Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

1. The music in the boarding queue is just the main tune vamping on repeat.

Maybe maddening for the cast members having to work in the load area, but it’s just a brilliant touch. The premise of the ride is that you’re at the Chinese Theater to see a new Mickey Mouse short called Perfect Picnic, and then you’re taken inside the cartoon. The way that particular effect is done in the pre-show is so perfect that I won’t spoil it here. (And I wish I weren’t so convinced that it’ll be downgraded the moment Disney operations decides to apply around of cost-cutting, in the style of the Rock and Roller Coaster, with Joe Perry asking the decreasingly-present cast member Chris for his black Les Paul).

But the premise is completely maintained from the pre-show until the point you leave the ride. So as you’re boarding, it’s not as if the cartoon has stopped so that the real world necessities of loading a theme park ride can intervene. It’s as if the cartoon is still running, and it’s just waiting for the action to pick up again.

2. The ride vehicles dance.

The moment that made Pooh’s Hunny Hunt one of my all-time favorite attractions was when all the ride vehicles line up to first meet Tigger, and then they start bouncing along with the sets and the characters. There’s a similar moment in Runaway Railway, when a set of ride vehicles start dancing in unison.

Ostensibly, it’s not that sophisticated technologically — at least, once you’ve got the impossibly complex mechanics of a trackless ride system figured out — but it’s purely delightful. I think that’s a key difference between this ride and Rise of the Resistance, where the technology seems designed to be impressive and spectacular. Here, it’s a bunch of disparate pieces all designed to work together to be fun.

3. It uses both projection effects and animatronics, together.

At some point, Imagineering decided to go all-in on projection-mapping technology, and they’ve used it everywhere, from nighttime shows projected on buildings, to effects used within rides. When Runaway Railway was first announced, it seemed like this was going to be the most extreme application of the technology: an entire ride made of dark rooms onto which the scenes would be projected.

As it turns out, that was a super-reductive way to describe the ride. There are moments where the entire scene unfolds or reconfigures itself around you, and the effect is wonderful. One of my favorite scenes in any movie is from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, when Eddie Valiant first drives into Toontown, and the effect is similar to that, right down to the Sun singing along with Mickey and Minnie.

But it’s not all just animated on flats, there are animatronics judicially placed throughout. Most of them seemed to be simplified, rounded figures — as far as I could make out, Mickey & Minnie’s heads are just spheres — with all the facial features projected onto them. I’ve seen people describe this as if it were a short cut or a cop-out, but I think it’s the best way to get the style of the shorts into the real world. The characters in the shorts are adamantly flat and graphic; there’s a real sense that they don’t want to exist in 3D. (Unlike Richard Williams’s style in Roger Rabbit, where the lighting and shading were painstakingly designed to blend with live actors). It’s not a technical limitation; even if you went into the future and brought back the most advanced animatronic technology, it wouldn’t be as expressive or malleable as they want these characters to be.

So the ride, like the shorts, is all about style and fun, and it’s exactly as technologically “sophisticated” as it needs to be.

4. When the ride goes down, Mickey announces it with an exasperated, “Oh, boy….”

One of the times we tried to ride, the attraction went down while we were in the loading area, when I was still grinning from the pre-show cartoon. I’m used to hearing “playful spooks have interrupted our tour”-style in-character announcements, but this one is delivered by Mickey Mouse himself. And he starts with an exasperated, “Oh, boy…” that’s right out of the cartoons as he’s about to get into a predicament.

I haven’t found an actual cast list for the ride, but I’m assuming that Mickey Mouse is voiced by Chris Diamantopoulos, because he does the voice for the shorts the ride is based on. And he’s just perfect at it. Mickey’s back to being a real character again, after decades of being just a corporate logo. One of my favorite shorts is called Carried Away, and Mickey is more endearing and interesting in the first 30 seconds than he’s been in years. He’s still plucky and good-natured, but also a little manic and single-minded and often just weird.

So it could seem like such a small detail, but the line reading of that message is filled with so much “here’s another mess we’ve gotten into!” character. For that matter, Mickey’s line that’s part of the normal ride “we must’ve hit that track switch!” also captures some of that weird manic energy, perfectly. I’ve heard there are other malfunction messages that play on the ride that are also in character, funny, and just self-aware enough to be charming.

5. The art style is divisive.

Related to the above: for Mickey Mouse’s first theme park ride, replacing an opening-day “anchor” attraction at the center of the park, they chose an often-sloppy, exaggerated art style that a lot of people don’t like. Which is fantastic.

Really, this is about the cartoon shorts as much as the ride, but Disney has grown into such a synergy-driven behemoth that it’s almost impossible to take any one thing and look at it separately from the rest. Also, I love the shorts so much that I can’t say enough about them. (I’m still perpetually tempted to call them “new,” but since they started in 2013, that’s less and less accurate).

But the “Paul Rudish style” characters (for lack of a better term) work within those constraint while also doing everything they can to repair the damage of decades having to work within those constraints. Disney has spent most of my lifetime making Mickey and the other characters into clean, streamlined, universally-appealing versions of themselves, with the apparent goal of making something that couldn’t possibly offend anyone. And since they’re a global corporation, it couldn’t possibly offend anyone in the entire world.

As a result, they’ve been drained of any personality whatsoever. I remember a now-years-old “TV Funhouse” bit about the Disney Vault on Saturday Night Live that had kids commenting, “wait, Mickey Mouse is supposed to be funny?” And one of the earliest attractions at then-Disney-MGM Studios was an animation tour in which Robin Williams disguised himself as Mickey and said, “Hey, I’m a corporate symbol!” Mickey had been turned from a character into a logo. Full of nostalgia and brand recognition, signifying nothing.

They could’ve made a ride, or even a series of shorts, with the Fantasmic version of Mickey, and ended up with something that nobody hates, but nobody really loves, either. There’d be nothing to grab onto, nothing that sets it apart as a unique creative work with its own charm, instead of just a regurgitation of earlier unique works. Instead, they chose to make something distinctive.

Incidentally: I’ve seen the shorts compared to the work of John K, which I don’t think is accurate. They’re full of self-aware references, weird gross-out close-ups, and lots of cartoon nipples, but there’s little if any intent to actually subvert or deconstruct anything. The characters are still true to the personalities established for them almost a century ago. If anything, they’re “post-deconstructionist,” using much of the style and attitude of more subversive cartoons to do exactly the same things they were first created to do, back when they were busting ghosts or parodying Charles Lindbergh.

I have no idea how copyright law actually works, but it seems to me that this is the right way to preserve the characters, instead of the notorious years of attempts to change the laws to keep Mickey under Disney control. That approach backfired, making Mickey Mouse so generic that he’d become like Xerox, Kleenex, or Google. And as a side effect I never would’ve predicted: by being looser and more re-interpretive with the characters — including delightful touches like transporting them to Australia, Thailand, China, and Brazil, while giving them the accents or languages of the natives — they’ve shown that they are genuinely universal. Not with legal action, but with charm.