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The Problem With Toy Story Land

Toy Story Land celebrates the best about the movies and still misses the mark on its most important message.

Walt Disney World

Toy Story Land, the next immersive theme park experience from Walt Disney, officially opens to the public on June 30th. The park, which has been two decades in the making, has a lot of hype. After all, Toy Story, perhaps Pixar’s most beloved movie series, celebrates the power of kids’ imaginations, of the loving relationship a kid has with their toys, of the bonds of childhood and nostalgia. A theme park that capitalizes on that would be incredible for adults and children alike. Well, in theory it would. The upcoming park just doesn’t seem to give kids an opportunity to play with the toys that they love.

Let’s be clear: Toy Story Land is going all in on the toys. At first glance, it appears that Disney’s approach, which is particularly clever, is to make the toys supersized and the park-going kids toy-size. Slinky Dog Dash is the size of, and actually is, a rollercoaster. The play set that Andy won at Pizza Planet houses the toy rubber aliens and their flying saucer, which kids can ride in with the hopes of being “chosen” by the claw (“The claaawwwwww!”) Andy’s lunch box — renamed Woody’s Lunch Box — features snacks and delicious drinks.

That all sounds cool and the park looks terrific. But what about the p-word: Where’s the play at? In the movies, the toys’ ultimate desire is to participate in the creative play of children and specifically their kid, Andy. But there does not appear to be a space for creative play in the park. This is not exactly a bitter irony — kids aren’t going to notice — but it’s a missed opportunity for Disney to explore creative play in a new way several decades after the research about its benefits went mainstream.

Andy is the park MacGuffin. His possessions are everywhere and he is nowhere. That absence is conspicuous and it highlights the strange relationship that Andy has with his toys throughout the series: The toys are at their most free and animated when Andy isn’t around, but purport to be at their happiest (while also being their limpest) when he is. All these characters very explicitly want to play with a creative kid, but, again, there’s no forum for that exact type of behavior except, arguably, the gift shop where dolls can be purchased.

And for all that the park offers, including an attraction called “Toy Story Mania,” a space designed to look like Andy’s room, but filled with arcade games that include “Hamm & Eggs,” a game in which kids knock down barnyard animal targets using hard boiled eggs, “Rex & Trixie’s Dino Darts,” a game in which kids get to throw darts at balloons in order to pop them, “Green Army Men Shoot Camp,” where kids launch baseballs at plates to break them, and Buzz Lightyear’s Flying Tossers, where kids toss rings on green army men, and more, there’s just no play space where kids get to choose their own adventure.

In many ways, the set-up of Toy Story Land represents the best of what the movies have to offer. I myself can never forget watching Toy Story for the first time and spending the next several years pressing my ear up to my own door to see if my toys had become sentient beings. (It’s safe to say they had not.) That the toys run wild here is a testament to the best parts of the movie itself.

At the same time, Toy Story Land also represents a departure from what the movie valued so much: kids sitting down in their room and letting their imaginations run wild with their toys, dolls, action heroes, and plastic houses. Creative play, where kids create stories, play house, make their own rules, and come up with their own consequences, was very clearly a huge part of the toy’s world in Toy Story. Buzz Lightyear spent much of his life being directed into outlandish situations, whether or not he enjoyed them (Mrs. Nesbitt comes to mind), and at the end of the Toy Story series, the toys end up living on as playthings for the next generation of Andys.

Creative play is not only valued in Toy Story, it’s also scientifically proven to be extremely important for kids’ cognitive development. Creative play, according to Dr. Rachel E. White, helps kids learn how to sequence events, figure out cause and effect, create relationships, and imitate and make meaning of what they see in a safe environment where failure is allowed and exploration encouraged. She’s not alone: the benefits of play are so instrumental that the American Academy of Pediatrics published an official guideline highlighting the necessity for free play, saying it helps their children cognitively, physically, socially, and it also strengthens the bond between parents and kids. And in Toy Story, although the happiness of Buzz and the gang mattered, their existence served a greater purpose: the growth of the kids around them.

Toy Story Land also appears to be “about the kids.” But unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s “about the kids” in the same way. Perhaps it’s ridiculous to expect a theme park to have some unstructured creative playtime area where kids get to play with plastic toys and gain some meaningful cognitive development. After all, kids do that at home. And Toy Story World is a Disney property, and Disney properties are often repurposed by architects and marketers and CEOs as lucrative theme parks offer rides, expensive foods, arcades, interactive movies, etc. That’s the point of theme parks and that’s what parents know when they walk in.

But given what we understand about creative play, given all the research about it, and given the entire premise of Toy Story itself, it feels like a missed opportunity. Toy Story wasn’t great just because the toys had lives and minds of their own. It was also great because kids wanted to play with those toys. Kids wanted to play with Mr. Potatohead and Wizz. Kids wanted to sneak in and see them, animated, talking shop with the rest of the gang. Kids wanted to create their own storylines and tales and perhaps introduce their own toys to the gang.

It’s like the creators of the Toy Story Land got halfway there: they created the environment of Andy’s imagination but stuck the toys in the rigid roles that they were never in throughout the films, much like the way toys are never stuck to one role throughout our kids lives. After all, Toy Story encapsulates the best parts of being a kid: the ability to dive in, and believe in, your own imagination, sense of creativity, and play. So why is Toy Story World different? Is it because adults don’t have the imagination that kids do?