There are few attractions that stay around from the opening of a theme park through today and the Backlot Tour is one of those, albeit it's changed quite a bit over the years. Ground breaking on the Backlot Tour began on March 27, 1986. When the Disney-MGM Studios opened on May 1, 1989, the Backlot Tour (then called the Backlot Studio Tour) opened up where the Magic of Disney Animation is currently. The Studio Tour opened up as a premier attraction for the Studios, considering the premise of the park was to not only entertain guests with attractions, but to also immerse guests in the art and magic of real Hollywood production. The original tour was comprised of a number of segments. A tram tour was an integral part of the ride, which Disney Imagineers purposefully put into the park to recreate the backlot tram tours you would find in the Hollywood studio tours. The original tour was two hours long and included no restroom stops along the way. The tour would begin with a stop at The Production Center, which included Costuming, where guests could peer into the costuming shop and observe Cast Members creating costumes for various Hollywood productions. This was followed by The Scenic Shop, where craftsmen constructed sets for use in production. The tram tour included a trip to what was called Residential Street, which was a street with faux home facades from famous television shows. These houses were used for wide shots of the home of the characters in the TV show and were actually nothing more than just a front with no sides or an interior constructed. The houses displayed here included The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, Adventures in Wonderland and Ernest Saves Christmas. During the first few years of Residential Street, Herbie the Love Bug greeted guests as they passed by on the tram tour and would squirt water and open its doors.
Following Residential Street, the tram would proceed and take a tour of New York Street. During this time, New York Street was closed to guests and was used for the Backlot Tour and real production work. Included in the area was some of the facades we see today along with a reproduction of the Washington Square Park memorial at the beginning of the street. New York Street's greatest claim to fame was it was the set of the Bette Midler film, "The Lottery". Following the tram tour through New York Street, the tram would continue into Catastrophe Canyon, a movie set that demonstrated the use of special effects to make guests believe that a film was being shown of an oil tanker blowing up and a flood of water shortly thereafter. Catastrophe Canyon remains largely the same show today that it was in 1989 and one of the few untouched elements of the Backlot Tour. Along the way of the tram tour was "the bone yard", an area along either side of the tram's path where random props from Disney films were displayed for guests to view. The bone yard was placed here because in real Hollywood backlots, studios would keep old props around in case they were needed for future production. At the Disney-MGM Studios, the boneyard served more as a museum of relics from past films and included props from The Rocketeer, Roger Rabbit and Star Wars, among others.
Following Catastrophe Canyon, guests disembarked from the tram in an exit area where the Studio Catering Co. restaurant is today. This would mark the half way point of the tour and allow guests a quick break before continuing. In subsequent years, the break area was expanded to include the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure as an area for kids to play. This would begin the walking portion of the Backlot Tour, where guests would watch a water tank demonstration of how special effects are used to make convincing filming of what looks like ship based films. The water tank demonstration would feature a number of guests volunteering to be part of the demonstration and acting out roles as sailors on board the ship. Following the water tank demonstration was a walking tour of the sound stages at the Studios that were along Mickey Avenue via elevated overhead walkways. Mickey Avenue was themed to loosely resemble Mickey Avenue at the Disney Studios in Burbank. Guests could then enter an area titled Inside the Magic - Special Effects and Production Tour where special effects were demonstrated for guests. at one point, there was a giant bumblebee from the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids film and was used in front of a "green screen" to demonstrate how these screens work. Two guests were chosen from the group to get to ride the bee as it flies around a backyard. Following this were production sound stages that offered guests an opportunity to peer into these sound stages and observe real production going on without disturbing the actual production. Productions like The Mickey Mouse Club used the sound stages to record their Disney Channel shows and there were also opportunities to see the Jim Henson Creature Shop where many puppets and props were stored. Near the end of walking tour was a "Making of" set tour of the latest Disney film and this attraction would then empty out into the Walt Disney Theater. The tour then ended with the short film "Michael and Mickey", where Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse introduced the previews of current and upcoming films. Following this Making of area, guests would leave the attraction and walk through a store called the Disney Studio Store, where guests could buy Disney and Touchstone Pictures clothing and accessories.
The first round of changes to the Backlot Tour came early on in the history of the Studios due to a necessity of needing more attractions for guests in a park that was quite popular early on. In addition, the original tour was quite long (about an hour and a half) and Disney wanted to break up some of the attraction to make things easier on the park guest. Within just a few months of the opening of the Studios, the Walt Disney Theater where guests emptied out, was separated and became its own theater that went on to show "Here come the Muppets" and "Voyage of the Little Mermaid". Also early on in the Studios existence, New York Street was removed from the tour and opened up to guests to help alleviate congestion in the park and the tram portion of the tour was altered so that the tram would bypass New York Street and go from Residential Street straight to Catastrophe Canyon.
To further cut down on time needed for the entire attraction, the tour was split in two. The tram portion of the tour became the Backlot Tour while the walking portion of the tour was named Backstage Pass. The entrance to the Backlot Tour was moved further into the park where it currently is today at the end of Mickey Avenue with a new entrance ramp built to lead right into the water effects tank as well as a prop warehouse built to create a longer queue area as well as a loading area for the trams. Along with the walking portion being removed from the tour, a smaller theater was constructed as an exit for Backstage Pass. The Backstage Pass attraction would continue operating until 2001 when the budget cuts hit the parks, in part due to the tourism industry slump. The Backstage Pass attraction closed and began being cannibalized for other needs. The small theater area where Backstage Pass guests exited was changed and became Walt Disney: One Man's Dream. In April 2001, Sound stage 3 was opened to the public in the form of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Play It. Backstage Pass would re-open and close sporadically until it was finally closed for good in February of 2002.
While the entire walking portion of the original Backstage Pass was gone by early 2002, the Backlot Tour was about to take some cuts as well. On July 2, 2003 Residential Street was closed to the public and then demolished. A small Cast Member only event was held to mark the closing of Residential Street before it began to be demolished. The area was being removed to make way for Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, a show that was being imported from Disneyland Paris as part of Disney Parks worldwide 50th Anniversary Celebration. Because of this addition of the stunt show, the tram tour had to be reworked quite a bit and small portions of the old residential street were turned into areas for the boneyard portion of the tour (which was dramatically scaled down). In addition to Residential Street being demolished, the archway on New York Street was also taken down to make room for the tram to be able to maneuver through the area.
Aside from trying to cut down the total running time of the attraction, there was the reality that despite Disney's best efforts, real production was not coming to the Studios. Disney had tried to use the Studios to lure Hollywood production to come to the Studios as an alternative to Hollywood where production costs could be 2/3 less than what it would cost to produce in Hollywood. The Florida Film Commission even offered tax breaks/credits but alas, more often than not, guests would take the tour and see empty sound stages. In addition, the walking portion of the tour (later called Backstage Pass) was despised by film makers who did not like the public watching while production occurs. As much as Disney wanted the Studios to become the east coast equivalent of Hollywood, it just wasn't going to happen and Disney was forced to convert the sound stages for other uses like Millionaire or a Sorcerer Mickey Meet-n-Greet and currently they've been torn down to make way for Toy Story Mania. Today the Backlot Tour really is a shell of its former self and with the change in direction of the Studios from working production theme park to celebrating Hollywood, the future of the Backlot Tour doesn't look terribly bright. Whether or not guests prefer the two hour long version with no bathroom breaks or its current form remains to be seen but the Backlot Tour has undergone many changes since the park opened and continues to be tinkered with and cut back. Ultimately, the demise of the Backlot Tour has gone hand-in-hand with the reduction (and subsequent removal) of production at the Studios. Disney executives saw that significant Hollywood production wasn't a viable business for the Studios and the many changes to the Backlot Tour (and the rest of the park) have all been attempts to move the Studios away from it's initial idea of a production Studio-meets-theme park to simply a theme park.