D23 has a great article looking at back at the first 20 year’s of Disney’s Hollywood Studios in honor of the park’s anniversary tomorrow:
Just hours before Michael D. Eisner, then chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, officially dedicated the Walt Disney World Resort’s third gated attraction, some 40 “A-List” celebrities were on hand to get the party started in classic Hollywood motorcade style, among them Audrey Hepburn, Betty White, George Lucas, Art Linkletter and famed Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. Although the weekend would also play host to thunderstorms and torrential rain, it was “on with the show,” and, with the following words, Eisner officially opened the park 20 years ago today:
“The world you have entered was created by The Walt Disney Company and is dedicated to Hollywood — not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was — and always will be.”
But the story of the park known today as Disney’s Hollywood Studios begins at a point even further back in time — back to the early days, when Walt and Roy Disney set up shop in their newly built Burbank studio.
Film historian Leonard Maltin notes that by the late 1930s, Walt “was written about almost as often as the top movie stars of the day.” And with the enormous popularity of Mickey Mouse and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a strong fan base was eager to learn about the magic behind the films. However, just before construction of Walt’s new studio was finished, the outbreak of war in Europe cut off many of Walt Disney Productions’ foreign markets and dealt a blow to its overall income. So in an effort to generate quick funds, Walt’s story men began work on an inexpensive live-action film that would incorporate animated segments and a behind-the-scenes look at the studio’s inner workings.
The result was The Reluctant Dragon, the studio’s first live-action film, released in June 1941. In the picture, acclaimed Hollywood actor Robert Benchley visits the Disney Studio (only a year old at the time) in Burbank to meet Walt and pitch a concept for a new cartoon feature. While stumbling upon one department after another, Benchley learns about each step of the animation process. The film’s purpose is made clear in an opening title frame: “This picture is made in answer to the many requests to show the backstage life of animated cartoons.” Although the film received mixed reviews, it delighted moviegoers curious about movie-making magic.
Although Walt originally envisioned a tour as part of the new studio, little land was available to accommodate such an idea, and Disney leadership worried that it could disrupt filming. But by the late 1940s, Walt was determined to build “something to show people who wanted to visit the Disney Studio.” This proposed “Mickey Mouse Park” would be constructed across the street, just between Riverside Drive and the Los Angeles River. The studio artists’ ideas rapidly outgrew the small strip of land and would later become the foundation of Disneyland Park.
Because Disneyland did not include a backstage studio tour, the Disney staff found other ways to show off their backstage magic. Turning to the new medium of television, Wilfred Jackson directed several episodes of the weekly Disneyland series in which Walt discussed the animation process: “The Story of the Animated Drawing” (aired on 11/30/1955), “The Plausible Impossible” (10/31/56) and “Tricks of our Trade” (2/13/1957). These episodes combined looks at the history of animation and at behind-the-scenes work at the Disney Studio, engaging a wide prime time ABC audience.
A STAR IS FOUND AT WED
In the 1960s, Walt made no mention of incorporating a movie studio into his final plan of a “whole new Disney World” in Florida. But as the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center quickly made Florida’s Vacation Kingdom the world’s most popular tourist destination by the 1980s, The Walt Disney Company, under the new leadership of President Frank Wells and Eisner, began a long-term, aggressive plan to develop the Florida property.
According to the Disney Imagineers, one of the first concepts that Eisner encountered at Walt Disney Imagineering was a “Movie Pavilion” to be built just between The Land and Journey into Imagination pavilions at EPCOT Center. The pavilion’s highlight would be a landmark journey through classic moments in cinema history. Eisner, who had made a name for himself at Paramount Studios, warmly embraced the Hollywood concept, and Imagineers expanded the idea into an entire movie studio park!
A HYBRID VENTURE BREAKS GROUND
As the studio park concept matured, it was regarded as a hybrid venture: both a third-gated attraction as well as a fully functioning motion picture and television production center. “If you do a studio tour park, you must have a working studio,” explained Bob Allen, director of film and tape production. Guests would be given firsthand access to the production process and receive a “sneak peek” of upcoming films.
On July 8, 1985, just under a year after joining the Company, Eisner announced plans to build the full-scale studio at the Walt Disney World Resort. Except Disney would not work alone in this endeavor. Just days before the announcement, the MGM/UA Entertainment Company signed a deal with Disney, one which allowed Walt Disney World to incorporate certain MGM/UA films into the parks and use the “Leo the Lion” logo and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer name on posters and advertisements. “Both the lion and the mouse will roar,” Eisner said during the press announcement.
On March 27, 1986, legendary actor Bob Hope was on hand for the park’s official groundbreaking on a 135-acre plot of land located one mile southwest of Epcot. Although the park was planned to be relatively conservative in size, its scale gradually grew throughout the planning process. A concept for a small production facility grew into three soundstages (one 13,000 sq. ft. and two 7,100 sq. ft.), a costuming facility and an extensive postproduction area. The production center began its operations roughly a year before the actual theme park’s opening; scenes from the television pilot Splash, Too were shot in February 1988, and production soon entered full-swing for such television series as Siskel & Ebert, The Mickey Mouse Club and Ed McMahon’s Star Search. The production center would eventually see its facilities fully booked by dozens of film and television projects throughout the following years.
Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park opened to a full house on May 1, 1989. In fact, the park was filled to capacity just a half-hour after opening! Park hours were extended all summer long while Imagineering and operational teams found creative ways to improve crowd flow and incorporate new live show performances. Beholding the park’s instant success, Company leaders quickly approved expansion plans.
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD!
Just as Main Street, U.S.A., welcomes Magic Kingdom guests to days gone by, Hollywood Boulevard immerses guests in Hollywood’s glittering “Golden Age” of the 1930s and ’40s. Using the architectural styles of art-deco and streamline moderne, the park’s gateway reflects the flamboyance of movie-making moguls and draws guests to its visual magnet: a full-scale replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. (The park’s icon is now a 122-foot-tall Sorcerer Mickey Hat). In classic Disney fashion, the park pays homage to Hollywood stories and lore, both through tiny details and imposing structures. The colossal Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Creams of Extinction, for example, is a reference to Winsor McCay’s revolutionary 1914 cartoon character, which Walt had shared with television audiences three decades earlier.
In the Backstage Studio Tour area, trams whisked park guests through such areas as the prop warehouse and the greens and costuming departments. Many elements of this tour, including the thrilling “Catastrophe Canyon” set, are still offered today. An original highlight was a trip down a residential street, which featured façades from films and TV shows, including Adventures in Wonderland and The Golden Girls. (This street would later be host to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights and eventually be replaced by Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show).
Complementing the tram tour was a 40-minute Inside the Magic: Special Effects Production Tour, in which Guests caught a bird’s eye view of film production via sound-proofed observation catwalks over sound stages and post-production areas. In The Magic of Disney Animation, Guests could watch an initial 71-member team produce animated segments from an observation deck. (Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida would later expand and produce Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear.) Many Guests fondly remember the tour’s Back to Neverland pre-show film, in which Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams humorously explored the animation process.
A variety of other attractions welcomed guests on opening day, including:
–The Great Movie Ride: Based on a pavilion conceived for Epcot and housed inside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, this ride sends guests through such landmark films as Singin’ in the Rain, Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz.
–Superstar Television: An interactive show in which participants appeared on stage “alongside” actors from famous television shows. The theater was designed to house actual television productions and used fully-functional equipment.
–Monster Sound Show: Presented by SONY, this demonstration of sound effects featured Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Guests could later put their skills to work in a hands-on post-show, Soundworks.
In December 1989, Disney-MGM Studios welcomed Star Tours. Although the attraction had previously opened in Disneyland Park, Imagineers tailored the experience to the studio setting; the entrance resembles a standing movie set on a backlot. In the early 1990s, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure and Here Come the Muppets incorporated even more familiar characters into the park. The Theater of the Stars, host to elaborate shows under leadership of entertainment guru Ron Logan, was relocated from Hollywood Boulevard to Sunset Boulevard, the immersive park addition that now leads Guests to 1994’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and 1999’s Rock’n’Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.
DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
In more recent years, additions to the Walt Disney World Resort’s third theme park have constituted a “broader theme” of new attractions and experiences. In order to better reflect the entertainment offerings that represent today’s Hollywood, Disney-MGM Studios was renamed “Disney’s Hollywood Studios” in January 2008.
Today, the all-new American Idol Experience invites Guests to participate on stage in the Superstar Theater, a nod to the attraction which originally occupied the structure. Meanwhile, Toy Story Midway Mania! features interactivity at its best and, in contrast to its Disney’s California Adventure twin, is uniquely tailored into a new Pixar Studios land.
While Disney’s Hollywood Studios has changed and developed over the past 20 years, it has been inspiring to understand its roots from Walt’s beloved Burbank studio. As the park continues to evolve, it will likely follow in step with Walt’s own spirit: with one foot in the future and another in the past, carrying on the traditions of a Hollywood that never was — and always will be.