The idea for the Disney-MGM Studios goes back some 40 years ago. One of Walt Disney's dreams was to build a theme park that was devoted to showcasing the wonders of movie making. At the time, rival Universal Pictures had a wildly successful studio tram tour going on. Walt considered using the backlot of Disney, but due to land costs as well as traffic problems, Walt looked to Anaheim, where Disneyland was built. Disneyland, however, did not fully envelope the true dream Walt had of allowing the public to witness the movie making process.
From Dream to Reality
Following the success of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, the Walt Disney Company entered the 1980's in a bit of slump. Internal feuds and Wall Street hijinx created turmoil in the company and the call went out for change. In addition, Disney had a greatly expanded production schedule and needed to build facilities to allow for this expansion. Rather than buy expensive land in California, the company realized it had plenty of land in Florida and the opportunity to combine its new production facilities with a chance for Walt Disney World guests to see behind the scenes of movie and television production, thus fulfilling Walt's dream.
Creating the Dream
At the same time Disney was looking to create its new studio in Florida, rival Universal Pictures was planning to open its own movie themed park in Orlando as well. Facing the threat of Universal Studios Florida, Disney put on a full-court press to get a full-fledged film studio/theme park up by the end of the '80s and that is exactly what they did. How to combine actual film production with a theme park where millions of visitors a year watch the work through walls of plexiglas was the biggest challenge.
Disney Imagineers got to work and had to think up how to bring the 1940's and 1950's Hollywood into a theme park, smaller in size than EPCOT or the Magic Kingdom. They poured over material of the time, from movies to television bits. They wanted a perfect representation of Hollywood. Imagineers then had the task of taking their ideas, and scaling them down to fit in the space of the park. Aside from those ideas, other ideas emerged from designers about featuring Californian-esque achitecture. In addition to showcasing the wonders of film, Disney Imagineers had to encompass the golden age of television in the park, not only for the historical value, but because the Studios would be used for broadcasting television. Additionaly, a radio station was planned to be made in the park so the Studios could broadcast various radio programs.
Disney pulled another ace out of their sleeves when the Walt Disney Company signed an agreement with famous movie studio, MGM Studios, for the use of its name and logo. MGM had in their grasp reels and reels of great movie classics to add. This allowed Disney to widen the audience from people who expected merely Disney animation to encompass the entire spectrum of film making.
President Michael Eisner announced plans for the Studios publicaly, in 1985. Construction began in 1986 and a talented staff of Imagineers were brought in to bring the plans to life. Included in the team was Director and Producer George Lucas. It was vital to the park's success to have a working film studio that showed visitors how film was made but at the same time was entertaining. Lucas is credited with being able to meld excellent story telling with special effects, which were the staple of Disney in such attractions as Small World After All and Splash Mountain. Aside from the thrill rides, Disney Imagineers had to keep in mind that Disney-MGM Studios was to be a working studio and had to be able to accomplish that task. Imagineers designed a facility that created the perfect work environment for Disney animators, while at the same time, allowing guests to witness the animation process from start to finish. In keeping with the classic movie studio theme, Disney Imagineers continued the tradition that movie studios in California used to have of keeping water towers on their lots for heating and cooling purposes. The Studios were designed a tower of its own, continuing the tradition. Named the Earffel Tower, Disney's tower however, does not heat or cool anything. The 130 foot tall tower is empty and is used as a landmark and nothing else. In fact, the mouse ears weigh 5,000 pounds each and had to be hoisted via crane to be put on top of the tower.
In keeping with Disney tradition, Imagineers had to pick something to be the visual draw and center of the park. Disney picked the Chinese Theater, the famous movie house that premiered so many of Hollywood's great films. Unlike most attraction buildings, this theater has no forced perspective so it can be taken in from any direction. The design of the building for the Studios used the original building schematics as a guide and built the building to scale, which includes the exact copying the lobby. In addition, Disney wanted to have its own walk of fame and when the courtyard was being designed, the cement had to be slowly filled so that the stars could come and make their lasting legacy permanent.
Like Walt Disney himself, Disney Imagineers stayed on top of the high-tech technology of the day, incorporating it into the attractions. Everything had to be tested, and then tested again so that attractions would operate exactly as they had it on paper. Through the use of computers, Catastrophe Canyon had to be fine tuned such that the tram didn't fall into the ravine or that the metal on any part of the canyon melted from the fire. Similar tests had to be completed at the Studio's other headlinerattractions while other attractions needed to get permission to actually show the ride, such as in the Great Movie Ride where many actor's voices were needed to set the scene.
Four years after the plans had been announced, Disney-MGM Studios became a reality. With the landmark Mann's Chinese Theater being smack in the center of the park, Disney committed itself not only to a first-class park, but to courting Hollywood's movers and shakers as a working studio as well. It's affiliation with ABC television, in addition to the syndicated programs, added impetus to Disney officials' desire to make the dual-natures of the park's mission mesh. What's more, the Studios opened up a full two years ahead of rival Universal Pictures' Universal Studios, which were competing to be the Floridian equivalent of their Californian predacessors.
The Studios Open
On Monday, May 1, 1989, the Disney-MGM Studios opened its doors to the public and the fanfare gala associated with the opening was the most ever for a Disney World park. Despite persistent rain throughout the day, people flocked by the hundreds to experience Disney's newest creation. In fact, the parking lot closed an hour after opening, leaving traffic backed up for miles. The Media covered the opening from different parts of the Studio, in front of different attractions. Streetmosphere characters kept the large crowds and long lines entertained. Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner read the dedication plaque at the opening ceremony:
The world you have entered was created by The Walt Disney Company and is dedicated to Hollywood--not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine; a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was--and always will be.
Draped in proper Hollywood glitz and glamour, the opening was hosted by a star-studded cast, including Walter Cronkite, George Burns, Willie Nelson, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Van Dyke, President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and more.
Actor John Ritter hosted the event and provided some humor, after poking fun at the process that took place to bring the Studios into becoming a reality. The show opened with a big musical number starring Smokey Robinson that was a good launch as he and numerous dancers made their way down Hollywood Boulevard.
Another smartly paced musical featured Buster Poindexter, Ashford and Simpson and Ann Miller in three dance numbers that were well-choreographed and entertaining.
Other highlights of the show included clips with Harry Anderson showing how special effects are created and with Tony Randall talking about the workings of animation.
The show actually was fairly full through its first 90 minutes, but quickly dropped off as last half-hour went into a long concert session with the Pointer Sisters, George Burns (the highlight) and a rather uninspired Willie Nelson.
There was also a good deal of walking the television audience around this new park, which features a ride similar to the one at Universal Studios through a film studio backlot. The park also has sessions for audiences to take part in filming along with booths where children can dub their own voices into cartoons, and so on.
The Studios Find Success
From day one, the Disney-MGM Studios were a hit. So much so that park officials had to open up areas that were closed off previously to help with crowd flow. Rather than use the new space for just crowd control, Imagineers began planning new attractions to take up residence in the newly opened areas. Plans that Disney thought would be years away had to be brought in and used to help cope with the demand for more. With the help of several popular live shows, the park was able to handle crowds while still developing more attractions.
On the actual studio production side, pull-a-way trailers were brought in to make room for the animation department. Some plans included building more studios across the main highway alongside the park, connecting it with access roads and walkways.
In 1994, a new section of the park was opened to the public: Sunset Boulevard. Complimenting Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset is a tribute to the theater district of Hollywood. The theaters on the block are actual reproductions of several found in California, including the Carthay Circle, where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. In addition, Sunset Boulevard became home to the wildly famous Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction, which rose to 199 feet. The reason for 199 feet is if a building is 200 feet or above, it requires lights to notify aircraft of its position and Imagineers could not tie the lights in to the building.
One of the goals for Disney was to also keep guests in the Studios all day and a good night time show is one of the best methods that Disney had found to keep guests in the park. This strategy had been used effectively in both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and the Sorcery in the Sky show that had premiered in 1992 was getting tired. Earlier in 1992, Disney had developed a show for Disneyland called Fantasmic!, a show of good versus evil starring Mickey Mouse. Imagineers felt it would be a perfect fit for the Studios since it's far different from the other night time shows. A 10,000 person amphitheater was constructed for it off of Sunset Boulevard in 1996 and the new show premiered on October 15, 1998.
Time for a change
Going into the twenty-first century, the focus of the Studios began to change. The park had opened as a working production studio that offered to immerse guests in the movie-making magic however production costs and a changing dynamic in the animation arena lead to the Studios changing. A large portion of the Backlot Tour, Residential Street, was bulldozed to make room for a brand new attraction that showcased vehicle based stunts that came from Disneyland Paris called Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. In addition, New York Street was expanded to includ a city scape from San Francisco and was renamed to Streets of America. Mickey Avenue and the attractions on it were closed to make room for the soon to be opened Toy Story Mania and on January 7th, 2008, the Disney-MGM Studios was renamed to Disney's Hollywood Studios to better reflect the new change in focus of the park.
In keeping with idea of changing over the look and feel of the Studios, Toy Story Midway Mania opened to the public in May of 2008 and ushered in a tremendously popular attraction that features Buzz, Woody and all of the Toy Story characters in an interactive shoot 'em up game that quickly became the most popular attraction in the Studios. FASTPASS for the attraction is usually gone by lunch time and waits for it were consistantly around two hours long. Disney Imagineers hit a home run with the new attraction and the success can be attributed to the wide audience it attracts as there are no real ride restrictions to speak of.
On the heels of Toy Story Midway Mania came the news of another new attraction, American Idol Experience. The attraction was set to be in the old ABC Theater that once was home to Superstar Television. The entire building was completely renovated and Disney worked with Freemantle Media, the group behind the American Idol television show, to bring to Hollywood Studios an attraction that would create a realistic re-creation of the television show for guests to enjoy in the park itself. The attraction debuted in early 2009 with a star-studded lineup of winners from every American Idol season to that point. Included in the guest list were Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparx, Rubben Studdard, David Cook and a surprise appearance by Kelly Clarkson. All these winners and other contestants along with host Ryan Seacrest made their grand entrance down a blue carpeted Hollywood Boulevard before a very special show. The attraction has since opened to the public where it performs a half-dozen shows per day with the winner of each day offered an opportunity to audition for a real American Idol show.