May 1, 2014

The 25 Year History of Disney's Hollywood Studios

Settle in for one extremely lengthy article full of vintage photos, concept art, a detailed history of the park, and combination multi-year trip reports covering visits in 1989, 1992, 1999, 2005, and 2009.  

Twenty Five years ago, Disney's Hollywood Studios debuted in Florida at Walt Disney World. It was part of the largest expansion of the resort which included Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, and the Caribbean Beach Resort

Just how massive was this expansion? You can take a look at a series of articles about the expansion of Walt Disney World in 1989 starting here. I was there in the middle of May with my family- and I have included dozens of our original, now vintage photos. If nothing else, go see Pleasure Island in its heyday. And please do click on all the images to see them much larger.
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The now famous annual report photo of our dynamic duo!

When Michael Eisner and Frank Wells came to the Walt Disney Company, it was a time of incredible optimism, enthusiasm, and unsurpassed investment in the property- something not seen since the days of Walt Disney. In fact, the very reason this park exists is because of Michael Eisner's competitive nature, and his decision to go head to head with Universal Studios in Florida. Current leader Robert Iger may have a hand in major expansion internationally and the necessary retooling of California Adventure to finally make that park worthy of the Disney name, but the Company and its park fans have not seen anything like what Michael, Frank, the Imagineers and the Company businessmen accomplished in 1989. Nor will we probably see it again in our lifetime.


Film-making pavilion at Epcot's Future World?
The beginnings of the Disney-MGM Studios!

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. Michael was clearly ambitious at the helm, wanting to make his mark on the company as well as increase profits, so Disney's plans to add a movie based theme park were quickly announced to the public. 

Stories of substance say the park had its origin in a pavilion imagined for Epcot. Imagineering was quickly put to work when those plans were tossed aside when smarter thinking prevailed, and those in charged realized this concept could constitute a new theme park. Spreading out guests and increasing their stay for an additional day brought many plusses and growing profits. Epcot would be left to expand in a different way. Hoping to take a slice of Universal Studios pie, Disney would instead open its own film based theme park by the end of the decade. Whether or not Eisner knew of Universal's plans (and many suppose he did), the Imagineers were given the charge to forge ahead. In the newly  competitive world for market share in Florida, Disney was not about to be outdone by a newcomer. Time, however, was of the essence!


Every Disney park looks great at night- but you can't hide the fact it's a pretty small one!

The publicity machine went into high gear. 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. At opening, there was no Star ToursTwilight Zone Tower of TerrorToy Story Midway ManiaRock N Rollercoaster, American Idol Experience and Fantasmic. Still, the park had to look great both to guests planning vacations and to investors who were closely watching the new leadership.


Anyway you slice it, the park is small- and sometimes size does matter!

With the time crunch placed on the Imagineers and the thought this would be Disney's first official "half-day" park (but by opening at a full-day price!), the Disney-MGM Studios debuted with the smallest attraction roster ever seen in a park built by the company and the smallest amount of acreage used to date.  


Look in the upper left corner for some unbuilt ideas!
Art courtesy AngryAP.com

Part of the problem with the size of the park was the potential attractions and areas that never made it past the drawing boards. The concept art piece above shows some unbuilt ideas mixed in with what finally opened.


Pre-opening construction photo from MickeyCity.com.

Previous Florida guests used to the massive Epcot or the fairly large Magic Kingdom were in for a surprise. However, blueprints were draw and approved and construction ran at breakneck speed, just showing that Disney can build attractions- or any entire theme park- quickly when the suits really want to! The advertising experts were also hard at work. Even the promotional materials couldn't hide the fact this was one very small park.

Let's take a quick look at this promotional piece:

Above is the cover of a limited edition preview booklet that I was very happy to obtain years ago. As you can see, Disney was really giving the park preview as much excitement,  glamour, and substance as possible!

The piece above shows the park layout at opening. Notice that The Great Movie Ride was called Great Moments at the Movies and sponsored by Sears? Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was once known as the Stunt Show Theater? Things were clearly a bit in flux when this was produced.


Disney liked bringing out the stars and their recent Touchstone hits to promote the park. The Disney-MGM Studios would be trendy and current even as it celebrated the accomplishments of the past while looking to the current state of the film industry.


Of course, television was not excluded from the promotional materials. Production was scheduled to happen for hit shows as well as movies at the park. Here's where it all started, the tag line "Where fantasy is real and dreams come true!" is used to remind guests this is the domain of Walt Disney World.

What would Disney Studios be without the Disney part! At this point in its history, animation not live action was the studios bread and butter enterprise. The Studios park would be guests' chance to see the whole process up close. (Although I don't ever recall seeing an animator I knew by name... Would have loved to see Glen Keane!)

Star Tours on its way in 1990, already promoting the future. Ah, the drawing power of the galaxy long ago! Gene Kelly, Tarzan, and Casablanca. Something for everyone!


More stars and backstage secrets revealed- what a fun day this should make! Although it wasn't a bad move, the original incarnation of the park emphasized the process of movie making versus entertainment related thrills.

The back cover, wrapping it all up!

Intense and splashy advertising, along with a full park mock up presented in the Magic Kingdom on Main Street and a "star studded" television special, were all quite successful at bringing a great opening year for the park. It worked like magic, but it created crowds and expectations the Company wasn't prepared for.  

Now back to our story...



Nighttime Disney publicity shot reveals the small park.

On May 1 1989, The Disney-MGM Studios was officially opened, and it was the  reason for our visit. It's not too often a fan gets to experience the opening of a brand new Disney theme park. Less than two weeks after its debut, our young family was on its way to see it for ourselves.



When it opened, Disney-MGM Studios was a park with some wonderful theming- and the only place you could see Oz- but as you will see, it was a park with a small amount of things to do.  Most of the attractions were lengthy, so that did help fill out some of the day. If you timed it well, however, it was no where close to being a full day park for a full day price.


1989 Map scan courtesy the excellent Yesterland site.

Before I continue on, please note most all these photos are from May 1989. Each of them is untouched, left with all the original, now faded colors.  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.  Back then, it was truly affordable- and you'd be shocked to know the price- $69 a night. 

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. For our kids, this meant a more relaxed pace and an easier entry into what it meant to visit Walt Disney World. We could really slow down and enjoy the atmosphere versus later when our teens wanted to run from thrill to thrill.

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!



A new park barely two weeks old!

As someone who appreciates retro design and architecture, I found the park to be a visual feast. Beginning with the Pan-Pacific inspired gate, I found the opening scene of Oscar's Super Service and Sid Cahuenga's, (above), perfectly set the mood. There was so much to explore! And how often does a Disney geek get to have a first visit to a brand new park? I couldn't wait for more!


The kind of things that used to be found inside Sid's. Before the Disney Vacation Club...

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 (and now through California Adventure since its rebirth). There was a refreshing warmth and intimacy here that made the Studios something different. The place was approachable, at once new and  familiar, providing quite a different take on the "wow" factor present at the other parks.


Safer and cleaner than what you will find in the real Hollywood.

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. The charm was something lost much later with the addition of the giant sorcerer's hat, when the folks in charge lost a sense of direction for the park, instead deciding to go for the more crassly obvious Disney identification. Sometimes less is more, much more.

An official photo from Disney.
This park also displayed the largest "Hidden Mickey" ever. The lovely, open plaza in front of the Chinese Theater along with nearby Echo Lake formed the face of the world's most beloved mouse. It's easily seen from the air but it's a nice touch when looking at the touring guides handed out at the gate. (Go back and look at the map.)

The park's top dining experience.

Realizing the much profitable success of creating unique dining at Epcot, designed into Imagineering plans were some wonderful and perfectly themed eateries from the very beginning.  Isn't the recreation of the famous Hollywood Brown Derby (above), a great place for an elegant midday meal? Interestingly, in all our visits, we have never been able to catch a reservation to dine there! The historical accuracy of what was built can be found by looking at old photos of Los Angeles in its prime. Sure, there are some liberties taken, but the essence of the city is certainly there.

In the opening days, the Disney-MGM Studios were designed to be part theme park, part actual production facilities. There was a bit of both, making for an odd mix that has made it difficult for expansion and planning in later years. Wanting to one up 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. It was an odd combination of sites, but at the beginning, it seemed to be enough.


Beyond the gateway into the area celebrating animation.


A fairly bland entrance to such an important aspect of Disney film making!


"I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way!"

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 real highlight for fans of the art 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. Years later, the film was also presented in the Animation attraction at California Adventure, but later removed when Turtle Talk with Crush took over the space. With Disney, recycling isn't limited to conservation of the planet.

Back in 1989, it didn't seem that Disney had saturated the parks with present day celebrities, so to do so seemed a better fit for the new park than Epcot putting in Ellen's Energy Adventure or Gary Sinese in Mission: Space.  The animation, the characters, the celebrities all belong at Disney-MGM. You'd expect this at a park called "The Studios". Their absence would create an obvious void. The attractions gave a nod to the true stars of old as well as promoting the latest stars and starlets. It was this attention to honoring the past as well that made the park a place for families of all ages to appreciate. 

New plantings and green spaces.

The Studio 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. 

Backlot Tour concept 

Inside the Magic sign announces the walking portion of the tour.
Between our two visits, the tour was split out into two parts.

Our sweet little family patiently waited in line for the tram, the kids oblivious to the actors on the overhead screen. On the other hand, the adults enjoyed the wait. The presentations seemed witty and fresh as we hadn't seen them before. Soon enough, we boarded the tram and were on our way.


Does this view currently exist? It's been years since I've taken the tram tour.

While the tour itself was enjoyable, the highlight was easily Catastrophe Canyon. The special effects, a combination of earthquake, raging fire, and flash flood was thrilling, unexpected and a crowd pleaser. Thrilling enough to make grandparents and children smile and teens take notice but not at all terrifying  enough to make my preschoolers cry. We all enjoyed the backside of it all, seeing how it happened. Had we been able to experience this part without having to take the whole tour, our kids would have happily jumped back in line!


Buildings galore- all part of the tram tour.


The concept art was true to reality!

Compared to opening, what you get now is a truncated version of the tour with a very tired presentation and aging sights not relevant to current movies and television. Although Catastrophe Canyon is still impressive, it is long overdue to get rid of the tour and replace it with something less dated, more impressive, and an attraction that will become an instant classic. I'm positive Imagineering has just the thing, but only God knows if we will ever see it!

But back to 1989...


Where Streets of America now stand.

The rest of the Studio Backlot Tour was a pretty calm experience, with the elongated open-air bus cruising past street scenes and cityscapes from popular movies and television productions. The rest of the tram tour did eat up a fair chunk of time with the expected but very uninteresting backstage facilities, warehouses, and offices. 


Bugs- why does it have to be bugs?

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 the then new and popular "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" film) and get a glimpse at how live action is filmed ("The Lottery"- a special studio production starring Bette Midler). I was chosen to ride the bee, but I'll be darned if I can find the photo! Maybe it's better...


Little kids and big props!

The post-tour area was filled with playful, over sized props and photo opportunities. This made for a lot of fun for all of us. Even my two year old daughter was able to join the fun. 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... me included. (Man, my wife has a good sense of humor when it comes to my "appreciation" of Jessica Rabbit!)

Exiting the Studio's production area, we head into the theme park portion of the park. There was not too much here in the way of attractions. Lots to see, not much to do. None of us are really stage show fans, so we were at a bit of a loss.

The Great Movie Ride, housed in the Chinese Theater, was an Audio-Animatronic extravaganza in the old school Imagineering tradition. Like most of the attractions in this new park, it was lengthy and fully put you in the midst of the action. My wife and I loved the museum like quality of the queue, something our kids didn't get but would certainly appreciate now. Were those really the famous ruby slippers?


Before the Hat invaded Hollywood!

Billed as "A Spectacular Journey into the Movies", The Great Movie Ride had to live up to its hype. Just look whose featured on the poster (below).


One of the few attraction posters created for the park.

As the only Audio-Animatronic attraction in the park- and with a title that proclaimed greatness- The Great Movie Ride had to be great. And it was! As with the world famous Jungle Cruise, this attraction was one were the guide made all the difference. The enthusiasm of our guide, being placed in a brand new Disney park, made it so much fun. There were surprises galore as we journeyed through scenes that gave honor to multiple types of movies and its well-known stars. 


Gangsters, Cowboys and Aliens!

The close up and original "Alien" encounter kept us alert, to say the least. The fire effects in the Old West and our 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. There was more to come.


Off to see the Wizard!

We all were awestruck by first the tornado, then landing in Munchkinland and finally the Wicked Witch's arrival in the Wizard of Oz. Our families favorite piece of the whole thing. This section alone made for a repeat journey into the movies. The ending collage of great films reminded me of what a powerful and enjoyable medium film can be.

After the attraction, we were excited about the ride and slowed down by tracking down our favorite stars hand prints. Watching our kids interact with their favorite actors, all animated characters,  was quite a joy. Disney wisely had them up front and center at the park, and the lines were manageable. We didn't even need a reservation to see them.

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. The food was reasonably priced and the shaded area much appreciated in the hot Florida sun. My kids were able to burn off some energy as well exploring some more of the well placed props. 

I have to give kudos to my kids here and especially my wife. The children were always well behaved in public. It was as if they knew without us telling them that it was other people's vacations too and to be considerate of the way they handled themselves. We taught them how to respect others and use their "inside voices" in shops, restaurants, museums and movies. We could take them anywhere. Thanks, guys. And thanks to my wife for being the excellent mother that she was/is. By the way- If you look at the photo below, you'll see our youngest daughter aged two in a stroller, the older two kids, ages 3 and 4, walking the park with us. We always thought the natural breaks needed to rest smaller legs gave us a chance to regroup, talk, and enjoy the details all around us.

Long before Drew Carey played a detective here in this building, 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. The hands on interactive area was a nice touch and allowed us to explore some more. As one of the centerpiece buildings in the park, it really deserves something terrific inside of it. Don't you agree? And wouldn't it be a fun nod to the past if Monsters Inc took over the Sound Show?



Echo Lake with Superstar Television top left.


Superstar Television had to be one of my favorite attractions in this new park. Imagine being "inserted" into old favorite television shows! It was a trick used at the Imagination pavilion at Epcot but put to even better use here.


Superstar Television concept from AngryAP.com
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.


My first of many photos of Dinosaur Gertie!

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. Taking in all the details was well worth the time spent sitting on the bench eating our confections.

There also wasn't much for us to do from here on out. We did see a 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. It wouldn't open officially until after we left, but we couldn't resist queuing up with the hundreds of other people looking for something else to do.

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. One Audio-Animatronic ride? No dark rides a la Fantasyland? Not even a spinner for the kids? Yet... what was here was a lot of fun. The place was filled with potential and the subject matter provided endless possibilities.


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 much too plentiful and therefore 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.


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 me time for some souvenir shopping, and to take another peak into our favorite places. The kids did have a little rest. 

I looked around and noticed folks were exiting the park in large numbers. Unfortunately for them, they were missing the best attraction at the park. It's an unannounced one, but one of the best parts of a visit to the Studios.

Small park- big potential!

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. Again, no photoshop. Just look.

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



What the artists imagined...
As you can tell by comparing concept art to reality, this is a case where the Imagineers did an incredible job! The beautiful artwork is nothing compared to the reality of what was built in steel and concrete. Ok, I'm admittedly a sucker for neon, but wow! Just wow!


...what the guests saw when it was built!

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. I would say, and certainly some will disagree, that at opening, the Disney-MGM Studios had more loving detail and charm than all of Florida's Magic Kingdom park. 



The Carthay Circle Theater at night. (And it is just as beautiful in full scale as the centerpiece of the new Buena Vista Street at Disney's California Adventure!)


Time to remove the hat and get back to this.

I just had to walk down to the Chinese Theater just one more time! Now, go ahead and tell me the Hat makes just as much of an endearing icon.



Lights, camera, action!

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- and all without video screens, I may add.


Of course, Indy looks good day or night!



A shimmering Echo Lake.

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



Above, my favorite nighttime shot

Although the park still had some time left until its closing, I had dragged our 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 but also surprised, amazed actually, by the new park's obvious shortcomings- its lack of attractions, in particular those that physically transport you into prop and Audio-Animatronic filled environments, the hallmark of great Disney 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). (By the way, have you noticed how each of these had to add costly, big attractions or have a total re-Imagineering to get the crowds the suits really wanted? Is there a lesson they are finally learning with Shanghai Disneyland.  After all, Disney recently announced more money going into attractions for opening day. Are the Chinese on to their game, demanding more?)

This little park had to expand and quickly. The crowds were crushing the place as folks were anxious to see it. The Company had done quite a bit of promotion with the huge expansion of Walt Disney World, and perhaps, the results were unexpected. Deliver on the promise, if you will. What would come next?

The official opening of the Indiana Jones Stunt show helped relieve the crowds a bit as well as fill out the day at the park. It certainly wasn't enough, but something pretty strong was coming. Fortunately, Star Tours was on its way.

We would return to the park just three years later in 1992. Finding some changes to the small park, this trip we would have almost enough to fill an entire day- if we did every attraction and show. It was a good beginning.


Back in the 80's, Michael Eisner made  concerted effort to revitalize and energize the Disney parks to make them more appealing to a young crowd that would prefer thrills over detail and charm. The teen market was one Disney could not afford to miss. The decision to bring in outside properties had its plusses.

 Such a difference compared to Disneyland's Star Tours exterior!

Endor comes to Florida. From our visit in 1992.

Disneyland premiered one of the first big changes, bringing George Lucas' mega-smash Star Wars to the Disney parks in 1987. 


Thanks to EndorExpress.net for snapping this shot of Star Tours art.

It was a highly controversial move but highly successful and the beginning of other properties being incorporated into territory once restricted to Disney films. The attraction, heralded for its cutting edge flight simulator technology, made its debut in Disney-MGM Studios just in time for opening year's Christmas season. 



Honey, the kids can run around while we rest!

A quick but popular playground with the preschool crowd opened about a year later when the Honey I Shrunk the Kids themed attraction came on line. The movie was great fun and family friendly. The playground was another place to direct the crowds, spend some time, and add to the still small attraction roster.



A once planned Muppets Studios (top) was scaled down to a 3D movie (bottom).

For years, the park relied on a series of innovative theater shows such as Muppet Vision 3D and Beauty and the Beast indoor stage show in 1991 and Voyage of the Little Mermaid in 1992. Disney suits had their eye on Jim Henson's creation and would later buy it.

A Little Mermaid's maiden voyage into the Disney parks.

Voyage of the Little Mermaid was a fun stage show, but the film did cry out for a full-length ride through attraction. As we know, it would come years later, but you have to wonder what everyone at Disney was thinking for it to take so long.

With characters labeled Streetmosphere to fill out the day for guests,  Imagineering focused on what would be next. These shows and smaller touches were nice and family friendly, but if Disney wanted to draw a crowd, they needed something that would pull them in and not just flesh out the attraction roster of the park.

A much needed dining addition.

With a very cool exterior sign! (From 2009.)

Family photo circa our 1999 vacation to the World.

One of our favorite places to eat the Sci-Fi Dine In appeared during this time. We try to eat here as often as budget and scheduling allow it. It's great fun but solidly overpriced for fairly mediocre food. You can't beat the environment, however!

The promise of thrills to come. The billboard ad for Tower of Terror in 1992.

The long wait between attractions was worth it when The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror finally opened its doors in the middle of summer of 1994. It was an instant game changer in the theme park industry, signaling Disney was serious about getting into the thrill market in Central Florida. If the Magic Kingdom was for families with small kids and Epcot was for adults, the Studios would now be the park for thrill seeking teens.


A different incarnation of what would become Tower of Terror.
For the best website on the attraction, go to TowerofTerror.org!

Happily, our next visit to Walt Disney World came just a few years after the opening of Tower, and we were able to experience this happily scary and suspenseful attraction for ourselves.


Two official photos by Disney, showing construction of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
as well as the building of Sunset Blvd.

With our kids now older and able to experience a wider range of attractions all over Florida, Tower of Terror was now on the top of our must-see list. My good natured wife rode with eyes closed- and missed some of the best parts of this instantly classic elevator ride gone bad. 

The quietly abandoned queue through an old hotel perfectly set the stage for what was to come. Anyone outside could see the big drop (perfect advertising!) but the thrills began right when we entered the library with the small television off to the side. Lightning, thunder, and unexpected darkness do a lot to up the thrill factor. And that's only the beginning... We were not disappointed!

The final product.

Disneyland's acclaimed Fantasmic! nighttime show made its debut in Florida in 1998. Although it is entertaining, those guests (like me) familiar with the California version will notice the short cuts in the presentation. Fireworks, lights, actors, music. It is a great way to end the day at the Studios- and guests can exit right into the parking lot located right next door. Shrewd and convenient. We also found it to be a place where Disney vendors hawked their wares. 

Early in 1999, comedian Drew Carey's audio attraction Sounds Dangerous replaced the Monster Sound Show. It was a minor attraction, not nearly as clever as the previous, but it was something. A bigger and more popular attraction would come later in the year.

Five years after the stunning success of Tower of Terror, Disney again showed they were in to win the teen market. Of course, there was now more competition down the street with Universal Orlando's brand new Islands of Adventure. The suits didn't know what impact the high thrill ride focused park would have, but they were not taking any chances. 


How about a high speed trip with Aerosmith?

A giant guitar advertises the ride but ruins the atmosphere of Sunset Blvd.

Now matter how you view it, competition is good for the consumer. In the case of theme park fans, Universal coming to the table with a whole new plan of attack was a good thing.


Sure, Disney's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is basically an off-the-shelf coaster given the dark ride treatment a la Space Mountain. With the rock band Aerosmith on board promoting the attraction, attention was once again called to the fact that Disney Studios was the place for thrills when on the property. 


Courtesy AngryAP.com, a map showing the park after the 1999 expansion.

Of course, with the attraction opening just a couple of months after Island of Adventure had there's in May 1999, Disney was there to steal some focus from the new park as well as capitalize on some additional tourism cash when it opened the latest thriller in July. It's a small and competitive world after all!

There's one attraction that almost made it to completion, and I sure wish it would have! Magician David Copperfield and the Walt Disney Company had great plans to create an attraction, the Magic Underground, that would have been a showcase for his magic and special effects. In between the completion of Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in 1995, this combination theater presentation and potential restaurant would have brought a bit of adult thrill seeking of a different kind to the park.

Opening in 2001, One Man's Dream, reminds guests of the incredible man who started it all and his vision for family fun. Essentially, it is a new version of The Walt Disney Story once housed at Disneyland and in Florida's Magic Kingdom but with all the bells and whistles any fan would really want. Any true Disney geek/historian has got to see this place to believe it! The enticing  combination of park models, the artwork, and the movie about his life make this a must-see attraction. The first time I walked in, I had to be dragged out of the place. Even non-Disney geeks find it fascinating.

Another major but unfortunate event in 2001 was the insertion of the giant Sorcerer's Hat in front of the Chinese Theater. As a pin trading station, it works fine. As a structure designed to enhance the park, it fails miserably. It's both an eyesore and blocks the elegant view that once was seen from the park entrance. My first view of it was something that I won't forget- and not for good reasons.


The incredible...Pin Trading Station.

When the Walt Disney Company launched one of their many celebrations: 100 Years of Magic. Focused on the birth of Walt Disney, the Disney-MGM Studios joined the fun by adding the giant sorcerer's hat from the film Fantasia.

The beautifully designed and detailed park was all the worse for it! 
Not only does the giant hat still hide the beautiful replica of Grauman's Chinese Theater, it is a stark reminder of the crass commercialization of the entertainment based park. Gone are the days of period appropriate memorabilia found throughout the newly named Disney's Hollywood Studios park. 

This kind of downgrade cheapens the overall experience and misjudges the guests. Are elegance and charm are now a thing of the past. Isn't it time to retire this type of "magic"? I think so.

Sometimes, the change of Chief Executive Officer is a good thing for the parks. In 2005, Robert Iger took over for Michael Eisner after a nasty in house fight gone public. Whereas Michael was good for the parks, particularly during his first decade, Iger  basically left the Studios park to rot. What was up next for the step-child in Florida?


Next up was... nothing. The once beautiful and growing park became stagnant. For years it sat, living off its reputation as the home for Tower of Terror. The Great Movie Ride, left without an update for the most part, became stale. Robotics failed and special effects no longer worked as designed. The guides lost their enthusiasm, and it seemed all through the park, things were getting worse.

For a CEO who championed the purchase of Pixar, then Marvel, (and later made the grab for Indiana Jones and Star Wars), someone who loves the parks and follows the Company would expect the Studios park to be the first place he presses to have a significant presence versus a one-off dark ride clone from California that would come later.



Straight from France (copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

There was one bright spot in the park's history at this point in time. Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show burst onto the scene in 2005. The great high energy show from Paris is at times plagued by some things not going as planned, but it is a huge crowd pleaser to men, teens, and boys. In our viewing, the show closed midway through due to malfunctioning effects. I have never seen the entire show, even when I was in Paris at the abysmal Studios park. But this was the end of adding anything to the Studios for awhile.



Aiming squarely for the teen market- and succeeding!
With some great friends and our two youngest teenagers in tow, we headed back to the World in 2005. Sure enough, we realized that the Studios park would be one of their favorites. Between Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Rollercoaster, they wanted to stay most of the evening riding the two as often as the could.


The Stunt show was a hit with the guys.
Our visit to the Studios began just before lunch, as we had spent much of the night out the day before at the Magic Kingdom, seemingly alternating between nighttime rides at Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain. The ladies had an evening alone at Pleasure Island eating and shopping, which left the gents to take the sons out for a boys night.  The thrill rides were are target. See a trend here?


 Looking down Sunset Blvd. Tower of Terror beckons!

Apparently, Tower of Terror was supposed to be the centerpiece attraction of Sunset Blvd., but smaller dark rides were once planned along the street. They unfortunately never happened. It was probably a case of building on the cheap, but in fairness, the premier thrill/horror attraction did cost so much money.

 Creepy lobby- much darker and threatening than its younger sibling to come in California.

Evening rides back and forth between the coaster and the Tower. I was so proud of capturing this image! It took me a few times to get it, but I'm so glad I did. After several rides between the two, the ladies sat and enjoyed their Mickey ice creams, and the guys got a few more rides in before the performance of Fantasmic!

Is this a replacement for attractions?

Mr. Iger seemed to leave things as they were at the Studios. After some substantial activity in the 90's, things were quiet again, and the suits took on a different strategy for this park. It made its name- and money-  hosting Star Wars Weekends and Christmas displays with the Osbourne Family light display. It's a trend that has grown since Epcot's Springtime Flower and Garden Festival and its Fall Food and Wine gatherings. Profitable but secondary to a great experience at either park.

It was during this time, during Iger's reign, that the Studios park moved into 4th place among my Florida favorites. It was still home to a few unique attractions and some great atmosphere, but the Imagineers and suits did not know how to revitalize the park nor did anyone have a vision for it.


Unfortunately, back in California, the Walt Disney Company and its leader had a crisis on their hands. The brand new California Adventure park had just opened, and it tanked. Big time. So much so it became the laughing stock of the theme park industry. Because of this disaster, the Studios stayed as it was while everyone attended to the embarrassment on the West Coast. During this same year, the incredible Tokyo Disney Sea opened, and the Company made sure it was hidden from view from their public in the States. How could they explain such a masterpiece overseas when they had wasted all the potential of their second park land in Anaheim?


By the time we ventured back to Walt Disney World in 2009, just a year after the name changed to Disney's Hollywood Studios, and only months after both the Journey into Narnia exhibit and Toy Story Midway Mania 3D shooter ride opened, not too much had changed when we looked at the big picture. My wife and I were visiting alone this trip, and we missed the grand opening of the American Idol Experience by one month. We did not consider it much of a loss, and the new attractions were not a draw.


Still crowded after all these years.

During this visit, we found the park layout was as frustrating and confusing as ever. Every avenue seemed to hold a traffic jam as folks moved toward Sunset Blvd. and its two superstar attractions. The street was a sea of people clammoring toward The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'N' Rollercoaster. It felt as if we were somehow back in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland between Splash and Big Thunder Mountains.  It was not enjoyable.

The terrific looking Pixar Place creates a huge traffic jam as folks love the shoehorned Toy Story Midway Mania. This video game ride has its older sibling in California Adventure. While I enjoy it, I chose not to wait the hour and a half to ride here. In a park void of attractions the whole family will enjoy, this was an instant winner. There's thrill rides on one end of the spectrum, stage shows on the other, and not much in between. The once planned dark rides for the Sunset Boulevard expansion would have gone a long way in making the park more attractive for those looking forward to adventures the whole family could enjoy together. Where have I heard that before?

As I said, Pixar Place is an attractive section of the park, but it is swamped with people. If they truly do open the oft rumored Monsters Inc. coaster next door, the Imagineers had better create a lengthy in building queue for the throngs of folks waiting to ride. Regardless, the fact the Studios has one smaller dark ride attraction shows the very shortcomings of the park, its focus, and its long term plans.

Crowd control was even worse surrounding Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show. Yet areas of the park were strangely empty, creating pockets that felt like a ghost town. Particularly the Star Wars side of the park.

Indy still looks good in 2009.

I noticed the Indiana Jones Stunt Show was still very popular- go Indy!- and that The Great Movie Ride was very busy. Passing by The Prime Time Cafe, I took a photo of the sign- it was becoming a habit to capture all the great signage here- and thought of the year my 4 year old daughter's coloring page was placed on the home's refrigerator. Sweet memories! We walked on. Cruising by American Idol, I recalled the fun of Superstar Television, but realized taste change, and folks seemed to be queuing up for the new show. Was it a test run? 


 Walking around exploring is not a replacement for attractions! 

We wandered around this area of the park past the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, Muppets 3D, and the streets of the backlot. All amazingly devoid of people, allowing the amount of detail to really show itself. That is one nice thing about the strange dispersion of guests in the park.

Heading down the main avenue for the exit, I was disappointed we didn't have more time. A stop at Sid Cahuenga's memorabilia shop was a short treat, although the store seemed much smaller than I remembered. Hearkening back to a time when you could find unique merchandise in each park, I enjoyed the vintage photos and atmosphere. Overall, the park seemed like a shadow of its former self- but it was still easier to fill a day there than at the neglected Animal Kingdom.

Walking out the gates, I wished I had swapped days and spent this one at Animal Kingdom instead. Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris were quick and easy to do in an hour or so, and a walk around the park and the Tree of Life could fill out the two and a half hours we had before our departure for the Orlando Airport. This would have given us a full day at Disney's Hollywood Studios- something I never had thought I could do in the past.

Wisely, we had planned this park for our last half day. Or were we wise? We had a full day at Animal Kingdom the day before, but we left disappointed. Perhaps it would have been better to swap them out.

This last trip, the charms and compelling attractions of one park were highlighted while the shortcoming of another became evident. Although Expedition: Everest, one of my favorite Florida attractions is there, Disney's Animal Kingdom has now officially moved to the bottom of the four in Orlando and Disney's Hollywood Studios has moved to third place. I would even prefer to go to the revitalized California Adventure

I say all this cautiously since both Florida parks are at an interesting crossroads. For that matter, Epcot is also needing an infusion of life and money. It's hanging on by a thread. The Florida property at large feels neglected, stale, and shortchanged by the Company.

We have not been to Walt Disney World since 2009. Instead, we've spent our time and money in Europe and Asia as well as visiting family across the States. Our only Disney park travels have been as part of a family visit to California after Cars Land and Buena Vista Street premiered at California Adventure and  one day at Disneyland Paris as part of a short stay in my favorite international destination. 

Official Disney blog Legend of Jack Sparrow photo.

When the Studios park opened the Jack Sparrow video based show in 2012, there was no incentive to plan a trip. With nothing on the table as of this writing, we have no incentive at all to return.

Walt Disney World will always be a special place worth a visit. We are cautiously waiting what is up next. Avatarland / Pandora looks interesting but the story leaves me cold.  The New Fantasyland looks beautiful, but I am not the target audience. Nothing is on the books for Epcot. So, that leaves the Studios. What will they do? Cars Land was once rumored and a Star Wars land is possible but not highly probably- at least not soon.

A fancy logo to celebrate 25 years- and that's all!

If it is more film based theater shows, new parades, and character attractions, it will be awhile, probably many years, before we return. These do not cause us to spend thousands of dollars here. However, if the accountants and Disney executives are forward thinking and add major compelling attractions- ones that dazzle and amaze, experiences available only at Disney World- we will make the effort to return. The choice is theirs- and ours. 

The convoluted layout- much worse than at opening!
It is clear twenty five years later that Disney was rushed in creating the place, leaving a jumbled mess of a puzzle to be solved by someone else- someday if ever. There's no visionary leader here for the entire park 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. They have announced Scott Trowbridge for the Star Wars mini-land, but there is no one to look at the park as a whole. That piecemeal approach seems to be what got the Studios into the mess it is now in.

Will the problems ever be truly addressed or will the park remain in limbo? The competition up the street is not waiting for Disney's next step- they are preempting it and now are the ones that lead the pack.

(Photographs by Mark Taft. Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company. I'd like to thank AngryAP.com for three of the harder to find pieces. Go check out that great site, by the way.)

7 comments:

David Logan said...

Thank You so much for posting this! It has both made me realize how under-appreciated this park is and how needy it is at the same time. I love the pictures and concept art.

David L

David Logan said...

Thank You so much for posting this! It has both made me realize how under-appreciated this park is and how needy it is at the same time. I love the pictures and concept art.

David L

Mark Taft said...

Thanks, David!~

Prescott Ryker said...

Great post, I love your "vintage" photos! They captured southern California so well here, it is just startling. I relocated from LA to DC, and then to Charlotte, NC...so I haven't lived in CA for almost 8 years now and the Studios do such a great job of making me homesick whenever I go. I also love that the scale of "Hollywood Blvd" really captures the scale of Main Street USA back at Disneyland. The Sci-Fi Drive-In is also one of our favorites, again it evokes California so well that I can't resist trying to eat there every time we go. The placemaking is simply top-notch! Tower of Terror is simply spectacular...from the way it terminates Sunset Blvd, the way you climb the Hollywood Hills, the way the amphitheater recalls the Hollywood Bowl, that whole area just feels so right, so much like the real Hollywood Hills...the only thing that gives it away is the unrelenting Humidity...ha ha!

Our first visit was for Star Wars weekends, and our second visit was for the closing season of Osbourne Lights so we have never been when the park wasn't packed...I think it went a long way to hiding the fact that there are not too many attractions! When California Adventure opened, at the time I was not as critical as most folks because I always upgraded to the park hopper(which was a nominal upcharge at the time) and well after growing up in the 80's and 90's and seeing all of the wonderful things going on in Florida(that I never dreamed Id be able to see in person) I was so grateful to see some taste of that finally in California! It was so refreshing the crowdless park, and then when you were done you went back to Disneyland...ha ha. But seeing the lavish detail of Hollywood Studios really put in perspective how much of that detail was lacking at California Adventure's own Hollywoodland.

Mark Taft said...

There's so much I love about this park! It's primarily the setting of it all. SoCal at its best- I agree! I am hoping that all the changes coming up enhance and build on the "opening act". And that they leave Tower of Terror, the Chinese Theater, and Sci-Fi Dine In alone. Sometimes I think they just can't help themselves...

Kristin (kacooke) said...

I worked at this park from 1991-1995. I gave the Animation tour. There was a live action show of the Muppets in the theater now occupied by the Little Mermaid before the 3D movie opened. I also remember a show in an outdoor theater somewhere of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. There was even a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles short show and then autographs at the end of New York Street. For a brief period, there was an Aladdin parade through the park. The old fireworks show with the inflatable Sorcerer Mickey with the fireworks coming out of his finger was my favorite. One summer, there was a Rocketeer that would open the fireworks by flying circles in front of the Chinese Theater. Although most of what I knew and loved about this park is long gone, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Mark Taft said...

Kristin, thank you so much for writing! Your additional insights are fascinating. I would have loved to see the Rocketeer! Even though the park was neglected and under built for so many years, I still enjoyed it. I wish the suits had invested in it long ago. Thank God these newest plans are not touching Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! I wish the Great Movie Ride had been spared...
Again, thanks for reading and sharing!