Ten 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.
On 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.
Main 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.
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.
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.
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.
Orlando’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?
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?
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. 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.