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Disneyland’s new magic program allows some of Walt’s oldest dreams for his theme park to finally come true

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This past weekend, theme park fans around the globe
collectively lost their minds as images of the Hatbox Ghost began to pop up
online.


The modern era Hatbox Ghost made his debut in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion
this past Saturday. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

"And what's the big deal with the Hatbox Ghost?,"
you ask. Well, you have to understand this gruesome ghoul was originally
supposed to have been one of the 999 happy haunts that Disneyland Guests would
encounter whenever they visited the Haunted
Mansion
. But within a week of the
official grand opening of this New Orleans Square E-Ticket, the Hatbox Ghost
had been pulled out of the Mansion.

"That was most likely Yale Gracey's doing," Kim
Irvine — Walt Disney Imagineering Art Director for Disneyland
Park
— explained during a recent
phone interview. "Yale was the guy who came up with most of the Mansion's
illusions. And while all of the other effects that the Imagineers had installed
in this then-brand-new Disneyland attraction were
performing flawlessly, the Hatbox Ghost scene just wasn't working as well as
Yale had hoped it would."

"I don't know if this was because of where this figure had originally been
positioned within that attraction's attic sequence or whether it was the angle
that Guests saw the Hatbox Ghost from, but the
head-disappearing-off-of-his-shoulders-and-then-re-appearing-inside-of-that-hatbox
gag just wasn't landing the way that Yale had hoped it would," Irvine
continued. "And being the perfectionist that he was, I'd imagine that Yale
had the Hatbox Ghost pulled so that Disneyland visitors
would then be able to talk about all of the effects inside of the Mansion that
worked, rather than the one that didn't."


Yale Gracey poses with the original Hatbox Ghost for
a pre-opening publicity shot for Disneyland's 
Haunted Mansion. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But what Gracey hadn't counted on was that — because the Hatbox Ghost had been
so prominently featured in the pre-opening publicity for Disneyland's Haunted
Mansion (FYI: That's Yale himself posing with the not-quite-finished figure in
the photo above) not to mention that the Hatbox Ghost wound up being mentioned
on "The Story and Song of The Haunted Mansion" LP (i.e., that
souvenir Disneyland Storyteller album which was sold at the theme park for
years after this New Orleans Square attraction first opened to the public) — over
time, this character's legend just grew and grew.


The cover of "The Story and Song from the Haunted Mansion" LP as well as the image of
the Hatbox Ghost found inside of this Disneyland Storyteller album. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"I've given a lot of talks about Disneyland's
Haunted Mansion
over the years. And whenever we'd get to the question & answer portion of
those sessions, I'd always get people asking about the Hatbox Ghost. They
wanted to know why this character had been pulled out of the Mansion. More
importantly, whether he'd ever be coming back," Kim said. "And given
that interest in this Haunted Mansion
character just grew & grew over the years … Well, given that Imagineering
always likes to give our Guests something new to see the very next time they
ride their favorite attraction, we began seriously talking about whether there
was a way that we could actually put the Hatbox Ghost back into Disneyland's
Haunted Mansion."

This tradition of plussing an attraction or adding new magic
to a pre-existing ride or show actually dates back to Walt's time. As the story
goes, the Company's founder was lingering outside of the entrance to Disneyland's
Jungle Cruise sometime in 1956 (which was just a year after The Happiest Place
on Earth had first opened to the public). And Disney was eavesdropping on what
the Guests had to say about what was then the signature attraction at his theme
park. A mom & son approached the entrance to this Adventureland ride. The
son was heard to say "Can we go on that one, please?" And the
mother's reply was "No. We went on that ride the last time we were at the
Park."

Well, Walt heard that remark. And by the Summer of 1957, Disneyland's
Jungle Cruise has a slew of brand-new scenes. People who purchased tickets for
this Adventureland attraction were now treated to a trip through a
flower-filled rainforest. Not to mention being menaced by a pair of mechanical
gorillas. The Jungle Cruise even wound up with an all-new climax, as its
riverboats first floated past through this village that featured a war party
and some dancing natives and then concluded with a comical encounter with Trader
Sam, the famous head salesman for the Amazon.


You've got to give Trader Sam some points for consistency. Nearly 60 years after
his Jungle Cruise debut, Sam's still offering Disneyland Guests the same
amazing deal: Two of his heads for one of theirs. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

These additions to the Jungle Cruise then gave Disneyland
visitors a legitimate reason to revisit this Adventureland attraction. Which is
why Walt then made plussing the rides, shows and attractions at his theme park
a regular practice.

"I remember when John Hench (EDITOR'S NOTE: Hench was
one of the original Imagineers. In fact, one of the very first park-related
assignments that Walt gave John was to come up with some futuristic attractions
for Disneyland's original version of Tomorrowland) used
to come down to the Park. He'd make a point of driving down from Glendale
to Anaheim at least once a month.
And John and I would then walk through Disneyland
together as he pointed out things that could use some updating or TLC," Irvine
recalled. "And during these walks, John kept saying 'You need to keep this
place fresh. You need to keep these rides and shows relevant.' That was
something that he had learned directly from Walt. And John was determined that
this tradition would continue. Which is why he kept passing along all of this
information to me."

Mind you, they don't make changes at the Disney theme parks
just for change's sake. Given that the Company was founded by a storyteller,
whenever the Imagineers are looking to add new magic to a pre-existing ride,
show or attraction, they first try and ensure that whatever changes they're
making then honor the original intent of that particular ride, show or
attraction's story.

"That's why we were confident that — when we returned
the Hatbox Ghost to Disneyland's Haunted
Mansion — we were making a smart
choice," Kim explained. "After all, here was a character that the
fans had been asking about for years. More to the point, we now had access to
technology that Yale Gracey didn't have back in the late 1960s. Which meant
that the Imagineers could finally make the Hatbox Ghost effect work the way it
was supposed to. So — by now putting this character back inside the Mansion —
we weren't just randomly shoehorning something in there. We were actually
honoring the original intent of Yale and all of the Imagineers who created the Haunted
Mansion."

Yep, even back in Walt's day, there were tech issues, time
constraints or budgetary shortfalls that prevented rides, shows or attractions
that the Imagineers had designed for Disneyland from
turning out the way Walt had originally hoped they would. Take — for example
— the Abominable Snowman that lurks inside of this theme park's Matterhorn
Bobsleds
.

According to Jason Surrell's "The Disney Mountains:
Imagineering at its Peak" (Disney Editions, September 2007), Walt had
always wanted an Abominable Snowman to part of the thrills that Guests
encountered as they zoomed through Disneyland's 1/100th scale version of the
Matterhorn:


Concept art for the version of the Abominable 
Snowman that was supposed to be installed
in Disneyland's Matterhorn when the
Bobsleds first opened at that theme
park back in 1959. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved 

"In fact, (Disney Legend) Harriet Burns had gone a long
way towards a full-sized, fiberglass-and-fur-cloth mock-up of the Abominable
Snowman. The original intent was for the mythical monster to haunt the Matterhorn
on opening day, but there just wasn't enough time to accomplish everything Walt
wanted to do by then. Walt pulled the plug when he realized the attraction was
a big hit without an interior show."

It would be another 19 years before the Abominable Snowman
finally took up residence inside of the Matterhorn.
WDI's master sculptor Blaine Gibson was the one who came up with this
creature's distinctive fang-bearing / red-eyed look while it was Dennis Mecham,
an Imagineer who worked in WED's special services department, who provided the
Abominable Snowman's distinctive roar.

That version of the Abominable Snowman has been in place
since June of 1978. And while he's been roaring at and thrilling Disneyland
visitors for nearly 37 years now, as the Happiest Place on Earth neared its
60th anniversary, Kim and her fellow Imagineers wondered: Might it now be time
to add some next generation thrills to Disneyland's original thrill ride?


The 1978 version of the Abominable Snowman menaces Disneyland visitors at the
point where the two Matterhorn Bobsled tracks meet inside the mountain.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
 

"There have been so many advances made with digital
projection and sound technology over the past decade. So we were thinking that
— rather than have the Abominable Snowman remain as this sort of static,
stationary figure at the very heart of the Matterhorn —
wouldn't it be cool if, while you were riding through the mountain, you now got
the sense that the Abominable Snowman was running along right next to your
bobsled. That you could now catch glimpses of him moving through the Matterhorn
just ahead of you," Irvine
enthused.

And it's this new improved, newly ferocious version of the Abominable
Snowman that will be making his debut at Disneyland
Park on May 22nd as the Matterhorn
Bobsleds officially come back online after a five month-long rehab.

"Again, I want to stress here that the story that the Matterhorn
tells is pretty much the same. The big change is, of course, with the
Abominable Snowman. He's a little bit more ferocious, a little bit more
exciting," Kim said. "And if you're really paying attention as you
ride along in your bobsled, you may notice that — at various points along the
way — that there are these caves where the Abominable Snowman seems to be
hoarding things that he found out in the Park. That — if you look closely —
you may be able to see items that pay tribute to rides, shows and attractions
from Disneyland's past."


The new more menacing, far more ferocious version of the Abominable Snowman
makes his debut in Disneyland Park's Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction on May
22nd. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

The newly reimagined Hatbox Ghost and Abominable Snowman
will be just two of the pieces of new magic that Guests will discover when they
return to the Happiest Place
on Earth for the Disneyland Resort's Diamond Celebration. Which officially
kicks off next Friday, May 22nd with a 24 hour-long party.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on May 15, 2015

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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