Interview with Toy Story Mania’s Award Winning Creative Team

| December 4, 2009

It was recently announced that Disney’s Toy Story Mania! received the amusement park industry’s top international award for an attraction.  Toy Story Mania! won the THEA Award for Outstanding Achievement – an international award given to a new amusement park ride.  Toy Story Mania! is a favorite attraction for our DIS Unplugged listeners for a number of reasons.  We had our first Toy Story Mania! Private Party last December with nearly 500 guests, and coming up on Saturday, December 12 we will have our second Toy Story Mania Party with approximately 700 guests.  Disney Imagineers Kevin Rafferty (writer/director) and Sue Bryan (show producer) and Roger Gould from Pixar’s Theme Park Group were part of the creative team that brought the award-winning attraction to life, and agreed to an interview to give their perspective on how this ride was developed.  You can listen to my complete interview by clicking on the link below the break.

Click here to listen to the interview with the Toy Story Mania creative team.

Dave Parfitt: Congratulations on the THEA Award, and thank you for joining us today.  Could you tell us a little about the creation of the ride, and what was your inspiration?

Kevin Rafferty: Whooooo hooooo!  We were so inspired by the Buzz Lightyear attraction, an attraction that is also a game.  We were thinking what would be another way to introduce an attraction that is a game?  We were also inspired by an attraction at Disney QuestPirates of the Carribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold, and we loved the cannon mechanism on that attraction.  We were actually thinking about a place on Paradise Pier at Disney’s California Adventure to begin with to put in an attraction that had to do with intuitive Midway Games like Carnival Games, and what if we could ride through the carnival games, and that led to “which characters would be a really fun troupe of players to host these games?” We immediately went to the Toy Story characters, and then it all kind of fell together about creating this spring action shooter, and being able to follow the trajectory of the balls and the darts that you toss out, and we got with Sue and the creation of the games, and, of course, Roger and the Pixar gang and it all fell together very quickly.  We came up with a little story about how Andy got this Midway Games Playset for his birthday, and we got invited to come in and play the games, and it just went from there.

Luckily, Andy is very fastidious.  He keeps his games in really good shape – we were able to use the whole game.


Photo by Disney Imagineer Sue Bryan, part of the team that developed the games within Toy Story Mania as well as the spring-action shooters seen here.

DP: And I see you represent the classic games of the 1960’s and 70’s which was my childhood too.  It’s nice to see those old-style games.

Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, that’s very much the sensibility of Andy’s bedroom.  Even though the film Toy Story (the first one) was released in 1995 that bedroom is really more of an amalgam of the memories of the childhoods of the filmmakers: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton.  So we wanted a game that was really evocative of that period.

DP: So did the attraction’s design and storyline change much over the three years of development?

Kevin Rafferty: It’s funny, it really held true to its original concept, and that was to be able to ride through and be able to play the midway/carnival type of games.  Sue can speak to this, but I think the only thing that changed the most was the actual play testing of the games themselves and how they were developed.  It was just a really fun process, and we learned a lot through that play-testing.

Sue Bryan: Yeah, I would say the concept was so great when we got it that there really wasn’t much for what needed to be added in terms of what the high concept was.  So we really focused on trying to take classic carnival games and make them both intuitive and have the same kind of depth that we needed for our audience who often come back again and again and are also composed of a really diverse group.  We’ve got young kids who need to be able to play something really easy, and then we’ve got teenagers who play games all the time and we needed to have some kind of depth and challenge for them.  So we really spent most of our time trying to work out what the game play would be that would satisfy that whole audience.

Kevin Rafferty: And I have to say Dave, one of my favorite parts about the attraction is it’s something that grandparents and grandchildren and everybody in between can play together and feel successful and have a good time.

DP: I totally agree with you and everything you’re saying, and part of the reason we’ve had our annual listener party at the Toy Story Mania attraction is because it’s fun not only for people of all ages, but like Sue was saying, people who like different types of attractions, people with different levels of gaming experience.  It seemed like that must have been a real challenge for the design team, and you guys really nailed it.

Kevin Rafferty: In the end we wanted this to be that you were having fun playing.  We didn’t want it to feel like this was about contemporary gaming in a home entertainment thing.  We wanted it to feel like a classic carnival experience which is a little bit old fashioned.  It’s something that could be relatable to people of all ages.

Sue Bryan: We also wanted there to be different ways for people to play so that when people come off the ride you can have different people being successful in different ways, and being proud of that.  So you’ll see details like some people will play very carefully and shoot very slowly and carefully.  Some people will pull that string as fast as they can.  So there are people who are interested in accuracy and people that are interested in their score.  When you listen to people coming off the ride you often hear a couple coming off and one person will say, “hey, I got the better score!” and the other person will say, “yeah, but I got the better accuracy.”  That’s something that makes us really happy.

DP: That’s something we actually saw at our party last year.  We had the ride to ourselves.  There were about 500 people, and we had people riding the ride 10-11 times in a row, and they were getting off the ride and you could hear them competing with each other. “Oh, what was your score?  What was your score?”  And there’s already been a lot of trash-talking going on leading up to the next party that we have coming up.  So you really do create something that had a lot of appeal.

Sue, when you were testing it you must have been testing the ride in people of all ages, and looking for that response in everybody.

Disney Imagineer Sue Bryan testing out plush prizes from carnival midway games on a research trip to the Los Angeles County Fair

Image: Disney Imagineer Sue Bryan testing out plush prizes from carnival midway games on a research trip to the Los Angeles County Fair.

Sue Bryan: Yeah exactly, play testing is a huge part of our interactive design process.  We started within 6 weeks of having the project turned on we had a prototype, and we started bringing people in to try to find out what was going to work best in terms of translating these games to a different medium.  We brought people in every 6-8 weeks.  We were always testing the versions of the software.  We spent a lot of time with people.  We asked them a lot of questions, and we really try to find out the things that we don’t realize are going wrong.  Because when you design an interactive for a really broad audience like this it’s impossible to predict how that many different kinds of people are going to use something.  In terms of user-interface, in terms of how they understand the game and how they want to play it.  We tested 100’s and 100’s of people.  Including, once we got to the field, and we were doing our installation, we were actually testing the guests that were there.  But even when we started back in Glendale, we always tried to bring in people that who were very representative of our audience.

DP: Sounds like it’d be a lot of fun actually.

Sue Bryan: Laughs… It is.  It’s stressful too though because you’re working with prototypes and hardware that was just thrown together, and things break all the time, and there’s a lot of duct tape and running around behind the scenes that happens.

Roger Gould: A lot of caveats, laughs… OK, you’re in a warehouse, and it’s just plywood, but imagine… laughing…

Kevin Rafferty: There’s a lot of invention that went on.

Seated, from left to right in the photo, are Disney Imagineers Robert Coltrin and Kevin Rafferty, the co-concept designers for Toy Story Mania!

Image: Seated, from left to right in the photo, are Disney Imagineers Robert Coltrin and Kevin Rafferty, the co-concept designers for Toy Story Mania!

DP: Roger, as the representative of Pixar, could you talk a little about your interaction and collaboration with Disney Imagineering?

Roger Gould: Sure, well it’s been quite a long, ongoing effort that’s really, really exciting because basically Imagineering has blessed us by taking inspiration from different Pixar films to create great new attractions and lands and experiences in the parks.  I’ve had the pleasure of that becoming my full time job here, and the Imagineers are so great to work with because it’s the same core culture that we have here [at Pixar].  Trying to make great entertainment experiences for people of all ages that are timeless, that are going to last year after year after year, and to use technology to do innovative things that we’ve never been able to do before.  Toy Story Midway Mania fires on all cylinders on all those counts.  It’s an attraction we couldn’t have even built 5 years ago.  So a lot of it is really about making sure that as we’re bringing this whole thing together we’re as true to the film as possible.  A lot of times it’s asking funny questions, where are we, and where are we in time?  OK, we have the Roundup Gang, we really wanted to have Jesse and Bullseye in there so, OK, we must be after Toy Story 2.  We’re already working on this movie Toy Story 3, so we peeked ahead, “are we there? No, no, no… Andy’s going off to college.”  No, we want to stay back to right after Toy Story 2 and create this idealized idea of Andy’s room where all the best friends have joined together.

Then, because we shrunk down to the size of toys, one of the funny questions we have to ask is, “well how big are we, and how big are the characters?”  I remember we were down in the concept lab, the prototype space, and we had this test where we went, “ok, how big are Woody and Buzz and Jesse?”, and we had to scale thing where we just kept growing them and there was a point where it was, “they’re SCARY BIG!”, and then we backed down and there was a point where around 5 foot 8, 5 foot 10, Woody feels good.  It was interesting.  There’s nothing you could figure out on paper.  You just had to sit there and experience it, when does it feel right?

Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty with the finished Mr. Potato Head figure from Toy Story Mania.

Image: Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty with the finished Mr. Potato Head figure from Toy Story Mania.

DP: Yeah, and speaking of the characters and selecting the characters for the game, one of the things that’s really amazing about the attraction is the Mr. Potato Head Boardwalk Barker audio-animatronic – the 5 foot tall Potato Head.  How did you come about a.) selecting that character to emphasize, and then what went into the development of that sophisticated audio-animatronic?

Roger Gould: It’s all Kevin’s fault.  Laughter…

Kevin Rafferty: Well you know we thought about who would be a great character from the Toy Story gang to send out.  Who would Woody send out if they arranged all these games and set them all up and wanted to invite all the players to come in, who would they send out?  Well, one of the great spokesmen for their little troupe is Mr. Potato Head so you can imagine Woody saying, “Hey, Potato Head!  Go out there and round-up a bunch of folks to come in and play with us.”  He just seemed to be the perfect Boardwalk Barker.

We also thought it’d be a lot of fun to have him out there because of his removable parts and his personality.  We even challenged our production group here at Imagineering to create a character that could actually take his ear off and they managed to pull it off.

Roger Gould: And put it back on as well. [laughs]  It was really fantastic because, Don Rickles the original voice of Mr. Potato Head, we wanted to have a character that could truly interact with guests, but we wanted it to be authentic to the way he sounds in the films.  So it’s quite a complicated back end to have this living character, Mr. Potato Head, that can interact with people.  It meant that we had Don Rickles come in again, and again, and again to help us flesh out this huge conversation that Mr. Potato Head could have with the guests.  Don was just a blast to work with.

Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty (seated) and Pixar Theme Park Group\'s Roger Gould (standing) work with comedian Don Rickles during the vocal recording of the dialogue for Mr. Potato Head Audio-Animatronic.

Image: Disney Imagineer Kevin Rafferty (seated) and Pixar Theme Park Group\’s Roger Gould (standing) work with comedian Don Rickles during the vocal recording of the dialogue for Mr. Potato Head Audio-Animatronic.

DP: I was going to ask what it was like to work with Don Rickles?  How does he feel to be a Disney icon now?

Kevin Rafferty: [chuckles] I think he loves it.  You know he has a couple of grandkids, and he had such a good time doing it.  Roger and I spent about, I don’t know, over 30, 33, 35 hours with him in the studio, and we really got to know him very well.  He just seemed very excited to be having a role in this attraction.  He was very happy.  He came out on opening day and just had a blast.

Roger Gould: He’s such a comedy legend that it was really so fun to work with him.  Of course, he’s the world’s most famous insult comedian.  We knew we were really doing a good job and he was going to trust us when he started insulting us left and right.  I don’t know Kevin, he seemed to insult me more than you.

Kevin Rafferty: [laughs] Yeah, he did.  I think you gave him a little bit more material to go on.  Laughing…
I knew things were going well when he showed up at one of the recording sessions and he saw me and he shook his head and he said, “You’re like the son I never wanted.”  Laughing… It was so funny because every once in a while, he’s such a sweet guy and he’s so wonderful, and he’d step into the Rickles mode, and he’d say something like, “Hey Kev, Barbara and I would love to have you over for dinner, but it’d be our luck he’d show up.” Laughing…

DP: He’d just let it fly then.

Kevin Rafferty: [laughs] Yeah, he was great.

Roger Gould: He was amazing.

DP: OK, I have to ask.  We’re having this party at Toy Story Mania again in a couple weeks, and we have some competitive listeners that are really excited about getting the high scores.  Do you have any tips or tricks you can share with us to get a high score?

Kevin Rafferty: The key thing is it’s like using the Force in Star Wars – blindfolded.
Laughing…

Sue Bryan: There are a lot of different tips.  Some of them seem really obvious, but when you’re in the thick of playing the game it’s hard to remember things like look all around the screen because people when they first play tend to look in the very middle of the screen if you haven’t played before.  We’ve hidden a lot of the higher value targets in different places.

Also, sometimes a target is a lower value target, but if you hit that one it will trigger another target to create what we call multi-stage targets.

For a lot of people, shooting as fast as you can, at least, as long as you don’t tire your arm out, is a big one.
Then there are things to look for, we have Easter Eggs in each of the scenes.  You’ve probably found some of them already.  I don’t want to give most of them away but I will hint that the cloud balloons and the sun balloons in the balloon game, if you get all of them something special might happen.

DP: I’ll keep an eye out for that.  So, finally, what does receiving this award from the Themed Entertainment Association mean to the team?

Sue Bryan: I think that, for a lot of us, just knowing that people cared enough to pay attention to the small details that make Mania work.  A lot of what I think is really satisfying about Mania is the amazing details and the set work and the character design and the game design and it is the whole package that we’re really excited about and appreciate the honor.

Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, it really felt wonderful just to win this award.  It reminded me of a quote that Dustin, a member of our team said while we were developing the attraction.  He said, “It was so hard to make it so easy.”  It’s almost a recognition that they are aware of everything that went into the design and development of this attraction.  Of course, we’re very proud.

Roger Gould: It’s really, really thrilling.  I think Sue makes a great point.  It’s really just to talk about the gaming which we’re really proud of, but, on both coasts [California and Florida] we’re also really thrilled with the physical experience we created for the guests.  The way we’re able to create to really different portals to bring you into this world.  Here on the West Coast, Disney’s California Adventure, you’re out on the Victorian Midway.  We’ve built this beautiful Victorian setting for it.  Out there in Florida, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, creating Pixar Place… I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of our studio, but we’ve re-created the Pixar Studio out there.  It’s a crazy doppelganger experience to be 1,000’s of miles from work and feel like you’re right there.

It was that whole space, and creating Andy’s room… one of the highlights of the whole experience for me was when we were still in progress but we had the bones of the whole building in Florida up.  We walked into that big load/unload area where we decorated the whole thing like you’re in Andy’s room, and John Lasseter walked in and he said, “Aaaaahhh, I’ve never been in Andy’s room!”
You build these things, and then in the end you’re really just trying to make something you’re really proud of.  I think, we’re all so thrilled, and excited, and proud, of what we made, and it’s just a wonderful honor that THEA has recognized us and shared our joy.

DP: Congratulations again on the honor.

Finally, a special thank you to Frank Reifsnyder of Walt Disney Imagineering for his help in arranging the interview and for providing images used in the article.  So good luck with playing Toy Story Mania!  Do you have any tips, tricks or Easter Eggs you’d like to share?  Log on with your DISboards username and password and let us know.


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