Taking Hollywood types on a tour down historic Route 66 is getting to be old hat for best-selling nonfiction author Michael Wallis
He hasn’t been guiding just Tinseltown actors, however. The first two tours Wallis guided were for employees of Pixar Animation Studios, who were researching the Mother Road for the 2006 summer hit movie, “Cars.” Wallis became technical adviser for the film, and was cast as the Sheriff of Radiator Springs in the movie.
Recently, Wallis guided a crew of Disney “Imagineers” — architects, artists and producers — who are assigned with designing the Cars Land amusement park at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. Cars Land, part of a massive $1 billion expansion, is slated to be finished by 2012. One report said the Radiator Springs Racers feature itself will cost $200 million.
“The main purpose of this trip,” Wallis said during a phone interview this week, “was to give them an up-close and personal view of the ‘footprint’ of the mythical Radiator Springs, which I tell people is between Gallup (N.M.) and Winslow (Ariz.). But the influence is from the entire length of the road.
“It was a totally successful trip. These men and women just ate it up.”
The Disney crew and Wallis flew in to Amarillo, Texas. There, they were given a big “howdy” by the Big Texan Steak Ranch in town.
“The trip started out so well … we were greeted by a pair of Big Texan limos, complete with the longhorn horns affixed to the hood,” Wallis recalled. “They had some Big Texan cowboys driving, and Becky Ransom, who I call the Hostess of the Highway, was there to meet us. We immediately took them on a detailed tour of the urban old road through Amarillo.”
Wallis also took the Disney bunch to the Cadillac Ranch west of town before settling in at the Big Texan for supper.
“I was even able to entice these folks, who’d never experienced this before, to try calf fries. They thought they were most exotic,” he chuckled.
Wallis said he was also grateful to Ransom and the Big Texan for the gift bags they left for their Disney guests in the Big Texan’s hotel rooms. Bags were filled with “Cars” memorabilia and useful travel items.
The next day, Wallis and the Disney crew went back east in Oklahoma to immerse themselves in the music and comedy experience that is Harley and Annabelle Russell, aka the Mediocre Music Makers, at their Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick. Incidentally, Harley Russell (right) is a significant influence to the Mater character in “Cars.”
“I’ve never seen Harley and Annabelle better. They were out there, waving flags and wearing their ‘redneck tuxedos.’ It was quite a visit there,” Wallis said.
After that, the entourage headed west on the Mother Road. Among the many sites they visited were the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum in McLean, Texas; La Posada in Winslow, Ariz.; the ghost town of Glenrio; the Aztec and El Vado motels in Albuquerque; Joe and Aggie’s Cafe in Holbrook, Ariz.; Teepee Curios in Tucumcari, N.M.; La Fonda in Santa Fe; U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas; Jackrabbit Trading Post in Jackrabbit, Ariz.; El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, N.M.; and the wild-burro haven of Oatman, Ariz.
Wallis also took the crew to obscure spots, such as old dirt-road alignments of Route 66 and the former site of the Regal Reptile Ranch in Texas.
The Route 66 trip ended at the Arizona-California border after eight days. The Disney people then flew home from Las Vegas.
He said the Disney Imagineers agreed that one of the trip’s biggest highlights was at a little diner in Adrian, Texas.
“They were blown away by the Midpoint Cafe,” Wallis said. “Out of all the meals we had on the road — and we had great food all the way — the bottom line was that their favorite meal was at the Midpoint. All of us had burgers and fries and ugly-crust pie. The burgers were cooked to perfection … and then we had a whole medley of ugly-crust pies. I mean, it was pie heaven. But it wasn’t just the great food — it was the whole atmosphere, making everyone feel good.”
Wallis said the warmth of Route 66’s people made an impression on the group.
“I think what they really got out of this trip was how grateful people were on the road that this movie was made,” he said. “What impressed them the most was the overall attitude and demeanor of the people on the road.
“All along the way, people are coming up to me and getting Sheriff autographs,” Wallis added. “We ran into a lot of tourists with kids and early spring-breakers. We get these testimonials from them about why they’re out on the road, and a lot of them were because of ‘Cars.’ ”
Wallis thinks Cars Land will be an excellent addition for future Route 66 travelers.
“Now we have a place where people can start their journey if they’re going east,” he said, “and a good place to end their journey if they’re going west.”
(Top image: Artist’s conception of Cars Land, courtesy of Disney.)