The Burbank Disney-MGM Studios That Never Was

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The Disney-MGM Studios theme park, which first officially opened its gates for visitors back in May 1989, was initially planned as an Entertainment pavilion that was proposed for Epcot's Future World section.

This Epcot addition, which was to have been built between the "Land" pavilion and the "Journey into Imagination" pavilion, was supposed have featured an exterior that looked like a giant blue sky that hid the show building. Guests would have entered under a theater marquee and pushed themselves through the turnstiles at an old-fashioned movie theater ticket booth.

Once inside, guests could have chosen between taking a ride through a show titled "Great Movie Moments" (Walt Disney Imagineering's first pass at the attraction that eventually became Disney-MGM's Great Movie Ride) or they could wander through an interactive display designed by Disney veteran Ward Kimball, which revealed the wacky way a Mickey Mouse cartoon was put together.

It was Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner who first realized that the history of motion pictures really couldn't be crammed into a single Epcot pavilion. He felt it could serve as the basis of a half-day attraction. A half-day attraction is something like WDW's Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, where guests could spend the morning or afternoon there, and then go off and visit some other section of the resort for the rest of the time.

With Eisner's encouragement, the Imagineers greatly expanded their initial concept for Epcot's "Entertainment' pavilion. Using about the same amount of acreage as Disneyland, as well as the same basic design of the Anaheim theme park, Disney-MGM Studios theme park came to life.

However, Eisner had vastly underestimated how popular the concept would be. When the studio theme park opened in the spring of 1989, it was immediately mobbed. That was why WDI went into overdrive to quickly "grow" Disney-MGM out into a full-size Disney theme park experience. Among the projects that got immediately greenlit during the theme park's frantic first years of operation was the Sunset Boulevard expansion project.

Eisner actually seriously considered building at least three more Disney MGM Studio theme parks. The first one was to have been built right next door to what was Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris). However, when that theme park under-performed after it initially debuted in April 1992, this plan was put on hold for nearly a decade, when it finally opened in a severely truncated form in March 2002.

Eisner also tried to persuade the Oriental Land Company (OLC) to allow the Imagineers to build a Japanese version of Disney-MGM Studio theme park as Tokyo Disneyland's second gate. After more than a year of considering the Imagineers' plans, OLC executives rejected the studio theme park proposal preferring to go with a different concept based on the aborted Long Beach Port Disney/Disney Sea project that would have been themed to the ocean.

Perhaps the most intriguing Disney theme park project that was ever proposed was the Disney MGM Studio Backlot, an ambitious entertainment complex that was to have been built in "…beautiful downtown Burbank" right next door to the Disney lot. It was to be built years before the one in Florida (that had been officially announced in 1985), but using much of the same things. Eisner had determined that a West Coast theme park could serve as a more reliable source of income than the fickle film industry.

What would a Disney MGM Studios theme park have looked like in Burbank?

How close did this project come to becoming a reality? According to a Disney press release the marketing staff released in 1987:

"The Disney-MGM Studio Backlot has been approved and is destined to become the entertainment marketplace of the 1990s. This new generation Disney attraction will be located in the City of Burbank, home to the Walt Disney Studios, and may run a construction cost of $300 million."

It was to be located on a 40-acre site (approximately one-fourth the size of the Florida Disney-MGM Studios) where the ABC Corporate Headquarters, the Feature Animation building, and a multistory parking structure were eventually built.

Again quoting from that press release, Eisner supposedly said:

" … Entertainment will be our magnet. The behind-the scenes Hollywood themes, street performances, live theater, Disney animation tours and operating radio and TV media centers will create an entertainment attraction and shopping and dining experience unlike anything else in the country."

For its Florida park, Disney had reached an agreement with the MGM/UA Entertainment Company.

Some of those rights owned by Ted Turner — like for the use of James Bond, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind — had to be negotiated separately, just as they had in Florida. Preliminary plans for Florida's Disney MGM Studios theme park called for a James Bond stunt show, not an Indiana Jones-themed one, but the fee being asked by MGM was considered much too large.

The Great Movie Ride would have featured more of The Wizard of Oz, including a scene of being swept to Oz in a tornado, but, once again, it was felt that MGM was charging too much. Disney also obtained rights to properties from United Artists and Twentieth-Century Fox.

The press release continued:

"We are already developing ideas for special effects thrill rides utilizing the simulator technology we created for Star Tours at Disneyland and night clubs using our 'ghost' techniques from the Haunted Mansion."

A huge part of the Disney MGM Studio Backlot project was to have been pretty much a West Coast clone of the Florida theme park's Great Movie Ride, which Eisner described as being the "… quintessential Disney adventure ride, totally based on the magic of Hollywood and the movies."

The key difference between the Florida studio theme park and what the Imagineers were proposing for construction in Burbank was that at least one-third of the development's space was to be devoted to retail.

Unlike Florida, WDI's goal was to create the world's first entertainment marketplace where the shopping and dining opportunities would range from traditional and contemporary to the more exotic with specialty shops and street bazaars, so it would be like a hybrid of Downtown Disney and a theme park. Locals would have been able to get into the main section of the mall area for free but the theme park area would be a gated attraction.

In the press release, Michael Eisner said:

"We will enlarge upon the movie-set themes of our Backlot to provide international shopping, dinning and nightlife like Tokyo's Ginza and Paris' Champs-Elysées. We can expand the themes of 'lost cities' of the past, the Wild West, California's Gold Rush Days or Disney Fantasy for retail, restaurant and entertainment experiences."

At a later meeting with the City of Burbank, Eisner declared: "This project will not be a second Disneyland in Southern California. Instead it will be a new generation of Disney attractions."

He didn't want people to think it was an alternative to going to Disneyland, it was called an Entertainment Center, rather than a theme park, in all official documentation.

Imagineers Joe Rohde and Rick Rothschild were put in charge and would later contribute to the Florida version, as well as Pleasure Island. They proposed that the shopping be on the exterior of the property for easy access while the "crazy stuff" would be located in the center of the complex.

They divided the crazy stuff into four main areas: The Hyperdrome (thrill rides and technology based experiences for young adults), The World of Disney (studio-based entertainment themed to movie making), Cinefantasy (devoted to science fiction, including a museum), and Burbank Ocean (resembling a seaside amusement park with midway games, bumper cars, etc.)

Basically there was 172,000 square feet of themed retail space; 145,000 square feet of restaurants and bars; 94,000 square feet of nightclubs; plus additional square feet devoted to attractions, multiplex screens, and other entertainment venues.

To explain this chaotic mixture, Imagineering created the following back story for the area: In the 1890s, residents of Burbank discovered gold and others flocked to the area building an Old West town. After the gold tapped out, the locals invested their money in making movies and encouraged production by building a backlot complete with a Parisian lane, Spanish street, a California boardwalk, and more. Encouraged by their success, they also built an early radio and television studio. However, the studio and the back lot went out of business and Disney discovered it and transformed it into an entertainment complex.

In some ways, this was similar to the upcoming back story of Pleasure Island, where existing warehouses were re-imagined as nightclubs and shops.

Rothschild told the press that the complex was "where great movies of the past were filmed. The shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and show buildings reuse some of the back lot areas. That way, we could incorporate the variety of all these different themes."

One of the more intriguing aspects for the project was the Hollywood Fantasy Hotel. The Imagineers envisioned it as being the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot's tallest structure. It was a luxurious hotel that was deliberately themed to be a celebration of Hollywood's Golden Age where the cast members who worked at the resort hotel would have worn costumes that made them look like characters from memorable movies.

The 400 individual rooms and suites at the resort would have been designed to look like replicas of famous movie sets. In fact, each floor would have been themed to a different movie genre: film noir, science-fiction, westerns, etc.

At the very top of the Hollywood Fantasy Hotel, guests would have found the Celestial Dining Room, an elegant eatery that was to have featured a planetarium ceiling. As you dined, the heavens would seem to rotate, showing guests how the night sky changes as the Earth goes through the calendar year.

To the southwest of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project, the Imagineers envisioned building something truly spectacular and unique. On the topmost floor of a multistory parking structure, WDI wanted to build the "Burbank Ocean," a heavily themed outdoor pool area with a pier and massive shipwrecked restaurant. It would have had water cascading 60 feet down the side of that parking structure screening the property from the freeway.

Other entertainment planned for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project included a 10-screen movie theater, an ice and roller skating arena, an audience-participation video theater, as well as several heavily themed nightclubs (The Adventurers Club was first developed for here and then later relocated to Pleasure Island), and restaurants.

Guests were also supposed to be able to tour Disney's historic old animation buildings to see where classic animated films were made and see animators at work. However, a closer examination of the proposed plans shows that a new animation building was to be built for this purpose with animators relocated from their original building. There was to be an archival Disney museum and also soundstages where guests could see shows and films being shot.

In addition to all this, all of the scenic areas that the Imagineers were to have created for nightclubs, restaurants, shops, etc. were in theory to have doubled as possible movie sets. It would have been a working Hollywood back lot. The idea being that guests might actually get to see a movie being filmed or their favorite Disney TV show being shot live on location.

The press release closes out by saying:

"All in all the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot will be more than just Lights! Camera! Action!…and Shopping too!"

The Disney-MGM Studio Backlot really does have one of the more bizarre back stories ever associated with an aborted Disney project. Universal Studios' intentions were well-known in the outdoor amusement industry that it planned to expand its highly popular Hollywood theme park for an East Coast audience. They had even hired some former Disney Imagineers, like Gary Goddard and Bob Gurr, to help with the designing to create a more tourist-oriented experience.

Universal Studios executives were extremely angry at Eisner at the time when they were ready to firm up an official announcement of the Orlando park. Reportedly, Disney's CEO had "borrowed" many of the ideas for Disney MGM's shows and attractions from a Universal Studios Florida pitch that Eisner had supposedly seen while he was still head of Paramount Studios.

Supposedly, it was one of the reasons the Disney park had a tram tour like the famous one at Universal in Hollywood, as well as stunt and effects shows like Universal as well.

"There was a horrible sense of personal and corporate betrayal," MCA President Sidney Sheinberg would later say about the similarities. "Do you really want a little mouse to become one large, ravenous rat?"

Eisner's announcement of a movie themed park was meant to discourage Universal from building in Florida and it did end up delaying Universal making a final commitment even though it had already spent nearly $40 million dollars. He announced that he wanted to bring the studio backlot theme park idea to Burbank, roughly five miles away from Universal, as basically a retaliation for Universal coming to Orlando.

"They invaded our turf, and we're not going to take that without a fight" he said. Eisner supposedly offered to cancel the Burbank plan if Universal didn't come to Florida. Universal firmly refused and when they publicized the offer, both Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg vehemently denied it.

As he got involved, Eisner became more and more excited and thought that similar concepts (but without the "real" studio elements) could be used in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Antonio.

Universal declared war on the Burbank project. They filed two lawsuits in L.A. Superior Court to stop Disney. Universal even paid for the printing of some anti-Disney-MGM brochures which were then distributed to more than 43,000 people who lived around Walt Disney Studios, talking up how this ambitious project would cause traffic tie-ups, increase tax rates, and more. Officially the different pamphlets were from the "Friends of Burbank," but were eventually revealed to be from Universal.

While that campaign was annoying, Eisner eventually decided to pull the plug on the project in April 1988, because Disney's accountants told him that the Walt Disney Company would never get a big enough return on its investment. Costs for the development of the area nearly doubled soaring to more than $600 million and possibly more. Not enough guests to accommodate that expenditure could access the limited area.

In addition, some retailers balked at Disney terms and being part of the project, and even MGM stated that Disney had only licensed the right to use its name for the Florida park and sued to stop them from using the MGM intellectual property.

Disney had tried to bully Burbank into selling them the additional land worth $20 per square foot for only $0.57 cents per square foot, buying the parcel of land worth $35 million (some estimated it as high as $50 million) for only $1 million total and an option to buy another 10 acres at the same price. Disney also wanted Burbank to build a parking structure to hold 3,500 cars that Disney would then rent from the city.

"They promised us the world and then they pulled the rug," said the disappointed mayor of Burbank. The city solicited offers from other developers, including one for a marine park with a massive aquarium. Eventually a simple mall with stores and a movie theater were built.

Disney-MGM Studios in Florida opened in 1989 and Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990.

In 1993, Universal opened CityWalk, a dining, shopping and retail complex that was built right outside of the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood. While not as elaborate as what Disney had proposed, the complex made a ton of money for Universal and still does today.

Imagineers even took some of the ideas proposed for the Burbank theme park and utilized them in the first version of Disney's California Adventure, including Paradise Pier and its Ferris wheel.

The history of the Walt Disney Company is littered with proposed West Coast projects like this, including Westcot in Anaheim and Port Disney in Long Beach.

By the way, contrary to popular belief, Disney never actually "purchased" the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary. They took over the operating lease in 1988 when they purchased the Wrather Corporation on those landmarks, which were and remained owned by the City of Long Beach. Disney did it to explore the possibilities of a DisneySea park, but discovered that environmental laws would have added so significantly to the cost that the project was ill-advised.

Disney did revive interest in the two attractions but once they pulled out in 1992, the Spruce Goose was sold to Evergreen, a charter airline with an historic airplane collection, and it was moved to their facility in Oregon.

The Queen Mary remains a hotel, attraction, and event venue despite needing extensive repairs. By the way, when the Jaws attraction opened at Universal Studios Florida, there was a boat that had been attacked by the infamous shark. Nearby floating in the water was a set of Mickey Mouse ears with the name "Mike" on them.