Connect with us

Theme Parks & Themed Entertainment

The Private Railroad Car Experience

Roger Colton reveals to all us Disney dweebs that there are other things in the world besides theme parks and feature length cartoons. And what better way is there to start exploring that great, big world than by taking a train trip? So come climb aboard …



Travel by train has always held a fascination for many people. There was a golden age before the Second World War when deluxe service aboard the train attracted not only the rich and famous, but the average traveler as well. In many places, the train was the only way to get there from anywhere.

The parlor-lounge car at the rear of a streamlined passenger train. From the collection of Roger Colton

For long distance travel, trains were the way to go in those days before the interstate highways or jet airliners. Once on board the train, you could expect the same kind of service found in world class hotels, and be certain to receive it.

Some travelers took this to the next level by having their own private railroad cars built for their exclusive use. The Pullman Company would gladly create just the right atmosphere for you to enjoy the passing panorama from. Captains of industry and families of old money all could be found at the playgrounds of the nation (such as White Sulphur Springs or Pacific Grove) aboard their private railroad cars. And if having a car at your beck and call wasn’t required, the Pullman Company maintained a fleet of cars just for charter, with a staff ready to meet your every need.

The war put a strain on the American railroads like never before. Every piece of equipment that could roll was put into service. Some of the private cars were converted to other uses including hospital cars to carry home the wounded and those who gave their lives in defense of their country.

After the war, railroads offered a renaissance of passenger travel. New cars and locomotives were colorful, streamlined, sleek and attractive lures to entice passengers back to the rails. Even Disney got into the act when it partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to promote Disneyland with package tours. Dining car menus aboard the Union Pacific’s Streamliner “City of Los Angeles” offered views of the Park and noted easy bus connections from downtown LA to the Park.

But the competition from the automobile and the jet airplane was too strong, and passenger trains were doomed to fall into oblivion. In 1971, the railroads got out of the passenger business, with the creation of Amtrak by the Federal government. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation has always been a political hot potatoe, and funding from one year to another has never been a sure thing. Today’s ongoing battle between Amtrak’s management and the Administration is just the latest in a long line of conflicts.

Service was a hallmark aboard passenger trains the world over at one time.

This vintage advertisement is from the United Kingdom’s London and North Eastern Railway (home to the famed Flying Scotsman train and steam locomotive of the same name!) From the collection of Roger Colton

Railroads have long held a fascination for many people. As a symbol of westward expansion, they offered young boys the lure of the West and the thrill of tales told of brave locomotive engineers.

A great example of how that lure works: Thanks to the luck of ancestry, I come from a family where railroading was a career. My great-grandfather went to work for the Southern Pacific as a locomotive fireman in December of 1900 in Wadsworth, Nevada. His train service took him east across the state following the route of the transcontinental railroad. As he told it, things were much as they had been in 1869. The railroad ran on ties that sat in the alkali dirt where they had been placed over thirty years before and the locomotives pulling the trains were not that much different either. Wood had given way to coal as a fuel, and soon would be replaced by oil (plentiful and cheap from California along the lines of the Southern Pacific).

My first ride in a diesel locomotive with him and my father at the age of 3 in the Sparks, Nevada yard of the Espee. The thrill of being handed up to the cab and peering out the windows as we rolled along is something I will always remember. Had I been born fifty years earlier, there can be no doubt that I would have followed him in a railroad career. Alas, that was not the case, and instead briefly considered it when graduating from high school. I discovered the California Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction (not to be confused with the California State Railroad Museum, in Sacramento) enjoying the hobby instead of the job.

I volunteered for all kinds of tasks. Sold tickets, worked in the bookstore, planned special events, handled marketing duties, repaired track, interpreted the museum for guests as a docent, ran electric streetcars, even diesel and steam locomotives in maintenance and passenger service. But what seems to have served me best was working aboard the train. First as conductor and later as part of the team that provided lounge car service aboard two Pullman cars from the 1920’s.

There were good teachers all along, but especially so when it came to the lounge car service. Using the standards set by the Pullman Company, we recreated the levels of service once enjoyed by passengers. Offering beverages and snacks to the first class passengers was how it started. Eventually, we worked our way up to full dinner service with a wedding party for 75 guests. (Since then, we’ve applied our talents at other museums for occasional events.)

Sadly, things changed at the Rio Vista Junction, and we no longer had a place to ply our skills. Since 1985, I had been able to occasionally “take my act on the road” by chartering a private railroad car for excursions with friends. Just about the same time as the last train ran at the museum, the opportunity arose for a trip on behalf of a group of folks from Pixar.

The Dome Lounge “Plaza Santa Fe”, a veteran of service on the famed “Super Chief” between Los Angeles and Chicago. Photo by Dasha Clancey

It’s “Dinner in the Diner” at the Joshua Tree & Southern Railroad Museum!

Waiter Jeff Ferris and Steward Roger Colton make preparations aboard the former Denver & Rio Grande dining car, “Castle Peak”, before seating begins in November of 2000. Photo by Chris Allan

The project they were working on was supposedly about to wrap and they wanted a way to celebrate. What began as a trip by Amtrak from LA to New Orleans became a private car trip from Emeryville to Reno/Sparks instead. That was back in 1995, and we have done a trip a year for them and others each year since. We have one more trip planned for February 2003.

That first Pixar trip was aboard a former Canadian National touring car named “Burrard”. Built by Pullman for CN in 1954, it was one of two cars used for special groups and VIP’s. Some of the more notable trains they were used for included Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip during their visit to open the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Princess Margaret during a state visit. Buster Keaton used the sister car “Bedford” for a trip across Canada during the production of a short (“The Railrodder”) for the National Film Board of Canada.

It’s the Pixar crowd on that first trip, with the private car, “Burrard” in the falling snow at Sparks, Nevada. From left to right: Mike Quinn, Charles Keagle, Dan Jeup, Ken Mitchroney, Natasha (not a Pixar employee), Steve Boyett, and Jon Mead. Photo from the collection of Roger Colton

One thing led to another and we started working trips aboard the “Burrard” from time to time. Eventually, I decided that a business was needed to handle the financial end of things and hence, Private Car Service began.

So… How do we start? It all begins with the client. We’ve done trips for as few as five people and as many as one hundred and twenty five. Based on what the client has in mind, we go looking for a car to charter. Surprisingly, there are many different types of cars available for charter and at reasonable prices. (A national organization, the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners or AAPRCO, has worked with Amtrak to establish a tariff for private railroad car moves behind Amtrak trains. They also established mechanical standards that must be met in order to operate a car.)

Working with the car owner, we schedule the charter for the client. Amtrak will carry private cars on most of its trains, but will only allow switching of the cars into and out of trains at designated locations. So, once we know where we’re going, we plan accordingly.

As we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we tend to run trips based out of Amtrak’s Oakland facility. From here, we can go east to Chicago, north to Seattle and south to Los Angeles. We can also travel on trains in the Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Sacramento or down the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield.

On another trip, Jeff Pidgeon enjoys a comfortable seat on the observation platform crossing the Sierra Nevada aboard the “Burrard”. Photo from the collection of Roger Colton

The most popular destination we that we travel to is Reno, Nevada. From Emeryville, we go on the back of the “California Zephyr” (which is headed for Chicago). The car we have chartered is added to the train in the Oakland Coach Yard. It’s about a seven-hour trip to Reno where the passengers disembark for their hotels in downtown Reno. The car continues on to Sparks (just east of Reno) where Amtrak changes train crews (engineers and conductors, who by federal law may not work more than 12 hours on duty). The Union Pacific (now) operates a freight yard here and we have one of their yard crews remove the car from the Amtrak train and spot it for storage overnight. The next morning, the car is turned (if needed) and placed on the train bound for Emeryville.

The level of service aboard is again determined by what the client wants. We offer everything from simple snack and beverage service to full sit-down meals using vintage railroad dining car china, silver and linens. A single car, like the “Burrard” seats 16 comfortably. It has a single dining room table that can seat 8 to 10 at a time. A leisurely lunch can be enjoyed in two groups. For larger groups, additional cars can be used to provide more dining seats.

Another trip aboard the “Burrard” with the usual suspects, from left to right: Ken Mitchroney, Bud Luckey, Jeff Pidgeon, Steve Boyett. Photo from the collection of Roger Colton

Our staff is at the ready to meet the service needs of our passengers. Dressed in proper railroad uniforms, they offer passengers the kind of service made legendary by the crews of such famous trains as the “Daylight”, “Zephyr” or the “Chief”. Some of them were part of the crew from the railroad museum, and others have joined us to see what it was all about. We all enjoy the chance to provide an experience our passengers won’t soon forget.

A view of the Truckee River from the Observation Platform. Photo from the collection of Roger Colton

A story is told of a society dowager who was to travel to New York City. Considering her options, she decided upon the train. However, she was not to travel with the common passenger. Instead, she was provided with a private railroad car and staff to meet her every need.

When the train arrived in New York City, she was met by reporters from the society columns of the city’s newspapers. One inquired about her trip, asking how she found travel by private railroad car. She replied that “It was something to which one could easily become accustomed to.”

That’s our goal.

About the Author or “So… who is this guy, anyway?”

Roger Colton is a member of a pioneer family. Both sides of his family tree contain ancestors who came to the West for a variety of reasons. One notable left England in search of a new life having apprenticed in the trades of both a stone mason and a brewer. Others left the career as miners in Nova Scotia, only to end up in the Silver State doing the same thing. Another took his family to eastern Oregon to try his hand at farming. Ironically, another found prosperity in dairy farming along California’s Central Coast.

His grandfathers have their share of tales to tell as well. One great-grandfather left the life of a vaquero and went railroading (hence this tale). His maternal grandfather went to two Rose Bowl games as the quarterback for the Stanford football team under the legendary coach Pop Warner.

Courtesy of the US Army, Roger was born just before Christmas of 1958 in the Luftwaffe Hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany. His father was a GI attached to the first Mobile Missile deployment to the European Theater. His mother worked in the Air Force weather office. (2001 saw a return visit and tour of the Rhine along with other parts of Germany and Austria.)

His first train ride was in West Germany. In the US, his first train experience was the ride in the cab of the diesel locomotive with his father and great-grandfather. Living on the San Francisco peninsula, he watched trains of the Southern Pacific, including the last years of the famed “Coast Daylight”.

His first Disney experience came in the summer of 1965 with a family visit to the “Happiest Place on Earth”. Notable firsts included Club 33 in 1997, Walt Disney World and the Adventurer’s Club in 1999 (Kongaloosh!), and Disney’s California Misadventure in 2001. He is currently a Disneyland Annual Passholder, but don’t hold that against him.

As a child of the mass media age (once related to Marshall MacLuhan by an uncle’s marriage), Roger has produced videos for community access television on railroading and air racing. He has been published photographs and articles in national magazines. Between 1989 and 2000, he was a Community Leader for America Online, responsible for the Television Viewers community. Among the fandoms he supported were The X-Files, Quantum Leap and Space: Above & Beyond.

Married to wife, Michele, since 1986, there are no children, just the furry child “Cruiser”, (a demanding, orange lump of a cat) to dominate his home life. Both Roger and Michele are currently employed by the California State Automobile Association. Roger has been with Automotive Services since 1979, and Michele with Travel since 1998.

Private Car Service can be reached by e-mail: or by phone at (925) 321-0023. Their web pages at located at

A final public excursion from Emeryville to Reno will be operated February 1 & 2, 2003. Details are available on the website.

Roger Colton

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown



Disneyland in Anaheim, California, holds a special place in the hearts of Disney fans worldwide, I mean heck, it’s where the magic began after all.  Over the years it’s become a place that people visit in search of memorable experiences. One fan favorite area of the park is Mickey’s Toontown, a unique land that lets guests step right into the colorful, “Toony” world of Disney animation. With the recent reimagining of the land and the introduction of Micky and Minnies Runaway Railway, have you ever wondered how this land came to be?

There is a fascinating backstory of how Mickey’s Toontown came into existence. It’s a tale of strategic vision, the influence of Disney executives, and a commitment to meeting the needs of Disney’s valued guests.

The Beginning: Mickey’s Birthdayland

The story of Mickey’s Toontown starts with Mickey’s Birthdayland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Opened in 1988 to celebrate Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday, this temporary attraction was met with such overwhelming popularity that it inspired Disney executives to think bigger. The idea was to create a permanent, immersive land where guests could step into the animated world of Mickey Mouse and his friends.

In the early ’90s, Disneyland was in need of a refresh. Michael Eisner, the visionary leader of The Walt Disney Company at the time, had an audacious idea: create a brand-new land in Disneyland that would celebrate Disney characters in a whole new way. This was the birth of Mickey’s Toontown.

Initially, Disney’s creative minds toyed with various concepts, including the idea of crafting a 100-Acre Woods or a land inspired by the Muppets. However, the turning point came when they considered the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” This film’s popularity and the desire to capitalize on contemporary trends set the stage for Toontown’s creation.

From Concept to Reality: The Birth of Toontown

In 1993, Mickey’s Toontown opened its gates at Disneyland, marking the first time in Disney Park history where guests could experience a fully realized, three-dimensional world of animation. This new land was not just a collection of attractions but a living, breathing community where Disney characters “lived,” worked, and played.

Building Challenges: Innovative Solutions

The design of Mickey’s Toontown broke new ground in theme park aesthetics. Imagineers were tasked with bringing the two-dimensional world of cartoons into a three-dimensional space. This led to the creation of over 2000 custom-built props and structures that embodied the ‘squash and stretch’ principle of animation, giving Toontown its distinctiveness.

And then there was also the challenge of hiding the Team Disney Anaheim building, which bore a striking resemblance to a giant hotdog. The Imagineers had to think creatively, using balloon tests and imaginative landscaping to seamlessly integrate Toontown into the larger park.

Key Attractions: Bringing Animation to Life

Mickey’s Toontown featured several groundbreaking attractions. “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin,” inspired by the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” became a staple of Toontown, offering an innovative ride experience. Gadget’s Go-Coaster, though initially conceived as a Rescue Rangers-themed ride, became a hit with younger visitors, proving that innovative design could create memorable experiences for all ages.

Another crown jewel of Toontown is Mickey’s House, a walkthrough attraction that allowed guests to explore the home of Mickey Mouse himself. This attraction was more than just a house; it was a carefully crafted piece of Disney lore. The house was designed in the American Craftsman style, reflecting the era when Mickey would have theoretically purchased his first home in Hollywood. The attention to detail was meticulous, with over 2000 hand-crafted, custom-built props, ensuring that every corner of the house was brimming with character and charm. Interestingly, the design of Mickey’s House was inspired by a real home in Wichita Falls, making it a unique blend of real-world inspiration and Disney magic.

Mickey’s House also showcased Disney’s commitment to creating interactive and engaging experiences. Guests could make themselves at home, sitting in Mickey’s chair, listening to the radio, and exploring the many mementos and references to Mickey’s animated adventures throughout the years. This approach to attraction design – where storytelling and interactivity merged seamlessly – was a defining characteristic of ToonTown’s success.

Executive Decisions: Shaping ToonTown’s Unique Attractions

The development of Mickey’s Toontown wasn’t just about creative imagination; it was significantly influenced by strategic decisions from Disney executives. One notable input came from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who suggested incorporating a Rescue Rangers-themed ride. This idea was a reflection of the broader Disney strategy to integrate popular contemporary characters and themes into the park, ensuring that the attractions remained relevant and engaging for visitors.

In addition to Katzenberg’s influence, Frank Wells, the then-President of The Walt Disney Company, played a key role in the strategic launch of Toontown’s attractions. His decision to delay the opening of “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin” until a year after Toontown’s debut was a calculated move. It was designed to maintain public interest in the park by offering new experiences over time, thereby giving guests more reasons to return to Disneyland.

These executive decisions highlight the careful planning and foresight that went into making Toontown a dynamic and continuously appealing part of Disneyland. By integrating current trends and strategically planning the rollout of attractions, Disney executives ensured that Toontown would not only capture the hearts of visitors upon its opening but would continue to draw them back for new experiences in the years to follow.

Global Influence: Toontown’s Worldwide Appeal

The concept of Mickey’s Toontown resonated so strongly that it was replicated at Tokyo Disneyland and influenced elements in Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. Each park’s version of Toontown maintained the core essence of the original while adapting to its cultural and logistical environment.

Evolution and Reimagining: Toontown Today

As we approach the present day, Mickey’s Toontown has recently undergone a significant reimagining to welcome “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway” in 2023. This refurbishment aimed to enhance the land’s interactivity and appeal to a new generation of Disney fans, all while retaining the charm that has made ToonTown a beloved destination for nearly three decades.

Dive Deeper into ToonTown’s Story

Want to know more about Mickey’s Toontown and hear some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, then check out the latest episode of Disney Unpacked on Patreon @JimHillMedia. In this episode, the main Imagineer who worked on the Toontown project shares lots of interesting stories and details that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s full of great information and fun facts, so be sure to give it a listen!

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Continue Reading


Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel



Pixar Place Hotel, the newly unveiled 15-story tower at the Disneyland Resort, has been making waves in the Disney community. With its unique Pixar-themed design, it promises to be a favorite among visitors.

However, before we delve into this exciting addition to the Disneyland Resort, let’s take a look at the fascinating history of this remarkable hotel.

The Emergence of the Disneyland Hotel

To truly appreciate the story of the Pixar Place Hotel, we must turn back the clock to the early days of Disneyland. While Walt Disney had the visionary ideas and funding to create the iconic theme park, he faced a challenge when it came to providing accommodations for the park’s visitors. This is where his friend Jack Wrather enters the picture.

Jack Wrather, a fellow pioneer in the television industry, stepped in to assist Walt Disney in realizing his dream. Thanks to the success of the “Lassie” TV show produced by Wrather’s company, he had the financial means to build a hotel right across from Disneyland.

The result was the Disneyland Hotel, which opened its doors in October 1955. Interestingly, the early incarnation of this hotel had more of a motel feel than a hotel, with two-story buildings reminiscent of the roadside motels popular during the 1950s. The initial Disneyland Hotel consisted of modest structures that catered to visitors looking for affordable lodging close to the park. While the rooms were basic, it marked the beginning of something extraordinary.

The Evolution: From Emerald of Anaheim to Paradise Pier

As Disneyland’s popularity continued to soar, so did the demand for expansion and improved accommodations. In 1962, the addition of an 11-story tower transformed the Disneyland Hotel, marking a significant transition from a motel to a full-fledged hotel.

The addition of the 11-story tower elevated the Disneyland Hotel into a more prominent presence on the Anaheim skyline. At the time, it was the tallest structure in all of Orange County. The hotel’s prime location across from Disneyland made it an ideal choice for visitors. With the introduction of the monorail linking the park and the hotel, accessibility became even more convenient. Unique features like the Japanese-themed reflecting pools added to the hotel’s charm, reflecting a cultural influence that extended beyond Disney’s borders.

Japanese Tourism and Its Impact

During the 1960s and 1970s, Disneyland was attracting visitors from all corners of the world, including Japan. A significant number of Japanese tourists flocked to Anaheim to experience Walt Disney’s creation. To cater to this growing market, it wasn’t just the Disneyland Hotel that aimed to capture the attention of Japanese tourists. The Japanese Village in Buena Park, inspired by a similar attraction in Nara, Japan, was another significant spot.

These attractions sought to provide a taste of Japanese culture and hospitality, showcasing elements like tea ceremonies and beautiful ponds with rare carp and black swans. However, the Japanese Village closed its doors in 1975, likely due to the highly competitive nature of the Southern California tourist market.

The Emergence of the Emerald of Anaheim

With the surge in Japanese tourism, an opportunity arose—the construction of the Emerald of Anaheim, later known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel. In May 1984, this 15-story hotel opened its doors.

What made the Emerald unique was its ownership. It was built not by The Walt Disney Company or the Oriental Land Company (which operated Tokyo Disneyland) but by the Tokyu Group. This group of Japanese businessmen already had a pair of hotels in Hawaii and saw potential in Anaheim’s proximity to Disneyland. Thus, they decided to embark on this new venture, specifically designed to cater to Japanese tourists looking to experience Southern California.

Financial Challenges and a Changing Landscape

The late 1980s brought about two significant financial crises in Japan—the crash of the NIKKEI stock market and the collapse of the Japanese real estate market. These crises had far-reaching effects, causing Japanese tourists to postpone or cancel their trips to the United States. As a result, reservations at the Emerald of Anaheim dwindled.

To adapt to these challenging times, the Tokyu Group merged the Emerald brand with its Pacific hotel chain, attempting to weather the storm. However, the financial turmoil took its toll on the Emerald, and changes were imminent.

The Transition to the Disneyland Pacific Hotel

In 1995, The Walt Disney Company took a significant step by purchasing the hotel formerly known as the Emerald of Anaheim for $35 million. This acquisition marked a change in the hotel’s fortunes. With Disney now in control, the hotel underwent a name change, becoming the Disneyland Pacific Hotel.

Transformation to Paradise Pier

The next phase of transformation occurred when Disney decided to rebrand the hotel as Paradise Pier Hotel. This decision aligned with Disney’s broader vision for the Disneyland Resort.

While the structural changes were limited, the hotel underwent a significant cosmetic makeover. Its exterior was painted to complement the color scheme of Paradise Pier, and wave-shaped crenellations adorned the rooftop, creating an illusion of seaside charm. This transformation was Disney’s attempt to seamlessly integrate the hotel into the Paradise Pier theme of Disney’s California Adventure Park.

Looking Beyond Paradise Pier: The Shift to Pixar Place

In 2018, Disneyland Resort rebranded Paradise Pier as Pixar Pier, a thematic area dedicated to celebrating the beloved characters and stories from Pixar Animation Studios. As a part of this transition, it became evident that the hotel formally known as the Disneyland Pacific Hotel could no longer maintain its Paradise Pier theme.

With Pixar Pier in full swing and two successful Pixar-themed hotels (Toy Story Hotels in Shanghai Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland), Disney decided to embark on a new venture—a hotel that would celebrate the vast world of Pixar. The result is Pixar Place Hotel, a 15-story tower that embraces the characters and stories from multiple Pixar movies and shorts. This fully Pixar-themed hotel is a first of its kind in the United States.

The Future of Pixar Place and Disneyland Resort

As we look ahead to the future, the Disneyland Resort continues to evolve. The recent news of a proposed $1.9 billion expansion as part of the Disneyland Forward project indicates that the area surrounding Pixar Place is expected to see further changes. Disneyland’s rich history and innovative spirit continue to shape its destiny.

In conclusion, the history of the Pixar Place Hotel is a testament to the ever-changing landscape of Disneyland Resort. From its humble beginnings as the Disneyland Hotel to its transformation into the fully Pixar-themed Pixar Place Hotel, this establishment has undergone several iterations. As Disneyland Resort continues to grow and adapt, we can only imagine what exciting developments lie ahead for this iconic destination.

If you want to hear more stories about the History of the Pixar Place hotel, check our special edition of Disney Unpacked over on YouTube.

Stay tuned for more updates and developments as we continue to explore the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Continue Reading


From Birthday Wishes to Toontown Dreams: How Toontown Came to Be



Mickey's Birthday Land

In the latest release of Episode 4 of Disney Unpacked, Len and I return, joined as always by Disney Imagineering legend, Jim Shull. This two-part episode covers all things Mickey’s Birthday Land and how it ultimately led to the inspiration behind Disneyland’s fan-favorite land, “Toontown”. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It all starts in the early days at Disneyland.

Early Challenges in Meeting Mickey

Picture this: it’s the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’re at Disneyland. You want to meet the one and only Mickey Mouse, but there’s no clear way to make it happen. You rely on Character Guides, those daily printed sheets that point you in Mickey’s general direction. But let’s be honest, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Sometimes, you got lucky; other times, not so much.

Mickey’s Birthdayland: A Birthday Wish that Came True

Fast forward to the late 1980s. Disney World faced a big challenge. The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park was under construction, with the company’s marketing machine in full swing, hyping up the opening of Walt Disney World’s third theme park, MGM Studios, in the Spring of 1989. This extensive marketing meant that many people were opting to postpone their family’s next trip to Walt Disney World until the following year. Walt Disney World needed something compelling to motivate guests to visit Florida in 1988, the year before Disney MGM Studios opened.

Enter stage left, Mickey’s Birthdayland. For the first time ever, an entire land was dedicated to a single character – and not just any character, but the mouse who started it all. Meeting Mickey was no longer a game of chance; it was practically guaranteed.

The Birth of Birthdayland: Creative Brilliance Meets Practicality

In this episode, we dissect the birth of Mickey’s Birthdayland, an initiative that went beyond celebrating a birthday. It was a calculated move, driven by guest feedback and a need to address issues dating back to 1971. Imagineers faced the monumental task of designing an experience that honored Mickey while efficiently managing the crowds. This required the perfect blend of creative flair and logistical prowess – a hallmark of Disney’s approach to theme park design.

Evolution: From Birthdayland to Toontown

The success of Mickey’s Birthdayland was a real game-changer, setting the stage for the birth of Toontown – an entire land that elevated character-centric areas to monumental new heights. Toontown wasn’t merely a spot to meet characters; it was an immersive experience that brought Disney animation to life. In the episode, we explore its innovative designs, playful architecture, and how every nook and cranny tells a story.

Impact on Disney Parks and Guests

Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown didn’t just reshape the physical landscape of Disney parks; they transformed the very essence of the guest experience. These lands introduced groundbreaking ways for visitors to connect with their beloved characters, making their Disney vacations even more unforgettable.

Beyond Attractions: A Cultural Influence

But the influence of these lands goes beyond mere attractions. Our episode delves into how Mickey’s Birthdayland and Toontown left an indelible mark on Disney’s culture, reflecting the company’s relentless dedication to innovation and guest satisfaction. It’s a journey into how a single idea can grow into a cherished cornerstone of the Disney Park experience.

Interested in learning about Jim Shull’s original idea for a Winnie the Pooh ride? Here’s concept art of the attraction proposed for the original Toontown in Disneyland. More on [Disney Unpacked].

Unwrapping the Full Story of Mickey’s Birthdayland

Our two-part episode of Disney Unpacked is available for your viewing pleasure on our Patreon page. And for those seeking a quicker Disney fix, we’ve got a condensed version waiting for you on our YouTube channel. Thank you for being a part of our Disney Unpacked community. Stay tuned for more episodes as we continue to “Unpack” the fascinating world of Disney, one story at a time.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Continue Reading