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The Disneyland that You Almost Got: Big Town USA

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Disneyland that You Almost Got: Big Town USA

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MonkFan wrote in to say:

I really enjoyed that “TRON attraction that Disneyland almost got” you wrote earlier this month. So I was wondering if you have any more stories about rides & attractions that almost got built at the Parks that you could share. Maybe something about my favorite part of Disneyland, Mickey’s Toontown and all the stuff that the Imagineers almost built there.

Dear MonkFan –

Yeah, Mickey’s Toontown went through a number of iterations over the years. At one point in the late 1980s / early 1990s, this proposed Disneyland addition was actually called Mickeyland and was to have been home not only to Mickey Mouse & Roger Rabbit but also the Little Mermaid and the Muppets.

Mickey[s Toon Town at Disney;and
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

But even before that plan was proposed … The Imagineers were toying with the idea of adding a Toon-themed area to Disneyland which was to have had an urban section (which is Mickey & his friends were to have set up shop) and a rural section (which is where Winnie the Pooh and his pals were to have lived).

But if you were to have asked me which was the most interesting plan that WDI ever proposed for this particular parcel of land, this area just beyond the berm next to the “it’s a small world” show building … Well, I’d have to say that that dates back to the 1976 era expansion plan for Disneyland. Back when Imagineering was considering building Big Town USA.

“And what exactly was Big Town USA?,” you ask. Quoting now from the actual document (which delineates what Phase II of the Disneyland Expansion Plan circa 1976 was to have entailed) …

An aerial view of Disneyland circa 1976
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The theme of this new land could be developed around the Big Town setting. This would enable the use of shops and food facilities of a variety of sizes and types, which were all parts of the city at the turn of the century.

And among the food facilities that WDI considered building as part of this proposed addition to Disneyland were …

… An automat, (a) cafeteria … even (a) small delicatessen …

Mind you, one of the main reasons that the Imagineers wanted to go forward with construction of Big Town USA was that …

Parade floats on Main St. Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

… one of the problems that currently exists with (Disneyland’s) parade route is that its length limits the (number) of guests who can watch any one performance. (Adding to the existing parade route) would help ease this problem.

One of the other issues that the Imagineers wanted Big Town USA to address was Disneyland’s lack of an enclosed indoor performance venue. Which – no matter how bad the weather got – would still allow The Happiest Place on Earth to entertain a huge number of Guests each day. What the Imagineers were thinking of building back then was …

… an indoor theatre (with) 3000 seats … (where) live stage shows with big name talent (could be presented) …

And did I mention that you might have been able to get a meal with that show? Given that – among the many entertainment experiences that the Imagineers were thinking of building in Big Town USA were …

The Golden Horshoe Review
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

… A Golden Horseshoe type experience … (with) a Ziegfeld theme (that could include) a dinner with the show

But perhaps the most controversial aspect (at least to all you Disney theme park purists out there) was to have been Big Town USA’s old-time carni-amusement park. Which was to have been built right along the northeastern edge of the Rivers of America. This “Victorian style Playland” was to have featured …

… a ferris wheel, roller coaster, and small water sports such as paddle boats …

And did I mention the proposed E-Ticket for this Disneyland addition? Which was to have started off with Guests descending into this old subway station. Then this ride (through a plot development that never entirely made sense to me) was to have sent these people blasting into the past aboard a time machine.

Dinosaurs roam Primeval World as seen from the Disneyland train
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Imagineers seem to have thought that Big Town USA would have significantly increased Disneyland’s hourly ride capacity. According to the documents that I’ve seen, that proposed time machine-type ride – with all of its elaborate special effects – was to have entertain an extra 3600 Guests per hour. While the Victorian style playland (with its roller coaster, ferris wheel & paddle boats) was to have provided entertainment for 2550 Guests per hour.

So why didn’t Walt Disney Productions ever go forward with construction of this proposed Disneyland addition? To be honest, back in 1976, most of the Company’s assets (both fiscal as well as creative) were committed to the development & completion of Epcot. And once work on WDW’s second theme park was complete … Well, that’s when the Imagineers thought that they’d finally get around to adding things like Big Town USA to Disneyland.

Of course, EPCOT Center didn’t actually open ‘til October of 1982. And given that Disney’s second theme park in Central Florida failed to meet the Company’s attendance projections (not to mention Wall Street’s financial expectations for this project) … Well, that then set a series of events in motion that started with Walt Disney Productions being forced to pay off greenmailers like Saul Steinberg & Irwin Jacobs and eventually ended with company president Ron Miller being forced to resign. Which then cleared the way for Michael Eisner & Frank Wells to take over as the new heads of The Walt Disney Company.

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells with their friends Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Donald Duck at Disneyland
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

And given that one of Michael’s main goals was to make Disney’s theme parks more culturally relevant (which resulted in shows & attractions like “Captain EO” and “Star Tours” being greenlit) … Something like Big Town USA (which was counting on nostalgia being a major part of its appeal) … Well, it just didn’t stand a chance with The Walt Disney Company’s new management team.

Which isn’t to say that some of the ideas that the Imagineers proposed back in 1976 didn’t eventually filter out into the theme parks. Many of the carni-amusement park’s rides did eventually get built as part of DCA’s Paradise Pier area. And as for the overhaul Big Town USA concept … That was recycled (right down to the Ziegfeld-type theater) as part of the American Waterfront at TokyoDisney Sea.

But as for Big Town USA being built at Disneyland today … I’d say that there is very little chance of that ever happening.

Your thoughts?

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  • Hooray for Jim! I really enjoy the "making of" stories and the "things that never were" stories. There are other places where people can get Mouse-related rumblings, but this is the stuff I always look forward to on JHM.

  • Thank goodness they never built this. This sounds lame. Except for the time machine attraction. But I thought that was going to be built in Tomorrowland and involve the Primeval World diorama? Maybe they recycled it over there?

    I REALLY liked the Jules Vernes inspired world that they talked about going in that same location.

  • Interesting. I've never heard that story before.

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