History of Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios) was the first new theme park built during Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The park is Disney’s entry in the "movie park arms race" with Universal Studios Orlando. Universal purchased the land for their Orlando park in the early 1980s, but the parent company, MCA, was reluctant to finance the new park by itself. MCA reached out to several potential investment partners, including Paramount, which at the time was headed by none other than Michael Eisner. The Paramount deal fell through, and Universal’s Orlando park was postponed.
Eisner then became CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, and knowing of Universal’s plans, he directed the Imagineering team to begin work on Disney’s own movie-themed park. The Disney plans were kept on the back burner until Universal made its official announcement. Even though Universal Studios announced their plans first, Disney's MGM Studios opened a year earlier, in 1989. The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the self-managing governmental body created by Walt Disney, made this possible by allowing Disney to skip the normal permitting process. However, whether due to the strict budgets in place at the time or due to the rush to completion, Disney's MGM Studios was well-received, many guests felt that the park was incomplete.
The original park was laid out in the shape of an upside-down Mickey, focused around Echo Lake in the center. Although the footprint was changed dramatically by later additions, it is still possible to see the hidden Mickey. Turn your park map upside down and you can spot it quickly.
When Disney's MGM Studios opened, the park focused equally on movie moments and behind-the-scenes magic. A two-hour combination walking and tram tour gave guests an insider’s look at movie production, visiting backlots, costume shops, and scenic workshops on the tram tour. Soundstages, post-production facilities, and special effects workshops were found on the walking portion. Both the walking and tram tours are both gone.
For several years in the early 1990s, Orlando was rumored to be the new “Hollywood East,” with many productions relocating to the Orlando area on a permanent or part-time basis. California’s hold was too strong, however, and Orlando never quite developed into the production market it was originally intended to be. At the time of the park’s opening, the Disney Channel was still fairly new and experiencing tremendous growth due to the rapid expansion of the cable television market. Disney sponsored several new Disney Channel shows that were filmed at the Studios, including the extremely popular Mickey Mouse Club. Several of the soundstages were combined in 2001 to create the new Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! attraction. Millionaire closed in August 2006, and it was replaced with American Idol in 2008. American Idol closed in August of 2014 and in June 2015, For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration now takes its place.
MGM Studios also started reaching out to celebrity guests by inviting them into the park for the first few years. The guests participated in a handprint ceremony (with every handprint created onsite) and acted as Grand Marshal in the afternoon parade. Celebrity guests also answered audience questions in an informal interview setting. Today, celebrity guest appearances are rare and generally limited to event weekends such as Star Wars Weekends.
Although some of the changes at MGM Studios may have been negative, Sunset Boulevard was a necessary addition, expanding the park and adding extremely well-done thrill rides. Rides such as Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror as well as a Beauty and the Beast show. Sunset Boulevard also brought the amphitheater that now housed the nighttime spectacular, Fantasmic.
The Monster Sound Show used the setting of a five-minute comedy haunted house film to demonstrate sound effect technology. After an initial screening of the film complete with its original soundtrack, audience volunteers then had the opportunity to reproduce the sound effects using professional equipment. The film was screened one final time with its soundtrack replaced by the volunteer-generated track, with often hilarious results. The show closed in 1996 and has been replaced multiple times.
Major changes at Disney's MGM Studios, as with other parks at the Walt Disney World resort, seem to be primarily targeted at adding characters and keeping the material fresh and relevant, as well as cutting operating costs. Controversy erupted with the closing of Superstar Television in 1998, an attraction that used blue screen technology to add audience members into scenes from popular television shows. The park then ran through a changing roster of replacements, capitalizing on changing fads. The theater then hosted Doug Live! for a 2-year run with special events are often held in that theater.
Another major change at the MGM Studios occurred as a result of Michael Eisner’s decision to close Feature Animation. The Animation building used to house a short Peter Pan-based feature that was created entirely at Disney's MGM Studios location. After viewing the film, guests then had the opportunity to tour the Animation facility, where they could watch Animators at work behind a glass wall. However, the Florida Animation department was closed in 2003, and the attraction was completely re-worked.
Walt Disney World as a whole has entered into a new era. Michael Eisner stepped down in September 2005 after a campaign for his ouster that was led by Roy E. Disney (son of Roy O. and nephew of Walt). Control of the company passed to Eisner’s long-term right-hand man, Bob Iger. Iger pledged to return to Disney’s roots. In 2009, Disney's MGM Studios name was changed to Disney's Hollywood Studios. Plus, one of Iger's first big moves was the acquisition of Pixar, which was created by former Disney animators. With the Pixar acquisition, Feature Animation returned to Disney. Iger has called meetings with key Imagineers to chart a new course for Disney attractions. Iger’s dreams are big, and many believe that he was the catalyst for positive change following the difficult Eisner years. Iger's new ideas and infusion of creative energy have put the Walt Disney Company on the path towards reaffirming its title as the number one vacation destination in Orlando.
In 2020, Bob Chapek became CEO and had to deal with the crippling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down both American Disney Resorts while taking on a massive Disney Plus streaming service. Walt Disney World closed its gates because of the pandemic for 3 months from March 16, 2020, to July 11, 2020. They, however, then slowly started opening up and allowing guests to visit the parks once again. Disneyland has remained closed since March 2020 but opens its gates on April 30, 2021. Disney was hit hard by the pandemic and did have to furlough and lay off many of its Cast Members in the process. However, many of them have been called back even slowly as capacity restrictions have lighted up. The pandemic has brought many changes, strained the company as well as the economy, and postponed or halted the construction of new attractions. However, Disney is pushing through and continues to keep its title of being "The Most Magical Place on Earth."