Disneyland turns 65 in July. Disney World is just a year away from hitting 50. And yet during all those decades no Disney theme park ever featured a ride starring Mickey Mouse. That officially changes this week, with the opening of Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Disney World. This all-ages charmer uses a hodgepodge of newfangled theme park tech to turn the Chinese Theater at the heart of Hollywood Studios into a glorious cartoon world, with Mickey, Minnie and their friends as your companions throughout. It’s a breezy, beautiful new addition to Disney World, and the final grace note for the transformation of Hollywood Studios.
Okay, I’m about to get into it. If you aren’t that well-versed in theme park jargon, I’ll try to explain it as I go. And if you hope to avoid spoilers on new rides, here’s your warning: I’ll be getting into some specifics that might ruin a surprise or two. I don’t want to bum you out, so be warned, okay? Also, just to get the old-time Disney nostalgia beef out of the way from the jump, yes, I was a fan of the Great Movie Ride; yes, I’m sad it’s no longer around; yes, as a fan, I would’ve liked to see Disney update that ride and build this new one at another spot in the park; but also, yes, I’m still glad Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway exists, I still enjoy it tremendously, and I do think it’ll be considerably more popular with your average park-goers than the old ride was. It’s not a grand centerpiece or statement-of-purpose ride like the Great Movie Ride was, and it lacks pretty much everything that made that ride such an epic, but this Railway is still an undeniable blast of Disney fun that doesn’t look or feel like any other ride in the parks today.
Here’s what you can expect when you finally make it back into the Chinese Theater and hop on this runaway train for the first time.
Let’s start with the jargon. Runaway Railway is a dark ride. That doesn’t mean it’s goth or going through a rough time, or anything; it just means it’s set indoors, in a space that uses various lighting and special effects to create a heightened form of reality. Almost every classic Disney ride that isn’t a spinner (like the Dumbo ride), a motion simulator (like Star Tours) or a roller coaster (like Big Thunder) is at least partially a dark ride, from Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, to all the parts of Splash Mountain that aren’t about plummeting 50 feet into the watery spray below. Almost every classic Fantasyland ride, for instance, is a dark ride, including a cult favorite that still exists in Disneyland but was removed from Disney World in 1998: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I bring up that 1950s chestnut for a reason: in many ways Runaway Railway can be seen as its spiritual successor, only with cartoon characters that are exponentially more popular than Mr. Toad and Winky the villainous bartender.
If the similarities in the names “Runaway Railway” and “Wild Ride” aren’t self-explanatory enough, both rides are about everyday modes of travel going completely haywire under the control of an incompetent driver. Here the blame is squarely placed on Goofy, who, despite apparently being the “engineer of the month,” struggles mightily to keep his train on its tracks when a pie clogs its chimney. This is all introduced during a pre-show cartoon at the end of the queue; like the rest of the ride, it’s animated in the style of the recent Mickey Mouse shorts. This cartoon introduces both the basic plot—Mickey and Minnie are on their way to a picnic in the park on a beautiful day, and Goofy, the engineer of a train that goes to the park, is bringing all the rest of us along—and the earworm of a theme song, “Nothing Can Stop Us Now,” which your children WILL be singing nonstop for weeks after first hearing it. The short ends with that pie mucking up Goofy’s works, and then an amazing special effect turns a movie screen into the entrance to the train station, where you’ll hop on board for the ride itself.
Get ready for some high-stakes drama. The ride consists of a series of scenes where pretty much everything goes wrong, with our train falling prey to tornadoes, waterfalls, urban construction, and even an unexpected dance lesson from Daisy Duck. This is all rendered with the almost blindingly bright cartoon pop from those Mickey shorts, with a combination of practical sets, projections and audio-animatronics bringing that art-style into the real world. These aren’t screens, which is a bad word among some theme park fans; these are custom-built sets with vibrant images projected upon them, creating an amazing and otherworldly sensation of actually being surrounded by a cartoon. And the ride vehicles are trackless, like those in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and international Disney rides like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Mystic Manor; that means they slide and twirl around each room in unpredictable ways, with the cars of your train pulling apart and coming back together when needed. Depending on which car you sit in, you can wind up with very different points of view, so this is a ride that will reward repeat trips.
That trackless ride system remains a revelation. It’s not even really new anymore—the first Disney ride to use it turns 20 later this year—but it’s still rarely been used in the American theme parks. This is the year that it comes stateside with force, with Rise of the Resistance finally bringing it to Disney World in December, and the Ratatouille ride cooking it up at Epcot later this year. Runaway Railway would still be a gorgeous ride that looked like nothing else at Disney World, but that trackless ride system elevates it into something truly special. This train moves with a grace and unpredictability that even those familiar with trackless ride systems might not expect. It makes this cartoon world feel alive, and like you and your vehicle are actually in conversation with it, pushing and pulling and pulsing alongside it throughout your journey. The spaces you travel through are amazing, but the way you travel through them might be the most amazing thing of all.
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway would be a great addition to any theme park, but it’s especially welcome at Hollywood Studios. At this point two years ago Hollywood Studios was pretty much barren. It boasted one of the greatest rides in Disney history, The Tower of Terror, and a great roller coaster with a weird theme in the form of the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, but it had only two other rides beyond that, along with a handful of shows and meet and greets. Since the summer of 2018, though, the park has added Toy Story Land, with a fine family coaster and a fun spinner ride, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which brought a new level of immersion to theme parks, along with a cool Millennium Falcon motion simulator and the groundbreaking, multi-part adventure that is Rise of the Resistance. Runaway Railway is the last piece of the puzzle (at least for now), and it fits perfectly, adding that classic Disney dark ride feel with a ride system and projection technology that still feels fresh and innovative. It’s both old—literally as old as the Disney company can get, as it stars its very first character—and new, classic and contemporary, and bridges the gap between the old-school Hollywood splendor of Hollywood Studios and its focus on expanding the horizons of theme parks.
It’s also fun. That means a lot. That’s why people love theme parks in the first place.
If you’re an old fan of the Great Movie Ride, you need to stop thinking about that before you ever line up for this one. Again, other than the Chinese Theater, there are no similarities. The Movie Ride was slow, stately, in awe with the magic of movies and their legacy; Runaway Railway is fast, manic, and full of a buzzy, irreverent energy pulled straight from old cartoons. I won’t even begin to say which one is better—honestly, neither is better, they’re just differently great at different things—but I can say which one is better suited for the times, both in terms of the Disney parks of today and the expectations of today’s audiences, and it’s definitely not the ride that had a Johnny Weissmuller mannequin swing by overhead. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway fits the Disney World of today perfectly, adding something that’s new yet classic to a park that was in need of a ride exactly like this. Let the FastPass+ campers square up to their keyboards, and Disney lovers everywhere rejoice.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.