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Superstar Limo: What Went Wrong?

Given that it’s been over two years since this DCA attraction was last open to the public, many people have forgotten how horrible Superstar Limo was. More importantly, why this Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride wound up being so bad. In a revamped version of a July 2001 series, Jim reveals all the embarrassing details.



The following is a heavily edited (and somewhat revamped) version of a series of articles that I wrote for back in July 2001. If you’d like to read the full-blown, four part version of this story, visit the Jim Hill archive at Where you’ll find the original stories — along with many other articles that I wrote during my six month stint at — archived.

Soooo … what exactly went wrong with Superstar Limo?

To be honest, it wasn’t just budget cuts that ruined this Disney’s California attraction. But — rather — it was the death of a princess that actually did the original version of this ride in.

To really understand what went wrong here, you need to know what Superstar Limo would have been like had this attraction been built according to WDI’s original specs. However — in order to get the full effect here — you’ll need to chase down some of the original concept art that the Walt Disney Company put out for California Adventure back in 1996, right after construction of the theme park was originally announced.

The Original California Adventure Design & Artwork

You’ll be able to recognize artwork from this period fairly quickly. This was when DCA’s Hollywood district (as this side of the new Disneyland Resort theme park was called back in those days) featured an enormous Sorcerer Mickey hat rising out of the center of this area. This oversized hat would have served as the icon / weenie for this side of the park. Guests would have walked under this super-sized chapeau as they entered “The Magic of Disney Animation” pavilion in the studio section of the park.

Now — if you’ve been able to chase down any conceptual artwork from this period in the park’s history — allow your eyes to drift back toward the north eastern corner of DCA’s Hollywood area. The section where “Hollywood and Dine” now resides. Notice anything unusual?

Los Angeles International Airport

Yep, that is a miniature version of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. That weirdly futuristic building you’ve undoubtedly seen in dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s the image that many film-makers use as visual shorthand, to quickly let viewers know that the action has suddenly shifted to LA.

According to DCA plans circa late 1996 / early 1997, guests riding the Monorail would have had a particularly nice view of this miniature version of the Theme Building. (According to some WDI insiders I’ve spoken with, there was even talk of putting a miniature version of “Encounters” — that trendy retro, oh-so-hip Disney designed sci-fi themed restaurant/bar that Imagineer Eddie Sotto helped install in the real LA Airport’s Theme Building back in the 1990s — inside the downsized DCA version of this Southern California icon. But — as this project’s budgets began to get slashed in late 1997 — the postage stamp sized version of this chic LA eatery was one of the first things to be placed on DCA’s chopping block. Or so I’ve heard. Anyway …) These folks would have also been able to look down at all the Disney’s California Adventure guests who were queuing up to enter the attraction.

“Superstar Limo” Queue – Hollywood Pictures Backlot

Now it’s important to understand here that the queue area of the current version of Superstar Limo retains some of the wit and edge that the earlier, much more grandieous version of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction would have had. The snarky posters that hang in the pre-show area, that make all those snide industry jokes. The Cast Members who ask “How many in your entourage?”

But having a miniature version of the LAX Theme Building serve as the show building Superstar Limo would have done such a better job of setting the stage for this ride, giving guests a real sense of time and place before they boarded this attraction. How do I know?

Well, those of you who have been lucky enough to ride both the Disneyland and the Walt Disney World version of “it’s a small world,” think carefully now: which version of this Fantasyland attraction has an exterior that does a better job of setting the stage for the ride that follows? Hands down, it’s gotta be the Disneyland version of “it’s a small world,” right? At least the guys at WDI thought so. Which is why they modeled the Disneyland Paris version of this ride after the Anaheim original.

Changes to “Superstar Limo” Show Building

Anyway … many Imagineers will tell you that Disney’s first big mis-step with Superstar Limo was when management decided to cut the budget for this attraction and opted not to go forward with WDI’s original plans, which was to house this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction inside a miniature version of the LA Airport Theme Building. What they did instead was build a fairly bland show building which features a few painted flats over its entrance that caricature several Hollywood / Los Angeles icons like Union Station as well as those crazy California freeways.

“Superstar Limo” Entrance Gags

Mind you, it’s not like the Imagineers didn’t try to add a few witty touches with the exterior of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. But some of the gags here are so obscure that only a few folks ever get them. For example: How many DCA visitors get the idea that the planter that’s out in front of Superstar Limo’s entrance is supposed to be a filled in swimming pool? Look for the pool’s ladder the next time you stroll by this attraction.

The stylized luggage carousel that guests see once they reach the building’s interior queue area helps set the stage that they’ve supposedly just arrived at an airport. The huge posters on the walls and the constant announcements over the public address system reinforce this image. But if the executives at Disney had just opted to go with the smaller, funnier version of LAX’s Theme Building, the story could have started so much sooner for folks who were getting in line for the attraction.

These DCA guests would have had a much clearer sense of where they were and who they were supposed to be before they boarded their purple stretch limo and headed off for a wild ride through a satirical, stylized trip through Tinsel Town.

Change to “Superstar Limo’s” Speed

Yes, you read that right. “A wild ride.” Not the poky, slowly paced trip that you take now. But rather a high speed, zippy trip. Not Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, mind you. But something more along the lines of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Only on steroids.

The original storyline for this DCA attraction was supposed to have been that you — the Disneyland Resort guest — were supposed to be this big-time celebrity. From the very moment you got on queue for Superstar Limo, you became Hollywood’s latest sensation. Someone who was world famous but also in danger of being late for your very own film premiere.

As you boarded your limousine, Disney CEO Michael Eisner would appear on the ride vehicle’s video screen and reminded you that you still hadn’t signed the contract for your next picture. That big film that you were supposed to be making for Walt Disney Studios. Michael would then have told you that he would be waiting for you — with contract in hand — at the end of the red carpet at Graumann’s Chinese Theater. All you had to do is get to the theater safely and sign … and your fortune would have been made.

Eisner would then tell you that the paparazzi are out in force that night and to be extra careful on your way to Graumann’s. “Don’t do anything that would ruin your reputation,” Michael warns.

At this point, your unseen limo driver says “So you’re late for your premiere, eh? Don’t worry. I know a few short cuts.” And — with a screech of tires — you were off on a wild trip through Hollywood.

Again, this was *NOT* supposed to be an attraction like Disney-MGM’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, with a high speed launch and loops. That said, there was still supposedly some talk at WDI of putting some banked track in the attraction, a few bumps along the way. Similar to what Walt had originally wanted to do with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. Which was marry a traditional dark ride to a smallish family-friendly roller coaster to give Disneyland visitors a few extra thrills.

Adding to the excitement here was — no matter what route your limousine took to the premiere — you’d inevitably encounter a pack of paparazzi. As soon as he heard the click of those cameras or the flash of the flashbulbs, your limo driver would hit the gas and immediately change direction.

Bigger, Broader Gags in Original “Superstar Limo” Design

Because your Superstar Limo ride vehicle were supposed to be moving very quickly through its show building, there was no room for quiet, cute little gags in this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. In order for stuff to really register as you rolled through this DCA ride, the jokes had to be bigger, broader.

A typical gag would have been — as you roared up on Tail O’ the Pup (That famous Los Angeles area hot dog stand that’s shaped like — what else? — a giant hot dog) — you would have seen the back of this grotesquely fat man dressed in a white rhinestone studded jumpsuit. At the same time, you hear the unmistakable sound of flatulence. As your limo took the corner (on two wheels, no doubt), you’d see that the man in the rhinestone jumpsuit was actually Elvis Presley. As for the source of that breaking wind sound, you’d eventually see that the noise came from the squeeze bottle of mustard that Elvis held in his hand. The King would give the bottle a few more squeezes — making even more whoopee cushion noises — as he squirted mustard out on his hot dog. Presley would then say “Thank you very much” as our limo roared off into the darkness, the paparazzi again in hot pursuit.

Veteran Imagineers John Horny and Rennie Marquez really did a superb job with the original version of this attraction, creating a storyline that was littered with gags that were sure to play to both adults and children. Even the attraction’s exit — which would have forced guests to walk up a stylized version of the red carpet at Graumann’s Chinese — would have been fun. The theater’s lobby would have actually have been Superstar Limo’s gift shop, where DCA visitors could have purchased all sort of pseudo-celebrity stuff (Miniature Oscars, t-shirts emblazoned with “Hollywood’s Next Big Thing” on the front, etc.) to help them remember their wild ride through Hollywood.

Original Ending to “Superstar Limo”

And — as for that big money contract that Michael Eisner was supposedly holding for you … Well, because you had been unsuccessful in your attempt to evade the paparazzi (The image capture area at the ride exit would have shown pictures of DCA guests who had ridden Superstar Limo slapped on the front of a “National Enquirer” -like tabloid. These pictures would have — of course — be on sale to whatever guest wanted to purchase them) and were all over the scandal sheets, the Disney CEO would politely renege on his promised deal. “Better luck next time, kid,” Eisner would have supposedly said.

And — given all that Superstar Limo had for guests to see — it was hoped that lots of DCA visitors would be happy, eager even, to re-ride this fast paced, funny Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction. But then — months after the ride’s construction site had already been selected and well into Superstar Limo’s development phase — something terrible happened.

Death of Princess Diana – Temporary Hold on “Superstar Limo”

On August 31, 1997, Princess Diana and Emad “Dodi” Fayed were killed in a car accident in Paris. Supposedly, their limo driver lost control of their vehicle while he was attempting to evade the paparazzi.

And suddenly the concept of a kooky, crazy Disney theme park ride where the guest was supposed to be this celebrity that was in a fast moving car that was trying to get away from the paparazzi didn’t seem all that funny anymore.

In the wake of Princess Di’s tragic death, the creative team at WDI that was in charge of DCA’s Superstar Limo attraction found itself in a real quandary.

Obviously, it would now be in incredibly poor taste for Disney to move forward with the original storyline of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride. But — without the motivation of the paparazzi pursuing the guest/celebrity and their limousine through a gag filled version of Hollywood — the Imagineers wondered: was there even a point to this proposed DCA attraction now?

That’s why — at least for a short time during the Fall of 1997 — plans for Superstar Limo were temporarily shelved while WDI and Disney management weighed their other options. As a result, there was reportedly some very serious discussion at the upper levels of Imagineering about whether it made sense to just postpone construction of this particular DCA attraction for a couple of years (IE: at least until people forgot about the circumstances surrounding Diana’s death) and build something else instead.

It was at this point that WDI supposedly began seriously looking into alternatives to Superstar Limo. Particularly the idea of rushing into construction several other proposed movie-themed rides, shows and attractions that were allegedly under consideration for Phase II of the Disney’s California Adventure project.

Among the attractions that were supposedly considered as possible replacements for Superstar Limo were Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. But — given their expense — cloning these two Disney-MGM rides for DCA didn’t make sense. At least at that point in Disney’s California Adventure’s history. Which is why WDI felt that it had no choice but to find a way to make this proposed Hollywood Pictures Backlot ride work.

Making Changes to the “Superstar Limo” Attraction

The Imagineers’ first decision was to remove — all but for two brief instances in the attraction — any mention of the paparazzi from the ride. WDI then decided — in order to make sure that DCA visitors could never make any connection between Princess Diana’s tragic death and this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attractions– that the Superstar Limo ride vehicles would now move through their show building as slowly as possible.

This last decision created a ripple effect that ultimately turned Superstar Limo into DCA’s most reviled attraction …

Why for? After Princess Diana’s death and that edict that came down from on high and declared that — from this point forward — that “Superstar Limo”‘s ride vehicle would no longer zip through the show building, but — rather — poke along at a snail’s pace, the Imagineers knew that there was just no way that this California Adventure attraction was ever going to work. But no one ever got around to pulling the plug on the thing.

Inside Jokes and Clever Ideas…for Hollywood Insiders

You wanna know why? Because Disney CEO Michael Eisner thought that DCA’s “Superstar Limo” dark ride was a clever idea. Loaded with gags that he — a Hollywood insider — really appreciated. For example: That bizarre sight gag inside the Malibu / Muscle Beach section of the ride, when it appears that the hills of Malibu are simultaneously being plagued with fires and mud slides. That’s real location humor. As is “I guess you had to be there” to get that joke.

But what tourist from Topeka — the very sort of person that the Mouse hopes will fly directly into Southern California to spend the bulk of their vacation in Anaheim exploring the state’s newest destination resort, the newly expanded Disneyland Resort — is ever going to get a joke like that? What sort of palooka from Peoria is going to understand that the Bauble Room — another SSL sight gag, though this one is featured prominently in the Rodeo Drive sequence of the ride — is supposed to be a clever play on words, a riff on LA’s oh-so-exclusive Bubble Room?

Disney used to be known for its skill in storytelling, for its ability to tell a tale well to the broadest possible audience. Now here comes an attraction that seems to run counter to that tradition. A ride that’s filled with jokes that only a lucky few will ever understand.

Slowing Down the Ride – Ultimately to a Stop

How did this happen? Well, the folks that actually worked on developing DCA’s “Superstar Limo” ride will insist that this really wasn’t their fault. But — once the decision was made that that the vehicles for this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction could no longer zip through their show building, but had to plod along at a poky pace — WDI’s hands were tied.

After all, when you’re moving slowly through a dark ride, big broad gags no longer very work well. Stuff like revealing that that classical singing sensation, the Three Tenors, is actually one fat guy with three heads isn’t going to play anymore. That’s when they needed subtler stuff, and lots of it. The Imagineers had to load up SSL’s scenes up with lot of detail in order to properly sell the attraction’s now slow moving storyline.

Don’t believe me? Then those of you who have ridden Hollywood Studio’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, think back carefully now: Where do you find the most detail on that attraction? Not on the ride itself, where a traffic sign here and a palm tree there effectively gives riders the impression that they’re whizzing along Southern California’s famous freeways on their way to the LA Forum. But in this Sunset Boulevard attraction’s pre- and post-show areas, where the Imagineers are busily setting the stage for the thrill ride that’s about to begin and/or putting an effective tag on the tale.

Better yet, think about those two Disney theme park classics: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Both of these attractions are jam-packed with detail. Why? Because A) it’s effective story telling and B) theme park guests tend to get bored if you move them slowly through an environment where there isn’t a lot of interesting things to look at.

So — to try and compensate for the new slow speed of Superstar Limo’s ride vehicles — the Imagineers began cramming this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction full of industry jokes. Gags that only a person who’d worked in the industry for years was going to get.

Someone like — say — Disney CEO Michael Eisner?

I keep hearing that — no matter how bad things got, no matter how far “Superstar Limo” began to wander away from the sensibilities of the average theme park goer — Eisner supposedly always thought that this DCA attraction was going to be a real winner. He allegedly particularly enjoyed a gag that was prominently featured in the concept art and mock-up version of the ride, where Dreamworks SKG’s distinctive looking animation studio loomed behind a giant gate with the name “DreamJerks Studio” on it. ( Let’s give Eisner a few points here, though, folks. At least Disney’s CEO had the good sense to understand that this sort of mean-spirited gag wasn’t going to play with the general public. Which is why he wouldn’t allow it to be installed in the finished version of the attraction. That said, that still doesn’t mean that Uncle Michael didn’t get a huge chuckle whenever he saw that vicious visual in the attraction’s concept art or mock-up stage. Anyway …)

But — toward the end — Eisner must have understood that something was seriously going wrong with Superstar Limo. What probably clued him in? Maybe it was the way that the Imagineers had to keep cannibalizing concepts for the finale of this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction in order to stretch out the ride’s paltry storyline.

Do you remember the finale that the Imagineers had originally proposed for Superstar Limo: where DCA guests were actually supposed to exit their stretch limo in front of the Chinese Theater. According to the attraction’s original storyline, SSL riders were supposed to get the full celebrity trip. They would stroll up the red carpet, surrounded by the roar of the crowd and the blinding flashes of the paparazzi’s cameras.

They’d then enter a gift shop that was designed to look like the lobby of the Chinese Theater, where the staff was supposed to still be fawning all over them — as if these folks were real movie stars. (It was hoped that this extra obsequious service would trick more people into opening up their wallets and purchasing that photograph that Disney’s digital image capture system had plastered up on the big screen. That picture that clearly showed these folks in a fake limousine but still being treated like real celebrities.)

But — as Superstar Limo’s storyline got thinner and thinner — the Imagineers realized that they were going to need extra scenes to pad out the attraction’s storyline. Which is why SSL’s original finale as well as the ride’s exit / shop area ended up being folded into the show. WDI did whatever it had to to try and give this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction more story, more substance.

Finally, as the attraction’s art direction and gag work got more and more out there, Eisner must have seen the handwriting on the wall. And yet Uncle Michael just couldn’t bring himself to pull the plug on an attraction that — at least to his comic sensibilities — did such a witty job of sending up the world he lived in.

After all, all Disney theme parks have dark rides. Which meant that DCA had to have one too. Even it meant that Disney’s California Adventure was going to end up with one as weird as Superstar Limo.

Eisner Starts to Reverse the Limo – Adds Celebrities

Still, in late 1999, Eisner allegedly began to slowly distance himself from the DCA attraction that he’d initially paid so much attention to. Citing the stylization of the attraction’s sets, Uncle Michael supposedly said that it just didn’t make sense anymore for a real human’s face to suddenly intrude on this toony version of Hollywood. That’s why Eisner reportedly suggested that WDI drop the idea of having the Disney CEO appear on the ride vehicle’s video monitor but go with — maybe — a stylized version of a slimy Hollywood agent.

And — while Imagineering was at it — why didn’t they throw in some other stylized celebrities to help pad out things in DCA’s ***-eyed take on Tinsel Town?

So the call went out in Glendale: “We need celebrities to appear in several scenes for ‘Superstar Limo to help beef up this show.’ ” The trouble is, there really wasn’t all that much money left in the budget of this Hollywood Backlot Pictures attraction to cover this sort of expense. Which meant that the Mouse couldn’t afford to bring any big names on board to help strengthen SSL’s storyline.

Money for Celebrities – “Golden Dreams” Budget Cuts

These days, it seems like money is always an issue when it comes to which performers get to appear in which Disney theme park attractions. Take — for example — DCA’s “Golden Dreams.” Do you recall that sequence in the film where there’s this clever transition: The film goes in for a close-up of this poor downtrodden woman who’s caught in the depths of the Great Depression. There’s then a quick cross fade and we see the very same woman — still in close-up, but now all cleaned up — seated in a darkened movie theater, laughing at something that’s being projected up on the screen in front of her.

And what exactly was this woman supposed to be laughing at? Well, “Golden Dreams”‘s script originally called for this Dust Bowl survivor to be chuckling at the antics of Charlie Chaplin. Which Chaplin film? Why, “The Great Dictator,” of course.

Why the “Great Dictator”? Because that film features several scenes where Chaplin gets to burlesque Adolph Hitler. A clip from one of those scenes in this 1940 movie would have allowed “GD” to make a virtually seamless transition from its Great Depression sequence right into the section of the film that deals with women’s contributions during World War II (AKA “Rosie the Riveter”).

Unfortunately, the Chaplin estate wanted the Walt Disney Company to pay out an enormous amount of money for the rights to use scenes from “The Great Dictator” in “Golden Dreams.” Disney representaives — in an effort to bring the price down — tried to play on the Chaplin family’s sympathies. They talked up how Walt and Charlie had been friends way back when and how this brief cameo in an attraction for Disney’s California Adventure would pay tribute to that friendship, etc.

The Chaplin estate didn’t fall for that. They told Disney’s representatives that they could either pay the original asking price or do without the footage from “The Great Dictator.” WDI staffers then appealed to folks higher up in the Mouse House food chain, asking for the extra money necessary to save “GD”‘s carefully scripted smooth transition. In the end, the sharp pencil boys didn’t think that the Chaplin footage was all the essential to the ultimate success of “Golden Dreams.” So they said “No.”

Which is why that woman in the movie theater is now laughing at a scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 film, “The Flying Deuces.” That clip may not have not done much to help with the film’s transition from the Great Depression to WW II. But it was certainly a hell of lot more affordable than a clip from “The Great Dictator.”

Speaking of Disney cutting corners on DCA’s “Golden Dreams”: One place where the Mouse decidedly did NOT cut corners was in its pursuit of imagery of one specific sports figure to use in the closing moments of the film’s musical montage. It literally took months of negotiations — as well as a $50,000 fee — but Disney was finally able to land the rights to use footage of Tiger Woods at the very end of “Just One Dream.” (If that brief glimpse of Tiger at the tail end of the film really worth $50,000? Well, some folks have suggested the negotiation for Tiger’s “Golden Dreams” appearance was really just the dress rehearsal for the even bigger deal that Woods signed with the Mouse House back in 2001. Compared to that princely fee, $50,000 was just a drop in the bucket. That said, that amount would have covered the cost of inserting the “Great Dictator” footage into “Golden Dreams.” Several times over. So it’s always interesting to see what Disney’s sharp pencil boys are willing to spend the company’s money on.)

Speaking of the sharp pencil boys, these guys just weren’t willing to throw good money after bad in an attempt to fix Superstar Limo. Which is why they wouldn’t allow the Imagineers to go after any performers that weren’t already under contract and/or had a pending deal with the Walt Disney Company to make an appearance in this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction.

“Superstar Limo” Celebrity Cameos

You heard right, folks. Every celebrity — and I mean every one of them — that makes a caricatured cameo in Superstar Limo already has some sort of direct tie to the Walt Disney Company. You’ve heard of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? Well, now it’s time to play “Disney’s Limo Links.”

Regis Philbin

First up is Regis Philbin. The co-host of Buena Vista Television’s hit syndicated series, “Live with Regis and Kelly” as well as the MC of ABC’s new hit game show, “Super Millionaire.” Philbin feels that he owes much of his fame and fortune to his friends in the Mouse House. Which is why — when WDI called and asked for Regis’ permission to use his likeness in Superstar Limo — Philbin’s final answer was “Yes.”

Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas

Next up is Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Melanie made a number of films for the Mouse House back in the 1990s, among them “Paradise” (1991), “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) and “Born Yesterday” (1993). In April of 1992, she and her then-husband Don Johnson hosted the American version of the TV special that celebrated the grand opening of Euro Disneyland. But perhaps her favorite Disney project would have to be “Two Much,” the romantic comedy she made for the company back in 1996. For it was on the set of that particular picture that she met her now-husband, Antonio Banderas.

Speaking of Antonio, Banderas too has strong ties to Walt Disney Studios. In addition to the before-mentioned “Two Much,” Antonio has made appearances in several Mouse made movies. Among them are “Miami Rhapsody” (1995), “Evita” (1996), “The 13th Warrior” (1998) and “Spy Kids I, II and 3D.”

Anywho, given that these two actually met on the set of a Disney film, is it any wonder they have a soft spot toward the Mouse House? Which is why — when the Imagineers called about Superstar Limo — Melanie and Antonio immediately said “Yes.”

Tim Allen

Tim Allen is another performer with incredibly strong ties to the Walt Disney Company. His long running sitcom, “Home Improvement,” was actually produced by the Mouse’s television division. As were three of his feature films, “The Santa Clause,” “Jungle 2 Jungle” and “The Santa Clause 2.” Allen also provided the voice of Buzz Lightyear for those animated hits “Toy Story, ” “Toy Story 2” and the direct-to-video “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.” Tim’s two best selling books — “Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man” and “I’m Not Really Here” — were published by Disney’s Hyperion Press.

Given that Allen owes a lot of his success to Disney (which — ‘way back in 1991 — originally signed Tim to appear in the Robin Williams role for a TV version of “The Dead Poets Society.” Strange but true, folks), Tim quickly said “Yes” when WDI came calling.

Cindy Crawford

Which brings us to super model Cindy Crawford. Not a person that you’d think would have strong ties to the Walt Disney Company. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Crawford — as it turns out — has a three year development deal with ABC Television. Cindy also served as the on-line hostess for DCA when began offering previews of the Disneyland Resort’s newest theme park late last year. Ever anxious to deepen her ties with the second largest media company in the world, Crawford gladly gave the Imagineers permission to sculpt her famous figure — mole and all — for SSL.

Drew Carey

Drew Carey. Just like Regis and Tim Allen, here’s another guy who basically owes his career to the Mouse.

Carey signed a TV development deal with Disney back in 1991, right after his boffo appearance on the old “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Though the first sitcom Drew appeared on — Touchstone Television’s “The Good Life” — bombed, Disney still felt that the Cleveland comic had big potential. Which is why they quickly got behind his second sitcom, “The Drew Carey Show,” which debuted on ABC in the Fall of 1995. This snarky little show eventually grew into a huge hit for the Disney owned network.

Since then, the love affair between Drew Carey and Disney has just grown and grown. His best selling novel — “Dirty Jokes and Beer: Stories of the Unrefined” — was published by Disney’s Hyperion Press. Carey also delivered a second hit show for the network in the summer of 1999 when the Americanized version of that old Brit TV hit, “Whose Line is It Anyway?” debuted. Last year, Drew made his musical debut in “Gepetto,” an original musical that the company presented on “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Carey’s love of the Disney theme parks is well known as well. Drew happily took part in the opening hoopla/promotion of both Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s California Adventure. He even has his own theme park attraction: Disney-MGM’s “Sounds Dangerous” show. So is it any wonder that the Imagineers felt that they didn’t have to worry about whether Drew would give them his permission to place his likeness in Superstar Limo. The guys at WDI knew that this was a done deal even before they asked. And so it was.

Jackie Chan

Next up: Action superstar Jackie Chan. Again, not a guy that you’d think would have any real connection to the Mouse House. But — as it turns out — Chan already has huge ties to Disney. For example, Chan sang the title song for the Chinese release of Disney’s 1990 animated hit, “Beauty and the Beast.” Jackie then followed this toon work up by providing the voice of Shang for both the Cantonese and Mandarin versions of the studio’s 1998 release, “Mulan.”

More recently, Jackie has begun doing some live action work for Walt Disney Studios. His appearance in Touchstone Pictures’ “Shanghai Noon” and “Shanghai Knights” help cement his reputation as a top box office draw here in the West. (Which perhaps explains why Disney recently acquired the domestic distribution rights to Chan’s next big budget feature, “Around the World in 80 Days.”)

Anywho … anxious to be seen as a mainstream Hollywood player, Chan quickly said “Yes” when WDI asked to use his likeness in Superstar Limo.


As for Cher … this was pretty much the last deal that the Imagineers made to land a celebrity to appear in Superstar Limo. Indeed, folks who rode this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction during DCA’s Annual Passholder previews will swear to you that they didn’t see the sexy chanteuse when they went on the ride. And they’d be right. The Cher figure wasn’t installed in SSL ’til just days prior to the official opening of the park.

Whoopi Goldberg

As for Whoopi … again, Whoopi Goldberg’s another performer with strong pre-existing ties to the Walt Disney Company. She’s had hit films with the studio: “Sister Act” (1992) and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” (1993), as well as done voice work for one of the company’s biggest animated films, 1994’s “The Lion King.” Her besting book — “Book” — was published by Disney’s Hyperion Press. She’s done TV work for ABC, hosting the Academy Awards for the network back in March of 1999.

More to the point, Whoopi was already on board on another project for DCA: Serving at the host/narrator — Califia, Goddess of California — for the “Golden Dreams” show. So it didn’t take too much additional arm twisting from WDI to get the actress to let the Imagineers use her likeness in SSL.

You see how easy that was? Disney was quickly able to corral a lot of celebrities who were willing to allow WDI to include their likenesses in Superstar Limo.

“Superstar Limo” – Confirmed Dud

But — even with Whoopi, Drew, Regis and Cher on hand — most theme park fans still felt that Superstar Limo was a significant snore. What exactly was the problem? Some didn’t care for all the inside industry jokes that this Hollywood Pictures Backlot attraction used. Still others felt that the likenesses of the celebrity figures that WDI did are way too stylized, making many of SSL’s star cameos virtually unrecognizable to most DCA guests.

Whatever the ride’s real problem may be, one thing is certain: Superstar Limo was DCA’s first confirmed dud. The attraction that most guests — when asked by those Disneyland Resort pollsters, who lurk around the park’s exits, PalmPilots in hand — regularly refer to as the most disappointing thing they experienced during their day at Disney’s California Adventure.

So there you have it. The Reader’s Digest version of why DCA’s Superstar Limo went so wrong,

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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