You don’t have to go far online, whether on discussion forums, Disney Twitter (it’s a real thing, trust me), or the like, to find one of the oldest quotes from Walt Disney. It goes like this: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination in the world.” Flowery second sentence aside, the basic notion that the theme parks of the Walt Disney Company wouldn’t exist in the 21st century as they did on their opening days makes sense. Technology evolves, so the parks employing that technology ought to evolve as well.
But most of the Disney parks, at least those in the continental U.S., have existed fairly similarly throughout their existences. All except the one that celebrates its 30th anniversary today — Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
A Rocky Start
Of course, if you want to be truly pedantic, it’s not entirely true to say that Disney’s Hollywood Studios turns 30 today. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has only existed for over a decade; it was previously, and originally, named Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. When Disney-MGM opened its doors on May 1, 1989, there were two attractions operating to members of the public. That’s not a typo, please note: just two attractions were available, the Studio Backlot Tour (which encompassed a full half of the overall park’s footprint) and the Great Movie Ride. The latter became the park’s first visually iconic attraction, housed in a facsimile of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Of course, even when the park was at full capacity, Disney-MGM Studios was never designed to have quite as many attractions as the Magic Kingdom. The park, so named after a deal that went south with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, was as much an operating production facility as it was a theme park. The Backlot Tour, on opening day, was two hours long and meant to showcase to guests how real live-action and animated filmmaking could be achieved literally behind the scenes of thrill rides, live entertainment shows, and the like.
The genesis for Disney-MGM Studios began at Walt Disney World’s second theme park, Epcot. Though Epcot was itself a far cry from what Walt Disney had envisioned when he came up with his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (a proposed enclosed city), it featured a number of pavilions in the Future World section designed to highlight various ways in which modern life could be furthered and improved. Through vehicular travel, the use of different energy sources, a greater interaction with the physical environment, and more, Future World dazzled guests from its opening in 1982. But Imagineers, in the spirit of that opening quote from Disney, wanted to add more. What began life as a pavilion dedicated to the movies or entertainment itself eventually morphed into both The Great Movie Ride and a larger park in which that attraction could live.
A Speedy Unveiling
Time was of the essence. New Disney CEO Michael Eisner was on board with the idea of a theme park all about Hollywood itself, but he also wanted to be first to the party. When news broke in 1986 that Universal Studios would develop its own Orlando theme park, developing Disney-MGM Studios became a race to the finish that Disney technically won by a year. (Eisner was initially accused by Universal executives of copying their plans, an argument that never led anywhere.)
Over 30 years, what Disney-MGM Studios and now Disney’s Hollywood Studios represented was the future of the company, even before anyone truly realized it. The production facility portion of the park was never quite the high point anyone had planned; only a handful of live-action films had portions produced there, including Newsies and Passenger 57. A number of Disney’s feature animated films were partially or wholly created there, everything from The Lion King to Lilo & Stitch. But in 2004, Michael Eisner shut down the production facility, thus heavily trimming the already shorter Studio Backlot Tour.
The future of the company was represented instead in the rides, shows, and other attractions guests could experience throughout the park. In fact, the very title of the park is a hint. Disney-MGM Studios and then Disney’s Hollywood Studios thrived thanks to what makes the company as a whole thrive now: intellectual property.
IP as Far as the Eye Can See
Currently, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is preparing for an invasion from a galaxy far, far away. The arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is presumed to be one of the biggest updates to a theme park, at least since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in Universal Orlando a decade ago. Once Galaxy’s Edge opens (and eventually the Star Wars-themed hotel that will allow guests to enter the new land directly from its doors), it will represent one of the IP-driven pillars that Disney owns being fully represented in the parks. Over the last 15 years, Disney has purchased Lucasfilm, Pixar, and the Jim Henson Company, all of which are heavily showcased in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Everything from Star Wars to the Indiana Jones franchise to Cars and the Muppets can be found there, and that’s by design.
But it would be wrong to presume that this is a new way of operating the park. The inclusion of intellectual property has been in the DNA of the Studios since opening day. The now-removed and lamented attraction The Great Movie Ride was not just a case of Disney’s Imagineers employing Audio-Animatronic technology to sometimes eerie effect. It was a case of Disney using IP from various studios — not just MGM, but Warner Bros., Paramount, and 20th Century Fox — to take audiences on a slow-moving ride through the history of mainstream cinema.
And intellectual property has been present through the park’s history. One of its most enduring attractions, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, is obviously inspired by the CBS anthology series of the 1960s. Other major attractions, such as the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, are able to entertain guests not just because of being as extreme as Disney thrill rides get, but because they feature a recognizable musical group that’s thrived for a long time.
Synergy to the Max
When the Walt Disney Company purchased the ABC network in the mid-1990s, that only allowed the TV network to show up in places like Disney-MGM Studios. One of the park’s still-enduring restaurants, a fast-casual dining establishment that offers sandwiches, salads, and so on, is the ABC Commissary, replete with ads and posters for whatever shows are either hot or the network wants to be hot. And there was a time (not remotely as brief as it should have been) when you could’ve … enjoyed … an aural experience featuring Drew Carey at the height of his ABC sitcom’s success, dubbed “Sounds Dangerous”. (The show was mostly just awkward and uncomfortable, as audience members were plunged into darkness, only gifted with ratty headphones to hear Carey’s hijinks.)
One of the now-closed sections of the park was dedicated to another, more appropriate synergistic arm of the company: animation. The Magic of Disney Animation was meant to highlight the studio’s rich history of feature and short animation, including a brief film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams. By the time it closed in 2015, the pavilion’s major attraction had been updated from the Cronkite/Williams film to a brief behind-the-scenes look at “modern” animation, featuring Mushu from Disney’s Mulan. (If you’re asking, “Do you mean the 1998 film Mulan? That’s the most current example they had?” Unfortunately, yes.)
But the synergy exists in many places in Disney’s Hollywood Studios — there are stage shows dedicated to films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, a Disney Junior dance show featuring whatever characters are new and exciting to the toddler set, a Frozen sing-along, and more. The most recent land to open in the park is Toy Story Land, an offshoot of the already very popular (and addictively fun) 3D attraction Toy Story Midway Mania. The rest of the land was built over what used to be the Studio Backlot Tour, which had admittedly become a shell of itself by its own closing. Its most recent behind-the-scene view was inspired by the not-remotely-good Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor, more than a decade after its opening.
Half-Day or Full-Day
If you travel often enough to Walt Disney World, there’s an easy presumption that both Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios are parks you only had to visit for a half-day at best. Though Disney’s Animal Kingdom has historically closed earlier than the other Disney World theme parks, to give its animals a peaceful night’s sleep much like they would get in their natural environments, I’d argue it was a full-day park even before Pandora: The World of Avatar was installed. For now, at least, the notion that a theme park is a half-day experience is still true of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which has always felt like a repository for whatever IP might not be able to fit in another theme park.
Even though other Disney parks are getting, or have gotten, an influx of IP over time, the Imagineers are often able to make that IP work within an exciting ride structure. The impending presence of Ratatouille and Guardians of the Galaxy at Epcot, in the France pavilion and the Energy pavilion, respectively, is coupled by the hope that the rides existing within those worlds will be as thrilling as anything else Disney offers. Conversely, most of the IP you find at Disney’s Hollywood Studios feels a little old hat — the Beauty and the Beast show is charming enough, but it also hasn’t really been updated in over 20 years.
Once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge arrives later this summer, and once Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the replacement for The Great Movie Ride, Railway arrives, the assumption is that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will finally take its place as a full-day park alongside the others. The years of construction will be complete, and now guests can experience the worlds of Toy Story, Star Wars, and more without the sense that they’ve spent too much money to just watch a handful of shows and ride only a few rides.
Right now, there are literally six attractions at DHS that count as rides, and 12 that are shows of some kind. That’s the fewest of any Disney World theme park. Even after Galaxy’s Edge and the Runaway Railway are unveiled, the same old adage from Walt will be true: a park like Disney’s Hollywood Studios may turn 30 years old, and may be around for 30 more, but whatever it looks like now, it’ll look a lot different at its 60th anniversary. Knowing this park’s history, it’ll look a lot different in just a few years, a constantly changing edifice on which new IP can be grafted.
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