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.