AUTOPIA, TOMORROWLAND, DISNEYLAND, USA, 1956
In the background, telephone poles and electric lines service a fresh tract of modern ranch homes. Between them, on the other side of the green burm, a newly completed stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway makes a beeline from the Disneyland exit to the famous “stack” just forty or so miles northwest. Inside the burm is the most popular original attraction in Tomorrowland.
Autopia is an idyllic, child-proof, junior scale freeway where sometimes reckless and inexperienced underage drivers thrill to the delight of driving a gasoline powered car, many for the very first time. Many treat the pint-sized, European style sports cars like glorified bumper cars.
At night the mini highway is illuminated with two-tone yellow and navy blue dinosaur neck streetlamps; some with two heads! Oil-soaked asphalt contrasts the bright white cement posts and borders. A billboard representing Richfield, Autopia’s original sponsor, stands on the far right. Lush green grass and tiny shrubs add Mother Nature’s touch. An employee costumed to resemble a traffic cop directs traffic from the center divider of the overpass defines the scale.
According to the legend, in 1955, when Disneyland first opened, Walt Disney and his Imagineers had no idea that people driving on the junior freeway would get a thrill by putting the petal to the metal then smashing into the car in front of them. So just a couple of weeks after the grand opening the entire fleet of those delicate fiberglass-bodied cars were either damaged or destroyed. So they had to be re-bodied and fitted with bumpers designed to withstand crash impacts every few minutes.
Among my earliest childhood memories is standing up to the sign posted in front of Autopia clearly stating: “YOU MUST BE THIS TALL TO DRIVE.” The disappointment of just not quite being tall was almost just too much to bear. Driving those little cars were way better than driving a go-cart and the next best thing to driving a real car that you had to wait until you were a whopping sixteen to drive.
Over the years Autopia has evolved at Disneyland. The latest incarnation is just as fun as it ever was and even includes an unexpected bit of “off-roading.”
Here’s to the Real Autopia and you!