Today’s blog will discuss a favorite attraction of many a future driver, the Tomorrowland Speedway. What could be more exciting for a child living in a society that is dominated by automobiles than a chance to get behind the wheel and take control of a powerful machine? A car represents freedom to an adult. It represents “being an adult” to a child. Once a teenager gets his or her own driver’s license, the Tomorrowland Speedway loses a lot of its allure. But until this time, the Tomorrowland Speedway offers kids a chance to be a grown-up for a few minutes.
To fully understand the Tomorrowland Speedway, you need to understand history. And not just Disney history, you need to be aware of what was happening in the world during the Magic Kingdom’s planning stage. But in order to do that, we must first go back to Disneyland’s humble beginnings.
In 1955, the Interstate System of the United States was in its infancy. In the previous year, the Federal-Aid Highway Act had set aside $175 million for the construction of an Interstate Highway System. President Eisenhower realized this amount was dreadfully inadequate for the task so in 1956 he signed the expanded Federal-Aid Highway Act that authorized an additional $25 billion to link America by a network of high speed, limited access roads.
Los Angeles was a pioneer in building such roadways. In 1940, the first freeway in the United States opened between Los Angeles and Pasadena. From that point on, more and more freeways were added to the area. Soon, Southern California and automobiles became synonymous.
The Santa Ana Freeway, the main route from Los Angeles to Anaheim and Orange County, was not completed until 1956. This meant that Walt was forced to take many surface streets to reach Disneyland from Burbank during the park’s construction. Walt was a firm believer that technology could solve the problems of the world and the Interstate System was a step in the right direction. In addition, this new system of roads would improve his own commute and that of the future tourist who would visit Disneyland. It’s interesting to note, many of the trees and shrubs of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise came from the land being cleared for the Santa Ana Freeway.
Walt wanted his Tomorrowland to showcase a bright and beautiful tomorrow. And the burgeoning Interstate System was a shining beacon to that end. Kiddie-cars and bumper cars had been a staple of carnivals and fairs for years, but Walt wanted to do something more inspiring. Thus, the Autopia was born. Autopia is the combination of the words Automobile and Utopia.
The Autopia was to be a miniature version of the Interstate System. It would highlight just how efficient this new transportation system would be. It would have overpasses and underpasses, straightaways and gradual curves. Its appearance would mirror that of the Los Angeles system. It would even have a cloverleaf design.
The Autopia was also intended to be a training ground for young drivers. With high speed travel now available to everyone, Walt wanted to provide a safe environment for kids to learn how to navigate this new roadway responsibly.
During the Autopia testing period, 36 miniature cars were turned over to the children of Studio personnel. Within 10 days, the fleet was reduced to 6. The kids had no desire to learn how to drive responsibly. They wanted to crash into one another. To remedy the problem, a whole vehicle, spring-loaded bumper was installed around the entire car.
In the early years, there were no guide rails down the middle of the Autopia highway. Kids actually steered the cars and could easily hit the curbs on either side of the road. There were even wide spots in the road where the young motorists could drive side-by-side and even pass one another. Of course this did not add to the longevity of the cars (or the curbs) and in 1965 the infamous guide rail was added. Kids could still steer their vehicle, but their maneuverability was greatly reduced.
The Autopia was an extremely popular attraction in the early years. To meet the demand, other versions of this ride were added to the park including the Junior Autopia, Midget Autopia, and the Fantasyland Autopia. Only the Tomorrowland Autopia survives today.
By the time planning had begun for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the Interstate System was old hat and less than exciting. Yet the Imagineers knew they wanted to offer young drivers a place to feel the freedom of the road. Thus, the Grand Prix Raceway was born. Rather than have a two-lane highway, this “international” course would feature race-cars that “competed” side-by-side along a multi-lane speedway. Although this race-car theme really didn’t fit with the grand scope of Tomorrowland, it was logically the only place this attraction would fit in the park.
Beginning in 1967, Goodyear sponsored the PeopleMover at Disneyland. When asked if they would be willing to sponsor an attraction at the Magic Kingdom, they were interested. But since the Florida version of the PeopleMover would not be opening until 1975 and the ride would be using linear induction motors to power the cars (not rubber tires), this attraction was not a good match. However, the Grand Prix Raceway would be the perfect vehicle to showcase Goodyear tires.
I have an extensive Disney photo collection, but I don’t have everything from the early days. The above picture was loaned to me for use in this blog by my good friend Jeff Lange. Jeff also has a wonderful Disney website worth note.
In this early publicity photo, you can see “Goodyear” emblazoned on the side of the race car.
Below is the opening day attraction poster. Notice is says Gran (not Grand) Prix Raceway. Also notice the poster is almost identical to the Disneyland Autopia poster of 1956 (see above). We even see the same father and son passengers racing along the highway. Only the vehicle has changed. The Magic Kingdom poster displays a souped-up sports car.
In 1978 a new poster was unveiled. Inspired by the 1966 movie poster “Grand Prix” (a film partially sponsored by Goodyear), the new artwork had a more hip and updated look. Later, when Goodyear dropped its sponsorship of the Grand Prix Raceway, the poster was changed ever so slightly. Only the name “Goodyear” was omitted and the Tomorrowland lettering changed colors.
Goodyear also provided young drivers with affiliation to the “Grand Prix Racing Team.” The membership card which was presented to guests after finishing the course was signed by Russell de Young, Chairman of the Board and CEO of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
When riding the Tomorrowland Speedway, you may have noticed an enclosed viewing area perched above the loading area. This was the Goodyear lounge where company executives could entertain clients and show off their attraction.
These next two pictures were taken in January, 1972. Notice how barren the attraction looks.
In 1973, the ride was expanded slightly. Then in 1987, the roadway was shortened to make room for Mickey’s Birthdayland which would open the following year. This area would later be remodeled and renamed Mickey’s Starland. More refurbishments brought about Mickey’s ToonTown Fair. And now Storybook Circus.
Below is an approximation of how much track was eliminated to accommodate Mickey’s Birthdayland.
In 1994, Tomorrowland began a major makeover. The sterile concrete look of the future was giving way to a retro design. The Grand Prix Raceway also received some enhancements and on September 27, 1996 was renamed “Tomorrowland Speedway.”
Three years later, Disney and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway joined forces to change the theme of the track. Enhancements such as the Yard of Bricks, the Scoring Pylon, Gasoline Alley, and the Wheel & Wing logo were added. To my knowledge, only the Scoring Pylon remains today. The attraction also received another name change to incorporate the new sponsor and on December 19, 1999 became known as the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway.
In 2008, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped its affiliation and the name changed back to Tomorrowland Speedway.
Today the track is 2,260 feet long. The original design of the Mark VII cars is still used (minus the spoiler). However, the cars have undergone several different paint jobs over the years. Here’s the current style.
The car’s nine-horsepower engines are fueled by gasoline and can attain speeds of an astounding 7.5 miles per hour. The vehicles hold two adults, but I wouldn’t advise this if both parties are plus sized. There are approximately 140 cars in the fleet.
The Tomorrowland Speedway is a popular ride. Many guests race to this attraction when the Magic Kingdom first opens, making it the first ride of the day. Long lines develop quickly and last throughout the day. The Tomorrowland Speedway does not offer FastPass.
Guests enter the attraction through a structure that has changed little since opening day. Near the entrance is the ever present measuring stick to check the height of perspective drivers. However, this evaluator doesn’t use standard increments, but rather oil cans. Kids must be at least 8 oil cans tall (54 inches) to ride alone. They must be 32 inches to ride as a passenger.
The first section of the queue is covered, but as you approach the loading and unloading area, there is very little protection from the sun and rain. There are a number of umbrellas, but they offer minimal shade. Plan accordingly.
An interesting detail can be found in the queue that most guests never notice. There are two framed images. One displays a detailed diagram of the Tomorrowland Speedway. The other exhibits the roadway attractions located at Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. If you notice, the Tokyo Disneyland roadway (third picture, upper right) is almost identical to the Florida version.
For those of you not wishing to ride, a grandstand viewing/waiting area is provided. This spot is shaded from around noon until dusk and bench seating is available. The grandstand offers wonderful photo opportunities of your party loading and unloading their vehicles. A set of stairs leading to the grandstand is located to the right of the attraction entrance.
When you reach the loading area, you will be assigned a number by a cast member. Simply stand at your designated spot until a car screeches to a stop in front of you. Once the other party exits, climb in.
The car only has one pedal. When you press it, the vehicle moves forward. When you release it, the car comes to a stop. Things couldn’t be simpler. However, the pedal is too far away for many youngsters to reach and an adult will be necessary for this task. Also, the pedal has a lot of resistance and by the end of your 5 minute journey around the track, your leg will begin to get tired.
Before leaving the loading area, a cast member will ensure that your seat belt is fastened and instruct you NOT to bump the car in front of you. Of course, no child driving alone pays any attention to this warning or those posted on the car or along the route. Fortunately, the spring-loaded bumpers absorb the vast majority of force generated by a collision and whiplash isn’t likely to ensue.
Steering is another tricky element of the drive. The wheels seem to overcompensate the slightest turn, causing your car to bounce against the center guide rail again and again. For kids, this is great fun. For adults driving alone, use this as a challenge and see if you can maneuver the entire course without hitting the guide rail.
To add to the realism of a high speed race, speakers are positioned all along the course and authentic raceway sounds can be heard as you drive the speedway. Even Tom Carnegie, the longtime public address announcer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, can be heard broadcasting the current standings.
Here are a few pictures of the speedway taken from the driver’s seat.
Another great thing about the Tomorrowland Speedway is that it offers many great photo opportunities. There numerous places around the track where you can snap pictures of friends and family as they pass by.
After completing the race, drivers are given an Official Speedway License. If you don’t get one, ask.
Near the finish line is Victory Circle. This spot symbolizes all of the winners of the Tomorrowland Speedway.
Near the Tomorrowland Speedway is the ever-present shop. Well, actually not a shop, but a cart – Racing Specialties. All of the merchandise sold here is automobile related. Items like antenna toppers, Disney family decals, and toys from the Disney/Pixar movie “Cars” are available.
As always, I have created a short video of this attraction. To view it, click on the picture below.
For an adult, the Tomorrowland Speedway is far from being the most exciting attraction at the Magic Kingdom. But for a kid, it can be the highlight of their visit. I vividly remember a cold winter night in 1961. I was nine years old and visiting Disneyland with my parents and two of my friends. We’d already ridden the recently built Matterhorn, Monorail, and Submarine Voyage. So we headed next to the Autopia. After completing the circuit, we asked my parents if we could ride again – and again – and again. As wonderful as the new attractions were, driving our own car was the ultimate adventure.