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Is DAK’s Beastly Kingdom DOA? — Part 3

In this three part series from early 2000, Jim Hill looks at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the unfortunate series of events that led up to the park — and the company — losing a land, many talented Imagineers, and worst of all: guests.



December 1998. Everyone at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is abuzz with news about Universal Studios expansion plans for its Florida property.

“I’ve heard that — on opening day — they’re going to have three mega-coasters up and running.”

“Well, I’ve heard that their ‘Spiderman’ attraction is going to blow the doors off ‘Star Tours’ and ‘Body Wars.'”

“That — plus ‘Jurassic Park – The Ride,’ that ‘Dudley Do-Right’ flume thing as well as the ‘Popeye’ raft ride. This new Universal park sound better than anything we’ve got in Florida.”

Were these Imagineers frightened at the thought of all these great attractions being built in a theme park just down the street from WDW?

Hell no. The folks at WDI were thrilled that Seagrams was spending a reported $2 billion to remake their Universal Studios Florida theme park into a Disney quality resort. Why? Because that meant that the Mouse would finally have some serious competition in Orlando.

You see, Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a very competitive guy. He hates to lose — at anything. If attendance at WDW started to noticeably slip due to the Mouse losing customers to Universal’s new theme park, Michael would have to do something. Eisner’s enormous ego just wouldn’t be able to handle the idea of Disney being No. 2 in the Orlando market.

So he’d turn to the Imagineers and say: “Make the best attractions you can.”

Not “Make the best attraction you can on a limited budget.” (i.e.: WDI’s recent controversial rehab of Epcot’s “Journey into Imagination” ride. During its three months of operation, the revamped version of that Future World attraction racked up more guest complaints than most shows produce in a year.)

Not “Make the best attraction you can with minimal changes to the pre-existing ride building.” (i.e.: The Magic Kingdom’s “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” actually runs its ride vehicles along the very same track and layout the building’s previous tenants — Delta’s “Dreamflight” and the unsponsored “Take Flight” — used.)

Not “Make the best attraction that reflects the sponsor’s agenda” (i.e.: Any exhibit you’ll find inside either version of “Innoventions.”)

Just “Make the best attractions you can.” Period.

And WDI would absolutely love to hear Michael Eisner say this. Because — for years now — they’ve been developing ideas for absolutely killer theme park attractions, only to be told by Disney Company senior management that ” Gee, we’d love to build that … but it’d be too expensive” or “No one else in the industry is doing that” or — worst of all — “We don’t have to try that hard.”

So now — for the first time ever — it appeared that Walt Disney World was going to have some real competition in Florida. And the top guys at the Mouse Works must have been taking Universal’s Islands of Adventure seriously, for — in January 1999 — they ordered WDI to work up a WDW contingency plan.

The purpose of the plan was this: Should Universal’s Islands of Adventure actually begin to seriously nibble away at Disney World attendance levels in 1999, the Mouse wanted a way to quickly recapture those wandering visitors. WDI felt that the easiest way to get folks excited about going back to WDW again was to add a huge new E ticket attraction for each of the four Florida parks. More importantly, they wanted to have each of these rides up and running in time for the kick-off of Walt Disney World’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2001.

The Magic Kingdom was to have gotten “Fire Mountain,” a state-of-the-art roller coaster themed around story elements from Walt Disney Pictures’ Summer 2001 animated release, “Atlantis.” What would have truly been intriguing about “Fire Mountain” is that it was to have been the world’s first morphing coaster. Visitors would start their ride seated securely in their ride vehicle. At the midway point in the attraction — as “Fire Mountain” erupted — the bottom would have dropped away from their ride vehicle, leaving the riders dangling from above as they zoomed through the rest of the ride.

Over at the Disney-MGM Studios, that park’s signature attraction — “The Great Movie Ride” — would have gotten a massive makeover. In its place, visitors would have been asked to put on 3D glasses before taking a trip through the Chinese Theater’s “Villain Ride.” Here, WDW visitors would have been menaced by three dimensional recreations of Disney’s most famous fiends before the forces of good finally came to their rescue.

Epcot would have had its dated Future World “Horizons” pavilion pulled down to make way for the new “Mission: Space” attraction. This cutting-edge ride would use centrifugal force to give visitors the sensation of being blasted out into space. They would also feel tremendous G-forces pressing them down into their seats as well as a brief moment of weightlessness before their ride vehicle made re-entry.

As for Disney’s Animal Kingdom … well, since it was the least developed of all four of the WDW theme parks, adding just one new attraction wouldn’t have given visitors enough incentive to return to DAK. So the Imagineers opted to go for broke here. They suggested adding a whole new land to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Which land? You guessed it, kids. “Beastly Kingdom.”

Disney Management reviewed WDI’s plan in March of 1999 and agreed to put it into action if … and this is a really big “if” here, folks … it could be proven that Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure was having a significant detrimental effect of WDW’s attendance levels.

So — for the first time in the history of the Walt Disney Company — the Imagineers actually hoped and prayed for a competitor’s theme park to succeed. For — if Islands of Adventure really had an impact on WDW’s attendance — all of their great new proposed attractions would actually make it off the drawing board.

After two months of soft openings, Universal finally did officially open Islands of Adventure (IOA) on May 28, 1999. Just as the Imagineers had hoped, IOA had it all. Three huge roller coasters. Their state-of-the-art “Spiderman” attraction. Three water-based rides (“Jurassic Park – The Ride,” “Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls,” and “Popeye’s Bilge Rat Barges”). Everything a modern theme park needs to succeed.

Well … almost everything.

What was missing?


To this day, no one knows quite what went wrong with the launch of Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure. Some blame the marketing of the new park and resort, which somehow lead the public to believe that IOA wasn’t a whole new theme park, but rather just a new land that had been added to Universal Studios Florida (USF). (This certainly was a popular explanation within the boardroom at Seagrams. They asked for — and received — the resignations of most of USF’s marketing staff.)

Whatever the reason, the crowds just did not come out for IOA during its first year of operation. Universal’s new theme park under-performed in a spectacular manner, drawing less than half the projected number of bodies Seagrams had said would visit its revamped resort in 1999. Worse still, the limited number of visitors IOA got seems to have all been bodies that the new park lured away from its older Florida theme park. Unconfirmed reports suggest that attendance at Universal Studios Florida may have fallen off by as much as 30% during IOA’s first few months of operation.

But worst of all — at least from the Imagineers’ point of view — is that IOA was having virtually no impact on WDW’s theme parks. As the months went by, it became obvious that — in spite of the $2 billion Seagrams had spent — their revamped resort was having little or no effect on Disney World attendance levels.

Without proof that IOA was impacting WDW’s attendance levels, WDI’s ambitious plans for adding a brand new E-Ticket attraction to each of the Disney Company’s Florida theme parks by October 2001 seemed doomed to failure. Sure enough, Walt Disney Imagineering president Paul Pressler called a meeting at WDW’s WDI headquarters earlier this year to announce a radical rethink of the Florida property’s expansion plans.

At this meeting, Pressler said that — since IOA had obviously proven to be a non-threat to WDW attendance levels — there was no reason to go forward with the previously announced aggressive building program. In its place, Paul proposed a significantly spread out schedule as to which Florida Disney theme park got new attractions and when.

Pressler believed that it was now time to prioritize. WDW attraction construction money would be allocated first to whichever Disney theme park in Florida most needed a boost in attendance. That was obviously Epcot, which perpetually had problems drawing visitors back in for return visits. That’s why the Walt Disney Company opted to stage its 15 month-long Millennium celebration inside this Florida park.

Under the new schedule, the first new WDW E-ticket would be built inside on Epcot. “Mission: Space” would still rocket visitors off into the cosmos. Only now these visitors would have to wait ’til 2003 before they got the chance to board Disney’s shuttle simulator.

Next up would be the Disney-MGM Studios’ E-Ticket. However, construction on the “Villain Ride” wouldn’t even begin ’til 2003. Pressler’s plan was to have the “Villain Ride” up and running by May 2004 — just in time for the studio theme park’s 15th anniversary celebration.

After that, “Fire Mountain” would rise up over at the Magic Kingdom in 2006. This volcano-based Adventureland attraction would serve as the centerpiece of WDW’s 35th anniversary celebration.

Then in 2008, Disney’s Animal Kingdom would finally get its new E-Ticket. Just in time for that park’s 10th anniversary, “Beastly Kingdom” would throw open its doors. Visitors would then get to sample the thrills of “Dragon’s Tower” and wander the leafy green maze over at “Quest for the Unicorn.”

Obviously, Imagineer Joe Rohde and his DAK design team were tremendously disappointed with this last bit of news. But Rohde — ever the optimist — tried to stress the positive in this tough situation. “Okay, so it’s going to open 10 years late,” Joe said. “But at least ‘Beastly Kingdom’ will finally be part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.”

At least, that was the plan … until Eisner got around to visiting Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure in January 2000.

Eisner and a small entourage quietly toured the park that day, riding most of the major attractions as well as scoping out a lot of the shops and restaurants. After Michael got back to California, he told the Imagineers that he thought that — while IOA wasn’t quite up to Disney standard — the place still looked pretty good.

There was a pause. Then Michael added “But a few of those attractions looked awfully familiar.”

This is where one of the scummier secrets of the theme park industry gets revealed: theme parks regularly steal attraction ideas from one another. Just like in the computer world or the auto industry, industrial espionage is just one of the many ways that theme park companies like Disney, Universal, Six Flags, and the Cedar Fair Corporation try to stay ahead of the competition.

Of course, Disney didn’t help matters by laying off hundreds of Imagineers following the disastrous opening of Euro Disney. Many of these disgruntled former Imagineers walked out the door, carrying with them the plans for the proposed attractions they had been working on when the Mouse let them go.

Among these folks were several Imagineers who had been working on the “Dragon’s Tower” attraction for DAK’s “Beastly Kingdom.” After a few months, these former WDI employees got hired by Universal to work on their proposed second theme park for Florida. They ended up being assigned to work on that park’s “Lost Continent” area.

“You guys got any ideas for attractions for this part of the park?,” their Universal bosses asked.

Indeed they did.

Now, before you get all indignant about the idea of Universal stealing ride ideas from Disney, please keep in mind that the Mouse has also been doing it for years. For example: how do you suppose the Skyway and Monorail ended up in Disneyland? Walt saw similar attractions while touring amusement parks in Europe in the 1950s. He decided to “borrow” the concepts of these rides from those European venues for installation at his Anaheim park.

And — while Tony Baxter is universally recognized as a modern master of Imagineering, having come up with the concepts for such classic Disney theme park attractions as “Big Thunder Mountain Railway” and “Splash Mountain” — employees of Knotts Berry Farm are all too willing to point out the similarities between those attractions and Knotts’ “Calico Mine Train” and “Log Ride.” Given that Baxter has admitted to spending a lot of his free time back in the 1960s when he was a Disneyland employee prowling around Knotts, is it possible that Tony could have — just like his hero, Walt — “borrowed” the concepts for these Knotts attractions to use as the basis for “Big Thunder” and “Splash Mountain?”

Anything’s possible, kids.

Anywho, back to Islands of Adventure … is “Dueling Dragons” an obvious rip-off of “Beastly Kingdom”‘s proposed “Dragon’s Tower” ride? Perhaps. But how can you rip off something that hasn’t actually been built yet?

Some might argue that Universal — being the first theme park company to build a mega-coaster that featured a dragon storyline with a queue area that was themed around a decrepit castle — must now get credit for creating that attraction. Which means Universal effectively owns that ride idea. That would mean that — should Disney ever go forward with their “Dragon’s Tower” attraction idea — the Mouse would now appear to be copying ride ideas from Universal, rather than the other way around.

Never mind that Disney came up with the original idea for a dragon-based coaster. Never mind that Universal may have acquired the concept for their dragon coaster attraction under somewhat questionable circumstances. In the end, all that matters is: Who built the ride first? Since Universal was the first to build a dragon-based coaster, that ride concept now belongs to them.

And — since Eisner didn’t want it to appear as if Disney was stealing ride ideas from Universal — he asked the Imagineers to remove the “Dragon’s Tower” ride from all future plans for “Beastly Kingdom.” But — without the tumble-down burned-out castle (that would have served as “Dragon’s Tower”‘s show building) to serve as the centerpiece for this proposed addition to WDW’s fourth theme park — “Beastly Kingdom” was left without a “weenie,” a strong visual element that would lure people down into this side of the park. Without “Dragon’s Tower,” “Beastly Kingdom” now seemed kind of pointless.

As painful as it might be, Joe Rohde and his Imagineering team now had to face facts. “Beastly Kingdom” — as they had originally planned it — was dead. WDI would now have to abandon all the witty plans they’d come up with for this part of the park and dream up some new attractions for DAK’s east side.

Mind you, there was no time to mourn “Beastly Kingdom”‘s demise. Rohde and his team were too busy fighting with Disney management over their bargain basement expansion plans for DAK’s Dinoland USA. Assuming that — when Disney’s “Dinosaur” movie opens in theaters later this month — this side of the park will see a huge surge of new traffic, Eisner ordered that several lightly themed off-the-shelf carnival-style rides be added to Dinoland USA to increase capacity.

Rohde was said to be furious when he learned of this plan, particularly since WDI had already put together an elegant expansion plan for DAK’s dino area. He’s reportedly particularly enraged that the name that his Imagineering team came up with for a runaway-mine-car-through-an-abandoned-dinosaur-dig ride — the Excavator — for Dinoland USA’s “Phase II” will now be used for a smallish kiddie coaster Eisner is quickly tossing into the area.

Adding to Rohde’s aggravation: DAK’s ‘temporary’ area — Camp Minnie-Mickey — was becoming all the more permanent as each day went by. Exit polls showed that this area’s “Festival of the Lion King” show was the most popular attraction in all of Animal Kingdom. So popular that Disney had to add additional seats to DAK’s “Lion King” theater to increase the show’s capacity. And — with “Lion King III,” another direct-to-video sequel to the original 1994 film, currently in the works — it could now be years before the “Lion King” phenomenon finally fades … leaving all the land around that once-thought-to-be-temporary theater available again for development.

As you can see, Rohde and his Imagineers didn’t have time to moan over “Beastly Kingdom”‘s loss. They’re too busy fighting with Disney Company management, trying to keep Eisner and Co. from ruining the park with their bone-headed cost-cutting maneuvers.

But is “Beastly Kingdom” really dead? At least for the immediate future, it would seem so. Any ambitious plans the Mouse may have had for expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom are now completely on hold.

Why for? Because there’s so much other stuff at DAK that’s currently in urgent need of repair. For example: Conservation Station is thought to be a complete disaster. Visitors repeatedly name that area as their least favorite part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. So the Imagineers are frantically searching for ways to fix up that facility.

And then there’s Kali River Rapids. Though only a year old, the centerpiece attraction for DAK’s Asia area is already falling apart. There are currently so few of that attraction’s original rafts in working condition that visitors often have to wait as much as an hour in line before there’s a raft available for them to board.

But all those Disney unicorn and dragon lovers out there shouldn’t completely lose heart. Long-time Disney theme park observers know it’s wise never to consider a really great concept for a theme park show or attraction completely dead. For the Imagineers have this awful tendency to recycle abandoned ideas.

Consider Disneyland’s long proposed Discovery Bay. Though Tony Baxter hatched the concept for this Jules Verne-meets-Gold Rush-era-San-Francisco Frontierland expansion back in 1977, it wasn’t until 1992 that elements of this proposed Disneyland addition finally turned up in a Disney theme park. Unfortunately for all those US-based Discovery Bay fans, the park that got the land (DiscoveryLand, to be exact) that was inspired by Tony’s concept art was Disneyland – Paris. But some of Discovery Bay did finally make it off the drawing board.

So who knows? Maybe in ten years or so, some Imagineer may come with a clever way to rework the “Dragon’s Tower” storyline. Perhaps that long rumored South American Disney theme park will have a Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a thrill ride — rather than a walking tour — as its main attraction? Maybe this thrill ride will feature a huge AA version of the Maleficent dragon, snarling and breathing fire at riders as they whiz through the attraction’s finale? Stranger things have happened, kids.

Here’s hoping that — some day, in some way — dragons and unicorns turn up in a Disney theme park.

After all, there’s always room for a little more magic in the Magic Kingdom.

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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