Disney's Hollywood Studios: A Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Back in 1991, my family visited Walt Disney World for our fifth time in under 10 years. It had become a pretty standard affair of visiting the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center up until that point, but this time around there was a third park opening, Disney-MGM Studios. This new park celebrated "a Hollywood that never was - and always will be." As beloved as the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT were, we had had three trips with both and were excited for new adventures to fill the requisite week long stay.

It may be hard to believe now, and revisionist history tends to project raised eyebrows towards Michael Eisner all the way back then, but Disney-MGM Studios was a highly-popular experience when it first opened. With franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, keen architectural representations of old Hollywood, and a mix of shows, rides and a lengthy backlot tour amidst an actual "working studio", the new theme park was an overwhelming hit. In 1994, the park expanded off of Hollywood Boulevard with a Sunset Boulevard strip which led to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, still one of Disney's finest attractions, inside and out. Walt Disney World itself was expanding its horizons significantly with this third theme park, new hotels and other ancillary experiences such as Typhoon Lagoon.

But like an aging actress who turns to Botox and plastic surgery in her twilight years, (the now) Disney's Hollywood Studios has not aged gracefully. They inexplicably placed a gigantic Sorcerer's hat at the center of the park, right in front of the period-proper replica of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. (The hat would eventually replace the Earful Tower as the park's icon.) Because when you think of Hollywood, you think of a giant sorcerer's hat! The hat, along with the opening of Sunset Boulevard, helped cover up the great Hidden Mickey at the center of the park (and only visible from above, and in maps). The backlot tour became more and more compressed, especially once production work actually stopped at the Studios. Many key rides started showing wear and tear, and while new attractions like Toy Story Mania and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster have been popular new entries, popular NEW experiences were few and far between.

A walk down Hollywood Boulevard in 1991 and in 2001 (and presently).

One of the biggest complaints for guests is that so much of what's to do at Disney's Hollywood Studios are shows, which can have long waits and even longer showtimes. This is all topped off with Fantasmic!, which can eat away at hours of your time while waiting (and you run the risk of the whole thing being called off anyway due to weather). At the end of the day, you're going to rack up much fewer experiences than you would at the Magic Kingdom and few will be as exciting. Additionally, the Studio Backlot Tour, stunt shows and other live performances aren't exactly repeat-visit experiences. "Daddy, can we go look at all those houses from television shows I have never seen!" wasn't exactly the type of thing often overheard around the Studios.

The park isn't treated as slap-dash at Disney's California Adventure, but it has shown signs of losing any remnants of continuity it once had and some rumored ideas for expansion would certainly exacerbate that situation if not controlled effectively. It is still home to a good number of popular attractions, but unfortunately not a lot else. In planning my next visit to Walt Disney World this October, I recently had to adjust my anticipation for taking one last ride on Star Tours since that ride will have already closed for refurbishment in September. Additionally, it was announced that One Man's Dream will also be closed for refurbishment during that time. Sure, I'm eager to experience Toy Story Mania for the first time, am always excited for a few plummets on the Tower of Terror, and will always find time for my old friends the Muppets, but I don't know that there's a whole lot else worth visiting.

Don't get me wrong, I am one for appreciating my surroundings too, especially as I've grown older. So I'll take slower walks down the Boulevards and spend more times outside some of the attractions, taking in the architecture and imagineering. But that will only get you so far. There used to be a complaint that Animal Kingdom was a half-day park, largely due to the hyperactive guest, itching to get from one ride to the next and having no interest in what has become one Disney's finest architectural achievements. Even as of my last trip years ago, we had already started ranking Animal Kingdom above the Studios. Now i think it's safe to say the only half-day park left at Walt Disney World is Hollywood Studios.

Is it too late to save DHS from dwindling relevance and quality? No, and it never is for any of the shortcomings you might find in any of Florida's parks. That said, it would likely take a larger influx of money and proper management to get the park back on track, and I don't know when or if Disney would be willing to invest the time and money in doing so. However DHS certainly needs it, moreso than Magic Kingdom needed a Fantasyland expansion, and more than Epcot needs in Future World. (Those two parks, as much updating as they might need, still have a whole lot more going FOR them than their younger sister park.)

Most rumors about fixing up Disney's Hollywood Studios center around the backlot area, as it is largely irrelevant now that there are no productions being filmed at the Studios. There are a large number of buildings in the western section of DHS that take up prime expansion real estate. Given this area's proximity to Pixar Place, the most rumored idea is a rollercoaster themed to Monsters, Inc. Had Disney had the forethought, they could've effectively introduced other Pixar concepts that have invaded other theme parks, sometimes in ways that don't particularly make sense for the theme of a particular land (i.e. the Laugh Floor in Tomorrowland). That said, there are still franchises like The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E which could all present other opportunities for Pixar Place.

What this thought also does is really promote a concept that would work in expanding the Studios significantly while maintaing some sort of Hollywood/studio identity. Pixar Place is specifically modeled after Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, California, a logical extension of what DHS is supposed to be. The architecture in the Monsters, Inc. movie was square enough to fit smartly into the studios setting and other rides, if done right, might not necessitate the most extravagant exterior architecture. All of the aforementioned Pixar films took place (if not entirely, at some point) in urban environments, which could make it easer architecturally to introduce those concepts onto the grounds. (Let a dark ride transports the guests to Syndrome's island, Paradise Falls, or outer space.)

Taking that concept one step further are recent rumors that Disney Imagineering is looking into perhaps expanding on their relationship with George Lucas in a way to compete with Universal Studio's popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It's a totally logical move as the brand has many more years of legacy under its belt and is iconic enough to probably justify its own theme park. There is real estate to the south-eastern section of the theme park, right near Star Tours for a logical extension of this experience. They could certainly call it Lucasfilm in keeping with the Studios theme (and given Indiana Jones' presence nearby). However, I don't know that anyone would mind if they eschewed the total studios theming and went beyond blue sky into outer space. (Perhaps The Star Wars Galaxy?) As a Star Wars fan, I could probably spend a week of blog posts discussing ideas for rides, shows, shops and dining experiences that would make perfect sense. But my wife reads this blog, and I don't want her to have second thoughts about marrying me.

Certainly you cannot start any Lucasfilm/Star Wars Galaxy idea off without putting the cantina from A New Hope right in the middle of your experience. With its place on the oft-visited Star Wars planet Tatooine, it's a logical place to start theming and would give the Three Broomsticks a run for its money. It could be a great mix of theming, dining/refreshment and entertainment as characters and performers could be mixed in with guests at the Cantina. Hogwarts has its castle so why can't this new land have a Death Star, a perfect setting for a combination walk-through and dark ride (perhaps escaping the explosion)? And there are any number of locales from the many planets of the Star Wars universe that would make for great entertainment, themed dining and dark ride experiences.

Around the corner, the Muppet*Vision 3D hosts characters almost as beloved as Disney's own, but who haven't always had the best promotional treatment. The franchise is still alive, with an anticipated new film coming out next year and some incredibly popular viral video releases the last few years. The Muppets could certainly play host to their own land (Henson's Place?) and can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street? I can tell you it's in New York, which is represented by New York St. right by Muppet*Vision. I don't know if there are rights issues with the Sesame Street characters or not, but it's a logical meeting point as the ideals of that show and the creations of Jim Henson intersect perfectly with what Disney has always stood for. (At least before it became a factory for future underwear protesters.) If not, there are enough Muppet experiences to fill a smaller chunk of the park and certainly be more entertaining than a Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure.

I could also sit here and tell you that I'd tear down the disappointing Lights, Motor, Action! Extreme Stunt Show and find something more interesting to take up its valuable space, but I recognize that might not happen soon. However, right behind it still lies Catastrophe Canyon, the now-predictable finale to a tepid backlot tour. Perhaps it's time for some other new experience, not once that includes stunts or people singing, but some new ride concept that would make sense for Hollywood, whether it be franchise-based like Twilight Zone Tower of Terror or a more comprehensive take on Hollywood like the Great Movie Ride. Or perhaps Disney can pay respect to its own place in animation and film history.

The Tower of Terror remains one of the few must-see experiences at DHS.

Make no mistake, Disney's Hollywood Studios is an idea that can still work. I firmly believe it's far from being a theme park that needs to be torn down or completely ignored. It plays hosts to some of Walt Disney World's best themed experiences and its concept lends itself to making great connections with outside franchises, much like Universal Studios has recently done with the Harry Potter series. But it clearly needs expansion or some reconfiguring of failed concepts. It's inexplicable that Disney has replaced some legendary rides and attractions in all of its parks and yet clings desperately to the Backlot Studio Tour. Let it go. Hollywood of all towns is about staying relevant and being at the forefront of the next big thing.

It's time for Disney to give this aging starlet her comeback role. Give her a make-over, line her up with a brave director, pair her with a witty talented youngster and put money into an epic production. Then maybe we can finally say "Hooray" for Disney's Hollywood Studios.


Anonymous said...

Where to start? Let's talk about things that have been long discussed but never happened....

1. David Copperfield's Magic Underground restaurant. This dinner/show was to be build at the end of Hollywood Blvd between Beauty and the Beast and Fantasmic. Supposedly access would have been just inside the ramp to Hollywood Hills Ampitheater and it would have had an outside the park entrance also by the boat dock. They obviously consider this a place to build something.

2. Indiana Jones
Long rumored was an import of the popular Indiana Jones ride from DL. I have heard two versions of this one which involved the closure of EPIC and the other which involved expansion into the cast parking lot.

3. Star Wars
The newest version of above that I have heard is a Star Wars Blvd to sort of mirror Hollywood Blvd. The street would extend from the Star Tours gate into the cast parking lot and would need to involve the relocation of the parade float storage building. Backlot Express would be rethemed to the Cantina.

4. Monsters Coaster
This part of the part poses a much more interesting challenge as most of the old production bungalows and buildings are used by various departments and shops. Soundstage One is the obviouse locale for the attraction to originate and the expanding into backlot tours preshow area.

Scott said...

Great article! I have to say I really like DHS; it's a different sort of park than the others, more show-based as you say, but it has fine rides and experiences, and fine dining experiences, maybe the best in WDW behind Epcot.

I wrote one over at my blog and linked to your article. I'd love to see the sorts of expansion you are describing.

Bill from Imagineering.org said...

This article is a great analysis of what works and doesn't work at DHS. Personally, there are many things I love about this park, especially the architecture and evening lighting along Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard.

The darn sorcerer's hat, though, has got to go. Your article's "before and after" pictures are proof enough.

I miss the working animation studio (which is now a meet and greet area). Being able to stand and watch the animators and artists at work was a treat. Lots of folks didn't care, though, and just blew on through looking for the next movie or ride.

DHS definitely needs some updating (and not with American Idol-type stuff either). After it opened in 1989, there was a certain ambiance that flowed through the park. That's missing today, and I'm not sure how to fix it. I'll be fans can come up with some good ideas, however!

Anonymous said...

Great ideas! I agree that the first thing that needs to happen is the removal of the sorcerer's hat.

Remove the Backlot tour and replace it with the an indoor Monster's roller coaster. This would also use up the empty facility space next to Toy Story Mania

Take out Lights, Motors, Action and replace with a lake that features the World of Color night time show. This show would be a great addition on the end of the Streets of America (especially at Christmas time when all the lights are up). Also, the show's close proximity to Pixar Place would bring some continuity to the placement of the show.

Definitely make Streets of America the Muppet area only. This brings continuity and purpose to this area.

I would start here. Other things on the future list would be replacing American Idol, Journey Into Narnia, and Sounds Dangerous.

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

sounds dangerous needs to go....

there are plans in works to move park entrance out to bus loops and put in new ride (roller-coaster) where current entrance is....