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Disney has launched its latest salvo in the theme-park wars, but this time their ammunition doesn’t come in the usual form of a massive roller coaster or an army of mouse-eared attorneys. Instead, the shells they’re shooting resemble pies, darts and plastic rings. I recently had the opportunity to ride Toy Story Midway Mania, the new carnival game–themed, interactive 3-D attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios park, and I’ve returned to hurl a few eggs at this heavily hyped headliner.

TSMM occupies the soundstage that once housed the quickly forgotten Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – Play It! (a “fastest finger” button salvaged from that show sits on my shelf) in the back of the former Disney-MGM Studios park. The pedestrian corridor connecting the Mickey Avenue Animation Courtyard area to the entrance of the Studio Backlot Tour has re-emerged after months of closure as “Pixar Place,” with brick building facades styled after the CGI studio’s Emeryville, Calif., campus. Attached to the exteriors are oversized playthings like Tinkertoys and Scrabble pieces supported by rappelling Green Army Men, signaling that we’re about to enter the world of the Toy Story films.

Stepping inside the attraction building “shrinks” us, in a jarring transition, down to toy size as we snake through a queue constructed of giant playthings. While it does little to establish story (unlike the fantastic Expedition Everest or Indiana Jones Adventure queues), this is one of the more colorfully decorated holding pens Disney has created in recent years: Enormous Candy Land boards and View-Master reels (featuring the big eyeball from the lost Disneyland classic Adventure Thru Inner Space) provoke nostalgic “awws.” The centerpiece of the pre-show is a larger-than-life Mr. Potato Head animatronic, voiced by Don Rickles. Though not as interactive as Turtle Talk With Crush, he sings, dances and tells jokes with some of the most fluid movement and accurate lip-sync ever seen on a Disney AA – he can even pull off his ear if you ask nicely.

It’s a good thing the speaking spud is so spectacular, because you may be in his presence for a long time: Technical problems boosted my wait time – advertised at 70 minutes – well past 90. When I finally reached the cavernous load-unload station and boarded my “carnival tram,” consisting of two double seats stuck back to back, I was more than ready to throw something. I soon had my chance as the car zipped into a garish black-light warren of projection screens and cheap-looking painted décor, reminiscent of a less-charming Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As the vehicle paused before the first of several “game booth” stations, on-screen characters exhorted me to “throw” objects on the screen by aiming the car-mounted launcher and pulling its popgun-like string.

The real-time 3-D computer animation (aided by ubiquitous polarized glasses) creates a convincing illusion – balls and other ballistics appear to emerge from the barrel of your shooter, and the varied physics of breaking plates and bursting balloons are rendered convincingly. But at its heart, this is nothing more than a big-budget remake of the badly aging Buzz Lightyear shoot-’em-up over at the Magic Kingdom. The pull-string launchers, similar to those in DisneyQuest’s Pirates of the Caribbean game, are difficult to aim with any accuracy and require finger-cramping refeeding of the rope to reload rapidly. After four minutes of frantic firing, all I got for my trouble was a “virtual” stuffed bunny, an aching arm and an indefinable sense of uneasy anger that took several trips on the Tower of Terror to dispel.

Industry-watcher Jim Hill recently quoted an anonymous Imagineering employee dismissing the negative response the new ride has received: “We spend $70 million to build this damned attraction, then pile on the theming. Even go so far as to try and match the color of those hand-kilned bricks that Steve Jobs selected to build Pixar Studios out of. But do we get praised for our efforts? No. We get bitched at.” Obviously he, and the rest of the TSMM team, missed master Imagineer Joe Rhode’s recent remarks at the Animal Kingdom 10th anniversary, where he hammered home that “theme” is a noun, not a verb. Theme is not fake wood, faux facades and clever queue decor; theme is the fundamental emotional values underlying an attraction. Unlike Universal’s far-superior Men in Black Alien Attack attraction, the TSMM ride lacks any purpose beyond the manic struggle for pointless points.

While Universal recently took a tarnished E-Ticket ride and restored its shine with the Simpsons, Disney has taken a modest C-Ticket and dressed it up with tech-demo doodads, resulting in a D-minus at best. My complaints won’t keep thrill-seeking tourists from flooding in, especially since it’s one of only six rides in the attraction-starved studios. With an hourly capacity under 1,200, exacerbated by FastPass and single-rider line mismanagement – problems not apparent at the near-identical California Adventure Park installation – you can expect epic lines all summer. Let ’em wait; I’ll be back to give it another go when the crowds die down. In the meantime, if I feel the need to point at a screen and shoot something, I can play my Wii whenever I want.

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