The Best of Walt Disney World - Disney's Hollywood Studiosby Steve Russo, staff writer
This is the third in my series of “Best of Walt Disney World” articles. The first two focused on the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. This article is, perhaps, the most difficult. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a park that has confounded me since it opened its gates in 1989.
It was billed by then-CEO Michael Eisner, in his dedication of the park, as “a Hollywood that never was—and always will be.” At the time, it made some sense. In its early years, Disney-MGM Studios (as it was called until 2007) offered several soundstages that were involved with filming television shows. The Art of Animation attraction not only offered an introductory film and exhibits but a chance to observe animators as they worked on production of feature films. While touring, I can recall seeing artists working on Mulan and Hercules among others. Today, the soundstages are silent and the animators were relocated a decade ago.
On our first visit to the Studios in early 1990, I recall being impressed with what I experienced—I loved attractions like Star Tours, Muppetvision, and the Great Movie Ride, but left thinking there really wasn’t enough there. That’s certainly changed; in some ways for the better, in others… not so much.
Nevertheless, the park does offer attractions and restaurants—so let’s get on with it.
Top Three Attractions
Only three? I offered seven for the Magic Kingdom and five for Epcot—but honestly, I believe the Studios only has three top-tier attractions (although I’m absolutely certain many will disagree).
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
I have a video of my family and friends in the Tower of Terror queue while waiting for our first-ever ride. Everyone is staring up at the tower with a look of absolute dread. The only clues we had for what was in store were the screams every time an elevator reached the top of the tower and the doors slid open.
Many years, and dozens of rides later, this remains one of my favorite attractions on the planet. While I don’t get the same sense of foreboding, the theming is just that good and randomizing the drop sequence was a stroke of genius.
Star Tours – The Adventures Continue
Most of you know that I’m a sucker for flight simulators and the newest version of Star Tours delivers. The original attraction was great but after 20 years, there was a bit of staleness on that same trip to Endor’s moon—a destination we never seemed to reach.
The random elements of the new ride, and the inclusion of 3D video, has “plussed” this attraction tremendously and it will remain a favorite for many years to come.
Toy Story Midway Mania
I know this attraction is number one on many lists, evidenced by the rush to it each morning and the shortage of Fastpasses as the day goes on. The new Fastpass+ system is helping but this is still an attraction that riding Standby is usually only an option the first thing in the morning; any later and you will have to endure some very long waits. However, at the risk of offending many, it’s not at the top of my favorites list.
Understand… I like the ride. I just don’t think it warrants the extreme attention it has received since they opened the doors. At its heart, it’s a video game. A very entertaining one, I admit, and I am forever in awe of the design and implementation work that produced the ability to toss 3D rings at targets by pulling a cord. But… and there is a “but,” it’s still a video game.
Now wait just a second. I said Top Three and here I am listing a fourth entry? This film is old, dated, and maybe even a bit stale for those of us that have seen it 100 times, but it’s still funny. The pre-show alone is worth the price of admission. And who among us doesn’t laugh when hearing, “A salute to all nations, but mostly America”?
- Great Movie Ride – is a wonderful attraction that sits in a beautifully-themed building, but it needs updating. Please!
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster – is likely high on many lists. I will give you its thrill factor, especially the takeoff, but I contend the human body was not built for inversions—at least not this human body.
- Beauty and the Beast – it’s been there forever and I don’t see it every trip, but this stage show has held up well. While on this subject, does anyone else miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame?
- Fantasmic! – is still a favorite, after all these years.
- One Man’s Dream – should be seen at least once by everyone that sets foot on Disney property. My preference is at least once per trip. The displays and artifacts throughout are wonderful but you must see the movie at the end. This short film, narrated by Walt Disney himself, is a look at the hardships and successes he endured over the years.
- Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights – is not really an attraction, but it's a holiday season must-see.
Top Three Table Service Restaurants
I offer the same caveat I offered previously—that selecting favorite restaurants is difficult because our tastes are so varied. With that said, writing this article has led me to the realization that I don’t dine very often at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I’m not sure why but my tastes typically take me outside the park for nourishment. Nevertheless…
Hollywood Brown Derby
I’ve actually only dined here once and it was for lunch, but I came away very impressed by the décor, food, and service. It’s on the pricey side but, at Walt Disney World, what isn’t? Also, it’s new and I haven’t yet a chance to try it, but I’m hearing good things about the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge.
Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano
I suppose it’s the vowel at the end of my name that forces me to choose one Italian restaurant in each park (yeah, that may be a challenge at Animal Kingdom), but I’ve eaten here several times and enjoyed it. Again, it’s not going to hold a candle to your favorite neighborhood place back home, but the food is good, the theming is nice, and there’s a certain consistency to it.
50s Prime Time Cafe
This place is not for everyone, but I enjoy the 1950s vibe—Formica counters, black-and-white television, and linoleum floors. Some don’t take kindly to being told to “get your elbows off the table,” but I enjoy the schtick. The menu is comfort food at its best.
Honorable Mentions – Sci-Fi Drive-in Theater
- I see many negative reviews of the Sci-Fi Drive-in Theater, but I’ve always enjoyed it. The “show” is as unique as it gets in restaurant theming, and I’ve found the food to be quite good—as long as you stick to the basics (burgers and shakes are my go-to meal here).
Top Three Counter Service Venues
Honestly? If I’m looking for a good counter-service meal in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the best bet may be a walk to Epcot. I’m kidding, but only partially. There was a time when our touring here always took us to the ABC Commissary for a mid-morning breakfast. Unfortunately, they stopped serving breakfast, and my single foray there for lunch was a huge disappointment. From my list below, you’ll see I’m typically down on the counter service meals here.
Starring Rolls Cafe
This has replaced the ABC Commissary for our mid-morning break. They do offer items such as sushi and sandwiches, but I’ve restricted purchases here to coffee and some very nice muffins.
The Writers' Stop
Formerly called Buy the Book (fans of Ellen Degeneres will get that), this is a fairly small bookstore offering books, a few kitchen items, and some very good coffee and pastries. It’s a very nice place to take a break from the park, and refuel.
Toy Story Pizza Planet
It’s well-themed, offers a few video games for the kiddies and has a decent salad/pizza combo. Personally, I wish it wasn’t so noisy, though.
Honorable Mention – Dinosaur Gertie’s
- Dinosaur Gertie’s has ice cream and, well… it’s ice cream. There are also a few good snack stops along Sunset Boulevard, such as Anaheim Produce, Catalina Eddie's, and Toluca Legs Turkey Company.
It seems, as I work my way through the parks, I find a bit less to enjoy. Not that they aren’t loaded with fun but it reinforces my unofficial rankings—there seems to be more that I enjoy in Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. We’ll see what next month brings when I attempt to break down Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The feedback on the previous two articles was great. I truly enjoy hearing of your favorites and how they differ from my own and, as always, thanks for reading.