I’ll admit that I just love Mickey’s Toontown. It is one of my most favorite immersive environments at Disneyland. This is not to be confused with the Toontown Fair out in Florida. I do not shed a tear about the removal of the one in Florida but I would lie in front of the bulldozer if the one in Anaheim were threatened. Well, maybe not go that far, but I would write letters. Frequent Samland readers will note that I have been so obsessed about the organization of this part of the park that I applied the urban planning tool called an urban transect to analyze the qualities of the various land uses (I know…major geekville…welcome to Samland, right?).

So where did Toontown come from? Some say, it goes back to the earliest days of Disneyland. Now this isn’t the official line but is reconstructed from bits and pieces that may be true or most certainly embellished.

When Walt Disney decided to build a theme park, he wanted to find the perfect location. So he turned to his most trusted partner for advice. No, I am not talking about his brother Roy. Instead, I am referring to Mickey Mouse.

Back in the early 1930s, Mickey was really feeling the pressure from fame. So he decided to build a secret getaway for himself and his Toon friends. He called this place Toontown and would become the place where Toons could sneak away from the Hollywood limelight, let down their hair (or whatever), and just be normal (for a Toon).

Mickey realized that Disneyland would serve as a retreat for Walt and decided to help out. He suggested that Disneyland could be a good neighbor to Toontown. So Walt decided to open his park in rural Orange County, far away from the madness of Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Negotiations between Mickey and Walt went on for a while but the two would inevitably come to an agreement. Mickey demanded that Walt build a large earthen berm to shield the Toons from Disneyland visitors. Walt liked the idea so much he decided to copy the concept and build a berm around Disneyland to shield the visitors from the rest of Orange County as well.

By 1993, the Toons had seen enough and decided to the take the brave step of letting visitors come to town. A tunnel was dug under the berm right next to it’s a small world and the rest is history. Today, there is a sign that states that Toontown will be closed earlier than the rest of the park “due to fireworks.” The real reason is the Toons have had enough of us by this point that they want to get back to their normal (for a Toon) lives.

At least that’s the story as I’d like to believe it.

The reality is they cleared out three acres north of the railroad tracks and the berm that surrounds the park, which used to contain the pony farm, a storage facility, and a narrow road. It is tiny. The entire area measures about 500 feet wide and 200 feet deep. The team from Imagineering who worked on the project included Don Carson, Joe Lanzisero, Hani El Masri, Andrea Favili, Marcelo Vignali, Maggie Parr, Chuck Ballew, Jim Shull, and Judy Chin.

Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance

According to the book Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, the Imagineers realized that the Toontown project “was an effort to rethink the relationship between architecture and fantasy, between animation and the theme park.” There is a lot going on that is worthy of a closer look.

Disney historian and MiceChat partner, Alain Littaye, talked with Don Carson, Senior Show Designer, to learn more about the area design. Carson said that the rolling slope of the main street was supposed to be much steeper. After considering mobility issues, that idea was dropped. He also talked about the original concept for Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin, which was supposed to be a two-story attraction.

Toontown is divided into three sub-areas: Downtown (the Industrial area where the Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin attraction is located), Toontown Square (the food court area), and a residential area called Mickey’s Neighborhood. Oddly, Mickey’s Toontown is one of least changed areas in the entire park. For the most part, it is the same as when it opened in 1993.

As you look around, you notice that the architecture does not seem to contain any straight edges. When the Imagineers were doing the research, they took a long hard look at the world that Toons lived in. What they noticed was the architecture had a familiarity to it but did not mimic real physics. They wanted to reproduce this effect in three-dimensions so they borrowed an animation trick called Squash and Stretch.

Squash and Stretch is the effect that keeps the volume of a structure constant while it is “squashed and stretched” in seemingly unnatural ways. Or as former Disney animator Preston Blair explains, “When a sandbag moves through the air, it will “stretch” in the direction of the movement. Then when its progress is arrested, it will “squash” out.” Blair adds, “If it were alive (anything can happen in a cartoon!), it would also squash from anticipating the action in which it stretches. The proper use of Squash and Stretch will strengthen an action. It is essential in creating a feeling of weight in characters.” As Imagineer Don Carson said, “No one has ever built buildings that look fat and inflated with air with no right angles.” Not only is the architecture exaggerated but also so is the super bright color palette.

As wonderful as Toontown is from a design perspective, it was a strategic business need that drove the project. Ever since Mickey Mouse first appeared in 1928, fans have clamored to meet the star. Never before had a cartoon character had such a strong and identifiable personality. Walt toyed with ways where fans could interact with the mouse. He took a hard look at some property adjacent to the movie studio. He thought this would be a perfect spot for his “Mickey Mouse Park.”

When Walt applied for the necessary permits, the Burbank City Council turned him down. They did not want a permanent carnival in their city. One lawmaker proclaimed, “We don’t want the carny atmosphere in Burbank! We don’t want people falling in the river, or merry-go-rounds squawking all day long.” Walt knew better. He assured them, “A word may be said in regard to the concept and conduct of Disneyland’s operational tone. Although various sections will have the fun and flavor of carnival or amusement park, there will be none of the ‘pitches’, games, wheels, sharp practices, and devices designed to milk the visitor’s pocketbook.” Over time, the park concept would evolve into Disneyland.

The same problem confronted the Walt Disney Company in 1988. Where could fans reliably find Mickey Mouse and get his autograph, especially as his 60th birthday was drawing near? Until now, finding Mickey was one of the guest’s biggest complaints. The solution was to open a “temporary” area called Mickey’s Birthdayland at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. For the first time, guests could enter a cartoon world and meet their favorite characters. Mickey’s Birthdayland turned out to be a great success and that meant Disney needed to find a way to milk the concept. The area was upgraded in 1990 and renamed Mickey’s Starland.

It was the success of the 1988 feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit that would really make the difference. The movie provided the Imagineers an architectural design language of a world where Toons and humans could interact. Toontown could play by a different set of rules and allow for inanimate objects to became animated. Guests would be encouraged to touch everything and they would be rewarded by pleasant little surprises.

With the success in Florida, Disneyland decided it wanted to get into the act. Design began on Mickey’s Toontown and the land opened in 1993. This would be a place based a different reality. The new addition was an immediate success and it became clear that the Florida version needed a makeover once again. First came Mickey’s Toyland, just in time for the 1995 Christmas season. Then work continued and the area became Mickey’s Toontown Fair in 1996.

Throughout all of the changes, only Mickey’s house has remained in Florida. Now, even that structure has been torn down as part of the Fantasyland expansion.

One of the great strengths of Toontown is all of the “gags” that are used throughout Mickey’s Toontown. A gag is a comic story, action or situation performed by actors (or in this case, buildings). Everything seems to come alive in Toontown.

Most of the gags are pretty obvious to all, especially children. But there are some adult touches as well. For example, if you look closely, Toontown echoes other structures that exist throughout Disneyland. Both have City Halls, Fire Stations, treehouses, pocket parks, houses, trolley cars (well at least they still work in Disneyland), boats, car driving experiences, roller-coasters, and an emporium.However, the best gags are the ones activated by the guests. Take your time and you will see how this area can really suck you in. See those boxes sitting on the Warehouse dock? Go ahead and take a peak inside. This is one example of how you can judge a book by its cover. Open up the box for spare train parts and you have the sound of locomotives. The box destined for Clarabelle’s Yogurt shop moos. And be careful if you try to open the box for assorted springs. The boxes vary in heights and everybody in the family can get into the act.

Be sure to push every button you see, twist every knob, and pull at every door. A tug on the Toontown Power Company’s front door will result in a jolting discovery. Didn’t get a chance to stop by the gym on the way to the park? You might want to try working out at Horace Horsecollar’s gym. Be careful, as things may be heavier than you first think. Take time to listen to the talking mailbox, manhole cover or water fountains. This is a very playful environment for young and old.

There is even more fun to play with. Just in case you get into trouble you can always call the cops. However, somebody is probably already talking on the phone. Push down on the plunger in front of the Fireworks Factory and see if you get lucky or gather 3 other friends to play with the musical fountain in Mickey’s Neighborhood. Each person steps on a metal plaque embedded in the sidewalk to play their instrument that is in front of them in the fountain.

If you look closely enough you will even find a small tribute the Old Mousetro himself, Walt Disney.

The old Jolly Trolley barn and loading platform is still there. Once upon a time you could catch a ride from one end of Toontown to the other with this fun little train. It added a level of kinetic energy that is sadly missing today. There is still one trolley station at the old depot. The other one was sold off on eBay a few years ago.

Do you enjoy Toontown as much as I do? If so, what are your favorite bits?

If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you’ll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.

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Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

  • WDI33

    Sam- The one major component that an inviting urban space needs to make it inviting and pleasurable is shade and Toontown is sorely lacking in that respect. A hot day is only magnified by the sun reflecting off the “hills”.

    • SpinWizzard

      Let’s not forget about the rain too! There aren’t many indoor spots to hide in to get out of the weather. The one time I was stranded there, I was amazed how quickly the raincoats appeared. Sales marketing at its best.

  • Algernon

    I like Toon Town, too. It’s like walking into a cartoon. That’s where Buzz Lightyear and Nemo really belong, not in Tomorrowland. The Winnie The Pooh ride would do tremendously better there, as well.

    • Freddie Freelance

      I always thought Nemo was just the Southernmost ride in Fantasyland, like Small World is the Easternmost ride. I’ll suggest that they should turn the entry to the ride around and put it by the old Boat dock across from the Materhorn entrance, and think about replacing the submarines (originally a response to Pacific Ocean Park’s Deepest Deep ride) with Omnitrack vehicles themed as miniature submarines traveling below the water through acrylic tubes.

  • indianajack

    I love Toontown as well, and would lie in front of a bulldozer if Disney attempted to demolish it. It’s a great themed land that is wonderful for kids and adults to explore. My favorite part is Mickey’s house which is a great tribute to the character with so much detail to absorb. I don’t understand why there’s so much hate from some fans for Toontown, I think it’s great and hope it receives more attention in years to come.

  • I love the way Toontown looks and feels. It’s whimsical, fun and ever so clever. However, I think it’s ultimately a failed land. Too small. Trapped in a back corner of the park with just one entry/exit. Not enough attractions to make it worth the extra effort of getting there.

    If they were to build another ride in ToonTown, or build a new land next to it which allows ToonTown to connect all the way through to Frontierland, it would probably change my mind.

    Oz or a Villain land would be great candidates.

    • SpinWizzard

      I am sooo surprised that they haven’t done something with the wasted space known as the chip n’ dale treehouse. The fact that it has been years since the “ball pond” has been used makes me wonder just why it remains. Maybe just so simple that thre isn’t enough room to do anything with.

  • eicarr

    It’s a great change in pace on any trip to the park. If they cut a hole in the back, to open it up to the planned expansion area behind the ranch, it will eliminate its major flaw as a dead end.

  • Barbaraann

    Thanks for the great write up about ToonTown. I never know if that’s one word or two. Anyway, I love visiting ToonTown, and I try to do so on each of my Disneyland vacations. I finally rode the Roger Rabbit ride during my last visit there, and I really enjoyed it. I love taking photographs of the place as well.

  • epcotplanner

    Sam, interestingly enough you and my other favorite Disney placemaking design critic (Foxxfur) are at opposite poles in the Mickey’s Toontown vs Mickey’s Birthdayland debate: Check out her fascinating critique of Toontown here

  • LoveStallion

    I don’t have a lot of love for Toontown, and I can only echo what some others have said – it is small, there isn’t much to do, it’s a glorified kids’ land, and it is way too out of the way for me to bother venturing over there.

    I did enjoy it more when the Jolly Trolley ran, the Chip and Dale acorn pit and slides were still intact, and Goofy’s Bounce House served a purpose. Disney is wary of lawsuits, obviously, but those things at least gave you SOMETHING to do in the area other than get stuck in the deceitfully long line for Car Toon Spin or expend 40 seconds of your life on Gadget’s Go-Coaster.

    It would have been awesome if they could have stretched the land out as they originally intended, with a Baby Herman runaway buggy coaster/ride, and something based on Judge Doom. The initial failings of Euro Disneyland ruined all that.

  • SpectroMan

    It’s a very creative Land and I’m glad it exists, but it’s not as powerful as it once was. A closed treehouse, a bounce house that no longer bounces, and a boat that, I believe, is missing several effects from it’s earlier days. All this combined with no Trolley means a very static land – even the Gag Factory contraption is now static. There’s no point in installing effects if they’re not going to work forever.

  • troyer

    I too find Toontown a small, circular, monotonous dead-end area. True, some of the buildings are visually delightful, but the land as a whole seems ill-planned and not up to par with the rest of Disneyland. It seems to have been done hurriedly and “on the cheap.”(as was much else during the 80’s and 90’s-a pattern that still, although less so, continues today-the Penny Arcade being a recent egregious example.)

  • Ravjay12

    Maybe a re-purpose of some of the areas such as Donald’s boat, Chip and Dale’s treehouse, Goofy’s house, and the roller coaster. These areas really need an over haul. Perhaps a storybook circus theme? A water playground would be great because it gets so hot there. Other than that, besides maintenance and paint, the area is a very rich detailed environment. It just needs a little love.

  • kayleigh83

    I love Toontown for its potential – it’s design makes it seem so alive and engaging, but its lack of (functioning) attractions paired with its out of the way location do it a disservice! I would love to see a bit of a revamp here!

  • darkamor

    …”Although various sections will have the fun and flavor of carnival or amusement park, there will be none of the ‘pitches’, games, wheels, sharp practices, and devices designed to milk the visitor’s pocketbook.” – Walt Disney to Burbank City Council (someone should’ve sent this quote to Eisner years ago before Paradise Pier / before making almost every Ride exit into a Shop! (lol) ….

    Mickey’s Toontown was (& I saw was because it sure looks like crap now) an Imagineering marvel back in the day, but now? Its just one giant stroller parking zone (Imagineers obviously didn’t learn from this areas mistakes, because Cars Land – as lovely as it is – suffers the same curse of “only 1 way in, only 1 way out”) ….

    Least changed since 1993? How about the most neglected section since opening in 1993 (even the outside of Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin looks awful – & I <3 that ride) that still lacks shade / landscaping for Park Guests to hide from the summer heat (or rainy days)? …..

    If Team Disney Anaheim had removed the Fantasyland Theatre, Buzz Lightyear, Finding Nemo and Winnie The Pooh rides / attractions could've anchored an extension of Mickey's Toontown leading into Fantasyland (& it would've been 1,000 times better) …

    Most of us agree that Frontierland & Tomorrowland are two sections within Disneyland that need help (well, add Mickey's Toontown to that list, please – its a brilliant idea from Imagineers, but it's been left to fall apart by Management) …

    C J