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California Misadventure — Part 3

In Part 3 of this fan favorite from the archives, learn about the greatest stateside theme park that the Walt Disney Company never built: Westcot.




Hoping to turn Anaheim into another Orlando, Disney CEO Michael Eisner proposes adding hundreds of Disney-owned-and-operated hotel rooms to Orange County. Understanding that he needed a way to keep those new hotel rooms filled, Eisner asked his Imagineers to design huge new Disney attractions for Southern California.

Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) came up with concepts for two new California theme parks: Westcot Center and Disney Seas. Since both of these proposed projects carried hefty price tags ($3 billion each), Disney knew that they’d need help covering the total cost of construction. So they began looking for financial partners (AKA a sucker with deep pockets to help pick up the tab). The cities of Anaheim and Long Beach as well as the state of California immediately came to mind.

Setting up a scenario that Machiavelli himself would have admired, the Mouse began playing Anaheim (the proposed location of Westcot) and Long Beach (the proposed location of Disney Seas) off one another in a not-so subtle competition for the next Disney theme park. For two years, Disney manipulated officials in these cities — constantly threatening to cancel that town’s project and take its thousands of jobs (and millions of tax dollars) elsewhere — to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds for highway improvements.

Anaheim ultimately won this corporate butt-kissing contest in December 1991, when the Mouse announced it was abandoning plans to build Disney Seas in favor of developing Westcot. Orange County officials rejoiced, little realizing the headaches and heartaches that lie ahead.

Why do Disneyana buffs constantly complain about Disney’s California Adventure?

It’s not so much about what DCA is, as it is about what that park isn’t.

Imagine if there was an announcement in your local paper that a major company intended to build a world class restaurant, right in your home town. Their plans called for the restaurant to be housed in an elegant building surrounded by beautiful gardens. Inside, they’d serve delicious food while live bands performed.

Wouldn’t you be excited if you heard that a place like that was coming to your town?

Conversely, wouldn’t you be disappointed if you were to learn that — after years of hype — the same company had decided not to construct the elegant restaurant, but were opting instead to build a McDonalds on that site?

One might argue that a restaurant is a restaurant. Food is food. It doesn’t much matter if an elegant restaurant is replaced by a fast food place. You still have somewhere to eat.

This is why Disneyana buffs are so upset. In their minds, they were promised the beautiful restaurant (Westcot) but ended up with McDonald’s (DCA).

It doesn’t much matter that many of the very same Imagineers who dreamed up Westcot also worked on attractions for DCA. Not to the Disney die-hards, anyway. All that they remember — all too keenly — are the plans for Westcot. Next to the greatness-that-might-have-been of that grandiose resort, everything — particularly California Adventure — pales in comparison.

Was this abandoned-but-not-forgotten project worth all this fuss? In a way, yes. Had Westcot been built following the project’s original plan, it would have been the culmination of Disney’s theme park experience. Everything that the Mouse had learned while building resorts in Florida, France and Japan was going to be used back in California.

And how fitting that Disney was going to re-invent the theme park experience — right back in the place where theme parks had been invented in 1955.

Westcot and the original Disneyland Resort plan was truly groundbreaking stuff. It sought to turn Disneyland and the tired collection of motels and fast food joints that surrounded the park as something extraordinary: a lushly gardened, brightly lit urban entertainment center. Had this project gone forward as originally planned, Anaheim could have emerged as one of California’s premier destination resorts.

You want to know what all the fuss was about? Do you long for a taste of the wonders of Westcot? Here, let me take you on a journey to the greatest theme park the Disney Company never built:

Your day at Westcot begins as you zoom off Interstate 5, driving straight in to one of two massive parking garages that border the reconfigured Disneyland Resort. After parking your car, you hop aboard an elevated shuttle (modeled after the automated system that Orlando International Airport uses to shuttle passengers to its outermost air terminals) which takes you quickly and quietly to Disneyland Plaza.

Though it’s only a short trip to the plaza, you still use this opportunity to eyeball the plush new resort. Off in the distance, you spy the Magic Kingdom Hotel — one of three new resorts the Walt Disney Company has built outside the parks. Its red tile roof and stucco stylings remind you a lot of the historic Spanish missions up in Santa Barbara.

The shuttle’s elevated track also takes you past Disneyland Center — a retail, dining and entertainment area located next to a six acre lake. You notice that many of the buildings in this part of the resort are modeled after memorable Californian landmarks: Catalina’s Avalon Ballroom, Venice Beach’s Boardwalk as well as San Diego’s Coronado Hotel. You make a note to do a little poking around here after your day at Westcot.

But now it’s time to disembark. As you stroll down the steps into Disneyland Plaza, you can’t help but think: this used to be the parking lot? Now it’s a tree-lined, fountain-filled open space, which allows guests a moment or so to get themselves oriented before beginning that day’s adventure.

To your left is Disneyland “Classic.” To your right is Westcot, a stylish rethinking of WDW’s Epcot Center. Everything that makes that Florida theme park fun is recreated here. Everything else that made Epcot somewhat creepy and a bit of a bore (“The Future as envisioned by Republicans”) has been left behind.

As you push through the turnstile to enter Westcot, the first thing you see is the park’s icon, Spacestation Earth. A giant 300-foot-tall golden ball reminiscent of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth. Even in the distance, it towers over everything. Sitting on a lush green island at the center of World Showcase lagoon, Spacestation Earth is home to the Ventureport.

You’ll have to cross a pedestrian bridge out over the water to reach Spacestation Earth and the Ventureport. But here, you’ll get your first taste of the Wonders of Westcot. Many of your old favorites from Epcot’s Future World — the “Journey into Imagination” ride with Figment and Dreamfinder, the “Body Wars” ride from the”Wonders of Life” pavilion as well as the “Horizons” ride — will be waiting for you here, where you can “Dare to Dream the Future.”

Well, the Future’s a fun place to hang out for a while. But suddenly your stomach’s growling. Maybe now would be a good time to sample all that international cuisine that’s available around World Showcase Lagoon. So you walk back around that pedestrian bridge and begin exploring the Americas.

(Westcot’s World Showcase is a little different than the Epcot version. Here, you won’t find separate countries, but countries grouped by regions. So, if you want to check out the international area, you have a choice of heading to the Americas, Europe, Asia as well as Africa & the Far East. Four distinct districts that try to span the globe. Today, you’ll begin your journey in the Americas.)

As you walk back across the pedestrian bridge, you can’t help but notice how cleverly Westcot is laid out. The buildings that form the Americas area (which also double as the main entrance to the park) have been done in an early 1900s style, reminiscent of the way New York City must have looked like at the turn of the century. Architecturally, these buildings have just enough in common with the buildings that make up Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. that the two theme parks blend together effortlessly. There are no jarring transitions for guests who are exiting one park to visit the other. It all flows together seamlessly.

Inside World Showcase, this sort of architectural blending continues. Instead of doing what the Imagineers who designed the original Epcot did (i.e.: building large, free-standing international pavilions with wide swaths of greenery separating each building from its neighbor), the team that designed Westcot put its buildings right next to one another. That way, you can — for example — see how Japanese architecture borrowed from Chinese design, which — in turn — influenced Indian ornamentation.

You also notice that Disney has obviously learned from the other mistakes it made with Epcot. There are fewer travelogue films to be seen here, but a lot more rides. Kids won’t complain about there being nothing to do in this park, particularly with attractions like “Ride The Dragon.” This steel coaster roars across the rooftops of the Asian section of World Showcase, following a track that’s designed to look like the Great Wall of China.

As you explore the many shops and exhibits you find in the park’s international area, your eye keeps being drawn to the top three floors of the six story buildings that ring World Showcase Lagoon. What a thrill it must be to have a room up there — in one of two new Disney Resort hotels, where guests can actually “live the dream” of staying inside a theme park.

I bet those rooms offer a great view of the nightly fireworks extravaganza.

Speaking of night, where did the day go? It seems like you just got to Westcot, yet it’s already time to head back home. You barely got to see half of this hyper-detailed theme park. I mean, how did you end up missing taking a trip on “The River of Time,” the park’s signature attraction? That 45 minute boat ride would have taken you all the way around the park, past elaborate audio animatronic recreations of great moments in history.

Oh well. I guess you’ll just have to catch that the next time.

You walk out of Westcot. And — while you are sorely tempted to catch that rock concert that’s currently playing in the Disneyland Arena (a 5,000-seat venue located just outside the entrance of Westcot, right next to Harbor Boulevard) — you know it’s really time to go home. That’s another one of the many attractions that will have to wait ’til the next time you visit the new and improved Disneyland Resort.

But — given all the new stuff that there is to see here — you’re sure you’ll be back soon.

You see. THAT’S what we missed out on. NOW do you understand all the endless griping you read about California Adventure as you’re out trolling the Internet?

This was a version of the Disneyland Resort that you could never have seen in one day. You would have — at the very least — needed three days: One to visit Disneyland “Classic,” one to visit Westcot, as well as an additional day to explore the new hotels, and to shop and dine at Disneyland Center.

This was exactly what Eisner wanted: Walt Disney World recreated in Anaheim in miniature. A world class resort built on a postage-stamp sized parcel of land. Best of all, in spite of the number of attractions the Imagineers had crammed into the project, the Disneyland Resort would not have seemed cramped. All the plazas, trees and fountains would have given guests the illusion that there was plenty of open space.

One of the things that really excited Eisner was that “Live the Dream” program, which would have allowed guests to stay in hotel rooms that were actually located inside Westcot’s World Showcase. Extensive survey work at Disneyland had showed that guests were willing to pay top dollar — $300 to $400 a night — to stay in these rooms. That would have made this part of the resort a tremendous money maker for the Walt Disney Company.

The beauty of this plan was that — in designing six story structures for World Showcase that housed shops, shows and restaurants on their first three floors and guest rooms towards the top — is that the Imagineers created a unique variation on Disneyland’s berm. The very height of these combination show buildings / hotels prevented guests from seeing out into the real world, perfectly preserving the sense that they had been transported to a different place.

The Westcot project seemed to have everything going for it. It had looks. It had style. It had the potential to make massive amounts of money, which to Michael Eisner’s way of thinking, is a lot more important than looks and style. It had Orange County officials drooling over the idea of hundreds of thousands of people putting off that WDW vacation in favor of visiting Disney’s newest resort in Anaheim.

There was just one slight flaw in this plan: No one had bothered to ask Disneyland’s neighbors — the folks who actually live in homes off of Katella and Ball Street — what they thought of all this development.

As it turns out, they had plenty to say.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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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!

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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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.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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From Birthday Wishes to Toontown Dreams: How Toontown Came to Be



Mickey's Birthday Land

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.

Interested in learning about Jim Shull’s original idea for a Winnie the Pooh ride? Here’s concept art of the attraction proposed for the original Toontown in Disneyland. More on [Disney Unpacked].

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.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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