July 13, 2010

Disney Park Countdown- #6 Disney's Hollywood Studios

We continue on with my countdown of Disney's parks, based on the eight I have personally visited...

Let's talk about Number 6: Disney's Hollywood Studios, also known as the park that opened as Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. A very brief hgistory of this park gives us a glimpse of the problems still associated with it.

Back in the 80's, things were booming in Central Florida, and The Walt Disney Company was trying to compete with the soon to be built Universal Studios. The fiercely competitive Michael Eisner was at the helm, and plans were quickly announced to the public. Disney would open its own film based theme park by the end of the decade along with a massive expansion unprecedented in the history of the company. (Just how massive? Take a look at a series of postings about the expansion of Walt Disney World in 1989 starting here. I was there- and I have included dozens of my original photos.)

With the time crunch of the Imagineers and the thought this would be Disney's first official "half-day" park, the Disney-MGM Studios debuted with the smallest attraction roster ever seen in a park built by the company as well as the smallest amount of acreage used to date. The park's layout was awful at opening. Flash forward over 20 years later, and it is much the same.

Why do the Studio parks seem to rank so low with me? Too many theater shows, too many attractions using film as the primary storytelling medium, and not enough rides that move the guest.

However, the strengths of Disney's Hollywood Studios are plenty! The park still has the premier version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Regardless of the hoopla surrounding the benefits/detractions of the fifth dimension room, the surrounding gardens and overall presentation and placement makes the original Tower stand tall compared to its sisters in Paris and California.

The elaborate but somewhat dated Great Movie Ride remains a must see as it is filled with great sets and Audio-Animatronic figures. Could it use an updating and refreshing? Absolutely- and Disney should be ashamed for letting the park's centerpiece attraction lay mostly unchanged and then obstucted from the outside by the large Sorcerer's Apprentice hat. A very bad show on both counts- but the ride itself is still great fun!

One Man's Dream, reminding guests of the incredible man who started it all and his vision, is a new century version of The Walt Disney Story once housed at Disneyland and in Florida's Magic Kingdom. Any true Disney geek/historian has got to see this place to believe it! The combination of park models, the artwork, and the movie about his life make this a must-see attraction.

Star Tours is on par with its cousins in other locales, but the unique Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular remains as thrilling and fun as it was at my first viewing. This attraction is nowhere else to be found, making it another Florida only attraction. The concept of unique attractions at individual parks makes each resort special, something forgotten with the current Disney management.

Dining here is a mixed bag, but when it is good, it is great: The 50's Prime Time Cafe and Brown Derby are terrific. Even though the Sci-Fi Dine In serves some pretty overpriced and bland dishes, how can you beat the atmosphere?

Shopping used to be pretty good, and it is still better than many of the other parks. At the opening, the authentic looking bungalow housing Sid Cahuenga's was one of many places to go for enchanting Hollywood memoribilia. Nowadays, it seems like mostly the latest Pixar stuff or Hannah Montana trash and trinkets, but you can still find some great things if you look for them. Time to update and retrofit the shops, I'd say. The whole park as well.

It's not that the park hasn't been updated. The wonderful Monster Sound Studio has been replaced by the disasterous attraction starring Drew Carey. (And I really like the guy!) The timeless Superstar Television has given way to American Idol; something I am sure the suits will one day regret. The once terrific Studio Tram Tour is now as empty an expedition as the one in Paris.

Certainly, there are aspects of the park that have not been updated or have been demolished to poor effect. Florida's Fantasmic! pales compared to California's version. The Beauty and the Beast stageshow is past its prime, the Animation Tour has lost its heart, and the park has lost its focus.

Park layout is as frustrating and confusing as ever. The terrific looking Pixar Place creates a huge traffic jam as folks love the showhorned Toy Story Midway Mania. (If they truly do open the oft rumored Monsters Inc. coaster, the Imagineers had better create a lengthy in building queue for the throngs of folks waiting to ride.)

Crowd control is even worse surrounding the American version of Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show. Yet areas of the park are strangely empty, creating pockets that feel like a ghost town.
It is clear twenty years later that Disney was rushed in creating the place, leaving a jumbled mess of a puzzle to be solved by someone else- someday. There's no leader here as with Bob Weis for California Adventure (who was very involved with the Studios at conception), Tony Baxter for Disneyland or Joe Rohde for Animal Kingdom. Will the problems ever be truly addressed or will the park remain in limbo?
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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