In this Disney Nerd’s humble opinion, there are few rides that better capture the spirit of Disney magic more than Autopia. What, you don’t agree? Just hear me out!
There is a reason Autopia was part of the original Disneyland vision of tomorrow when the park opened on July 17, 1955 — and there is a reason Autopia and other versions of the ride remain so popular today at both the original park in Anaheim and around the world at parks in Florida, France, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Autopia: Driving Across Tomorrowland
For those who haven’t already cruised the storied streets of Autopia, the ride offers guests an opportunity to drive a scaled down race car along a specially designed track that meanders through Tomorrowland. Although the wheels of the car are securely guided along the road by a concrete guardrail, the tension of the wheel, the resistance of the gas pedal, the roar of the engine, and the smell of the gasoline are all 100% real – and exhilarating! For many Nerds and Nerdlings, this was their first experience behind the wheel.
Autopia: A Bumpy History
Of course, like many of Disneyland’s classic rides, Autopia wasn’t always such a smooth ride. The attraction’s original race cars were tested without bumpers, and as anyone who has driven the Autopia raceway could tell you, this was a recipe for disaster! Most of these original cars were completely destroyed by the testing team.
Even more remarkably, the internal guardrail – which keeps cars driven by 4-year-old Nerdlings on the “straight and narrow” – was not part of the original design. As you might imagine, when race cars are driven by a drove of Nerdlings, chaos ensued! In the early days, this resulted in lots of collisions and an unimaginable amount of fun for Baby Boomer Nerdlings who drove along rail-less roads. No doubt their parents were terrified! Sadly for us older Nerds, those days were relegated to the past like kick-the-can and car hops and soda fountains.
The Autopia cars went through many iterations in their early days, with each new version of the cars dubbed “Mark”. Mark I, II, III and IV all appeared and disappeared between 1955 and 1958, but with the launch of the Monorail, Submarine Voyage and Matterhorn in 1959, the Autopia cars got a big redesign and a whole new look – and the cool (and slightly Nerdy) name “Mark V”.
In 1965, a new version of the cars was released (the Mark VII) and a center guardrail was finally installed to the joy of parents, attraction mechanics and park maintenance staff alike. The Mark VII Autopia cars would remain in service until 1999, and they are what many of our Nerds remember driving as a kid.
Autopia for a New Millenium
Today’s Nerdlings know a slightly different ride from their Nerd parents. In 2000, the ride’s original sponsorship by Goodyear was replaced by a much larger investment from Chevron, and the race cars themselves became branded with stars from the Cars franchise, including Dusty, Suzy, and Sparky. Animated dioramas featuring the Chevron Cars were installed to make the (often long) line more entertaining. The size of the track was also expanded.
The references to Chevron ended in 2012 when the company ended its sponsorship of the attraction. In 2016, this led to a new building, walkway, vehicle paint schemes, vehicle modifications – along with new sponsorship by Honda. Along with this new sponsorship, Asimo the robot (and Bird) are now featured in various scenes throughout the Autopia. And most importantly, the cars now run on Honda GX gasoline engines.
What will be next for Autopia? It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to imagine the cars going electric, even if they (hopefully!) retain that thrilling rumble that is so reminiscent of the muscle cars of the past. And who knows? Maybe in fifty years, Autopia’s cars will hover down the track instead of being limited by wheels! Only time will tell.
Autopia: The Magic Endures
The only thing we Nerds know for sure is that, whatever happens, Autopia will endure. Just think about how much change the attraction has already weathered over the past 70+ years.
When Autopia first opened back in 1955, President Eisenhower still hadn’t signed the Interstate Highway legislation. The radical design of Autopia’s race cars and beautiful openness of Autopia’s track imagined the future of America’s multilane highways long before they were actually built. In the case of Autopia, Walt Disney’s vision of tomorrow really did come to pass!
Today, the concept behind Autopia feels less radical – but that doesn’t spoil the excitement of the ride. And that’s because the joy of Autopia has never been about its vision of tomorrow. Rather, the joy has been about putting our Nerdlings in control of something from which – until that moment – they had always been excluded.
After all, what kid hasn’t wanted to sit in the driver’s seat for a joy ride? When our Nerdlings sit down in their Autopia race car, that dream comes true. And dreams coming true … isn’t that what the Disney magic is all about?
The thing that made Autopia so special when we were Nerdlings ourselves hasn’t gone away now that we are full-grown Disney Park Nerds. The moment our foot presses that gas pedal we feel powerful; we feel in control; we feel the freedom of the open road. No matter how many years have passed, the roar of an Autopia engine will always transport us to a world of fantasy that is as poignant today as when we were children. It’s a world where we are in the driver’s seat.
This is the real magic of Autopia.
This is the magic of Disney.