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The ExtraTERRORestrial Files — Part 4

Jim Hill delves into the troubling story behind the creation of that controversial Tomorrowland attraction, “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.”




It was supposed to be the scariest show ever presented at Disneyland. A squirm-in-your-seat, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs special effects extravaganza. Had construction of “Tomorrowland 2055” actually gone forward, “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” could have easily become *THE* attraction you *HAD TO* see while touring this radically revamped side of the park.

Only Disney CEO Michael Eisner just couldn’t bring himself to sign off on the $200 million plus price tag for the “Tomorrowland 2055” project. Which was why he eventually pulled the plug on this ambitious Disneyland redo. Which is how “Alien Encounter” ended up debuting in WDW’s Magic Kingdom rather than at “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Ah, but Uncle Mikey’s meddling didn’t end there, kids. Because “Alien Encounter”‘s original production team had all moved on to other projects at WDI, Eisner assigned a whole new team to work on this Tomorrowland attraction. Their mission? Lighten up “AE,” pull back on the intensity of this show by folding in a few new gags. Which — hopefully — would make “Alien Encounter” more accessible to children and families.

This the new WDI writers did. But what Michael didn’t realize is that — by ordering that extraneous jokes be shoe-horned into this Tomorrowland attraction — he was also upsetting the balance of “AE”‘s carefully crafted storyline.

The damage that had been done to the show by this rewrite wouldn’t really become apparent until “Alien Encounter” began its in-the-field test and adjust period in December 1994. Of course, by then, it was too late to make any quick fixes …


But — up until that point — everything about this Tomorrowland attraction seemed to be right on track. After all, Disney had its “A Team” working on its “ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” show.

I mean, listen to the folks that the Mouse had riding herd on the original version of WDW’s “AE” show:

Tom Fitzgerald, Senior Vice President of Theme Park Productions. Tom had had a hand in the creation of numerous Disney theme park attractions that successfully combined film elements with audio animatronic figures. Prior to “Alien Encounter,” Fitzgerald had helped produce “Star Tours,” “Jim Henson’s Muppetvision 3D” as well as “From Time to Time.” So Tom certainly seemed up for the “AE” challenge.

Then there was Eric Jacobson, Senior VP in charge of Creative Development at Walt Disney World. Name a huge new attraction that’s opened at the Florida parks in the past 10 years — “GM Test Track,” “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster,” etc. — and Eric’s probably had a hand in it.

Disney also recruited top notch talent to handle the film portion of WDW’s “AE” attraction. Sitting behind the camera was noted animation director Jerry Rees. Best known as the visual effects supervisor on “Tron” as well as being the director of “The Brave Little Toaster,” Rees had also helped produce another fine little film for the Disney theme parks. Do you remember the “Michael and Mickey” movie that used to run at the Disney-MGM Studios? You know, the one where Chernabog cowered before the Disney CEO and said “Sorry, Mr. Eisner. It’ll never happen again.” Jerry did that.

The Mouse then recruited a talented group of actors to appear in Rees’ “Alien Encounter” film sequences. Among these was Academy Award nominee Jeffrey Jones as Chairman Clinch, the head of X-S Tech; TV favorite Kathy Najimy as the cautious Dr. Femus and comic Kevin Pollak as Spinlock, the impatient alien marketing rep. (Special bonus for all you “AE” trivia buffs: That out-of-this-world spokesmodel you see on the video monitors in the lobby? Under all that green make-up, that’s Supermodel Tyra Banks!)

But — even with all these talented, experienced people on board the project, trying to get “AE” to succeed — there was still no getting around the flaws in “Alien Encounter”‘s badly reworked script. According to WDI insiders, the production’s first real mis-steps came when it was time to decide who would do the voice of the sales-droid in “AE”‘s pre-show.

Hoping that he might be able to give WDW guests a few big laughs before they got scared out of their socks by the show in the main theater, the Imagineers hired Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman to provide vocals for the robot who ineptly demonstrated X-S Tech’s teleportation technology in the pre-show. Being the old show business hand that he was, Hartman turned in a wonderfully smarmy performance, very reminiscent of his failed B movie actor Troy McClure from The Simpsons.

Imagineering had assembled what they thought was a top flight production. They spent months redoing the exterior of WDW’s old “Mission to Mars” show building so that it became the bland but somewhat sinister looking Tomorrowland Interplanetary Convention Center. When test audiences first entered the inner lobby area in December 1994, they were amused by the numerous in-joke meeting announcements they read on the overhead monitors (Eg: “Lunar Disneyland — The Happiest Place Off Earth” and, my personal favorite, “Mission to Mars: Fact or Fiction?”). After that, these same WDW guests wandered into the pre-show, where they’ll chuckled warmly as Hartman’s robot character accidentally fried Skippy. Smiling broadly, these folks then wandered in the main theater …

… and that’s when all the trouble started.

Given how light and comical the pre-show elements of “Alien Encounter” had been, test audiences were shocked by how dark and intense the show in the main theater was. As guests left the “AE” show building, they complained long and loudly to cast members doing exit polls about the attraction that they had not been properly warned that this Tomorrowland show was going to be really, REALLY scary. They had assumed that “AE” would like all of the other supposedly scary Disney theme park shows, which are thrilling … but not truly terrifying.

But even with no 20th Century Fox “Alien” creatures in sight, WDW guests still found this new Tomorrowland attraction plenty scary. And — given that members of the test audience had walked right by huge signs that clearly told everyone about “Alien Encounter”‘s intense nature — the Imagineers wondered what else they could do to better prepare audiences for the show they’d see inside.

The obvious place to start was “AE”‘s pre-show. As funny as Phil Hartman’s performance as the sales-droid might have been, it was clear that this piece of the attraction wasn’t doing that good a job of setting the stage for the show that followed. Sensing that “Alien Encounter”‘s introductory scenes needed more menace, the Imagineers shelved Hartman’s recording as they reworked the script for “AE”‘s pre-show — deliberately putting a much darker spin on the proceedings.

The Imagineers then asked “Rocky Horror Picture Show” legend Tim Curry to come and record some new dialogue for the sales-droid. The new script and Curry’s sinister vocals did the trick. Guests still laughed at what they saw in the pre-show, but they were a little creeped out too. As they turned to enter the main theater, these WDW visitors were now filled with a vague unease. Which meant they were in the perfect frame of mind for the carnage that was to follow.

Having fixed the pre-show, WDI now turned its attention to the “Alien Encounter” attraction itself. Test audiences had found the first version of the 3D sound show intense but also hard to follow. By sitting in on dozens of performances of “AE,” the Imagineers determined that the audience was screaming so long and so loudly at parts of the show that they were missing out on several crucial pieces of expository dialogue. Consequently, a lot of the members of the test audiences had trouble following the original version of the attraction’s storyline.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner — who first experienced “AE” in the field in December 1994 the weekend he was down at WDW to attend the grand opening of Pleasure Island’s Planet Hollywood — also agreed that the attraction had some serious story problems. (It’s been rumored that Michael actually took Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzeneggar along with him the first time he test-drove this Tomorrowland attraction. Which is not as far fetched as it might seem, folks, given that both of these men were also in Orlando the weekend that Eisner was. Since all three were taking part in the WDW PH festivities. But — to date — I’ve never been able to get any official confirmation on this story. Sorry about that. Anyway …) That’s why Eisner agreed to let the Imagineers shut down “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” — so that WDI could have all the time it needed to make the appropriate repairs to the attraction’s plot holes.

So all those stories that you’ve heard over the past six years about how Michael Eisner ordered “Alien Encounter” closed because he didn’t think the show was scary enough … well, they’re not entirely true, folks. Sure, Michael wanted extra thrill elements to be added to the show. But the real reason that Eisner allowed the Imagineers to temporarily close “AE” was because he wanted the show’s storyline to come across more cleanly, more clearly, more coherently. Michael’s main aim in closing the show wasn’t to add extra scares. But rather because he wanted “Alien Encounter”‘s story to be easier for the average WDW visitor to follow.

Mind you, this simple sounding task took an awful lot of effort. Some of the changes that WDI made to the “Alien Encounter” show were small and subtle — like waiting an additional six seconds before playing a crucial piece of dialogue over the speakers in the theater (just so the line wouldn’t be drowned by the audience’s screams). Other changes involved providing the people who were in the middle of experiencing “Alien Encounter” with additional visual reference material (I.E. throwing a graphic up on the theater’s four video monitors that clearly shows that the monster that was trapped inside the teleportation tube has a pair of wings … that brief image was just enough to get WDW guests to finally understand how the monster was making its way around the room once it supposedly broke out of the containment field).

Perhaps the biggest change that was made to the in-theater portion of the “Alien Encounter” attraction was the show’s new finale. In the original, jokier version of “AE,” after the alien has been successfully beamed out of the theater, Chairman Clinch is finally beamed in. However — given how disastrously the demonstration has gone — Spinlock and Femus are reluctant to raise the blast shield on the teleportation tube. So, as WDW guests exited out of the theater, they could clearly hear the increasingly exasperated X-S Tech Chairman banging on the inside of the tube, demanding to be let out.

Again, a funny idea. But not really in keeping with the tone of the scary show that preceded it. That’s why the Imagineers opted to drop the gag-filled ending of the show and go with a new “Blood & Guts” finale. To add a disgusting coup de gras to the whole “Alien Encounter” experience, the guests seated in the “AE” theater now got splattered with warm water just as the teleportation device supposedly overloaded and blew the evil alien creature in a million tiny wet chunks. (To put a grotesque but funny tag on this part of the show, the Imagineers deliberately added one additional piece of dialogue to “AE”‘s explosive finale. The fat stupid guy who’s supposedly been sitting behind you now says “Yuck! I had my mouth open.” Ewwww!)

Given that most of these changes don’t seem all that involved — a new line here, a graphic there — why did it take the Imagineers so long (nearly six months) to finally fix WDW’s “Alien Encounter?” Simple. Given all the elaborate technology that was necessary to seamlessly co-ordinate the hundreds of elements of this Tomorrowland show, it took weeks to properly reprogram the show’s computers so that they could smoothly handle even the simplest of changes.

For all you techno-nuts out there, here’s a little insight in the gear involved with running “Alien Encounter”: “AE” actually works off of an SSU — a show-supervisor unit. This rack mounted system controls all the lighting and smoke effects as well as the audio and video elements used in the show. This ambitious little machine also keeps tabs on three SIUs — show-interface units. One of these state-of-the art machines rides herd on the pre-show, while the other two take care of the side-by-side sit-down theaters. (Aren’t you glad you asked?)

In order to get all the necessary changes made (which often involved hours and hours of trial and error), Disney officially closed WDW’s “Alien Encounter” in January 12, 1995 — less than six weeks after the Mouse had been begun doing test and adjust on its new Tomorrowland attraction. Though the show had never officially opened to the public, Walt Disney World was still abuzz with rumors about why the new Magic Kingdom attraction had suddenly shuttered.

The Mouse tried to put a funny spin on the story. They distributed thousands of copies of a flyer property-wide that had supposedly been written by X-S Tech Chairman, L.C. Clinch. In his message to WDW cast members, Clinch apologized for the delays involved with getting “Alien Encounter” opened. “We look forward to a profitable relationship with your species,” or so said the pretend memo. The flyer then went on to say that the projected re-opening date for this new Tomorrowland attraction was Easter 1995.

Unfortunately, the Easter Bunny would be long gone before most WDW guests finally their chance to “Seize the Future with X-S.” It wasn’t until June 20, 1995 before “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” officially re-opened in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. By then, Michael Eisner had reportedly lost all enthusiasm for this new Tomorrowland attraction.

What exactly caused Eisner to sour on it? Some say that it was the additional $10 – $15 million Disney had to pump into “Alien Encounter” so that this new Tomorrowland attraction would finally play properly for WDW guests. Others suggest that it was all the negative publicity that was associated with the “AE” redo.

The most likely reason for the Disney CEO falling out of love with “The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” attraction? I believe that Eisner eventually began to believe what those old Imagineers had been saying: that a scary show like “AE” doesn’t really belong in the Magic Kingdom. Given the hundreds of letters that the Walt Disney Company still receives every year from angry WDW guests — people who’d just gotten off “Dumbo the Flying Elephant” or just been whirled around in the Teacups, only to unwittingly wander in “Alien Encounter” and find themselves locked down in a chair, suddenly being threatened by a rasping, drooling monstrosity — there are obviously quite a number of folks who feel this way.

Which — to some Disneyana fans’ way of thinking — is a real shame. For — as vocal as “Alien Encounter”‘s critics may be — there’s an equally hardcore group of theme park fans who absolutely adore this Tomorrowland show.

These are the folks that you’ll spy at the N.F.F.C. conventions proudly wearing their “Fried Skippy” t-shirts. These are the same people who eagerly snatched up all the “Alien Encounter” action figures Disney began selling last year. You can usually pick out their cars in the WDW parking lot. Their vehicles are the ones with the Skippy beanie baby sitting on their dashboard.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that there are also a lot of “Alien Encounter” fans inside WDI. These are the Imagineers who had their hearts set on adding this edgy attraction to every single Disney theme park worldwide. These guys insist that — if Eisner had okayed construction of “Tomorrowland 2055” and followed Imagineering’s original plans for “Alien Encounter” (and not the dumbed down, gag-filled WDW version) — Disneyland’s “AE” show would have been a huge hit right out of the box. A “Star Tours”-sized success which would have served a template for all the other “Alien Encounter” attractions to follow, giving the company a successful franchise show that they could have quickly rolled out at the corporation’s theme parks worldwide.

Ah, but I guess that’s not going to happen now. WDW’s “Alien Encounter” appears to be the one and only version of this high tech new Tomorrowland attraction that will ever make it off the drawing board. (Though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter” interactive game that’s currently available for play at DisneyQuest. I’m told that this multi-player game — which is very loosely based on the WDW attraction — is hugely popular at both the Chicago and the Lake Buena Vista DQ locations.)

But still you have to wonder. Given that WDI’s reportedly in the process of putting together a new dark, scary, intense attraction — the long-rumored “Armageddon” exploding-Russian-space-station effects show — for both Disney’s California Adventure and Disney Studios Europe, wouldn’t it just be cheaper and smarter just to do “Alien Encounter” as it was originally supposed to be done? Featuring the creatures from 20th Century Fox’s “Alien” movies?

Come on, Disney! “Seize the Future.” Take another stab at doing “Alien Encounter.”

Only this time, don’t let Eisner muck it up.

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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