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The real Route 66 inspirations behind Disney's Cars Land

January 05, 2013|By Brady MacDonald, Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • The Walt Disney Imagineering team visits the Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Okla.
The Walt Disney Imagineering team visits the Sandhills Curiosity Shop… (Walt Disney Imagineering )

I've been trying in vain for the better part of a decade to get my family to take a road trip along Route 66.

Nothing worked until my wife and daughter stepped onto the fake Route 66 in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure — and suddenly their interest piqued in the Mother Road.

Photos: The real Route 66 inspirations for Disney's Cars Land

In an attempt to close the deal on my dream vacation, I decided to search for the real-world inspirations behind the fictional town of Radiator Springs.

Fortunately for me, the folks at Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Imagineering have already made the trip several times — all in the name of research, of course.

Pixar's chief creative officer John Lasseter, a car junkie and son of a onetime Chevrolet parts manager, dreamed up the idea for what would eventually become the 2006 "Cars" movie after a family road trip along Route 66.

Lasseter sent his Pixar team on several fact-finding tours along Route 66 to garner inspiration for the film from the real people and places along the fabled road. In his capacity as Imagineering's chief creative advisor, Lasseter also sent a Disney team out to explore Route 66 when Cars Land was still just in the planning stages at Disney California Adventure.

The trips were led by historian and storyteller Michael Wallis, author of "Route 66: The Mother Road" and voice of the Sheriff in the "Cars" movies.

"We went through towns just like Radiator Springs," Wallis said. "I took them out on the road and exposed them to the places they never would have found and people they never would have met."

The fictional movie town of Radiator Springs, faithfully replicated at Disney's Anaheim theme park, draws inspiration from a number of locations along a 1,000-mile stretch of Route 66 between Kingman, Ariz., and Tulsa, Okla.

"In a Disney theme park, story is everything," said Kevin Rafferty, a senior concept writer at Imagineering and one of the lead developers of Cars Land. "We made sure there were no contradictions with the film."

The scavenger hunts sought to track down the sights, sounds, textures, kitsch, charm, warmth and heritage of Route 66.

"We wanted to capture the vibe and feel of road," Rafferty said.

The experiences of the road — recorded in notebooks and sketchpads and captured in photos and videos — helped inform the narratives, architecture, merchandise and even menu items found in Cars Land.

"We don't go inside any of the buildings in the movie and see the interiors," Rafferty said. "It was a tough but fun challenge to make up the stories and fill in the blanks of the land."

While a few of the buildings in Radiator Springs are exact replicas of landmarks along Route 66, most of the businesses populated and operated by the automotive characters in the movie are a pastiche of places found along the fading but still popular road.

I decided to organize the real Route 66 inspirations here by the buildings and attractions in Cars Land.

Radiator Springs Racers

The $200-million E-ticket ride sits on a six-acre swath of man-made rock work dubbed the Cadillac Mountain Range.

The tailfin ridgeline draws inspiration from the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, a public art installation featuring a row of graffiti-covered Cadillacs half-buried nose-first in the ground.

"Cadillac Ranch is a must stop for any road warrior," Wallis said.

The radiator cap mesa at the center of the road race ride is based on Tucumcari Mountain in Tucumcari, N.M. Even the "RS" painted on the butte mimics the capital "T" on the side of Tucumcari Mountain.

The rusty red striated grooves of the Cars Land mountain range look just like the real cliffs looming above the Teepee Trading Post in Lupton, Ariz. The ride's load and unload stations are dead ringers for the arched caverns hovering behind the Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post, also located in Lupton along the New Mexico border.

The sequential Rusteze signs placed consecutively along the front of the Racers ride are an ode to the Burma Shave roadside advertising campaign — remnants of which can still be found along Route 66 between Ash Fork and Kingman, Ariz.

Cozy Cone Motel

The snack stands in Cars Land serve chili cone carne, cone on the cob, popcone and other food pun novelties.

The five oversized orange safety cones that double as snack stands are an obvious reference to the Wigwam Village in Holbrook, Ariz. Another teepee-style motel can be found in San Bernardino.

The Cozy Cone office, run by Sally the Porsche in the movie, recalls the Blue Swallow Motel, a neon beacon in Tucamcari, New Mexico.

For the time being, the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla., remains home to the real-world inspiration for the Sally character — restaurant proprietor Dawn Welch. After rebuilding following a 2008 fire, Welch has put the Rock Cafe up for sale.

Flo's V8 Cafe

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