1989: Disney MGM Studios


The idea for a Disney-styled, Hollywood theme park had been circulating around the company since the 1950s. Walt's original design for the Disneyland Park was to be a small park on the Disney studio lot. Not only could Guests enjoy themselves on park rides, but also watch movies being made on the studio lot.

The Disney-MGM Studios would be designed to do just that, using classic films past and present to entertain and educate Guests of all ages. Plans called for several rides and shows that paid tribute to famous movies, or were entirely based on one film.

The theme park would do more than entertain. It would also include actual working soundstages and production buildings, where real filming and taping could take place. The Florida film industry had grown tremendously in the previous few years. Here was an opportunity for the Disney resort to be part of that growth. The working studios would be intricately linked with the park, using attractions and audience opportunities to bring Guests into the soundstages and the middle of the action.

Facilities would include several soundstages, complete with lighting and camera storage, sound booths, and editing rooms, all with the latest in equipment technology. These buildings were planned with glass-partitioned accessways so Guests could watch daily studio activities taking place.

Dominant theme park architecture would feature the glitz and glamour of Hollywood from the 1930s and 1940s. Imagineers watched thousands of hours of film and television to create certain atmospheres, landscaping, and interior designs for buildings. Particular streets such as Hollywood and Vine were to be re-created for authenticity. Familiar Los Angeles landmarks that typified the era were photographed and analyzed. Imagineers scaled down building plans so they would fit inside the park. Other designers brought in ideas featuring "California Crazy" architecture, like oversized boats and dinosaurs for retail space.

Since television programs could be produced in the working studios, the entire broadcasting medium would be showcased as well. A fully functioning radio station was planned inside the park which could broadcast local or visiting stations' programs.

The Disney company signed an agreement with MGM Studios, one of the most prestigious movie studios in history, for the use of its name and logo. This added an extra touch of class to the theme park's title and instant recognition to anyone familiar with many of Hollywood's greatest films.

The announcement for the theme park was in 1985, and construction began in 1986. Consultants were brought in to bring some of the working facilities to life. George Lucas of Star Wars fame became a major addition to the Disney family. His knowledge of story-telling on film, combined with the technical magic of Imagineering, helped create thrilling attractions based on his films.

One of the most important additions to the park was the Walt Disney Animation Florida division of the Disney animation industry. Guests could now see how classic and current cartoons were made in a working studio. With the help of Disney animators, old and new, Imagineers came up with a facility that complimented the animation studio's workplace, while allowing Guests to view each aspect of production from start to finish. Classic Disney films set the tone for imagination and adventure on the big screen and in the creative processes.

The movie studios in California used to have water towers on their lots for heating and cooling purposes, so one was designed for this park's own studios. Though the Earffel Tower does not function as its predecessors did, it is the theme park's landmark. It stands 130 feet tall, and the eye-catching mouse ears weigh 5,000 pounds each. They were constructed on the ground and then lifted to the top by crane.

The Chinese Theater, America's most famous and recognizable Hollywood movie house, is the visual draw for Guests to journey deeper into the park. Unlike most attraction buildings, this theater has no forced perspective. Imagineers used the actual architectural drawings of the original theater and built Florida's to the same scale. Even the lobby is an exact reproduction. The 22-ton copper shingle roof in the center of the building was installed separately. The courtyard was designed to be slowly filled by cement handprints of visiting stars.

Practically all of the attractions would use the most high-tech computer and special-effects equipment in existence. There were endless trial runs for the "natural" disasters occurring in Catastrophe Canyon. Computers had to be adjusted perfectly so the effects would happen just at the right moment, equipment would not toss any Backstage Shuttles into the water pit, or heat wouldn't melt the metal parts involved in the oil drill explosions. An actual oil tanker was lifted into the canyon, stripped of its insides, and fireproofed. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! had similar tests performed.

Visual and audio controls had to be recorded and timed perfectly for the Audio-Animatronics cast of The Great Movie Ride. Permission to use certain actors' and actresses' voices was obtained for some attractions, while other voices were computer-created.

The Walt Disney Story in the Magic Kingdom Park became a preview center again, this time for the Disney-MGM Studios. The preview film featured what a typical family's visit to the park would be like.

May 1, 1989 . . . The opening day press event for the Disney-MGM Studios was the largest in Walt Disney World history. Although it rained throughout the day, the park was packed. The parking lot closed an hour after opening, and traffic backed up for miles. Hundreds of radio and television broadcasts took place around the attractions. "Streetmosphere" characters and bands kept the large crowds and long lines entertained. Celebrities were on hand to dedicate each attraction. Michael Eisner read the dedication plaque:

"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."

The Disney-MGM Studios was an instant success. It proved so popular that park officials quickly opened up backstage sections to increase crowd flow. This soon led to more attractions planned in those newly traveled sections. Future park expansion plans were immediately put into action. With the help of several popular live shows, the park was able to handle crowds while still developing more attractions. Trailers were brought in to make room for the already-expanding animation department.

Long-range plans included building more studios across the main highway alongside the park, connecting it with access roads and walkways. An entire new street opened in 1994: Sunset Boulevard, which pays tribute to the theater district of Hollywood. The theaters on the block are actual reproductions of several found in California, including the Carthay Circle, where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. It is also home to two feature attractions: "The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror," the tallest attraction on property at 199 feet, and a large amphitheater for the live "Beauty and the Beast" stage show.

No longer a real production studio since both the live-action and animation unit have been closed, the park has also been renamed Disney's Hollywood Studios since January 1, 2008.

The current park profile is as follows:

Disney's Hollywood Studios is divided into six themed areas. Unlike the other Walt Disney World parks, the park does not have a defined layout, resembling more of a mass of streets and buildings that blend into each other, much like a real motion picture studio. The plaza at the end of Hollywood Boulevard, however, featured a large Hidden Mickey, which was visible in aerial photographs of the park and on the park's early guide maps. Construction and other park changes have eliminated much of this image.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard serves as the park's main entrance and is lined with venues selling Disney merchandise. Parades such as the Pixar Block Party Bash travel down Hollywood Boulevard on their route through the park, and live street entertainment can be found here throughout the day. Michael Eisner, who had a major part in the park's creation ever since the earliest development, demanded the opening land operate on the same principle as Main Street, U.S.A. but in a style more fitting to the Studios. At the far end of Hollywood Boulevard stands the Sorcerer's Hat, the park's icon. Behind it, inside a replica of The Chinese Theater, is The Great Movie Ride, a dark ride paying homage to several classic films, including Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake is the park's small oval-shaped lagoon, which was designed to form one of the ears in the enormous Hidden Mickey from the park's original layout. Surrounding it are numerous attractions and services, some in structures designed to mimic the "California Crazy" form of architecture from Hollywood's Golden Age. At The American Idol Experience, park guests can audition and sing for live audiences, and potentially win a special front-of-the-line pass for the popular TV series' actual tryouts.[5] Next door, the seasonal ABC Sound Studio pavilion is used for various Star Wars Weekends events. In between them is the A.T.A.S. Hall of Fame Plaza, a display of busts of past and present icons of the television era, such as Oprah Winfrey and Walt Disney.
Echo Lake includes three attractions based on characters and films created by George Lucas and produced by Disney's Lucasfilm studio. Star Tours: The Adventures Continue is a 3-D motion simulator ride set in the Star Wars universe. This attraction also exists at Disneyland Park. The Jedi Training Academy, a live-action stage show, invites children to become "padawan learners" and receive "lightsaber training" from a Jedi master. Lastly, the live-action Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! re-enacts various scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark while illustrating how movie stunts are performed.

Streets of America

Originally the New York street backlot set that was part of the park's original Backlot Studio Tour, the section was later opened to pedestrian traffic. Architectural treatments were later added to create street sets resembling San Francisco and New York. The current version of the Studio Backlot Tour features the American Film Institute Showcase, a rotating exhibit of movie props and memorabilia, and a tram ride through the backlot areas and through Catastrophe Canyon, an effects-laden "movie set". Muppet*Vision 3D is a 3-D film featuring Jim Henson's Muppets from the The Muppet Show. It utilizes multiple effects to display the characters inside the theater during the presentation. Younger guests can play amongst oversized plants and toys at the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure, based on the 1989 Disney film. Added in 2005, the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show is a behind-the-scenes look at how vehicle action sequences are created for films, and was adapted from a similar show at Walt Disney Studios Park.

Animation Courtyard

This section of the park originally was the starting point for the tours of the park's active production studios. Its entrance is marked by a square "studio arch," much like a real Hollywood studio lot entrance might be marked. The Animation Courtyard is home to a number of attractions based on Disney characters. The Magic of Disney Animation is an attraction that examines the development process of an animated character. It also includes interactive games and exhibits, along with meet-and-greet areas for Disney and Pixar characters.

Mickey Avenue, a sub-section of Animation Courtyard, is home to a walk-through exhibit, Walt Disney: One Man's Dream, which explores the life and legacy of Walt Disney through photos, models, rare artifacts, and a short biographical film narrated by Julie Andrews. The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, is an immersive special effects attraction centered on the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The Courtyard section also hosts two live shows. Disney Junior Live on Stage! entertains guests with puppet characters from the "Disney Junior" block of programming on The Disney Channel, including Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Doc McStuffins, and Sofia the First. Across the plaza, Voyage of the Little Mermaid uses glow-in-the-dark puppets, lasers, music, projectors, human actors and water effects to re-create favorite scenes and songs from the animated Little Mermaid film.

Pixar Place

The park's newest section includes many of the original soundstages used when the park hosted actual production facilities. Today, Pixar Place resembles the Emeryville, California campus of Pixar Animation Studios. Its sole attraction is Toy Story Midway Mania!, an interactive 3D attraction inspired by classic carnival midway games, each hosted by characters from the Toy Story film series.[6] Pixar Place was also the home of Luxo Jr., a six-foot-tall audio-animatronics version of Pixar's desk-lamp mascot.[7] The moving character performs periodic shows throughout the day and evening across from Toy Story Midway Mania.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard was the first expansion to Disney's Hollywood Studios, opening in July 1994. The visual focal point of Sunset Boulevard is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a thrill ride based on the classic television series. Located nearby is Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, an indoor roller coaster in the dark with three inversions and a high-speed launch.

Sunset Boulevard has two outdoor amphitheaters for live stage shows. The covered Theater of the Stars hosts Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, a stage show featuring highlights of the film. The open-air Hollywood Hills Amphitheater is the home of Fantasmic!, a nighttime show featuring Mickey Mouse and many other Disney characters in a story filled with fireworks, lasers and water effects.

(Photos by Sebastien Barthe, 2012)