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When WDW Had a Racetrack – The Creation of the Walt Disney World Speedway



A few months back, when Len Testa & I recorded a Bandcamp exclusive podcast – the one where we attempted to walk from the Ticket & Transportation Center at Walt Disney World all the way over to the Magic Kingdom, only to then be stymied by all of the construction at the Grand Floridian.

Anyway … As I was driving over to the Poly to meet Mr. Testa, I made use of that new flyover ramp that now directly connects World Drive with Floridian Way. Which gave me a brief glimpse down into the southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom Parking Lot. Which – from 1995 – 2015 – was home to the Walt Disney World Speedway. Or – as Indy Car fans used to like to call that one mile long, three turn tri-oval track – the Mickyard.

That name is – of course – a Disney-ified play on the Brickyard, the 2.5 mile-long track which is probably better known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Which is where the Indy 500 is held every May .

And the Indy 500 actually plays a crucial role in the creation of Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. For the seed for this $6 million project was planted just eight months after Michael Eisner first became the CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

“The Wonderful World of Disney” Indy 500

Mind you, this is back when Michael was doing everything he could to get the Disney name & its characters out in front of as many people as possible. Which is why – for the running of the 70th edition of the Indy 500 back in 1985 – Eisner cut a deal with the folks who staged that race to have that year’s Indy 500 Fest themed to “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Credit: Ebay – ahylton

As Michael tells this story:

Jeffrey Katzenberg & I flew out to Indianapolis in 1985 to attend that year’s Indy 500. So we’re sitting in the stands with 500,000 people. And there’s this parade that’s held inside of the Speedway before the official start of the race where cars with celebrities and politicians roll by.

So first the governor of Indiana goes by, and there is polite applause. Then Mickey Mouse goes by his car, and there is more applause from the crowd at the Speedway. Which makes me feel good about the Disney characters. But then Jim Varney goes by in a car dressed as Ernest and 500,000 people go berzerk.

That’s when I turn to Jeffrey Katzenberg and say “’We should probably do something about that.’

Right after that race, Disney roped Varney into doing four “Ernest” movies (which were then released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner from 1987 – 1991). Jim also voiced Slinky Dog in the first two “Toy Story” films before we tragically lost Jim in February of 2000. And that was all because Michael Eisner went to the Indianapolis 500 just 8 months after he became Disney’s CEO.

Disney Get’s Into Sports

But what Michael also remembered from that trip in Indiana was those 500,000 people who were seated in the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now you have to remember that – when the Bass Brothers (Those were those billionaires from Texas who had helped Eisner land his new job at Disney back in late September of 1984) – Michael had been told by Sid Bass that Priority No. One was developing Walt Disney World. Taking those 40 square miles of swampland that the Company owned in Central Florida and finding all sorts of new ways that Disney could then profit off of that property.

And Michael Eisner? He liked sports. Anyone who was paying attention during the 20+ years that Michael ran the Mouse House knows this. After all, on Eisner’s watch, we got:

  • The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, a Disney-owned NHL team in 1993
  • The Walt Disney World Marathon got underway in 1994
  • Later that same year (1994), the All-Star Resort opened at Walt Disney World
  • It bought ESPN in 1995 (That was part of Disney’s $19 billion acquisition of ABC / Cap Cities)
  • Disney bought the Los Angeles Angels from Gene Autry in 1996 and then renamed this baseball team the Anaheim Angels
  • It opened Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida in 1997 (That 220-acre facility was rebranded as the Wide World of Sports Complex in 2010)

That’s obviously a lot of sports-related stuff. But today we’re here to talk about the Walt Disney World Speedway.

Why Build the Walt Disney World Speedway?

Eisner first broached the idea of building a race track somewhere on property in Florida with the Imagineers in the mid-to-late 1980s. Mind you, by this time, work was already well underway on the Disney-MGM Studio Tour project. So the thinking back then was “Let’s finish Disney World’s third gate first. Then we can circle back around to that thing that the Boss wants us to do that we’ve never, ever done before.”

The question then became … Well, where would be the very best place to build such an enterprise? And after visiting a number of speedways around the country (Not to mention reviewing the television coverage of the past few Indy 500s), what the Imagineers realized is that … Well, for the two weeks leading up to the actual race (This was when the Indy 500 trials were being held), the Goodyear Blimp would fly back and forth over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And since a big part of those marching orders the Bass Brothers gave Michael Eisner back in the Fall of 1984 was “You guys really need to do a better job of promoting Walt Disney World” … Well, here’s the decision tree that eventually led to the Imagineers proposing to Eisner that they place the Walt Disney World Speedway in the lower southeastern corner of the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot.

  • Michael wants us to build a raceway in Florida. Something that could then help lure Guests to the Walt Disney World Resort during those times of year when attendance is really soft at the Parks.
  • We have the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot. 125 acres of previously prepped, already graded land which has room for 12,000 cars but is rarely if ever full.
  • If we were to build this raceway in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking (the part of that parking lot that only gets used during the busiest times of year, like Fourth of July, Christmas or New Years), if a blimp were to cover a race that were staged at the Walt Disney World Speedway, the WDW Resorts around Seven Seas Lagoon & Bay Lake (not to mention the Magic Kingdom itself) would virtually be guaranteed to be on camera multiple times during the live broadcast of this race. Which would then translate into millions of dollars in free advertising for the WDW Resort.

Let’s also not overlook the fact that – because of the site prep that already been done on this corner of Walt Disney World property / how all of this acreage in the lower southwestern corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot had been graded back in late 1969 / early 1970 when the WDW Resort was first being built, the Walt Disney World Speedway team could really hit the ground running here. Not to mention save tons when it came to the traditional construction start-up costs.

Credit: Theme Park Insider

Building the Walt Disney World Speedway

Initial survey work on the project was done in secret in September of 1994 by Buena Vista Construction. The project was formally announced on January 23, 1995. With the very first race to be held at the venue – the inaugural Indy 200 – being announced at a press conference which was held on April 13th of that same year.

Just to be clear here: The very first race to be held at the Walt Disney World Speedway wouldn’t get underway ‘til January of the following year. January 27, 1996, to be exact.  (That’s basically a full year after this project was first announced. And we’ll get to the significance of that January 27th date in a moment).

Anyway … The official groundbreaking on the Walt Disney World Speedway wasn’t held ‘til June 27, 1995. That’s when Mari Hulman George (She was the Chairman of the Board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) flew down to Walt Disney World to take part in this ceremony. During which – to make sure that the racing press understood that there was going to be a very strong connection between the Brickyard and the Mickyard – Ms. George presented WDW officials with one of the original paving bricks that was used to create the Brickyard back in Indiana back in 1909.

Weird bit of trivia: It took 3.2 million of these 9 & a half pound bricks to pave the full circuit of that 2.5 mile long, rectangular oval course back in the day. I wonder if Ms. George opted to make that ceremonial brick her carry-on when she flew from Indy down to Disney?

After this groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the Walt Disney World Speedway began in earnest. As pavers laid down 5,200 tons of asphalt to create this race track’s surface, construction crews poured 1,800 yards of concrete to form the Speedway’s outside walls. Which were then strung with 10 miles  worth of safety restraint cabling. And a similar amount of effort went into the creation of this Speedway’s pit row area. With an additional 2,300 feet of concrete being poured there.

And did I mention that the Summer of 1995 was one of the soggiest in Central Florida history, with 75 inches of rain falling between the months of June & July of that year alone? Which (as you might guess) really hampered Buena Vista Construction’s effort to keep the Walt Disney World Speedway project on schedule.

But by October 18th of that year, the final bit of paving on this one mile long, three-turn tri-oval (which had been designed by Kevin Forbes, the chief engineer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Again with the idea of stressing that there was going to be this strong connection between the Mickyard & the Brickyard) was done. This $6 million project was then formally dedicated on November 28, 1995 in an elaborate ceremony which included Indy racing legends forming a five-car “Flying V” formation as they zoomed around this track while fireworks exploded overhead.

Why all this publicity? Because the inaugural Indy 200 was supposed to be the first-ever event staged by the Indy Racing League. More to the point, the date for the televised debut of the Walt Disney World Speedway had been carefully selected by the Mouse’s marketing team & Indy Racing League managers. You see, January 27th wasn’t just any Saturday. It was the day before Super Bowl 1996 was staged.

Credit: Fanbuzz

A New Pre-Super Bowl Tradition

A little background here: Michael Eisner started his career in television in 1966 (he was hired to be Barry Diller’s assistant. Who – at that time, anyway – was ABC’s national programming director). Which meant that Eisner had a front row seat when the very first Super Bowl was broadcast in January of 1967. Over the next two+ decades, Michael watched as the Super Bowl steadily grew in popularity ‘til it then became this broadcasting behemoth.

So Eisner knew – from personal experience – that a televised sporting event that was properly positioned & promoted could eventually become this enormous thing. And as I mentioned earlier into today’s story … The Walt Disney Company had acquired ABC / Cap Cities back in 1995 for $19 billion. Which include ABC Sports & ESPN.

So if Disney (and the folks at the Indy Racing League, of course) handled the televised debut of the inaugural Indy 200 at Walt Disney World just right … Well, the Indy 200 wouldn’t just become the first professional auto race of the year. It could also become a brand-new television tradition. The race that sports fans watched the day before the Super Bowl.

Indy 2000 Failure

Sadly, all the ambitious plans that the Mouse & the Indy Racing League originally had for this corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot never came to fruition. And by January of 2000, the Indy 200 was pretty much defunct. At least as far as the Walt Disney World Speedway was concerned.

So why did this highly anticipated, seemingly can’t-miss project eventually wind up as the home of the severely under-utilized Richard Petty Driving Experience? Only to finally be shuttered in 2015 and then be turned back into a parking lot?

We’ll get to that part of this story on the second & final installment of this series.

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 433”, published on June 26, 2023. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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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