others. The Great Movie Ride and Ellen’s Energy Adventure will be going away to make room for new rides in their respective buildings.
Another ride many feared would be retired is The Tomorrowland Speedway. With the TRON Lightcycle coaster coming to Tomorrowland it was thought this land’s oldest ride might get parked in the garage for good. Fortunately, it appears that won’t be the case! The Tomorrowland Speedway has some more tread left on its tires after all. However, as we will learn today, fears of this ride losing ground to new experiences is not unfounded. You may think this classic Disney ride hasn’t changed over the years, but that is only partly true. Before I jump the gun though, let’s get started with our…
Know before you go essential facts:
- The show is located in the Magic Kingdom
- Fastpass+ is offered
- The fright factor is 0 out of 5
- Guests must be 32” tall to ride and you must be 54” tall to ride alone
- Rider Switch is Offered
- Guests must transfer from a wheelchair/ECV
- For safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not ride.
- Children under age 7 years must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older.
- The ride is 3:50 minutes long
- The ride opened on October 1, 1971
Racers, start your engines! This 4-minute long, gas powered, 7.5 mph hour race around The Tomorrowland Speedway has been introducing young riders to the road for almost 50 years. It is not the most thrilling ride in the Magic Kingdom, but it may be the most popular “rite of passage” ride. It takes parents back to the time when they were kids themselves. It is hard to forget the feeling of sitting behind the wheel of a brightly colored race car for the first time. Clumsily bumping a car around the track while giving their parents whiplash is a fond memory many can’t wait to pass onto their own kids. The nostalgia of sharing the experience is what fuels this ride today. That’s pretty easy to do with a long history dating all the way back to Disneyland.
Photo – Disney
To really understand the roots of this ride, you have to understand the spirit of another. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, also located in Tomorrowland, is the show that really encapsulates Walt’s philosophy. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” is the Sherman Brothers song that plays as the Carousel’s theme. The brothers were inspired by Walt himself, and thought of the song as Walt’s theme as much as that of the show. Walt Disney believed in the power of progress. He believed that there really was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day. Tomorrow would bring about another invention or idea that would inspire someone to make the world a better place.
When Disneyland was being built there was just such an idea taking root in California. The idea was called a highway. Yep, that’s right, a highway. From today’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine a highway being a new concept. In reality though, highways were so new at the time of Disneyland, there wasn’t even one available for the construction crews to use when building the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Of course, Walt knew about this new super road that allowed people to get from point A to point B faster than before. He not only knew about it, he believed it was another point of progress that would make tomorrow big and beautiful.
Photo – Disney
So, he wanted to share this idea and show it off in his new park. To do this he created Autopia, which is short for Automobile Utopia. The new ride would not only exhibit the features of a miniature highway system, but would also serve as a training ground for young kids. Of course, Walt’s idea was to teach them how to drive responsibly, but as he soon found out, kids think a little differently. Walt’s team started testing the ride with 36 cars and their own children. Within 10 days there were only 6 cars left! The kids found that crashing the cars into each other was much more fun than driving responsibly through the mini highway of Autopia. To account for this adolescent propensity, the team installed spring loaded bumpers around the entire vehicle.
If you have been on the Tomorrowland Speedway before, you know there is also a guide rail that runs the entire track, with each car straddling the rail. That wasn’t a part of Autopia until 1965. Until then kids could still drive their cars from one side of the track to the other and bump into the curbs at will. The spring loaded bumpers helped limit the damage to the vehicles but it didn’t take long to see another measure needed to be put in place. The guide rail was added in Disneyland, and by the time the Magic Kingdom was built, the Speedway there started with the same system. When you ride the Speedway today, you will discover the rail is not very forgiving and easy to hit with the slightest turn of the steering wheel. Very young drivers will likely bounce back and forth off the rail the majority of the race. This can be rather hilarious to watch from afar, but leaves parents in the passenger seat with a stiff neck by the end of the journey. If only those kids of the 60’s would have been more responsible drivers, we might be able to enjoy this ride today without the whiplash!
Photo – Disney
Well, rails or not, the ride proved to be very popular at Disneyland. There was no question that this would be an opening day ride at Walt Disney World. By 1971 though, the idea of highways and the interstate system was old hat. This was no longer a technology of tomorrow. In truth, it probably didn’t belong in Tomorrowland, even back in 1971. Still, this part of the park had the best real estate for such a ride and it was so popular that it couldn’t be left out. A new theme was needed though, so the Imagineers branded the Magic Kingdom version the Grand Prix Raceway.
Along with a new name, the ride was themed to look like an international raceway more than the domestic highway of Autopia. This original version was sponsored by Goodyear tires and you could see the influence on both the ride’s main sign and the cars themselves. If you look up when climbing in or out of your car at the start/end of the ride, you will see a large enclosed viewing area above the track. This was originally used by Goodyear executives to entertain guests and show off the ride.
Two years into the Grand Prix Raceway, Disney decided to expand the track slightly. Only a year later, it would be shortened back a bit. After this it would sit unchanged until 1987. At that time, Disney wanted to celebrate the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse by creating an entire land dedicated to the brand’s icon. Mickey’s Birthdayland was constructed in a previously untouched portion of the park. The only ride in this area was the Grand Prix Raceway. In order to make room for Mickey, the track for the Raceway was almost cut in half. Mickey’s Birthdayland opened in 1988 and would later go on to be known as Mickey’s Toontown Fair. Today, it has been reimagined to be Storybook Circus.
Before Storybook Circus came along though, the Raceway underwent other changes starting in 1996. The first change was primarily cosmetic as the entire area of Tomorrowland got a facelift starting in 1994. When the transformation was complete, the ride unveiled a new name, the Tomorrowland Speedway. This name didn’t last long though, as Disney partnered with Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1999. New elements were added to the track to give the ride the same feel as the real Indy track. When this theme refresh was complete, the ride’s name changed to the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway.
A decade later, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sponsorship ended and the ride went back to simply being the Tomorrowland Speedway. Today, the ride remains largely unchanged and unsponsored. The last change to the ride came in 2012 when Dumbo the Flying Elephant was moved and expanded into the Storybook Circus area. That move caused the track to be shortened a few hundred feet to its current length of 0.4 miles.
The ride itself is very simple. There is room in each car for two people, although they seem designed for one adult and one child. Two adults can be a tight squeeze so plan accordingly. Once inside you buckle up, wait for the car in front of you to go and then push the pedal to the metal! There is only a single petal for acceleration, which is located in the middle of the car. This allows parents sitting in the passenger seat the opportunity to control the gas when smaller children can’t reach. One of the most important things to know about this ride is how the brakes work. Because there is only one pedal, any time you let off the gas your call will brake. It’s very easy to spot new riders as you will see their car jolting forward and then stopping suddenly. The jolt of acceleration causes many to react by letting off the gas only to discover this applies the brakes! The best thing to do is to push the gas pedal down and keep it there for the entire ride. Your leg will probably be tired by the end, but your ride will be much smoother.
As mentioned before, there are guide rails that run the entire track. The raceway has four lanes and your car will be locked into its lane, so no need to worry about bumping into the side of someone or something. You can bump into someone from behind if they aren’t doing a good job of staying on the gas, or having a hard time steering. No matter how hard you try it is almost impossible to steer your car around the track without bumping into the central rail several times. Those letting young kids take the wheel may feel like they are never not bumping into the guide rail. Try to keep the steering wheel relatively still and turn less than you think necessary to navigate the course. If you can remember to keep your foot on the gas and manage to steer successfully, this can be a very pleasant ride through a beautiful portion of the park.
Finally, it is important to understand the dual height requirement of this ride. All riders must be at least 32” tall to ride. If you meet the minimum height requirement you can drive the car. However, those under 54” are not allowed to ride alone. So, kids between the 32”-54” will need someone over 54” tall to ride along with them.
Now that you know the history and how the ride works, let’s talk about who should work this ride into their touring plan. I think the ride of today is a shell of Walt’s original version of Autopia, but it is not without its own charm. This is probably not what anyone thinks of when they think of an Automobile Utopia, but it very well may be their first memory of driving a real car. For that reason alone, it remains popular with parents of young kids.
What I like most is that it offers a tactile experience hard to find on many more modern rides. There are no 3D glasses, motion simulators, or motion picture soundtracks playing in the background. You hear the actual roar of the cars and smell the gas powered engines as you approach the raceway. You feel your tires hugging the concrete as you move around the track. You see the light changing through the trees as you wind your way through the park. In this way, the ride transports you back to a simpler time. Not only will you be reminded of what it was like to drive a car as a kid, but you might just feel like you are visiting Walt Disney World on a sunny day in 1971.
So, if you want to introduce your kid to their first driving experience, or just feel like you are back behind the wheel for the first time yourself, I think this ride is worthy of your time. It won’t score high marks with teens that have started driving their own cars, or with older guests that find it hard to climb in and out of the tiny cars. Also, this is one of the loudest and hottest queues you will find in all of Walt Disney World. The queue is all outdoors and is only covered in a few spots. On top of the regular Florida heat, you can feel the heat of the cars reflecting off the dark raceway below. With the roar of the engines only a few feet away, this isn’t the best place to have a conversation either. Due to the noise and temperature, this is a good candidate for FastPass+.
If you want to save your FastPass+ for bigger, more thrilling rides, I recommend you catch this one very early during the day. You can also opt for a late night ride, but I think you miss something when you ride at night. I love to walk through Tomorrowland all lit up at night, but due to the location of the Speedway and the fact the track sits lower than the walkway, it is hard to see the neon lights above. That will change once the new TRON ride is open nearby, but for now I would recommend an early morning ride.
Well, that wraps up our look at the Tomorrowland Speedway! After all that talk last week of new high tech rides coming to the parks over the next few years I thought it would be fun to visit a classic Disney ride today. I love that we still have some of these original rides from when the park first opened. It gives Walt Disney World such a rich history and diversity of experiences. I hope you had as much fun as I did today, because we might just visit another classic Disney experience next week! What will that be? Come back next time to find out!
Thank you so, so much for joining me today. I know there are so many ways to discover the magic of Disney and it means so much to me that you have taken this time to listen to our podcast. If we did a good job, I hope you will tell a friend. Our goal is to help everyone have the best time possible when they get the opportunity to enjoy Walt Disney World. Thank you again for listening. I hope you have a great week and remember to make each day a ride worth taking!
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