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Semper Absurda, 1971-1998

Save Mr. Toad\'s Wild Ride

Hey now, be fair. Everyone wants Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
- Jason Lee, Mallrats (1995)

Toad\'s last day, 7 September 1998Ten years ago yesterday, on a drizzly and humid Orlando morning, Disney fans gathered in Florida’s Magic Kingdom to bid farewell to one of the park’s original and most beloved attractions. Scores of fans and protesters, many with matching t-shirts, buttons and posters, took their last opportunity to see a favorite attraction and to voice their displeasure with the park’s management. On September 7, 1998, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride took its last daredevil excursion to nowhere in particular, and I was there.

The events leading up to and surrounding the demise of J. Thaddeus Toad and his adventures were a bellwether event for Disney fans; for many, they were the “shot heard ’round the world” that signaled the declaration of a war between fans and management that, in many ways, continues to this day. While the changes in corporate management that began with the ouster of Michael Eisner in 2005 have gone a long way towards healing this deep rift, many fans still harbor a deep level of distrust for management born of the Toad era and cemented by many even greater missteps to follow.

Toadi AcceleratioOn the heels of Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary in 1996, fan-management relations were still fairly cheery. There had been missteps – the grating new Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management show was looming on the horizon – but the property as a whole was still growing in fairly exciting ways. Yet, at the Magic Kingdom, there were areas of concern for long-term fans. Many of the out-of-the-way shops and attractions that gave the Magic Kingdom its unique texture were slowly disappearing in favor of more marketing-driven concepts. The park was slowly growing more homogenized, and guests were far less likely to discover the exotic hidden away in some unseen corner.

Mr. Toad\'s Wild Ride wait signMain Street was hit hard by these changes; in 1995, guests lost the fan-favorite Magic Shop and Penny Arcade along with the Main Street Bookstore in order to make way for the generic athletic apparel of the Main Street Athletic Company. The Main Street Cinema followed in 1998, becoming another run-of-the-mill merchandise location. Perhaps the first salvo in this battle was not recognized for what it was until much later; in 1994, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea went down for a rehab from which it never returned. One of the flagship attractions of Walt Disney World’s debut, and still very popular in 1994, the submarines were closed as a cost-cutting measure that was at the time unacknowledged by the Magic Kingdom management. The ride was “on hiatus” for years, as its once-scenic lagoon filled with garbage and decay.

It was in this uncertain atmosphere that rumors began to emerge in the fall of 1997 that Disney would be closing Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in order to add an attraction featuring Winnie the Pooh. Those who were not Disney fans at that time might not be aware how ubiquitous Pooh had become at the time; a huge marketing crush had made the portly bear more popular than ever and Disney didn’t miss a chance to cram him and his neurotic backwoods pals down the throats of consumers. One could easily compare the Pooh marketing of the era to today’s High School Musical overkill, and it only made it more maddening to fans to have the marketing darling of the day sweep in to replace a popular existing attraction.

Tell Pooh to go to Hell    Motormania is not a crime!

While the reach of the internet was far less vast in those days than it is today, the nascent Disney online fandom rallied to the cause and the centerpiece of fan efforts was Save Toad. The Save Toad movement, spearheaded by Miami-based Disney fan Jef Moscot, began a year of protest, distributing pins and t-shirts and mailing hundreds of postcards to Disney management. Press coverage followed, but as time passed Disney continued to maintain that no decision had been made to the fate of Mr. Toad.

The Final Toad-InThe crowd gathers for the final Toad-In

Despite these evasions, Disney finally revealed that Toad would close on Labor Day, 2008. The announcement, which came only a week before the closing, was designed to give fans only a short time to respond. But respond they did, gathering for a final Toad In on September 7th. To say the occasion was bittersweet was an understatement; fans gathered to discuss Toad memories and ride one last time under the constant oversight of a cadre of Magic Kingdom managers. Cast Members were stationed throughout the ride, hiding in the corners to ostensibly prevent crazed Toad fans from doing anything untowards. In the end, fans were ushered out of the park at closing time by cast members – some sympathetic and some oblivious – and Mr. Toad was no more.

Me on Mr. ToadAn unknown Toadite and myself on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We were the second-to-last car ever to witness the antics of Toad on that side of the attraction.

Why did the loss of this attraction strike such a chord with fans? Why did people travel from across the country to bid farewell to a ratherAsk me why Mickey is killing Mr. Toad simple and technologically outdated dark ride?

The original iteration of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride opened at Disneyland in 1955, only six years after Disney’s animated retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, debuted in theaters. The film adaptation, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, never became a particularly beloved entry in the Disney canon, which makes it all the more peculiar that when building Walt Disney World sixteen years later the Imagineers decided to revisit Mr. Toad. This was not always the plan; originally the “funny ride” slot in the Fantasyland lineup was intended to feature a ride based on the story of Ichabod Crane and the legend of Sleepy Hollow. In the end, it was decided that Disneyland’s dark rides would be re-created in Florida to save some development money and thus Toad came to Walt Disney World.

The Town Square scene in Mr. Toad\'s Wild RideOrlando’s version of Toad was expansive; it was far larger than its counterpart at Disneyland. In fact, the attraction was built with two tracks that, unlike any other ride in Disney history, presented completely different show experiences. And what experiences – Toad presented a psychedelic melange of scenes that took us from Toad Hall to gypsy camps, from prison to Hell itself! It was inhabited by a motley crew of woodland creatures, villainous weasels, gunslinging British bobbies and buxom barmaids. The beer flowed, the bullets flew, and the portrait of Rapunzel hung on the wall, her modesty barely concealed by her flowing locks. It was quite a ride.

And yes, the ride ended with guests being struck by an oncoming locomotive and being sent to Hell, where a brightly painted Satan loomed overhead. What other ride at Disney could claim such a dramatic finale?

Toad in HellYou don’t see that in Toy Story Mania

It made little to no sense, even if you had seen the film on which it was based, and it was magnificent. There was a sense of reckless insanity and borderline seediness to it, and as a child one wavered between horror and bewilderment. Where will modern children gain knowledge of Edwardian barrooms and the perils of the horseless carriage? What ride contains anything approaching Rolly Crump’s unhinged color scheme or character design as distinct as the oddball denizens of Toad’s London – the sneering weasels and sleazy mustachioed barman Winky?

Mr. Toad load area

Without Toad, Fantasyland is far less exciting and the Magic Kingdom is poorer for it. The ride had an edge without trying to be “edgy” – as a child you had a feeling you were seeing something a bit over your head.The Great Green Hunter Surely you weren’t meant to sneak a peek at that buxom barmaid – yet there she was!

As stated, the demise of Toad began the long war between Disney fans and management. Soon after came the arrival of Journey into YOUR Imagination, something that even those fans who refused to lament Toad’s departure could not countenance. Horizons, a masterpiece of epic Imagineering, closed soon after and began its slow decay. The real megaton blast in this conflict came when Eisner and acolyte Paul Pressler opened their “masterpiece”, California Adventure, in 2001. This time not only did fans stay away, but the general public did too. The ill will engendered over the previous several years finally came home to roost for Eisner, who was pushed out of office in 2005 partially by a fan and stockholder revolt led by Roy Disney.

While it remains to be seen whether current management will truly rebuild the burnt bridges with fans, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see another attraction as unique as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Its sheer madcap atmosphere and bizarre design sensibilities seem unique to its era, and it’s definitely not something that would make it through the gauntlet of focus groups and marketing flacks that new attractions must survive. Here’s to you, J. Thaddeus – you are missed.

Evil Pooh on a rampage

The best online history of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride can be found, not surprisingly, at Mike Lee’s Widen Your World. Revisit the ride at YouTube. Finally, be sure to visit what must be the most impressive Disney fan project on the entire internet – the Virtual Toad project. It’s absolutely amazing.

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8 comments to Semper Absurda, 1971-1998

  • I def. think that the closing of 20K was the start of the “Disney doesn’t care” era. Mr. Toad may have been the most publicized of the battles at the start, but we also have Journey into Your Imagination and Tiki Room Under New Management as Disney’s Revenge on You – you dared to tell them you don’t like it and now they’ll show you that you’re an idiot. Along for the ride with those two attractions is a fascinating subtext from somebody in WDI shouting “WE’RE IN HELL!!!!” where the traditional qualities of Imagineering fight those “empty suits”. For a few minutes, for example, Tiki Room UNM is a pretty interesting metaphor if you cast Iago as management, Zazu as Imagineering and that big tiki goddess as an actualized Spirit of Tradition. Weirdly but accurately, nobody actually wins.

    I think it’s interesting that Mr. Toad is still a rallying point. I’m still pretty pissed about it, although truthfully it’s the least of the late 90’s – early 2000’s which really removed a part of me. But even today, on the date of the Magic Kingdom cast orientation, Disney still trots out excuses for the closure of the attraction. In case you’re wondering, the excuse is actually: nobody has ever owned a Mr. Toad stuffed animal. Yes, it’s true, which they then go on to say that this means that *nobody cared*. I had to do this stupid class twice, by the way, and since I knew the routine on the second time I answered positive to every question they threw our way that would possibly establish a reasonable example until finally the guide had to give up and say “well, you’re in the minority”. They also usually make fun of Dreamflight on this tour and since it’s not appropriate to shout “FUCK YOU!!!!!!!” at co-workers I had to sit and fume both times. If Mr. Toad wasn’t important, why is Disney still apologizing ten years later?

    That “hidden” Mr. Toad at Mansion, by the way, is now so famous that it’s pointed out on Keys to the Kingdom. Which means that it is the Magic Kingdom’s *offical* apology. Gah that makes me so mad!

    two points:
    Disney “cloned” the attractions from 1955 Disneyland in the sense that 20,000 Leagues is a “clone” of the rickety old Submarine Voyage. They made crude first attempts into real full bodied attractions, and as such I’m not sure “cloned” is the appropriate term. They reinvented the attractions, I’d say.

    I’m pretty sure that the “scary” ride in WDI’s original plan was to be Sleeping Beauty in place of Snow White, Mary Poppins in place of Peter Pan (for the ‘pretty’ ride) and Ichabod Crane in the place of Mr. Toad (for the ‘funny’ ride). I’m still convinced that there’s a great, sinister, out of control Ichabod Crane dark ride waiting to happen.

  • I do think that 20K was the start of this era but we just didn’t know it at the time. Fans weren’t as well informed as they are today and Disney maintained the pretext for years that the ride would be returning. Even by the time of the Toad closure in 1998 they wouldn’t officially comment on plans for 20K. By that time, though, I think we all pretty much guessed what was going on and the trifecta of Tiki, Toad, and JIYI really made clear the new agenda. As you say, it was Disney’s Revenge on You – I was constantly amazed as they essentially tried to rub your nose in it if you harbored any nostalgia whatever. The tactics they began to use – the stealth closings and contemptuous P.R. mouthpieces (I remember you, Zenia Mucha!) only made it clear that they knew what they were doing when they stuck it to us. I was boggled at the time – after all, what do Disney parks thrive on if not for nostalgia? Now you’re going to start mocking your own fans for their love of your product? What madness is that?

    Tiki Room UNM as a metaphor for the creative situation is intriguing. In the end, no one dies but no one’s really happy.

    Interesting that they’re still so defensive internally about Toad, even after all this time. One would think that anything that requires such desperate defensiveness would be acknowledged, eventually, as a mistake. One of the key points the Toad campaign made back in the day was that even if they wished to buy Toad merch, Disney didn’t offer any. The stores were overflowing with Pooh plush but there wasn’t as much as a Toad pin available. Disney was creating their own narrative and a self-fulfilling prophecy – looks like they’re still trying to flog that story ten years later.

    It’s interesting how Toad remains such a prominent part of park lore – you mention the Toad statue at the Mansion. I think it’s because the Wild Ride, for all of its low-tech nature, was one of those rare attractions that enters the lexicon even for non-park fans. Like small world or the teacups, people who have not visited a Disney park most likely have heard of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The odd place it occupies in pop culture made it even more confusing for me that they’d close it, as opposed to an attraction like Snow White which, although based on a far more famous film, is much less known as a ride.

    Strangely enough, the Toad closing wears more on me as time goes by. At the time, it was the hubris of management that most irritated me. Of that era of closures, Horizons, Motion, Imagination and the Tiki Room were all far more dear to me than Toad. But as the years go by and I reflect on how truly bizarre a ride it was (something, I think, that might be lost on someone as a child), I’m really irritated it’s gone. Especially as the Disneyland version lacks the double-track feature.

    Your point on the “cloning” of attractions is well taken. If I were less scrupulous I’d edit the post as it was a poor choice of words and didn’t convey the difference between the 1955 originals and their 1971 adaptations. If anything, Disneyland cloned them right back with the 1983 Fantasyland redo. Curse my inaccurate phraseology!

    I will edit my “scary”/”funny” switcheroo… I had all the attraction pairings correct in my mind but switched their attributes. As much as I loved Toad and love Pan, I still regret that they didn’t follow through with their original plan. I would pay cash money to see that Sleepy Hollow dark ride. They could have slapped that into Disney’s America… yep. I still fantasize from time to time that they’ll put it in Liberty Square, although the laws of physics might have to break down to fit it and the Hall of Presidents in – and I ain’t giving up my Hall of Presidents!

    It would be something to see, though…

  • What the heck, I took out “cloning” too. Who cares about scruples – I hate being inaccurate. And what the internet don’t see, the internet don’t know…

  • I once designed a way to fit an Ichabod Crane ride into the Columbia Harbour House. The entrance would have been in the Yankee Trader space, would go upstairs and into the CHH “overpass”, then back downstairs. There would also have been a big artificial hill built along the CHH’s southern wall into the space currently occupied by the market. It would be a two-level dark ride with roller coaster style drops. The problem is that I probably made it scarier than Disney would’ve liked. It would also have been VERY tight, even with the planned excavation inside the CHH about eight feet down and the removal of the drop ceilings into the attic space. It still had some design graces I liked. I figured out exactly which windows had a clear view right to the Mansion and that’s where I put Brom Bones at the Van Tassle party:

    “So when you’re riding home tonight / make for the bridge with all your might! / He’ll be down in the hollow, there / he needs your head – look out, beware!”

    It also had an outside portion and all sorts of other stuff. It was a fun excercise but in the end it would make the area into a congested nightmare. I did come up with one idea that I liked, however, which was to make that area of Liberty Square into a constant fall atmosphere by putting up a number of fake trees with autumn colors. They’d get deader and deader as you got closer to the Mansion.

    The saddest thing about Toad is that Disney doesn’t have that sort of balls anymore, to make something so recklessly “adult”. And I don’t mean “adult” in the sense of Alien Encounter but adult in the sense that you had to be a pretty mature person to understand all the absurdities and wickedly strange jokes littered along the ride path. Yet it wasn’t once cheap or postmodern – it was honestly, just, itself.

    You know oftentimes I wonder if the public or the company that runs it actually deserves Disney. I was forwarded some outside-the-attraction WDW research poll responses at Mansion, Pirates and Jungle and people’s responses to those masterpieces are pretty depressing. In the positive column most people just said “it’s a classic blah blah” or “it’s air conditioned”. In the negative column was banal stuff like “it stopped halfway through” and a good deal of “it’s pretty old” “it was boring we need more motion” etc. That sort of stuff pisses me off more than anything. I used to announce “the philistines are coming!” when rope drop happened and we were stationed back outside the attraction a few hundred feet away. I haven’t been proven wrong yet…

  • Hehe I had imagined an attraction using the current Sleepy Hollow area at the entrance of Liberty Square and sticking the show building into the berm between it and Fantasyland. I can’t recall what’s in the utilidors there, and it’s probably something important, but it’s my fantasy so I can do whatever I want.

    You’re right about the “adult” nature of the ride and the fact that it’s doubtful they’d do something that wasn’t instantly obvious and accessible to any conceivable yahoo who might stumble through the gates. A few attractions from Phase I had this indescribable air of oddness that maybe – just maybe – you weren’t completely in on the joke.

  • ericpaddon

    May 1993. The last month it was impossible to experience Disney World where all of the vital elements of its golden age was still intact.

    First they came for the Hall Of Presidents with its addle-headed PC script rewrite and the criminal removal of Royal Dano’s Lincoln speech.

    Then the senseless closing of 20K for no reason whatsoever other than it seems that cast members of the day were too lazy to want to keep operating it (remember that story about them sabotaging Ovitz’s visit to see if it should be reopened?)

    Then came the misfire of the Tomorrowland makeover, beginning a process of turning that section of the park into a giant, dumbed down shell of its old self.

    Then came the loss of every good Future World attraction in EPCOT. World Of Motion, Horizons, Journey Into Imagination, and yes the old Universe Of Energy which was a much unfairly maligned show simply because it tried to treat the subject matter with some intelligence instead of smart-ass humor from trendy celebs of the moment.

    Dreamflight, a perfectly good successor to If You Had Wings, falls victim to the Toonization of Tomorrowland.

    The Tiki Room gets made over to insult all those who enjoyed the old attraction.

    And to cap this all off we lose Toad, the greatest of the Fantasyland dark rides for reasons rooted in pure greed, so pure that they took a two track ride and made it a one track ride with a gift shop (in the tradition of all the other ones shoved down our throat on Main Street).

    Taking out the Skyway a year later to make way for two abandoned stations as eyesores on the landscape for the next decade seemed like the last picking of the carcass clean by the vultures who IMO totally destroyed the essence of what WDW and EPCOT had been for so long. What was lost were attractions that with the singular exception of overly creaky Mission To Mars were ones that had the ability to keep withstanding the test of time amidst the addition of new attractions. ESPECIALLY Toad.

  • Well said! Toad was a lo-fi classic, and I really miss it. I also miss every other freakin’ thing you mentioned. A lot was lost in those years…

  • Sam

    Hi i know ur all toad fans but i LOVE winnie the POOH!!!!! I feel bad though because that was my mom’s fav ride when she was a kid…..but did you SEE the refurbs the did to POOH??? ITS SOOOO KOOL!

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