The Trouble With Toy Story Land – How Much Story is Too Much?
I have a very particular stance on Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This stance isn’t founded on the rides, atmosphere, or overall feel of the land. No, this stance is one taken purely from a storytelling perspective in that the land makes zero sense when you step back and actually think about what’s going on.
To kick things off I should explain the reality that is Toy Story Land. According to the official Walt Disney World website, this land takes place inside of Andy’s backyard. Without question that is absolutely true. Walt Disney Imagineering has stuck to this factoid from the initial announcement which makes storytelling in the land stick to a particular time frame. At least in theory that should be the case. In order to experience Andy’s backyard with the toys we know and love, the time we need to be visiting needs to be set some time after Toy Story 2 and long before Toy Story 3.
Why this time in particular? Jessie is an established character in the land and prominently displayed on top of blocks with Rex in the middle of the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster. She is interacting with Rex and not a stranger which proves that this land takes place AFTER Toy Story 2 because she is well-involved with the original toys. On the other hand this land needs to take place before Toy Story 3 because, well, we wouldn’t be in Andy’s backyard playing because he has boxed-up the toys and is going to college.
With the time that this land takes place in stone you can safely deduce that characters from Toy Story 3, and now Toy Story 4, won’t be included in the land, right? Wrong. On Slinky Dog Dash you see a book about Mr. Pricklepants, a character from Bonnie’s collection in Toy Story 3. Continuing mentions from Bonnie’s toys includes multiple characters inside of Toy Story Mania. Trixie the dinosaur appears during the Dino Dart game, Buttercup the horse appears during the Ham & Eggs game, and the final tallied scores screen has Buzz Lightyear speaking Spanish, Buttercup, and Trixie again. Multiple mentions and characters from Toy Story 3 exist…. below Andy’s bed… in Midway Mania. To add insult to injury, Prospector Pete also appears in Toy Story Mania but he has yet to be a villain and is playing with the other toys, showing this takes place sometime during Toy Story 2. Or maybe he’s had a change of heart? (and an expensive flight back from Japan). Another mention for Trixie is one of the registers for Woody’s Lunchbox, and the second register is a mention back to Lotso from Toy Story 3.
“But Bret, these characters exist in the same universe in the Toy Story movies regardless of time”. This is the point where I’m still not 100% confident how I want to word things, but here goes nothing. We don’t know manufacturers in the Toy Story movie universe, but we know that Buzz Lightyear and Woody don’t come from the same manufacturer. This means that yes, a Pricklepants book can exist in a world ruled by Toy Story 1 or 2 time. The toy can literally exist, but the meaningful interactions between the established toys and the new toys cannot exist until the time of the specific movie has happened. We have already discussed that this land takes place in Andy’s backyard confirming the time before Toy Story 3, but these Toy Story 3 characters interact with the Toy Story 1 and 2 characters. That’s an issue… or is it?
Any themed land can be boiled down to quick concepts. This past week during a panel at the D23 Expo, Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde described the very high-level approach every land in Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been designed around: You are you, today is today, you are not home. Short, simple, and to the point, yet an extremely thought-provoking concept. In the lands of Disney’s Animal Kingdom this works perfectly. You’re not trying to be someone besides yourself, you’re not trying to save the world with mighty robots or visit magical creatures, you’re literally traveling to a different spot on the globe. That’s it. Theme, consistency, coherence. Every land, regardless of park, has a theme. This theme must be consistent across the land and each part must have a coherence and understanding of what that theme is. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is a master class of this concept, but that’s for another post. Right now we’re discussing Toy Story.
So what if the theme of Toy Story Land is that you’re in Andy’s backyard with the Toy Story IP characters? Well that’s what the theme feels like. Let’s dig further than that and throw a wrench into the mix: What if there’s two Toy Story universes? What if the universe that exists in the Toy Story movies, pertaining to their specific timeline of Andy growing up, is its own separate entity that doesn’t connect to the Toy Story attractions we see in the Disney Parks? What if the attractions, entertainment, eateries we see themed to Toy Story are just the Toy Story characters as an IP from the Toy Story franchise, no story attached? Remember how I mentioned we don’t know manufacturers of the toys within the movie? We know the manufacturer of the toys in OUR real world, and that’s Disney. They create everything and there’s a non-linear timeline where these beloved characters can reside in the parks. This is why Forky can just appear in Toy Story Land and it’s not questioned. It’s not a land based on the time presented within the movies, it’s a land where the Toy Story characters are simply existing. You’re not being brought into the movies, this instance hasn’t happened within that timeline. It’s a brand new adventure presented to you with familiar faces.
Presented with that logic you can understand how and why Toy Story Land just works. I know that’s not the way Walt Disney Imagineering intends for their story to unfold, but that’s the corner they’ve backed themselves into by insisting this is Andy’s backyard. If they want to move away from that dark corner they can solve the timeline issue with one simple change: make it Bonnie’s backyard. Change the wallpaper and some decor inside of Toy Story Mania, change the wording on the website to say Bonnie instead of Andy, and that pretty much solves the timeline. This is a prime example of story going a litttttttle too far without being thought-through properly. Toy Story Land is weird.