May 1, 2009

Disney's Hollywood Studios 20th Anniversary: A 1989 Photo Journey

First branded with the MGM tag, and now without it, Disney's Hollywood Studios is a park with some wonderful theming and a great variety of attractions. It's history is scattered with a variety of additions and changes both excellent and poor. However, with new leadership, there is much promise ahead. With that said, I'd like to focus on the park as we discovered it upon our first visit.

Debuting officially this day in 1989, The Disney-MGM Studios was the crowning jewel during a season of incredible and unprecedented growth at Walt Disney World in Florida. My first visit was just two weeks after opening, and I couldn't wait to experience a brand new Disney park.

Let me say before I continue on, all these photos are from May 1989, and each of them is untouched, all with the original colors. The only alteration: They have been resized for this post, but all are left in a large format once you click on them.

Since these were taken before the days of digital photography, all were shot using Kodak film with special types for either day or nighttime photography. Now, as they say in the movies, "Let's continue with our story..."

Although my wife and I had both visited the World previously, our cross country journey in 1989 was the first of several visits with our children. This was also our first time staying on the property, and we chose the Caribbean Beach Resort, which had just opened as well. (Watch for another post with photos from that resort during this period as well.)

Touring the Walt Disney World complex would be entirely different this time, with a much slower and relaxed pace due to three preschoolers in tow. This would end up being to our benefit, as at opening, The Disney-MGM Studios was a much smaller and more intimate park than the majestic Magic Kingdom or the sprawling and ambitious Epcot Center.

As someone who appreciates retro design and architecture, I found the park to be a visual feast! Oscar's Super Service and Sid Cahuenga's, (above), both found just inside the entrance, perfectly set the mood. I couldn't wait for more!

Remember, these were the days before the internet made it easily possible to "virtually visit" a park or even watch its construction! This was also a very different park than the one we know today. There was no Star Tours, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Toy Story Midway Mania, Rock N Rollercoaster, American Idol Experience and Fantasmic. Due to the fact there was such a small number of attractions and few theater presentations, this little theme park had to wow its guests with atmosphere, detail, and charm. Mission accomplished!

Strolling down the main avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, is like stepping back in time with the attention to detail evident all around. Period music filled the air and street performers interacted with guests. Back then, I was charmed just as if we were walking down Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland in California. There was a refreshing warmth and intimacy here that made the Studios something approachable and familiar, providing quite a different take on the "wow" factor present at the older siblings.

The beautiful replica of Grauman's Chinese Theater sat at the end of the street, a perfectly fitting icon for a park devoted to the art of film making. The sense of dignity and pride in the Hollywood of the "Golden Age" was honored and evident in this design, something lost much later with the addition of the giant sorcerer's hat, when the folks in charge decided to go for the more crassly obvious identification.

This park also displayed the largest "Hidden Mickey" ever- yet a guest had to view the park from the air to see it! The plaza in front of the Chinese Theater along with Echo Lake formed the face of the world's most famous and beloved mouse. It's a nice touch and one easily seen when looking at the touring guides.

Much has been documented about the Hollywood of old inspiring the third park. I'll leave the important historical details to the experts, but isn't the Hollywood Brown Derby (above), a great place for an elegant midday meal? Realizing the runaway success of creating the dining experiences at Epcot Center, Imagineering built in some wonderful and perfectly themed eateries from the start.

In the opening days, the Disney-MGM Studios were designed to be part theme park, part actual production facilities. Taking a cue from their neighbor in California (and soon to be competitor in Florida), Universal Studios, the centerpiece attraction for the production half of the park would be a studio tram tour past sound stages, wardrobe warehouses, and outdoor sets.

The entrance gate would also be the way to get to The Art of Disney Animation. This attraction would be the first time Disney animators would be on display working on real upcoming theatrical releases. The idea of showcasing animators and animation was not new. In fact, this attraction was a greatly expanded concept from the much smaller "The Art of Animation" exhibit housed in Disneyland's Tomorrowland during the first half of the 1960's. The highlight really was watching the animators, but a very clever film, "Back to Neverland" with Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite, was another delight to be found here.

The Studio's Tram Tour was great fun and yet was very different from its current incarnation. The sheltered queue was filled with overhead televisions, and many of the Disney Studios' name performers made cameo appearances here and entertained guests waiting for the next bus.

Whereas the use of modern day film and television personalities was out of place invading attractions at Epcot, here at Disney-MGM, guests like my family expected and delighted in the appearance of their favorite performers.

While the tour itself was somewhat enjoyable, the highlight was clearly Catastrophe Canyon. The combination of earthquake effects, raging fire, and a flash flood was thrilling and unexpected. A crowd pleaser. Thrilling enough to make kids smile but not scary enough to make my preschoolers cry!

The balance of the tram tour was a pretty calm experience, with the elongated open-air bus cruising past street scenes and cityscapes from popular movies and television productions. Once the tram ride was completed, a walking portion of the tour provided the chance to experience how certain special effects were created (the flying bee scene in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids") and get a glimpse at how live action is filmed ("The Lottery"- a special studio production starring Bette Midler).

Of course, the post-tour area was filled with playful, over sized props and photo opportunities. Disney's 1988 blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit? became the core film referenced in this area, much to the delight of the park's male guests.

Exiting the Studio's production area, guests head into the theme park portion. There was not too much here in the way of attractions, but The Great Movie Ride, housed in the Chinese Theater, was an audio-animatronic extravaganza in the old school tradition.
Billed as "A Spectacular Journey into the Movies", The Great Movie Ride lived up to its hype. There were surprises galore as we journeyed through scenes that gave honor to multiple types of movies and its well-known stars. The close up and original "Alien" encounter kept us alert, to say the least. The fire effects in the Old West and the disappearing tour guide reminded us Disney Imagineers had some new tricks up their sleeves at this park. Our kids handled it all we relative ease, but we all were awestruck by first the tornado and then the Wicked Witch's arrival in the Wizard of Oz. Stunning!

After the attraction, tracking down our favorite stars hand prints was next on the adults' list of must-dos. Watching our kids interact with their favorite actors- all animated- was quite a joy, and Disney wisely had them up front and center at this park.
Time for lunch. The Backlot Express was filled with props- and some pretty good food, if I remember correctly. Nice spot to take a break, sip some soda, and plot out the rest of the day.

Long before Drew Carey played a detective here, the Monster Sound Show, gave us a chance to laugh while guests tried to match audio special effects to the action on the screen. It was a much more fun display of technology in movie making than the shows subsequently presented.

Superstar Television had to be one of my favorite attractions in this new park. Imagine being "inserted" into old favorite television shows! Who wouldn't love to be filmed with Lucille Ball on an "I Love Lucy" episode? Even though none of us were chosen to participate, it was great fun to see it happen right in front of us.

Walking around Echo Lake, we couldn't help but notice Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Creams of Distinction- and we couldn't help but stop and share a tasty little treat to hold us over until our dinner at the 50's Prime Time Cafe.

There also wasn't much for us to do from here on out. We did see a pre-opening rehearsal for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. Since Raiders of the Lost Ark was my favorite movie, I was particularly happy to watch a very talented cast of stuntmen and visitors reenact its famous scenes.

Somewhere along the day, I realized that we had seen it all. I was very disappointed by that revelation as we had paid full price to visit the park. Yet what was here was a lot of fun. This theme park had a very unique feel from the other two, and it was quite a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. We walked around some more, spending time in the shops and admiring the views all around us. Eventually, it was time for our dinner reservations.

It was early evening, so it was the right time for our young family to sit down to a meal. In a season before themed restaurants became too plentiful and ordinary, the 50's Prime Time Cafe was a real treat. The atmosphere was so much fun, and the wait staff only made it better. Having good food was an unexpected plus. My eldest daughter was chosen to leave her preschool artwork on the house refrigerator, much to her delight.

Can I be the proud papa here? From the very beginning, my wife and I have been blessed to have four children who had hearts of thankfulness and who were always well behaved in public. We taught them how to respect others and use their "inside voices" in shops, restaurants, museums and movies. We could take them anywhere.

It's been hard work, but when we look at the reward- when we see them as fine adults, we are grateful we chose to raise them to love and respect people and the Lord. OK, I'll get off my proud papa soapbox now!

Above- a hint of a blog to come 20 years later?

After dinner, we wandered around and waited for darkness so that I could take some nighttime photographs. This gave us time for some souvenir shopping, another peak into our favorite attractions and a little rest. Folks were exiting the park in large numbers, and unfortunately for them, they were missing the best attraction at the park.
For all its daytime charm, the Disney-MGM Studios theme park is just gorgeous at night! (Twenty years later, it still is, although the Star Tours side of the park is lacking.) My camera got quite the workout and all to good result.

Even the humblest of buildings took on grandeur and drama never hinted at during the day. Oscar's, in particular, looks fantastic!

At this point, I could have wandered around all night taking shot after shot of the glamour of Old Hollywood that will never be. Once again, the Imagineers took great care to present this small part in the best light possible- day or night.

The Carthay Circle Theater at night. (Should be beautiful as the centerpiece of the new Buena Vista Street at Disney's California Adventure!)

I just had to walk down to the Chinese Theater just one more time!

We kept walking around the park- I really didn't want to leave now- and eventually we took in another tour on The Great Movie Ride. This time, much to our surprise, we encountered gangsters not outlaws! Once again, Disney had done the unexpected.

Of course, Indy looks good day or night!

Echo Lake takes on a whole new look, and Gertie just shimmers like the lake it sits on. Absolutely beautiful! Don't you agree?

Directly above, my favorite nighttime shot.

Although the park still had some time left until its closing, I had dragged my kids through a pretty long day. We decided to join our bus back to the Caribbean Beach for a well deserved night of rest.

As always, our visit to Walt Disney World was filled with surprises. At Disney-MGM Studios, we were delighted at what we saw and also surprised, amazed actually, by the new park's obvious shortcomings- its lack of attractions.

This was the first clear example of Disney designing and opening "theme park lite", a trend that would notoriously continue in later years as the Walt Disney Company opened future projects: Disney's Animal Kingdom (1998), Disney's California Adventure (2001), Walt Disney Studios Paris (2001), and eventually Hong Kong Disneyland (2005).

I'll admit, I've been pretty hard on this park over the years. The theme has become dilluted. The layout is difficult, the shops have become too generic, and sometimes the maintenance is not what it should be. There are still too few attractions, and they are poorly balanced in where they reside in the park.

However, I see a (cautiously) bright light ahead! Under new leadership, the park can regain its former glory. The wonderful detail is still present. The delightful dining options are there. (OK, the merchandise still needs to be retooled.)

The park needs a few more blockbusters that are family friendly, like the oft discussed but still pending and officially unconfirmed Monsters Inc. coaster. Refresh the classic attractions that are there. (Star Tours 2 and a refreshed Great Movie Ride, please.) It's time for new stage shows and increased entertainment, not reductions. Give it some thought; give it some planning for the future; give it some cash. The possibilities are endless.
Cone back to the blog everyday through May 8 for a week-long celebration of the largest expansion on the Walt Disney World property!
(All photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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