Farewell to Toontown Fair

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I have mixed feelings about the destruction of the Toontown Fair area at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. I greatly enjoyed the whole concept of a land where Toons lived, especially Mickey and Minnie’s country cottages, and the wonderful attention to playful detail throughout the area. On the other hand, I can understand the appeal of expanding Fantasyland and re-purposing the area that entertained countless guests for two decades.

Today, the Disney Company no longer celebrates Mickey’s birthday because some marketing guru decided that if it were advertised that Mickey was 75 years old or more that people would start to think of him as an “old” character and of course, Disney wants people to think of Mickey as “young and hip and groovy” (an actual official quote from several years ago). So now, the celebration centers on the vague “celebrating 80 years with Mickey” rather than an actual birthday celebration.

Earlier birthday celebrations were truly memorable occasions. In 1988, for Mickey’s 60th, there were special parties around the world; his own television special where, while fooling around with the Sorcerer’s Hat, Mickey gets lost and has to be found by Roger Rabbit; a special magazine (with a “faux” collector’s cel) titled “Mickey Is Sixty” devoted specifically to the occasion, in addition to countless general magazine coverage; an appearance on a float in the Rose Parade; the “Party Mickey” hot air balloon; new merchandise; and much, much more, including his very own land at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

There was trouble in the Disney kingdom in 1987. The biggest guest complaint at the Magic Kingdom was that guests weren’t always guaranteed an opportunity to meet Mickey Mouse in person and snap a souvenir photograph or get an autograph. In addition, the accountanteers saw that when Epcot opened, there was a huge drop in attendance the previous year at the Magic Kingdom since guests were saving their money and vacation for year so they could enjoy both parks. In 1989, not only was the Disney-MGM Studios going to open but also the delayed Pleasure Island and Typhoon Lagoon. And, of course, there would be a huge promotional push for Mickey’s 60th birthday and something was needed at the Magic Kingdom to capitalize on that grand event.

Michael Eisner and Frank Wells gave the immediate green light to creating a special land at the Magic Kingdom to celebrate Mickey’s special birthday: Mickey’s Birthdayland. It was planned to only be there for 18 months (or as cynics have often labeled it, “a Disney year”) and there was only three months for it to go through the design process. The area included some backstage land near Fantasyland, but the Grand Prix Raceway (now known as the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway), had to have its track moved and shortened in order to allow for construction of the location.

It would solve the problems of having something major to encourage guests not to postpone their visit to the Magic Kingdom, something to help focus the 60th birthday celebration, and, most importantly, something that was guaranteed to provide guests with an interaction with Mickey Mouse.

Brightly colored circus tents seemed very much in keeping with the party spirit and would be easy to put up quickly for the temporary location. Imagineer Steve Hansen was the show writer and the director for the first new land added to the Magic Kingdom. It was also the smallest land at the Magic Kingdom. Instead of having guests trudge through the park to get to the out-of-the-way location, a new train station stop was created just before the Tomorrowland. The train that circled the park was re-named “Mickey’s Birthdayland Express” and was decorated for Mickey’s surprise party. Ron Schneider, the original actor who portrayed the walkaround character of Dreamfinder at Epcot, wrote and sang the song on the train as it passed little scenes along the way showing the rest of the Disney characters on their way to the event.

The Three Little Pigs in their house of straw were on a raft in a nearby waterway. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was abandoned in the woods with a sign declaring “Gone to Mickey’s Party”. Pinocchio and friends were by Stromboli’s wagon stopping for a moment for a puppet show. All of these were two-dimensional cut outs, since the time and budget did not permit three-dimensional figures.

Cindy Williams (of the then popular television program Laverne & Shirley) and First Lady Nancy Reagan were on hand to open Mickey’s Birthday Land on June 18, 1988 with Williams cutting the ribbon officially dedicating the area.

Where did the toons live? Duckburg! Yes, a town with a population of “bill’ions and still growing. A town that’s everything it’s quacked up to be!” With streets named Tailfeather Trail, Quackfaster Circle, Cornhusker Lane and, of course, “Barks & Nash” (after famed Donald Duck comic book writer and artist Carl Barks, and the voice of Donald Duck, Clarence Nash), it was just ducky with its quickly done two-dimensional storefront facades. Only Mickey’s house would be a somewhat solid structure that would allow guests to enter and explore, and it was much different from the cottage in Mickey’s Toontown Fair. This original house had straight exterior architectural lines rather than the curvy and toony later design, the layout of the interior rooms was different, and outside the house was parked Mickey’s balloon tired car with the license plate “Mik N Min” (now on a shelf in Mickey’s garage).

Why Duckburg, the famed city of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and all their friends?

First, the animated syndicated television series Duck Tales, featuring the adventures of Uncle Scrooge and the nephews in Duckburg, had premiered to great success beginning in September 1987. Second, show writer Steve Hansen was unfamiliar with any city associated with Mickey Mouse other than Burbank or Hollywood. (In the comic books at the time, there had been an attempt to call Mickey’s hometown, Mouseville, but it never caught on and neither did a later attempt to call it Mouseton, as in “Houston.”) However, Hansen was a fan of Carl Barks’ work on the Disney ducks. Third, the popular film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that would make Toontown both the official home for all toons and a place that was readily embraced by the public, would not debut until June 22, 1988—after the land was built. However, that film’s success was so instantaneous and overwhelming that Roger Rabbit was soon shoehorned into Mickey’s Birthday Land.

In keeping with the history that Barks had created for Duckburg there was a statue of Cornelius Coot, the founder of Duckburg. He was Donald Duck’s great-great-grandfather and supposedly scared off Spanish soliders who were attacking Ft. Duckburg by popping corn to fool them into thinking reinforcements had arrived and were firing off their guns.

Coot also piped mountain water into the area that allowed corn crops to flourish. So that is why Coot is proudly holding out an ear of corn and why the statue was in a water fountain. The statue was an accurate recreation of the one that appeared in the comic book story Statuesque Spendthrifts by Carl Barks in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories No. 138. That statue remained when the area became Toontown Fair where Coot was retroactively also made the founder of the Toontown Fair especially since his corn crop fit in nicely with the Fair story of exhibiting prize produce.

Mickey’s Birthdayland also a playground and a topiary/shrub maze. Nearby was Grandma Duck's petting farm, presented by Friskies, filled with goats, pigs, ducks, miniature horses, and chickens. The star of the farm was Minnie Moo the cow, who had the iconic three black circled Mickey Mouse head silhouette on one side of her white body. (Just like the cow, Mickey Moo, at the Big Thunder Ranch at Disneyland.) She was later moved along with the other animals to Fort Wilderness and died in the summer of 2001. The buildings now used as the WACKY radio station (that's why the rowdy rooster announcer is Red Barns because he broadcasts from a red barn with “All Country, All the Toon”) and the queue entrance for Goofy’s Barnstormer were part of Grandma Duck's Farm, but the real chickens were replaced by Audio-Animatronics ones from the World of Motion attraction at Epcot that closed in 1996 to make room for Test Track. WACKY radio is playing on the radio inside Minnie’s Country Cottage.

Donald Duck had a boat, the S.S. Donald, but it was only a façade like the ones for the Duckburg News (founded 1928), Goofy’s Clip Joint barber shop, HD&L Toys (Huey, Dewey and Louie), Duck County School, and more. It wasn’t until Mickey’s Toontown Fair that the boat became three dimensional and was renamed the “Miss Daisy” in honor of Donald’s girlfriend Daisy, who also modeled for the figurehead. Not only is Donald’s sailor suit hung out to dry on the rigging above the ship, but a careful look from a distance at the ship reveals that is resembles Donald himself with the yellow cabin as a beak, the roof being a blue sailor cap, etc. The mysterious hole in the side of the ship is explained by a picture inside Mickey’s Country House that shows a huge shark taking a large bite out of the boat, which is why it is probably dry docked across the street.

However, most guests rushed to the Birthday Party Tent. After watching Disney cartoons in the preshow area, guests could see a show called Minnie's Surprise Party. Management wanted it called Mickey’s Party, but Hansen fought for the title because he had based it on the classic 1939 cartoon and wanted to retain elements of a surprise party, including a cake cooked by Goofy in an oven with a “volcano heat” dial (a gag that still survives on the ovens of Mickey and Minnie’s kitchens in Toontown Fair). Reportedly, in the beginning, the show ran 44 times in a day.

After the show, guests would proceed to Mickey’s dressing room and visit with the birthday boy to get an autograph or a photo.

The area was so popular that instead of closing after 18 months, it remained open until April 22, 1990, and only closed at that time so the area could be re-themed as Mickey’s Starland, which opened on May 26, 1990. Since the birthday theme was no longer appropriate and it was hoped that the land could promote the Disney television stars of the Disney Afternoon syndicated television package.

The Duckburg facades were updated, looking very similar to the ones that would grace Disney Afternoon Avenue near Videopolis at Disneyland in 1991.

The song on the train was modified, and it was no longer Mickey’s Birthdayland Express. Minnie’s Surprise Party was replaced by Mickey’s Magical TV World that featured characters from the Disney Afternoon television shows. The show was continually changed to showcase the new shows. It premiered with the Gummi Bears, who were replaced in 1991 by Darkwing Duck. The Ducktales characters were later replaced by characters from Goof Troop. Even the forgettable Bonkers (Disney’s attempt to create a Roger Rabbit character they completely owned) popped up. A live host with the unisex name of “C.J.” (so it could be either a male or a female) and a rapping computer narrator named D.U.D.E. were also included.

The area continued to be unbelievably popular, so Disneyland decided to re-create it. At one time, there were plans for an elaborate Hollywoodland to be developed behind Main Street that would have featured Roger Rabbit and his friends along with attractions devoted to Dick Tracy as part of the infamous “Disney Decade.” However, the expense of opening EuroDisney resulted in scaling back those plans and the continued success of Mickey’s Starland demonstrated that a smaller vision could be effective. The Imagineering storyline is that Mickey and his friends always lived in that area, even before Disneyland was built, and, in fact, that was one of the reasons Anaheim was chosen for Walt’s theme park. However, by 1993, it was time to tear down the wall and welcome guests to come and visit so in January 24, 1993, Toontown opened at Disneyland and as expected was embraced by the guests.

To update the area for Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary in 1996, Mickey’s Starland became the more elaborate Mickey’s Toontown Fair, taking inspiration from Disneyland’s Toontown. It officially opened October 1, 1996.

While the Mickey and the gang lived in Toontown in Disneyland, this land would be their vacation home. One of the reasons they were all taking a vacation was it was the time of year for the big Fair and traditionally Mickey was one of the judges. Mickey takes such pride in being a judge that he appears that way on the entrance sign and his outfit is hung with care in his house.

We know it is only a temporary Fair because of all the banners that decorate the more permanent structures and the temporary tents that have been erected.

When someone travels on vacation, eventually they will need a car. That is why Pete’s Service Station is at the entrance. It would be the first place someone might want to stop after a long trip or before they begin a long trip to fill up with gas, check the air in the tires, and more. There is a stereotype that such out of the way service stations are crooked and will overcharge or not take care of a car correctly, so that is why a Disney villain is running the place. Obviously, Pete doesn’t know what he is doing because looking at the drinking fountains, they are connected to cans of Pete’s Oil and everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix.

Pete is selling “Gulp” Gas as an homage to “Gulf” gas that was a long time Disney participant. In fact, besides sponsoring the popular Sunday night Disney television show, Gulf produced a series of special Disney magazines only available at its service stations with a fill up. (They also had a promotion where they had two different record albums with Disney songs.)

Across the street is Pete's Paint & Body Shop, where "Head" Painter Pete (will paint your head) and his crew can give your face a Toon Up (Tune Up) with face painting while guests sit in automotive bucket seats. Pete's Impound Lot where he “impounds a lot” is for stroller parking.

Goofy took over the area of Grandma Duck’s farm, but his Wiseacres Farm (a wise acre being a slang term for a smart aleck) isn’t as successful since his squash has actually been squashed by his big feet and the Goofy scarecrow seems to attract crows. So, Goofy has tried to survive by crop dusting, although his plane has crashed into the water tower. Goofy’s misadventures with flying goes back to the classic cartoon Goofy’s Glider (1940). However, the flight training offered there may be better than most people realize since Mary Poppins’ famous carpetbag is prominently displayed there, as well (although her famous umbrella with a parrot head is actually with other lost luggage on an overhead shelf at one of the train stations).

On the wall of Mickey’s garage is a framed picture of a quiet moment spent fishing with his best pal, Pluto. It's actually from a film called The Simple Things (1953), the last of the regular series of Mickey Mouse shorts. In fact, Mickey wouldn't appear in another film until Mickey's Christmas Carol 30 years later. Most visitors don’t look up in the rafters and see the framed posters from Mickey’s Good Deed (1932) and Mickey’s Nightmare (1932) where he has a nightmare of marrying Minnie. In fact, visitors are so fascinated by the books that they fail to see the cans of Mohave Oil (the same oil hauled in that exploding tanker truck at Disney’s Hollywood Studios).

Minnie’s house is filled with interesting pictures on the walls and clever fans can see that, even though they are supposed to identify Minnie’s many relatives, they are actually pictures from cartoons like Nifty Nineties, The Brave Little Tailor and Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

However, at least three of the pictures in her house have secrets that no one else has ever revealed and for readers of MousePlanet, here they are:

In Minnie’s house on the fireplace is a picture in a blue frame with pink hearts of an elderly mouse with a cane and a newspaper. That was actually based on a specialty drawing done by Mickey Mouse comic strip artist Floyd Gottfredson in 1948 for a never-published magazine article on how comic strip characters might look when they are old and gray. An interesting change is that, in Gottfredson’s original inked drawing, Mickey is holding up a box of checkers in his right hand and a folded checkerboard in his left and it was done with India ink and craftint. But that was supposed to be what Mickey looked like when he was…60. Those other pictures on the fireplace look suspiciously like the work of Gottfredson, as well, but I haven’t been able to locate the original source so far.

Also in Minnie’s living room, between the chair and the couch on a blue table, is a picture in a pink frame of Mickey sitting in a chair and petting Pluto. Many Disney fans mistakenly think that is one of the John Hench portraits. It is actually an alternative Mickey Mouse 50th birthday portrait by artist Paul Wenzel, who did the sketch of Walt Disney on the classic eight-cent postage stamp. The official John Hench 50th portrait had a more suburban Mickey standing in front of Epcot. This classic alternative was done for magazine publicity that wanted the classic Mickey, and I believe it is the only time that an additional birthday portrait was done besides the official John Hench versions.

In Minnie’s painting room, besides the homage painting to Charles Boyer’s famous "Walt Self Portrait," there on the wall hangs a portrait of Donald Duck in a style that mimics the classic painting “Blue Boy” by Gainsborough. That is actually a recreation of 16 parody paintings of Donald Duck done in the style of the classic paintings of Degas, Gaughin, Whistler, Rembrandt, and more done for LIFE magazine (April 16, 1945).

There are so many more fascinating details about this child-centric little area but I wanted to get some of these thoughts in print as quickly as possible since already fences and construction (or destruction) equipment are gathering backstage and there may be just scant weeks left for anyone to visit and have one final look (or one final listen…has anyone recorded all the messages on Minnie’s answering machine that are accessed by pressing the big green button or recorded all of Red Barns’ broadcasts on the big radio in her living room?)

For more details about Mickey’s Toontown Fair, I would highly recommend the following site run by my friend and colorful storyteller, Shawn Slater (although I wish his wife would contribute since she is an award-winning Disney trivia expert just like her husband (link).