Disney World and Disneyland were well known for their exciting rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and Snow White's Scary Adventure. After the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Disney was naturally interested in bringing all the familiar characters and hijinks to life in a new ride that would entertain everyone. The ride itself proved to be somewhat of a challenge. Car Toon Spin not only broke ground on being one of few modern "dark-light" rides to the Disneyland park, it also was placed in a section inspired by the Roger Rabbit movie - Toontown! Who came up with the concept for the ride? Why was Jessica Rabbit tied up? Was the ride originally supposed to be two stories tall? Find out in this informative interview with ride designer Marcelo Vignali!
The Roger Rabbit ride has become a staple to the Disneyland park, so we'd love to get to know more about its designer. What was your first published professional artwork?
Thanks for opportunity. My first published artwork? I do believe it was an ink drawing of Cardinal Ratzinger for the National Catholic Register newspaper. I guess both of us were going places -- since he would later become the Pope, I think he faired better than I did.
What was your reaction to the Who Framed Roger Rabbit movie?
There was so much to like, but I was disappointed upon seeing adult humor and sexual vulgarity in the film -- especially since it was marketed for kids. It was a mixed message I found distracting. The movie was good enough, it didn't need to stoop to that level. I remember debating my coworkers at DIC Entertainment (a well known television animation studio where I was working in the late 1980s); needless to say I was the odd man out.
When did you start working for Disney?
I began working for Walt Disney Imagineering back in 1989, just shortly after Roger Rabbit was released. I started at Imagineering as a freelance illustrator for the Star Tours M&M campaign, and when I completed the job a few weeks later, they asked me to stay on board -- and I did. I stayed at Imagineering for the next five and half years. Afterward I left Imagineering to work on Disney's animated features. I feel pretty fortunate to have worked at both Disney Imagineering and Disney Animation. Not many artists share that distinction.
How were you approached to work on designs for Toontown and its rides?
When I was hired full-time in November of 1989, I started out working on the Muppet Land for Florida. But, as fate would have it, the deal with the Jim Henson company fell apart shortly after his death.
Around that same time the studio was looking to bring the Florida Mickey's Star Land idea to Anaheim, and so the company flew four of us to get a look at what they had done in Walt Disney World. So, Joe Lanzisero, Jim Shull, Don Carson and I all hopped aboard a plane and flew to Walt Disney World. What we discovered were plywood flats that looked like Carl Bark's Duckberg. It was a cute idea, it was very small, and it was very popular -- especially as a meet-and-greet with the characters. That was the humble beginning for Toontown. Fortunately the company saw the potential and the project grew into Toontown.
My friend Joe Lanzisero is an amazingly talented man, and he was tapped to become the Project Lead for the entire Toontown project. He was the right man for the job.
Did you work closely with anyone from the WFRR movie on designs for Toontown and Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin?
No, I was relatively on my own. I was given a VHS copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and an AV unit (which consisted of a television set, and a VCR). I sat and watched the WFRR movie over and over again, scrolling forward and backward, sketching from the TV, and getting familiar with every inch of Toontown. Since much of the artwork for WFRR was done at Amblin, I didn't have the original Toontown designs on hand.
The irony was too rich, I could just imagine my coworkers at DIC having a laugh at my expense, since I was the one who disliked the WFRR movie. But, the more I thought of it, perhaps it was better that I wasn't a fan of the WFRR movie, and wasn't married to the idea of creating a replica of the movie experience. What we ended up with was a unique ride experience that can hold up with or without the WFRR movie.
(As luck would have it, later on, while working on Disney's The Legend of Mulan, I had a chance to work with Hans Bacher and Harald Siepermann, both of which worked on WFRR. And, much later still, while working at Sony Pictures Animation, I met with Dick Williams, the animator for Roger Rabbit.)
Who came up with the storyline for the Roger Rabbit Ride?
I worked closely with Joe Lanzisero while working on a The Great Muppet Movie Ride that was never built. That experience gave me some much needed training. Initially I started out designing some of the exterior buildings for Toontown, such as the firehouse and the train station, but Joe had other ideas for me -- when the opportunity came up to create a ride experience for Toontown, Joe gave me the opportunity of being the design lead for the Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin ride.
Concept art for the Great Muppet Movie Ride
Do you know how many people actually worked on creating the ride?
It's hard for anyone to claim sole credit for such a collaborative endeavor. Gary Wolf's novel came up with the characters, and Joe Lanzisero did a rough storyboard for the ride. However, much of that initial storyboard changed as our ride evolved and hit various obstacles -- but one important thing remained, it was Joe's Lanzisero's idea to end the ride with a portable hole. It was a stroke of genius, I can't imagine the ride ending any other way! As for the design of the Car-Toon Spin ride, I was the lead and I was the one that came up with the chase storyline.
While at Disney I tried to study what worked and didn't work on Disney rides. For instance the storyline on Pirates of the Caribbean is much easier to follow because it's linear, but the storyline on the Haunted Mansion is almost imperceptible because it's too esoteric. Since our vehicles would be spinning, I knew I wanted a linear story that would be easy to follow. Having Jessica tied up and kidnapped, like in those old film noir movies, seemed like a good motivator for a car chase. And sets up a rescue at the end. So that's what I did, the car chase takes us through Toontown.
My friend and writer, Art Verity, wrote out the dialogue and humor. He was so accommodating and easy to work with. I even had a chance to record my voice for some of the characters. My voice is heard as the Gorilla in the queue area, the bull in the China shop, and one of the laughing Jack-in-the-box clowns in the warehouse.
What was it like to work with others at Disney?
Joe Lanzisero was a wonderful boss to work for. All of my designs went through Joe's approval, and he was very accommodating. I could tell he wanted to work with me on the Car-Toon Spin ride, but he had his hands full with the entire Toontown project. As such, he trusted my judgement and allowed me to create the experience. I'm very grateful to him for giving me such a wonderful opportunity. I was only 25 years old in 1990, and I was in charge of a 40 million dollar Disneyland ride! (That dollar amount would later be cut nearly in half due to the onset of the recession and the disappointing opening for Euro Disneyland, the final budget for the Car-Toon Spin ride was closer to 22 million.)
Car Toon Spin Art by Marcelo Vignali
These projects don't happen single-handedly, and I would be remiss for not mentioning the very talented Andrea Favilli. Being only a few years older than me, Andrea was one of the most talented men I have ever worked with, and his talent was recruited to help with the design effort. Since I had worked in animation, I understood the importance of working in close proximity. So, I cleared out a spot in office, and invited Andrea to come and work in my office. He did, we were practically back to back, and the work was amazing. We drank Yoo-hoo, did push-ups, and worked our tails off. The president of Imagineering, Marty Sklar, remarked that the artwork for Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin Ride was some of the finest artwork he had seen since Pirates of the Caribbean.
Was there any concern about having Jessica appear in Car-Toon Spin, and actually having her "tied up" in the beginning of the ride?
Hah! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time! But, I realize that image taken out of context can appear very inappropriate. When the studio wanted to make prints of my designs for the ride, they printed THAT exact image. When I saw it, I was horrified! I never intended this to be a stand alone image. I asked them to pull the image from the public, and thankfully they did -- but they did sell these prints to Disney employees (cast) only. So, they're out there if you can find them! As it turns out, that's the collectible everyone wants.
I've heard that Car-Toon Spin was originally supposed to be a two-story ride. Do you have any details on what the ride was supposed to be like at that scale?
Yes, the ride was originally supposed to be a two-story ride. If you look at the exterior of the Car-Toon Spin ride (designed by Andrea Favilli), off to the left, you can see the doors of the glass company are wide enough for a ride vehicle. That's because the ride vehicle was supposed to break out through those doors. This was also part of that initial storyboard that Joe Lanzisero created, but a two-story ride never happened.
The way the project was structured, the exterior of Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin was completed first. As a matter of fact, the foundations for all the buildings had to be poured, and the electrical, plumbing, and support had to be laid out before most of the interiors had been settled on -- most especially the Car-Toon Spin ride since the opening date was going to be a year after the opening of Toontown.
As it turns out the ride system for the Roger Rabbit Car-Toon Spin Ride wasn't able to deliver. The ride vehicle was going to be a single chassis bus-bar system -- with a three wheeled chassis in order to bank the corners, climb the elevation, and go to the upstairs. As it turns out, the ride vehicle wasn't able to climb the elevation.
What happened after it was discovered the whole design of the ride had to be changed?
I'll never forget when the ride system engineer had to break the bad news to us during a deliverables meeting. Poor Joe, when he heard the news his face went ashen, it looked like someone had sucker-punched him in the stomach.
Surprisingly, I remember taking the "bad news" well, maybe because I was too busy to panic -- or too young to know how much trouble we were in. I do remember rolling up my sleeves with our CAD engineer and trying to figure out how we were going to pull it off. I was surprised to discover that we didn't really loose much square footage. Much of our footage was eaten up by the ramp going up and then down. I found that if we weaved our lower-level track in a very clever way, we could recover quite a bit of track footage. Soon, I was feeling really good about this new change.
It's funny the way things work out. I think the ride is a better ride because of this "bad-news." You see, in the end, we didn't loose much track footage, we were able to take advantage of our high ceilings, our show design and track layout was more compact and economical, and since we didn't go outside we could continue to use black-light. Also, since we didn't have to go upstairs, we created a tandem vehicle and increased our total hour ride capacity. Overall, that "problem" ended up helping us make a better ride.
Do you know who sculpted or created the Roger and Jessica animatronics for the ride, and some of the process for that?
No, I don't remember. I do remember a lot of our sculptures were farmed out to outside vendors in order to control costs, so I don't believe the individual was at the studio. But, I do remember when the fiberglass sculpts were at the Tujunga studio, it was fun seeing the paint, costumes, fur and feather, bring the designs to life.
Do you have any other stories about the Car-Toon Spin ride people may not know about?
Yes, I have a bunch of stories. Jim Steinmeyer is a well-known magician that builds world class illusions for the top magicians in the world. Andrea Favilli introduced me to Jim, and I picked his brain about how we could create some of our illusions in a cost effective way. Jim was the one that came up with a clever way of making the portable hole work. That world class solution is a simple illusion still confounds guests, and I have Jim to thank for that.
I drew a caricature of both Joe [Lanzisero] and I as the Jack-in-the-box clowns in the warehouse. And, both of us recorded the laughter for the clowns! My box has an "M" for Marcelo, and his box has a "J" for Joe.
Were there other plans for Disneyland's Toontown that never happened?
Oh, gosh, YES! There were so many versions, so many ideas. The original idea for Toontown was to spill out into the area where the Princess Fantasy Faire theater currently resides...on the other side of the berm! That area was going to be Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood! And, I also designed a bumper-car ride that was going to be Donald Duck's used car lot -- Donald's Deals is what we were going to call it. Instead, that's where we built the Five and Dime.
Mickey's Toontown in Disneyland
What was your opinion of Disneyland's Toontown and the rides once it was all completed?
As designers, I think we're really hard on ourselves. Since we were part of all the iterations and variations, we have a tendency to focus on what could have been -- whereas the guest only sees what is. I remember that there was a level of disappointment with every budget, logistical or technological obstacle we encountered, but all of those feelings went away by the time we opened the park. By the opening day of Toontown in 1993, I had a tremendous sense of appreciation for everyone's hard work and effort. We created a fantastic project, and I'm proud that I was a part of it.
Jessica Rabbit's escape from Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin and the original design artwork by Marcelo Vignali
Roger Rabbit's Hollywood was rumored to be planned as part of MGM Studios, but it was never created. Do you know why there was never a Toontown or Roger Rabbit ride in Disney World?
Hmm, that idea was never floated while I was working on Anaheim's Toontown. My guess is that it would have competed with Mickey's Starland at the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps that idea came along later after I left Imagineering and was working on Disney's animated features.
Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin ride is still very popular. If there was one created for Disney World today, do you think it would be as popular?
I still think Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin Ride would be a popular ride today, even for those that never saw WFRR. Since I didn't stick with a ride variation of the movie, but rather a tribute ride to the cartoon world, I believe it would hold up with audiences today. It's a fun experience that works with or without the WFRR movie.
All in all, I'm indebted to everyone at Imagineering (too numerous to mention) that helped make that project so special, but more importantly for the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the box office. I realize now that Zemekis' 1988 hit played a pivotal role in my career. That movie became the spark of interest in animation that would create the boom for Disney's Feature Animation's second Golden Age. Without WFRR I may never have had the opportunity to work on Disney's animated features. And, the Roger Rabbit Car-Toon Spin Ride also became one of my most treasured experiences while working at Walt Disney Imagineering.
The Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin ride has become a favorite and still continues to entertain people, even if they have seen the movie or not. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about its creation.
Thanks for letting me share some of stories with you and your readers.
Marcelo (Moe) Vignali