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Ruminations: A sneak preview of the Walt Disney Family Museum

Roger Colton’s back with an extra-special column today, as he reports on his recent visit to the Presidio. When Roger got to tour the still-under-construction Disney Family Museum in the company of Ron Miller and Diane Disney Miller



It is no secret that I have many reasons to love the City that is San Francisco. Like many visitors, I find an attraction in the neighborhoods, the people, the places and the food. So, if something else were to come along that would make me enjoy it all the more, how would I feel about it? After today, I can say pretty darn great!

Loyal readers of this space may recall that last September, I shared a look at one of the oldest and most historical places in the City. Located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, The Presidio continues to be a place where the past meets the present and the future awaits. Under the direction of the Presidio Trust, this jewel of an urban park continues to evolve as reuse plans unfold. In a place where so much historic fabric exists, the challenge is how to incorporate the past safely and respectfully into the future.

One very important element of that future is The Walt Disney Family Museum. If everything goes as planned, sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, the doors will open to the public on a very special place to share the story and the legacy of Walt Disney.

So… how about a sneak peak at what lies in store for the guests to this Museum? If you were one of those lucky enough to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (in Simi Valley, CA) during the “Walt Disney – The Man & His Magic” events in 2001, then you have a head start on the rest of us. Check this link for a great description of the exhibition by Matt Walker of Started By A Mouse.

That exhibition came about as the result of contacts between Retlaw Enterprises and the Reagan Library. Preparation of the exhibit was financed by the Walt Disney Family Library and used a great deal of materials from its collection. When that exhibition closed, the materials were returned to storage with the hope that they might eventually find a permanent display location. In November 2004, plans were announced for the creation of the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. In the years since, the materials from the Reagan Library exhibition have been used to create what could best be described as a prototype for the San Francisco museum. I recently had the good fortune to visit that prototype, with a rare tour of these displays hosted by Diane Disney Miller and Ron Miller.

As much as Abraham Lincoln was a hero of Walt Disney’s, General John “Black Jack” Pershing was another. General Pershing was commandant of the 8th Infantry Brigade at the Presidio during a period of the rebuilding of the City after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. With that history, the Presidio location will work very well in bringing the story of Walt and his legacy to life for visitors.

A great deal of what visitors will eventually see is very personal to the Disney family. For example, one wall display contained a series of artworks that had been in the Millers’ home at one time. Among those works was a pair of Mary Blair character studies. Those came from the 1941 South American Disney trip (referred to as “El Groupo” by the participants) that lead to the production of 1943’s “Saludos Amigos” and 1945’s “The Three Caballeros.” Next to that was a Jim Fetherolf painting of a pond and pasture view that had been a 1965 Christmas gift from Walt and Lillian to Diane and Ron. Walt had very much admired his work and gave both Diane and Sharon paintings of his as gifts that year. (It’s also worth noting here that this Fetherolf painting was the very last Christmas gift that Walt ever gave to Diane & Ron. Which is why this particular painting has a special significance to the Millers.)

One truly interesting piece was a painting by Peter Ellenshaw of a Tennessee cabin of Davy Crockett in a winter snow scene. As with many of his famed matte paintings, it has special highlights of lighting that bring the image to life in the way he seemed to excel at.

While looking over a case with a series of medals awarded to Walt, Diane made a comment that “stories get lost.” To illustrate that point, she shared the tale of a 1935 trip to Paris by Walt and Lillian along with Roy and Edna. Over the years since, the story about the trip had been told that Walt had specifically traveled to buy books about European fairy tales as reference materials for various Disney artists. Diane related how a transcript of a journal written by Edna, told of the trip and how one entry noted that “Lillian, Roy and I did this today, while Walt went off to buy more books.” As Walt was always collecting figures, books and other items, this was easy to accept as being the truth about that trip.

The real reason for the trip was that Walt was being awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. It came with recognition of Mickey Mouse as “a universal symbol of goodwill.” And of course, while she was telling that story, there was the 1935 Legion of Honor medal on display.

Disney archivist Dave Smith further related to Diane that it was on that trip that Walt noticed how the theaters in Paris were playing four and five Mickey Mouse cartoons at a time. And he thought, “Aha! People are finally ready for a feature length Disney cartoon.” As Diane said, the truth is more interesting than some of the legendary stories (or myths) that have become accepted as reality. Offering those truths is a part of what the efforts behind the Walt Disney Museum are all about.

Diane also admitted that while she was pleased that Bob Iger had been able to re-acquire the rights to the Oswald properties, that she had (at one point) no idea who or what Oswald was. As it had all taken place long before she was born, it had been something of a mystery to her. But now, she is very glad that this early component of the Disney legacy had been recovered.

Ron Miller and Diane Disney Miller
with a display on Walt’s early years.

The items on display are not all to be small in scale or nature. Take for example this group of items:

Photo by Roger Colton

In the foreground is an early prototype Autopia car with the finished production model behind. While both were driven around the Studio lot by a number of kids (in testing, of course), the prototype went to several car shows but never saw service on the highways of Tomorrowland. FYI: These cars were donated to the Walt Disney Family Museum by Walt’s own grandchildren, Johanna & Christopher Miller.

Behind the cars is the train from Walt’s backyard railroad, The Carolwood Pacific. Lead by the “Lilly Belle” steam locomotive and completed by the four-wheel bobber caboose, the train sits on a wooden trestle with various photos behind it. As much as Walt’s railroad interest inspired others and was a factor in the growth of the live steam railroad hobby, I know that this particular display will be enjoyed by many future Museum guests.

The Lilly Belle.

Walt’s caboose, complete with detailed interior.

During the Disneyland 50th anniversary festivities, Diane mentioned how great it was to have had so many members of the Disney family able to be present. It was a family reunion that somewhat just happened. Initially, she had been invited to do a signing of the book, “The Story of Walt Disney”. This a book that she denies writing, and so acknowledged in a forward to the 2005 edition. A scheduling conflict prevented her from attending the May 5th press event at Disneyland. When chatting about the July event, one thing lead to another and there were members from many branches of the extended Disney family who were able to be there on July 17th.

One highlight for the family was the opportunity to visit Walt’s apartment for that day complete with a wonderful meal enjoyed on the balcony adjacent to the apartment. Being there with many of her grandchildren brought back wonderful memories of earlier visits with both of her parents. (Having been able to enjoy a Disneyland vacation with my extended family in October, I could easily identify the joy of family and just how special a part of the Disneyland experience it can be.)

Some of the furniture from Walt’s Disneyland Apartment
now in storage waiting for the Museum.

Diane mentioned that she had not met Bob Iger until that day. There was a rehearsal that morning at 5:30. She had her speech all set to go on the teleprompter, able to read it without her glasses. It was Bob who suggested to her that she read Walt’s opening day dedication.So she was doing fine with the rehearsal and started to recite the dedication. Then she turned and looked at the large video display and there was her father just as he had been that day, with his hair tussled, so earnest. So, she started to sob, overcome by the moment. So when it came time for the actual event, she was lead onstage by Donald Duck, who quietly offered her a tissue, just in case. She said she didn’t need it, because she turned her eyes from the screen and just looked at her family. It was a very emotional day. (For the record, the audience only heard Diane say the opening words of the dedication, as Walt’s dedication was replayed not only on the video display but also on the audio throughout the Park.)

Diane noted that that visit was also her first time to see Disney’s California Adventure including “Soarin’ Over California.” She truly enjoyed the spirit of the Cast Members. The Parks looked great and everyone was very upbeat. Ron mentioned that from the Orange County airport to Anaheim that so much had changed over the years since his last visit that he didn’t recognize the area until he was inside Disneyland.

Ron mentioned that he was particularly moved by the participation of the Disneyland Cast Members on that day. From the smiles and welcomes at the main gate as souvenir maps and golden mouse ears were handed out to the line along Main Street with Cast Members welcoming guests “home,” it was a day to be proud of in many ways.

Among some of the many other items that I saw were a series of framed original Disneyland attraction posters, an early optical film printer, a restored World War I ambulance (a close relation to the one that Walt was so proud of having driven in France), a number of vintage motion picture cameras, and many items from Walt’s collection of miniatures. Diane noted that there are so many of the latter that they may be arranged in themed groupings just as Walt had originally intended.

How’s this for a rare piece of Disney art?
A complete cel set-up from 1953’s “How To Dance
(part of “The Complete Goofy” DVD)
with the portrait of “The Firehouse Five Plus Two.”

The Building 104 location faces the former main parade ground of this military post. It will occupy over 44,000 square feet of one of the five 19th Century brick barracks buildings along Montgomery Street. With a wonderful view of the San Francisco Bay and the Presidio from the front of the structure and an especially impressive view of the Golden Gate from the rear, it will be the highlight of any visit to this area. As the Army had changed the use of the structure from housing to office space, much of the preparatory work for the conversion to the Museum has already been done. The work that remains now is to design and install the new systems and structures to make the building ready for the 21st Century and its new role as The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Building 104 facing the Presidio Main Parade Ground.

Ron and Diane pose for a photo in front of the future home of the Walt Disney Museum.

So… as much as many fans had looked forward to the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, now there is another great event and a great location to look forward to for 2008 or 2009. I know it will be worth the wait and hope that you enjoyed this preview.

Now this if you can’t wait quite that long, there is a Disney exhibit coming to the Bay Area this year that you will not want to miss. May 6th will see the Oakland Museum opening of the “Behind The Magic-50 Years of Disneyland” exhibition. Diane Disney Miller and Ron Miller are among the sponsors of the Oakland showing of this unique exhibition.

The following description is from the Museum web pages:

Go behind the scenes to see how Walt Disney and his Imagineers envisioned, created, and brought Disneyland to life. This touring exhibition includes hundreds of images and artifacts, including original artwork, construction drawings, architectural models, archival videos, promotional materials, and historic souvenirs?as well as original vehicles from Peter Pan’s Flight® and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride®. Meet Disney’s first Audio-Animatronics® figure, Abraham Lincoln!

A vintage view of Fantasyland in Anaheim.
Image courtesy of the Oakland Museum

Dumbo the Flying Elephant exterior overall concept.
Bruce Bushman, 1953.
Image courtesy of the Oakland Museum

Previously, the exhibition had been shown at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Loyal JHM readers will recall a description of the exhibition and the Museum members preview event here by Dan Viets last September. (An interesting coincidence has the Baseball As America exhibit now on display at the Ford Museum, where it had recently been shown at the Oakland Museum. As former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “This is like deja vu all over again!”)

Now if you are a member of the Oakland Museum, there will be an opportunity to attend their 2006 Golden Gala event on April 29th. The theme for this is When You Wish Upon A Star and it will feature a preview of the “Behind The Magic” exhibit with Diane serving as the honorary chairwoman for this fundraising event. Details are still being confirmed and you may want to check the Museum web site for further information. Perhaps you might want to consider one of their membership opportunities as well, to take advantage of during this Disneyland exhibition.

If you haven’t seen this exhibition, mark your calendar and do so while it is in Oakland. After it closes here on August 20th, it travels to Japan. Tickets are available now online from the Museum through this link.

Special thanks for making this tour possible go to Diane Disney Miller, Ron Miller and the staff of the Walt Disney Family Library in San Francisco. As well, thanks to Leo Holzer of the Northern California Chapter of the National Fantasy Fan Club, Matt Walker of Started By A Mouse and Elizabeth Whipple of the Oakland Museum.

Roger Colton

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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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