The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Three Disney Hollywood Studios Favoritesby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Sometimes, Disney's Hollywood Studios gets a bad rap. Some complain that it's a "half-day" park with little to do; others comment that it's in dire need of an extreme makeover along the lines of Disney's California Adventure. While I agree that this little park needs a major facelift and an injection of new attractions and reimagined shows, there's a lot to like about a park dedicated to "the Hollywood that never was, and always will be."
Let's visit three favorite attractions all located near Echo Lake, an area of the park just left of the Chinese Theatre. This section of the park is a transition of sorts from the 1940s California of Hollywood Blvd. to the "making of" theme of the original Disney-MGM Studios. At one time or another, this area played host to SuperStar TV, The American Idol Experience, The Monster Sound Show, Radio Disney, and the AFI Courtyard. Separating this area of the park from the "working sets" of Indiana Jones and Star Wars is a smallish body of water called Echo Lake. In the old days of backlots and studios, various sized bodies of water were used to recreate everything from the Mississippi River to the Grand Canal in Venice. This little lagoon is a nod to that part of movie-making history. Along its modest shores are two dining options: Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream of Extinction and Min & Bill's Dockside Diner. Gertie mimics the "California Crazy" style of architecture, and Min and Bill's a salute to a classic 1930 comedy film.
The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
One of the attractions that premiered when the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, this 35-minute live stunt show is packed with all the adventure, last-second escapes, and explosions you might expect from an Indiana Jones movie. This particular show, which has changed very little from opening day, salutes the first of the Indiana Jones films: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The stunts are just as impressive now as they were in 1989, but for frequent guests the humor and surprises are no longer fresh. Truth be told, I hadn't seen this show since the early 1990s. Last year we stopped by to ensure that my sons would get to see it before its oft-rumored closure. Despite the fact that my sons have yet to see any Indiana Jones films (as six year olds, they are much too young for that level of action-adventure violence), I thought they'd be ready for this classic attraction. Turns out, I was correct.
Because they'd never seen the show, the humor of the casting of extras and the silliness of the ensuing interactions with cast members was genuinely funny. The action scenes are intense, so be ready for loud noises and explosions. The opening scene, for example, features Indiana Jones himself avoiding spears and axes, recovering the golden monkey, and narrowly escaping a 12-foot-tall rolling boulder. There's a lively scene in the streets of old Cairo, complete with realistic looking fight scenes, guns, swords, and more explosions. The final scene—a reenactment of Indy and Marion's escape from the Nazis—is so loud and so intense that the heat from the fire can actually be felt in the bleachers that surround the theater. The sets are appropriately immense and impressive, the cast genial and convincing, and the entire affair highly entertaining.
While rumor has it that the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular may fall victim to a larger Star Wars presence in this park, let's hope that we get a version of the equally spectacular Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland's Adventureland. If you've never seen the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, which is far superior to the dull and predictable Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show, please make time to check it out on your next visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios. Even if you've seen it in the past, it might be wise to make one more call on Indiana Jones before his stunt show becomes a part of Disney history.
Star Tours–The Adventures Continue
Right next door to Indiana Jones is another attraction inspired by a George Lucas film series. The original Star Tours premiered at Disneyland's Tomorrowland in 1987, but it took a couple of years to make the trip to Florida. The Disney-MGM Studios version of the attraction debuted in December of 1989. Although the ride itself was the same as its Disneyland counterpart, the theming of the attraction building was quite different.
Rather than presenting the attraction as an actual experience, like the Disneyland version, the Disney-MGM Studios version was conceived as a "working set" in keeping with the actual working studios theme of the park. The Ewok village surrounding the show building is incomplete, like a temporary movie set. Guests are greeted by exposed plywood and two-by-fours as they enter the attraction. Much of the magic of the experience was lost as a result of these design choices; it's much more fun at Disneyland where guests can willingly suspend their disbelief more readily. Hopefully, these minor quibbles will be remedied should an actual Star Wars area appear at this park.
I loved the original version of the attraction where the spaceships navigate through giant crystals, bombing the Death Star, and outrunning Imperial fighters. The new version, Star Tours–The Adventures Continues, is reportedly equally exciting and memorable. This summer, my sons are finally tall enough to ride, and thanks to the new Disney XD series Star Wars Rebels, are fans of George Lucas's universe just like their dad. The new version randomizes the experience for each ride, taking guests to either Naboo, Tatooine, Coruscant, Kashyyk, or Hoth. With the aid of new 3D technology and fifty-four possible story combinations, the new adventures promise to surprise guests on every trip aboard the StarSpeeder 1000. I can't wait to see the delight in my sons' eyes when they walk through this attraction's loading bay and see R2-D2 and C3PO for the first time.
Located right around the corner from Star Tours, this lovable show stars Kermit the Frog, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and the whole Muppet gang in their very own 3D adventure. The first of many proposed collaborative projects between Disney and Jim Henson, this is sadly the only one completed before the beloved filmmaker's untimely death. According to Disney lore, there were plans for an entire Muppet-themed area at the Studios. An elaborate audio-animatronic spoof of the Great Movie Ride was once planned for the area that is now occupied by Pizza Planet, Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano, and the Christmas themed store It's a Wonderful Shop. Fortunately, the Muppet plaza, complete with a charming fountain featuring Miss Piggy as Miss Liberty, an elaborate shop called Stage One Company Store, and of course the classic MuppetVision 3D film made it from the drawing boards to reality.
For those of us who grew up with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, MuppetVision 3D is a delightful return to fond childhood memories. For younger Muppet fans, the novelty of immersive 3D along with live characters, audio-animatronic Muppets, and silly glasses never fails to enchant.
The fun here begins in the clever preshow, a backstage area filled with nods to Muppet history. It also includes a series of television monitors that show video while guests wait for the main attraction. Guests are treated to a plethora of Muppet puns, silly songs (my favorite is Gonzo's memorable rendition of "Tea for Two"), instructive videos, (Sam the Eagle reminds guests that stopping in the middle of a row is "distinctly un-American'), and even a visit by Mickey Mouse himself (actually a disguised Rizzo the Rat who claims that no one will notice because "they're tourists").
The theater proper is an exact replica of the revered Muppet Theater, complete with box seats for Statler and Waldorf, who heckle poor Fozzie Bear relentlessly. Statler and Waldorf, along with Bean Bunny (a Muppet created by Jim Henson for this attraction), are presented in three-dimensional audio-animatronic form. Sweetums is a live-action character who makes a memorable appearance, giving the MuppetVision film the distinction of being 4D. A penguin band and the Swedish Chef also appear in three-dimensional, audio-animatronic form.
The film itself is filled with memorable lines. Kermit announces that Muppet Labs invited scientists from around the world, but "unfortunately, none of them came." Professor Bunsen Honeydew calls the 3D machine "user-friendly" as poor Beaker is struck continuously by said machine. Sam the Eagle plans a "salute to all nations, but mostly America" as the film's finale, where chaos ensues.
Clever dialogue, engaging characters, and hardy laughs make this attraction a must-see every time we stop by Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Rumor has it that the entire Echo Lake area—with the exception of Star Tours—might be next on the chopping block as Disney's Hollywood Studios prepares for a major expansion. If so, I'll sigh a bit as we say goodbye to a large part of the original Disney-MGM Studios. But mostly I'll smile in anticipation for some new major attractions. Echo Lake, the surrounding empty buildings, and two minor fast-food outlets are a small price to pay for a reimagined new section of the park. Let's hope that whatever Disney has planned for this area, Indiana Jones and the Muppets will continue to have a strong presence at the Vacation Kingdom of the World.