It’s been 16 years since Lightning McQueen, a shiny red stock car, first met Tow Mater, a rusty tow truck, in Radiator Springs, the fictional Arizona town and setting for Pixar’s smash 2006 animated hit, Cars. After sequels in 2011 and 2017 (Cars 2 and 3), the two unlikely best buds are back on the road in a new short series currently streaming on Disney+, aptly named Cars on the Road (caution: spoilers ahead).
At the beginning of the nine-episode first season (runtime for each episode is around 10 minutes), Mater declares he’s headed east from Radiator Springs to attend his estranged sister’s wedding. Outside of Flo’s V8 Cafe, Mater admits, “This is one trip I ain’t looking forward to.” McQueen volunteers to tag along and suggests they travel in luxury inside of Mack, a tractor trailer.
But Mater insists: “We’ve got to drive it ourselves. Take our time, wander the backroads, make new friends.” Eventually, they agree to travel across the country in the most Cars way possible: “Sure, let’s make it a road trip,” McQueen says.
Follow along on the pair’s new adventure—and find the real-life locations along their route—using the guide below.
Episode 1: “Dino Park”
We’re told Mater has picked the pair’s first three stops but we only see them in flashback: the World’s Largest Tire Maze (fictional), the World’s Largest Lug Nut (located on top of a smokestack and over a sports bar in Michigan), and Nebraska’s Carhenge. When McQueen spots a dinosaur park, “Cartaceous Gardens,” Mater is reluctant to hand over the road trip reins. “I don’t know,” he says, eyeing the educational theme park. “Seems kind of like school.” He dozes off while a docent talks about the creatures that lived during the “late Carboniferous” era, but after a dream battle with a Spinocrankshaftorex, he admits, “I guess I accidentally learned stuff.”
Visit in real life: Cartaceous Gardens is as fictional as the “Plains-dwelling sedans” who once roamed the West, but there are plenty of real-life places dedicated to dinos that are both educational and entertaining, including Dinosaur Land and Dinosaur Kingdom II (both in Virginia) and Michigan’s Dinosaur Gardens. If you prefer fossils to fiberglass, check out the ultimate fossil hunting road trip.
Episode 2: “Lights Out”
It starts to rain as the shivering cars pull up to the looming, gothic Destiny Hotel for the night. Its snarling bellhop instantly gives Mater the creeps, but McQueen is more optimistic: “It’s got vintage charm,” he says unconvincingly as he surveys stacks of suitcases draped in spiderwebs. Mater quickly falls asleep, while McQueen is kept up by unsettling noises and sinister shadows. A voice beckons him into the hallway, which dead ends at a door scrawled with the word “racecar.”
Pausing to look at the red word’s reflection in a mirror, he ponders the palindrome before being frightened by two blue twin cars, hovering above a geometric patterned carpet in a scene that horror fans will instantly recognize from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. “Come race with us, Lightning,” they say. McQueen tries to flee, but gets temporarily wedged in the hallway (he might’ve fared better in a snowy hedge maze), antifreeze spews out of the elevator, and he’s pulled into a ballroom filled with ghost cars before he finally makes it back to his room in time for check-out.
Visit in real life: The Destiny Hotel isn’t real, but there’s no shortage of haunted hotels across the country to test your tolerance for things that go bump in the night: If you dare, sleep in a former morgue in Eureka Springs, hunt ghost cats at a former bordello in New York, or commune with the spirits of chambermaids and golden retrievers at Stephen King’s real-life inspiration for The Shining: The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.
Episode 3: “Salt Fever”
At the beginning of episode three, the pals roll onto a flat, blindingly white expanse. “Where’s the road?” McQueen asks. “There’s nobody else out here, we can go as fast as we want.” They race each other, eventually coming across a group of professional land speed racers. Mater inquires about the prospects for a lowly tow truck, and is excited to learn there’s an open spot on a team. “I’ve always wanted to go faster than fast,” he says as he’s outfitted with jet engines.
Souped up, Mater hits speeds of more than 600 miles per hour before a crash causes him to briefly meet the great speed demon in the sky. She agrees to allow him to resume his life back on earth, and McQueen is glad to have his friend back: “What fun is a road trip on your own anyway?” he says. “Race you to the next town?”
Visit in real life: Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats are famous for the International Speedway, where numerous land speed records have been set. The public land, located 100 miles east of Salt Lake City, is open to anyone—no matter how fast you’re going. To explore an otherworldly landscape at slower speeds, grab a sled and coast down the soft white gypsum dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park.
Episode 4: “The Legend”
Pulled up to a campfire, Mater accuses McQueen of “fighting that road trip spontaneity” when he is hesitant to make friends with their fellow campers. The newcomers announce they’re off to hunt cryptids, “creatures on the fringe of our perception,” as Mater explains (including Chupacabra, Mothman, and Bigfoot), and he agrees to accompany his new pals on a night hunt through the woods.
McQueen reluctantly tags along but gets separated from the group and pursued by a shadowy creature named Ivy who later reveals herself to be neither cryptid nor car. “You’re not a monster, you’re a monster truck!” McQueen exclaims. When Mater tries to rescue his friend, the trio stages a fake alien encounter to ward off the crazed campers. “Here’s to spontaneity,” McQueen says, as Ivy decides to come along with them on their journey. “What doesn’t kill you at least makes you a new friend.”
Visit in real life: While the existence of cryptids and aliens may be up for debate, museums and festivals started by those who hunt them are very real, including the International Cryptozoology Museum in Maine; the Cryptozoology and Paranormal Museum in North Carolina; the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in California; the Mothman Festival in West Virginia; the Marblemount Sasquatch Conference in Washington; Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs Service in California; and the UFO Watchtower in Colorado.
Episode 5: “Show Time”
After living in the woods, Ivy is in desperate need of a car wash, and the gang finds one shaped like a large blue submarine (a mashup between Oklahoma’s Blue Whale of Catoosa and Harold’s dinosaur-shaped auto shop in Spring Hill, Florida). The trio continues their drive through cornfields, an expanse McQueen describes as “a whole lot of nothing,” while Ivy says she’s grateful for the “blue skies, green fields, and new experiences.”
When they spot a pop-up circus in the middle of a field, McQueen reluctantly follows his friends into the big top where they encounter clown cars (which multiply when several clown cars pop out of another’s trunk), and cars juggling three others, parachuting off plane wings, swinging on a trapeze, and breathing fire. After getting a taste of the stage life again, Ivy decides to stay with the circus and the cars count is back to two.
Visit in real life: The Greatest Show on Earth took its final bow in 2017, but its (sometimes not-so-great) history lives on at Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, home of the World’s Largest Miniature Circus.
Episode 6: “Trucks”
Back on the road, the duo passes a tractor trailer; when Mater laments that sometimes he wishes he was a real truck, McQueen assures his friend that he’s “100 percent a real truck.” A pit stop at “Truckey’s” (whose logo looks an awful lot like Stuckey’s), including an extended song-and-dance sequence featuring a colorful line of long haulers, helps convince Mater he’s more than road-worthy.
When McQueen, who’s been inside shopping for kitschy souvenirs like personalized gas caps (they never have his name!) asks Mater what all the excitement was about, Mater replies cryptically, “It’s a truck thing.”
Visit in real life: While Truckey’s only exists inside of the Cars universe, Mater would find a similar camaraderie year round at truck stops across the country—but especially in Walcott, Iowa, every July when Iowa 80, the World’s Largest Truckstop, hosts its annual Truckers Jamboree.
Episode 7: “B-Movie”
As the cars drive through a small town, they notice a truck for Brakelight Pictures and realize they’ve rolled right onto the set of a B-movie. McQueen is tapped for the role of a sheriff, but after 37 unsuccessful takes, it’s Mater who ends up stealing the show from the sidelines.
Charming legendary horror director Bella Cadavre, Mater gets cast as the lead, but even his star power is eventually usurped by Ivy, who has left the circus to pursue her acting career; when her potential becomes obvious, Mater and McQueen ditch their Hollywood dreams and head back out on the road.
Visit in real life: You don’t have to get lucky to get a glimpse at what happens behind the big (or small) screen: Take a studio tour in Southern California or take a road trip to real-life filming locations for Hocus Pocus, Ghostbusters, Gilmore Girls, A Christmas Story, and Mad Men.
Episode 8: “Road Rumblers”
The penultimate episode of the season begins with the two road-weary buddies bickering with each other. They see a camp ahead and before they know it, a group of Mad Max-type vehicles surrounds them. At the gathering, the group’s leader (perched on top of several VW bugs) asks the pair to prove their worth in the “Thundercone,” a cage-like structure that resembles an upside down traffic cone.
Mater gets outfitted with a flamethrower and McQueen gets what Mater calls “a shovelbeard”; together they dodge saw blades, spikes, and bursts of fire, eventually agreeing to set aside their differences and leave together, defying the Thudercone’s edict, “Two cars enter, one survives.”
Visit in real life: While 1986’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was filmed mostly in Australia, any of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, including Zion and Arches, offer plenty of red rocks, post-apocalyptic vistas, and challenging hikes—just leave the flamethrowers at home.
Episode 9: “Gettin’ Hitched”
Mater and McQueen finally arrive at their destination, a sprawling mansion surrounded by brilliant fall foliage and meet Mato, Mater’s shinier sister. After the ceremony, McQueen is ready to fly back to Radiator Springs, but Mater’s heartfelt speech changes his mind: “What course we decide upon might prove scary at times. Or test our resolve. Or maybe even make us question the very reasons for embarking on this grand journey in the first place. But it’s true, them unexpected turns, all the bumps along the road, that’s what makes life worth living.”
As Mato and her betrothed race to their wedding cake, tin cans clicking behind them, McQueen relents. “I was thinking we should drive,” he says. “Take our time, wander the backroads, maybe even make new friends.” Mater is elated and already has a plan: to see all the wax museums they passed on the first leg of their journey. “Let’s just see what the old road has in store for us,” McQueen tells his friend as they head back west. “Bumps and all.”
Visit in real life: The location of the wedding is never specified, but New York’s Hudson River Valley is home to several grand properties that offer a similarly striking backdrop in the fall, including Lyndhurst and Kykuit.