A TRIP TO TOY STORY LAND SENDS A FIVE-YEAR-OLD’S IMAGINATION TO INFINITY AND BEYOND.
MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD SON, JACK, DOESN’T CARE FOR AMUSEMENT park rides, even the tamest of roller coasters. I discover this, inconveniently, in Florida on a muggy day in late June. My wife, Jack and I are here for the opening of Walt Disney World’s new Toy Story Land, a real-life incarnation of the beloved movie franchise about a boy and his ragtag collection of sentient toys. It’s a first visit to Orlando for all of us, but I went to California’s Disneyland when I was not much older than Jack and I’m excited to relive the experience through his eyes.
We’re all excited, in fact. Just as I was, and just as Toy Story’s boy hero Andy is, Jack is a sensitive kid with an active imagination. As soon as he sees the looming, six-metre statue of Buzz Lightyear, the franchise’s most iconic character, he practically runs into his arms, yelling, “I love this place!” I’m not far behind
him. Like the rest of Walt Disney World, Toy Story Land is an instantly captivating, candy-coloured, eye-popping, pop-culture utopia. While there are many lessons to be found in the Toy Story universe – love trumps hate, loyalty never dies – the most important may be this: Imagination is all-powerful. It can provide hope, make change possible, conjure whole worlds.
The relentlessly imaginative design of Toy Story Land takes this literally. The 11-acre park, the largest expansion in the history of Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, plops you right in Andy’s backyard. The twist? You, the visitor, feel as though you’ve been shrunk to the dimensions of a toy and are surrounded by the familiar playthings of the movie, all supersized: Sheriff Woody and Buzz, as well as Rex the dinosaur, Slinky Dog, Jessie, the Green Army Men and everyone’s favourite curmudgeonly spud, Mr. Potato Head.
The park is geared toward kids of all ages, though tweens will likely get the most out of it. I propose to Jack that we start off gently on the rides, with Toy Story Mania!, long one of the park’s most popular attractions, but he doesn’t budge. Truthfully, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – I haven’t been on anything more challenging than a Ferris wheel in decades. In the spirit of journalistic rigour, however, I brave it. And Toy Story Mania!, a 4-D, ride-along carnival shooting game, is a charmer indeed. Lining up is a hoot – the entrance to the ride is, of course, decorated with yet more toys, including a
colossal View-Master Peter Pan reel – as is the ride itself, even as a grown-up, even alone. It feels like a giant water-gun fight on a hot summer’s day. Equally entertaining is the Slinky Dog Dash, a family-friendly ride that, midway, pauses dramatically before a “power booster” relaunches you through a bunch of rings and lighting effects.
Jack’s reluctance aside, there’s plenty to amuse and delight him. The whole park is supposed to have been created by Andy, and there are toys and games Frankensteined together, others half-finished and Andy’s materials – immense Elmer’s glue bottles, Tinkertoys, recycled cardboard boxes, crayons – strewn all over. The detail is extraordinary, almost uncanny, from the giant Andy footprints that dot the pathways to the enormous Christmas lights strung above our heads.
At one point, when Jack and I pause for a break, it takes us a second to realize the bench we’re sitting on is built of jumbo Popsicle sticks, each one a different colour. I realize that we haven’t just been miniaturized, but this topsy-turvy take on proportions leads me to think about how the world looks from the perspective of a child.
Like other Disney-Pixar films, the Toy Story movies have expertly threaded the entertainment needle, enchanting both kids (who love the toys coming to life) and grown-ups (who can revel in the nostalgia, wit and increasingly sophisticated animation). Toy Story Land neatly transposes this multigenerational quality to the real world – adults can bask in the Gen-X-friendly details of the park’s design while younger visitors can get their thrills on the rides. Well, some younger visitors, anyway.
Taking a kid who doesn’t like rides all the way to Walt Disney World felt at first a bit like taking a vegan to an all-you-can-eat McDonald’s. It’s not until our third day at the park, when I finally come to terms with the fact that forced amusement is no amusement at all, that I actually start to relax.
Besides, Jack makes his own fun. He tries to climb the various oversize objects. Thrilled that every bathroom in the park has sinks that are his height, he keeps washing his hands. He takes paper and markers out of his backpack and draws Woody and Buzz. He invites strangers to the talent show he’s organizing the next day. (There is no talent show.) The spirit of Toy Story Land has clearly taken hold – his imagination is out of control.
But Toy Story is also about putting away childish things – or at least about how one childish thing can supplant another. Just on the other side of the picket fence that demarks Andy’s backyard, Jack spies the half-completed Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, another addition to Walt Disney World that opens next year. His eyes light up again. “Can we come back here?” he asks.
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ABOVE, LEFT TO RIGHTThe Green Army Men are still in action; the familyfriendly Slinky Dog Dash serves up some twists and thrills. OPENING PAGEToy Story Land shows there’s no need to tinker with a winning formula.