Why Disney Built Hollywood Studios…and What Went Wrong!
Walt Disney World officials learned something essential from the opening of EPCOT.
Tourism increased mightily due to the advent of a second theme park. In 1980, Walt Disney World attendance reached 13.8 million.
By 1983, that number soared to 22.7 million and gradually increased more. For calendar 1989, the two parks combined for 26 million tourists.
What strategy seemed wise for Disney executives? They should keep expanding!
Here’s the story of the building of the place we now know as Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In part two, we’ll discuss the earliest days of the park.
Competition Heats Up
Two strange factors led to the construction of Hollywood Studios. The first involved a new boss at The Walt Disney Company.
Michael Eisner accepted the title of CEO in 1984 after the board revolted against Walt Disney’s son-in-law, Ron Miller.
Before joining Disney, Eisner had earned a reputation as a Hollywood studio boss, having run Paramount and parts of ABC before that.
When Eisner took over Disney, he brought a pair of friends, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells.
Katzenberg would later found DreamWorks Pictures, while Wells would prove himself one of the most effective Disney executives ever.
In fact, the tragic death of Wells in a 1994 helicopter crash is partially what led to Eisner’s downward spiral of Disney CEO.
Before then, the two men had formed a dream team that could seemingly do no wrong, and Hollywood Studios definitely fit into that description.
However, an integral second factor led to its creation. In Hollywood, ego and competition drive an uncomfortably large number of decisions.
Universal Studios Hollywood hadn’t started as a theme park per se. It was first an actual studio and later evolved into a tram tour of the backlot.
Then, in 1982, Universal officials decided they would follow Disney to Central Florida and build a park there.
The pressure from this decision is part of what caused shareholders like Roy E. Disney to put out a family member, Miller, in favor of Eisner.
At the time, Eisner was one of the most feared and revered people in Hollywood. Disney figured that he could stave off the existential threat of Universal.
Humorously, the Universal Studios project suffered several delays and wouldn’t open until 1990, eight years after its announcement.
History is currently repeating itself with Epic Universe on the same campus.
The Genesis of Hollywood Studios
We sometimes talk about the blue sky of development, a time when anything is possible.
Imagineers sit in a room and dream big, encouraged to develop the most inventive and groundbreaking ideas ever.
Afterward, reality factors into the equation, as management subjects these blue sky concepts to real-world constraints.
A marvelous idea, in theory, may prove impossible due to financial, spatial, or technological constraints.
An example I frequently cite is Space Mountain, which everyone knew was a brilliant idea.
Disney had to wait nearly a decade for the tech to catch up, though.
Until then, Space Mountain might as well have been a NASA project. It was that advanced.
The same setbacks occurred at EPCOT Center. Only most of them stemmed from budgetary limitations.
Disney had anticipated sponsorships to pay for World Showcase pavilions and other developments at the park.
When other countries refused, the EPCOT budget swelled, temporarily eliminating several other good ideas for pavilions, especially in Future World.
Two rising Imagineers, Marty Sklar and Randy Bright, had invented a pavilion concept that would hearken back to Disney’s roots as an animation studio.
This pavilion would pay tribute to the glory days of Hollywood, and you can probably guess its name. Yes, it was The Great Movie Ride pavilion!
In fact, you should be able to visualize the whole thing because Disney built it, just not in 1982 and not at EPCOT Center!
When that project didn’t make the final cut at EPCOT, it went into limbo, a standard practice for outstanding Imagineering ideas.
Once Eisner and his fellow Hollywood power players joined Disney, they asked for an update on projects that were in the mix for development.
You can imagine how much these three studio executives gravitated to The Great Movie Ride as a concept.
An Unprecedented Agreement
In the modern era, we’re used to consolidation among media companies. The power players work together to exhibit content at a prolific rate.
By this point, everyone understands that various pay windows can stretch the creation of one movie into several different profit models.
Back in the 1980s, this sort of consolidation hadn’t exploded in popularity yet.
Ted Turner once bought and then sold the rights to MGM’s film library, just so that he could populate Turner Classic Movies.
This seemingly insane move defined a generation in Hollywood and remains impactful as streaming services license content today.
Eisner and his associates understand that Universal Pictures possessed a better overall film library for a theme park.
The Disney brand alone wouldn’t be enough to carry an entire theme park, at least for mainstream consumers.
In 1985, Eisner tapped into his particular skill. He brokered a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, the aforementioned MGM.
At the time, MGM represented the crown jewel of classic Hollywood licenses. That’s the reason why Disney and Turner alike coveted MGM.
The two entities shared similar dreams. Turner needed content for his fledgling cable company, Turner Classic Movies.
Disney sought the same content for its classic Hollywood theme park. Eisner wanted the MGM logo as a signature asset for the third gate at Walt Disney World.
Disney would name this place Disney-MGM Studios, which we’ve come to know as Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Construction of Hollywood Studios
Amusingly, parts of this project turned acrimonious before Hollywood Studios ever opened.
Disney plotted several integral elements of the park. They envisioned it similarly to Universal Studios Hollywood, albeit with a Disney touch.
The campus would include a backlot tour, a satellite animation studio where Disney would work on new projects, and production facilities.
That last thing triggered a full stop for MGM management. Production facilities meant that Disney would create programming of its own.
Why is that a problem? From MGM’s perspective, Disney would produce content while capitalizing on the MGM brand, a non-starter.
MGM sued in 1988, which is bad because Disney-MGM Studios didn’t open until 1989.
With the project mired in litigation, park officials faced unprecedented constraints in finishing Hollywood Studios.
Disney didn’t want to open anything that later proved illegal and required a shutdown. They might have to pay for the days those attractions were open, too.
For this reason, Disney-MGM Studios debuted with only two (!) full-fledged attractions in 1989. We’ll discuss the oddities of that next time.
MGM had backed out entirely by this point. Their park representation came down to the logo/brand with the MGM name and some usage on The Great Movie Ride.
Eisner had gambled that he would create the next great Disney park, but the pre-opening setbacks cursed Hollywood Studios into half-park status for years afterward.
Still, the primary purpose succeeded, as Walt Disney World attendance topped 30 million in 1989 and again in 1992.
By 1993, that level had become the baseline for the three parks.
Also, despite its modest offerings, Hollywood Studios was bringing in 10 million visitors by 1996.
I’ll explain why in part two! See you next month!