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Monday Mouse Watch: The Operations side of the Disney theme park equation

Given all the talk that there’s been lately about possible changes at the Disneyland Resort, Jim Hill decides to give the Ops staff of those two theme parks a chance to speak their mind. Offer up their opinions about the proposed changes to Tom Sawyer Island, the addition of the “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” ride to Disneyland’s ride line-up as well as the planned revamping of DCA’s Sunshine Plaza



For the past few weeks, the Web has been awash with stories about how Disneyland‘s Tom Sawyer Island is reportedly going to be rethemed. How this part of that Anaheim theme park (Which Walt Disney personally helped design, by the way. Numerous Disney biographies talk about how Walt supposedly took the plans for Tom Sawyer Island home with him one weekend. So that Disney himself could then chart out the attraction’s coastline) is going to be reworked so that it can then be marketed to fans of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series.

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Mind you, there are those who will tell you that this “Pirates” -themed redo of Tom Sawyer Island isn’t necessarily a done deal. That it’s just one of many concepts that the Imagineers are currently considering for the Disneyland Resort.

And they’d be right, actually. According to several Disney insiders that I’ve spoken with over the past week, plans for the entire Anaheim resort are very much in flux at the moment.

Take — for example — the DCA overhaul plan. That 10-year, $650 million scheme to reconfigure California Adventure into a more people-pleasing theme park. Week before last, the latest version of that plan was scrapped. As the Imagineers once again try to strike just the right balance between new attractions & shows that will actually get paying customers to come through the turnstiles and changes that can realistically be made to that theme park that are fiscally & operationally sound.

Truth be told, that’s one of the main stumbling blocks to changing Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island into a “Pirates of the Caribbean” -themed play area. That — strictly from an operational point of view — this proposed $28 million redo doesn’t make much sense.

As one veteran from Disneyland Operations explained it to me last week:

“You have to understand that Tom Sawyer Island is only reachable by raft. And these rafts can only carry 55 people at a time over to the island. So then — when you factor in the time that it takes to safely load and unload each raft — even when Disneyland has both rafts running and they’re then being operated by veteran cast members who can work at peak efficiency, you can still only get 1,000 – 1,100 guests over to the island per hour.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Now keep in mind that Tom Sawyer Island has to close every day at dusk. Realistically that means that only 9,000 – 10,000 guests will ever get the chance to experience the island each day that this attraction is actually open.

Which seems like a fairly large number. But you have to remember that — on a busy summer day — you can have 60,000 – 70,000 people crammed into the park. Taking into consideration Tom Sawyer Island’s operational hours plus the limited capacity of those rafts, that means that only 15% of Disneyland’s paying customers ever get have the chance to experience the island on a day like that.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Which isn’t really a problem now. Given that you’re talking about a 50-year-old attraction that has limited appeal to today’s guests. But if we were to actually retheme Tom Sawyer Island around the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise … Unless we can significantly expand the island’s operating hours and/or radically increase the capacity of TSI’s main transportation system, we’re talking about a PR nightmare.

I mean, how would you like to be working at Guest Relations when a new “Pirates” -themed version of Tom Sawyer Island opens and be the one who has to explain to all those angry parents that — due to the limited capacity of this new attraction — only one out of every six guests will actually be able to get out to Pirate Island on a busy day at the park?”

Dealing with guests complaints about attractions that have extremely limited capacity is very much on TDA executives’ minds right about now. Given all of the PR problems that they’re anticipating having next summer with the opening of Disneyland’s new “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” ride.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Now keep in mind that — while Tomorrowland’s old subs may have been switched over from diesel to electric power — the actual interior of these eight 52-foot-long vehicles will only be changing slightly. Which means that the Imagineers have supposedly managed to shoehorn in two additional seats into each sub. Which will then change each submarine’s capacity from 38 to 40 guests per voyage.

Soooo … With all eight subs operating on a day when Disneyland is open from 9 a.m. to 12 midnight, that still means that only 17,000 – 18,000 guests will then get to experience the “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” ride … Meaning that only one out of every three guests that are in the park on a busy day will actually be able to board the subs during in that 15 hour period.

Now it’s important to understand here that Disneyland’s new “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” will be the primary focus of the Anaheim resort’s promotional push for the Summer of 2007. That there will be commercials on television, full page ads in newspapers & magazine, billboards along the 5 … All in an effort to get people to come out to the park next year.

But what won’t be mentioned in any of this “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” advertising is that only one third of the guests who buys admission to Disneyland will still actually be able to experience this ride on busy days.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

At least from a PR point of view, this extremely-limited-capacity-of-the-park’s-new-“Finding-Nemo-Submarine-Voyage”-ride-during-its-first-summer-in-operation situation is really causing TDA executives concern. Which is why a number of options to potentially diffuse this situation are reportedly already being considered. These include:

  • Holding several weeks’ worth of special after-hours parties, where limited numbers of Disneyland annual passholders would then be allowed to ride this new Tomorrowland attraction — as well as the new nighttime version of Space Mountain, Rock it Mountain — as often as they like.

Which — on paper — all sound like wonderful ideas. Unless, of course, you happen to work in Operations at Disneyland. Then the very idea that management is toying with the idea of significantly extending the operational hours of this brand-new attraction is enough to give you fits.

How come? Our Ops insider explains:

“They haven’t even finished building the ride yet. But we’ve already got managers talking about reinstating ‘Magical Mornings’ at the park and holding after-hours parties in order to accommodate the crowds. Do you realize how stupid it is to make plans like that when we don’t even know yet what it’s going to take to keep this attraction up & running on a daily basis?

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

This new version of ‘Subs’ features technology that’s never been used in a Disney theme park before. Which means it’s probably going to take a lot of extra effort after-hours in order to keep this stuff operational next summer. When we’ll basically have every ride in the park in continuous operation from 9 a.m. to 12 midnight each day for three months solid.

And yet we’ve now got these managers talking about extending “Nemo’ ‘s operational hours so that this new ride can then meet guest demand. Which is going to seriously cut into our maintenance time.

This is a bad idea. Which I’m hoping they’ll abandon as we get closer to ‘Finding Nemo’ ‘s official opening date. Which — in case you haven’t noticed — has already slid from May to June to now mid-July.”

I know, I know. This Ops vet sounds very grumpy. But you’d be grumpy too if DLR management & the Imagineers kept talking about adding rides, shows and attractions to the theme park that you were expected to maintain without WDI or these Disneyland execs seeming to give much thought as to how these new additions will then be maintained.

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Which bring us to that 1920s-era transportation hub idea that the Imagineers have been kicking around as a possible redo of DCA’s “Sunshine Plaza” area. Though the guys in Ops agree that California Adventure’s entrance area really needs some help in order to make this theme park more appealing to the public, they still absolutely hate this idea.

Why For? Our Disneyland Operations old-timer continues:

“They want guests to experience what it was like to be an old-fashioned movie star by traveling in this open-top limousine that’s driven by a uniformed driver. He’d then take guests to and fro from the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area. There’d also be this trolley that would take guests from DCA’s new transportation hub out to Paradise Pier and back. Plus a rumbly old bus that would service both Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak.

It sounds like this would make the ‘Sunshine Plaza’ area a livelier place to visit. But the reality is — given what it would actually cost to turn the front part of the park into a 1920s transportation hub — Disney won’t get a very good return on that investment. You see, very few DCA guests will ever get the chance to enjoy & experience these new attractions.

Photo by Jeff Lange

I mean, take a look at the extremely limited capacity of all of the vehicles that you find on Main Street U.S.A. Disneyland’s horseless carriages carries less than 100 guests per hour. The fire engine? Just over 100 guests an hour.

The horse-drawn streetcar and the omnibus can each handle 400 – 600 guests per hour. But that’s only when they’re running. Let’s remember that you have to suspend operation of all vehicles on Main Street when you’ve got a parade moving through the park.

So Disney’s looking to spend upwards of $30 million to retheme the front part of DCA. Adding all of these low capacity attractions that would then have to suspend operation whenever you were running ‘Block Party Bash’ or the ‘Electrical Parade.’

It seems like an awful lot of money to spend to something that very few California Adventure visitors will actually get the chance to experience and enjoy. Which is why it would make a lot more sense — at least from an Ops point of view — to take all of that money and spend it on a single brand-new high capacity ride for that theme park. Something a whole lot of people could enjoy during their day at the park.”

Mind you, DCA’s newest addition — Midway Mania — will have a fairly high capacity. With a vehicle loaded with 16 guests entering that attraction every 30 – 45 seconds, that new Paradise Pier interactive dark ride will have a THC (I.E. Theoretical Hourly Capacity) of 1,400 – 1,600 visitors per hour.

Which isn’t exactly up there with what “Pirates of the Caribbean” (Which can handle 3,000 guests per hour) and “The Haunted Mansion” (Which can handle 2,500 guests per hour) can carry. But it’s certainly better than Disneyand’s new “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage” ride will be able to do.

Anyway … That’s the Ops side of the Disney theme park equation. At least when it comes to the seldom-seen, behind-the-scenes effort that’s involved with operating & then maintaining new attractions once they’ve been placed in the parks.

But what do you folks think? Do you think it’s wise of WDI & Disneyland management not to consult with the Operations staff when they design new rides, shows and attractions for the Anaheim resort?

Your thoughts?

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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