It’s ”Toonaugural” day at Mickey’s ToonTown, the first new ”land” built in Disneyland in two decades, and company chairman Michael Eisner is all smiles. Euro Disney woes be damned, goes the zeitgeist on this bright California winter morning: ToonTown already looks to be a lucrative hit. And to make sure that message comes across, hundreds of perky Disney staffers are on hand, burbling upbeat remarks for the benefit of nearly a thousand reporters, photographers, radio jocks, and TV newscasters covering the event.
Jammed into the three-acre mini-community, where young children can meet Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald in wittily detailed walk-through homes, the media crews themselves seem as pliant as kids. Many of them, along with friends and family, have been put up near the park at Disney’s expense (an arrangement typically barred by major news outfits, which pay their own way). The junketeers then help promote ToonTown with generally chirpy, upbeat reportage and live-broadcast ”feeds” to scores of news and talk shows. As Lance Orozco, a weatherman for KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara, puts it, ”That kind of time you can’t buy. It’s coming in the middle of a newscast.”
Of course, soft news is Disney’s objective, and press members who dare to pose hard questions are met with courteous rebuffs. Badgered for ToonTown’s exact cost ($30 million has been reported), Eisner won’t comment. ”Talking about money at Disneyland is distasteful,” he says, smiling.
Maybe to Eisner, but it’s hard not to dwell on Scrooge McDuck’s favorite possession in a place calculated to make piles of it. Opened, says Eisner, ”on time and on budget,” ToonTown stands on what was a ”backstage” service area. Guests pay $28.75 ($23 for kids) to enter Disneyland itself for a day, and ToonTown then rakes in even more with its pricey fast-food windows and centrally located souvenir stores, all ingeniously set-dressed with bright facades to look just like the other buildings so that children rush into them as enthusiastically as they flock to the actual attractions.
Far sunnier than the animated-actors’ ghetto of the same name in Disney’s 1988 hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Mickey’s ToonTown is a more inviting, primary-colored experience, aimed mainly at the under-8 set. Everywhere you go there are surprise stimuli: Mailbox lids spout wisecracks (”Are you just gonna stand there, or are you gonna mail something?”), manhole covers squawk at being stepped on, a TNT plunger ”explodes” a fireworks factory (not to worry, parents — it’s done with sound, strobe lights, and smoke). Pushing the Fire Department doorbell makes a dalmatian pup pop up in the window; turning the door handles of the Power House produces sizzling electrical sounds.
Such audiovisual punch lines, planted at the ends of hallways or around corners, even have a Disneyesque nickname: wienies. ”That’s what’s pulling you through the experience,” says Joe Lanzisero, senior concept designer for Disney’s park ”Imagineering” unit. ”We’re placing these strong visual and sound elements at strategic points that make you want to move along and find the next one.”
Indeed, like all of Disneyland, ToonTown is designed for speedy turnover and maximum yield. At Gadget’s Go Coaster, where the posted wait time can reach 30 minutes, the ride itself lasts 50 seconds. And 1,000 guests each hour can file through Mickey’s Movie Barn. ”We pretty much shovel ‘em in like cattle,” says an attendant decked out like a silent-era movie-crew gofer. Every 60 seconds he ushers another group of 15 to 20 onto one of four cardboard-cutout ”sets” where Mickey is filming.
Impressive as the permanent crowd-control mechanics at ToonTown are, they pale compared with the planning that has gone into the three-day Toonaugural media extravaganza. To show off kids-only attractions like Goofy’s Bounce House (where small youngsters can attack inflated furniture), park publicists have bused in 320 pupils from nearby Walt Disney Elementary School — every one of whom is outfitted with a complimentary, screaming-red ToonTown sweatshirt, making them walking billboards for months to come.
Each media visitor is also accompanied by a mandatory ”escort.” Some 300 of these pert, well-scrubbed guides patrol the area, most of them volunteers from management — which saves Disney a bundle in overtime, says one escort. Unfailingly polite, the hosts flag down Disney characters for photo opportunities, keep visitors out of camera crews’ range, and firmly bar entrance into un-Disneylike venues such as the bleak industrial sprawl of the ”backstage” alleys.
Through it all, Eisner beams, confident that with so much good cheer afoot, so many fuzzy characters love-bombing everyone in sight, only a churl wouldn’t relax and say cheese.