Connect with us

Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

Debunking Big Thunder Rumors

Jim Hill and Chuck Oberleitner team up today to bring you the second in our occasional series articles about Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain tragedy — an article you’ll want to read, particularly if you’ve been hearing some sensational stories about the alleged real cause of this awful accident.



It used to be something that theme park fans would consider a comical cliché. How you’d board a Disney theme park attraction and then … Something would go horribly wrong!?

I mean, think about it, people. Isn’t this the exact same story point that drives the action in Disneyland’s “Star Tours” and “The Indiana Jones Adventure” as well as the now-closed “Alien Encounter” attraction at WDW’s Magic Kingdom? That things initially start out seeming safe … but then something untoward happens. And then that’s when the fun begins.

Well, in the wake of the September 5th Big Thunder tragedy (where something actually DID go horribly wrong, resulting in the death of 22-year old Marcelo Torres as well as the injuring of 10 other Disneyland guests), now much of the humor has gone out of that Disney theme park cliché. Particularly given some of the rumors that have been circulating about this awful accident.

“What sorts of rumors?” you ask. Well, I know that a number of JHM readers were somewhat taken aback when they saw this headline back on Friday: “Police find no sabotage in Disney ride crash.” If you’d like to read the Reuters story that actually went along with this sensational headline, you can do so here.

“So was that Reuters report right, Jim? Was sabotage ever actually seriously considered as a possible cause of the Big Thunder tragedy?” you continue. Well, based on copies of the official Anaheim Police Department report that has been able to obtain, I’m sorry to say that the answer to that question is yes.

Now — before we go any further here — I want you to keep in mind that this sabotage story was one of many theories that were initially floating around as a possible cause of the Big Thunder Mountain accident. And that it was the responsibility of the AHD officers who were investigating this tragedy to make sure that they followed every lead. To leave no stone unturned, so to speak. So it was in this spirit that the Anaheim Police Department began its investigation. Which was why they had at least to look seriously at even the possibility that the Big Thunder Mountain accident was the result of sabotage.

“But why was the idea of ‘sabotage’ even brought up in the first place?” you persist. Well, let’s remember that we live in post-9/11 America, people. Where terrorism — particularly at a place like Disneyland (which in the past has reportedly been considered by Al Qaeda operatives as a possible target for terrorist activities) — must at least be taken into consideration.

But — given the very nature of the Big Thunder accident (and the fact that Disneyland guests have extremely limited access to the ride vehicles, not to mention that all guests entering the theme parks nowadays must have their bags checked before they’re allowed to go through the turnstiles) — the possibility of terrorist activity being the real cause of this tragedy was fairly quickly dismissed. But not the notion of sabotage itself.

Instead, the Anaheim Police Department turned its attention to Disneyland’s own employees. Thoroughly investigating the possibility that this accident could have possibly been caused by a disgruntled cast member.

“But why would a Disneyland employee want to cause an accident on Big Thunder Mountain?” you query. Well, how many of you recall that story that David Koenig did for MousePlanet back on August 12th? Which detailed how unhappy many Disneyland employees were with a new staffing policy that was about to go into effect at the theme park which would keep them “land locked.” (I.E. Prevent them from working on multiple attractions in different parts of the theme park. Rather, locking them into one specific area, so that these cast members can only work the rides and attractions located in that land.)

Given that this new staffing policy was reportedly wildly unpopular among Disneyland employees, it’s been suggested that — in an effort to get this policy repealed — that some cast members may have taken matters into their own hands. And what better way would there be to get this “land locking” system repealed than to be able to show that it adversely effected hourly ride capacity at the park?

This is the story that we had been hearing repeatedly here at over the past few weeks. That the Big Thunder Mountain accident may have actually been caused by an employee who was upset with Disneyland’s new staffing policy. That this cast member allegedly took this action with the hope that it would shut down this Frontierland attraction for a few hours (thereby lowering the theme park’s ride capacity for a few hours with the hope that doing something like this might eventually result in Disneyland’s “land locking” system being repealed). Never realizing that this action might result in tragedy.

“So why has been sitting on this story ’til now?” you ask. Because — in spite of how popular this story may have been among Walt Disney Company employees — we suspected that this oft-told tale was just a rumor. What was particularly troubling was — whenever we tried to pin down someone down, find out who the real source of this story was, it was always the same refrain: “I heard it from a friend of mine. Who heard it from a friend of his. Who knows somebody who’s close to the investigation and/or works on the attraction.” You know the drill.

So anyway … given that FOAF (AKA “Friend of a Friend”) stories always make me nervous, we opted to sit on this info. Sure, it would have been nice for the site to break a story like that. Grab some headlines. But — given the immediate negative impact that an article like this would have had on the Walt Disney Company’s reputation — it just didn’t seem right or responsible to rush this sensational information into print. At least without having some sort of corroboration that this alleged sabotage had actually occurred.

So — over the past few weeks — Chuck Oberleitner made some discreet inquiries. Talking with Anaheim Police Department public information officer Sgt. Rick Martinez, as well as members of Disneyland’s own publicity department. In both cases, while no one was willing to go on record, both Martinez as well as the Mouse’s spokespeople poo-pooed the sabotage idea. Which at least made us feel better about not rushing to put this sensational-sounding story up on the site.

But — given that both Reuters as well as the Los Angeles Times both published stories last week that touched on the possibility that cast member sabotage was initially thought to play a part in the Big Thunder Mountain tragedy — it’s clear that Chuck and I weren’t the only people who had been hearing these rumors.

But now comes the really intriguing question: Who exactly was the person within the Disney organization who initially clued the Anaheim Police Department into this possibility? That cast member sabotage may have played a part in the Big Thunder Mountain tragedy? To date, Chuck and I haven’t been able to uncover that man or woman’s identity. But we continue to work on that aspect of the story.

Anywho … thanks to last Friday’s Reuters story — JHM is finally free to write about all those Disneyland sabotage rumors that have been coming our way. If only to say: “You know that rumor that’s been flying around the web about how a Disneyland employee supposedly deliberately caused the Big Thunder accident? Well, it’s wrong.”

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that the Mouse is totally out of the woods yet. There’s still the matter of the Disneyland employees who were manning Big Thunder Mountain on September 5th. Who — for perhaps as long as 45 minutes — noticed that Train No. 2 on this attraction was making an odd “clanking” noise, but opted not to pull that train out of service.

In the spirit of fairness, it should be pointed out here that (according to the APD reports on the BTMRR accident) — while Train No. 2 was making this odd “clanking” noise — the Big Thunder Mountain Railway cast members who were operating the attraction were reportedly actively debating what they should do. Should they leave the train running or take it out of service and see what was causing that noise? In the end, they allegedly made the decision that they’d pull the vehicle out of service once it had completed its next run. Sadly, it was during that trip around the mountain that Big Thunder Mountain Train No. 2 derailed. Which resulted in the death of Mr. Torres.

So — strictly from a liability point of view — Disneyland managers may have some awfully tough questions to deal with in the future. As in: Did the cast members who were operating “Big Thunder Mountain” on September 5th behave responsibly? Given that Train No. 2 is reported to have been making those odd “clanking” noises for as long as 45 minutes, wouldn’t the smarter thing to do have been to pull BTMRR ride vehicle out of service much earlier that morning?

Hey, hindsight’s 20/20, folks. So it’s always easy to say what should have happened after a tragedy’s occurred. But in this case, if the info that’s contained in those APD reports is correct … well, 45 minutes seems like an awfully long time to leave a train in service that’s been making an odd “clanking” noise. At least to me.

As for what’s been happening since Chuck first spoke with the Anaheim PD and what may have been causing that noise … why don’t I hand the story off to Chuck Oberleitner for a moment. He can fill you in on the particulars:

Last week I again spoke by phone with Anaheim PD media relations officer, Sergeant Rick Martinez. I reminded Sgt. Martinez that in a earlier interview with JimHillMedia and in remarks he made to the Los Angeles Times, he had said that the criminal investigation would stay open as long as the DOSH investigation continued.

“That’s right,” he said. “And when I was told our investigation was being closed (prior to the conclusion of the DOSH investigation) I asked our officers the same thing.”

Sgt. Martinez went on to say that the officers conducting the investigation, working closely with the DOSH investigation team had concluded that there was no evidence of criminal negligence or culpability. Therefore there was no reason to keep the criminal investigation open. “If new evidence were to come up,” he added, “we can always reopen the investigation.”

With the closing of the criminal investigation more information about the events of September 5, are coming out. Just a little over two weeks before the accident, state inspectors had examined Big Thunder Mountain. Nothing out of the ordinary was found.

Transcripts and recordings of the frantic 911 calls made by passengers on the ill-fated train have been released. They show an instant recognition by passengers that one of the train’s occupants was seriously injured in the accident.

This past week, has learned that attention is now being focused on the metal pins used to link the cars of the BTM mine trains together. Investigators want to know how and where these pins are made.

Sources familiar with the history of Big Thunder Mountain tell JHM that at one point these pins and indeed all the major metal components of Disneyland rides were milled on site in Disneyland’s own “mill shop.” Now as part of cost cutting measures put in place by Disney management in the late 90s these pins are no longer produced by Disney craftsmen but rather by outside contractors who presumably produce them for a lower cost than Disney’s own maintenance department.

In an e-mail dated October 6 of this year Bob Tucker, Disneyland Resort Director of Media Relations had the following to say in response to questions about the operational status of the various wood and metal “mill shops” backstage at Disneyland:

“I followed up on your inquiry about the machine shop and sheet metal shop. Just like the mill shop, they also continue to be fully operational. As for contracting out work, we have always operated that way depending on the scope of the job.”

A key figure within Disneyland familiar with the investigation continues to insist that these pins and the relatively recent decision to acquire them from outside contractors remains a prominent part of the ongoing investigation. Furthermore, while the Walt Disney Company will in all likelihood end up paying out millions of dollars in legal settlements, it now appears that Disneyland Resort maintenance may bear the full brunt of responsibility for the accident.

DOSH investigators are on record saying that it could take another four to six weeks to conclude their investigation. In the meantime, questions still remain unanswered about the odd noises heard by BTM CMs prior to the train’s final run and the exact way in which the locomotive partially derailed and became detached from the rest of the train.

In the course of preparing this story Walt Disney Imagineering was asked for information regarding Big Thunder Mountain’s design. Because of the ongoing nature of the investigation they declined to comment.

So there you have it, people. One Big Thunder Mountain rumor put to rest. But there are still many troubling questions that continue to swirl around this tragic accident and its investigation. As we here at learn more, we’ll be sure to pass that info along.

Your thoughts?

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.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


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.

Continue Reading


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.

Continue Reading


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.

Continue Reading