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Mickey's Toontown Fair: The Cartoon Tale Behind Magic Kingdom's Only Lost Land

Mickey’s Birthdayland opened on June 18, 1988, finally giving Disney guests a glimpse into the world Mickey Mouse called home.

Four days later, on June 22, 1988, a radical new film was released in theaters… And this is where the long-standing story of the land dedicated to Mickey Mouse takes a surprising and cross-continental turn.

The new big cheese

Image: Disney

Long-standing readers of our Lost Legends series will likely know well the story of Michael Eisner, the controversial and cutting-edge CEO whose 1984 entry heralded in a new era at Disney. Eisner – coming to Disney from a time as CEO of Paramount Pictures – knew that the key to reviving Disney’s tarnished and stagnant brand rested in movies, and he set out to end the cinematic slump that Walt Disney Productions had endured in the decade after Walt’s death.

It’s well known by most Disney fans that Eisner kicked-off the so-called Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s, when the art form of animation was revived by hit after hit after hit at the box office including The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas.

Image: Disney

Likewise, many of our readers have seen time and time again as Eisner’s cinematic styling served to resurrect Disney’s parks, injecting the parks with the stories, characters, celebrities, and settings that mattered to modern audiences… even if they weren’t Disney stories! That’s how we ended up with Lost Legends: Captain EOSTAR TOURS, Alien Encounter, The Great Movie Ride, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to name just a few.

Eisner drew on his industry contracts to build previously-unimaginable connections with George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and CBS, inviting some of the industry’s biggest stars and hottest filmmakers to become part of Disney Parks.

 

But to grow his burgeoning Walt Disney Company beyond its cartoon origins, Eisner also needed to turn Walt Disney Productions into a powerful name in the traditional movie business, which is why he empowered the Touchstone Pictures label – a Disney-owned production company who could release more serious, adult-oriented motion pictures that the Disney label might otherwise detract from.

And just four days after the opening of Mickey’s Birthdayland, Disney’s Touchstone Pictures released what may be one of its most acclaimed and celebrated films ever… one that would reshape Mickey’s Birthdayland – if only by accident.

Mouse meets rabbit

Eisner was a leader who was thinking big. And as he’d done for Disney’s parks and would soon do to its animation, he was determined to bring Disney back onto the movie scene in a big way. 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the first step. Based on a 1981 novel by Gary K. Wolf, the film would be very unlike anything Disney had done before for a number of reasons.

Image: Disney / Amblin

First of all, the film (directed by Robert Zemeckis, still fresh off of Back to the Future) would well represent Eisner’s new direction… big names, big stars, and big budgets. Reportedly topping $70 million, Roger Rabbit would be among the most expensive films ever produced.

Second, the movie would be quite unlike Disney’s fairytales of old. Set in a gritty 1940s Hollywood, the film is a comedic mystery detective caper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? follows the investigation of Roger (a cartoon rabbit), who’s the number one suspect in the murder of inventor and Toontown owner Marvin Acme (who, coincidentally, was caught playing patty-cake – yes, literally – with Roger’s voluptuous wife Jessica Rabbit the night before his demise…). Like all great, pulpy, serial private eye films, the movie was over the top, dramatic, and seemed to barely squeak by with a “PG” rating from the MPAA. Still, the Touchstone label was meant to set this more adult-oriented film apart from its animated brethren.

Third, Roger Rabbit did something no one had quite seen before: it perfectly integrated animation into a live action film. That was necessary given that the movie explored the “real” lives of the animated “Toons” once they leave their Max Fleischer-stylized Toontown neighborhood of Los Angeles and enter our world for their on-screen day-jobs – a groundbreaking synchronization of live action footage and actors interacting with animated characters. The viral appeal of such an unimaginable medium earned Roger Rabbit universal critical acclaim and turned it into one of the top twenty highest-grossing films ever at the time of its release.

Mickey’s Starland (1990)

Image: Disney

As Roger Rabbit swept up awards at the 1989 Academy Awards, Disney began tinkering with Mickey’s Birthdayland. Despite the land’s temporary nature, it proved to be unexpectedly popular with guests… popular enough to warrant its extended stay. Of course, with Mickey’s 1988 anniversary two years in the past, Disney decided to integrate the popular characters from their Disney Channel Afternoon programming block. Characters from Duck Tales, TaleSpin, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers (and later, Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop) joined the shows in the circus tents, and the land was re-named Mickey’s Starland.

Since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the hot new property sweeping pop culture, Imagineers reportedly looked at ways to incorporate Roger Rabbit into Starland. But as tends to happen at Walt Disney Imagineering, plans for the now-blockbuster Rabbit ballooned and migrated...

Hooray for Hollywood

Image: Disney

With the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eisner’s Disney had its first taste of success. For the first time since Walt’s time, Disney had a new, valuable intellectual property of its own! At once, Imagineers were tasked with finding a way to incorporate the zany world of Roger Rabbit into Disney Parks. That’s why the early-90s are marked with numerous concepts involving Roger Rabbit that simply didn’t make it off the drawing board.

The still-new Disney-MGM Studios that opened in 1989 seemed like a natural fit. After all, the theme park portion of the movie studio was dedicated to a Hollywood of the 1930s and ‘40s, and guest feedback suggested that the park needed more to do than the three rides it featured at the time – the Great Movie Ride, STAR TOURS, and the unfortunate subject of a Disaster File: The Backstage Studio Tour.

Image: Disney / Amblin

One of the most well known concepts to come of this era was a planned expansion to the park in the style of Sunset Blvd., recreating the darker side of the Golden Age of Tinseltown. Naturally, this new part of the park would offer a descent into Toontown aboard Roger Rabbit’s Toontown Trolley – a wild and whacky simulator through the animated neighborhoods of Hollywood. (If successful, there were already plans to bring the ride to Disneyland in a new purpose-built Hollywoodland constructed off of the park’s Main Street.)

Image: Disney

But the centerpiece of the land – its reason for existing – would be Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers, a massively-scaled shoot-‘em-up dark ride based on the 1930s serial police detective character and, more importantly, Touchstone’s 1990 live-action adaptation starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Dick van Dyke, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, Catherine O’Hara, and a cavalcade of Hollywood stars. As with Roger Rabbit, Disney bet big on this more adult offering released through Touchstone. But unlike Zemeckis’ cutting edge animated film, Dick Tracy was only a moderate hit at the box office and failed to make a lasting impression on the public.

Obviously, Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers was stopped in its tracks and the expansion of the Disney-MGM Studios was put off until the creation of the Modern Marvel: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

What does Roger Rabbit have to do with Mickey’s Birthdayland, or even the Mickey’s Toontown Fair we’re here to revisit? Across the country, Imagineers in Anaheim were looking carefully at how best to integrate Roger Rabbit into Disneyland and how to capture the success of Florida's Mickey Mouse land. Aha! The ideas coalesced into one singular land that could house both...

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