Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a hugely popular Walt Disney World attraction. The ride was a true Disney original, dating to the 1955 debut of Disneyland. Mr. Toad and his friends are the stars of Disney’s 1949 release, The Wind in the Willows. As that film was quite popular and only a few years old at the time of Disneyland’s opening, it was only natural that an attraction should be built in tribute. The ride was an instant success and although the film was largely forgotten by the time Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the attraction was famous. And an even better version, with two separate tracks leading through two separate sets of adventures, was opened in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was highly unusual for its day. The low-tech ride, complete with flat panel show scenes, took guests on a great adventure of mayhem and mischief that culminated in death by train collision and a trip to Hell! This was not exactly your usual Fantasyland attraction, which may have contributed to its success. The ride fit Michael Eisner’s criteria for success. It loaded no more slowly than Snow White or Peter Pan, maintenance costs were minimal, and Mr. Toad was a “push-button” ride that could be operated by any Fantasyland attractions employee. Yet on October 22, 1997, Disney revealed its plan to close the beloved ride in a statement to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.
According to the official story, Mr. Toad was to be replaced with an attraction based on Winnie the Pooh. Pooh and friends did not have their own attraction but had experienced a recent surge in popularity. It was felt that that the Winnie the Pooh ride, which would utilize new technology, would solve the problems of the “outdated” Toad as well as offering a more family-friendly experience.
It is believed that the decision to announce Toad’s closure was rooted in the difficulties that Disney had with its closing of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In that case, the ride closed quietly, with no fanfare. It was claimed that 20K was down for maintenance, and only later was it revealed that the attraction was never to reopen. Legions of fans came out in protest and one of the biggest complaints was the fact that fans did not have the opportunity for a “last ride.” It is believed that Disney hoped to offer fans the chance for the last ride on Toad, thus avoiding further tarnishing of their corporate image.
Disney’s plan backfired, however, as the very next day after the story broke, a fan campaign was launched to Save the Toad. Spearheaded by John Lefante, a longtime Disney fan, letters and emails were sent to the Disney company by the thousands. Soon the campaign progressed to actual demonstrations. “Toad-Ins” was held at progressively more frequent intervals at the ride itself. The media became involved and fans actively worked to promote public awareness of Disney’s plans. The quest to Save the Toad soon took on a life of its own. T-shirts were printed which bore slogans such as “Ask Me Why Mickey is Killing Mr. Toad.” The campaign drew ever more loyalists, who joined the official Toad-Ins and letter-writing efforts.
Disney brass found themselves between a rock and a hard place. With the involvement of the media, Disney could not ban protestors from the ride without risking negative photos of managers dragging guests away being splashed all over the front pages. Yet Disney became progressively more nervous and suspicious as the protesting groups grew larger. A sort of standoff developed. Not only Toad-Ins but any Mr. Toad ride was taken by those known to be sympathetic to the cause was heavily monitored by a team of security and members of Disney management. They stood by quietly and allowed the rides to continue, but were always on high alert.
Possibly due to Disney’s growing fears of the protestors’ intentions, Disney World began a campaign of its own. Not necessarily disinformation but definitely misleading information was given out to Save the Toad and loyalist groups. Everyone was led to believe that the ride might not be closed at all and, if it were to close, it would be at some point in the future. Ultimately, Mr. Toad’s last Wild Ride was announced less than a week in advance. Save the Toad and others were on hand, but many far-flung fans complained bitterly that the last-minute announcement did not give them the opportunity to make travel plans. Legions of Toad fans missed their opportunity for the last ride before Mr. Toad closed forever on September 7, 1998.
Why was Mr. Toad doomed, despite obvious loyalty in the form of thousands of protesters who turned out en masse to show their love of the attraction? The exact reasons are unknown to those outsides of Michael Eisner’s inner circle. However, some circumstantial conclusions can be drawn.
The 1990s were an era of major changes throughout the Disney parks. Mr. Toad’s demise fell squarely in the middle of a cycle of destruction that included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original Tomorrowland, Journey Into Imagination, and the Skyway, among others. Michael Eisner, then head of the Disney company, brought the company’s focus straight to the bottom line. Pirates of the Caribbean, the last of Walt’s personally overseen creations, were changed significantly to make it politically correct. Cheap, fast loading and “family-friendly” were in. Expensive, slow loading, and “edgy” were out. A spin through madness and mayhem that culminated in a visit to Hell did not fit with the political correctness of the age. However, cynics believe that the matter was even more simple.
Mr. Toad and friends did not appear in any other attraction throughout the parks. No Mr. Toad merchandise was available for sale. The original film on which the ride was based had faded into oblivion. Winnie the Pooh got his own character meal at the Crystal Palace. Pooh merchandise was sold throughout the parks and resorts. Due to shrewd marketing, Pooh and friends were “in.” Disney realized that even more merchandise would be purchased if Pooh was given his own ride. The ride would also be both family-friendly and high-tech, solving two of Mr. Toad’s alleged “problems.” In the Disney of the 1990s, the almighty dollar reigned supreme, sealing the fate of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Mr. Toad is now a cherished memory. The Eisner era is over, as Bob Iger, took over, then recently Bob Chapek is now the head of the Walt Disney Company. Fans hope that the dark times are now over, ushering in a new era of concern for guest desires. Only time will tell, however, whether Iger will be able to fix the problems that his predecessor left behind. In the meantime, it would be smart to visit the Toad at Disneyland if possible, as it is unknown whether Disneyland’s Toad will eventually go the way of Walt Disney World’s.
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