The Disney park currently known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios has been the much maligned “not-a-full-day-park” for years and years now. It usually comes in 3rd or 4th place, depending on whether the person choosing enjoys Disney’s Animal Kingdom or not. I have personally defended Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the past, based on the memories and the hope it once held, and the potential future I thought it could enjoy. However, as of late, much like the former EPCOT Center, DHS has been slowly cannibalizing itself in the name of “progress” and throwing the old “Disneyland will never be finished” quote around as justification for whatever NEXTNEWNOW change comes down the line.
When the Disney-MGM Studios first opened, it was a fun, light-hearted, action-packed look through the history and current world of entertainment. The park combined a mix of Hollywood history with architecture and icons reminiscent of the golden days of the silver screen, along with a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how movies, tv shows and the stunts within them were made. The park also offered a loving and closer look at some of what made Disney famous; animation and its animated characters. It was a fun mix of the two other parks down the street; the fantasy of Magic Kingdom and the discovery and education aspect of EPCOT Center. Even with the advent of the cry “we need more thrill rides!”, efforts were made to keep new areas of the park and their rides fit in to the theme of the park, one way or another.
Then, something happened, and suddenly, this fun, well-loved, full-day park began to decline. I’m sure there were several factors of which I am unaware, since I’m not in Imagineering or the boardroom discussing budgets, theme park attendance, profits, and whatever else results in the decisions Disney makes regarding its attention or lack-of toward specific parks or attractions. The hopes that this would be a “working studio” never really came to fruition. Hollywood stars didn’t really want to travel to Orlando to work, and certainly the conditions of humid, humid and more humid are not the best compared to sunny and 72 degrees every day in Hollywood. The Backlot Tour became more and more stagnant, with less and less relevant references, props, and costumes to interest newer guests. Part of the charm and allure for me as a young 13 year-old Disney fan visiting the park, was the wow factor of seeing props from favorites like the Rocketeer or Flight of the Navigator and actually believing “they are just storing these props here until they need them for a new film.” The pretense that “this is how movies and tv shows are made and you are getting an insider’s look” worked on me and I loved it. But when the pretense changed, the curtain fell and suddenly, the whole story and message of the park changed.
The once hour-plus-long Backlot Tour was broken up into two parts to create more attractions and make it easier on guests to enjoy. The special effects tour was still an incredibly fun and educational attraction. Seeing blue screen effects, miniaturization, sound effects and more, plus a short movie filmed right at the park ending in a walk through the props/sets of that movie was great. But again, soon the films used became outdated. These things could’ve been updated, or even treated in a kitschy manner, “back in the late 1980’s, this was the highest technology at the time for special effects!”. But instead, the tour was just closed. The death knell for the Backstage Tour was the demolition of Residential Street in 2003, to make room for Lights, Motors, Action!, which, while loud, and not particularly efficient in terms of loading and unloading the immense theatre to view the show, does fit in to the movies theme. After that, the Backlot Tour was an attraction you never really had to wait for, and went the way of Listen to the Land over in Epcot – replacing a live, interactive human cast member with a pre-recorded spiel. I remember how sad it was the first time I rode the tram tour through Catastrophe Canyon, and there was no presumption of driving through during a production break and the “surprise” of being caught in the middle of an elaborate special effects scene with potential “danger” that followed. It was a sad moment.
This brings me to my next point, that yes, Catastrophe Canyon could work as a “hey, we’re now going to drive through a set and you’ll see how an action scene could be filmed” just as the park itself could work as a “hey, welcome to the Everything-We-Couldn’t-Fit-in-Magic-Kingdom Park. Enjoy the random attractions!” But that’s not what this park was created for. It’s like when you see an old band you loved in the 80’s on tv, and now they have super trendy haircuts and hair dyed a couple shades too dark, and clothes that really don’t work on a 60+-year-old…and they are screaming “look at me, I’m still relevant! I’m still fun and cool!” Except they aren’t. They are focusing on all the wrong things and forgetting why their fans loved them to begin with. Disney basically created fans back in the 80’s with both EPCOT Center and Disney-MGM Studios, fans with discerning tastes, that appreciated and then craved story…history…and yes, even education.
Those fans were then pushed aside for the quicker, easier-to-control fan. Disney Jr. shows, make-shift “experiences” with little to no theming, and audience sing-a-longs receive no complaints from this new fan. This new fan is happy to see Olaf and take photos with rocks (sleeping trolls!), and just pretend most of the park doesn’t exist. A park that now, with the closure of the Magic of Disney Animation and One Man’s Dream (unofficially confirmed as of this post), has SIX attractions (rides), plus 5 “shows” and is a thin, staple-gunned-together shell of its former self. A park where, just because they can, turned a former queue of a former temporary replacement attraction, into a “lounge” with metal benches, air conditioning, and a few photos on the walls. These new fans will love this. A place to sit and cool down. Oh look, old black and white photos of Walt, wow! These new fans don’t come to this park expecting a story, details, or something new around each corner. They come to this park thinking, “I like Frozen. I like Star Wars. I like Pixar movies.” They walk in and see Frozen. They see Star Wars. They see Pixar films. They drink Olaf drinks. They buy Elsa dresses and build lightsabers. They leave happy, never knowing or wanting anything else. Leaving the old fans saying, “but…wait…what about…?”
Now I’m not saying there isn’t hope. Just like with EPCOT, I cannot abandon all hope for a place that fostered and nurtured my love for Walt Disney World to begin with. I just can’t. At the same time, I can’t just forget all that “once was” and blindly accept whatever replaces it. It saddens me that the ideals and ideas that once created such amazing, unique, and entertaining places seem to have disappeared. I know that the ideas are there. I know that there are Imagineers who remember and value the once (truly) untouchable Disney Difference. Imagineers who want to create amazing environments and experiences for guests. Who wanted to be Imagineers because of how affected they were by some aspect of Walt Disney or the empire he created, and wanted to be a part of that creativity. But who are also sadly restrained by budgets and projections and profits and return on investment and how to get the most dollars out of the least materials/space/investment/time. The hope is still there, it just needs to be let out of its box and released upon the world. I get that the parks here in the states aren’t ever going to have the budget and carte-blanche that a place like Tokyo Disney Resort has. But I also get that Disney as a company isn’t exactly scraping together funds to pay the electric bill each month. There has to be a better way, which will, in the long run, create and keep more and more dedicated guests, fans and yes, brand evangelists. Yes, it’s harder and takes longer. It’s much easier to get a large group of people hyped over a particular facet of a brand and spread that hype across the land so that everyone wants to buy all the Elsa and Anna dresses/dolls/cups/pins/dessert parties/VIP experiences vs. getting a set group of people educated, interested and loyal to a place and the attractions within that place. Obviously it makes sense from a business perspective. Does it make sense in a long-term investor sense? I don’t know. Does it matter? I guess time will tell.
We all know that the Studios park is in flux. There are things happening, we just don’t officially know what yet. Cars Land, Star Wars Land, Pixar Play Land, all of these things have been thrown around as rumor or fact depending on who you talk to. The problem, and really the impetus for this post, is that how these changes and “updates” have been handled is an embarrassingly good example of bad show. If you are going to close half of the physical park, have an announcement! Have a “Coming Soon!” sign or wonderful artist renderings of the future of the park for all of us to look forward to. Why the secrecy? Why the quietly displaced cast members and closed attractions with zero plans or hopes or ideas to look forward to? Even with the polarizing Avatarland/Pandora over in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we had a reason for Camp Minnie-Mickey closing, for walls being up, for construction happening. Even with the walls everywhere that characterized Disney(‘s) California Adventure, we knew Cars Land and Buena Vista Street were waiting. With each closure at DHS, we get nothing but a generic message. Are they waiting for the D23 Expo to announce all of the changes? Perhaps. But these closures and temporary band-aid pop-up attractions have been going on for quite some time here, with no explanation or alternative other than sing-a-longs and specialty drinks. With this much advanced knowledge of closings of attractions, surely better planning and action could’ve been taken to create replacements that don’t shine a light on flaws and problems, but rather are worthy of making positive impressions on all the park’s guests. Or, in absence of that, at the very least, some sort of acknowledgement that the park is growing and changing and please pardon the pixie dust. But to act like the park as is today, is okay is very “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…” and we all know how that turned out.
There has been much speculation as to what the new iteration of a Studios park will be called. Disney Studios doesn’t fit because there are no studios left, real or imagined. Disney’s Hollywood Adventure doesn’t fit because the Hollywood is limited to the main Hollywood Blvd. shops leading to the Great Movie Ride, and Sunset Blvd. Disney Movie Magic? Disney Movies Park? Disney Entertainment Adventure? Disney-Frozen-Fun-Time-Featuring-Olaf-with-Added-Mater-and-Star Wars-Cause-We-Know-You-Like-That-Too-Oh-and-Also-a-Ride-About-Movies-Other-Than-Frozen? I kid, but seriously, the park is just digging itself further and further into a hole that die-hard fans won’t be able to let go (that does NOT count as a Frozen pun) for quite some time, even if the changes are spectacular. The recent Great Movie Ride update with Turner Classic Movies treatment has its plusses and minuses, in my opinion. Part of what made that ride was the spiel and the cast members who recited it, and that has now changed, with the addition of Robert Osborne narration. We are no longer passing through the streets of London or the seedy underbelly of the gangster film, we are discussing movie facts, with an occasional aside from our driver. The ride itself is still intact, with newly added films to the end montage, and the interactive gangster or cowboy element is there, but makes a little less sense now, to me. That said, I’m glad it wasn’t ripped out and that a major sponsor such as TCM was willing to come on board. My plea is for Those Who Make the Decisions to remember what made this park so special to begin with. It was a giant inside joke that we were all in on – “we’re just tourists, but we get to go behind-the-scenes!”. That message can and has changed, but there should still be some sort of cohesive theme that ties all of the different portions together and makes the park worthy of the love and adoration its former incarnation once had. Maybe a little less synergy and a little more of letting the Imagineers do what they do best.