Think back to your first visit to Walt Disney World. How old were you? A guest’s age at the time of their inaugural ride on any given attraction can drastically influence their preference for and memories of it for years to come. For example, my first visit to Walt Disney World at the age of five included my first flight with Peter Pan. At that young age, I really believed that our pirate ship was somehow flying, and that magical moment has instilled in me an incredible affection for Peter Pan’s Flight. On the other end of the spectrum, my sister was just four years old the year The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened. Back then, the elevator ascended and dropped you one time, the full thirteen stories all at once. As small as she was, it truly was a “Tower of Terror”, and she has never ridden it again.
I am sure each of us has stories similar to these for Walt Disney World‘s most memorable and/or thrilling attractions, but does age have the same influence on less flashy rides? In the case of the Tomorrowland Speedway, I most certainly believe it does.
If you were under the age of sixteen during your first WDW vacation, then you probably could not wait to get behind the wheel of a Tomorrowland Speedway vehicle. The idea that you would be driving a car, guide rails or not, seemed like you were getting away with circumventing the law — and we all know kids are the authority on finding excitement in doing the very things they have been told not to do. Even if age has left these guests passing by the raceway on subsequent visits, they can look back and fondly remember peering over the steering wheel and seeing the checkered flag waved just for them.
On the other hand, if your first WDW visit involved you being the parent or guardian of a child or teen under the age of sixteen, then your first memories of the Tomorrowland Speedway are probably overshadowed by thoughts of over-correcting, jerking and jarring. You may have unsuspectingly thought it would be a fun outing, a rite of passage for your little one, but then learned of the headache inducing reality of allowing a child – who can barely see over the steering wheel – to attempt to follow a rail that even adults cannot seem to avoid banging into.
While the age at which a guest’s first ride occurred can taint his or her feelings about the Tomorrowland Speedway, the year of that guest’s inaugural visit can also affect his or her opinion of it. For Walt Disney World fans who have been crossing through Magic Kingdom Park‘s turnstiles since 1971, the Tomorrowland Speedway, or The Grand Prix Raceway as it was originally called, is a piece of nostalgia. As one of only two Tomorrowland attractions on opening day, October 1, 1971, it took up a much larger piece of real estate than it does today. At that time, it was undoubtedly ridden by almost every guest who entered the park’s gates.
The Grand Prix Raceway was included in Walt Disney World because of the popularity of its predecessor in Disneyland. Also located in Tomorrowland, the Autopia was the lone attraction operating in that land on opening day in 1955. The system of pint-sized cars on a tree-lined highway served as a harbinger of the new interstate system that would soon crisscross the United States. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law on June 29, 1956, would create 41,000 miles of interstate roadways. So, at the time of Disneyland‘s opening, the idea of traveling swiftly by car across the country was a thing of the future. Furthermore, the thought of speeding down the open road as a free traveler, uninhibited by traffic or smog, fit into the Tomorrowland concept of an idealized future.
While a little history lesson serves to justify Autopia‘s place in the Tomorrowland of Disneyland, it still leaves guests questioning the placement of such an attraction in Walt Disney World‘s land of the future. While Autopia‘s popularity led to the creation of The Grand Prix Raceway, later incarnations have struggled to make the case for its continued existence. Even as the attraction has seen a sponsorship come and go, experienced track shortenings and several name changes, aspects of the ride remain the same in spite of protestations from guests.
If the racetrack is to persist in a land dedicated to the world of the future, many guests question why the vehicles continue to look, sound and smell like cars of the past. In fact, according to an interview Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr gave to D23, the current Autopia car was designed in 1967 and he says, “We used the exact same car for Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland Speedway.” He goes on to say that while the car bodies on both coasts have been redesigned, the technical parts of the car have remained the same. While some may view this as a testament to longevity, many wonder why Walt Disney Imagineering has not opted for something more modern.
Leading up to the 2017 D23 Expo, Walt Disney World fans speculated that announcements of forthcoming attractions would lead to Tomorrowland Speedway‘s demise. However, the unveiling of the TRON Lightcycle Power Run concept art confirmed its survival, leading some to refer to it as the “Walt Disney World cockroach.”
Even though Tomorrowland Speedway is one of Magic Kingdom‘s most derided attractions, it clearly holds a place in the park’s history, and whether you love it or hate it, chances are there is probably photographic evidence of you having ridden it. Before the days of on-ride photos, the speedway’s catwalk and load/unload area afforded parents and grandparents the perfect opportunity to capture their little ones behind the wheel. Photos serve to cement moments in our memories, so for millions of Walt Disney World visitors, the Tomorrowland Speedway is there to stay.
(Tron Lightcycle Power Run concept art © Disney. All photos from the author’s family collection with the exception of the on-ride photos from WDW Radio bloggers, Vanessa, Andrew, and Chris. See gallery captions.)
To learn more about Kendall and read her recent posts for WDW Radio, visit her author page by clicking the link on her name at the top of this post.