For too long, Disney World has struggled to find the right marriage of IP with attraction concept. With TRON Lightcycle Run, they finally figured it out.
Duh, says Shanghai Disneyland Fan. The ride has been a massive hit in China for almost 7 years now (and highly anticipated by Parkeology back in 2016). But here in the States, we’ve had to endure an odd collection of Snow White rollercoasters, misguided cosplay hotels, and the full-on destruction of anything resembling a cohesive theme at Epcot. We thought Flight of Passage got things back on track, but they followed that up with a Slinky Dog coaster where the theme is that somebody built a rollercoaster.
Tiana’s Sustainable Farm and Employee-Owned Co-Op Log Flume is still a few years away. But for now, let us rejoice in the breathtaking simplicity that is TRON Lightcycle Run.
But Wasn’t TRON a Flop?
Okay, TRON and its sequel TRON: Legacy did not exactly set the world on fire. Both have a visionary aesthetic that is betrayed by dreadfully boring storytelling. But in a theme park, it doesn’t matter. Forget the movie. If Pandora and the Soarin’ queue have taught us anything, it’s that people are down for glowing blue things.
TRON: Legacy is ultra cool to look at. When paired with the pulsating soundtrack by Daft Punk, it becomes a feast for the senses. As long as its inscrutable plot doesn’t get in the way.
TRON: Legacy is at its best when it recycles action concepts from the first movie. Namely, the disc battles and the lightcycle races. And here’s where the natural theme park tie-in occurs.
TRON Lightcycle Run is simply a lightcycle race through the Grid. Nothing more, nothing less.
All the crap from the movies got removed. There is no preshow explaining how you must discover isomorphic algorithms and upload them to identity discs to prevent your users from derezzing. You do not need to know who Clu or Quorra or even Tron himself are. There is only the race (okay, there’s also another race right next door, but this one is way better).
And give them credit. TRON may have been a flop, but it’s a highly nostalgic Disney flop. This isn’t Marvel or Pixar. It’s not Frozen or Johnny Depp. It’s a franchise built off a corny movie from the Ron Miller era. If it’s Disney geek street cred they’re after, they’ve got my respect.
Great Disney Rides Have Great Concepts
It’s a truism they should teach all Imagineers, especially the ones in charge of retheming whatever sort of Moana-fueled nightmare they have planned for Dinoland. Great rides all start with an elegant, simple premise. A bold, easily understood idea. A concept that inspires instant yearning within the guest.
Explore a Haunted Mansion
Ride a runaway mine train.
Fly across Pandora.
Parachute drop with Green Army Men (okay, maybe not this one).
When extra story has to be layered on, it usually means the concept was kind of a dud. That’s how you end up with a random animated character forcing you to steal cannisters of space goo, instead of anything resembling the thrilling Star Wars sequences that made us fall in love with the Millennium Falcon to begin with.
In the worst examples, the plotlines are so far removed from the original IP as to be totally non-sensical. My favorite example of this used to be Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. But since that got retconned by a Disney Plus show, I’ll just say hello, Princess Tiana. I hope Disney Plus can work the same magic for your carbon-neutral agro-tourism ride set in pre-Depression New Orleans.
Fine, the Concept is Great. What About the Ride?
Listen to me when I tell you this, for it is the truth:
The coolest you will ever feel in a theme park is when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, hunched over the handlebars of a lightcycle, which is glowing like an electric eel as it rockets out of the show building towards that death-defying turn across the Grid canopy.
Eat your heart out, Hagrid.
For sure, we all have our favorite ride vehicles.
But is there anything that can match the sight of a biker gang of cyber warriors as they soar through infinite darkness?
Even the safety restraint gets in on the act, embedding a glowing blue identity disc on the back of each rider. It is hypnotic. The show building contains other abstract effects and screens, but the best part is watching the lightcycles themselves.
I’ve always been the geek who is more interested in the immersive detail than pure amusement park thrills. But I will say that the opening launch on TRON Lightcycle Run is euphoric.
The backwards parts of Cosmic Rewind and Everest are unpleasant to say the least. The inversions in Rock ‘n Rollercoaster are a struggle. Big Thunder and Space Mountain can be jarring. Mission: Space can make you puke. The Matterhorn is darn near backbreaking.
TRON Lightcycle Run delivers 100-percent pure adrenaline.
It’s smooth like Slinky Dog, fast like Test Track. And since you’re strapped into an open-air lightcycle, it’s much more intimate. It puts Rock ‘n Rollercoaster’s catapult launch to shame. Just when you think you’ve reached maximum Aerosmith velocity, it kicks into another gear and sends you screaming up the first incline. Only Tower of Terror and Test Track’s high-speed loop match it for pure exhilaration.
The Details are Better Than Expected
If you’ve ridden Cosmic Rewind or Rock ‘n Rollercoaster or Revenge of the Mummy or Space Mountain, the interior portion of the ride is more or less along those lines. But since it’s not pinned to a storyline any more substantial than “win the race,” the lightcycle itself becomes the main show.
Every now and then, your virtual opponent (“red team”) flashes by on a screen and occasionally crashes. But unlike Cosmic Rewind, the storyline is not screen-dependent. It also helps that you are perched over on the handlebars, narrowing your field of vision to the lightcycles in front of you. Cosmic Rewind is deliberately rotating you so that you can watch something that is obviously a movie, which destroys the magic.
They’ve also got an ace up their sleeve with the music. The Daft Punk soundtrack is perfection, synthesized and synchronized almost effortlessly with your race in ways that Cosmic Rewind’s haphazard Awesome Mix or Universal’s Rip-Ride-Rockit never quite achieves. It exceeds even the best onboard soundtracks, like Disneyland’s Space Mountain or California Screamin’.
Finally, TRON Lightcycle Run does contain a preshow of sorts. One that deliciously drives a nail into the coffin of everything we hate about preshows.
It turns out that it’s not a preshow at all. Just an excuse to hit you with an awesome special effect. All of which is timed with the lightcycles launching from the load area, so there’s no need to have the Flight of Passage guy pretend to be confused and leave you hanging in the room whenever something gets backed up. The whole thing lasts maybe 15 seconds.
So TRON Lightcycle Run is a Perfect Ride Then?
It’s not perfect in the way that Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion are perfect. It still has a bit of that Chapek/Iger aftertaste where you can sense a few budget cuts.
For instance, there’s entirely too much concrete on the outside. Everything from rollercoaster pylons, to Grid canopy struts, to acres of switchback queues over hot pavement that will soon be filled to capacity. This part is definitely more Velocicoaster than Pandora. Other than an admittedly cool sign, there is not much in the way of that vaunted Disney detail on the exterior.
They even cheaped out on the Walt Disney World Railroad tunnel, which offers a look at the Grid canopy through portals, but feels like a missed opportunity to give the train some futuristic projections in the tunnel.
The first bit of actual theming comes from the recreated digitizing laser from the first movie just before you enter the building. Some more details would be welcome. Would it be too much to hope that they will retrofit the old Tomorrowland Power & Light Co. with a Flynn’s Arcade sign in time for the April opening? Probably.
Inside the building, it’s, you know, fine. I would never argue against more immersive detailing, complimented by the screens and light effects. A few things feel like no-brainers. What would it really take to recreate a full-sized Recognizer inside the show building? The thing is nothing but a low-res polygon that couldn’t cost more than a couple thousand dollars.
TRON Lightcycle Run isn’t really dependent on AA figures or elaborate sets, but the opportunity is there, if they really wanted to plus things up. I’m also a little bit shocked that they didn’t recreate the End of Line Club from Legacy, for the chance to sell overpriced glowing beverages.
But hey, we’ll probably get a popcorn bucket.
A Few Minor Concerns
Regarding the coaster itself, I found it nice and smooth, much like Slinky Dog and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and also short. Honestly, it’s probably the perfect length, given the unfamiliar position you find yourself contorted into. It’s not quite Barnstormer short, but it’s not a lengthy experience like Everest or Big Thunder. Admittedly, I waited in short preview lines. Not sure if the length will be a dissatisfier for someone waiting two hours.
There was one in our party who had a bit of motion sickness from it. I’m optimistic that this will improve with subsequent rides. There’s more room to experiment with the position on the handlebars (elbows locked vs. bent) as well as how you hold your head and neck, etc., to see if that helps.
I also smirked knowingly at the locker procedures and the load procedures. They are built for efficiency, but it assumes that the guest can interpret the directional arrows correctly, locker tap points, ride vehicle crossings, and various cycle mounting mechanics. I don’t know about your experience with the average tourist, but they are not known for their savvy wizardry. Anything more complex than lowering a lap bar seems rife with potential problems. Half of them still need to be reminded to fasten the seatbelt on Dumbo.
Last but not least, TRON Lightcycle Run is just significantly cooler at night. During daytime (which is to say, the majority of the operating day), the lighting effects on the Grid canopy are invisible. Once the sun goes down, it’s like you get an entire new show scene.
Bottom line: TRON Lightcycle Run is a fantastic addition to the Magic Kingdom and deserves its spot among the top rides in the park. I wish they hadn’t just closed Splash Mountain. Another big ride would help with the crush of people that are bound to overrun the Magic Kingdom this summer and the foreseeable future.
Magic Kingdom hasn’t seen anything of substance since New Fantasyland nearly a decade ago. When it finally officially opens, TRON Lightcycle Run will be the last of the big pre-COVID announcements.
Surprisingly it did not make our list of most anticipated attractions of the decade. A definite oversight for sure, now that we’ve seen Runaway Railway. What’s left to look forward to?
Stay tuned for our breathtaking review of the Moana water playground for kiddies!