Dressed in his corporate black suit, Walt Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger slaps on a pair of pink 3-D glasses and climbs alongside me in the two-person cab of a new ride at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim. Before long, Iger and I are ducking flying toys, aiming brightly colored plastic cannons at plates, and whizzing past Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and other characters on a ride based on Toy Story, the blockbuster computer animated film Pixar Studios made for Disney in 1995.
Toy Story Mania is part ride, part video arcade game. You pile up points for how many targets you can hit with cartoonish bullets sprayed at giant screens in a 3-D environment that is, well, more fun than a 56-year-old guy like me ought to have. The Pixar-inspired game that Disney's Imagineering technology gurus came up with is the first part of an estimated $1 billion makeover for the California Adventure theme park that has never quite lived up to its billing as a money-minting Anaheim companion to next-door Disneyland.
The ride is one of the many side benefits that Iger secured for Disney when he struck a $7.4 billion deal to buy Pixar from its majority owner Steve Jobs in 2006. That price was derided by some critics as way too much to pay for an animation factory in a mercurial box-office world, even one with a string of blockbusters. But as I sprayed yellow marshmallow bullets at targets being held aloft by bunny rabbits, it was pretty clear Iger may have something here. Along with movies, such as the Pixar-made robot-in-space film WALL-E that opens June 27, Iger is intent on finding other ways to wring revenues out of the deal. For instance, the company has been beefing up its ability to make computer games with an eye toward basing them on Toy Story, The Incredibles, and other Pixar films.
Disney's Resident Crazy
But Pixar has also brought what Disney needed most at the company: an infusion of imagination, sprinkled with some high-tech pizzazz for a long-time Disney core audience of younger kids who are increasingly tech savvy. That's thanks to John Lasseter, the Hawaiian shirt-wearing Pixar creative bandleader who directed the Toy Story movie.
As Lasseter was quick to a remind the crowd at Toy Story Mania's sun-drenched opening, he got his entertainment start sweeping Disneyland streets before graduating to guiding a boat on the Jungle Boat ride. Lasseter has become Disney's resident crazy, helping to think up rides like Toy Story Mania (which also opened at Disney World in Orlando) and the upcoming attraction based on Pixar's 2006 animated film Cars. "This is the start of the rebirth of California Adventure," Lasseter told the crowd.
He's Been Practicing
And what an adventure it was. Actors playing the Green Brigade soldiers from Toy Story parachuted into the opening ceremony, then did a little song and dance for the crowd ("No score has ever been too small," they sang in military cadence. "When games begin, we heed the call.") Woody was there, too. But Buzz Lightyear was AWOL, beamed instead from outer space—no, really—where the toy spaceman was dispatched to ride along in the Space Station, part of a joint educational promotion with NASA.
Back to the ride, where Iger is killing me…. I'm having trouble pulling the cord that fires the "bullets" (Iger was quick to tell me they didn't want kids playing with anything that looked like a real gun). Iger is littering the screen with shots, finding the right way to pull the cord to keep the "gun" from "jamming." He seems to be dead-on. In the end, he's piled up 139,000 points (high scores are in the 300,000 range). I'm stuck at 69,000. "Well, I tried it out yesterday," Iger admits, grinning as he heads back to the company's Burbank (Calif.) headquarters.