Connect with us



It’s a story of greed and revenge from beyond the grave! Roger Colton shares a look at the Colton mansion, high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill.



Jim Hill Media Featured Image

Lest we forget… Today is the fifty-ninth anniversary of the D-day Normandy invasion landings.

I’m not one to stand on sentiment, but the cost was very high that day, and I for one, wish to remember those sacrifices made.

On with today’s column…


On that last trip down to the Disneyland Resort, we took one of the “official” guided tours. While that’s the subject of a future column, there was one story that came out that is worth sharing with you.

Seems that Walt was giving an interview to a British journalist about the park. Somewhere along the way, this reporter got the idea that Walt was looking to sell the empty mansion overlooking the banks of the Rivers of America to someone. The idea (as related) was to offer a chance to live inside Disneyland.

The story generated all kinds of letters to Disneyland with folks who wanted to buy that house and live inside the “Happiest Place on Earth”. Disney’s PR folks took it all in stride and sent courteous replies thanking these folks, but letting them know this really was not what Walt had meant. Later came the invitation for the ghosts to live in the house, and the rest is theme park history…

Ok, we all have dreams of hitting the big one and retiring to the country to live in a big house, right? Well, watching the PBS series, “Manor House“, got me thinking. In the words of Lefou and Gaston from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”, “A dangerous pastime.” “I know.”

Well, what if your family had such a house? Could you see yourself living the good life in all the luxury that would go along with it? Don’t know about the rest of you, but I certainly could! And if fate had been a small bit kinder, probably would have…

So, with this week’s column, I’ll take you back to what could have been the family mansion, high atop San Francicsco’s “Nob Hill”. Yes, the Colton mansion, located at the corner of California Street and Taylor Street. Once upon a time, that is or was…

Today, this is the location of Huntington Park and you’ll find no notation of the name “Colton” anywhere about. It’s a nice place, right across the street from Grace Cathedral. (If you ever saw the mini-series, “More Tales of the City”, and the church at the end of it, yup, that’s the place!) On the other side of the park is the Pacific Union club, formerly the home of “Bonanza King” James Flood. It’s the last of the grand mansions that gave this hill its name. Nob is a contraction of the Hindu word nabob or nawwab: “a person, especially a European, who has made a large fortune in India or another country of the East; a very wealthy or powerful person.

Recall the previous column about Billy Ralston? He was a contemporary of the people who built their grand homes here. Think the real estate mantra of “location, location, location” and you get why they built here. A view of the city and the bay was unmatched (and still is pretty impressive today!). California Street is one heck of a steep hill. In the days when the horse drawn streetcars were high tech transportation, it presented a real challenge. Andrew Halladie put steam power to work and using cable ropes created a system to pull the cars up the hill. Over 100 years later, cable cars still climb the street from the financial district up to the top of the hill.

Among the men who built mansions here were the “Big Four”. Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P Huntington and Charles Crocker were the men who reaped the rewards from participation in the Transcontinental railroad with the Central Pacific. The fortunes they made were the result of hard work and being in the right place in the right business at just the right time. Huntington and Hopkins had a hardware store right next to the Sacramento River landing where thousands of fortune seekers came ashore. Leland Stanford was one of brothers who also had a mercantile business in Sacramento, and had become governor of California in 1861. Charlie Crocker also was a Sacramento merchant and politician. All of them put their influences to work in ways that California still feels the results of today.

So, I can hear you asking, “How does Colton come into play here?”

It does in the presence of David Douty Colton. He was often referred to as the fifth member of the “Big Four” by businessmen of the day. Rightly so, as he had smartly managed to become involved in many of the enterprises of the others. When they prospered, likewise did he. How he got to that position is a tale worth telling. Like many men of that era, he had taken advantage of opportunities presented by the growing West.

A native of Maine, he came west like many others in search of greater fortune. (About the only reference of note are the chapters of the Oscar Lewis book, “The Big Four” (first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1938) relating to his involvement with the Central Pacific Railroad.) While still under twenty-five, he became an integral piece in one of California’s political organizations. That piqued his interests in organization and manipulation, but not in actual political office. One term as sheriff in a Northern California county took care of that, but he did have affection for the title of “General” from and early connection with state militia.

He had the good fortune to gain real estate in the City that would pay off handsomely in later years. After the War Between the States, he went east and studied law at Albany, New York. Returning to California, he formed a law partnership and set about exerting political influence, with appropriate social connections. Putting friendship to work, he used his connections with Charles Crocker to his benefit. Taking on the role of financial director for the Central and Southern Pacific railroads, he made the best of investments and opportunities afforded him. Local wags joked that he was the fifth member of the “Big Four”.

By 1872, he had given up the law practice and was enjoying prosperity. Five years after his return from Albany, he had completed the mansion on Nob Hill, and his ranch on the slopes of Mount Diablo (across the bay from San Francisco). In those days, Contra Costa County was agricultural in nature and profession. Much of the property was arranged as it had been under Spanish land grants. Some smart folks had taken their Gold Rush profits and invested in businesses in some of the small towns (such as Walnut Creek — at the crossing of two major roads) in the area. Others took advantage of the changing times and bought land from the owners. Such was the case with David Colton’s Mount Diablo ranch. On the southwest slopes of the mountain, this property offered good grazing and pasture land and was just secluded enough to become a favored spot for the “General” and his family.

It was here that fate played it hand when David Colton was thrown from a horse in early October of 1878 while riding at the ranch. On October 10, he passed away as the result of the injuries received. In the wake of that event, his railroad partners sprang into action to preserve their interests.

Among the many tasks David Colton performed, perhaps the most important during his tenure was that of political lobbying or as it is better known today, influence peddling. His task was to convince legislators to vote in what ever were the best interests of the “Big Four” and their properties. Everything from railroad stock, bonds, to free transportation and more was provided in return for a favorable consideration. Unknown to his partners, he kept copies of over 600 pieces of correspondence related to those transactions.

David Colton had also taken on the liability of a one million-dollar note during his time with the railroad barons. Had he not passed away, it is very likely that he would have been able to pay. However, from what Lewis describes, it appears that Huntington (who was not as enamored of Colton as Crocker was) took advantage of the situation and coerced the grieving widow into surrendering all of the railroad-related securities issued to Colton, even a number of shares given to one of his daughters as a wedding present. The threat of scandal, accounted for by the question of embezzlement by Colton from the railroad, was held over the widow to secure her cooperation.

She later reconsidered that and decided she had indeed be taken advantage of by the surviving railroad partners (Crocker, Huntington and Stanford). A series of trials brought forth into the light of public scrutiny the business practices of the railroads — especially the influence buying. David Colton had kept meticulous records of correspondence, and these served to damn the railroads and their owners, as each one of those letters was read into the court records. After several trials, he was cleared of embezzlement charges, but his widow was denied the return of the securities as the court held that she had given them up with out duress.

Along the way, circumstances forced Ellen White Colton to sell the house in the early 1890’s. She wasn’t poor by any means. David Colton’s other interests outside the railroad did provide income to support her; maybe not just in the fashion to which she had become accustomed.

The view of the house below shows it as it appeared in 1875. The photo was one of two that appear in Oscar Lewis, “Big Four” book, along with a portrait of David Colton. The Colton mansion is the white structure in the middle with the Crocker residence in the rear. The unpaved street in the foreground is California Street (which would see the arrival of cable cars soon after).

The buyer for the house was none other than Collis P. Huntington — the same man who had so adroitly coerced the widow into surrendering much of the estate back to the railroad interests. Huntington was likely influenced to make the purchase by his second wife and her penchant for the finer things in life. He had been spending much of his time elsewhere with visits to the Pacific Coast reduced to twice-yearly trips. As Lewis put it, “His dislike for California and, in particular, for San Francisco, increased as he grew older.” After the Colton trial, and the exposure of the political dealings, such dislike may not be unexpected. Before the purchase of the Colton house, Huntington had taken a number of rooms at the Palace Hotel as his headquarters for his stays in the City. It was the place where power and influence were both in evidence among its guests.

In the fall of 1892, society newspaper columns noted the arrival of Mrs. C.P. Huntington and her plans to renovate the structure inside and out. Lewis refers to the Colton house as a “modest structure when compared to its baroque neighbor”, and tells that local critics regarded the circumstance of its location as “unfortunate” with the “fantastic redwood mansion” of Charles Crocker tending to “kill” its neighbor across Taylor Street.

Exterior views of the home are out there in a fair number. The Bancroft Library has a number of them available online as part of the Online Archive of California. While I have never seen any images of the interior, one would guess that some must exist. As photography was one of the growing arts of the day, it might be assumed that some image was captured at some point during or after the renovations.

Huntington also took over the Mount Diablo property and ranch of David Colton, and established the Oakwood Stock Farm. However, he did keep on the managers of the property — David Colton’s daughter and son-in-law. The bulk of that property became the Diablo Country Club, and is today a somewhat upscale community with appropriate property values.

Huntington died in 1900, and his widow, Arabella Duval Huntington maintained the house as one of her residences.

April 18, 1906 changed a lot of things in the City. As much as the earthquake did initial damage, it was the fires that followed that were the real devastation. The Colton/Huntington house was one of the Nob Hill casualties, with then house not to be rebuilt afterwards. She donated the property to the City of San Francisco, and it was designated “Huntington Park”.

In yet another twist of fate, Arabella married Collis nephew and another heir, Henry E. Huntington after his divorce in 1906. Henry went on to influence the development of a great deal of Southern California real estate, along with the famed Pacific Electric Railway and founded the museum/library that bears the family name in San Marino.

David Colton’s legacy? Well, it is an interesting tale. He left a wife and two daughters and no male heir. And as far as I know, there is no direct family link from my branch to his, but I’m still looking for more details in the family trees.

After all of the political influence peddling was revealed the state government was forever changed in California. Perhaps the most direct result was the way in which public utilities are regulated. California once had a railroad commission in Sacramento. And with the state government so influenced by the railroad, well what ever was good for the railroad was obviously good for the state, right?

So with that in mind during a bout of political reforms, the California Public Utilities Commission was established in San Francisco, instead of in Sacramento. The idea was to keep the politicians out of the utility business by putting distance between them.

And if we haven’t had enough irony so far, last year California got another taste of this with the state and the governor getting involved in the power crisis by setting prices.

The more things change, etc…

So there you have it. The tale of the Colton mansion… in a round about way. Had fate smiled upon the Colton’s a bit, I might be writing this from atop Nob Hill in San Francisco.

Them’s the breaks…

Next week: After the latest round of Jim Hill Media tours at Disneyland, Roger offers a glimpse into the “official” Disneyland tours — complete with a few surprises. Hope you’ll enjoy it.

And in future weeks… Roger’s going to broaden your horizons by taking you out to explore some things you may have thought you would never be able to do (Hello, fantasies? And none of that, this is a family site!), but actually can! To start with, it will be trains, planes and automobiles — in three amusing efforts. So stay tuned for more adventures…

If this tale has amused you, why not show your support by clicking on the link for Roger’s Amazon Paybox? Every little bit helps!

Roger Colton

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