The Premiere of Disney-MGM Studiosby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
With the popular movie-themed Disney theme park slowly disappearing bit by bit (and even more closures planned, but not officially announced) to be re-imagined into a different experience, I thought it might be interesting to journey back several decades to look at the opening day ceremonies.
The opening day guidebook for the park listed 19 attractions. However, several of those attractions were actually just separate parts of the Backstage Studio Tour or the Magic of Disney Animation attraction so, in actuality, there were really just five attractions: The Great Movie Ride, The Magic of Disney Animation Tour, SuperStar Television, The Monster Sound Show, The Backstage Studio Tour, and the live entertainment show Hollywood! Hollywood! A Star Studded Spectacular!
Only one of those 19 opening-day attractions remains today: The Great Movie Ride. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was not "officially" open. George Lucas was not completely satisfied, so it held open working "rehearsals" for guests for several months until it officially opened in August. Star Tours did not open until December.
It cost $29 for one day, and some questioned if the park was overpriced for the size (roughly capacity for 25,000, since Eisner envisioned it as a "half-day experience") and number of attractions compared to Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
The new theme park was touted as an actual production facility where television shows, movies, and animated films would be made. Newspapers announced that it would help the Central Florida area become "Hollywood East," especially with the opening of Universal Studios Florida where production was also to take place.
Unfortunately, due to lack of facilities, materials, personnel, post-production bays, and, more importantly, support (for example, if something broke in Hollywood, a quick call across town would have a replacement there no later than that same afternoon, but, in Florida, it might take a day or more to have it shipped from somewhere else in the country), that dream was never realized.
TV shows, like Wheel of Fortune, brought their own trucks and equipment to edit and upload the shows for broadcast later in the same day they were shot, rather than pay the exorbitant rental fees being charged by Disney for the same limited facilities.
In addition, producers had to fly their talent out from Hollywood and pay for upscale housing and transportation, causing a significant increase in the budget. In the early years, the state of Florida helped out on compensating some of those additional costs in the hopes of encouraging more film production to come to the state to boost the local economy.
The production facilities at Disney MGM Studios opened in June of 1988, roughly a year before the park, and projects like Win, Lose or Draw, Siskel & Ebert, a Carol Burnett special, Good Morning Miss Bliss (a precursor to Saved by the Bell, with Hayley Mills), the first season of the syndicated Superboy (1988), gameshow Remote Control (MTV), the Disney Sunday night movie Splash Too (1988), and the New Mickey Mouse Club began filming there.
Over the early years, other productions that filmed, or partially filmed, at the park included Ernest Saves Christmas (1988 with Vern's house a façade on Residential Street on the backlot); Newsies (1992); Sheena (Queen of the Jungle) with Gena Lee Nolin (2000); From the Earth to the Moon (1998 HBO mini-series from Ron Howard and Tom Hanks pumping roughly $37 million dollars into the local economy); Teen Win, Lose or Draw; and Adventures in Wonderland; as well as tapings for World Championship Wrestling.
Thunder in Paradise (1994 with Chris Lemmon and Hulk Hogan) employed some local Central Florida actors and production was shot at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, as well at Disney’s Old Key West Resort, Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, and even Epcot (where the Morocco pavilion was the backdrop for at least two episodes).
After a day of filming, Hogan would spend the night at a local Hooters restaurant to unwind and at least one Hooters girl (like Heidi Marks, who appeared in seven episodes) ended up getting a role in the series.
In June 1989, Ilya Salkind, executive producer of the Superboy series, moved the shooting of the show to Universal. At the Disney MGM Studio, the show occupied the largest sound stage covering 15,000 square feet and used it for the flying sequences, the dormitory and the newsroom. One of the things that prompted the move was Disney proposing to shift the production to a smaller 7,500-square-foot stage because it was negotiating for a movie production.
Disney-MGM had less than half the physical space as its nearby competitor. Universal had four sound stages, three with 16,500-square-feet each and one with a 22,000-square-feet space. Two additional sound stages were constructed at Universal in late 1989 to handle the filming of Nickelodeon productions like the game show Double Dare, as well as Clarissa Explains it All, Kenan & Kel, Legends of the Hidden Temple and Nickelodeon GUTS.
All of these projects at both studios contributed to an 89 percent boost in Central Florida's film and television production revenue, from $213.8 million in 1996 to $402.1 million in 1997, according to the Metro Orlando Film & Television Office.
"Not just quantitatively, but qualitatively, we've been busier with better, bigger, more substantial projects that mean more to our guests than ever before in our history," said Bob Allen, vice president of production operations at the Disney-MGM Studios in August 17, 1998, to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, and indicated that Disney was considering building more soundstages.
"The first time you take a production out of the Hollywood comfort zone, it's a risk," Allen said. "At least, it feels that way to a producer. The key is to establish a relationship and comfort level with key people."
That same year, to expand its array of services, the studio signed a five-year deal with Lightpoint Entertainment Inc., a digital effects company that specialized in 3-D animation to assist with the syndicated television series Mortal Kombat Conquest (that made use of the China and Morocco pavilions at World Showcase).
Also, Disney turned over its in-house lighting and grip department to the Matthews Studio Group, one of the film industry's most respected companies.
When the State of Florida ended its compensation package for film companies, the productions started going to other states. In addition, the challenges of doing production from limited space to equipment issues also contributed greatly to the decision to close down the Central Florida production units.
There was roughly a decade of production activity at Disney-MGM Studios but it was never able to overcome its many challenges.
Today, at Disney Hollywood Studios, Soundstages 2 and 3 are home to the attraction Toy Story Midway Mania, and Soundstage 1 is empty for special events, but will probably be folded into the Pixar Place expansion.
In 1989, 7,000 media representatives, families, and guest stars celebrated the opening of Disney-MGM Studios, the third Disney theme park built in Orlando, Florida.
"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. –Michael Eisner May 1, 1989 officially dedicating the park.
Friday, April 28
To kick-off the weekend festivities, the media, travel industry representatives and other guests were invited to preview Typhoon Lagoon during the day and attend a night time "block party" at Pleasure Island.
Saturday, April 29
This was described as a "sneak preview" of Disney-MGM Studios that was to be officially dedicated on Monday, May 1, and included a special backstage tour of the park with stops for a rehearsal of The New Mickey Mouse Club television show on Soundstage 3 and a taping of A Conversation with Betty White on Soundstage 1.
Actress Bette Midler and Eisner dedicated the Backstage Tour for guests. Midler had filmed a special-effects film demonstrating how movies are made called The Lottery for the queue, and props from the film were in the line. Directed by Garry Marshall on the New York Street set façade at the park, the story was about a lady who chases a winning lottery ticket around New York as it is grabbed by a pigeon, blown down the street, and into the subway.
There was a press conference at SuperStar Television Theater with Midler, Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ted Kaye (chief of production for Touchstone Television). Eisner, his family, Midler, and Katzenberg (along with filmmaker George Lucas) walked through the Backstage Tour during the day, along with the invited guests.
At the press conference, Eisner responded to MCA's accusation that he had stolen the idea for the park from the plans for the Universal Studios Florida theme park that was to open nearly a year later in June 1990:
"If somebody wants to constantly create a false media…situation, so be it. We are going to try and control ourselves and not lie down on the floor and have a temper tantrum—which we all feel like doing—and act mature—which has taken me quite a few years to learn how to do—and pretend it doesn't bother us, at all. I wish they'd shut up!" There was laughter from the audience.
That night's events were listed as "World Premiere Night starting at 7 o'clock."
Well-known Daily Variety entertainment columnist Army Archerd was the official greeter for the more than 40 celebrities (like George Burns, Walter Cronkite, Mickey Rooney, John Ritter, John Forsythe, etc.) with Eisner, Midler and a host of Disney characters being the first to be introduced.
After exiting their limousines, the stars walked down a red carpet through the park entrance to vintage cars for a motorcade up the guest-lined Hollywood Boulevard to the Brown Derby for a private dinner reception.
Unfortunately, this event was marred by Florida rain that resulted in thousands of umbrellas and ponchos being distributed to journalists, guests, and even cast members. This passing thunderstorm delayed the stars' entrance for roughly two hours.
The black-tie event began with a champagne greeting at the gate and dinner served all night at 71 buffet locations. The offerings included filet mignon, stir fried lobster, smoked lamb chops, snails California, barbequed shrimp, Dungeness crab claws, Cobb Salad, tropical fruit platter, French pastries. and chocolate truffles.
8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.: "Hollywood! Hollywood!" at the Theater of the Stars, featuring song and dance from Disney characters and "the most beautiful women in the world!" This was a highly popular live show in the theater that used to be next to the Brown Derby.
According to the guidebook: "You'll never see a musical history of the silver screen done this way as superstar Mickey Mouse leads a celebrity cast of Disney characters from the days of the silents right through the '80s. You'll cheer as a beautiful maiden is saved from the clutches of the villainous Big Bad Wolf in a mini-melodrama from the silent era. You'll swoon as Goofy and Pluto captivate a bevy of beauties. You'll tap and sing along with Minnie, Goofy, and Donald as they salute those fabulous musicals from Hollywood's golden era.
I personally loved this show as I did the Hunchback of Notre Dame musical produced many years later. Both still seem timeless to me and could easily still be run today.
8:30 p.m. Parade of Stars
9 p.m. The Pointer Sisters Live! on the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular Theater stage.
9 p.m. and 10 p.m. George Burns Live! at the Chinese Theater
10:30 p.m. Willie Nelson Live! on the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular Theater stage.
11:45 p.m. A Hollywood Spectacular Grand Finale! "Sparkling Salute to the Silver Screen!" Featuring all the Disney characters, a cast of thousands, incredible stunts, sizzling special effects and a sky full of fabulous fireworks!
The finale was very elaborate and was compared to a Super Bowl halftime show with numerous costume changes, dancers all along Hollywood Boulevard, and, among other things, seven grand pianos lifted in the air from the main stage in front of the Chinese Theater.
Throughout the evening, NBC camera were taping segments for the two-hour television show The Disney MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening that would be edited and shown the following night to an eager audience.
Though the rain delayed some aspects of the above schedule, the filming was completed and aired on The Magical World of Disney and included pre-filmed clips from celebrities like Ronald Reagan. It was directed by Jeff Margolis and produced by Alexander Cohen and Hildy Parks (who also wrote the show).
Sunday, April 30
Future Projects press conference in The Walt Disney Theater with Eisner, Dick Nunis, Frank Wells, Katzenberg, Marty Sklar and Charles Ridgway.
Parade of Legends of TV down Hollywood Boulevard. Those legends (some of whom were selected apparently more for availability than actual status) were Art Linkletter, Annette Funicello, "Buffalo" Bob Smith (Howdy Doody show), Werner Klemperer (Hogan's Heroes), Edie Adams (wife of the late Ernie Kovacs), Alan Young (Mr. Ed and performing Uncle Scrooge for DuckTales), David Nelson (Ozzie and Harriet), Leonard Nimoy (who had just directed the Body Wars attraction film), Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Imogene Coca (Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows).
Dedication of the SuperStar Television Theater and Monster Sound Show as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of television broadcasting. Press conference with Wells and Masaaki Morita, from Sony Corporation, which was sponsoring the pavilion. Later that evening was a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary.
Press conference with Annette Funicello and the New Mouseketeers on Soundstage 3.
Audrey Hepburn press conference in SuperStar Televsion Theater.
Dedication of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Theater with Eisner and Lucas.
Press conference with Eisner, Lucas, and Katzenberg.
Model of Star Tours unveiled by Lucas and Wells.
Midnight viewing of IllumiNations at Epcot.
All three soundstages were open and operating. Soundstage 1 had interview tapings with Betty White on Saturday, George Burns on Sunday and Bob Hope on Monday.
Soundstage 2 had Delta Airlines producing videos explaining aircraft safety using a renovated portion of an L-1001 as a prop, which became a permanent set at the park.
Soundstage 3 had The New Mickey Mouse Club filming.
Monday, May 1
8:45 a.m. Official Grand Opening Ceremony
Roy E. Disney dedicates the Animation Pavilion
Press conference with Roy Disney and Katzenberg in the Animation Building.
Press conference with Eisner, Katzenberg, Wells, Disney, Nunis and Sklar.
The official "first family" was Allan and Mary Gutierrez (both 37) and their teen daughters Gina (16), Dawn (14) and Mary's father Marshall Busser (61) from York, Pennsylvania." They had waited six hours to be the first.
Allan was a carpenter and Mary a postal worker and part-time belly dancer. They were greeted by Eisner and Bob Hope who escorted them down Hollywood Boulevard. They were interviewed, appeared on the Today show with Willard Scott, and given lifetime passes to Disney theme parks worldwide. They commented that they were spending so much time with interviews that they worried they might not have time to see the park before they had to leave.
Some of the other celebrities that were in the park for the some phase of the activities included Lauren Bacall, Jimmy MacDonald (voice of Mickey Mouse and featured in the sound show), Kevin Costner, Cicely Tyson, Keshia Knight-Pulliam, Harry Anderson, Tempestt Bledsoe, Charles Fleischer (voice of Roger Rabbit), Matt Frewer, Rick Moranis, Marcia Strassman, Pia Lindstrom (daughter of Ingrid Bergman, featured in the Great Movie Ride), Sissy Spacek, Jim Varney, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Smokey Robinson, Suzanne Somers, Buster Poindexter, Ashford and Simpson, Ann Miller, Dick Van Dyke, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, Tony Randall, Kate Jackson and Siskel & Ebert.
Despite security ropes, the security guards were overwhelmed on that opening day with the crowd surging up to the gates by 6:30 a.m., even though the park would not open until 8:30 a.m. The parking lot was filled to capacity by 9:30 a.m. and didn't re-open until around 2 p.m.