Before Mickey's Toontown

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In November 2021, Disney announced that Mickey's Toontown in Disneyland will receive a makeover. Mickey's Toontown will close in March 2022 and is scheduled to reopen in early 2023.

Along with the addition of the Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway attraction, guests will first see CenTOONial Park when they enter. This natural space will be anchored by two interactive play experiences. At the center of CenTOONial Park will be a fountain, designed for play, which will also become a center icon for Mickey's Toontown.

As its base, water tables will invite guests to play with the water and have a sensory experience. At night, the fountain will be "brought to life in a unique spectacle."

A nearby dreaming tree will be inspired by the tree a young Walt Disney would daydream under in his hometown. Sculpted tree roots will provide an opportunity for children to play, crawl and explore, and undulating topography will offer rolling hills and a place to sit and dream.

Since its opening in 1993, most guests just accept that Mickey's Toontown was the first choice for the area. That is not the case.

Tokyo Disneyland has limited room for expansion but continually wanted to add new things. At one time, the Oriental Land Company that owns the park was seriously considering adding a Mickeyville long before the idea of Disneyland's Mickey's Toontown was proposed. It was inspired by the Magic Kingdom's Mickey's Birthdayland (1988) and later Mickey's Starland (1990).

Mickeyville (located in the spot of land between Autopia and Small World) would have been based on a medieval theme using Mickey Mouse's appearances in films like The Brave Little Tailor (1938) and Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947) much like the Sir Mickey's store at the Magic Kingdom that was inspired by this early design work for Mickeyville.

The cobblestone walls and tile roofs in the artwork for Pinocchio (1940) was used as an architectural reference by Imagineer Bob Weis along with two Japanese artists who designed Disney theme park attractions.

Houses of various Disney animated characters would be built. Some would just be facades while others would offer guests the opportunity to come inside and explore, such as Donald Duck's house boat.

The location of the house boat would have also served as a dock for the land's only ride where elaborately carved wooden boats would have taken guests on a leisurely watery journey through the land. Primarily Mickeyville was meant to be an opportunity for a dedicated area for character meet-and-greets.

There would have been a Minnie's Candy Palace that looked like it was made of different candy and Mickey's Music Store with a musical instrument decorated façade that sold CDs, sheet music and more. A large indoor Mickey Theater was to be built to showcase the elaborate stage shows popular at the park.

With a number of delays in proceeding, the OLC discovered that a team of Imagineers at the Walt Disney Company was developing a Toontown concept and so decided to wait to see how that evolved. When it became a success, Tokyo Disneyland went with a version of that land in 1996 that saved the OLC both time and money.

However, before Mickey's Toontown, the space at Disneyland was earmarked for other now forgotten projects.

Dumbo's Circusland

When Storybook Circus opened at Walt Disney World in March 2012, most Disney park fans were unaware that the first proposal for a section of a Disney theme park to be devoted to Dumbo and cartoony circus attractions was in 1974.

The premise of the Magic Kingdom Storybook Circus is that a traveling circus has just come into town, just like in the animated feature film Dumbo (1940) with all the bright colors and lively music. In the pavement, the circus animals have left behind their footprints, and the elephants even dropped a few peanut shells.

Dumbo's Circusland was the first idea planned for the spot where Mickey's Toontown now stands.

In the area is the Casey Jr. Soak 'N' Splash Station; the Dumbo attraction that is now a double spinner flying in opposite directions, with a Big Top interactive waiting queue; the family friendly roller coaster Barnstormer featuring Goofy as the Great Goofini: as well as Big Top Souvenirs shop for merchandise and the Big Top Treats for snacks. Pete's Silly Sideshow features meet-and-greets with Disney costumed characters.

While the specifics were different, the new area used much of the same thematic elements to guide its aesthetic choices that was in the 1974 Dumbo's Circusland proposal.

Dumbo's Circus was also the title of a live action/puppet television series that aired on The Disney Channel from May 1985 until February 28, 1997.

The cast members were human-sized anthropomorphic animals played by people in puppet suits using technology developed by Ken Forsse, the creator of the talking toy Teddy Ruxpin. In the show, Dumbo had grown up, was able to speak, and now operated his own circus.

He and a cast of characters who each had a particular talent would fly from town to town in a wagon pulled through the air by Dumbo and perform their "greatest little show on earth".

At Walt Disney World Dumbo's Circus Parade ran from January 2 through December 21, 1979. It featured clowns wearing masks instead of make-up who performed tricks. A Casey Jr. train was driven by an engineer, and a clown firehouse featured Dumbo looking out the window with the flames on the building. Firefighter clowns marched nearby.

Minnie appeared as a trapeze artist, Donald as a fortune teller, and Goofy as a strong man. Mickey was dressed as a ringmaster, but the ringmaster character from "Dumbo" also appeared in the parade.

Other characters like Captain Hook, Br'er Bear, Pooh, Chip'n'Dale and more appeared near circus themed items on floats. Sometimes actual circus performers appeared on the floats doing acts like juggling or walking on a tightrope. So having a Dumbo circus themed area already had some precedents.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, it featured two popular attractions inspired by Dumbo. The Dumbo the Flying Elephant spinner attraction is in Fantasyland where guests fly into the sky inside the adorable elephant. The attraction now appears in Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Also in Disneyland's Fantasyland is the iconic Casey Jr. Circus Train.

It just seemed natural to showcase Dumbo in a circus setting, which is why when plans were made to expand Disneyland in 1974 to accommodate more attendance that having a Dumbo circus area seemed like a good idea.

Frontierland would be expanded into a Discovery Bay section designed by Imagineer Tony Baxter, and it would be connected by a hot air balloon skyway attraction called Professor Marvel's Western Balloon Ascent to Dumbo's Circusland designed by Imagineer Tom Scherman.

This new area would have been located approximately on five acres where Mickey's Toontown is currently situated. All the show buildings would be covered with striped circus tent awnings and the entrance would be decorated with attraction posters and bunting to give the impression that a traveling circus had just arrived.

A clown themed restaurant would be the main eating location and feature carnival styled food offerings. A small merry-go-round for younger guests called Circus Parade would feature carved giraffes, lions and other circus animals for children to ride.

The land was occasionally referred to as just Dumbo's Circus or Dumbo's Storybook Circus and was announced to open in 1976.

A 1/20th scale model was built of Discovery Bay and Dumbo's Circusland and displayed in Disneyland's Town Square in the former Wurlitzer Music Hall building that housed from 1973 to 1989 an exhibit entitled "Disneyland Presents a Preview of Coming Attractions".

Disney Legend Ward Kimball served as a creative consultant for the new Dumbo's Circusland and claimed the original animated feature was one of his favorite Disney films to work on during his time as an animator.

The Dumbo spinner attraction would have been moved out of Fantasyland and relocated and set on an elevated platform to be the prominent centerpiece of the new land. The Casey Jr. Circus Train would also have been diverted to this new location.

Three new attractions would have been built including a Pinocchio dark ride attraction very similar to Pinocchio's Daring Journey that was added to Disneyland's Fantasyland in 1983. It would have had some differences as well, including an additional scene in the queue waiting area called Stromboli's Little Puppet Theater.

Kimball was directly involved in the creation of the Mickey's Mad House attraction that was meant to immerse guests into classic black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons. Outside the circular show building decorated with images of classic Mickey Mouse was a small water fountain with a tiny clown fireman somewhat resembling Kimball spluttering water from a fire hose.

Inside, Kimball had designed an attraction that would utilize the traditional amusement park Wild Mouse Coaster that would careen back and forth. It would be similar to the Primeval Whirl attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom but entirely enclosed so that guests would not be able to see clearly when it would veer back and forth or suddenly drop.

The premise was that guests were inside one of Mickey Mouse's classic cartoons and the attraction would use film projections, simple audio-animatronics figures, real sets and plywood cut outs. Excerpts from five or six of Mickey's cartoons would be utilized and brisk ragtime music would be played in the background to try to create a frenetic, "mad" atmosphere.

In July 1983, Imagineer Marty Sklar contacted Kimball about the possibility of reviving the Mickey Madhouse idea for Epcot. Work on that evolved into a pavilion devoted to showing how a Mickey Mouse cartoon was made.

Mickey's Mad House would have taken riders on a wild mouse coaster ride through early Mickey Mouse cartoons.

The third new attraction would have been an elaborate "E Ticket" audio-animatronics show called Circus Disney that was somewhat reminiscent of the recently opened Mickey Mouse Revue in Walt Disney World but would carry guests on some type of track.

The attraction would feature not only characters from Dumbo, but other animal and fantasy characters that did not quite fit into other areas of the park. These characters included the Reluctant Dragon, characters from The Jungle Book, and the "Dance of the Hours" animals from Fantasia. Each would have their own circus act.

One section was devoted to the Wild Animal Menagerie which would feature Dumbo, Horace Horsecollar, and Elliot the dragon.

Press material released in the 1970s indicated that the ride would have featured a new ride system of motion for guests that was never fully described. Guests would have been whisked through the Wild Animal Menagerie and then fly down the circus midway with Dumbo himself.

In the finale, daredevil acts in a three-ring setting under the Big Top would feature the Flying Goofys and the Disney Bears Pyramid. There would even be a clown alley with Disney characters.

When the Walt Disney Company decided not to pursue building Discovery Bay and company finances and other resources were being shifted to building Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland, Dumbo's Circusland also disappeared.

Big Town USA

Big Town USA (sometimes referred to as Big City USA) was intended to be located also in the area that is now occupied by Mickey's Toontown.

While the front of Disneyland featured Main Street USA depicting a turn-of-the-century small town experience, the back of the park would showcase a stylized re-creation of turn-of-the-century New York, one of the biggest cities in the United States at that time.

The story line was that guests would journey from a small town to the big, urban city as many Americans did at the turn of the century.

With increasing attendance at the park, the Walt Disney Company realized it needed to expand beyond the established berm to accommodate this growing need.

At first, Dumbo's Circusland was going to be showcased there, but when plans for that proposed addition were cancelled the Phase II Disneyland Expansion Plan around 1976 detailed building Big Town USA:

"The theme of this new land could be developed around the Big Town setting. This would enable the use of shops and food facilities of a variety of sizes and types, which were all parts of the city at the turn of the century.

"An automat, a cafeteria, even a small delicatessen are all good themes for food services.

"Several other legitimate Big Town elements could be used that are not properly themed elsewhere in the Park. An indoor theater [with] 3,000 seats could be included for live stage shows with big name talent. It could house a Golden Horseshoe type experience … [with] a Ziegfeld [Follies] theme that could include a dinner with the show.

"The use of our existing railroad in an elevated fashion would serve as another visual attraction while adding a new dimension to our steam trains.

"Part of America that was once very exciting and has since died out is the old carni-amusement park. The use of a Victorian style playland could show this piece of our history in a themed area.

"A ferris wheel, roller coaster and small water sports such as paddle boats could be included by extending our Rivers of America. Other elements might be the entrance of a time machine ride through an old subway.

"One of the problems that currently exists with [Disneyland's] parade route is that its length limits the [number] of guests who can watch any one performance. [Adding to the existing parade route] would help ease this problem."

So to accommodate the expected influx of greater attendance, this new "land" would extend the story of Main Street USA and solve several challenges including additional attractions and a large indoor theater space that could also be used for conventions or events.

A "Victorian style playland" reminiscent of Coney Island would have provided opportunities for up to 2,550 guests per hour. The elaborate subway time machine-type ride would have handled up to 3,600 guests per hour.

It was never quite clear why a New York subway would house vehicles that would operate like time machines or where the experience would actually take guests. However, it was touted as an E-Ticket attraction.

Of course, a New York delicatessen would be a natural choice and offer a unique dining experience in the park. Delicatessen is a term meaning "fine food" or "delicacies".

The word has its roots from French and German, and it was German-Jewish immigrants who first introduced what are now considered delicatessens to New York City starting in the 1880s. The food establishments then spread around the country offering meat, cheeses, bagels, pretzels, seltzer water and more.

However, it was always New York City that was known for the finest delicatessens like 2nd Ave Deli, The Stage Deli, The Carnegie Deli, and Katz' Deli (where a memorable scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally was filmed) among others.

An automat was an early type of vending machine that took nickels and offered a wide variety of food options and was also closely associated with New York City.

The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, hinged at the top, and remove the food item, usually wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were replenished by workers from the kitchen behind the windows.

The first automat in the United States was opened by Horn & Hardart in Philadelphia in 1902. Horn & Hardart opened one in New York City in 1912 and it became a popular dining option in northern industrial cities. At one time, there were forty Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone.

Walt Disney and his brother Roy frequented and enjoyed eating at an automat as did many others who were struggling with their finances. By the 1970s the traditional automat had all but disappeared for a variety of reasons.

At the time, the Walt Disney Company assets and resources were over-committed elsewhere including the development of Epcot on the east coast. Hopes that the project might continue after that park was built were shattered by new CEO, Michael Eisner, who was more interested in a different kind of expansion including partnering with filmmaker George Lucas.

Ideas for Big City USA did eventually get utilized in Disney California Adventure's Paradise Pier area and a Ziegfield-type theater was finally built as part of the American Waterfront at Tokyo DisneySea.

It is always fascinating to investigate how things developed at Disneyland and to be reminded of Marty Sklar's philosophy that no good idea should be thrown away but simply shelved until the right time and location could be found to utilize it.