Autopia needs more than electric cars to remain relevant

April 19, 2024, 5:23 PM · Disneyland will convert its Autopia cars to electric power within the next 30 months, the resort has confirmed. Replacing the lawnmowers with golf carts just begins to address the changes that Disneyland ought to be making to this expansive Tomorrowland attraction, however.

By 2035, all vehicles sold in California must have zero emissions, under state regulations. I have no idea if that rule would apply to Disneyland's purchase of new Autopia cars, but the upcoming change illustrates that the window of "tomorrow" in California that includes gasoline-powered automobiles is closing quickly.

New tomorrows overtaking yesterday's ideal of the future has troubled Disneyland since not long after the park opened in 1955. The first "new Tomorrowland" arrived in 1967, with a second overhaul opening in 1998. In between, Disneyland has added and closed dozens of attractions within Tomorrowland, with each change altering the credibility of the land to varying degrees.

Autopia was an opening day attraction at Disneyland - the last surviving one in Tomorrowland. The ride expanded in 2000, when the neighboring Fantasyland Autopia (which opened as Junior Autopia in 1956) closed and was combined with the Tomorrowland original. Autopia now occupies a huge footprint between Space Mountain and It's a Small World. However, much of the ride runs atop the show buildings for the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and underneath the tracks of the Disneyland Monorail. So Autopia effectively functions as the middle in tri-level attraction space, creating substantial challenges for any attempt to reimagine this area.

That does not diminish the need for a reimagining, however. Autopia, in its current form, lies within an unwelcome netherworld between a kiddie ride and all-ages attraction. As a children's ride, Autopia suffers in comparison with the superior Driving School, located down I-5 at Legoland California in Carlsbad. That attraction has suffered in quality over the years, losing much of its original educational component. But by challenging kids drive on their own, Legoland's attraction provides a more rewarding experience for young guests.

As an all-ages attraction, however, Autopia crashes as an unremarkable version of the slow-driving car rides you can find at most regional amusement parks. That's why most guests just let their kids "drive" and dismiss Autopia as a dressed-up kiddie ride. At Disney prices, guests deserve better.

It's time to focus. Since blowing up this space in favor of entirely new construction would take down three attractions - the monorail and submarines in addition to Autopia - let's contain our speculation to imagining a new version of a track ride in the Autopia space. Disneyland's first option is to double down on Autopia as a child-focused attraction. Redesign Autopia to plus the Driving School concept. Create a Disney-flavored Driving School, one including an automated scoring element that provides young drivers incentive to drive better and not wreck their cars.

Disney has made clear in recent years that it is looking to promote franchises in all its creative work, so any substantial change at Autopia is likely to include the introduction of Disney IP. That's easy enough with a plussed children's ride, but it also is possible with Disneyland's second option.

Autopia is a track ride that occupies more track length than any other such ride at Disneyland. Yet if it is to remain as a self-driving location, then there needs to be some reason why the guests are driving these cars. A driving school attraction fulfills that. So would an all-ages choose your adventure-style track ride. Autopia has the space to allow drivers to make choices and explore alternate ride paths.

Autopia's outdoor setting limits the choice of Disney IP that Imagineers might consider for a retheme. Yet Disney owns more than enough IP to allow Imagineers to come up with something that would work here.

Disneyland's Autopia needs no-emission electric cars, sure. But it needs far more than that bare-minimum change to remain a credible use of this much space in a Disney theme park.

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Replies (8)

April 20, 2024 at 12:14 AM

Ummmm, so after watching this video I realize that while the attraction is inherently a genteel snapshot of yesteryear, I also realize how awesome the DL iteration is compared to the WDW version. I’ve been to DL 3 times in my adult years and never thought to ride this, because duh. But I lament not doing so now. This is like Living With the Land but only if you’re driving instead of being in a boat. The track on this is so much more interesting.

April 20, 2024 at 7:54 AM

Made our first trip to DL from FL in November. Just about did everything in a single day with G+. However, was bummed that we couldn't squeeze this in.

April 20, 2024 at 2:29 PM

While I think your suggestions are spot on, I doubt Disney will bother to do anything like that. “It’s a kids’ attraction”, is probably the justification to make the bear minimum effort to maintain Autopia’s relevance.

This attraction is so much better than Tomorrowland Speedway at WDW. At least there’s cute scenes to look at. Soon it won’t have awful exhaust fumes either.

April 20, 2024 at 5:45 PM

I have only done the WDW one and firmly believe that dads pushing their kids in a wheelbarrow is not just eco-friendly but more fun. It is time the WDW one went and with so much land to work with they could create a mega attraction or a mini land.

April 20, 2024 at 8:06 PM

Again, my sister and I felt this the roughest ride on our Disneyland visit last year, they would need to smooth it out.

April 20, 2024 at 9:48 PM

I think the better question to ask is "Could Autopia be revitalized at a budget that makes sense from a ROI perspective?" If Disney really wanted to, there are plenty of ways they could turn Autopia into an attraction that everyone wants to ride. For instance, how about making it a showcase of fully autonomous driving technology and reworking the environment you drive through into an actual futuristic world of tomorrow? That'd be pretty cool, but would probably cost so much to implement compared to the number of visitors it'd bring in that Disney wouldn't see it as worthwhile. An IP overlay doesn't feel like the right choice here either, as the best fit in Disney's arsenal (Cars) is already in use across the esplanade and there isn't really any other popular franchise where driving is a core element (which would be necessary for a retheme without altering the current ride system too much). Personally, I can't think of any real way to expand interest level in the attraction without reaching the point where full replacement just makes more sense (and honestly, even if it took out Nemo and the Monorail, I doubt too many guests would shed a tear).

April 22, 2024 at 10:17 AM

Convert it to "Test Track" without the indoor portion :D

April 23, 2024 at 9:22 AM

I see these types of attractions as a rite of passage, but they often take up massive amounts of space compared to their popularity and throughput. At a park like Disneyland, Autopia is way outsized given its demand, but because of the other attractions in the proximity, it makes it difficult convert it into something better without also impacting those neighboring attractions (including the Monorail). I do really like the "Driving School" style car attractions that allow kids the freedom to move their cars without being bound to a track, but in the end they're just kiddie rides with adults forced to stand to the side hoping to catch a glimpse of their children getting their first taste of driving. I don't think that type of attraction would work at a park like Disneyland where the emphasis is on families experiencing attractions together. I still think leveling the entire area, taking out Nemo and relocating the Monorail station is the way to go with this space.

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