My Disney Top 5 - Things to See in the Animation Courtyard at Disney's Hollywood Studiosby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. I've been walking you through each of the four Walt Disney World parks and pointing out the must-see attractions in each land. Most of all though, I've been trying to highlight the small hidden details that guests tend to miss as they're rushing through the parks barreling towards their next FastPass reservation. We've been working our way through Disney's Hollywood Studios, a park that's undergoing one of the largest transformations in Disney park history. Toy Story Land is now open and judging by the reported wait times for the new Slinky Dog Dash coaster, Hollywood Studios is going to be the busy park to be in this summer. We have FastPass reservations for Slinky on our upcoming trip and I'll have a full Toy Story Land Top 5 later on this summer after I return. In the meantime, let's continue our tour of the Studios with an area that was always a favorite of mine, the Animation Courtyard.
There was a time when this corner of the park literally created the Disney magic that we all know and love, Disney animated films. Walt Disney Animation Florida operated out of the buildings here from 1989 until 2004. Mulan, Brother Bear, and Lilo and Stitch were entirely produced by the artists working right there in the theme park, and guests had the opportunity to see animators creating real pieces of Disney animation for these films as they toured through the attraction known as The Magic of Disney Animation.
The aforementioned Disney classics were worked on start to finish at Walt Disney Animation Florida, as were several shorts: John Henry; the classic Prince and the Pauper, featuring none other than Mickey Mouse himself; and three Roger Rabbit shorts, Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up. What's not commonly known is that the animators working there in the theme park also had their hands in such Disney classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. Perhaps even less known than that is the fact that two of the most beloved animated sequences in Disney history were actually produced at the Florida studios: the "I Just Can't Wait to be King" sequence from The Lion King and the amazing "Be Our Guest" sequence from Beauty and the Beast. Not a bad track record for a small studio over the course of just 15 years.
Considering the animation pedigree that I just ran through for Walt Disney Animation Florida, when the studios were shuttered by then CEO Michael Eisner it broke many Disney fans' hearts, especially those that were lucky enough to see actual Disney art being created for a feature film right there in front of their eyes. I missed out on ever seeing the actual working studio and watched as the experience slowly diminished over the years following. I'm not completely disappointed with the attraction that exists now in its place, The Star Wars Launch Bay, but the beating heart of the Animation Courtyard—an actual animation studio—is sorely missed. Don't despair, there's still plenty to see and experience in this corner of Hollywood Studios. Let's take a look with my Top 5 things to see in the Animation Courtyard at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
5 – The Archway
It may be lost on many guests, but let's not forget that Disney's Hollywood Studios is, in fact, supposed to be paying tribute to its namesake town—Hollywood. One of the classic features of many real Hollywood studio lots is an entrance archway.
Considering that this was the entrance to an actual working animation studio, the archway serves as a fine tribute and memory to what once was. Look up close on the smaller archways to the left and right of the main one and you'll find a "Hidden Donald" and a "Hidden Goofy" in the relief carvings.
4 – Disney Junior Photo Backdrops
Here's the thing, my daughter is 19 and my twin boys are 15, so it's been a long, long time since I've visited the Disney Junior - Live on Stage show. Don't get me wrong, I have wonderful memories of my kids singing along to such forgotten treasures as Stanley, The Book of Pooh, Rolie, Polie, Olie, and Bear in the Big Blue House. I'm quite sure that new generations of kids are creating similar memories daily with current stars Mickey Mouse, Princess Sofia, and Doc McStuffins. However, on our last big trip we managed to still get plenty of fun out of this attraction's exterior. We were there late one night with a group of my daughter's friends, all ranging between ages 16-17. Disney Junior was over for the day as were the character meet and greets located right outside the building. We noticed that the meet and greet backdrops are all still standing and, best of all, were still perfectly lit for taking photos. What happened next was about 30 minutes of pure Disney fun as everyone took advantage of these perfect photo ops.
This photo shoot would never get to happen during the busy afternoon hours or even an hour or so prior before the last characters went off duty for the night. We were having so much obvious fun that the next family that walked out of the nearby Star Wars Launch Bay saw what we were doing and took it upon themselves to do the exact same thing. It was a classic Disney moment for all of us and made for some truly unique photos and memories.
I have to preface the remaining three on my list by saying it was next to impossible to put these in any sort of number order. They each are important places to me and should probably all tie for first place on the list.
3 – Voyage of the Little Mermaid
Let's just get this out of the way right up front. I'm a total sucker for Ariel; the movie, the songs, this attraction, and her attraction in the Magic Kingdom all bring out the inner Disney sap in me that's hiding just below the surface. I can't explain it really, but when I hear the opening notes to "Part of Your World," I'm done—a total pile of goo. So, it's no surprise that I love this age-old attraction and hope they never replace it.
It still has great lighting, cool puppets, and clever special effects despite its age. Plus, as with many Disney attractions and films, it reminds me of my daughter when she was that little princess in her Ariel dress so many years ago. There you have it. My name is Chris and I love the Voyage of the Little Mermaid and quite proudly too. I'll happily go alone on our upcoming trip if nobody wants to go with me.
2 – Star Wars Launch Bay
As I said above, the whole Animation building experience over the years produced some wonderful memories for my family and me. When it was shuttered, I was pretty upset, and then someone uttered those two words which can bring me back from just about any pit of despair: Star Wars. I believe my exact words were, "OK, they're replacing it with something Star Wars... all might be forgiven." When I first walked in to the Launch Bay, I must say, I was pretty darn happy. Everywhere I looked there was something I loved and revered with awe since childhood. Is that Han Solo's costume? A huge model of the Millennium Falcon? A collection of lightsabers? Luke's flight helmet? Wow... the holographic chess table?
As if seeing all of the artifacts and costumes from the films weren't enough, we had one of the best character meet and greets we've ever had with Chewbacca and Kylo Ren. Taking pictures with Chewie and hearing his famous growl was pretty awesome. I can't wait to bring my brother there this summer. He's never been to Walt Disney World, and a photo with me, my brother, and Chewbacca is an absolute must. But, I have to say, it was Kylo Ren that was the most fun. He paced back and forth and seemed as if he was looking right through us even though his gaze was covered by that helmet and mask. Every time we laughed, he gave us this terrifying look, pretty impressive when you once again consider that you can't see his face. The Star Wars Launch Bay does not make up for losing an entire working animation studio, but it's well worth your time and it absolutely makes this Star Wars fanatic awfully happy.
1 – Walt Disney Presents
While physically not in the actual courtyard, this walkthrough exhibit is listed by Disney as being in the Animation Courtyard area, so it lands on the number one spot on my list. Affectionately known to most of us by its former name, One Man's Dream, this attraction has seen a bit of a shift in recent years. The classic film about Walt is sometimes replaced with previews of upcoming or current Disney productions, but the heart and soul is still in place throughout the rest of the attraction.
My biggest piece of advice in my articles and discussions with friends going to Walt Disney World has always been to slow down and absorb the details. Perhaps nowhere on Disney property is that more important than in this area of Hollywood Studios. If you're a lifelong fan of Walt, as I am, you will be in your glory looking at the museum-quality pieces in front of you. It traces the history of this one of a kind artist who has given us so much joy throughout our lives. If you can't imagine admiring Walt more and you haven't been to see this attraction, you'll be amazed at how much more admiration you have for him once you leave. If you're new to Disney, you should take even more time in here and learn just what it is that makes this man so special.
Case in point were my twin boys, Alex and Casey. We were on a boys-only trip, just the three of us, and ended up seeking shelter from the omni present Florida summer rain inside One Man's Dream. At this stage of their life, being 9-years-old, they were mostly interested in rides, gift shops, and meeting characters, but this simple pitstop into One Man's Dream had them mesmerized. They loved all of it. Trust me, that's a pretty strong statement in support of making sure you pay a visit to Walt Disney Presents on your next trip.
And so, we leave behind the Animation Courtyard, an area with a storied history for sure. Once Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is open, it's not clear whether or not there will be a need for Star Wars Launch Bay, so this is an area of the park to keep an eye on. I expect Disney Junior to be around for a long time and as the big sap that I am, I hope Voyage of the Little Mermaid never goes away. But, Hollywood Studios is undergoing a major transition and I am curious what the future has in store for the Animation Courtyard. It is adjacent to the newly opened Toy Story Land, and one wonders if a future Pixar-themed expansion might have its eye on this area of the park. Stranger things have happened. I would like a lot of it to stay the same and to keep paying tribute in some way to what started us all on this path—the deep and rich history of Disney animation.
While it's all still in its current form, make sure to stop into the Animation Courtyard on your next trip and enjoy what I've listed here. Stay late and take the time to place your own kids or act like a kid yourself with the Disney Junior photo backgrounds. That was a moment I'll never forget. Maybe you've got a soft spot for Ariel as I do. I know I'm not the only one. Maybe you were raised as a Star Wars fan. Maybe you love Walt Disney or wish to learn more about the man. If so, then the Animation Courtyard at Disney's Hollywood Studios should definitely be on your list of places in Disney's Hollywood Studios to spend some quality time.
As always, I'd like to hear your thoughts. Click on the link below, let me know what you think and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.