It’s been a busy week at Walt Disney World. In honor of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, new and refurbished attractions are debuting all over the Florida resort. By the end of this year, every WDW park will have opened a major new attraction, a larger expansion than the original Anaheim park will receive. This week alone, new attractions opened or began “soft open” testing at Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, Disney/MGM Studios, and Typhoon Lagoon. Here’s a brief look at some of these new experiences – keep in mind that many are still in the preview stage, and may change by the time you visit (your mileage may vary, not valid in North Carolina).
Disney/MGM Studios: Lights, Motors, Action!
What’s your favorite movie car chase? Automobile stunts have been a staple since the earliest action movies, and at their best they can be a thrilling way to propel a film’s plot. Old-times may remember classic chases from “The French Connection” or the 60’s Bond films. Those with shorter memories might be partial to the CGI excess of “The Matrix Reloaded” or “Terminator 3”. For my money, you can’t beat the visceral simplicity of John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin”. Whatever your taste, who wouldn’t love to see their favorite car chase moments brought to life on stage? That’s the formula Disney has banked on in bringing the popular “Lights, Motors, Action” (LMA) show to WDW’s Disney/MGM Studios, but the final product might not completely live up to expectations.
A massive new venue for LMA has been built on the former site of the Backstage Tour’s “Residential Street”, not far from the shuttered “Hunchback” theatre (can we please bring that show back?). After navigating a queue line past glassed-in maintenance bays, where mechanics can been seen prepping cars for the show, the audience is led into a vast stadium. The wide set depicts a quaint Southern French village market, with a trough of water separating the stage from the audience bleachers. The setup is similar to that of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (the first of many similarities) with the addition of a large video billboard to reinforce the action, and (as Kimberly Duncan might say), “every seat provides excellent viewing”.
The show begins with a warm welcome from the “assistant director” host – in French. After briefly befuddling the non-Francophonic in the audience, she explains (in English) that the show has been imported from the Walt Disney Studios park in Paris. The show’s French connections are referenced repeatedly, an odd creative choice. Next, we’re treated to a montage of clips from famous movie car chases. Most are from Jerry Bruckheimer-produced monstrosities like “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “The Rock”, through there is a tribute to my favorite “Ronin”.
The show proper kicks off with “Ballet”, a masterful display of driving talent in which a red “hero” car tries to evade a team of “bad guys” in black sedans. This is an expertly choreographed few minutes of cars careening across the set at high speeds, driving bumper to bumper and skidding to stops with mere inches of clearance. The precision driving drew audible gasps from the audience, and the final trick where a car jumps backwards off a ramp brought cheers. This first stunt sequence is truly exciting, and nearly makes the show worth seeing all on its own.
Unfortunately, the rest of the show goes downhill from there. There are 3 more stunt sequences spaced out through the rest of the show, “Blockade”, “Motorcycle”, and the finale. Each is largely variations on what we have already seen, various combinations of obstacles and vehicles swerving around each other. Each segment has a signature effect – in “Blockade” a car leaps off a ramp into an airbag, and “Motorcycle” concludes with an excellent fire stunt. But overall, the stunt sequences become repetitive, even within their brief running time.
The bigger problem comes when the cars aren’t being put through their paces. Like the Indy stunt show, LMA requires lengthy changes to the set between each stunt. Though the show runs nearly 40 minutes, less than a quarter of that is taken up by stunts. With no story to tie the action together, the rest of the show is filled by faux movie-making banter that will be very familiar to anyone who has seen the Indy stunt show. We get a glimpse under the hood of the cars, and many “don’t try this at home” admonitions. There is the inevitable audience participation segment, where a child is selected to “drive” a remote controlled car. There is a shameless plug for the upcoming Herbie the Love Bug movie (do today’s kids have any idea who Herbie is?), and they even kill some time explaining what a movie “MacGuffin” is (another nod to “Ronin”).
All this filler serves to drain whatever momentum the show generates. It may be necessary to take the time to set up these obviously dangerous stunts, but the pace of the show suffers as a result. The Indy stunt show overcomes this through the emotional connection to Indiana Jones that an audience brings into the show, and with some genuine humor. Guests have no such connection to the non-existent movie that LMA is themed around. The filler doesn’t have enough meat to be educational, and the writing isn’t witty enough to be funny. As a result, the show limps to the end with an anticlimactic climax.
LMA is not a disaster; it’s got many entertaining and amazing moments, and it’s easy to see why it’s considered the top original attraction at the Paris park. But without some rewriting and tightening, it’s hard to see it having the repeat viewing potential that a major E-Ticket show should.
Magic Kingdom: It’s A Small World, Cinderellabration, Tomorrowland Noodle Station
After a lengthy rehab, the most beloved and hated of all classic Disney attractions returned this week. No attraction has inspired more derision and stand-up comedy, and for some it represents Disney at its saccharine, cloying worst. But “it’s a small world” (IASW) has endured since 1964 because of its charming art direction, catchy music (too catchy, for anyone who has had the refrain stuck in their head for days), and heartfelt message of peace and hope.
One might think that, given the public’s love/hate relationship with IASW, the attraction’s return might go unnoticed. But judging by the crowds queued up despite the 60 minute posted wait time, there is pent up demand for this classic ride. Disney purists can rejoice, IASM has returned exactly as you remember it, only better. No flume drops or 3D effects have been added, there are no chili-belching dolls, and Zazu and Iago don’t interrupt to sing the Conga. All we have is the classic ride, lovingly restored to look even better than on opening day.
The biggest change is to the loading area. On entering through the former exit, guests are treated to a lovely white and gold animated clock façade, similar to the design of the Anaheim version’s exterior. The loading dock has been redesigned to efficiently load 2 boats at a time, with easy access for wheelchairs. Once the ride begins, all the show scenes are essentially unchanged, as I didn’t recognize any major new set pieces. But every doll and object has been carefully cleaned, repainted, and restored to pristine condition. The sound track has also been digitally cleaned, and the speakers rehabbed, allowing every note to be clearly heard. I couldn’t say whether the audio is the original World’s Fair version or the Disneyland version, but it sounds great and isn’t as monotonous as I remember.
The biggest improvement is in the lighting. A new theatrical lighting system has been installed, and every fixture re-gelled and focused, showing off the sets and dolls to their best. Words can’t describe what a wonderful difference the subtle and beautiful new illumination makes. IASM may not have the thrills or elaborate effects of a modern ride, but judging by the delighted smiles I saw on exiting guests, this happy cruise looks set to delight crowds for years to come.
Also new at the Magic Kingdom is Cinderellabration, the new show performed on the castle forecourt stage. In honor of the Disneyland 50th anniversary, Cinderella’s Castle has been spiffed up with gold filigree and character figures (I especially like the golden Peter Pan and Wendy soaring around the tallest spire). There is also a large “magic mirror” suspended above the castle gate, displaying a stained glass-style image of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It’s a beautiful treatment, far more palatable than the Pepto-Bismol birthday cake foisted on us for WDW’s 25th.
The newly decorated castle makes an attractive backdrop for the lightweight new show. This 10 minute pageant is themed around the coronation of Cinderella. The Fairy Godmother welcomes us, and the royal court enters and performs some faux-Renaissance dance steps. Next comes Cinderella, who is joined by a number of other Disney princesses (in the new world of Disney synergy, Snow White, Jasmine, and Belle are all best friends, logistics of distance and time travel be damned). More dancing, a saccharine song about “every girl is a princess inside”, a kiss, some fireworks, and the whole thing is neatly wrapped up. It’s an inoffensive diversion, perfect if your child is princess-crazy, but anyone over the age of 9 or with a Y chromosome need not apply.
Finally, while waiting for Cinderellabration, I tried the food at the new Tomorrowland Noodle Station (formerly the Tomorrowland Terrace). The Asian-themed menu features noodle bowls, Pad Thai, meat buns, mandarin orange salad, egg rolls, and potstickers. I tried the shrimp noodle bowl and the ginger crème Brule for desert. The noodle bowl was a large bowl of soup with clear rice noodles, vegetables, and a surprisingly generous portion of shrimp. The broth was well-seasoned with fresh cilantro, without being spicy or overpoweringly salty. The crème brule’s ginger flavor was so subtle as to be undetectable, and the caramelized top could have been crunchier, but the custard was sweet and had a nice firm texture. It certainly isn’t the best noodle bar in Orlando (try Little Saigon on Colonial Drive) or even in a WDW park (I’m partial to the quick-service at Epcot’s Japan pavilion). But it’s a solid addition to the Magic Kingdom’s dining option, and a great alternative when you’re tired of smoked “turkey” legs and clam chowder bread bowls.
This is only the beginning of the new additions to WDW. Soarin’, a clone of the hit attraction from California Adventure, has begun limiting testing at Epcot’s revamped Land pavilion. There are also rumors of a “Grand Reopening” rededication of the Living Seas, tied to the addition of Finding Nemo characters to that Epcot attraction. A new waterslide has been added to Typhoon Lagoon, and back at the Magic Kingdom, Stich’s Great Escape is getting some much needed tweaks. By the end of the year, guests should start experiencing the massive new Expedition Everest over at Animal Kingdom. Not every addition might be a creative home-run, but it’s definitely a good time be an Orlando local with an annual pass.
The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown
Disneyland in Anaheim, California, holds a special place in the hearts of Disney fans worldwide, I mean heck, it’s where the magic began after all. Over the years it’s become a place that people visit in search of memorable experiences. One fan favorite area of the park is Mickey’s Toontown, a unique land that lets guests step right into the colorful, “Toony” world of Disney animation. With the recent reimagining of the land and the introduction of Micky and Minnies Runaway Railway, have you ever wondered how this land came to be?
There is a fascinating backstory of how Mickey’s Toontown came into existence. It’s a tale of strategic vision, the influence of Disney executives, and a commitment to meeting the needs of Disney’s valued guests.
The Beginning: Mickey’s Birthdayland
The story of Mickey’s Toontown starts with Mickey’s Birthdayland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Opened in 1988 to celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday, this temporary attraction was met with such overwhelming popularity that it inspired Disney executives to think bigger. The idea was to create a permanent, immersive land where guests could step into the animated world of Mickey Mouse and his friends.
In the early ’90s, Disneyland was in need of a refresh. Michael Eisner, the visionary leader of The Walt Disney Company at the time, had an audacious idea: create a brand-new land in Disneyland that would celebrate Disney characters in a whole new way. This was the birth of Mickey’s Toontown.
Initially, Disney’s creative minds toyed with various concepts, including the idea of crafting a 100-Acre Woods or a land inspired by the Muppets. However, the turning point came when they considered the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” This film’s popularity and the desire to capitalize on contemporary trends set the stage for Toontown’s creation.
From Concept to Reality: The Birth of Toontown
In 1993, Mickey’s Toontown opened its gates at Disneyland, marking the first time in Disney Park history where guests could experience a fully realized, three-dimensional world of animation. This new land was not just a collection of attractions but a living, breathing community where Disney characters “lived,” worked, and played.
Building Challenges: Innovative Solutions
The design of Mickey’s Toontown broke new ground in theme park aesthetics. Imagineers were tasked with bringing the two-dimensional world of cartoons into a three-dimensional space. This led to the creation of over 2000 custom-built props and structures that embodied the ‘squash and stretch’ principle of animation, giving Toontown its distinctiveness.
And then there was also the challenge of hiding the Team Disney Anaheim building, which bore a striking resemblance to a giant hotdog. The Imagineers had to think creatively, using balloon tests and imaginative landscaping to seamlessly integrate Toontown into the larger park.
Key Attractions: Bringing Animation to Life
Mickey’s Toontown featured several groundbreaking attractions. “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin,” inspired by the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” became a staple of Toontown, offering an innovative ride experience. Gadget’s Go-Coaster, though initially conceived as a Rescue Rangers-themed ride, became a hit with younger visitors, proving that innovative design could create memorable experiences for all ages.
Another crown jewel of Toontown is Mickey’s House, a walkthrough attraction that allowed guests to explore the home of Mickey Mouse himself. This attraction was more than just a house; it was a carefully crafted piece of Disney lore. The house was designed in the American Craftsman style, reflecting the era when Mickey would have theoretically purchased his first home in Hollywood. The attention to detail was meticulous, with over 2000 hand-crafted, custom-built props, ensuring that every corner of the house was brimming with character and charm. Interestingly, the design of Mickey’s House was inspired by a real home in Wichita Falls, making it a unique blend of real-world inspiration and Disney magic.
Mickey’s House also showcased Disney’s commitment to creating interactive and engaging experiences. Guests could make themselves at home, sitting in Mickey’s chair, listening to the radio, and exploring the many mementos and references to Mickey’s animated adventures throughout the years. This approach to attraction design – where storytelling and interactivity merged seamlessly – was a defining characteristic of ToonTown’s success.
Executive Decisions: Shaping ToonTown’s Unique Attractions
The development of Mickey’s Toontown wasn’t just about creative imagination; it was significantly influenced by strategic decisions from Disney executives. One notable input came from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who suggested incorporating a Rescue Rangers-themed ride. This idea was a reflection of the broader Disney strategy to integrate popular contemporary characters and themes into the park, ensuring that the attractions remained relevant and engaging for visitors.
In addition to Katzenberg’s influence, Frank Wells, the then-President of The Walt Disney Company, played a key role in the strategic launch of Toontown’s attractions. His decision to delay the opening of “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin” until a year after Toontown’s debut was a calculated move. It was designed to maintain public interest in the park by offering new experiences over time, thereby giving guests more reasons to return to Disneyland.
These executive decisions highlight the careful planning and foresight that went into making Toontown a dynamic and continuously appealing part of Disneyland. By integrating current trends and strategically planning the rollout of attractions, Disney executives ensured that Toontown would not only capture the hearts of visitors upon its opening but would continue to draw them back for new experiences in the years to follow.
Global Influence: Toontown’s Worldwide Appeal
The concept of Mickey’s Toontown resonated so strongly that it was replicated at Tokyo Disneyland and influenced elements in Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. Each park’s version of Toontown maintained the core essence of the original while adapting to its cultural and logistical environment.
Evolution and Reimagining: Toontown Today
As we approach the present day, Mickey’s Toontown has recently undergone a significant reimagining to welcome “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” in 2023. This refurbishment aimed to enhance the land’s interactivity and appeal to a new generation of Disney fans, all while retaining the charm that has made ToonTown a beloved destination for nearly three decades.
Dive Deeper into ToonTown’s Story
Want to know more about Mickey’s Toontown and hear some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, then check out the latest episode of Disney Unpacked on Patreon @JimHillMedia. In this episode, the main Imagineer who worked on the Toontown project shares lots of interesting stories and details that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s full of great information and fun facts, so be sure to give it a listen!
Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel
Pixar Place Hotel, the newly unveiled 15-story tower at the Disneyland Resort, has been making waves in the Disney community. With its unique Pixar-themed design, it promises to be a favorite among visitors.
However, before we delve into this exciting addition to the Disneyland Resort, let’s take a look at the fascinating history of this remarkable hotel.
The Emergence of the Disneyland Hotel
To truly appreciate the story of the Pixar Place Hotel, we must turn back the clock to the early days of Disneyland. While Walt Disney had the visionary ideas and funding to create the iconic theme park, he faced a challenge when it came to providing accommodations for the park’s visitors. This is where his friend Jack Wrather enters the picture.
Jack Wrather, a fellow pioneer in the television industry, stepped in to assist Walt Disney in realizing his dream. Thanks to the success of the “Lassie” TV show produced by Wrather’s company, he had the financial means to build a hotel right across from Disneyland.
The result was the Disneyland Hotel, which opened its doors in October 1955. Interestingly, the early incarnation of this hotel had more of a motel feel than a hotel, with two-story buildings reminiscent of the roadside motels popular during the 1950s. The initial Disneyland Hotel consisted of modest structures that catered to visitors looking for affordable lodging close to the park. While the rooms were basic, it marked the beginning of something extraordinary.
The Evolution: From Emerald of Anaheim to Paradise Pier
As Disneyland’s popularity continued to soar, so did the demand for expansion and improved accommodations. In 1962, the addition of an 11-story tower transformed the Disneyland Hotel, marking a significant transition from a motel to a full-fledged hotel.
The addition of the 11-story tower elevated the Disneyland Hotel into a more prominent presence on the Anaheim skyline. At the time, it was the tallest structure in all of Orange County. The hotel’s prime location across from Disneyland made it an ideal choice for visitors. With the introduction of the monorail linking the park and the hotel, accessibility became even more convenient. Unique features like the Japanese-themed reflecting pools added to the hotel’s charm, reflecting a cultural influence that extended beyond Disney’s borders.
Japanese Tourism and Its Impact
During the 1960s and 1970s, Disneyland was attracting visitors from all corners of the world, including Japan. A significant number of Japanese tourists flocked to Anaheim to experience Walt Disney’s creation. To cater to this growing market, it wasn’t just the Disneyland Hotel that aimed to capture the attention of Japanese tourists. The Japanese Village in Buena Park, inspired by a similar attraction in Nara, Japan, was another significant spot.
These attractions sought to provide a taste of Japanese culture and hospitality, showcasing elements like tea ceremonies and beautiful ponds with rare carp and black swans. However, the Japanese Village closed its doors in 1975, likely due to the highly competitive nature of the Southern California tourist market.
The Emergence of the Emerald of Anaheim
With the surge in Japanese tourism, an opportunity arose—the construction of the Emerald of Anaheim, later known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel. In May 1984, this 15-story hotel opened its doors.
What made the Emerald unique was its ownership. It was built not by The Walt Disney Company or the Oriental Land Company (which operated Tokyo Disneyland) but by the Tokyu Group. This group of Japanese businessmen already had a pair of hotels in Hawaii and saw potential in Anaheim’s proximity to Disneyland. Thus, they decided to embark on this new venture, specifically designed to cater to Japanese tourists looking to experience Southern California.
Financial Challenges and a Changing Landscape
The late 1980s brought about two significant financial crises in Japan—the crash of the NIKKEI stock market and the collapse of the Japanese real estate market. These crises had far-reaching effects, causing Japanese tourists to postpone or cancel their trips to the United States. As a result, reservations at the Emerald of Anaheim dwindled.
To adapt to these challenging times, the Tokyu Group merged the Emerald brand with its Pacific hotel chain, attempting to weather the storm. However, the financial turmoil took its toll on the Emerald, and changes were imminent.
The Transition to the Disneyland Pacific Hotel
In 1995, The Walt Disney Company took a significant step by purchasing the hotel formerly known as the Emerald of Anaheim for $35 million. This acquisition marked a change in the hotel’s fortunes. With Disney now in control, the hotel underwent a name change, becoming the Disneyland Pacific Hotel.
Transformation to Paradise Pier
The next phase of transformation occurred when Disney decided to rebrand the hotel as Paradise Pier Hotel. This decision aligned with Disney’s broader vision for the Disneyland Resort.
While the structural changes were limited, the hotel underwent a significant cosmetic makeover. Its exterior was painted to complement the color scheme of Paradise Pier, and wave-shaped crenellations adorned the rooftop, creating an illusion of seaside charm. This transformation was Disney’s attempt to seamlessly integrate the hotel into the Paradise Pier theme of Disney’s California Adventure Park.
Looking Beyond Paradise Pier: The Shift to Pixar Place
In 2018, Disneyland Resort rebranded Paradise Pier as Pixar Pier, a thematic area dedicated to celebrating the beloved characters and stories from Pixar Animation Studios. As a part of this transition, it became evident that the hotel formally known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel could no longer maintain its Paradise Pier theme.
With Pixar Pier in full swing and two successful Pixar-themed hotels (Toy Story Hotels in Shanghai Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland), Disney decided to embark on a new venture—a hotel that would celebrate the vast world of Pixar. The result is Pixar Place Hotel, a 15-story tower that embraces the characters and stories from multiple Pixar movies and shorts. This fully Pixar-themed hotel is a first of its kind in the United States.
The Future of Pixar Place and Disneyland Resort
As we look ahead to the future, the Disneyland Resort continues to evolve. The recent news of a proposed $1.9 billion expansion as part of the Disneyland Forward project indicates that the area surrounding Pixar Place is expected to see further changes. Disneyland’s rich history and innovative spirit continue to shape its destiny.
In conclusion, the history of the Pixar Place Hotel is a testament to the ever-changing landscape of Disneyland Resort. From its humble beginnings as the Disneyland Hotel to its transformation into the fully Pixar-themed Pixar Place Hotel, this establishment has undergone several iterations. As Disneyland Resort continues to grow and adapt, we can only imagine what exciting developments lie ahead for this iconic destination.
If you want to hear more stories about the History of the Pixar Place hotel, check our special edition of Disney Unpacked over on YouTube.
Stay tuned for more updates and developments as we continue to explore the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.
From Birthday Wishes to Toontown Dreams: How Toontown Came to Be
In the latest release of Episode 4 of Disney Unpacked, Len and I return, joined as always by Disney Imagineering legend, Jim Shull. This two-part episode covers all things Mickey’s Birthday Land and how it ultimately led to the inspiration behind Disneyland’s fan-favorite land, “Toontown”. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It all starts in the early days at Disneyland.
Early Challenges in Meeting Mickey
Picture this: it’s the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’re at Disneyland. You want to meet the one and only Mickey Mouse, but there’s no clear way to make it happen. You rely on Character Guides, those daily printed sheets that point you in Mickey’s general direction. But let’s be honest, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Sometimes, you got lucky; other times, not so much.
Mickey’s Birthdayland: A Birthday Wish that Came True
Fast forward to the late 1980s. Disney World faced a big challenge. The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park was under construction, with the company’s marketing machine in full swing, hyping up the opening of Walt Disney World’s third theme park, MGM Studios, in the Spring of 1989. This extensive marketing meant that many people were opting to postpone their family’s next trip to Walt Disney World until the following year. Walt Disney World needed something compelling to motivate guests to visit Florida in 1988, the year before Disney MGM Studios opened.
Enter stage left, Mickey’s Birthdayland. For the first time ever, an entire land was dedicated to a single character – and not just any character, but the mouse who started it all. Meeting Mickey was no longer a game of chance; it was practically guaranteed.
The Birth of Birthdayland: Creative Brilliance Meets Practicality
In this episode, we dissect the birth of Mickey’s Birthdayland, an initiative that went beyond celebrating a birthday. It was a calculated move, driven by guest feedback and a need to address issues dating back to 1971. Imagineers faced the monumental task of designing an experience that honored Mickey while efficiently managing the crowds. This required the perfect blend of creative flair and logistical prowess – a hallmark of Disney’s approach to theme park design.
Evolution: From Birthdayland to Toontown
The success of Mickey’s Birthdayland was a real game-changer, setting the stage for the birth of Toontown – an entire land that elevated character-centric areas to monumental new heights. Toontown wasn’t merely a spot to meet characters; it was an immersive experience that brought Disney animation to life. In the episode, we explore its innovative designs, playful architecture, and how every nook and cranny tells a story.
Impact on Disney Parks and Guests
Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown didn’t just reshape the physical landscape of Disney parks; they transformed the very essence of the guest experience. These lands introduced groundbreaking ways for visitors to connect with their beloved characters, making their Disney vacations even more unforgettable.
Beyond Attractions: A Cultural Influence
But the influence of these lands goes beyond mere attractions. Our episode delves into how Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown left an indelible mark on Disney’s culture, reflecting the company’s relentless dedication to innovation and guest satisfaction. It’s a journey into how a single idea can grow into a cherished cornerstone of the Disney Park experience.
Unwrapping the Full Story of Mickey’s Birthdayland
Our two-part episode of Disney Unpacked is available for your viewing pleasure on our Patreon page. And for those seeking a quicker Disney fix, we’ve got a condensed version waiting for you on our YouTube channel. Thank you for being a part of our Disney Unpacked community. Stay tuned for more episodes as we continue to “Unpack” the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.
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