Disney’s Autopia puts kids of all ages behind the wheel

There’s no generation gap when driving in the happiest place on earth

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Disneyland
Autopia at Disneyland still attracts big crowds and all generations | Photos by Abby Watkins and Larry Edsall

Earlier this week, Hagerty Daily shared a story headlined “65 years ago, kids of all ages couldn’t wait to get their hands on the wheel at Disneyland’s Autopia.”

My first reaction was, “yikes!” I’m old enough to remember being a 7-year-old watching my grandparents’ grainy, black-and-white television that Sunday evening as an ABC special presented the opening ceremonies from Disneyland.

Frontierland and Fantasyland looked like fun, but what I really wanted to do was to go to Tomorrowland, where kids could drive cars! 

Here’s a photo from the early days of Autopia | Hagerty Media and Disney History

OK, so maybe I didn’t notice the tall curbs designed to keep you on the right track, but children could actually take the steering wheel of what looked like real cars, or at least like amusement-park bumper cars unfettered by those trolley-style poles that reached to the ceiling. 

Oh, and to keep things safe, in addition to those curbs, the cars were equipped with wrap-around bumpers. 

As Jeff Peek reported for Hagerty Media, Disney’s Autopia cars had 7½-horsepower, single-cylinder, 318cc Gladden Mustang motorcycle engines, albeit governed to a top speed of 11 mph. He also noted that the cars were designed by Bob Gurr, who just before joining Disney had been designing Lincoln Continentals for Ford.

I still have vivid memories of being 4 or 5 years old and meeting my dad down at the corner as he was driving home from work, climbing into the car and up on his lap, and being allowed to take the wheel  and steer home on the dead-end street where we lived. 

That was great, but with these Disney cars, I could be the driver, not just the steerer. 

Grandson at the wheel

While family vacations took us from Nova Scotia to Alberta and from South Carolina to Montana, Disneyland was never part of our itinerary. I did get there as a young father, but the rides we did involved tea cups and Small World wonders and a bunch of pirates.

Finally, a couple of years ago, and well into grandfatherhood, a grandson’s youth baseball team was playing in a tournament so close to Disneyland we could watch the evening fireworks from the motel window. Obviously, you can’t be that close and not go, so we did. 

And we drove the Disney cars, we being not only grandpa and the 13-year-old but his 4-year-old little brother, but the rest of the family, too, though not over and over and over yet again like grandpa and his grandsons.

Fortunately for the terrified passenger, this car was for display only

I just got back from my daughter’s house and while there I asked the boys, now ages 15 and 6, about their favorite Disney ride and they said it was the cars (for the record, their little? sister’s favorite was the Dumbo, the Flying Elephant carousel, because she could control how high she flew).

My point is that kids still love cars. Sure, they’re growing up with a cellphone seemingly glued to the palms of their hands. But from about the time they turn 14½, my grandchildren can’t wait to get their driving permits and, when they do, they start the countdown of days until they have their licenses.

Hopefully, some day they’ll use those licenses to take their own children to Disneyland to drive the Autopia cars. Of course, by then, those cars might well be electric powered.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

1 COMMENT

  1. Boy, did I love seeing this article. I got to drive those cars too, about 63 years ago, only because my dad pretended to be the driver (they had a minimum height for kids to drive, which this 7 year old wasn’t), then once in put me in the driver’s seat. Never forgot that thrill. Thanks so much for the article, Larry!

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