BYE-BYE TOONTOWN? (VINTAGE COLUMN)

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although unconfirmed at this writing, rumor has it that Disneyland will be razing Toontown for its new Star Wars Land. Roger Rabbit has fallen out of favor and his domain is not the destination it once was, so it seems likely. Which reminded me that I wrote about the place when it opened. This story, headlined ‘Mickey’s Toontown: Disneyland’s Newest Attraction,’ was published in the Deseret News on June 13, 1993.

The Jolly Trolley rolls up and down its lumpy track, Mickey and Minnie's homes have the bulging, rounded look of their cartoon inspirations and there's a TNT plunger that can be used to "blow up" the Fireworks Factory, complete with whistling sound effects and billowing smoke.

Welcome to Mickey's Toontown, Disneyland's newest park-within-the-park — apparently the Disney section of that animated city we first saw in the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." You won't find Bugs, Daffy, Betty Boop or Popeye here but Donald, Goofy, Pluto and the rest of the Disney gang — including Roger Rabbit — are everywhere.

Toontown, located directly behind Fantasyland's "It's a Small World" is unquestionably unique. Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland have rides, exhibits and displays that often appeal more to older children and adults, but Toontown was created specifically with the very young in mind.

Whereas the preschool and gradeschool set might be discouraged from "touching, turning and squeezing" elsewhere, Toontown invites every age to have a hands-on experience.

As you enter Mickey's Toontown, it feels as if you've been transported to another, albeit animated, world. On the mountains to the rear of the town is the giant "Toon Town" sign, resembling the "Hollywood" sign in the hills above Los Angeles. Immediately to your right is a fountain with a statue of Roger Rabbit (with water spraying from a broken fire hydrant), and nearby is the Cab Co. (the yellow cab from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" bursting out of the second floor wall above the entrance), along with a wild interactive ride, Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin.

The downtown area has an industrial zone, complete with a (broken) Glass Factory, a Gag Warehouse (where, we are told, "rib-ticklers, rip-snorters, slapsticks and wisecracks" are stored) and a Safe Company (with a fallen safe wedged into the ground). There's also a commercial center, with the aforementioned Fireworks Factory, a Dog Pound (with rubber bars you can sneak through) and Post Office (a mailbox and various character's post office boxes spew one-liners). And the Toontown Square, where you'll find the Skool, Planning Commission (with an offbeat sign out front), 3rd Little Piggy Bank, Department of Ink & Paint, etc.

There are puns, sight gags and throwaway jokes everywhere, things subtle enough that only parents will get them, and others loud and silly enough to tickle the small fry: Goofy's Gas Station has pumps filled with water — and fish! The City Hall building is capped by the Clockenspiel tower, where, at odd times throughout the day, bells ring, whistles blow and figures of Mickey Mouse and Roger Rabbit shoot out of cannons, blowing on shiny trumpets until flowers pop out.

As you make your way into the suburbs, you'll find that Mickey and Minnie's houses are right next door to each other (draw your own conclusions), while across the street are Goofy's Bounce House (an inflated abode where guests can literally bounce off the walls), Donald's boathouse (named "Miss Daisy," of course) and the Chip 'n Dale Tree Slide (complete with thousands of acorns that kids can dive into).

And inside each building are more uncountable gags, many coming to life as buttons are pushed and cords are pulled, ranging from amusing book titles on Mickey's living room shelves to the answering machine message on his telephone to the food labels in Minnie's refrigerator to the cake that inflates and then deflates in her oven. (There's also a telling catalog on a table in Minnie's living room — "Jessica's Secrets," with a slinky picture of Jessica Rabbit on the cover!)

LEGEND HAS IT that Mickey's Toontown was established by Mickey Mouse in the 1930s, after he had become a big star with his partner Walt Disney. It was a quiet little place, more rural than it is now, where Mickey could relax between pictures.

When other toons heard about Toontown, many began to buy property and move in, so that it wasn't long before Mickey was surrounded by his pals and colleagues.

"It's been here since before Disneyland," says Marty Sklar, president of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Walt built Disneyland around Toontown."

As the years passed, Mickey and his friends kept quiet about the whereabouts of Toontown, with few humans ever having the opportunity to see the unique cartoon village. It is said, however, that Walt Disney got the guided tour from Mickey himself in the early 1950s and was seen sitting on Mickey's porch, discussing plans for a dream theme park he wanted to build someday.

When Disneyland became a reality, it was built, purely by coincidence, very close to the secret Toontown entrance. And now, more than 60 years later, Mickey has opened Toontown to the general human public for the first time.

THE FIRST THING that may strike adults who enter Toontown is that everything seems shapeless and bloblike, yet colorful and bright. The buildings are an architect's nightmare, with internal steel structures built to meet California codes and outer designs that appear to be right out of the old classic Disney cartoons.

"Everything about Toontown was challenging," says Mickey Steinberg, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering. "There are no two lines in it that are straight. It was a very whimsical concept and we had to pursue that throughout. It was probably the most fun that you can imagine doing, but on the other hand it was most challenging."

"It's visual candy," according to Dave Burkhart, Imagineering senior show producer. "Where else can you literally walk into this cartoon environment? It is so large and so complex and so colorful and so true that it literally blows people away because you can't experience it anywhere else."

Disney CEO Michael Eisner says this is an attraction whose time has definitely come. "We have had many years of being kind of unhappy with the length of the lines on the Dumbo ride and (other) rides in Fantasyland. We have needed to grow in the area of things for kids, young kids — under 6, under 10 — and we think that Toontown has such an appeal for young kids that it will relieve the lines in Fantasyland and on Small World. It gives us more capacity for our very youngest guests."

But Steinberg notes that Toontown is not exclusively for children: "I think Toontown is also for adults. All adults were once children and this reminds them, and they enjoy going back to their childhood and remembering these cartoons from their childhood."

Eisner says Toontown is also an example of the Disney company's continued dedication to growth and development. "Toontown is an investment, but it's a continuing investment. Disneyland is the tentpole of the entire Walt Disney Company. It is the first attraction that Walt built, and irrespective of anything else we do in the United States, around the world or in California specifically, we will always keep Disneyland changing and growing, and we will continue to invest in it."

Though he expresses great satisfaction that Toontown opened on time and on budget, Eisner declines to specify what that budget was (estimates from $30 million to $100 million were being bandied about by some of the press at the Toontown grand opening in January.)

"We never announce figures and costs of individual attractions," he explains. "We would like our guests to assume that Mickey and Minnie were back there building it quietly over the years and did it out of love, and economics had nothing to do with it. Talking about money at Disneyland is distasteful."

Eisner doesn't mind prepping us for Disneyland's next big attraction, however, scheduled to open sometime in 1995. "It will be the Indiana Jones attraction, which will be (using) a new technology that has never been used before — so new in fact that I'm not even going to mention it for fear that somebody else may try to beat us to it.

"It will be using the Indiana Jones characters and mythology and George Lucas. It will be probably the single biggest ride that the company has done."

Chris Hicks toured Toontown at its grand opening in January as the guest of Disneyland and Delta Air Lines.