In the 1988 landmark film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, hardboiled detective Eddie Valiant (played perfectly by Bob Hoskins) must overcome his prejudice against cartoon characters and defend lovable Roger when it looks like the rabbit is going to be executed for murder. You see, it wasn’t that long ago that a “Toon” dropped a safe on Eddie’s brother and he hasn’t gotten over it. In the end, Eddie learns to trust Roger, forgive himself for being a drunk and patch things up with his girlfriend, the bartender with a heart of gold, Dolores. But he’s only able to accomplish that by facing his inner demons and following the bad guys into the very heart of the Toons themselves…Toontown!
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a film of monumental proportions, not the least of which was the seamless melding of live action and animation. For the first time, audiences truly believed that human actors were really interacting with hand drawn cartoon characters dubbed “Toons” in the film. Roger and the gang, including the sultry and daringly drawn Jessica Rabbit and the older than he looks Baby Herman instantly captured the imaginations of moviegoers worldwide. Once Disney saw they had a classic on their hands they immediately made plans to fold Roger and his friends into the Disney family in a big way, not the least of which was an entire land devoted to showing how Toons lived and breathed in the real world at multiple theme parks around the world. At Disneyland, plans were put into place to create an all new area called Hollywoodland behind Main Street (probably in the area most die-hard fans know was set aside originally to create Liberty Street). When that plan didn’t come to fruition, the ideas behind Hollywoodland and another concept out of Florida called Mickey’s Birthdayland were combined into what everyone now knows as Mickey’s Toontown, located behind It’s A Small World at the very back of the part.
While Who Framed Roger Rabbit is filled to the brim with Disney and Warner Bros. characters and lots of wacky hijinks and escapades, the film is actually a very well done adult film noir with shady characters seeking redemption, cold hearted bureaucrats with hidden agendas and sultry sirens with unknown intentions, all set against the backdrop of the anything can happen showbiz world of post WWII Hollywood. Kids were glued to the bright animation and fun action; parents were taken in by the complex storyline and rapid fire double entendres. I must admit that it took me multiple viewings to actually grasp the complex story. You can imagine my interest when Disneyland announced an entire land devoted to ol’ Roger Rabbit and his friends.
In the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Toontown is shown as a hustling and bustling metropolis with activity in every corner. While the Imagineers who created the living and breathing Toontown may have had lofty ideas, what actually made it to opening day was not quite as busy. Instead of a city as seen in the film, Mickey’s Toontown has more of a small town feel with green mountains just over the horizon, a bandstand in the town square and a Jolly Trolley clanging and rolling haphazardly down the boulevard.
I was there on opening day and as excited as I was for Disneyland’s new land, I was a bit underwhelmed at what I saw…and it’s been on the downward slope ever since. The promise of the land where Toons lived and worked was never really realized. Instead, what we got was a bland area with one pretty cool ride and a bunch of off the shelf attractions and Meet and Greet stations that took the guesswork out of where Mickey and Minnie could be found in the park. There’s nothing quite like walking through Disneyland and seeing Mickey round the bend, his bright eyes wide and inviting, his smile and open arms a beacon to children the world over. You run to him and the magic is real. Replace that with an extended queue and a half hour wait and the magic can dim a bit.
Opening day of Mickey’s Toontown was January 23, 1993 and the line to ride Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin was very long. Or at least it was when you actually found the line. You see, the Roger Rabbit Ride employs a very nice illusion to hide its gargantuan queue. From the doorway it appears as if you and your family can walk right onto the ride and board, but in actuality the queue takes an immediate right turn into the back alleys of Toontown and beyond. What looks like a five minute wait to ride is actually over an hour and half as you go from back alley to backstage, from Toon neighborhoods to Dip Factory and, finally, to the ride boarding area itself. When Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin opened on that January day, it was a new ride concept that captivated everyone who rode in either Benny the Cab himself or one his co-workers. Instead of a simple ride vehicle to take you on your journey, The Roger Rabbit Ride was the first modern day attraction to allow guests to interact with the experience.
Much like the Mad Tea Party, drivers could grasp the steering wheel and send their cab spinning around the ride track at whatever speed and ferocity they could handle. For a generation raised on static dark ride vehicles, this little addition elevated Roger Rabbit above most similar attractions. I remember standing in that queue on opening day hoping, praying that the ride was worth the wait. While most of the attraction is a typical dark ride, there are some stand out moments, such as the falling out of the sky room and the portable hole effect taken from the movie. Oh, and the very well done Jessica Rabbit figures that most guys appreciate.
But the rest of Mickey’s Toontown left much to be desired. Opening day attractions also included:
- Chip n’ Dale’s Treehouse – a fun, walk through, climb through attraction with an acorn-themed ball pit and various nooks and crannies to crawl around, in and on. Most of the fun parts of this attraction have since been walled off due to “safety” concerns.
- Donald Duck’s Boat – The Miss Daisy – part of the theme of Mickey’s Toontown is showcasing the home of the beloved Disney characters and this boat represents Donald’s abode. Kids can climb all over and pretend to set sail. Mostly static props with not much to do.
- Goofy’s Bounce House – Goofy’s house in Toontown is a cleverly made inflatable bounce attraction that allows children to jump around. The original bounce attraction was removed in 2006 due to “safety” concerns and replaced with a generic toddler playground moderately themed to Goofy.
- Gadget’s Go Coaster – a small, child sized rollercoaster themed to Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, a cartoon cancelled 3 years before the ride’s debut. Thankfully, this attraction is still operating in pretty much the same manner it did on opening day.
- Toon Park – a place for parents to take a break while their children play on Toon themed playground equipment. Removed for “safety” concerns.
- Jolly Trolley – a bouncing, clacking trolley ride from one end of Toontown to the other. Imagineers hadn’t counted on that bouncing feature wreaking so much havoc on the ride vehicle and the Trolley isn’t so jolly anymore. Today it’s a photo opportunity prop in the middle of Toontown located right adjacent to a Disney Vacation Club sales kiosk.
- Mickey’s House – a walkthrough attraction that ends in a visit from the main mouse himself. This has been periodically used as a test attraction for the new talking Mickey characters –a truly magical way to bring the characters to life with moving mouths and blinking eyes.
- Various Toon themed buildings that have interactive features for children to play with. These include the door to the Power Plant that gives you a fake electrical charge when you pull on it, a Fireworks factory that “explodes,” mailboxes that talk and jail bars that bend. Fun, but nothing on par with the rest of the magic at Disneyland.
- Toontown Five and Dime and the Gag Factory shops – though there are two names, there’s really one large shop with multiple entrances. The Gag Factory featured an assembly line of Toon hands carrying various Toon themed props, such as a horn or a pie that continually moved over the heads of guests to the cash register area and provided some action and fun to the shop. Sadly, this has fallen into disrepair and the hands and props are both chipped and static as the conveyor belt hasn’t been turned on in years.
- A series of counter service restaurants themed to various Disney characters. I once bought a pizza at Daisy’s Diner that came with a free “salad” that was actually 3 pieces of something green served in a cup like you get salsa in at a fast food restaurant. My kids still talk about that to this day.
- A Musical themed fountain that plays songs in rhythm to the water spouts. This has fallen into disrepair as well and needs some attention.
As you can see, Mickey’s Toontown has never been given the money or imagination to really soar as a place of wonder and awe. The Toontown shown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an amazing place of characters and action. You rarely see characters walking around Mickey’s Toontown on their way to “work” or “home.” Instead you see Cast Members trying to sell Vacation Timeshares or, worse, on their way to the various break rooms located inside the unused Toontown buildings. There was a brief show in the grandstand featuring the Mayor of Toontown and a small cadre of animated characters but this was shut down pretty quick. From what I’ve read, I know that a lot of the lofty plans that Disney had for Roger Rabbit were derailed due to the contract the studio has with Amblin, the home of Steven Spielberg. The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a joint effort between Disney and Amblin and the House of Mouse can’t make a move without Amblin signing off on it. Rumor has it that Roger was headed for multiple sequels and more before Steven Spielberg and then CEO of Disney Michael Eisner had a falling out over the placement of a Roger Rabbit short in front of the Disney Studios tentpole summer blockbuster Dick Tracy. Eisner wanted “Rollercoaster Rabbit” in front of the feature to boost attendance, Spielberg didn’t agree and the two mega companies clashed, with Roger Rabbit right in the middle. Not even Eddie Valiant could save the rabbit this time and Roger Rabbit, a character slated to be the next big thing, was quietly put on the back burner. Not even the daily operating Car Toon Spin Ride could keep Roger relevant – most kids don’t have any concept that Who Framed Roger Rabbit introduced the idea of cartoon characters living and working in the film industry and having a place all their own to call home. Sadly, the tragic injury of a toddler on the Roger Rabbit ride cast a dark shadow on the attraction that even with improved and safer ride vehicles is hard to shake. Mickey’s Toontown today is a rundown, neglected part of Disneyland that most folks walk in and out of quickly since there’s not much to do there. Pretty sad for a land that even has its own stop on the Disneyland Railroad!
Ah, but something big could be brewing on the horizon.
The future of Mickey’s Toontown may not be in cartoons at all. The answer may be found in a galaxy far, far away as rumors are circulating that the entire area may be taken out and replaced with a host of brand-new attractions themed to Star Wars! You didn’t think Disney purchased Lucasfilm not to make cutting attractions based on the massively popular sci-fi space opera franchise, did you? No, plans are underway for many amazing experiences that promise to bring fans closer to the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than ever before. I’ve heard talk of a full scale walk through Millennium Falcon with Han Solo and Chewbacca waiting to meet you in the cockpit, an Endor themed Speeder Bike race through towering Ewok Village filled trees and, of course, many gift shops filled to the brim with enough Star Wars merchandise to keep collectors hunting and drooling for years to come.
But those are just rumors and until an attraction actually opens at Disneyland you never know what will happen. Because there’s also a rumor of Robert Zemeckis, the original director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit stepping behind the camera for a motion capture sequel –and who knows what that could bring – a new and improved Toontown closer to the film version? Maybe.
New Toontown or fully functioning Mos Eisley from Star Wars – either choice would be a welcome upgrade from the ailing land that inhabits that back part of the Magic Kingdom.
See you in the funny papers.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.