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Why For did WDW wave “Buh-Bye” to Seven Seas Lagoon’s Wave Machine?



TikiTerry writes in to say:

I’ve really been enjoying all of these Disney World history
stories that you’ve been sharing with JHM readers lately. So I was wondering if
you could maybe talk about the Polynesian Resort‘s wave machine. How long did
it work? Where was it located? Why did Disney shut it down?

TikiTerry –

Wow. That’s a lot of questions. And – to be honest – there
aren’t a lot of answers out there. Mostly because the team that opened Walt
Disney World was genuinely embarrassed that they’d spent $400,000 (which is
$2.2 million in 2011 dollars) on a piece-of-sh … machinery that didn’t work
properly. And for a while there in late 1971 / early 1972, there was concern
that the wave machine might wind up costing Dick Nunis his job.

You see, it was Dick who – in his role as vice president of
operations of Disneyland and then-just-beginning-construction Walt Disney World
Resort – who had pushed & pushed hard that a wave machine be one of the key
elements of Seven Seas Lagoon (You know? That 200-acre, man-made lagoon which
the Imagineers had built out in front of the Magic Kingdom).

“And why did Nunis push hard for this wave machine?,” you
ask. Well, you have to remember why people vacationed in Florida before there
was a Walt Disney World. It was to take advantage of the wonderful weather as
well as snag a spot for their blanket on the Sunshine State’s 825 miles of
beautiful sandy beaches.

And given that Dick viewed the Atlantic Ocean & the Gulf
of Mexico as Disney World’s direct competition … Well, he wanted Seven Seas
Lagoon to have some of the real ocean’s appeal. And – to Nunis’ way of thinking
– that meant white sandy beaches. More importantly, the sound & feel of
waves lapping against the shore.

Besides, you have to remember that the Company’s original
vision for WDW was that it would be “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.” That –
in addition to those days that they exploring the Magic Kingdom – Guests would also
want to go boating on Bay Lake, hiking around Fort Wilderness, shopping at the
Lake Buena Vista Village

An overview of the wave machine set-up in WDW’s Seven Seas Lagoon,
with Beachcomber Island and all of its wave-making machinery to the
top right of the photo and Beachcomber Beach towards the bottom
left. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And as for Seven Seas Lagoon, Dick dreamed of someday staging
surfing competitions out there. Nunis figured that pictures of all those buff
guys riding the curls (with WDW’s Polynesian Village conveniently  in the background of each shot, of course)
would be great publicity for the Resort. In much the same way that those photos
of Arnold Palmer & Jack Nicklaus playing on the Magnolia & Palm courses
at the first-ever Walt Disney World Golf Championships & Pro-Am Tournaments
in late 1971 helped raise the public’s awareness of WDW’s Golf Resort.

The only problem was – in order to turn Nunis’ dream into a
reality … Well, that wave machine would have to be installed before Seven Seas
Lagoon was then filled in with water. More to the point, a special cove area would
have to be carved out just down the beach from Disney World’s Polynesian
Village. Someplace that was within walking distance of the hotel which was surf
& surfing friendly.

And this was all going to cost serious money. And given that – in late 1969 /
early 1970 – the costs of constructing Walt Disney World had already begun spiraling
out-of-control … finding an additional half million dollars (which would cover
the cost of the wave machine as well as construction of the Polynesian Village’s
Beachcomber Cove area) was going to take some doing.

But Dick was up to the task. So he twisted some arms and
cajoled a few members of senior management at WED. And eventually Roy O. Disney
himself voiced his approval for the project.

So the money was found. And the wave machine was installed.
And then the Seven Seas Lagoon was filled with water. And sometime during the
Summer of 1971, Walt Disney World’s wave machine was fired up. And – from all
accounts – it initially worked very well.

A close-up view of the mechanism used to power the wave machine on Beachcomber
Island. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And by that I mean: Disney Legend Bill “Sully” Sullivan (who
was part of the opening team of the Walt Disney World Resort) has very fond
memories of spending an afternoon with his family at Beachcomber Cove during
the late summer of 1971. “I taught my son to surf (on the curls that were
created by) the wave machine that was at the Polynesian,” he recalled in a 2007
with Disney historian Jim Korkis.

“So if Cast Members were enjoying the effect that WDW’s wave
machine created in September of 1971, why then don’t Guests who visited Disney
World in October of that same year  – during
the Resort’s first official month of operation – recall this amazing piece of
machinery at all?,” you ask. It’s simple, really. By then, Seven Seas Lagoon’s
wave machine had been shut down for tinkering.

“And what exactly was the problem with WDW’s wave machine?,”
you query. Well, it’s at this point that the stories diverge.

Now some longtime Disney World employees will tell you that
the wave machine was shut down because it did too good a job of replicating the
action of genuine ocean waves. Meaning that it kept causing serious beach
erosion at Beachcomber Cove.

The Southern Seas II paddles by Beachcomber Island (please note — just off the stern of
this WDW steamship — some of the machinery used to power Seven Seas Lagoon’s
wave machine). Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

On the other hand, Transportation veterans will tell you
that the real reason that WDW’s wave machine was shut down was that the surf
that this extremely expensive piece of machinery created made it extremely
difficult to operate watercraft safely in and around the Polynesian Village. With
the Southern Seas (i.e. that 100 foot-long side-paddlewheel-powered steamship that
was used to transport Guests around the Resort from 1971 to 1975) being particularly
vulnerable to the rolling waves that would come rebounding out of Beachcomber
Cove and then make Seven Seas Lagoon a tricky stretch of water to traverse.

And there are other longtime WDW employees who will tell you
that the main reason that the wave machine had been turned off by the time Walt
Disney World had begun its three-day-long grand opening celebration on October 23,
1971 was that this piece of machinery had already proven to be problematic.
That this wave machine could only run for a few hours at a time before it would
then break down. And then it would take a full team of engineers working in wet
suits to finally get the thing going again.

Mind you, though Dick Nunis himself insisted (as part of his
June 1999 Window-on-Main-Street ceremony at Disneyland Park) that WDW’s wave
machine ” … only ran for one day,” that wasn’t really the case. In fact, there’s
a black-and-white photograph in a 1972 edition of “Eyes & Ears” (i.e. the then-weekly
newsletter / magazine which was distributed to all Disney World) which shows
Dick on a surf board, riding a wave into Beachcomber Cove. So WDW’s wave
machine was operational – if somewhat erratically so – well into 1972.

“So why didn’t the Imagineers and/or WDW’s engineers just
find a way to fix this wave machine?,” you ask. The story that I’ve always
heard is that – in order to make the sort of permanent repairs that would have
finally made this expensive & balky piece-of-sh … machinery work properly …
Well, that would have involved draining Seven Seas Lagoon and/or building a
very expensive dike around Beachcomber Island (i.e. the artificial isle just
offshore where all of the machinery for WDW’s wave machine was kept). And
during the early, early days of Walt Disney World (when the Company was still
trying to recover the $400 million that they’d poured into the construction of
this Resort), that just wasn’t an option.

Dick Nunis’ Window on Main Street in Disneyland Park. Please note — according to the
bottom line of this turn-of-the-century window advertisement — that wave machines are
supposedly a Nunis specialty. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of money … One surprising source of revenue for
the Walt Disney World Resort in those early, early days turned out to be
parties for big convention groups. To be specific: Major corporations were
willing to pay top dollars for beachside luaus for their employees similar to
the one that was held for the press & honored guests as part of WDW’s grand
opening back in October of 1971.

And as you might have already guessed, that luau was held
right at waterside in Beachcomber Cove. Which – given the hours & hours of on-site
prep that are typically involved with properly staging corporate events of this
size – meant that the beachfront area where these highly-expensive-to-produce
waves were supposed to come rolling in often had to be closed off for
Polynesian Village Guests.

Then – because a number of high profile (more importantly,
would have been extremely profitable for the Resort) corporate parties had to
be suddenly cancelled during the Summer of 1972 due to Central Florida’s highly
changeable weather – a decision was made to build an all-weather structure down
along the shore by Beachcomber Cove. Here’s a description of that project from
Walt Disney Productions’ 1972 annual report:

Luau Cove – Due to the popularity of our evening luaus,
particularly as a convention activity, the need arose for an all-weather
shelter where these events could be held, rain or shine. Luau Cove, now under
construction along the beach adjacent to the Polynesian Village, will provide
sheltered seating for 500 guests, as well as a stage and food warming
facilities. It is scheduled for completion early (next) year.

WDW Cast Members posing in front of the then-newly-completed Luau
Cove facility at Disney’s Polynesian Village. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And once that structure opened in 1973, the handwriting was
pretty much on the wall for WDW’s wave machine. So much of Beachcomber Cove’s
waterfront property had been eaten up by the construction of Luau Cove that it then
just didn’t make much sense for Polynesian Village’s employees to continue promote
this now-extremely-narrow strip of beach as a place where Guests could frolic
in the surf. Which – at that point, anyway – rarely if ever came rolling in.

So the wave machine was left to rust & corrode just
off-shore in Seven Seas Lagoon. And as for those who whispered about how Dick
Nunis was going to lose his job with the Company because of this
half-million-dollar boondoggle … Well, as it turns out, there were so many
other things that went wrong at Walt Disney World during its first three years
of operation (EX: those bob-around boats that constantly broke down out of Bay
Lake. Which meant that Cast Members had to regularly go out and rescue boatloads
of stranded, sun-burned tourists. Not to mention all of the poorly-poured
cement floors in the Garden Wings of the Contemporary Resort. Which then had to
be jack-hammered up and replaced in 1973) that the wave machine debacle quickly
faded from memory.

Mind you, Dick Nunis never forget about that wave machine.
He still believed that – in the proper setting (more importantly, with a piece
of machinery that would actually work the way that it was supposed to) – that an
in-land ocean experience, where Guests would then get the chance to frolic in
some artificially-created surf, would be a huge hit with WDW visitors. So Dick
pushed & pushed & pushed and eventually got Typhoon Lagoon built. And
when that water park opened in June of 1989 and its 2.7 million gallon wave
pool immediately became Typhoon Lagoon’s most popular feature, Nunis finally
felt vindicated.

Anyway, TikiTerry, that’s the story of WDW’s wave machine.
As I’ve heard it, anyway. And if you folks have any Disney-related stories that
you’d like to see answered as part of a future Why For column, please feel free
to send them along to

“If — at first — you don’t succeed … ” Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Special thanks to the nice folks at Pixie Vacations for sponsoring
this week’s Why For.

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill

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

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

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The Evolution and History of Mickey’s ToonTown



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

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

The Beginning: Mickey’s Birthdayland

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

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

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

From Concept to Reality: The Birth of Toontown

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

Building Challenges: Innovative Solutions

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

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

Key Attractions: Bringing Animation to Life

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

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

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

Executive Decisions: Shaping ToonTown’s Unique Attractions

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

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

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

Global Influence: Toontown’s Worldwide Appeal

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

Evolution and Reimagining: Toontown Today

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

Dive Deeper into ToonTown’s Story

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

Jim Hill

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

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Unpacking the History of the Pixar Place Hotel



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

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

The Emergence of the Disneyland Hotel

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

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

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

The Evolution: From Emerald of Anaheim to Paradise Pier

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

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

Japanese Tourism and Its Impact

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

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

The Emergence of the Emerald of Anaheim

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

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

Financial Challenges and a Changing Landscape

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

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

The Transition to the Disneyland Pacific Hotel

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

Transformation to Paradise Pier

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

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

Looking Beyond Paradise Pier: The Shift to Pixar Place

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

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

The Future of Pixar Place and Disneyland Resort

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

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

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

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

Jim Hill

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

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



Mickey's Birthday Land

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

Early Challenges in Meeting Mickey

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

Mickey’s Birthdayland: A Birthday Wish that Came True

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

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

The Birth of Birthdayland: Creative Brilliance Meets Practicality

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

Evolution: From Birthdayland to Toontown

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

Impact on Disney Parks and Guests

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

Beyond Attractions: A Cultural Influence

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

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

Unwrapping the Full Story of Mickey’s Birthdayland

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

Jim Hill

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

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