The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Remembering the Best of the Disney-MGM Studiosby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Disney parks are ever-evolving places. In some cases, like Disney California Adventure park, this is a very good thing indeed. The remarkable transformation of this park into something worthy of the name "Disney" is nothing short of miraculous. The park now features immersive areas, charm, and beauty.
The Disney-MGM Studios, as originally conceived, also contained areas of stunning beauty. It also had a unified theme and distinct areas or "lands." Many of the park's additions have been widely successful; Muppet-Vision 3D, Star Tours, Sunset Blvd, the Theater of the Stars, and the Tower of Terror are just a few of the attractions added since the park's opening. Nevertheless, some valuable experiences have been lost in the process.
The Magic of Disney Animation
Each Disney theme park has an emotional heart. In the Magic Kingdom, Fantasyland—symbolized by Cinderella Castle—is that heart. At Epcot, Spaceship Earth sets the emotional tone for the pavilions in Future World and beyond. The sentiment that the future is filled with promise is introduced here. The idea that we share common hopes and dreams, joys and sorrow is introduced here and reinforced beautifully in the meaningful lyrics to the song "We Go On" featured in "Illuminations: Reflections of Earth." The moving American Adventure extends these themes and encapsulates the motifs embedded in each of the countries featured in World Showcase. The Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney's Animal Kingdom is, in my opinion, the heart of this park. A thrilling, moving, and profoundly beautiful attraction, the safari succeeds in fulfilling the Animal Kingdom's original goal of celebrating the human relationship with animals.
This brings us to Disney's Hollywood Studios and the original attraction that I miss most, namely "The Magic of Disney Animation." I can live with the fact that the original vision of a real working studio has long been abandoned; after all, times change and the ever-evolving entertainment industry is no exception. The soundstage tours, once a staple of the Disney-MGM Studios, became somewhat outdated once the actual filming of such shows as "The Mickey Mouse Club" and "Win, Lose, or Draw" ceased production there. Even diehard Disney fans admit that trading the tour for Toy Story Mania and other attractions was a win for Disney World visitors. However, Disney Animation Florida—once located at the Disney-MGM Studios—is sorely missed, as it embodied the heart and soul of Disney move-making philosophy and history.
The original attraction located here featured a wonderful introductory film, Back to Neverland, starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams. It was so popular that guests often revisited this attraction just to see this hysterical film again. The original tour here was authentic, as guests could watch real Disney animators working on Disney animated films. Portions of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King were actually created at the Disney Animation Studios Florida. Entire films—like Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, and Mulan—were also produced in Florida. Clever short films explaining each step in the animation process were featured in this attraction, as was a lovingly created salute to the animated legacy of the studio shown at the end in the inviting little theater appropriately named The Walt Disney Theater. The joys of this area extended to the ever-changing gallery of artwork—both classic and current—featured at the end of the tour. The Animation Gallery was once a true art gallery, offering museum quality artwork and one-of-a-kind drawings and cels. Even the architecture of this entire attraction was wonderful, inspirited by the original studios constructed in Burbank in the early 1940s. While it may be too much to hope that the original concept of a working animation studio will return to the Studios anytime soon, I am confident that I am not alone in mourning the loss of this unique attraction.
Shopping the Studios
There was another little store—the Disney Studio Store— that has also changed beyond recognition. Located near the Voyage of the Little Mermaid, this location was once decorated with wonderful stills from the films produced at the Walt Disney Studios, not just its most current animated release. Photos from Disney's storied past—everything from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the original The Parent Trap—once wound their way through this charming store that featured merchandise previously available only at the Studio Store located at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Now, sadly, the shop offers the same Walt Disney World and Disney character merchandise available throughout the property.
Speaking of charming shops, Hollywood Blvd. once featured a variety of charming boutique-like shops celebrating Hollywood as well as Disney World. Sid Cahuenga's One-of-a-Kind Shop is still located on Hollywood Blvd., but lacks the depth and variety of merchandise it once offered. How fun would it be for collectors if the Disney World merchandising team actively sought out rare items for this shop. Think retired collectibles, park memorabilia, even old guidebooks. Rather than dumping art and collectibles in its outlet style stores off property, it would be great fun to pick up some older Disney collectibles here, especially if they were at reduced prices.
The next store, Mickey's of Hollywood, was originally built as a series of quaint, uniquely themed boutiques. The attention to architectural detail was lovely as shoppers worked their way from one area to another. Years ago, however, in an apparent effort to streamline the shop, Mickey's of Hollywood was gutted. It now resembles an upscale Disney Store one might encounter in a neighborhood mall.
Keystone Clothiers, an elegant shop featuring higher-end Disney clothing, still retains much of its charm, despite the recent renovations that scaled back the theming and architectural details.
On the other side of the boulevard, the Celebrity Five & Dime once featured film memorabilia such as book, shirts, collectibles, and toys that were not Disney related. The neighboring shop, Sweet Success, was the park's original candy shop. The L. A. Property Warehouse was once decorated with film and television production props and featured traditional Disney related costumes and toys. The loss of the uniqueness of these shops-and the merchandise they once offered-diminishes the experience of visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios.
The Chinese Theater Courtyard
At the end of Hollywood Blvd. there was once a lovely courtyard. Quiet areas of understated beauty make Disney parks unique; these fantastic vistas created by Imagineering live on in the imaginations of guests long after they return home. In his book Designing Disney, Disney Legend John Hench wrote that "Imagineers carefully select images essential to each story [they] want to tell in a Disney park." It has long been a tradition that contradictory images that shatter the illusion should be avoided at all costs.
The large contradiction at the end of Hollywood Blvd. (aka the Sorcerer's Hat) destroys the theme and ambiance of the park's main thoroughfare. The atmosphere of Hollywood Blvd., with the serenity of the Chinese Theater Courtyard, was once very compelling. On nights when Sorcery in the Sky was performed, this area of the park was magical indeed. In a park with very few truly beautiful areas, the courtyard provided a sophisticated hub. By obscuring the Chinese Theater with this oversized knick-knack, the well-designed theme of a "Hollywood that never was and always will be" is ruined. In order to restore the magic of consistent theming to this once charming little park, that hat needs to go as soon as possible.
A Hopeful Future
Disney's Hollywood Studios still has much to recommend, but as a unified park with immersive experiences, it leaves much to be desired. As we've seen with Disney California Adventure, it's never too late to fix a Disney park. With the imminent arrival of Imagineering's Kathy Mangum and the welcome return of George Kalogridis as president of the Florida property, we have renewed hope that Disney's Hollywood Studios will regain the original feeling of the "Hollywood that never was and always will be."