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Toontown Transect - An Urban Planner Deconstructs Mickey's Hometown

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by , 02-23-2011 at 08:20 PM

SAMLAND returns today with a unique look at Disneyland's Toontown.
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. For the past couple of years he has been the publisher of Samland’s Disney Adventure, a blog dedicated to the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks. Sam is also 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. Today, he cartoons himself and delves into a world between reality and animation.

What City Planning is:
1.An aide to the man in the street to visualize his city properly planned;
2.A practical, sensible way of providing a place for everything with everything in its place;
3.An instrument for uniting citizens to work for the city’s future; and
4.An efficient means of avoiding duplication and waste in public improvements.
*- John Nolen, Comprehensive Plan for San Diego 1926
Back in the early 1950s, Walt Disney was looking for a location to put his theme park. Now, there is one story about a man named Harrison “Buzz” Price and how he found the 160-acres. But that story is for another time. This story is about Walt working with his most trusted partner. No, I am not talking about his brother Roy. I am talking about Mickey Mouse.

Mickey told Walt about a small city down in a rural part of Orange County. It was called Toontown and this is where the cartoons characters went to escape the tensions of Hollywood. Walt and Mickey agreed to build a huge earthen berm to shield Disneyland from the outside world. The same berm would shield Toontown from the theme park guests. In 1993, the Toons decided to welcome visitors so they tunneled under the berm right next to it’s a small world, and the rest is history.

Okay, forgive me but I am going to geek out in an urban planner kind of way. You bought the ticket. Hold on for the ride.

In the real world, architects and planners look at certain qualities that contribute to creating place. They look at such elements as: aesthetics, size of streets, lot sizes, infrastructure, transit options, materials, activity, uses, scale, and density. More importantly, they consider where these elements are located with respect to each other.

In the book Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, the Imagineers recognized that the Toontown project “was an effort to rethink the relationship between architecture and fantasy, between animation and the theme park.”

You can only manage what you can measure. With regards to the built environment, I am going to use an assessment tool called the Urban Transect. In The Lexicon of the New Urbanism, the Transect is defined as “a system of classification deploying the conceptual range rural-to-urban to arrange in useful order the typical elements of urbanism. The Transect is a natural ordering system, as every urban element easily finds a place within its continuum.”

Andre Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement and the person central to the development of the Transect said, “certain forms belong in certain environments.” As an example, he suggests, “An apartment building fits in an urban setting and a ranch house belongs in a rural setting. A ranch house would undermine the immersive quality of a downtown district, whereas an apartment building is appropriate. Place either structure in the wrong environment and it just does not feel right.”

The SmartCode, a model zoning ordinance also developed by Duany, says the Transect “organizes the natural, rural, suburban, and urban landscape into categories of density, complexity, and intensity in the same way the countryside relates to the traditional towns and villages we admire.”

The Transect is derived from ecological analysis where it is applied to present the sequence of natural habitat from shore-dune-upland or wetland-woodland-prairie. The original idea for taking a geographical cross-section of a region and used to reveal a sequence of environments goes back to Von Humboldt in 1790.

Only recently has this concept been applied to the built environment. When using this methodology, it is easier to organize the components of city building. You can regulate buildings, lot size, land use, street configurations, the public realm, and everything else necessary to create beautiful, functional places.

Duany created a gradient that is divided into six zones. At one end is the T6 Urban Core zone. This is the densest, most intense development form and use. At the other end is the T1 Natural zone. This is land preserved as open space.

There is also a seventh zone called Special Districts. Special districts consist of areas with buildings that by their function, disposition, or configuration cannot conform to one of the six normative Transect Zones. For a traditional city, typical special districts include “large parks, institutional campuses, refinery sites, airports, etc.”

Since the Urban Transect is meant to be a regulatory device, precise measurements are required. Within each zone, all the elements that make up a place – the infrastructure, buildings, landscaping, public furniture, building materials and building uses – can be utilized to characterize which transect zone that particular area belongs. For example, areas with no curbs or gutters and landscapes filled with asymmetrical tree planting can be considered a rural zone; those areas that are primarily residential in use and have storm water infrastructure (curbs and gutters) and regimented landscaping can be considered suburban.

There are all sorts of reasons why one would use this tool to understand a community. It can be calibrated for each city and it is a great way to help regulate urban form and community design.

So let’s look at Disneyland’s Toontown and identify its DNA – a Detailed Neighborhood Analysis.


Imagine that you are crossing under the Disneyland Railroad track at the back of the park with it’s a small world on your right and the Toontown Railroad station to your left. Once past the Toontown gates and up the ramp, turn right toward the Roger Rabbit fountain. According to the Transect, you have entered Toontown’s Special District.

Now the fountain may be out of place in an industrial area but this is Toontown after all. Then again, many modern industrial parks include some form of public art.

Some Special Districts are urbanized areas devoted to a single activity such as industry. In Toontown’s Special District, you have typical industrial uses such as a trolley barn (a mass transit maintenance and operations yard), a power plant, glassworks, and whatever is going on inside of Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin. Having the Insurance Company in the District makes sense considering how many Toons get whacked with anvils and falling pianos. The little island of buildings with the post office, jail, and the fireworks factory are also included.


The T6 Urban Core Zone is the most urban setting and is usually identified as the Central Business District (CBD) or historic downtown in other cities. The T6 Urban Core exhibits the most intense urban character and the greatest density.

The Toontown T6 Urban Core Zone is adjacent to the Special District. It is anchored by the Five and Dime and continues with the buildings (the facades) on the east side of Toontown Square until you get to the edge of City Hall. The reason I believe this area represents an Urban Core Zone is due to the intensity and density of the development behind the buildings you can touch. When I talk about density, I am talking about the theoretical capacity of a lot to accommodate quantities of certain building uses. Skyscrapers add a lot of capacity as well as high-rise residential units. If you step back, you will notice flat grayed out high-rise buildings that demonstrate a higher degree of intensity. Compare these backdrops to the hillsides behind City Hall. There, you see hillsides not tall buildings. The Urban Core Zone is more urban.


T5 Urban Center Zones are focal points of activity. A city may have several Urban Center Zones but those will always be secondary to the one T6 Urban Core Zone. The Urban Center Zone is where we find commercial buildings and major shopping centers. Smaller strip malls are in our next zone.

Building frontages typically come up to the property line. The zone is interspersed with public spaces, which mimic the environment of a well-established city district. In Toontown, this would be Toontown Square. Toontown Square includes the Civic Center Plaza, the bandshell, Toontown Park, the DVC sales cart disguised as a train depot, and all the buildings that frame City Hall. The Gas Station is part of the next zone.

There is constant activity and prominent civic uses surrounding the plaza. My favorite is the Planning Commission.


The T4 General Urban Zone is still relatively urban in character but with less emphasis on pedestrian connections between uses. Usually, you would find auto-oriented shopping centers also known as strip malls. The shopping centers are smaller then those in the Urban Center Zone and they are generally set back far from the street with large surface parking lots.

The Toontown General Urban zone is tiny. My take is it includes the gas station (auto-oriented use and parking out front) and the adjacent bathrooms. Boy, I miss those interactive phones. The zone continues to the gate that leads backstage.

In most cities you might find mid-density multi-family attached residential in a General Urban zone but I have found no evidence of this type of development. I have knocked on City Hall’s door but I have had no luck. Therefore, I am unable to identify a specific zoning ordinance that prevents this type of housing. Most housing advocates would assume that there is some sort of bias against apartments.


The T3 Suburban Zone is sometimes referred to as the “neighborhood edge.” It is typical of urban sprawl suburban development found throughout America. The suburbs are the most residential of the zones. Detached single-family residences predominantly characterize these zones and limited neighborhood commercial uses.

In Toontown, the Suburban Zone is huge and includes the cul-de-sac with the fountain in the middle plus the surrounding buildings. The exceptions are Gadget’s Go Coaster and Chip ‘n Dale Tree House, which are in the next zone.

These areas have regimented lot sizes, large setbacks, and are bounded by collector streets that you to the General Urban and Urban Core shopping malls and other destinations. If you don’t have a car in the Suburban zone you are very limited. Public outdoor space is usually limited to parks or private lots. Thankfully, Goofy has created a place for the kids to play.

Mickey and Minnie’s houses are typical of the California Bungalow style. Note the wide porch that separates the public realm from the private space. New Urbanists think porches are really cool.


The T2 Rural Zone is usually the area beyond the suburbs. The zone primarily consists of open lands with sparse development. Land within this zone could transition to other Transect zones or remain in this form. When this does happen some blame it on urban sprawl. When Walt did it, he was visionary and we all spend a lot of money to worship at his wisdom. Even the Toons. I mean really. They gave up their privacy. That is a heavy price to pay.

Gadget’s Go Coaster and Chip ‘n Dale Tree House are in the Rural zone. The two main structures are set back very far from the fountain. Look down and you will notice the ground materials are more natural. The trees are random. Landscaping is more arbitrary and less regimented. Frequently, people keep large animals like human sized chipmunks. And people put a lot of stuff in their front yards. The lots lack finished curb and gutters for storm water control.


The T1 Natural Zone represents the most undeveloped land use state. This zone is defined by land designated as open space or protected from development. The zone can consist of parklands, wilderness, and areas of high environmental value, such as reserves or designated habitats.

You will notice that Toontown is surrounded by hillsides. With the exception of the Toontown sign way back on the hill there is no evidence of development. Whether this is due to market conditions, development constraints or by code, I have not been able to determine.

And that, my friends, is Disneyland's Toontown as seen from the eyes of a real world Urban Planner. To everyone else, it is probably just a punny place to have a good time.

Sam recently contributed to a new book:

In October 2011, the Walt Disney World Resort celebrates its 40th Anniversary.
To commemorate this anniversary, Ayefour Publishing will release "Four Decades of Magic: Celebrating the First Forty Years of Disney World".

For this special anniversary, "Four Decades of Magic" brings together over 20 of
the world's leading Disney experts in a compilation of essays exploring many of
the most magical moments from Disney World's first forty years.

Whether you are a long-time visitor to Disney World or a first time guest, "Four
Decades of Magic" presents an exciting glimpse into the unique moments,
attractions, and people that, over the last four decades, have made Disney
World the planet's leading theme park resort destination. I have contributed a
chapter entitled Walt Disney's EPCOT and the Heart of Our Cities.

"Four Decades of Magic" is now available in both hard copy and Kindle version
at Amazon.

As the Walt Disney World Resort nears this magical milestone, no other book
brings together a more complete account of this significant achievement, as
does "Four Decades of Magic".

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  1. Monorail Man's Avatar
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    Crazy article, but I loved it! City planning has always been part of my interests, and it's fun to apply the same logic to ToonTown!
  2. Petchaurus's Avatar
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    This is excellent, interesting, and crazy all at the same time. I can't believe that this made sense to me. Well done man!
  3. Mousecat's Avatar
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    Thanks. I will confess the first time it hit me that Toontown really does follow this pattern I just kept muttering to myself out loud going - Wow. Just for fun, try applying the transect to your own community. It is amazing but it does work.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  4. Let's Enunciate's Avatar
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    Surprisingly interesting. I wonder how an analysis of other lands of Disneyland would go, or if the other lands are supposed to only represent one or two sectors and not all of them.
  5. Disneykin Kid's Avatar
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    Great article, I wish they would be leaves on Chip and Dale's Treehouse, do they think people won't notice?
  6. Timekeeper's Avatar
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    Interesting article.

  7. wonderpeep's Avatar
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    Great piece. I did laugh at the quote about What City Planning Is by John Nolen, Comprehensive Plan for San Diego 1926... I am a San Diego native, and it is a terribly planned city! Too bad they did not re-read the quote before building here ; )
  8. Mousecat's Avatar
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    I have looked at the other lands and none of them fit so neatly into the Urban Transect box. Most of the other lands represent just slices of the gradient. That is one reason why I think Disneyland's Toontown has always felt right while the one if Florida left something to be desired.

    Thanks for the nice comments. Not your typical MiceChat type blog. I will be getting back to the regular program next week.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  9. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    Mickey's Toontown was consciously designed with the rural-to-urban Transect in mind. It was really the only way to put Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit together in a world that made any sense.

    Transects are so important, and they've been almost completely destroyed by cars, oil, and freeways, as well as by Euclidean zoning, over the last 60 years. So, we need form-based codes, like the SmartCode that Andres Duany has proposed, to correct the damaging influence of these forces, especially here in southern California.
    Updated 06-05-2011 at 10:53 PM by PragmaticIdealist
  10. Mousecat's Avatar
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    For those not familiar with the SmartCode that PragmaticIdealist was talking about the SmartCode provides a regulatory device that allows for smart growth to flourish. It is different then the usual regulatory tools. Typically, a city is managed through the zoning code, and building codes. Zoning is generally concerned with how a building relates to its surroundings. Building codes are primarily concerned with how a building works in and of itself.
    The goals for smart growth are to strengthen existing communities, preserve open space, and build compact, walkable communities with a variety of transportation. Smart growth tries to create housing choices and beautiful communities. The public is encouraged to participate and the policies provide a level of clarity and certainty.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  11. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    Goofy presumably lives in an apartment attached to the gas station, so there may be some residential in T4.
  12. Mousecat's Avatar
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    Goofy moved upward. Now he has a single family house across the street. In Euclidian zoning, the apartment was probably a non-conforming use. I will check it out. Thanks.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  13. PragmaticIdealist's Avatar
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    Oh, that's right. I can't believe I forgot that Goofy has his own house. Mickey's Toontown doesn't really appeal to me, so I pretend it doesn't exist sometimes.