Disney-Hollywood Studios was the first new gated park built during Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The park is Disney’s entry in the so-called 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 single handedly. MCA tapped a number of 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, and knowing of Universal’s plans, he directed the Imagineering team to begin work on Disney’s own movie park. The plans were kept on the back burner until Universal’s official announcement was made. Universal was announced first, but Disney-Hollywood opened a year earlier, in 1989. This was made possible by the existence of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the self-managing governmental body created by Walt, which allowed 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, while Disney-Hollywood 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 detect the Hidden Mickey. Turn your park map upside down and see if you can pick out the details.
When Disney-Hollywood 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, and soundstages, post-production facilities, and special effects workshops on the walking portion. A modified version of the tram tour still exists, although the walking portion is no more.
The main reason for the loss of the walking tour is likely that very few productions are now filmed at Disney-Hollywood Studios. 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 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.
Disney-Hollywood’s efforts in the early days extended to celebrity weekends. Every weekend for the first few years, celebrity guests were invited to the park. The guests participated in a handprint ceremony (every handprint in the park was created onsite), acted as Grand Marshal in the afternoon parade, and 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.
Not all of the changes at Disney-Hollywood Studios have been negative. Sunset Boulevard was a necessary addition, expanding the park and adding extremely well-done thrill rides Rock n Roller Coaster and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror as well as a Beauty and the Beast show. Sunset Boulevard also brought the amphitheatre that now houses the nighttime spectacular, Fantasmic.
The major changes at Disney-Hollywood 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, 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 now sits empty, although special events are often held there.
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 sound track replaced by the volunteer-generated track, with often hilarious results. The show closed in 1996 and has been replaced multiple times.
Another major change at the Disney-Hollywood 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 the Disney- Hollywood 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. The Florida Animation department was closed in 2003, and the attraction 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 has pledged to return to Disney’s roots. One his first big moves was the acquisition of Pixar, which was created by former Disney animators. With the Pixar acquisition, Feature Animation has returned to Disney. Iger has called meetings with key Imagineers in an effort to chart a new course for Disney attractions. Iger’s dreams are big, and many believe that he will be the catalyst for positive change following the difficult Eisner years.
Disney fans are cautiously optimistic. If Iger proves to be a man of his word, the new ideas and infusion of creative energy will put the Walt Disney company on the path towards reaffirming its title as number one vacation destination in Orlando. Only time will tell whether this will, indeed, be the case.