When Michael Eisner opened Disney’s Hollywood Studios in May 1989, it was a park with a different name and a firm identity. It was the Disney-MGM Studios. It was designed with the intent of being a working, full fledged tv studio, movie production center, and animation studio. It was also by design intended to be a half-day behind-the-scenes experience, rather then a full theme park gate. Announced and built in a rush in order to preempt the opening of Universal Studios Florida nearby, the park opened with 5 attractions and expansion pads for future attractions. These attractions were the Great Movie Ride, the Backstage Studio tour (which was a two and a half hour studio tour at the time), the Monster Sound Show, Superstar Television, and the Magic of Disney Animation. It was dedicated as follows:
“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.
— Michael Eisner, May 1, 1989”
It was so popular when it opened that Eisner fast-tracked new projects to help add capacity. By August, the much maligned Indiana Jones Stunt show opened, and by 1991, both Star Tours and Muppet Vision 3-D had joined the mix. To be fair it was an amazing concept for a park, the Great movie ride and Hollywood Boulevard were rich in detail, theming, story, and movie references; it was brilliant Imagineering. However the problem of capacity reared its head. The studio tour was long, had a small capacity, cost a lot to run and often times the sound stages were empty. Even Disney’s own productions of the new Mickey Mouse club tv had problems with the filming location. The Studio aspect was successful enough, but as a theme park it was desperate for capacity. Parts of the studio tour were cut down and other sections opened for pedestrian use.
The park was at crossroads, with the studio and backlot portion of the park failing to stay interesting and useful, yet another expansion was planned for the front part of the park. When Sunset Boulevard opened it added a much needed thrill ride and huge capacity to the park with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This area was themed to post World War two Hollywood, which complimented wonderfully the meticulous theming of Hollywood Boulevard. The front half of the park fulfilled the mission of being “a Hollywood that never was—but always will be.”
The studios continued to struggle to find relevance and the park stagnated in growth. The back half of the park was a confusing mix of pathways, an empty Streets of America, and an underwhelming backlot tour now displayed costume facilities and a boneyard instead of any real production. The Animation Studio closed in 2004 with the then-death of hand-drawn animation, leaving the studio without any actual, real productions in the works. By 2008, the park’s name changed to Disney’s Hollywood Studios after years of arguing between Disney and the owners of the MGM Studios name. Meg Crofton (then WDW president) said the new name reflected a celebration “new entertainment that today’s Hollywood offered.” The park now had a wider theme and somewhat new focus. A theme so vague and all-encompassing they hoped it could work as a cover-all to put any attraction into the park. The park quickly added Toy Story Midway Mania, Block Party Bash, and the American Idol Experience after the name change, reinvigorating the park in many aspects.
Today we are left with an awkward park with a hodgepodge of areas mixed together so haphazardly that it makes no real sense. Toy Story Mania is thrown into a narrow alley way themed to PIXAR Studios, the backlot tour has closed leaving a giant dead space, and the popular Jedi Training Academy attempts to cram way-too-many guests into essentially what was a parade entrance and exit. The promise of the future of Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land is sure to revitalize the park, however it does little to alleviate its identity crisis. With a now defunct studio, closed backlot tour, closed animation studio and soon closing Street of America, the park will soon become more of a park themed to a construction site than anything else.
Rumors of a name change are swirling about the internet, Bob Iger even let it leak that a name change was coming. The question is what name will do justice to the park, reorient its theme to mesh together old Hollywood, Star Wars and Toy Story into a coherent theme? Disney’s Hollywood Adventure, Disney’s Cinema Spectacular, and Disney’s Cinema Celebration have all been suggested. Whatever the name change is, it’s clear that any reference to “studio” should be dropping away. The park is in no way a studio, Disney acknowledged this in when they confirmed the Earful Tower to be coming down, and when the last major remnant of the Studios falls, with it falls the studio theme. Studio references will still remain, including the soundstage numbers on the buildings, but with a new name and new expansions, it is quite likely for these references will become a thing of the past.
However, a name change will not be enough to solve the problem though, Imagineers will have to think long and hard about how to justify the three very different areas of the park into one unified vision. If their solution is to say it is a celebration of the movies, this may not solve the incoherence felt inside its gate.
Whatever the name is, we are reminded of Disney’s miraculous re-Imagineering of Disney’s California Adventure and that gives me great solace. They took a similar hodgepodge of a park and created a wonderful model-theme-park in its stead. I am hoping they can work similar magic with Hollywood Studios. Until 2018 when these new projects are intended to open, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will remain a shell of a park with an identity crisis, but hopefully once these expansions are finished, Disney’s Hollywood Studios Cinema Adventure Entertainment Movie Park (or whatever they decide on calling it) will be something to be genuinely excited about again!