Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios came to the rescue when Disney Animation was failing and park attendance was stagnant. Thankfully, Michael Eisner, one of Disney’s most controversial CEOs, assisted in delivering a theme park that helped Disney stand back up from its failures and drove in millions of dollars to the company.
The Original Vision
Inspired by Golden-era Hollywood films, Disney executives, more specifically Michael Eisner, envisioned a theme park based on popular films and TV shows that also had a fully operational production studio and an animation facility. Magic Kingdom and Epcot had already been successful, but they were confident in taking this park’s theme in a new direction. In order to promote the theme park, Disney partnered with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), one of the oldest and most popular film studios, to license the name.
Therefore, Disney’s MGM Studios welcomed Guests for the first time on May 1, 1989, with not much to do on opening day. The park had been rushed to completion to compete against Universal Studios and only featured two attractions: Studios Backlot Tour and The Great Movie Ride.
There were some whispers about the origin of this park, as CEO Michael Eisner had just come from Paramount Pictures, who had been discussing the idea of a studio production theme park in the form of Universal Studios Florida for months. After coming to Disney, Eisner proposed this quite similar idea to other Disney executives. To this day, however, Eisner has denied stealing any ideas from his former place of employment.
The production studio was actually finished one year before the park opened so Disney could start filming. Disney’s MGM Studios hosted the filming of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Splash Too, Ernie Saves Christmas, and more. After the park opened, Guests could learn more about animation by taking a tour through the department and watching animators complete their day jobs. Perhaps the most famous part of Disney’s MGM Studios was the Backlot Tour, which took Guests on a two-hour tram ride behind the scenes through the varying production facilities on property, including the costume, makeup, lighting, and special effects department. Guests could also view famous sets and retired props and purchase refreshments at the halfway point.
Then, Disney’s MGM Studios welcomed its first expansion of Sunset Boulevard in 1994, which opened with The Tower of Terror, an instant fan favorite. This expansion provided more walking space for Guests and transported them to Hollywood with its realistic building facades and city streets. Disney hoped to build a Roger Rabbit ride next to The Tower of Terror as well, but the idea was abandoned due to licensing issues and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster took its place instead, premiering in summer of 1999.
The first decade of Disney’s MGM Studios was exciting, offering a unique experience for Guests to learn more about film production. However, this theme park’s operation as a production studio didn’t survive as long as Eisner and other executives had hoped.
The Beginning of the End
Serving as both a theme park and fully operational production studio wasn’t as practical and financially conservative as filming off site. Plus, with the rise of DVDs, Guests were learning about special features and behind-the-scenes content from the comfort of their own homes. Universal Studios Florida, which was Disney’s competitor, was failing in this aspect as well. Therefore, Disney shifted its image to an atmosphere where Guests could learn more about the Disney films they already loved. Shows and theaters constantly changed to match popular films and television shows of that time period.
The animation department closed in 2003, and the name changed from MGM to Hollywood Studios in 2008. In the 2010s, Disney began to phase out its connections to being a fully operational film studio. While the Backlot Tour faced many modifications right from the start, none were enough to keep it standing. Hollywood Studios said goodbye to the 25-year-old attraction in 2014. Even Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, which had required a significant portion of the Backlot Tour to be demolished in order to build, closed in 2016 after its decade-long run.
The most famous icon of Hollywood Studios, the Sorcerer Mickey Hat, even saw its demise in 2015 after standing for almost 15 years (they weren’t discrete about demolishing it either). It was actually only meant to be around for a year to celebrate 100 years of Disney magic, but Hollywood Studios kept it around for longer. Ultimately, Disney executives felt like it obstructed the view of the Chinese Theater, another famous icon of Hollywood Studios. Many Guests were sad to see it go.
We also said goodbye to The Great Movie Ride in 2017, one of the two opening day attractions that were still remaining (don’t worry, Indiana Jones is the last standing opening day attraction!). In addition to the movies references and Animatronics being old, The Great Movie Ride focused on film production and didn’t coexist with Disney’s vision for the theme park to center around popular Hollywood films. For many Guests, this was the nail in the coffin for the old Hollywood Studios.
What to Do at Hollywood Studios Now
Luckily, with each closure of the fan-favorite attractions, Disney had great ideas to replace them with. In the place of the Backlot Tour came Toy Story Land in June 2018, which was a remarkably clever way to attract Guests of every age. In Toy Story Land, Guests are shrunk down to the size of a toy and can play in Andy’s backyard. They can ride Slinky Dog Dash, a smooth roller coaster (built by Andy, of course) with unique dips and turns past your favorite Toy Story characters, or they can take a spin on the Alien Swirling Saucers. If they’re hungry after, Guests can reminisce by ordering their favorite school lunches at Woody’s Lunch Box.
Next, in May 2019, came Galaxy’s Edge, a land based on the famous Star Wars films. It replaced Lights, Motors, Action! (you can actually find some Easter eggs in Galaxy’s Edge for the discontinued attraction) and transports Guests to an outpost on the planet Batuu. Galaxy’s Edge is incredibly reminiscent of the Star Wars films, with droids constantly beeping, authentic props and shops scattered everywhere, and the Millennium Falcon sitting right in the middle. To this day, Guest still fight to get on Rise of the Resistance, Galaxy Edge’s newest attraction, with stunning Animatronics and sets. Then, in a few years, the Star Wars hotel will open right next to Galaxy’s Edge, making the Star Wars experience even more immersive.
The newest attraction at Hollywood Studios is Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which opened in March 2020. Located in the Chinese Theater, this replaced The Great Movie Ride and features a brand-new opening short that can’t be viewed anywhere else! Mickey and Minnie’s perfect picnic takes a detour when Goofy interrupts by offering a train ride. The attraction had stunning scenery, brilliant Animatronics, and amazing sensor technology. Mickey and friends are sure to give every Guest a laugh.
Many think Hollywood Studios is due for a name change and were surprised they didn’t announce it at the 35th anniversary, since the theme park no longer operates as a movie studio. Do you agree?
Will you always call this theme park MGM Studios? Which attraction do you miss the most? Let us know in the comments below.