Thursday, October 19, 2006

Welcome to . . . Duckburg?

“Duckburg? I thought it was Mickey’s Birthdayland!”

That was a comment I heard more than once when I visited the Magic Kingdom back in 1988 and 1989. As the Mickey’s Birthdayland Express rolled into a newly built train station just beyond Tomorrowland, guests first caught sight of this interesting billboard:

“Duckburg? Mickey’s a mouse! Shouldn’t this be Mouse Town? Mouseville? Mouseburg?”

Even the most out-of-touch tourist in 1988 surmised that Duckburg was clearly the home of Donald Duck. And they were right. Duckburg had sprang from the imagination of comic book writer/artist extraordinaire Carl Barks, over forty years beforeEven the most out-of-touch tourist in 1988 could surmise that Duckburg was clearly the home of Imagineers hastily built Mickey’s Birthdayland to celebrate the mouse’s 60th birthday. In the comics, Duckburg was the home of Scrooge McDuck, Huey, Dewey and Louie, Daisy Duck, Gyro Gearloose and numerous other colorful characters. Except Mickey Mouse. In fact, according to the mouse’s most famous comic book adventure, “Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot”, Mickey resides in the town of Mouseville. It’s no wonder poor Donald resorted to vandalism when he first beheld that sign honoring Duckburg’s “most famous citizen.”

It’s likely that Donald fell victim to yet another instance of the famous Disney “synergy.”It seems that the town of Duckburg had just made a comeback the prior year. In September of 1987, Disney premiered a new syndicated daily cartoon show called DuckTales, which took its inspiration from the Carl Barks canon of comic book stories from 1940s and 1950s. While Imagineers certainly could have chosen Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which had also debuted in 1987, Duckburg was a more G-rated, bright and happy place, compared to Roger’s somewhat dark and definitely PG hometown.

And the Duckburg of the Magic Kingdom was a colorful place indeed. From the kid-size faux storefronts----to Mickey’s stylized cartoon convertible.

Imagineers clearly paid homage to Barks and his creations. They honored the city’s wealthiest resident----and even included a dedication to Duckburg’s founder Cornelius Coot, whom Barks referenced once in the 1952 story “Statuesque Spendthrifts.” The story revolved around a statue of Coot that Imagineers very faithfully recreated.

Coot’s statue was pretty much the only Duckburg element that remained when the area evolved into Mickey’s Toontown Fair in 1996. In fact, Imagineers rewrote history a little. According to The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Coot is now the founder of Toontown.

Street signs paid homage to both Barks and original Donald Duck voice Clarence “Ducky” Nash. Other street names included Tailfeather Trail, Quackfaster Circle, and Cornhusker Lane.

Beyond its odd identity crisis, Mickey’s Birthdayland featured a number of low-tech but very kid-friendly attractions. A quick tour of Mickey’s house ultimately deposited guests inside the Birthday Party Tent. There they participated in the Minnie’s Surprise Party show. Featured next door at Mickey’s Hollywood Theater was a meet-n-greet with the main mouse himself in his personal dressing room. Across the street was Grandma Duck’s Farm, Mickey’s Playground, and the Mousekemaze.


Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh! Thank you for jogging my memory with this article. This was when I was just itty bitty, but I still remember Duckburg (as shoddy as it was). I knew there used to be another part of ToonTown as I walked around there the last time I was in that part of the Magic Kingdom!

Big Dog said...

I was the original show director for Mickey's Birthdayland and the person responsible for naming the location Duckburg. I was the only member of the design with any history of being a Disney comic book fan as a kid. Duckburg was my homage to Carl Barks. I was unaware that Mickey lived in Mouseville. I just learned that today reading this blog. HA HA.

I was never a very big Mickey Mouse fan, I'm afraid to say. Donald and his gang were my heroes.

Mickey's Birthdayland was a fast track project. Marketing knew that when EPCOT was under construction, guests withheld their visits to the Magic Kingdom the summer prior. Marketing did not want to repeat that, so in anticipation of the Disney/MGM Studio coming online.

During the 90 day design process, we were unaware of the coming of Roger Rabbit. It was not until, prior to opening Birthdayland, Roger became a part of the theme. It was too late to change the name.

When Disneyland added their attraction the following year the focus was all on Roger Rabbit.

The main objective of Mickey's Birthday was to maintain attendance at the Magic Kingdom and to satisfy the number one guest complaint. "I didn't get to meet Mickey Mouse."

The whole show experience was designed to get guests to the backstage dressing room where they could have a one on one with Mickey. It all worked.

In the end, too many cooks spoiled the broth (unlike in the Birthdayland show in which the cake came out OK after everyone had hand in it.)

Mickey's Birthdayland was never as good as it was the the first summer. At peak we ran 44 shows a day. Running a live show as an attraction was also a first for Disney World.

It is may also be worth mentioning that management had a problem with my name for the show. I called it Minnie's Party, because she was the instigator (the story was loosely based on an old cartoon) Management thought it should be Mickey's Party (same as the cartoon) That was one challenge that I won.

The other big surprise was that the guests started to spontaneously write birthday wishes on the set pieces in the pre-show. Magic Kingdom operations had a cow! But management decided that it was a very cool thing and let in evolve. It was a very cool thing!

Mickey's Birthdayland was only intended to last for 18 months. Of course, the land is still there almost 20 years later. Thanks for the memories.

Steve Hansen
Banff, Alberta, Canada

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks Steve for all the info and insight! I'd love to hear more about your Disney World experiences. Feel free to contact me anytime.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great memories this article bought back,I am sure that as well as a new station, I remember that there was an announcement on the train, something alongs the lines of "we're rolling, we're rolling, on Mickey's Birthday Land express"

Unknown said...

Hi all and Steve,
I was doing a search for Mickey's Birthdayland and came across this page.

My name is Ken Harrington. I was 1 of the original Goofs in the Party show.

I just wanted to say that it was a great honor to be in that show. It was and is still the best live action onstage cartoons for Character Performers.I have never seen anything since that has matched it in any themepark.
You never see the characters act now or before it came out. All they do is make the stage pretty for castle shows and other events. Yes, they do dance ( i'm not knocking their abilities) but you don't really get the same feeling that there was in the Birthday Party.

Steve, you did a great job bringing them to life!

I wish others had your vision.

Thank you so much.


Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Ken!

I have such great memories of the whole Birthdayland experience--1988 was truly one of my most favorite times at WDW. Thank you for being among the many who made it such a great time for guests such as myself!