THE EVOLUTION OF DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
Over the years, I have heard many people say that Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly named Disney-mgm Studios) is their least favorite of all the WDW parks, and while I can understand that, for me, it has always held a special place in my heart.
So here is the story of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS), as told from one of the park’s biggest fans…
The working studio-park…
The original idea for the park wasn’t for a park at all, but rather for two new pavilions in Epcot’s Future World: Wonders of Life (at Epcot) and The Great Movie Ride, which would eventually spark the idea for en entirely new park.
Looking to make waves and create a viable adversary for the coming Universal Studios Florida, Disney’s newly appointed CEO, Michael Eisner, took Marty Sklar’s concept for The Great Movie Ride and ran with it—proposing that a third Hollywood-themed park be created instead. But this one would be different from MK and Epcot, being combined with fully functioning film and television studios.
Having already entered into a licensing contract with MGM in 1985, Disney capitalized on the name and soon came up with a plan to make Eisner’s studio-park real, calling it Disney-mgm Studios.
Opening its gates to the public on May 1, 1989, Disney-mgm Studios had already filmed its first full-length features, Ernest Saves Hollywood and Newsies, and contained Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida, which produced a slew of popular animated films throughout the 90s and early 2000s, as well as Walt Disney Studios Florida, made up of three sound stages primarily used for Disney Channel productions, and a radio studio, which would later become home to Radio Disney.
Though Disney-mgm Studios was impressive on the studio-production side, the theme park opened with only two rides: The Great Movie Ride and the Studio Backlot Tour, resulting in it being labeled WDW’S first “half-day” park.
Old Hollywood makes its debut in Florida…
Much like Main Street U.S.A., DHS was designed to represent the Golden Age of Hollywood the way we’d like to remember it. And what represents that better than a romanticized Hollywood Boulevard? Serving as the entrance to the park; HB was built in accompaniment with The Great Movie Ride and its façade replicating Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
The park only had two other areas on opening day: the Backlot Annex and Lakeside Circle (Echo Lake). The Backlot Annex consisted of street sets resembling New York (which was later extended and named “The Streets of America,” adding elements of San Francisco) and a number of studios and sound stages, which could only be accessed on trams during the Studio Backlot Tour—shortly after the parks opening, New York Street, became open to pedestrians.
The park quickly expanded, within its first years a variety of new and exciting attractions began popping up! In 1989, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and the motion-simulator ride Star Tours were added. In 1990, Muppets Vision 3D and the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Playground opened. And in 1991, two hugely popular stage shows debuted: Beauty and The Beast Live on Stage and Voyage of the Little Mermaid.
You are about to discover what lies beyond the fifth dimension…
During the 90s the WDW Resort was looking to up the ante and give older visitors the thrill rides for which they were yearning, while also trying to keep up with the many thrill rides found nearby at Universal Studios.
Though Disney-mgm Studios was dubbed a half-day park, its popularity still continued to grow, so it only made sense that Disney would want to expand the park and create THE ultimate thrill ride—one that would last through the ages! After much deliberation, Disney Imagineers landed on the concept for an elevator drop ride with a 1930s haunted Hollywood hotel theme based on the Rod Serling’s eerie television franchise, The Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was born. But being Disney, this couldn’t be any ordinary drop ride; it had to tell and a story, and it had to accommodate a large capacity, thus a whole new ride system needed to be developed. Disney employed Eaton-kenway and the Otis Elevator Company to help make their vision a reality, creating a unique ride system with vehicles that could move both horizontally (for the “Fifth Dimension” sequence) and vertically (for the drop sequence).
They came up with a system where the elevator cabs could move in and out of, and lock into, the different vertical motion shafts throughout the ride. The cabs are Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVS), using sensors and wires under the floor to propel and guide the cabs through the horizontal portion of the ride and into the elevator drop shaft. Once in place, the drop shaft cables are attached to the bottom of the cab, which pulls it down at a rate faster than the acceleration due to gravity. (This is why any unsecured items float on your descent!).
The Tower of Terror opened in July of 1994 and WDW wanted the approach to feel just as grand as the 199-foot edifice looming in the distance; development for the park’s first-ever expansion began, ultimately leading to the construction of Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard opened with many of the Quick-service restaurants and shops you see today, along with two outdoor amphitheaters housing Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, and the nighttime spectacular, Fantasmic! In 1999 Disney added another thrill ride to the end of the street with the high-speed, inverted, dark coaster, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.
Fun Fact: The voice of Rod Serling heard on the ride is a technologically enhanced remix of Serling from the “It’s a G ood Life” episode, combined with a flawless impersonation provided by voice actor, Mark Silverman.
Fun Fact: The exterior of the Hollywood Tower Hotel uses Moroccan architecture because it can be seen from the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot.
Hats off to the millennium makeover…
The original icon for the park was the Earffel Tower, cleverly named after the Eiffel Tower with a Mickey Ears twist. Though the tower has never actually held water, it was built to replicate the water tower found at the original Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. It remained the park icon until 2001, when the new millennium brought a multitude of changes to the park.
The WDW Resort put on 100 Years of Magic, a yearlong celebration honoring the anniversary of Walt Disney’s birth beginning on October 1, 2001 through the end of 2002.
Fun Fact: Walt Disney’s actual birthday was December 5, 1901.
New parades and shows debuted across WDW but at Disney-mgm Studios the celebration could not be ignored; to honor Walt’s classic passion-project, Fantasia, a colossal 122-foot tall Sorcerer’s Hat—complete with Mickey Ears and his icon glove—was built at the center of Hollywood Boulevard, just outside of The Great Movie Ride. And suddenly the water tower became a thing of the past as Disney branded The Sorcerer’s Hat the new park icon.
In 2003, Walt Disney Feature Animation closed in order to make room for new attractions and lands. This was the first of the eventual closing of all of the park’s working studios for the future expansion of the park.
A new name for a new-age Hollywood…
The contract with MGM expired in 2005 and, in effort to shift the focus of the park from the Golden Age to the modern age, Disney decided not to renew it. With rebranding came renaming and on January 7, 2008, it officially became Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Since the name change DHS has seen the growth and expansion of its most popular sections, such as Pixar Place—with the addition of the insanely popular 4-D Toy Story Midway Mania! Ride—and the area surrounding Star Tours—including Star Wars Launch Bay/theater, Star Wars: Path of the Jedi, and Tatooine Traders.
The popularity of these expansions mixed with the success of newer Disney projects, specifically Pixar’s Toy Story films, and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars, DHS was looking to appeal to a new generation of movie-goers with huge new “lands” being added to the park.
Though this is an exciting time for DHS, a number of park favorites have unfortunately been cut to make-way for the transition. In 2014, the Studio Backlot Tour and The American Idol Experience both closed their doors for good. Followed by even more closings in 2015, including the Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, and the announcement that the parks original icon, Earffel Tower, would be removed.
And if you still weren’t clear that DHS was amidst some major changes, The Sorcerer’s Hat was official dismantled on January 7, 2015, leaving all of us wondering: “What’s next for DHS?”
The future of Disney’s Hollywood Studios…
The D23 Expo was full of surprises on August 16, 2015, when Disney CEO, Bob Iger (since 2000) revealed that a huge 11-acre “Toy Story Land” would be added to DHS, as well as a massive expansion of the Star Wars area to create an entirely new “Star Wars Land” at both WDW and Disneyland.
Never- beforeseen Star Wars Land concept images at the D23 keynote
To Infinity and Beyond…
Toy Story Land will be a giant reproduction of Andy’s backyard, where guests will “shrink” down to toy-size and get to explore the iconic Pixar spot. Though we will miss the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids play area, Toy Story Land will have the same sort of feel but be more accessible to guests of all ages. Three attractions have been confirmed for Toy Story Land:
Slinky Dog Coaster: A family-friendly rollercoaster that will “zip and zoom, plunge and coast” as it takes riders on an adventure through Andy’s backyard on the back of one of Toy Story’s most beloved characters, Slink.
Flying Saucer Ride: Guests will take a spin on the flying saucers of everyone’s favorite little green aliens from the hit films. Will we be searching for “the claw?”
Toy Story Midway Mania!: An expansion of the popular attraction that always needs a Fastpass, with the addition of another track complete with new games in this hands-on 3-D carnival-themed ride!
Reigniting the rivalry…
DHS was developed, in large part, as a rival to Universal Studios. Though the intensity of this rivalry has dwindled over the years, it is pretty safe to say that it’s back with a vengeance!
It’s no secret that US’S Wizarding World of Harry Potter was met with huge success; since its opening on June 18, 2010, US has reported an over 50% increase in park attendance (including the more recent addition of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express in 2014). Those are some serious numbers, and ones that Disney couldn’t ignore.
The acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 could not have come at a better time, opening new doors allowing Disney to continue the nearly 4-decade-old franchise (Star Wars) and appeal to fans across generations—something the Harry Potter series doesn’t have. Already having a strong Star Wars presence, DHS was the obvious choice for WDW’S new rival land, which would coincide perfectly with the rebranding of the park as set forth by Disney CEO, Bob Iger.
The Harry Potter series is young and has already come to an end but Star Wars is a classic, having not only a troop of die-hard fans but also an entirely new generation of fans as the story continues—which was made clear when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit record-breaking numbers, at $248 million opening weekend and grossing over $2 billion worldwide. You just can’t beat that kind of built-in fan base.
A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away…
Elements of the new Star Wars Land have already made their way into the park with updates to Star Tours – The Adventure Continues including new planets and characters from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the opening of Star Wars Launch Bay, and the revamping of Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple featuring the Seventh Sister.
It’s clear that April 4, 2016 will be a big day for DHS, as that’s when Star Wars will really begin its invasion of the park. Nothing says invasion quite like a platoon of First Order Stormtroopers, led by Captain Phasma, marching from Star Wars Launch Bay to Center Stage.
Another Star Wars attraction making its debut April 4 is the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away show on Center Stage, in front of The Great Movie Ride. The show will reenact iconic scenes from the Star Wars films. And a cast of villains is confirmed to make appearances—so watch out! This show might just pull you to the dark side…
But what Star Wars and Disney fans alike are really abuzz about is the new Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular, finally giving DHS the long-awaited nighttime spectacular it needs to bring it up to the status of MK and Epcot. This new show is said to be the most elaborate fireworks display to ever take place at the park, combining fireworks, special effects, pyrotechnics, and video projections.
Star Wars: The Expansion Continues…
If you tuned in for the Disneyland 60th Anniversary special on ABC on February 21, you got a glimpse at what we can be expecting to see at the out-of-this-world new Star Wars Land coming to both coasts. In the video introduced by Harrison Ford during the special, it became clear to everyone that the DHS expansion will be nothing short of epic.
Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios D23 Expo Announcement
Just like at US’S Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the fictional world of the Star Wars will come to life like never before; visitors will step inside the films complete with alien architecture, culture, characters, and cuisine. The video shows a mock-up of a Marketplace section, where guests can leisurely shop and explore the land.
The video also reveals that shopping won’t be the only highlight of the Marketplace, two new restaurants have been confirmed for the area. Not only will the cantina we’ve heard rumors about be making its debut, as will a sit-down dinner club-style eatery, where guests can enjoy signature dishes from their favorite Star Wars planets, having an atmosphere fit for a Jedi!
While shopping, dining, and shows complete the land, no theme park would be complete without rides! The special finally gave us some insight into what sort of attractions are planned for this new section of DHS.
The Millennium Falcon Ride: Fans can rejoice over this interactive simulation attraction, where they’ll actually be able to pilot the prodigious ship. Details have yet to be confirmed but people have speculated that it will be similar to Mission: Space, separating groups into teams with different stations, but with new technology and a Star Wars twist.
The First Order Ride: Disney will take its go-to dark-ride to a new level in this thrilling attraction! Said to combine real-life physical elements with huge projection screens; riders will be dipped, whipped, and dropped into a number of scenes—similar to the popular US ride, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man. The video suggests that it’ll have an interactive element as well, with riders exchanging fire with the Stormtroopers.
Though a majority of WDW fans have been up in arms about the drastic changes being made across the Resort, and particularly at DHS (And I get it, the Earffel Tower announcement floored me), but I am confident that when all is said and done those fans will be blown away by the new DHS just as they have with New Fantasyland and Disney Springs. Bringing the fantastical worlds of fiction to life is what Disney does best and soon the WDW Resort will have a “land” for every guest—young and old, male and female.
Like Walt said, his parks will never be completed, and while it’s hard to say goodbye to the many attractions we’ve grown to love, we can’t wait to see DHS truly come into its own… Goodbye half-day park!
“Disneyland will never be c ompleted. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination le ft in the world.”
– Walt Disney