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Depp Part Deux: WDW’s revamped version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” opens to the public

JHM columnist Seth Kubersky checks out the newly “plussed” version of this Magic Kingdom favorite and finds a lot that he likes



Yo ho, …o h… irates life fo… me.

Since 1973, that’s what visitors to WDW‘s Pirates of the Caribbean have (figuratively) experienced. Start with Disneyland‘s 1967 classic, arguably the greatest E-Ticket ever built, and whittle it down to the barest essentials. Trim off the mood-building first act and the uphill finale, and shoehorn what’s left into half the running time. What you get is still a great ride, a life-long favorite of this New Jersey-raised kid who never knew the wonders of the West Coast version. But it’s a ride always destined to be a weak sister to its big brother in Anaheim.

So when plans were announced to update POTC with elements from the popular films, there was trepidation and anticipation. Trepidation mainly for the original; fans have a deep emotional connection to it, and their ire was raised in the past by Tony Baxter’s 1997 “PC” rehab. In Florida though, there was more anticipation. We’re less likely to toss around words like “untouchable” and “desecration,” and more likely to dream about ways our version could be re-Imagineered into more than an abbreviated afterthought.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The idea of transforming WDW’s ride into the equal of the original (or even a near competitor) is an impossible dream. That would require a dramatic lowering of the Floridian water table, and the construction of a massive new show building. The water table may be dropping faster than you think (seen any new sinkholes today?). But even the biggest POTC fan would probably rather see the effort and money a complete overhaul would take invested in something brand new. Since early 2005 rumors of the rehabs have been swirling, ranging from an alternate nighttime flume at Disneyland, to only WDW getting a Jack Sparrow AA, to a new finale show scene in WDW’s uphill lift (Jason Surrell shot down that rumor for me at a book signing last fall).

Disneyland’s POTC reopened with great publicity last month, and the changes there have been well documented. (Check out this link for some incredible videos). WDW’s version opened to the public with much less fanfare on Saturday July 1st. So few people seemed aware of it that I was able to ride half a dozen times in the evening with no more than a 15 minute wait. Since readers here are probably already well aware of the nature of the new additions, I’ll confine my comments to how well they’ve been executed in the Florida attraction.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The Caribbean Plaza area has been refreshed with new signage, most notably the ship’s mast with a black “Pirates of the Caribbean” sail planted outside the ride entrance. It’s a striking visual, and the skeletal pirate looking through a spyglass in the crow’s nest is a beautiful touch. The clock tower window has some battle-damage scorch marks (but no cannon fire while I was there), and there are banners and painted scrolls with familiar phrases from the ride. The area sound loop now features cues from the film’s score instead of steel drums. The overall effect is to make the initial impression of a darker, scarier, more adventuresome ride – not to excess, but just enough to slightly heighten the anticipation of danger. (I heard more than one small child in line asking how scary the ride was, something I hadn’t heard too often previously). Some might say that this is tipping the ride’s hand too early, but I think with WDW’s greatly shortened ride time, you can’t waste a moment in building the mood. One sad change is the loss of the barker bird; one CM, when asked if he might return, said emphatically “He’s dead.”

Inside the queue, once past the new electronic-eye turnstyles (thank you!), not much is changed. Some new (old-looking) paint, a slight lowering of light levels, and a cleaned up sound system that let’s you hear some music that you may never have been able to hear before (a recurring theme in the upgrade). The dock area props have been minorly refreshed, and the “dead men tell no tales” line can be heard echoing faintly as you board.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

Immediately after your boat launches you’ll see the first major addition. As you pass under the control booth window and round the first turn to the right, you will see the new Davy Jones fog screen effect. It is truly an amazing feat of technology, even better in person than on video. The realistic shimmering waterfall, and your ability to pass through it completely dry, makes me smile every time I see it. But while it’s a technical home-run, it’s only a triple artistically. For one, it comes far too early in the ride. It’s literally the first thing you see, and there is little to no time to establish the atmosphere of the cave. The new effect means the colorful waterfalls have been muted. Worse, the key “dead men” line is barely heard before you see the new effect. Though it’s heard echoing very faintly at the launch, first time riders will not have time to key into it. It’s especially vexing because one of Davy Jones’ 3 lines of dialogue is “Ah, but they DO tell tales. So says I, Davy Jones.” If you haven’t established the original line, then the response becomes a non-sequiter. Another problem is that the effect is not triggered by a sensor, but is just on a timed loop. That means that sometimes you’ll see Davy and then pass thru him, as is most dramatic. But sometimes he’ll appear when your boat is already halfway through, and sometimes you’ll just see him talk to the boat ahead of you. All of this combines to mean that the effect, while sure to generate gasps of delight as is, could have been more effective from a storytelling point of view. The puzzling thing is, if the effect had been set a dozen or so yards further downstream (just before the beach) some of these problems might have been avoided. I can only assume that there was some technical reason why the projector and fog screen had to be mounted where they were.

The rest of the grottos have not been noticeably improved, and there is one major loss. Hurricane Harbor did not get DL’s lightning effects, nor did the beach receive any movie prop treasure. Shockingly, the iconic Jolly Roger is gone. Not only has that memorable talking skull been evicted, but his safety warning spiel is AWOL, something I can’t imagine warms Disney’s lawyers’ hearts. I’m of two minds on this change; on the one hand, combined with the overall lower light levels, this makes for a much more unexpected, and therefore thrilling, drop. On the other, that skull is ingrained in my memories of the ride, and without him that scene is a bit too quiet.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

After you splash down, you’ll immediately notice the rousing new music pulled from the film – to my mind, a great improvement. Then, you’ll notice the copious amounts of atmospheric fog in the harbor; so much that it makes the harbor seem smaller than before. The fort is much the same, as is the Wicked Wench, with the exception of what looks like some new rigging on the bow. There are 2 new stars of this scene; the first is a Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa AA who replaces the former ship’s captain. This figure, while not “terrible” as some have complained, is not as fluid and dynamic as the one in California appears to be, though they were having trouble with him as of Friday so perhaps he will improve. As long as he continues to say “blooming cockroaches” along with his demands for Jack Sparrow, he’s alright by me. The other new star is the cannon effects, which have been enhanced with new subwoofers and air cannons. They certainly sound much more percussive (a huge improvement on the old “hiss”), and splash water higher. On one trip I even felt a slight breeze. But they are nothing compared to the forceful blast of mist I experienced at DL. I wish they could adapt those simple rubber-band-powered air launchers that are (annoyingly) sold in parks and malls; they would seem perfect for an effect that would really knock you hat off.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

Moving into the well scene, you’ll notice the new costume and dramatic new arm movements of the lead pirate. He looks great swinging his cutlass, I only wish I’d seen the Mayor spit water in response. Just past them is the 1st Jack Sparrow AA, and he’s truly a work of art. Unlike Ellen, Bogie, or just about every other celebrity AA, this isn’t some fugly Halloween-mask approximation. It is Johnny Depp in the flesh, down to the last fleck of eyeliner. Taken from a life-mask, and built with obvious care, it’s a dead ringer standing still, and eerily accurate in motion. Hiding behind some dress forms, Jack leans and cranes his neck in a way that is not merely lifelike, but that captures the quirky essence of Depp’s performance. I was initially wary when I heard they were doing a “realistic” AA, as opposed to a stylized caricature in the classic Marc Davis style. But when you think of it, the POTC films feature attractive leads surrounded by a grotesque, almost cartoonish cast of characters – much as the rides now do. Whatever qualms I might have had, now that I have seen it first-hand I can only applaud the decision to add Captain Jack.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

After sailing past the more-or-less untouched auction scene (is it just me, or is the Redhead’s smirk diminished?) we enter the always-controversial chase scene. At WDW, the ladies are still chasing the pirates, but that’s not the point. The reason that this scene has been the focus of so much controversy is that there wasn’t anything else to focus on. As Tony Baxter has pointed out, this was always the weakest scene in the village portion of the show. Whatever you think of the result, I take him at his word that he was sincere in his desire to “plus” this scene in 1997. Now, that goal has finally been achieved. By replacing the girl hiding in the barrel with Sparrow, the scene finally has a dramatic focal point. This is no mere static head on a stick, as the old one was. It’s a complete head and shoulders that can lift, lean, turn, and duck with amazing dexterity. It seems to communicate subtleties of performance, like the shifting of eye focus or the tilt of the head, with uncanny naturalism. If they could sell a replica Depp-in-a-barrel (have you seen the chimp AA sold at The Sharper Image?), they’d make a mint.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

And the new figure is ably complimented by a radically improved Pooped Pirate AA, who now moves and gestures with more lifelike enthusiasm than the real David Crosby. I believe the WDW version of this scene is even an improvement on the West Coast in its staging. In the original, the dog is positioned behind the pirate and to his left, directly against the barrel holding Jack, and the pirate faces the opposite way. In WDW, the dog is in front of the pirate and to his right. The pirate is looking at the dog, the dog is looking at Jack, and Jack is looking at the map. This is much better blocking from a theatrical point of view; the more dynamic triangle allows the pirate to relate to the dog, as opposed to blindly tossing the occasional comment over his shoulder.

The burning town remains much the same, with repaired but not improved fire effects – though a CM I rode with insisted the loaded-down pirate balancing on the boat was new. The jail is also unchanged, though the improved audio system lets “grab ’em by the ears” ring out clearly.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises

The final addition is in the treasure room, which used to be unique to WDW, but is now duplicated in a vault along the uphill lift in DL. The room has been reconfigured, with some new treasure added but all the original figures removed. In their place sits Jack, rocking back and forth with one leg swung over the arm of his throne, holding a goblet in one hand and some treasure in the other. He’s joined by a parrot (not the barker bird, but perhaps a second cousin) as he sings along to the theme song – the only talking Sparrow in the ride, voiced by Depp himself. Jack’s animation and dialogue here are both first rate. He leans in his chair with precarious grace, and his hand animation perfectly captures the drunken swish of Depp’s gestures. The audio track here is so long that I heard new bit on every ride. In addition to singing snippets of the theme song and saying “there’s treasure enough for all”, as he does in DL, WDW’s Jack has some great interaction with the parrot that is unique to this version. Some of my favorites are when he asks “do you know the words to this song, parrot? If so, feel free to join in at any time,” and when the parrot responds to the lyrics “maraud, embezzle, and even hijack” with “Hi, Jack! Hi, Jack!” Like the pooped pirate and the dog, giving Jack another character to play off of heightens the drama of the scene and the realism of the AA’s performance.

Unfortunately, these improvements were undercut by some technical choices. The 3rd Jack AA at WDW is set deep in the treasure room, approximately where the tied-up soldier used to sit. It is much further from the boat than the vault in the West Coast version. Also, the dim indirect lighting put the AA’s face in shadow for much of the animation cycle. As a result, guests can’t see the figure and appreciate the effect as much as they otherwise might.

As the ride ends, now sans the pirates firing guns, you disembark onto the newly-reconfigured unload dock. Stepping onto the moving exit ramp, notice the peg-leg footprints newly painted on. And you can’t miss the avalanche of movie-themed tchotskes in the gift shop.

So, was it worth it? Should we consider this renovation a success? If you’re like me, you’ll answer that question by turning around and getting right back in line, if only to see the amazing new fog screen and AAs again. Though a few beloved elements are gone (perhaps a few more than were necessary), the new additions are the kind that add great re-ride value, and will have people talking for some time to come. Nitpicks aside, I feel this update has breathed new life into this WDW attraction, even if it’s still no substitute for a trip west to the original.

Now, when do we start debating the next round of additions? I say, if they’re going to add Orlando Bloom, he better be swinging a sword Paris-style. As for Ms. Knightley… 

Seth Kubersky

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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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