Connect with us

Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

Maybe they should rename the park “Not-so-Great Adventure”

JHM columnist Seth Kubersky returns from his annual sojourn to New Jersey with an extremely caustic — but still really funny — article about his recent visit to Six Flags Great Adventure.



If you live anywhere in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area, you’ve probably seen the ads.

“New this season at Six Flags Great Adventure: Superman – Ultimate Flight.” Soar through the air like the Man of Steel, suspended lying on your belly with your arms stretched out in front of you. Hurry hurry hurry! Step right up! Fun for the whole family. How can any rollercoaster fan resist the opportunity to fly the way God (or Siegel & Schuster) intended?

Growing up in Jersey, I had a love-hate relationship with Six Flags. Apart from infrequent family vacations to Orlando, Hershey, or Lake George, it was my first exposure to amusement parks. I remember having the spit scared out of me in the Haunted Mansion only weeks before the tragic 1984 fire that killed 8 guests. I struggled in vain to read a G-force meter while plummeting down the Freefall ride during a physics class school trip. And the Great American Scream Machine was my introduction to looping coasters.

But as I got older, and visited more parks around the country, I realized just how awful a park Great Adventure was. The filth and decay of the facility was often shocking. Major rides were frequently torn down after only a couple years of operation, usually for safety or maintenance issues. Years before our current post-9/11 obsession with security, metal detectors were installed to deal with rampant gang violence. Only last month, a train full of rides made headlines when they were trapped for 20 minutes hanging upside down on the Chiller coaster.

At a certain point I vowed never to return. My last visit was shortly after the opening of Viper, a Togo heartline coaster built in the same spot as the long-defunct Ultra Twister heartline. But the lure of Superman was just too great. As a dedicated observer of all things amusement, I considered it my sacred duty to try this latest-and-greatest for myself. So, while spending a couple weeks vacation at the folks’ place in North Jersey, I hopped in the car and made the hour (or hour and a half — thank you very much, NJDOT construction) drive down the Turnpike to Jackson. A quiet Tuesday at the end of the season. Slightly overcast but dry and warm — the perfect day for visit. Or so one would think…

Approaching the Six Flags complex, you are given the choice of entering the Hurricane Harbor water park, the drive-thru Safari (“Warning: Monkeys WILL damage your vehicle. No convertibles allowed.) or the theme park. After paying $10 (seriously!) to enter the theme park parking lot, I got my first clue as to how the day would proceed: no parking attendants. Not a single one, for a lot nearly the size of any at Disney. It was a free-for-all, with cars parking the wrong direction and small children nearly being run down. To top it off, there are no row or space numbers, just a few poles marked A though H scattered around the enormous lot.

I joined the throng streaming towards the main entrance, and received my second clue: massive lines stretching out from the ticket booths. With no queue stanchions or greeters to be seen, the lines more closely resembled an angry mob. My only bit of good luck was to find a line that was half as long as most of the others, and a family with “Buy 1, get 1 free” tickets and an odd number of people. Twenty minutes and a quick frisking from security later, I had my $24 half-price ticket and was in the park.

My first stop was Guest Relations. I could tell immediately by the crowds at the entrance that my plans to visit on a low-attendance day had failed miserably. I had read on their user-unfriendly website about their new Fastlane system. Introduced in 2001, and revamped for this season, it takes Disney’s Fastpass to another level. Unfortunately, the level it takes it to seems to be the bottom level of Dante’s Inferno.

For an initial $20 plus deposit (plus another $10 for each additional member of your party, up to 6 people) you receive a “Q-Bot.” This is a pager-like device with a couple of buttons and a small LCD text display. At 12 of the most popular rides in park, you insert your Q-Bot into a kiosk and receive a time to return for your ride. You can go around the park and load up reservations for each of the 12 rides, unlike the one-at-a-time system at Disney. When the reservation time for your first attraction arrives, you return and place your Q-Bot in another kiosk. After fighting your way up the ride exit (since none of the queues were designed to accommodate this system) you are allowed to ride after a brief wait. Fifteen minutes after you exit the ride, your Q-Bot with give you the time and location of your next ride.

But wait, there’s more! For double the price of a regular Q-Bot, you can get a Gold Q-Bot. This will cut your wait time even shorter than a normal Q-Bot. How much shorter? Who knows. They claim between 50% and 75% less waiting for your return time, but your mileage may vary. Oh, and these prices only apply for regular ticket holders. There’s an entirely different price structure for Season Passholders.

By the time the Guest Service rep explained all this to me, my head was spinning. The multi-level caste system they’ve devised would make a Brahmin blush. Disney’s Fastpass, controversial as it is, is downright egalitarian in comparison. First come, first serve, one pass at a time, and it’s included in the price no matter what kind of ticket you have.

This Q-Bot seems closer to the Destination Disney plans for a complete pre-planned itinerary. I must admit my inner geek was intrigued by the idea of a new toy to play with. And isn’t this what American capitalism is all about? Those with cash and the willingness to spend it should be privileged above those without. Maybe the future is an eBay-sponsored auction at the front of each attraction, with the high bidders escorted to the front and those who don’t make the minimum reserve kicked out of the park.

The other option, buried deep on the website and not advertised publicly in the park, is a VIP pass. For $50 per person (plus refundable deposit) you get a badge allowing you unlimited back-door access to every ride and attraction in the park. You are allowed past everyone waiting, including Q-Bot users, and can even request the front row. The pass is only supposed to be good for 4 hours. However, the times on the pass are printed in military time, which none of the ride attendants seem to understand, so I was able to get nearly six hours of use from it.

With the VIP pass, my total cost just over $75 (not counting food), but I would have to say I wouldn’t visit the park any other way. The standard lines for the coasters ranged from 45 minutes to over 2 hours, and even the most minor rides had 20 minute waits. In the course of my day, I discover just what kind of bullet I dodged by declining the Q-Bot. For starters, the line to get a Q-Bot runs between one and two hours. The queue to get one stretches for hundreds of people, all filling out paperwork and handing over deposits in case they lose the $180 devices, with only 4 attendants to move the line along. Perhaps they need a Fastlane for getting your Fastlane.

Second, I encountered scores of people who had technical difficulties with their Q-Bot. The most common complaint was that the Q-Bot didn’t recognize that they had completed their ride, and failed to give them a new reservation. Other times, the Q-Bot would tell the person to go to a ride they had already been on, or give a time window that had already passed.

Even when the Q-Bots work correctly, the nature of the system makes for long gaps between reservation times. Even if you load up reservations for all 12 rides immediately upon entering the park, you are not added to the virtual queue for a ride until you have completed the previous ride. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to get off a ride and discover that your next ride time isn’t for several hours. Finally, the multi-level system can make for bizarre reservations. I talked to one woman who made her first reservation around noon, and didn’t get her first return time until nearly 7pm.

At the end of the day, when I returned to Guest Services to get my deposit back, I discovered a long line full of irate people. Half the line was composed of people who didn’t get a Q-Bot and only got to ride 2 or 3 rides all day. They were incensed that just because they didn’t pay extra they didn’t get to experience many rides, and they wanted their money back. The other half of the line was composed of people who DID get a Q-Bot and only got to ride 2 or 3 rides all day. They were incensed that even though they paid extra they didn’t get to experience many rides, and they wanted their money back. One woman became apoplectic, screaming bloody murder at the guest service rep as her husband and small children watched. I got out just as security came to drag her away. It was, perhaps, the best show of the day.

My cynical conclusion is that the Fastlane system is a deliberate red herring. The real problem with Six Flags is the massive inefficiency of the ride employees. For example, Superman is designed to move 1500 guests per hour. The attendants I spoke with said the most they have ever moved through is just over 1300 in an hour, and they usually move less. To have a major ride on a peak day running at barely 80% capacity is a crime. Most of the other coasters are even worse, frequently running 2 trains on rides designed for 3, and leaving many empty seats on each cycle. The Fastlane and VIP guests exacerbate the capacity issue, but they don’t cause it. What the Fastlane system allows park management to do is deflect the anger of irate guests towards a secondary target, while failing to address the fundamental issue. It’s easier to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic by fiddling with Q-Bots than to invest in more efficient training and loading procedures.

So, one hour and $75 after arriving, I was finally ready for my first ride of the day. Before I address specific attractions, let me share some general observations about the park.

1) Great Adventure is set on an enormous lakefront property, nestled in a beautiful forest of mature trees. Bush Gardens took a similar setting in Williamsburg, VA and turned it into one of the most beautiful parks in the world. Six Flags managed to turn their slice of nature into a painful eyesore. The park has the aesthetic appeal of a mall parking lot. In theory there a 6 themed areas, but the only thing that distinguishes one section for another is a change in paint color — ugly brown, ugly green, faded white, etc.

Compounding the problem is the terrible condition of the park. There appears to be no maintenance budgeted for the park. Everywhere is chipped paint, broken railings, and burnt light bulbs. Trash overflows without a sweeper in sight. Service vehicles are parked in full view of guests, and employee costumes are often dirty or mismatched. Even attractions that are only a couple of seasons old look rusty and neglected. Those critics who nitpick Disneyland over every fleck of paint would have their heads explode if they ever visited this place.

2) If you don’t like thrill rides, go away. This isn’t a theme park, or a family park. It’s a coaster park. There are 8 major coasters, a couple state-fair quality spin-and-puke rides, and a handful of kiddie rides. With the exception of a couple of log flumes and a Ferris wheel, there’s next to nothing for the whole family to enjoy together.

3) If you are a fan of live entertainment, go to Broadway. In years past, Six Flags staged some enjoyable stunt shows based on popular movies, such as Batman and Robin Hood. Now, the stunt stadium sits vacant. Entertainment today consists of a kid’s character show and parade, a brief acrobat show, a water-ski show, and a dolphin “discovery.” There is also a fireworks display on peak nights that I didn’t get to see.

The ski and dolphin shows both feature enthusiastic but unpolished performers slogging through poorly-scripted routines as obnoxious music is pumped out of blown speakers. The water skiers landed about four tricks out of five, and the cramped pools the dolphins call home were shocking to this SeaWorld veteran. Subtleties of pace, timing, and theme are completely absent. And shows started as much as 10 minutes after the posted time, a particular pet peeve of mine.

4) Someone needs to teach Six Flags how to leverage their characters. Due to their licensing agreement with Warner Bros., they have access to some of the most recognizable properties outside of Disney. Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes are better-known to today’s kids than Mickey, according to surveys. Add to that the DC comic book heroes, and you have the makings of a fine stable of walk-around characters. But at Six Flags opportunities for character meet and greets are shockingly sparse. Bugs and a hand full of his friends make 5 daily appearances at a single location, in addition to the brief character show in the kiddie section. The guide maps claims more characters can be found at the Character Café, but I couldn’t find them. There are no walk-around superheroes to be found at all. Wouldn’t it be logical to have a Superman face character posing in front of his hyped new ride? Or Batman in front of his? Warner’s MovieWorld in Australia takes these same characters and treats them right. Check out the special currently running on Discovery HD for stunning views of what Six Flags could be doing.

5) Last, but certainly not least, Six Flags employees are the worst I have encountered anywhere in the country. This park is not a good advertisement for the New Jersey public school system. Part of the problem is the nature of a seasonal park: just as employees figure out what they’re doing, everyone is out of a job for the winter, and a whole new crew is trained the next year. Part of the problem is understaffing: even on a peak day, there were only 2 or at most 3 employees working each ride. Not a single ride had a greeter, and at several coasters one employee was responsible for safety checking the entire train. And part of the problem is a lack of management supervision. In the entire day I saw only 3 people who appeared to be leads.

But the biggest problem is the poor quality of many of the employees themselves. Nearly every employee I personally interacted with was apathetic, impatient, or just plain rude. Some were stunning in their ignorance of park policies, ride procedures, and simple common sense.

For example, at one coaster the attendant kept yelling at guests to exit to the left, and couldn’t figure out why they kept getting out on the wrong side. She never seemed to clue in that her left was the guests’ right. At another ride, when I requested a seat in the front row, I was told I’d have to wait six trains to ride. When I pointed out that they were dispatching trains with empty seats in the front, they simply repeated the six train rule.

After a guest “protein spill,” I watched them close off the affected row and all the rows behind it. They sprayed the one seat with Lysol, but left the rest of the seats untouched. After running the train half-empty for a number of cycles, they reopened all the seats. Perhaps they were attempting to air-dry the train? Bizzaro-world experiences like these were the norm throughout the day. They signaled not just apathy or lack of training, but something more serious like high levels of lead in the drinking water.

All right, enough carping. Let’s get to the rides themselves, starting with the one I made the trip for. Wherever possible, I experienced each coaster at least twice, once from the front row and once from the back.

Superman – Ultimate Flight: Winner of the “We made a great commercial, not a great ride” award. Superman takes a compelling concept and fails to make an interesting ride out of it. The seats resemble a standard inverted coaster, with the addition of full chest and shin restraints. The best moment of the ride comes before you leave the station, as the floor drops and the seats pivot back into a prone position. This never fails to elicit laughter and cheers from the riders. But you soon realize the fatal flaw in the seat design: the restraints and headrest prevent you from looking up or extending your arms. You don’t soar in the classic Superman pose as advertised. Instead, with your knees bent and your chin tucked, you resemble Supes after a Kryponite-laced burrito. If you are seated in the front row (an additional half-hour wait) you can strain your head up for a view of the track. Sit in any other row and you get a view of the ground and the seat in front of you.

The ride track itself also fails to deliver. The first drop takes you into a unique “pretzel loop,” which involves a diving loop. The experience of diving headfirst, then lying on your back facing opposite the direction of travel, is unique and thrilling. It almost saves the ride. But the majority of the ride is spent in simple sweeping turns, leading all too quickly to the second and final inversion, a barrel roll. This leads abruptly to a final break run and the return to the station, making for a short and poorly paced ride.

Total ride time, from the top of the lift hill to the brakes, is under a minute. It’s as if the designers knew the novelty of “flying” would attract riders, so they didn’t bother with the rest of the ride. It’s by no means a terrible ride, but certainly not worth the over 2 hour wait that was the norm during my visit. And all you’ll have to entertain you during that wait is some painted flats of Superman characters and the expanse of the parking lot.

Great American Scream Machine: This is the ride that redefined the word “headbanger.” With seven inversions, it was one of the tallest and fastest coasters in the world when built. A rough ride when it opened, time has made it into one of the world’s most painful coasters. Add in the overly-restrictive harnesses and too-low headrests, and you have a ride that has kept New Jersey’s chiropractors in luxury homes. A ride in the front seat is brutal, while a ride in the back would put the Spanish Inquisition to shame. Coaster junkies are advised to ride once, and have a muscle relaxer and neck brace on hand. And remember to remove your glasses and earrings or you may pierce your jugular.

Rolling Thunder: An oldie but a goodie. This classic racer is everything a wooden coaster should be: Bone-jarring, teeth-loosening, and utterly terrifying. In the back seat, the lap bars allow you so much airtime you’ll fear for your life. It recently received a much-needed paint job, but the cars still rattle and squeak like they’re on their last legs. The only negative is that they only seem to run one track, depriving you of the racing element the designers intended. Two white-knuckled thumbs up.

Medusa: Hands-down, the best coaster in the park. Perhaps the best coaster on the East Coast. This is a B&M floorless, meaning you sit in an inverted coaster style chair, but with the track below you. Sitting in the front car is like being tied to the front of a speeding train. This coaster is as powerful as any I’ve been on, and as smooth as glass. The seven inversions are perfectly paced, and the interlocking corkscrews are a thing of beauty. The only coaster I’ve experienced that can give it a run for it’s money is it’s cousin Kraken at SeaWorld Orlando.

Runaway Mine Train: The park’s first steel coaster, it predates Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain. A fun little ride, it features some nice dips over scenic lake setting. A pleasant ride, with a nice little kick if you sit in the back row.

Skull Mountain: Six Flag’s attempt at an indoor themed coaster. An impressive-looking façade leads to a nicely air-conditioned queue. The ride itself is a simple family coaster in pitch darkness. Or, rather, it would be pitch darkness if the maintenance doors didn’t leak light, exposing the beams. Not worth a long wait, it does give some nice airtime in the back row.

Nitro: Second best coaster in the park. This 230-foot mega-coaster feature 7 intense drops. The lift hill just seems to go up and up forever. The design of the lapbars prevent you from getting as much air as I would like, but it is still an intense experience. The front row provides the best view, but not nearly the G-forces or air of the back. On my second ride, a guest in the front lost a pack of cigarettes, which my seatmate snatched out the air — an impressive feat!

Batman The Ride: The classic inverted coaster, cloned at Six Flags across the country, still packs a punch. It features the park’s most successful attempt at queue theming, though most of the garbage and grafitti is now authentic rather than scenic. The Batcave now looks much the worse for wear. Perhaps millionare Bruce Wayne was invested heavily in Enron. But the ride itself is just as thrilling as ever. Though not the tallest or fastest coaster, it is one of the tightest and best-paced. One perfectly engineered element leads right into the next, leaving you breathless by the end. The third-best coaster in the park, not to be missed.

Batman and Robin – The Chiller: A linear induction shuttle coaster, it sends you through a series of inversions forward and then backwards. The launch is the best part, on par with Rock N Roller Coaster, though not as thrilling as Hulk. The two tracks are similar, though not identical, but only one side was running. [Editor’s note: The earlier note about the coaster being closed due to an accident that stranded several guests was incorrect. The “Batman” side has been closed all season. It was the “Robin” side, which is now running, which was involved in the incident. We apologize for the error.] The one-train-at-a-time design usually makes the wait longer than it’s worth, and the restraint design is unnecessarily constricting.

Houdini – The Great Escape: This is an odd one, and seems like it belongs in another park. An elaborately themed preshow sets up the story that you are attempting to contact the spirit of the late Harry Houdini. Since Houdini was a famed skeptic and debunker of spiritualists, this seems like an odd theme.But let’s go with it.

The main show is a Vekoma haunted swing, similar to one at Dutch Wonderland and Alton Towers, combined with lighting and sound effects. The illusion that the room is turning upside down is quite effective. A fun way to get out of the heat for a few minutes.

The Right Stuff Mach 1 Adventure: This was the most entertaining experience of the day. Not because of the queue, a barren hanger that still bears the sign from “Dino Island,” the ride it replaced (which itself was a replacement for the original “Right Stuff” ride). And not because of the pre-show, a brief collection of clips from the old “Right Stuff” movie displayed on a bank of monitors with bad burn-in. And certainly not because of the ride itself, a barely-competent simulator that uses frequent edits and shifts of perspective in the ride film, destroying the necessary suspension of disbelief.

No, the most amusing part of the day was watching the ride’s two attendants have a screaming match in front of the guests over whether or not the seatbelts were all fastened. An entire room of guests, captive in their seats, chuckled nervously as these two future employees-of-the-month went at it. Their argument lasted longer than the ride itself, and when it was over they treated us to incongruous booty-rap music as we exited.

That covers the park’s major attractions. By three hours before closing I was more than ready to head home. I left with a sunburn and a much greater appreciation for the benefits of living in Orlando.

But despite the decaying facilities and moronic employees, we need places like Six Flags. Because they are unconcerned with theming, guest experience, or ride longevity, they can experiment with new ride technologies in a way that Disney and Univesral don’t. Clear some land, throw up some iron, and if it doesn’t work just tear it down next year. This lack of care can lead to bad guest experiences, but it can also spur innovation. If not for Freefall, we wouldn’t have Tower of Terror. If not for Batman, there would be no Dueling Dragons. Technologies like linear induction motors are eventually picked up by the big boys and wedded with story and scenic design, after Six Flags patrons have served as guinea pigs.

Imagine a ride combining the multi-dimensional seating of Superman or X, with a linear induction launch system like The Chiller, and large-format projection. Such a combination would be just what Universal or Disney would need to do justice to a property like “The Matrix.” And you can get a glimpse of the future today, if only you’re willing to suffer through the purgatory that is Great Adventure.

Seth Kubersky

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

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


The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown



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

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

The Beginning: Mickey’s Birthdayland

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

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

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

From Concept to Reality: The Birth of Toontown

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

Building Challenges: Innovative Solutions

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

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

Key Attractions: Bringing Animation to Life

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

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

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

Executive Decisions: Shaping ToonTown’s Unique Attractions

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

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

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

Global Influence: Toontown’s Worldwide Appeal

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

Evolution and Reimagining: Toontown Today

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

Dive Deeper into ToonTown’s Story

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

Jim Hill

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

Continue Reading


Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel



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

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

The Emergence of the Disneyland Hotel

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

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

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

The Evolution: From Emerald of Anaheim to Paradise Pier

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

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

Japanese Tourism and Its Impact

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

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

The Emergence of the Emerald of Anaheim

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

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

Financial Challenges and a Changing Landscape

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

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

The Transition to the Disneyland Pacific Hotel

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

Transformation to Paradise Pier

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

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

Looking Beyond Paradise Pier: The Shift to Pixar Place

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

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

The Future of Pixar Place and Disneyland Resort

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

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

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

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

Jim Hill

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

Continue Reading


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



Mickey's Birthday Land

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

Early Challenges in Meeting Mickey

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

Mickey’s Birthdayland: A Birthday Wish that Came True

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

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

The Birth of Birthdayland: Creative Brilliance Meets Practicality

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

Evolution: From Birthdayland to Toontown

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

Impact on Disney Parks and Guests

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

Beyond Attractions: A Cultural Influence

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

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

Unwrapping the Full Story of Mickey’s Birthdayland

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

Jim Hill

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

Continue Reading