An Incredible Look at the Early Years at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Over the past several months, MickeyBlog has chronicled the first half-century of Walt Disney World as we build toward the 50th anniversary party.
Last month, we talked about Disney’s difficulties in creating a “joint” theme park with MGM.
Disney and MGM eventually sued one another before settling the matter in 1992, three years after the park opened.
These legal battles set back the planning and construction at Walt Disney World’s third gate, stunting its initial growth.
Today, let’s discuss the early years of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a park that faced long odds to survive.
Opening Day Attractions Part One
As a reminder, MGM Studios felt that Disney violated the terms of its licensing agreement.
When Disney filmed – I kid you not – Ernest Saves Christmas at Disney-MGM Studios in 1988, MGM flipped out.
The theme park wouldn’t open until May 1st, 1989. By that time, MGM and Disney were fighting angrily rather than working together.
For this reason, the opening of Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park proved half-hearted at best.
Seriously, you won’t believe how barren it was on opening day. The park offered five (!) attractions, and I’m being generous with the description here.
Superstar Television built on the premise of filming before a live studio audience. Park guests got to participate in some famous shows and scenes.
Here, take a look:
The Monster Sound Show highlighted the importance of sound engineering in Hollywood. This looks thrilling, right?
Another mediocre show celebrated Disney’s bread and butter. I’m referencing The Magic of Disney Animation Tour.
Part of the show took place in a theater setting, while the rest involved some walking around the area that hosts Star Wars Launch Bay now.
Realistically, only two opening day attractions provided anything of value to guests, who paid $29 in 1989, the equivalent of $64 today for…very little.
Opening Day Attractions Part Two
Park planners took the lazy route with one of these choices, too. The Backstage Studio Tour liberally borrowed from Universal Studios.
You may know that the Universal version pre-dates the theme park. The studio hosted the tour and then eventually expanded it to add an entire theme park.
Disney populated its otherwise underwhelming park with a studio tour as well. By the end of 2014, the attraction looked like this:
However, at the start, it doubled as a hostage situation. Guests gave up two hours of their lives to take the tour.
Even worse, tourists spent half of that time walking rather than riding. On the plus side, they interacted with some exciting Hollywood stunt shoots.
Part of the tour involved a splashy boat set, while the most recognizable part involved a flaming explosion caused by a fuel tanker.
Water rushed in to douse the fire dramatically. It was actually a good show, just a derivative one.
The attraction you DO remember from opening day will only make you angry and/or sad now. I’m referencing The Great Movie Ride, the park’s crown jewel.
Once Disney acquired the MGM license, it constructed an attraction that celebrated the majesty of classic Hollywood.
Movies like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca highlighted the early days of the industry, while an Alien segment reflected more modern moviemaking.
Let’s reminisce about the attraction we all adored, The Great Movie Ride:
Unfortunately, this ride had to die so that Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway could live, a decision that still leaves us all conflicted.
The Great Movie Ride won the battle as the opening day attraction that lasted the longest. So, nothing from 1989 remains.
The Last Remnants of Opening Day
That statement aptly reflects the early struggles at Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park.
Not coincidentally, Disney has changed the park’s name AND its featured landmark multiple times.
Each attempt has reflected Disney’s desire to remove all associations to those awkward early days.
Perhaps the best parallel is Disney California Adventure, another park that started slowly and has only recently hit its stride.
Amusingly, park officials got one thing right about the parks. You’ll never guess what it is, either.
Here’s a list of the opening day restaurants at Disney-MGM Studios:
- 50s Prime Time Café
- Backlot Express
- Hollywood & Vine
- Hollywood Brown Derby
- Min and Bill’s Dockside Diner
- Studio Catering Co.
- Soundstage Restaurant
Only two of those places no longer exist, and one of them survived until 2016!
I’m not even sure how this is possible. A theme park utterly failed in building attractions, but virtually all the eateries have stood the test of time!
Sci-Fi Dine-In, which just turned 30 in April, qualifies as one of the NEWER restaurants at Hollywood Studios. Meanwhile, no opening rides remain. It’s insane.
The Attractions That Saved Hollywood Studios
I’m coming across as negative here, which is weird since I spend most of my days lavishing praise on Hollywood Studios.
The reality is that Disney took some initiative as it watched the park struggle.
Two attractions arrived later in 1989, and you’ll know those a bit better. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! has tenure at the park.
That attraction is almost four months older than the other survivor from 1989, Star Tours.
After two turbulent years, park officials committed more to stage shows and movies, starting with Muppet*Vision 3D.
Beauty and the Beast – Live On Stage and Voyage of the Little Mermaid joined it by January of 1992.
However, the ride that secured Hollywood Studios wouldn’t open until 1994.
Disney took a chance with Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, based on an intellectual property that someone else owned.
The outcome of this decision was arguably the greatest dark ride of the 20th century and one of the most critically acclaimed attractions ever.
Park officials grew braver and more daring after that, tying a roller coaster’s theming to a rock band.
Since 1999, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and Tower of Terror have anchored one whole side of the park.
In between, Disney stuffed in Fantasmic!, the nighttime presentation at Disneyland that had already wowed people for years.
Disneyland’s version opened in 1992. Park officials wisely copied Fantasmic! at Hollywood Studios in 1998, where it has remained popular for 20+ years.
So, Hollywood Studios legitimately took a decade to get back on track after its acrimonious start.
Still, Disney got what it wanted here. Walt Disney World attendance jumped five million in 1989, and Hollywood Studios claimed 10 million annual guests by 1996.
The plan worked…but slowly.
Feature Image Rights: Yesterland.com