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Disney’s Hottest Attractions: Fires in the Park



Okay. By now, you have to have seen all of the videos from Saturday night, April 22nd. That’s when – as the 10:30 p.m. performance of “Fantasmic!” was drawing to a close at Disneyland Park – Murphy the Dragon (That’s the nickname which this piece of show equipment has been stuck with since the Summer of 2009. We’ll get to exactly why Murphy is called that in a few minutes. Anyway … )

Credit: Fox 44

What’s cool about this particular moment in “Fantasmic!” is that this is when this 45-foot-tall prop (Which looks just like Maleficent does when that Mistress of Evil turns into a fire-breathing dragon in Disney’s hand-drawn film from 1959, “Sleeping Beauty”) belches out this 35-foot-long plume of flame. Which then seems to set the Rivers of America on fire.

Very cool moment in this show. Looks great. People lined up along the shoreline in Frontierland & New Orleans can actually feel the heat from this sudden burst of flames.

Disneyland’s Animatronic Dragon Catches Fire during “Fantasmic”

Things got a lot little hotter than usual at 10:30 p.m. on April 20, 2023. The Maleficent-the-Dragon prop had just done its setting-the-Rivers-of-America-on-fire thing. Mickey had just said his line “You may think you’re so powerful. But this is my dream.” And – after pulling the Sword from the Stone – Mickey (as he usually does in this part of “Fantasmic!”) seemed to defeat the dragon. So cue the sound effect that now has Maleficent screaming in agony.

That sound effect was a little on the nose. For – as the air was filled with Maleficent’s screams – flames started to shoot out of this mechanical dragon’s head & mouth. Flames that are not typically part of this show.

If you’re watching the right video of what happened back on April 22nd,  you’ll catch one of those truly classic, only-at-Disneyland moments. Where you’ll hear one kid’s voice – as clear as a bell – say “Is that supposed to be happening?”

Herbie – The Love Bug – Catches Fire at Hollywood Studios

Not the first time America’s youth has been traumatized when an animated piece of show equipment caught fire at a Disney theme park. How many of you remember the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney-MGM (Now Disney’s Hollywood Studios)? There was originally this vignette where – as your tram was rolling down Residential Street – where, after you passed the Golden Girls house, you’d then come across Vern’s house.

Side note: Vern was that off-camera / unseen character that Jim Varney was always interacting with whenever he played Ernest P. Worrell. Varney was a very, very funny / incredibly talented man. Original voice of Slinky Dog in the “Toy Story” movies. Made a quartet of Ernest movies for Disney in the late 1980s / early 1990s. Sadly passed away back in February of 2000 at the age of 51. Gone far too soon. Still quote him to this day (i.e., “Mean old Mr. Gravity”).

At the end of Vern’s driveway, there was this animated prop version of Herbie the Love Bug. And – as the tram rolled by – Herbie would then go through his pre-programmed routine. He’d pop a wheelie. Herbie’s tires would spin & smoke. His hood would fly up. His doors would flap open. Herbie’s headlights would flash and his windshield wipers would flap back & forth. If you were on the right side of the tram (the one facing Vern’s house) you also might get sprayed with Herbie’s windshield wiper fluid (Really just water). Fun little vignette in the Studio Backlot Tour.

There was however the day that Herbie caught fire while he was parked in Vern’s driveway (As it’s been explained to me, it’s believed that the Rosco fog machine that had been installed on the underside of this animated piece of show equipment. That’s what made it look as though Herbie’s tires were smoking when he popped that wheelie) somehow got overheated and then burst into flame.

But here’s the thing: The Imagineers had built this incredibly sturdy piece of show equipment. Which meant that – even as Herbie was on fire – he’d still go through all of his paces as each of those trams rolled up Residential Street full of Guests with their cameras.

Only now when Herbie popped a wheelie, opened his hood, flapped his doors and honked his horn … Given that this animated piece of show equipment was now engulfed in flames, it now looked as though the Love Bug was in agony. That Herbie was imploring those trams full of tourists to please stop. And – for God’s sake – go next door to the Golden Girls house and grab a hose.

I’m told that at least 5 – possibly 10 – trams rolled past Herbie the Love bug while he was on fire before the folks from Reedy Creek got there and finally put out the flames. After this, the animated Herbie prop was removed from the Studio Backlot Lot.

FYI: Residential Street was demolished in 2003 to make room for the stateside version of “Lights, Motor, Action: Extreme Stunt Show.” The Studio Backlot Tour officially shut down for good on September 27, 2014. It was a shadow of its former self at that point. Severely truncated.

Back to fires at the Disney theme parks … Look, Disney is very, very dedicated to safety when it comes to its theme park. But unforeseen things sometimes happen.

WDW’s “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” Rooftop Fire

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World. This family coaster first opened to the public back in May of 2014 (It was the very last piece of the New Fantasyland project. Which more than doubled the size of the Magic Kingdom’s most popular land, going from just 10 acres to 21 acres).

Anyway, the show building that houses the 2000 feet of track that the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train runs along is right in the middle of New Fantasyland. Which would have then made it difficult for WDW’s horticultural team to get access to all of the real plants & trees that would then be needed to make this place look like it was actually “ … over the seven jeweled hills, beyond the seven fall.”

FYI: Those are actually the instructions that the Magic Mirror gives the Evil Queen when she’s looking to travel to the Seven Dwarfs cottage and get rid of Snow White once & for all. “Over the seven jeweled hills, beyond the seven fall. Just after the 7/11, the Dwarfs’ place will be the second cottage on your left. They’re right across from the Three Little Pigs. If you see the house where Goldilocks lives, you’ve gone too far.”

Okay. So to make things easier to maintain the exterior of this structure, the Imagineers opted to cover the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train show building with artificial foliage. Fake grass (which looks great from a distance).

This family coaster had only been open five months when – in early November of 2014 – right after “Wishes” had been presented at the Magic Kingdom, a still smoldering fireworks shell tumbled out of the sky and landed on top of the show building for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. This spent shell landed in among a clump of that artificial grass (which – this kind of surprised me – was made out of flammable material). And as a direct result, a small fire broke out.

Want to stress here that this was a very small fire. Lots of videos were taken that night of the top of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train aflame. What wasn’t typically reported was that Reedy Creek was there in the Magic Kingdom within minutes of this fire being reported. They quickly put out that fire. And within one hour of this fireworks-related blaze being reported, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was re-opened and Guests were once again having a great time on this New Fantasyland attraction.

Side note: Many of the structures in Fantasyland at WDW’s Magic Kingdom have a discreet sprinkler system that – just before each night’s fireworks display – then wets down the roof of these buildings. So that this very thing (i.e., a fire that’s accidentally started by a stray fireworks shell landing in the wrong place at the wrong time) doesn’t happen. Does anyone out there know if the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train has the same sort of system in place on the roof of its show building? I mean, I’d have to assume so. So what went wrong on that night back in November of 2014? Did this spent shell land in the one spot of the roof of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train show building where those sprinklers didn’t reach?

Real Fire at Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”

And speaking of fire prevention … There’s a famous story about the original version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the one that opened at Disneyland Park back in March of 1967). As the story goes, the Anaheim Fire Chief was touring this attraction just ahead of its grand opening. And when he got to the scene where the pirates have set that city ablaze (That scene is another one of Yale Gracey’s masterpieces. He’s the one who figured out that – if you place a piece of mylar in front of a fan and then light that now-moving piece of fabric with a red & an orange light – you now have a very real looking recreation of fire) …

Anyway, the Anaheim Fire Chief is touring the “Pirates of the Caribbean” show building at Disneyland and see that attraction’s city-ablaze scene and basically says “You need a kill switch for all of the fire effects in this room. Something that can shut down all of these effects all at once. Otherwise, if you ever a fire in this room, my guys won’t be able to tell what’s real and what’s not. And trust me, you don’t want us wasting time in here putting out pretend fires.”

And that fire chief’s warning proved to be prescient. For just three months after Disneyland’s version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” first opened to the public, a fire did break out in this very same room of the attraction.

Luckily, it only impacted just one Audio-Animatronic attraction. Do you remember that drunken pirate in the city-ablaze room? The one who’s kind of holding himself upright by hanging onto a lamp post? He’s got a bottle in his one free hand and is singing “Yo Ho Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)?

Near as they can figure, a Guest who was floating through this particular show scene aboard one of “Pirates” bateaux flicked a lit cigarette at this AA figure. That lit cigarette got caught somehow in this animatronic’s costume. Which then caught fire.

But here’s the thing: Disneyland’s version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” has only been open for a few months at this point. So many of the Guests who are now floating through this New Orleans Square attraction are doing so for the first time. So they don’t know what the “city ablaze” scene in “Pirates” is supposed to look like. So – when their boat slowly floats past this engulfed-in-flame animatronic figure – they don’t raise an alarm with the Cast Members when they get back to this ride’s Load / Unload station. They just think “ … That was a very realistic looking fire effect.”

The story – as it was told to me – was that … Well, it was only after “Pirates” had closed for the night and a Disneyland employee was floating through this attraction (This is something that they do nightly. Noting things to bring to Maintenance’s attention. Stuff that can be repaired / addressed during Disneyland’s third shift) when they then came upon the now-charred / grotesque / melted AA figure still supposed dangling off of that lamppost with a bottle in his hand.

Disneyland really dodged a bullet here. They were lucky that this one AA figure didn’t set that whole show scene inside of “Pirates of the Caribbean” ablaze.

Coming Out Unscathed – “Fantasmic” & Murphy’s Law

I’ve heard the very same thing about what happened during that performance of “Fantasmic!” back on April 22nd. That Disneyland was very, very lucky that the wind was blowing in the direction that it was this past Saturday night. Given that Isopar (that’s the petroleum product that produces that 35-foot burst of flame that shoots out of the dragon prop’s mouth) is incredibly flammable … Well, imagine if the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction that night? And some of that stuff had landed on the Cider Mill directly behind that dragon on Tom Sawyer Island? That’s where all of the stage managers and technicians who actually run “Fantasmic!” are typically holed up when this show is being staged. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened then.

Speaking of what could have happened … There’s been a lot of speculation about why Murphy caught fire back on April 22nd

Why is the “Fantasmic” Dragon named Murphy?

Need to explain the dragon’s nickname … How many of you remember the dragon that originally appear in “Fantasmic!” when this Disneyland show first debuted back in May of 1992?  Back then (due to budget cuts), this piece of show equipment was just a mechanical head on a boom lift. Which then  had lengths of non-flammable fabric hanging off of that boom lift to hide that mechanism. To further hide the fact that there was no dragon body below that dragon head, they used to release this cloud of thick chemical fog just before this scene in “Fantasmic!” got underway.

The only problem was that all of the TV ads for “Fantasmic!” (along with all of the billboards along California’s highways. The full page ads in Los Angeles’ newspapers that summer) all showed Mickey Mouse in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice outfit battling with a full-sized Maleficent-the-Dragon with a body below its head.

Disneyland’s Entertainment was genuinely embarrassed by how the dragon originally looked in “Fantasmic!” But since the crowds kept coming to this nighttime show, it took them years (17 in fact) to finally persuade Disneyland management to allow them to upgrade this specific element of this show.

Garner Holt was then hired to build a second dragon for “Fantasmic!” Very tall order. Had to fit in a pit directly below the stage on Tom Sawyer (This is why this dragon is actually in two pieces. A body that’s roughly 23 feet in height. And then a neck & head portion of this same figure that’s 22 feet in height. This element then raises up into place once the dragon’s body is in position. Forming one 45-foot-tall, fire-breathing dragon [FYI: “Fantasmic!” original dragon – the mechanical head of a boom lift – was only 40 feet tall]).

It took a heavy-duty, custom built elevator to quickly lift this 18,000 pound / 32-foot-wide figure up out of that pit. It only has 35 seconds to pull off this particular effect in that show. Four computers then power the 60 microprocessors which control Murphy’s movement. Doing everything from control the actuator that sends that flammable petroleum derivative up to Murphy’s mouth (where it’s then squirted out under high pressure just before it’s ignited. Which – again – is how you get that 35-foot-long jet of flame) to changing the color of this animated prop’s LED-powered eyes.

Disneyland pulled the original version of the “Fantasmic!” dragon (i.e., the mechanical head on a boom lift) off of Tom Sawyer Island in March of 2009. New version of dragon was supposed to debut in June of that same year as part of Disneyland’s Summer Fantasmic! promotion.

That didn’t happen. Had gone from too simple a mechanism to too complex. Los Angeles Time – June 12th – featured a headline which read “Disneyland’s dragon debut delayed.” Lots of Ds in that sentence.

Hence the name Murphy. As in “Murphy’s Law.” Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Finally debuted in early September of that same year. All is forgiven. “Fantasmic!” new dragon looks fantastic. Big wow.

“Fantasmic” Dragon

Still a trifle problematic. August 2010, during that moment in the show where the animated dragon prop has to rise up out of that pit in just 35 seconds (with the 22 foot long head & neck section then rising up over that 23 foot tall body section to form one 45 foot tall dragon), something goes wrong. Entire prop suddenly pitches forward. Murphy winds up with his nose rest of the stage portion of Tom Sawyer’s Island. Show E-stops. Disneyland makes announcement “Please don’t take pictures of the dragon looking like this.” People do anyway.


Different theories as to what happened that night. Disneyland execs say neck mechanic broke. Folks at Garner Holt has told me that it was operator error. Wasn’t until November of that same year that Murphy resumed his regular appearances in Disneyland’s “Fantasmic!”

FYI: Disney does have a contingency plan if Murphy malfunctions / isn’t able to appear that night in “Fantasmic!” There’s a version of this show where that show scene can be handled by projecting animated footage on this show’s water screens.

Original “Fantasmic” Fiasco or Simply Mickey’s Dream?

Final thoughts: There are those that say … Well, if Disneyland had just stuck with their original version of the “Fantasmic!” dragon (i.e., the one that was just a mechanical head at the end of a boom lift. FYI: This is what WDW’s version of “Fantasmic!” – the one that’s been running since October of 1998 and will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this Fall – still uses), this never would have happened.

Not true. Kevin Kidney (who was a designer on the original version of this Disneyland nighttime show. Back when “Fantasmic!” was called the “Imagination River Spectacular”) tells a story about what happened just one week before this show opened on May 13, 1992. Which was when – as they powered up that fire effect – the dragon head then flew off of that boom lift and clattered to the stage.

Of course, since we now live in the age of “If you didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen,” no one outside of Disneyland Entertainment vets ever talks about that incident. But it did happen.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 425”, published on May 1, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

Jim Hill

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

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

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The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown



Disneyland in Anaheim, California, holds a special place in the hearts of Disney fans worldwide, I mean heck, it’s where the magic began after all.  Over the years it’s become a place that people visit in search of memorable experiences. One fan favorite area of the park is Mickey’s Toontown, a unique land that lets guests step right into the colorful, “Toony” world of Disney animation. With the recent reimagining of the land and the introduction of Micky and Minnies Runaway Railway, have you ever wondered how this land came to be?

There is a fascinating backstory of how Mickey’s Toontown came into existence. It’s a tale of strategic vision, the influence of Disney executives, and a commitment to meeting the needs of Disney’s valued guests.

The Beginning: Mickey’s Birthdayland

The story of Mickey’s Toontown starts with Mickey’s Birthdayland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Opened in 1988 to celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday, this temporary attraction was met with such overwhelming popularity that it inspired Disney executives to think bigger. The idea was to create a permanent, immersive land where guests could step into the animated world of Mickey Mouse and his friends.

In the early ’90s, Disneyland was in need of a refresh. Michael Eisner, the visionary leader of The Walt Disney Company at the time, had an audacious idea: create a brand-new land in Disneyland that would celebrate Disney characters in a whole new way. This was the birth of Mickey’s Toontown.

Initially, Disney’s creative minds toyed with various concepts, including the idea of crafting a 100-Acre Woods or a land inspired by the Muppets. However, the turning point came when they considered the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” This film’s popularity and the desire to capitalize on contemporary trends set the stage for Toontown’s creation.

From Concept to Reality: The Birth of Toontown

In 1993, Mickey’s Toontown opened its gates at Disneyland, marking the first time in Disney Park history where guests could experience a fully realized, three-dimensional world of animation. This new land was not just a collection of attractions but a living, breathing community where Disney characters “lived,” worked, and played.

Building Challenges: Innovative Solutions

The design of Mickey’s Toontown broke new ground in theme park aesthetics. Imagineers were tasked with bringing the two-dimensional world of cartoons into a three-dimensional space. This led to the creation of over 2000 custom-built props and structures that embodied the ‘squash and stretch’ principle of animation, giving Toontown its distinctiveness.

And then there was also the challenge of hiding the Team Disney Anaheim building, which bore a striking resemblance to a giant hotdog. The Imagineers had to think creatively, using balloon tests and imaginative landscaping to seamlessly integrate Toontown into the larger park.

Key Attractions: Bringing Animation to Life

Mickey’s Toontown featured several groundbreaking attractions. “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin,” inspired by the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” became a staple of Toontown, offering an innovative ride experience. Gadget’s Go-Coaster, though initially conceived as a Rescue Rangers-themed ride, became a hit with younger visitors, proving that innovative design could create memorable experiences for all ages.

Another crown jewel of Toontown is Mickey’s House, a walkthrough attraction that allowed guests to explore the home of Mickey Mouse himself. This attraction was more than just a house; it was a carefully crafted piece of Disney lore. The house was designed in the American Craftsman style, reflecting the era when Mickey would have theoretically purchased his first home in Hollywood. The attention to detail was meticulous, with over 2000 hand-crafted, custom-built props, ensuring that every corner of the house was brimming with character and charm. Interestingly, the design of Mickey’s House was inspired by a real home in Wichita Falls, making it a unique blend of real-world inspiration and Disney magic.

Mickey’s House also showcased Disney’s commitment to creating interactive and engaging experiences. Guests could make themselves at home, sitting in Mickey’s chair, listening to the radio, and exploring the many mementos and references to Mickey’s animated adventures throughout the years. This approach to attraction design – where storytelling and interactivity merged seamlessly – was a defining characteristic of ToonTown’s success.

Executive Decisions: Shaping ToonTown’s Unique Attractions

The development of Mickey’s Toontown wasn’t just about creative imagination; it was significantly influenced by strategic decisions from Disney executives. One notable input came from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who suggested incorporating a Rescue Rangers-themed ride. This idea was a reflection of the broader Disney strategy to integrate popular contemporary characters and themes into the park, ensuring that the attractions remained relevant and engaging for visitors.

In addition to Katzenberg’s influence, Frank Wells, the then-President of The Walt Disney Company, played a key role in the strategic launch of Toontown’s attractions. His decision to delay the opening of “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin” until a year after Toontown’s debut was a calculated move. It was designed to maintain public interest in the park by offering new experiences over time, thereby giving guests more reasons to return to Disneyland.

These executive decisions highlight the careful planning and foresight that went into making Toontown a dynamic and continuously appealing part of Disneyland. By integrating current trends and strategically planning the rollout of attractions, Disney executives ensured that Toontown would not only capture the hearts of visitors upon its opening but would continue to draw them back for new experiences in the years to follow.

Global Influence: Toontown’s Worldwide Appeal

The concept of Mickey’s Toontown resonated so strongly that it was replicated at Tokyo Disneyland and influenced elements in Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. Each park’s version of Toontown maintained the core essence of the original while adapting to its cultural and logistical environment.

Evolution and Reimagining: Toontown Today

As we approach the present day, Mickey’s Toontown has recently undergone a significant reimagining to welcome “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” in 2023. This refurbishment aimed to enhance the land’s interactivity and appeal to a new generation of Disney fans, all while retaining the charm that has made ToonTown a beloved destination for nearly three decades.

Dive Deeper into ToonTown’s Story

Want to know more about Mickey’s Toontown and hear some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, then check out the latest episode of Disney Unpacked on Patreon @JimHillMedia. In this episode, the main Imagineer who worked on the Toontown project shares lots of interesting stories and details that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s full of great information and fun facts, so be sure to give it a listen!

Jim Hill

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

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Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel



Pixar Place Hotel, the newly unveiled 15-story tower at the Disneyland Resort, has been making waves in the Disney community. With its unique Pixar-themed design, it promises to be a favorite among visitors.

However, before we delve into this exciting addition to the Disneyland Resort, let’s take a look at the fascinating history of this remarkable hotel.

The Emergence of the Disneyland Hotel

To truly appreciate the story of the Pixar Place Hotel, we must turn back the clock to the early days of Disneyland. While Walt Disney had the visionary ideas and funding to create the iconic theme park, he faced a challenge when it came to providing accommodations for the park’s visitors. This is where his friend Jack Wrather enters the picture.

Jack Wrather, a fellow pioneer in the television industry, stepped in to assist Walt Disney in realizing his dream. Thanks to the success of the “Lassie” TV show produced by Wrather’s company, he had the financial means to build a hotel right across from Disneyland.

The result was the Disneyland Hotel, which opened its doors in October 1955. Interestingly, the early incarnation of this hotel had more of a motel feel than a hotel, with two-story buildings reminiscent of the roadside motels popular during the 1950s. The initial Disneyland Hotel consisted of modest structures that catered to visitors looking for affordable lodging close to the park. While the rooms were basic, it marked the beginning of something extraordinary.

The Evolution: From Emerald of Anaheim to Paradise Pier

As Disneyland’s popularity continued to soar, so did the demand for expansion and improved accommodations. In 1962, the addition of an 11-story tower transformed the Disneyland Hotel, marking a significant transition from a motel to a full-fledged hotel.

The addition of the 11-story tower elevated the Disneyland Hotel into a more prominent presence on the Anaheim skyline. At the time, it was the tallest structure in all of Orange County. The hotel’s prime location across from Disneyland made it an ideal choice for visitors. With the introduction of the monorail linking the park and the hotel, accessibility became even more convenient. Unique features like the Japanese-themed reflecting pools added to the hotel’s charm, reflecting a cultural influence that extended beyond Disney’s borders.

Japanese Tourism and Its Impact

During the 1960s and 1970s, Disneyland was attracting visitors from all corners of the world, including Japan. A significant number of Japanese tourists flocked to Anaheim to experience Walt Disney’s creation. To cater to this growing market, it wasn’t just the Disneyland Hotel that aimed to capture the attention of Japanese tourists. The Japanese Village in Buena Park, inspired by a similar attraction in Nara, Japan, was another significant spot.

These attractions sought to provide a taste of Japanese culture and hospitality, showcasing elements like tea ceremonies and beautiful ponds with rare carp and black swans. However, the Japanese Village closed its doors in 1975, likely due to the highly competitive nature of the Southern California tourist market.

The Emergence of the Emerald of Anaheim

With the surge in Japanese tourism, an opportunity arose—the construction of the Emerald of Anaheim, later known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel. In May 1984, this 15-story hotel opened its doors.

What made the Emerald unique was its ownership. It was built not by The Walt Disney Company or the Oriental Land Company (which operated Tokyo Disneyland) but by the Tokyu Group. This group of Japanese businessmen already had a pair of hotels in Hawaii and saw potential in Anaheim’s proximity to Disneyland. Thus, they decided to embark on this new venture, specifically designed to cater to Japanese tourists looking to experience Southern California.

Financial Challenges and a Changing Landscape

The late 1980s brought about two significant financial crises in Japan—the crash of the NIKKEI stock market and the collapse of the Japanese real estate market. These crises had far-reaching effects, causing Japanese tourists to postpone or cancel their trips to the United States. As a result, reservations at the Emerald of Anaheim dwindled.

To adapt to these challenging times, the Tokyu Group merged the Emerald brand with its Pacific hotel chain, attempting to weather the storm. However, the financial turmoil took its toll on the Emerald, and changes were imminent.

The Transition to the Disneyland Pacific Hotel

In 1995, The Walt Disney Company took a significant step by purchasing the hotel formerly known as the Emerald of Anaheim for $35 million. This acquisition marked a change in the hotel’s fortunes. With Disney now in control, the hotel underwent a name change, becoming the Disneyland Pacific Hotel.

Transformation to Paradise Pier

The next phase of transformation occurred when Disney decided to rebrand the hotel as Paradise Pier Hotel. This decision aligned with Disney’s broader vision for the Disneyland Resort.

While the structural changes were limited, the hotel underwent a significant cosmetic makeover. Its exterior was painted to complement the color scheme of Paradise Pier, and wave-shaped crenellations adorned the rooftop, creating an illusion of seaside charm. This transformation was Disney’s attempt to seamlessly integrate the hotel into the Paradise Pier theme of Disney’s California Adventure Park.

Looking Beyond Paradise Pier: The Shift to Pixar Place

In 2018, Disneyland Resort rebranded Paradise Pier as Pixar Pier, a thematic area dedicated to celebrating the beloved characters and stories from Pixar Animation Studios. As a part of this transition, it became evident that the hotel formally known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel could no longer maintain its Paradise Pier theme.

With Pixar Pier in full swing and two successful Pixar-themed hotels (Toy Story Hotels in Shanghai Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland), Disney decided to embark on a new venture—a hotel that would celebrate the vast world of Pixar. The result is Pixar Place Hotel, a 15-story tower that embraces the characters and stories from multiple Pixar movies and shorts. This fully Pixar-themed hotel is a first of its kind in the United States.

The Future of Pixar Place and Disneyland Resort

As we look ahead to the future, the Disneyland Resort continues to evolve. The recent news of a proposed $1.9 billion expansion as part of the Disneyland Forward project indicates that the area surrounding Pixar Place is expected to see further changes. Disneyland’s rich history and innovative spirit continue to shape its destiny.

In conclusion, the history of the Pixar Place Hotel is a testament to the ever-changing landscape of Disneyland Resort. From its humble beginnings as the Disneyland Hotel to its transformation into the fully Pixar-themed Pixar Place Hotel, this establishment has undergone several iterations. As Disneyland Resort continues to grow and adapt, we can only imagine what exciting developments lie ahead for this iconic destination.

If you want to hear more stories about the History of the Pixar Place hotel, check our special edition of Disney Unpacked over on YouTube.

Stay tuned for more updates and developments as we continue to explore the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.

Jim Hill

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

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



Mickey's Birthday Land

In the latest release of Episode 4 of Disney Unpacked, Len and I return, joined as always by Disney Imagineering legend, Jim Shull. This two-part episode covers all things Mickey’s Birthday Land and how it ultimately led to the inspiration behind Disneyland’s fan-favorite land, “Toontown”. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It all starts in the early days at Disneyland.

Early Challenges in Meeting Mickey

Picture this: it’s the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’re at Disneyland. You want to meet the one and only Mickey Mouse, but there’s no clear way to make it happen. You rely on Character Guides, those daily printed sheets that point you in Mickey’s general direction. But let’s be honest, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Sometimes, you got lucky; other times, not so much.

Mickey’s Birthdayland: A Birthday Wish that Came True

Fast forward to the late 1980s. Disney World faced a big challenge. The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park was under construction, with the company’s marketing machine in full swing, hyping up the opening of Walt Disney World’s third theme park, MGM Studios, in the Spring of 1989. This extensive marketing meant that many people were opting to postpone their family’s next trip to Walt Disney World until the following year. Walt Disney World needed something compelling to motivate guests to visit Florida in 1988, the year before Disney MGM Studios opened.

Enter stage left, Mickey’s Birthdayland. For the first time ever, an entire land was dedicated to a single character – and not just any character, but the mouse who started it all. Meeting Mickey was no longer a game of chance; it was practically guaranteed.

The Birth of Birthdayland: Creative Brilliance Meets Practicality

In this episode, we dissect the birth of Mickey’s Birthdayland, an initiative that went beyond celebrating a birthday. It was a calculated move, driven by guest feedback and a need to address issues dating back to 1971. Imagineers faced the monumental task of designing an experience that honored Mickey while efficiently managing the crowds. This required the perfect blend of creative flair and logistical prowess – a hallmark of Disney’s approach to theme park design.

Evolution: From Birthdayland to Toontown

The success of Mickey’s Birthdayland was a real game-changer, setting the stage for the birth of Toontown – an entire land that elevated character-centric areas to monumental new heights. Toontown wasn’t merely a spot to meet characters; it was an immersive experience that brought Disney animation to life. In the episode, we explore its innovative designs, playful architecture, and how every nook and cranny tells a story.

Impact on Disney Parks and Guests

Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown didn’t just reshape the physical landscape of Disney parks; they transformed the very essence of the guest experience. These lands introduced groundbreaking ways for visitors to connect with their beloved characters, making their Disney vacations even more unforgettable.

Beyond Attractions: A Cultural Influence

But the influence of these lands goes beyond mere attractions. Our episode delves into how Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown left an indelible mark on Disney’s culture, reflecting the company’s relentless dedication to innovation and guest satisfaction. It’s a journey into how a single idea can grow into a cherished cornerstone of the Disney Park experience.

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

Unwrapping the Full Story of Mickey’s Birthdayland

Our two-part episode of Disney Unpacked is available for your viewing pleasure on our Patreon page. And for those seeking a quicker Disney fix, we’ve got a condensed version waiting for you on our YouTube channel. Thank you for being a part of our Disney Unpacked community. Stay tuned for more episodes as we continue to “Unpack” the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.

Jim Hill

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

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