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The New York Post stirred up controversy last year with the clickbaity “Sorry, childless millennials going to Disney World is weird.” What the article failed to understand is that boomer-created problems like student debt, health insurance limbo, and impending climate doom have led many millennials to chase the simple joys of their youth. Podcast: The Ride hosts Scott Gairdner, Mike Carlson, and Jason Sheridan recognize the power of theme parks. P:TR proudly describes itself as “a show about theme parks hosted by three childless men in their thirties.” Since October 2017, “the good boys” have explored every inch of a different theme park ride or show — sometimes as single riders, and sometimes with A+ guests like Rachel Bloom, Jeff Garlin, and even legendary Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter.
For these three comedians, it sounds like a dream come true. For listeners who may not have the opportunity to visit theme parks so frequently, it’s an opportunity to live vicariously through the show. Social media is lousy with theme park content creators, but P:TR avoids the saccharine shine of many YouTubers while adding their own sharp sense of humor. It’s essentially a millennial nostalgia show that may reference an obscure ’80s commercial or a compilation of Michael Eisner saying “hello” that a listener may not necessarily have asked for, but are pleased to be reminded of. The formula has worked for over 140 episodes, even spawning a successful “Second Gate” Patreon.
In late 2018, the good boys decided to experiment. Instead of discussing a ride in Universal Studios Hollywood, they discussed everything outside Universal Studios Hollywood at Universal CityWalk. The “CityWalk Saga” was a 19-part daily episode miniseries (complete with a catchy theme song sung by Off-Book’s Zach Reino) that centered on the kitschy themed restaurants and other tourist traps that reside just minutes from an actual theme park. A goofy, needlessly complicated framing device powered the series forward: In order to save the soul of the Sector Keeper (Anthony Gioe), a young ghost that died at the CityWalk fountain, P:TR had to discuss each business in CityWalk’s 19 “sectors.” The hosts’ growing exhaustion with their own undertaking added a layer of comedy straight out of The Simpsons’ Ironic Punishment Division. The boys passed this test of endurance (barely) and earned a spot on Vulture’s 2018 “Year in Comedy Podcasts” list as Best Miniseries (in a tie with Doughboys). The Saga ended with a teaser for another multi-part miniseries, the “Downtown Disney Ordeal,” a surefire way to turn the Happiest Place on Earth into a collective hell. But no one thought these three would actually do it. Until they did.
For last November’s “Downtown Disney Ordeal,” P:TR took things up a notch by adding RPG elements to a 15-part (plus three surprise episodes) daily series. Sheridan opens the first episode of the “Downtown Disney Ordeal” with an elegant logline: “I’ve poked and prodded, begged and badgered not to do this, and yet the call has been answered. We are rising to the challenge … to examine a more sterile, slightly less chaotic, and more inconvenient-to-visit outdoor pedestrian mall.” The plot: The Sector Keeper and his beloved catchphrase “Boys, boys, boys, you give me strength” are back, but this time his cousin, the Level Keeper, needs saving. Instead of the “Citywalk Saga”’s 18 sectors, Gairdner, Sheridan, and Carlson must discuss each business in Downtown Disney’s five “levels” (plus a hidden level). Each level is divided into three stages (think Super Mario). “Much more understandable,” the Sector Keeper sarcastically declares.
Powerful items, boss battles, and huge twists keep the “Ordeal” exciting and fresh from start to finish. “We did want to throw in some surprises so it wasn’t just an exact repeat,” Sheridan tells Vulture. These elements come into play at the end of each stage, when the boys receive an item that will prove useful on their upcoming journey. For example, after a “Level 1-1” discussion of the subtle differences between La Brea Bakery Cafe and La Brea Bakery Express, the boys receive a sourdough loaf of bread autographed by La Brea Bakery founders Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel. These items come in handy during the D&D-esque boss fights at the end of each level, where various evil spirits “possess” the Sector Keeper. These bosses consist of the unsavory tycoons behind the businesses inside Downtown Disney. From Wetzel’s Pretzel’s founder Rick Wetzel to House of Blues co-founder Dan Aykroyd (yes, that Dan Aykroyd), Gioe turns these otherwise nondescript old businessmen into gleefully sinister caricatures.
More than any other episodes of the show, the “Ordeal” makes listeners feel like they’re strapped into Podcast: The Ride. And like any good theme park ride, it inspired fantastic fan art from Reddit user JohnnyHaze, who sketched each episode along with the series, and even an exhaustive map by Twitter user @AllSevenFever.
Mike Carlson’s high-energy theme song for the “Ordeal” ends with a lyric that echoes underneath the entire series: “The ‘Downtown Disney Ordeal’: Why did we do this to ourselves?” According to Sheridan, the hosts “ask ourselves that every day. It was a lot of work, but very fun to do … The first weekend we sat down to record, we did nine episodes over the course of two days and nearly lost our minds … This was way too much podcast.”
The “Ordeal” is much more than the aforementioned analysis of La Brea Bakery vs. La Brea Express. And it better be, considering the boys’ steep investment of time and energy. While discussing the casual footwear sold at Downtown Disney’s Sanuk, a frustrated Gairdner cries, “What we are talking about is 200 feet from the Indiana Jones boulder!” Carlson dutifully reminds him, “No, this is a prison we’ve created.” The “prison” is actually a deep dive into the most overpriced corners of a corporate power structure we all submit to, willingly or not. The boys shine a light on the conglomerates and seedy figures that own virtually everything Americans consume, from highly Instagrammable milkshakes to celebrity tequilas to the Luxottica sunglasses on our heads and the Deckers Brands’ Tevas on our feet. P:TR hasn’t even received any freebies (outside of Splitsville Luxury Lanes) despite all the generous publicity. Carlson laments the cold shoulder from Disney PR, pointing out that “all the other theme park media, there’s yet to be a ghost child in any of this stuff … We are innovating. Disney doesn’t understand it.”
Of course, the Sector Keeper isn’t P:TR’s only companion on this long journey. Past guests like Doughboys’ Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger, Teen Creeps’ Lindsay Katai, and director Jason Woliner — “the Alec Baldwin of Podcast: The Ride” — all join in on the fun. Travel influencer and world’s foremost cold foam enthusiast Carlye Wisel brings her expertise to the “Level 4-2” discussion of not the first, but second Starbucks in Downtown Disney. Perhaps the most fun had during the entire “Ordeal” comes thanks to P:TR fan and SNL party animal Kyle Mooney, who started drinking at 10:30 a.m. on the day of the “Level 3-1” recording. A run of Bruce Chandling-adjacent Rocket Raccoon impressions turns the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! catchphrase “My hands don’t scan!” into a wonderful recurring bit. Eva Anderson (You’re the Worst, Briarpatch) mysteriously disappears after her appearance, only to resurface seven episodes later in the Underworld. That’s right — if you foolishly thought the “Downtown Disney Ordeal” was only going to be 15 predictable stages, think again. The boys spring three surprise episodes and a gloomy new theme song for Patreon subscribers to make time for the closed-down brothers and sisters of Downtown Disney District’s past in the Underworld — “a much more sorry, more financially lucrative state.”
Calling back to the end of 2018’s “CityWalk Saga,” Nick Wiger helps close out the series by talking about parking structures. Ninety minutes on the intricacies of two specific parking lots may not sound like compelling podcasting, but it all escalates to the thrilling series payoff. For the final boss battle, the Sector Keeper is possessed by all of the previous levels’ baddies at once. Luckily, Sheridan took copious notes so he could list the 16 items available to help the boys overcome these bosses and free the Level Keeper. The series concludes with a wonderful clusterfuck of improv and storytelling, and order is restored to Downtown Disney.
Or has it? The funniest thing that could possibly happen at the end of an 18-episode daily podcast series in which the hosts openly admit to teetering on the brink of insanity is to tease more daily podcast series. The Level Keeper (who sounds oddly like Griffin Newman) makes his long-awaited appearance to thank the boys for their courage. He proceeds to introduce his cousins, who plea for help from similar locations across the country. An all-star cast of familiar-sounding Keepers — count Paul Scheer, Jessica McKenna, WWE’s Zack Ryder, and the infamous Bug Mane among them — request P:TR’s assistance at Disney Springs and CityWalk Orlando, the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania, the Citadel Outlets off the 5 on the way to Disneyland, and more. “What I like about this and the end of The Last Jedi is that anyone can be a Keeper,” Carlson jokes.
All three ponder their future as the series comes to an end. After listening to nearly 26 hours of the “Ordeal,” stick around for a few minutes more to hear one last cryptic message from a villain yet to come. To quote the boys, this kind of long-term storytelling in podcasting is more than just “fine.”
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