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Why For did Universal Orlando sell off all of that property it bought from Lockheed Martin?



Paul G writes in to ask:

Why on earth are so many Disney fan websites so negative?  There are a
good number of them that I don’t even look at anymore because they
spend so much time complaining about every last little thing.  They are
so negative!  (thank you Jim for being one of the few who, while not
being slavishly supportive, are at least still in touch with the
realities of life and still passionate about your love of Disney).

Dear Paul G.

Look, to be fair here, I first have to admit that — over the past 13 years that I’ve been writing almost exclusively for the Web — I’ve written a number of stories about The Walt Disney Company that could be considered negative. So we’re kind of “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” country here.

But as to why so many Disney fan sites seem to be going negative these days … I think that there are a number of factors coming into play here. Chief among them being the way the Web works these days.

I mean, think about it, Paul G. What’s driving the majority of conversations online these days? Social media platforms like Facebook & Twitter which make use of instantaneous communication. And sometimes when Disneyana fans are rushing to be the very first person to post a report on what a new ride, show or attraction is like, they’re taking part in the soft opening of said ride, show or attraction. Which is typically when things are kind of rough around the edges, when all of the effects don’t work, etc.

Case in point: The Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor attraction at WDW‘s Magic Kingdom. As Ron Schneider recounts in his excellent memoir, “From Dreamer to Dreamfinder: A Life and Lessons Learned in 40 Years Behind a Name Tag” (Bamboo Forest Publishing, July 2012), though this Tomorrowland attraction wouldn’t officially be ready to open to the public ’til April 2, 2007, it did some playtesting back during the Fall of 2006. And at that time …

… a few preview audiences are brought in each day to see a primitive version of the finished product. The screen resolution is only a fraction of what it will be in April, the animation is choppy and the scripts are almost verbatim those created by the Imagineering writers.

But the crowds laugh — and those laughs are captured in the massive yellow ‘Laugh Can’ ; proof that, even in this primitive state, we’re on to something good. The crowds are asked to fill out response forms at the end of each performance and, after a few breathless days, we’re closed again.

Thankfully, Disney Operations comes to a preview performance and sees for themselves that we are definitely not ready to open, and we are now assured of spending the remaining three months of prep time undisturbed.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But the damage is done. The Disney Online Fans, tasting blood, have started posting reviews of our preliminary efforts. Their opinions are hopelessly uninformed and almost universally bad, since they cannot imagine that anyone but themselves cares about the quality of our show. We are trashed for the poor animation and the writing and especially for putting a Pixar show in Tomorrowland. In spite of repeated announcements at each performance that the preview is definitely not what the finished show will look like, they’re certain that it will be no better. As if buying an annual pass endows one with knowledge of the future …

And as a direct result of those prematurely negative reviews that got posted online while this innovative interactive attraction was still in technical rehearsals, the Disneyana fan community wound up gravely wounding “Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.”  To the point where once WDI had plans to turn this Tomorrowland attraction into a franchise (i.e. building additional versions of “Laugh Floor” for Disney California Adventure, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland), the WDW version of “Laugh Floor” wound up being a one-off. All because senior management at The Walt Disney Company saw the initial negative reaction that MILF got and then figured “Why throw good money after bad?”

Now what’s particularly frustrating about the whole “Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor” experience is that — with the possible exception of John Frost — I’m pretty sure that none of these alleged online theme park experts who were so quick to condemn this Tomorrowland attraction then ever bothered to circle back on this show to report on how the final, finished version of this interactive attraction turned out. All that ultimately mattered to these bloggers was that they had been among the first to post online that “MILF” — while it was still in technical rehearsal — had gags that didn’t work and/or glitches in its animation. NOT that the Imagineers eventually dealt with all of these issues and — as a direct result — wound up with a far stronger attraction which has been entertaining WDW Guests for nearly six years now.

But that’s the way the Web is these days, Paul G. In this rush-to-judgement / I-really-need-to-be-the-first-to-post-something-about-this era that we now live in, there’s no time for reflection. Only reaction. As one prominent Disney webmaster told me back in October at an “Epic Mickey 2
” media event that — when it comes to breaking news — ” … I don’t have to be right. I just have to be first.”

Of course, not all of us have the advantage that a Ron Schneider does. From his position of having worked in themed entertainment for over four decades now, Ron brings an awful lot of experience & insight to the table whenever he starts talking about why certain rides, shows and attractions work and why others don’t. Which is why — if you or someone you love is thinking about entering the themed entertainment game — then I urge you to pick up a copy of “From Dreamer to Dreamfinder“. Because there are life lessons to found inside of this 300-page Bamboo Forest Publishing book that you just won’t find anywhere else.

Copyright 2012 Bamboo Forest Publishing.
All rights reserved

Next up, Craig H. writes in with a Universal Orlando-related question:

Hi Jim


First of all, I’m a huge fan of the podcasts you do with Len Testa.


As for my Why For, why for did Universal sell off most of its land before the days of Comcast? From what I understand, there was a rumor that Universal was interested in 4 gates in Florida but the plan ultimately fell through and they sold the land. I hope you can answer this!


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Dear Craig H,

Yeah, what Universal Orlando had in the works for those 2000-acres that it acquired from Lockheed Martin back in September 1998 really was pretty impressive. We’re talking (at full build-out, mind you) two brand-new theme parks, seven or eight hotels, yet another Universal CityWalk-like nighttime entertainment district. And because this $3 billion project was to have been built right across the way from the Orange County Convention Center, Universal’s thinking was that … Well, given the sheer convenience of this state-of-the-art entertainment complex, the hundreds of thousands of people who annually attend events at the OCCC would have had no choice but to walk across the street and then sample what Universal was offering.

The green space out behind the South Concourse of the Orange County Convention
Center is some of the Lockheed Martin property that Universal Orlando planned on
turning into a new entertainment complex.

The only problem with the proposed site of this Universal Orlando expansion project is that — between 1958 and 1996 — this was where Lockheed Martin used to test its Copperhead, Hellfire and Pershing missiles. Which meant that this site was littered with decades of missile debris & toxic waste. And all of that hazardous material would first have to be cleaned up & hauled away before Universal could then get started on building its new multi-billion entertainment venue at what had once been known as Lockheed Martin’s Sand Lake Road Complex.

Now what was kind of interesting about this clean-up effort was that Universal & Lockheed Martin partnered on the project. With Universal initially underwriting the costs of this rather pricey onsite work by selling off select pieces of the Sand Lake Road Complex. Take — for example — the 230-acre chunk that Universal sold off to Orange County in October 1998 for $65 million. Which then allowed the county to go forward with its planned $748 million expansion of the Orange County Convention Center.

And while the Environmental Protection Agency eventually recognized
Universal & Lockheed Martin
for the innovative way that they had worked with
State, Federal and local agencies to streamline the hazardous waste clean-up
process, in the end, the costs of these on-site clean-up efforts really began to mount.

Take — for example — the $4 million that these two companies had to spend to clear toxic metals & industrial solvents out of the landfill at Site 5. Given that six such sites had been identified on the Sand Land Road Complex property .. Well, that then put the initial clean-up cost estimates for this project at $24 million. And then when you factored in the amount of time necessary to complete a hazardous waste clean-up project of this size, it would have taken at least until 2004 before Universal could even begin construction of this massive entertainment complex.

Make no mistake. Universal Creative really, really believed in this expansion project. To the point — according to the plans that the Company filed with Orange County — Universal eventually wanted to build two 18-hole golf courses, 10,000 hotel rooms, 700 time-share units and more than 2 million square feet of retail space on top of Lockheed Martin’s old missile testing range.

Lockheed Martin’s Missiles and Fire Control Center in Orlando, FL.

But then Vivendi, the French media giant who owned Universal Studios at this time, began having serious financial difficulties in 2004. And in an effort to make their corporation look that much more attractive to any would-be merger partners, Vivendi officials began spinning off / selling off any problematic divisions & projects. And even though Universal & Lockheed Martin were already four years & $40 million into their clean-up efforts at this point, the word came down to get the remaining 1,800-acres ready for sale. Which is why this primo piece of property was eventually sold off to Thomas Enterprises, Inc., a Georgia-based developer.

For the folks who worked at Universal Creative (i.e. the people who design all of the rides, shows and attractions for the Universal theme parks), losing the Lockheed Martin property was a real heartbreaker. By that I mean: Universal Creative saw this 1,800-acre site directly across from Orange County Convention Center as a way for the Universal Orlando Resort to finally become seriously competitive with Walt Disney World.

Of course, what’s kind of ironic about this whole situation is that when Universal’s next owner — General Electric — opted to sell off both NBC and Universal Studios theme park division to American cable giant Comcast in December 2009, Universal Creative found itself dealing with a group of executives who were genuinely excited about expanding Universal Orlando’s entertainment offerings. Which is why — over the past three years — we’ve seen an explosion of growth & innovation at that Resort. Everything from the all-new Hi-Def 3D version of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Universal’s Superstar Parade, the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride, the Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular — 100 Years of Movie Memories nighttime show, the Hollywood Drive-In miniature golf course and Transformers – The Ride 3D. Not to mention the 1,800-room Cabana Beach Resort that Universal Orlando will be opening in 2014 as well as USF’s yet-to-officially-be-announced Krustyland expansion & Diagon Alley project.

So one has to wonder: If Universal Creative — working with Comcast officials (who — unlike the execs who ran Vivendi & GE — genuinely seem to like / are enthusiastic about being in the theme park business) were able to do this with the 840-acres that the Universal Orlando Resort currently occupies … Well, if Comcast officials had been equally enthusiastic / just as financially supportive of the Lockheed Martin project, what would Universal Creative have been able to do with the 1,800-acre Sand Lake Road Complex? After they cleared away all of that missile debris & hazardous waste, I mean.

Concept art for Universal Orlando’s Cabana Beach Resort. Copyright
NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

Anyway … That’s it for this week’s Why For column. Remember if you want one of your Disney or theme park-related question answered in a 2013 edition of this JHM column, please send your query e-mails along to

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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