Disney Parks around the world are known for their brilliant attractions with top-notch technology, storytelling, and immersiveness… and then there’s Superstar Limo. Does it really deserve the title of the worst ride Disney has ever made? Is Drew Carey still hanging out in the ride’s current iteration? And what does Princess Diana have to do with anything?
Welcome back to 1313 Disneyland Drive! It was about time I show some love to Disney California Adventure. Previously, we’ve taken a look at Rocket Rods, a Disney ride with original grand plans, lackluster execution, heavy critique, and a short lifespan. These four themes are going to seem familiar as we dive into the infamous Superstar Limo, one of Disney California Adventure’s opening day attractions.
© Jeff Keller
From the beginning, California Adventure was a strange concept. A theme park about California… in California. Locals already knew what their state offered, and tourists who wanted to experience the Golden Gate Bridge, redwood forests, or Hollywood probably prefered to visit the real locations. And who wouldn’t love a land themed around agriculture and tractors? Currently, we live in a post-California Adventure-revamp world with masterfully themed areas, like Radiator Springs and Buena Vista Street, and popular attractions like Toy Story Midway Mania and Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout. But not that long ago (before 2012, to be exact), California Adventure was a pretty different place.
Delving into the history of California Adventure’s development as a whole would take several articles to finish. The bottom line is, heavy-handed tributes to the Golden State did not translate to popularity amongst guests [link]. But in some cases, Superstar Limo included, the original concepts for the park hinted at much grander products than the final result. Jim Hill has an extensive write up on what Superstar Limo could have been.
The original vision for Superstar Limo began with the exterior: the Hollywood section was supposed to feature a replica of Los Angeles International Airport’s Theme Building. Guests would enter the queue for Superstar Limo inside this scaled-down replica.
LAX Theme Building © Tabitha Anctil
The ride experience itself was also planned to be rather different than what we ended up with. The guests were to take on the role of A-list celebrities and were told, by none other than Disney CEO Michael Eisner himself, that if they made it to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in time, they could sign their movie contract. Luckily, your limo driver promised to get you there in time. What would follow was a mad-dash through Hollywood with paparazzi on your tail, filled with gags poking fun at celebrities and celebrity culture. Unlike Disney Hollywood Studios’ Rockin’ Roller Coaster, which features a similar concept of a high-speed limo racing guests through Hollywood to meet a deadline, Superstar Limo was not supposed to be a roller coaster. For certain gags, the limo would even stop or slow down to let guests fully appreciate the jokes before taking off again. Ultimately, guests did not meet Michael Eisner in time to sign the contract, but they got to exit through the Grauman’s Theater-themed gift shop anyway.
This was the general plan for Superstar Limo. And then, the tragic events of Aug. 31, 1997, occurred when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a limo crash while being pursued by paparazzi. In the aftermath of the highly public accident met with worldwide grief, Disney executives realized that overnight, Superstar Limo’s theme had become extremely inappropriate.
The attraction went through extensive changes. The ‘chased by paparazzi’ element was removed and the limos were slowed way, way down. What was originally supposed to be ‘thrilling’ became more of a ‘slow plod.’ An interesting point Hill brings up is that fast moving attractions don’t require heavy detail due to their speed, but slow moving attractions require heavily detailed decor and show scenes to keep it visually interesting. This proved to be another difficult element of transitioning the attraction to its new version: creating new story content.
Between budget cuts (for not just the one attraction but California Adventure as a whole) and current events, Superstar Limo was straying further and further away from its original concept. Michael Eisner, who had once been rather invested in the ride, started to distance himself. He even said it no longer made sense for him to appear in the attraction, given the cartoon-y style of the show scenes. In an effort to make the reimagined ride exciting but still save on costs, Disney turned to an assortment of celebrities that were in some way connected to ABC or Disney and gained permission for their likenesses to appear in Superstar Limo in the form of caricature-like mannequins. The stars that appeared in the queue or ride itself were Joan Rivers, Cher, Jackie Chan, Regis Philbin, Tim Allen, Cindy Crawford, Drew Carey, and everyone’s favorite couple, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas… oh wait.
Was the sheer starpower of this random collection of ‘90s heros enough to save the attraction? Well, just stick around and see.
The Superstar Limo that debuted on California Adventure’s opening day of Feb. 8, 2001, was wildly different than original concepts. What was once a wild and wacky chase opened as a slow moving tour of an overly stylized and subtly satirical take on Hollywood. But it’s not like speed is the only thing that deems an attraction worthy—plenty of classic and beloved Disney attractions move at a snail’s pace. Superstar Limo wasn’t doomed based solely on its speed. No, Superstar Limo was doomed because this was the final product:
The video above kind of speaks for itself. For the most part, the ride was not well-received. Superstar Limo represented part of what was wrong with California Adventure as a park: not only did it feel cheaper and less ‘Disney’ than Disneyland, it was an odd representation of California that somehow missed the mark for both locals and tourists. A cheesy, brightly-colored dark ride wasn’t exactly a replacement for actually visiting Hollywood. The attraction lacked any semblance of story aside from ‘you’re a movie star traveling through Tinseltown with an annoying agent bugging you every thirty seconds’ and, maybe even more importantly, it lacked charm.
Think of Snow White’s Scary Adventure. It’s short, slow, and the story is just various vignettes from the movie, but it makes you feel something when you enter the spooky woods or watch the seven dwarfs all dance and sing together. Superstar Limo didn’t invoke emotion or that classic Disney magic. Would the original concepts have produced a more popular, better-made attraction? It’s impossible to tell. All we know for sure is that Superstar Limo was not fated to be a Disney classic.
It was evident Superstar Limo just wasn’t going to work out for California Adventure. Guests knew it, and Disney knew it too. Less than a year after the park opened, Superstar Limo closed on Jan. 11, 2002 supposedly for refurbishments, but it would never open again. Not as Superstar Limo, anyway. It was California Adventure’s first attraction to permanently close, and Disney had ideas of how to transform the ride into something more attractive to guests.
Before the attraction had even closed, Disney was already considering ways to retheme it. The first was to use leftover Disney character figures from the many Disney Store locations nationwide that were undergoing a retheming of their own. Instead of industry satire and an assortment of celebrities, the attraction would feature familiar Disney characters and be renamed Goofy’s Superstar Limo. Seems like a decent idea, right? However, this would never come to be. Most likely the events of Sept. 11, 2001, led to scrapping this idea, due to the massive hit the theme park industry took in revenue as the nation mourned.
Another possible retheming came later down the line. Disney moved forward in their plans to acquire rights to Jim Henson’s Muppets in 2003. At this time, Superstar Limo was still closed and the attraction building laid dormant. Disney Imagineers came up with a plan to reopen Superstar Limo and gradually integrate Muppet characters working on ‘fixing up’ the attraction, as well as run ads sort of admitting the ride was subpar, but not to worry because Dr. Bunsen and Beaker were on the case. The new attraction title? Miss Piggy’s Superstar Limo. This marketing scheme sounds like a fantastic way to gather attention and hype towards reopening a rethemed version of the attraction. But, this never went beyond the conceptual phase. Disney executives weren’t sure if the Muppets were popular enough to justify the high cost of totally redoing an attraction. Plus, Disney didn’t own the Muppets yet. Rights take a lot of time to sort out, and without much faith from the higher ups, Miss Piggy’s Superstar Limo never saw the light of day either.
4. What’s Left?
There was one idea for retheming Superstar Limo that stuck: Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! Soft opening December 2005 and officially opening on Jan. 23, 2006, this dark ride utilized the exact same building, ride system, and vehicles as Superstar Limo.
Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! exterior © Tabitha Anctil
Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! isn’t any faster than Superstar Limo, but it has beloved characters, detailed show scenes, interesting special effects, and an actual story. Similar to the plot of the movie it’s based on, the attraction takes guests through Monstropolis and follows Mike and Sulley as they attempt to get their new friend Boo back home. The ride has remained open in operation since it’s opening in 2006 and overall is generally regarded more favorably by guests than Superstar Limo.
But now we get to what is, in my opinion, the best fact about Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! We already know Disney doesn’t mind reusing old props or animatronics (see: basically every audio animatronic in Splash Mountain), so while this isn’t surprising, it’s still pretty funny: it appears that nearly all the celebrity figures from Superstar Limo are still in the attraction that today operates as Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! They may be unrecognizable, however, considering they’re all donning yellow CDA (Child Detection Agency) suits.
© Screenshot from “California Adventure Superstar Limo 2001 Queue and Ride” on YouTube
Monsters Inc.: Mike & Sulley to the Rescue © Loren Javier on Flickr
Take a look at this detailed side by side photo comparison, or even just look closely at the ride through comparison below and pay close attention to the poses.
Sure, maybe stars like Regis Philben and Drew Carey aren’t as culturally relevant now as they were in 2001, but at least nowadays they make an honest living keeping Monstropolis safe from human child contamination. Honestly? I respect that.
That’s the rise and fall of Superstar Limo. Is it the worst ride Disney has ever made? To be honest, even a terrible Disney attraction is okay, in the grand scheme of things. One of Superstar Limo’s worst offenses was that it was too boring. There are worse sins to pin on a theme park attraction. Regardless, Monsters Inc. Mike and Sulley to the Rescue! is a much better use of space. Disney California Adventure has changed quite a lot since opening day eighteen years ago, with certain areas nearly unrecognizable. I have very fond memories of early California Adventure (not Superstar Limo, unfortunately—like many guests, my parents rode it once and then never again) in all its over-the-top ‘west coast, best coast’ glory, but even with nostalgia goggles on, it’s clear that today’s version is a vast improvement. May we all experience such a dramatic glow up in our futures as that of Cindy Crawford turning into a CDA agent.
Thanks for reading and see you on your next visit to 1313 Disneyland Drive!