Radiator Springs Racers: Immersive Storytelling in Three Acts

Great stories come in a multitude of forms, but often, such stories are portrayed in a classic, conventional three-act structure; The Setup, the Confrontation, and the Solution. All great stories, whether it be a novel or a feature film include some form of this three-act structure though it’s exact events and placements may vary. Seeing as how the purpose of a Disney Park and Resort is to immerse guests within a particular story, attractions and lands often follow these three-act structures as well – though its use is not always as pronounced as when it is while watching a film or otherwise. There are few attractions that do this greater than Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land, which uses a continuous three-element structure to deliver one of the most poignant, perfect attractions from Walt Disney Imagineering. 

At the core of the attraction lies its central themes; a call to action, the challenging exploration of one’s own self and abilities, and the value of friendship/community. With these central themes, the attraction takes guests on a winding journey through a linear story that touches upon the use of a setup, a confrontation, and a solution (that for added measure, varies with each ride!). When Radiator Springs Racers begins, guests are taken on a winding journey through the stunning mountains of Ornament Valley, which accompanied by the beautiful film score by music legend Randy Newman, curves to reveal a gorgeous waterfall, akin to the very same journey taken by Lightning McQueen and Sally in the first Cars film. This is the start of the first-act that foreshadows the adventure and you are about to take and the adversity you will face. It also showcases the beauty you will find within it – if you’re brave enough to face it – and the satisfactory result you will find at the end of your journey if you do. Your experience riding through Radiator Springs is meant to recreate the experiences of Lightning McQueen, who through his own journey in the town found the value of friendship and ultimately found greater success than he had ever dreamed of. 

Once you enter the interior of the attraction into Radiator Springs, you are met by Mater and the residents of the town, who inform you that your visit to the Cutest Little Town In Carburetor County perfectly coincided with the big race occurring in the town that same day. As the attraction progresses and the preparations continue for the big race, you soon learn that you won’t merely be a bystander in this historic race, you’re going to be participating in it! Not to worry though, you won’t be at this alone, as the whole town has shown up to support you and make sure you have all that you need to make it past the finish line and make all of Radiator Springs proud. Your new friends are counting on you, and you don’t want to let them down! 

This brilliant hand-off from being an observer in the story to the realization that you are the star of this story is a phenomenal example of immersive storytelling and is the call-to-action that most great stories are embedded within. Many of the stories we consume and hold dear are about ordinary characters who come upon extraordinary circumstances – rarely do these characters know that the events of the first act in their story will take them on a harrowing adventure that only they have the power to influence. It’s the exact type of circumstance that passes on what type of story that reminds us that we are not an observer, but this story is certainly in the hands of the primary character in the tale (that’s you!). 

Finally, all the town has come to help you, including the legendary Doc Hudson! Once the flag is waved, the race has begun – and you quickly find yourself racing alongside another racecar to the finish line – but just like living in a real story, neither of you truly knows who will win. The magic in this conclusive act is that like real stories, we never know where our stories will lead us, and this ability to leave the ‘ winning car’ a constant mystery with each ride allows us to leave our stories up to chance. We can’t predict where our stories will end, but if we’re brave enough to take the journey, we’ll find much that we value along the way. 

In recent years, we have begun to see many attractions that challenge guests by questioning their own outcomes. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is one of those such attractions because it puts guests in control of their own outcome but never promises a true success. In fact, you could fail miserably, losing your crew thousands of points and severely damaging the Millenium Falcon or you could be the best pilot in the galaxy, earning intergalactic credits for yourself and Hondo Ohnaka. This shift has put guests as the center of the story, and never tells the outcome, even on consecutive ride-throughs. Certainly, great attractions do exist in which you, the guest, are solely a bystander – meaning that you have no role in this story, but you are a visitor into this world and its unfolding events (Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean are examples of such attractions). At the same time, we see ourselves at the evolution of the need to directly affect those ending in which we, the guest, influence stories rather than being influenced by them. 

It’s because of this brilliant ability to portray immersive stories in a three-act structure and the clever hand-off in the ride’s central storytelling that makes Radiator Springs Racers such a marvelous accomplishment. The call to adventure and the central themes allow this attraction to flow and make for an immersive experience that is quite unparalleled in most attractions. The next time you’re on-board a ride of any sort, stop to think about how the story is conveying theme and emotion to you. Is it giving you all of the information at once, or is it withholding some info as part of your own character journey? Is it conveyed through a mere exposition or through a three-act story? Great design is in the elements you don’t notice, but stop to think about the many things that affect you as a key part of that story and how you change it as much as it changes you.