Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disneyland starts out tame enough. After boarding an early-20th-century automobile, you roll through the halls of an English manor filled with animal characters from The Wind in the Willows. Other stops on your joyride include a farm, a pub, and a TNT factory. Your reckless driving eventually lands you in court, where a judge finds you guilty. It feels like a fitting ending, though a bit of a downer for Disney.
But your journey doesn’t stop there. Following the trial, the ride takes a literal and figurative turn onto the tracks of an oncoming train. A crash erupts as the vehicle is enveloped in darkness. In case your fate wasn’t clear enough, your car then enters the mouth of hell. The judge who sentenced you now sports horns and bat wings, and pitch fork-wielding demons dance to his maniacal laughter. Raging flames cast an eerie glow over the dim space. The last thing you see is a dragon behind a stalactite cage preparing to blast fire over you and your fellow passengers. This last section—which has nothing to do with the film that inspired the ride—spans less than 30 seconds, and when you finally emerge into the brightly-lit boarding area you may wonder if you imagined it.
The attraction is located in Fantasyland—an area filled with slow-paced, family-friendly dark rides that bring to life Disney classics like Peter Pan and Snow White. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is unique among the park’s offerings: In addition to its obscure source material, it’s the only Disney ride that “kills” its passengers and sends them to hell at the end. (You can watch a full ride-through below.)
Disney’s theme parks have hosted plenty of controversial and frightening attractions over the decades. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter in Disney World sent riders running for the exit, and before it was rebranded as Enchanted Wish, the Snow White ride lived up to its original name: Snow White’s Scary Adventures. But while most of those rides have been sanitized or shut down, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride has told the same twisted tale since Disneyland’s opening day. Though it’s still operating in Anaheim, California, its existence hasn’t always been secure.
Between Disney’s Golden Age and Silver Age falls an oft-forgotten period in the animation studio’s history. The Wartime Era was marked by barebones crews and budgets. World War II limited the film industry’s global box office potential and took away a significant portion of its workforce. That, combined with underwhelming performances from Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942), made it difficult for Disney to secure financing. Instead of producing the feature-length films it had in the pipeline like Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), it put the animators it had left on short films to be distributed together.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) was the last of these “package films.” Before Washington Irving’s unlikely hero confronts the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the movie opens with a segment based on the children’s book The Wind in The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. In the animated adaptation, J. Thaddeus Toad develops an obsession with the newly-invented automobile that his fellow animal aristocrats are unable to curtail. His motor mania lands him in court where he’s found guilty of car theft. But Mr. Toad doesn’t stay in jail for long; on Christmas Eve, his friends successfully bust him out of the Tower of London and prove his innocence.
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad never reached the icon status of Golden and Silver Age Disney classics, but it was well received compared to other the wartime cartoons. Its impact was big enough that in 1955, when Walt Disney launched his first amusement park in Anaheim, he included a ride based on The Wind in the Willows with the opening day attractions.
Walt Disney Approved
The character may not have been as recognizable as Snow White or Peter Pan, but Mr. Toad’s story was tailor-made for a theme park ride. It was originally conceived as a roller coaster, with the track heading for obstacles and veering away at the last minute, but Walt wanted to keep it accessible to young and elderly riders. Though the dark ride that eventually opened didn’t have steep drops, it was still thrilling compared to other attractions in Fantasyland.
The first half of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is faithful to the source material, with the titular amphibian taking passengers on a joyride through turn-of-the-century England. But the ride designers decided to deny Mr. Toad the happy ending he gets in the film. “I remember the meeting when we thought of the ‘train coming at you’ idea,” Imagineer Bill Martin told “E” Ticket magazine. “That was a ‘catch-on’ gag, the last effect at the end of the ride that sends you to Hell.”
Though Disney wouldn’t let them make the ride as fast-paced as they initially envisioned, the designers had no trouble adding this twist ending. According to Martin, “That idea of going through the Devil's mouth, through the Jaws of Hell, was okay with Walt at the time, too.”
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride underwent several modifications over the years, including the addition of new scenes and effects. When Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, a new version of the ride debuted with dual tracks offering slightly different experiences. But in every iteration of the attraction, the darkly comedic final chapter remained. The sadistic ending didn’t turn off riders, either. By the late 1990s, it had enough devoted fans to form a campaign to save it.
Save the Toad
News of the Disney World ride’s potential closure first leaked in 1997, when inside sources revealed to the Orlando Sentinel that the Florida park was planning to replace it with a Winnie the Pooh ride. To many guests, this wouldn’t have come as a surprise. Disney was known to close old rides—even opening day attractions—to make room for new ones that appealed to younger generations of visitors. The Winnie the Pooh franchise had been kept alive through movies and TV shows, whereas the The Wind in the Willows short was largely unknown to kids raised during the Disney Renaissance.
Despite this, the threat to the ride struck a chord with certain guests. One day after the rumor broke, the website savetoad.com (which is still online after a quarter century) went live. It implored visitors to contact Disney with demands to save the ride. Postcards pre-addressed to the company were made available to download. Fans could order t-shirts depicting a dead J. Thaddeus Toad on the front and a message on the back reading: “ASK ME WHY MICKEY IS KILLING MR. TOAD.”
The online campaign eventually spilled into the real world. In May 1998, a plane flew over Disney World dragging a banner that said “Save Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” next to the park president’s phone number. Devotees of the ride (who branded themselves “toadies”) hosted “toad-ins” in the Magic Kingdom to express their discontent. The crowds never grew beyond a few dozen people, but the protestors who did show up were passionate.
To 26-year-old Jef Moskot, the computer systems administrator and film student behind savetoad.com, the campaign was about preserving part of the park that couldn’t be replaced. “It’s a nice break from the happy, singing flowers,” he told the Associated Press. “[Mr. Toad’s] not that bland Disney hero with the two funny sidekicks. He’s nuts. He steals cars, but he’s a good guy.”
The Ride Continues
The campaign wasn’t enough to keep the Orlando attraction alive. On September 7, 1998, Mr. Toad took his final ride in Walt Disney World in Florida. The G-rated dark ride The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has stood in its place since opening the following year.
Fans mourned the closure, but all wasn’t lost. On the opposite coast, the original Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride remained open in Disneyland. It’s still operating in 2023 even as classic rides throughout both parks have been shuttered and replaced with attractions promoting more popular properties. Disney plans to temporarily close Mr. Toad for refurbishments in June—a good sign that the ride’s future with the park is worth investing in. Not only is the vintage ride still part of Disneyland, but its diabolical ending has yet to be tampered with. Perhaps Disney executives are afraid of igniting another round of backlash from fans—or maybe they realized a ride as weird and irreverent as Mr. Toad is irreplaceable.