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California Misadventure — Part 4

In Part 4 of this fan favorite from the JimHillMedia.com archives, learn what happened when Mickey’s Orange County neighbors got hot under the collar about the Disneyland Resort’s expansion plans.

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OUR STORY SO FAR:

After months of playing Long Beach and Anaheim off one another, Disney (surprise, surprise) picked Orange County as the future home of its next Californian theme park. This $3.1 billion development would have risen up out of Disneyland’s old parking lot, changing forever the fiscal as well as physical layout of this part of California.

Had the Mouse actually gone forward with building Westcot Center as well as redoing the entire Disneyland resort, Anaheim could have evolved into one of California’s premier vacation destinations. The proposed theme park’s bold new look and stunning array of state-of-the-art attractions would have made the place an instant hit with vacationers worldwide. There was no way the place would have failed.

All the Mouse had to do now was get the City of Anaheim to rubber-stamp its expansion plans. Given the decades of cozy (some might say too cozy) relations between Disney and Orange County, Westcot and the Disneyland Resort project should have no problems getting approved, right?

After all, what could go wrong? … go wrong? … go wrong? … go wrong? …

There was no getting around it. Spacestation Earth was going to be impressive.

At 300 feet, Westcot’s centerpiece building was going to be the tallest structure in all of Orange County. As big as a 23-story skyscraper, but round and covered in gold. Shimmering under the Californian sun, it would dazzle your eye and be visible for miles around.

Impressive, yes. But would you really want one towering over your backyard?

That was the problem Curtis Sticker and Bill Fitzgerald had. As long-time Anaheim residents, they had grown accustomed to the nightly crackle of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom. They had learned all the short cuts to get around traffic jams on Interstate 5. That’s just what you had to do when the Mouse was your neighbor.

But now here comes Westcot with its 4,600 new hotel rooms, its 17,500 new employees, and its 300 foot tall golden ball. All those dramatic changes to Disneyland were bound to have an impact on the local community, right?

That’s what Sticker and Fitzgerald thought. But when they tried to voice their concerns about the project during a June 1991 Wescot public forum all they got was Disney’s dog and pony show.

When asked about traffic flow, the Mouse pointed to the project’s two huge parking garages (which on the model loomed over Fitzgerald’s neighborhood like the Great Wall of China.) “They’ll be the largest parking garages in the whole world,” the Disney Guest Relations spokesperson squeaked proudly.

When asked about noise, the gosh-how-cute spokesperson tried to deflect the crowd’s concerns by pointing out the Disneyland amphitheater. “It’ll seat 5000,” she said, “And we’ll get neat people like Neal Diamond and Barry Manilow to come there and play.” (Sticker couldn’t help but notice given the way that amphitheater was situated on Disney property that the natural acoustics of the place would drive a lot of noise from those concerts right into his neighborhood.)

“What about our schools?” the neighbors asked. “Won’t they get swamped when the children of those new 17,500 cast members try to enroll?” This was the cue for Disney media relations staff to play up the educational aspects of Westcot. “Your kids will be able to take field trips here and learn all about other lands as they tour World Showcase. And have you noticed Spacestation Earth? That will have lots of science exhibits in it, too.”

Fitzgerald and Sticker had heard enough. It was obvious that Disneyland thought its Anaheim neighbors were a bunch of complete idiots, the types of yokels that could be distracted from voicing their petty concerns by lots of bright, happy talk about the wonders of Westcot. “Oooh! Look at Spacestation Earth! It’s so big and shiny.”

Let this be a lesson to Mickey: Never piss off a suburbanite.

In the days that followed, Fitzgerald and Sticker met with other area residents who were equally bothered by the Mouse’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards the concerns of the local community. They felt something should be done to make Eisner aware that the locals weren’t too thrilled with his ambitious new plans for Anaheim. Someone suggested that they get a petition going, maybe form a group.

This is how the Anaheim Homeowners for Maintaining the Environment (“Anaheim HOME”) rose up in Spring 1992 and grew to bite Disney squarely in the ass. 1,600 members strong, this neighborhood-rights group quickly became a force for Disney to reckon with. Anaheim HOME did things that terrified the Mouse, and that forever changed the way Disney did business in Orange County.

Take for instance the tickets scandal. For 38 years, one of the nicest perks Anaheim city employees got when they worked in the Mayor’s office was free tickets to Disneyland. You just told the Mayor’s secretary when you wanted to go, and she made the call to Disneyland’s City Hall. Your passes would be waiting at Guest Relations when you arrived at the park.

Anaheim HOME got wind of this decades old practice. Since the people who worked in the Mayor’s office were obviously going to have some influence over the Anaheim Planning Commission (the folks who’d actually say “yea” and “nay” to Disneyland’s expansion plans), wouldn’t it stand to reason that giving free tickets to the Mayor’s staff could somehow be viewed as influence peddling by the Mouse? Kind of like offering them a bribe?

Anaheim HOME clued the local media in to the free tickets scam. In the firestorm that followed, hundreds of Orange County employees had their reputations sullied for allegedly taking illegal gifts from the Walt Disney Company. The Mayor’s office was forced to hand down an official edict: no city employee would ever be allowed to accept free tickets — or free anything — from Disneyland ever again. It was the end of an era.

It was not, however, the end of Anaheim HOME’s guerilla tactics in its attempts to make the public aware that the Mouse was one awful neighbor. Guests driving into the Disneyland parking lot during Christmas Week 1993, had to actually roll through a Anaheim HOME picket line. As guests slowed down, they were offered a leaflet detailing the less savory aspects of Disney’s expansion plans.

As you might imagine, Michael Eisner didn’t have a happy holiday when news of this got back to him.

Disney tried to turn around the bad buzz about its Disneyland resort project. The Mouse quietly recruited prominent local businessmen like KTLA’s Ed Arnold, Coporate Bank Chairman Stan Pawlowski and Pacific Bell executive Reed Royalty to head a pro-Disney organization that area residents would be asked to join.

This organization, which came to be known as “Westcot 2000,” meant well. But the overly-polished and professional way Arnold, Pawlowski and Royalty produced their pro-Disney rallies easily gave away the Mouse’s influence over the group. One infamous “rah-rah” session was actually staged in the Disneyland Hotel convention center. Though 4000 people were in attendance singing the praises of the Walt Disney Company, it was the Anaheim HOME team, with its dozen volunteers, carrying signs that trumpeted “Disney Greed” as they picketed out in front of the hotel, that got all the TV coverage.

It seemed that no matter what the Mouse tried to do to turn around Wescot it just couldn’t catch a break. Take, for example, the giant parking garage that Disney was planning to build for the expanded Disneyland resort. Through extensive lobbying in the US House and Senate, the Mouse was able to persuade Congress in the summer of 1994 to pick up $25 million in construction costs toward the project. Seems like a pretty clever thing to do, right?

Not in light of what happened next. Later that fall, word got out that Representative Bob Carr (D. – Michigan), one of the authors of that appropriations bill, had accepted sizable campaign contributions from several senior Disney executives. Mind you, nobody did anything illegal. But it still didn’t make the Mouse — or Westcot — look good.

In the meantime, big problems were flaring up elsewhere the Disney empire. Euro Disney, what many Mouska-fans had figured would be a sure-fire success, floundered immediately after its April 1992 grand opening. It took Walt Disney Attractions president Judson Green and a cadre of accountants almost 18 months to clear up the resort’s cash flow problems. Finally, in October 1994, a workable financial restructuring plan was in place and Euro Disney, now renamed Disneyland Paris, slowly inched its way out of the red.

Now, it’s important to understand that in the 18 months it took to get the Euro Disney bail-out strategy in place, Michael Eisner really lost his taste for huge ambitious Disney theme park projects. He saw how Euro Disney had been dragged down by the six luxury hotels that surrounded the theme park and thought: “I’m never going to overbuild another Disney resort ever again.”

So the word came down in Spring of 1993. Michael wanted the Imagineers to scale back the Disneyland Resort plans. How far did Eisner want the plan rolled back? The project’s original specs called for 4,600 new hotel rooms to be built within the Disneyland Resort. Westcot 2.0 would feature only 1,000 new hotel rooms.

Spacestation Earth? Gone. In its place was a new icon: a 300-foot-tall, tapered, white spike. At its base, the spike featured a 35-foot-tall, blue-and-green, revolving globe. Not exactly awe inspiring sounding, is it?

The Mouse also had to make numerous changes to its original Disneyland Resort master plan to appease the irate locals. It seems that Disney, on their Westcot overview site plan map, listed the company’s plans for parcels of property the Mouse didn’t actually yet own.

As you might guess, this last bit of news truly ticked off the owners of the Melodyland Christian Center and the Fujishige strawberry fields. Both of these parcels had been listed as possible locations for the Disneyland Resort’s second giant parking garage. This was odd, given that neither owner had any intention of selling his property to the Mouse.

In a particularly fiery letter dated June 1993, Carolyn Fujishige stated that her family “would never sell [its] property to the Disney Company or to anyone that is affiliated in any way to the Walt Disney Company.” Of course, one must remember never to say never. The Fujishige family, giving in after decades of pressure from the Mouse, finally sold its 52+ acres to the Walt Disney Company in August 1998 for an estimated $90 million. (I wonder what Carolyn’s cut of that windfall was? Anyhow …)

On and on, year after year, Westcot’s problems kept hammering away at Eisner, draining his confidence and raising his doubts about the project. All he had wanted to do was recreate Orlando in Anaheim. How had this seemingly simple plan get thrown so far off track?

In the end, Eisner turned to his new hatchet man, Paul Pressler. A bright, young executive who had worked wonders with the company’s retail division, Pressler had recently moved over from the Disney Stores to head the Disneyland Resort.

Eisner told Pressler: “I’m tired of all the mess and bad press that’s associated with Westcot. Make it go away.”

So Pressler did.

On the day before Disneyland’s 40th birthday, Pressler called in the local media and broke the bad news: Disney was abandoning its plans to build Westcot, as well as scaling back all previously announced expansion plans for Disneyland.

When pressed for information about the Mouse’s future plans for Anaheim, Pressler said, “We’re going to build a second gate, absolutely … Our (Eisner’s / Pressler’s) vision is consistent. Make Disneyland the best resort we can. Certainly a second resort is part of that vision. My job is to figure out how to do it.”

Does that sound ominous?

It should.

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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History

The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown

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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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History

Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel

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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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History

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

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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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