Theme Park Throwback: Remembering the Hollywood that Never Was at Disney-MGM Studios

in Disney, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

Brand new experiences are on the Horizon for Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios gate.  Work is underway to add Pixar themed Land and a Star Wars experience to the 28 year old theme park.

While Disney is poised to re-imagine their Hollywood Studios theme park for a second time, we turn our attention back to a time when the park was still known as the Disney-MGM Studios.

“Hollywood that never was – and always will be.”

Opening with the concept of both a working studio and a tribute to Hollywood’s heyday, Disney-MGM Studios opened its gates on May 1st, 1989.  I had the privilege of being there for that opening day.  I was overwhelmingly amazed by what I saw and experienced.  Classic 1930’s automobiles lined the streets, Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy were well represented, too.  The Citizens of Hollywood were on hand to offer a zany, and endearing welcome.

It was a grand time for the Walt Disney Company. The new theme park and a brand new nighttime entertainment complex known as Pleasure Island (which also opened on 5/1/89) offered exciting adventures for this 23 year old Disney fan.

The third theme park for Florida’s  Walt Disney World Resort  evolved from a 1984 ride concept imagined for two year old EPCOT Center’s Future World area (yes, back then EPCOT was an acronym which stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).  That movie based attraction idea became the Great Movie Ride, centerpiece of a brand new theme park.

A grand tour of the park and backlot could be found in the Studio Backlot Tour.  Guests would board trams that departed from an entrance near the Animation Studios.  The tour included a drive through the Streets of America, a trip through the residential section of the backlot, a narrowly escaped encounter at Catastrophe Canyon as well a drive through the boneyard of various movie vehicles (including a Snow Speeder from “The Empire Strikes Back,” a skiff from “Return of the Jedi” and the navigation pod from “Flight of the Navigator”).  The second half of the tour was on foot and wound its way through the special effects area and through a soundstage.  Eventually the tour was split into two attractions: the tram ride to Catastrophe Canyon and backlot (though that eventually gave way to another attraction later) and the Backstage Pass special effects demonstration and prop building tour.

Another delightful diversion was the Magic of Disney Animation. Featuring a video guided experience narrated by Walter Cronkite and accompanied a Robin Williams voice (in the role of one of the lost boys from “Peter Pan”) showed guests how Disney animation was created.  Disney animators could be seen working on a current project.

The Great Movie Ride travelled via the same style of innovative trackless, wire guided vehicles used in the Universe of Energy at EPCOT Center. The guided tour included scenes from various MGM and Disney movies.  Depending which tram was boarded, guests either encountered a gangster shoot out or wild-west bank robbery.  In both variations the bandit/gangster would hi-jack the tour as a means of escape (that never ended well for the bad guy).

Superstar Television offered selected guests an opportunity to shine in the spotlight as they “appeared” in clips from Television shows like “Cheers” and “Gilligan’s Island.”  This “live TV” attraction showcased how television shows are run.

Audio adventures were also covered, as they are very much a part of the movie making process.  Monster Sound Show included guests as stand in Foley artists providing sound effects for creepy cool Chevy Chase/Martin Short film.

Attractions like the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, Star Tours were opened later in 1989.

While the park was small and considered a half-day experience, I truly loved the nostalgic feel of the new addition to Walt Disney World.  I especially loved seeing the Dip mobile, play area and photo op, with Jessica Rabbit, from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Another fun feature from opening day was the giant hidden Mickey built right into the park’s layout, which could only be seen by guests after examining the park map:

The backlot, soundstage and wardrobe/lighting/scenic shops gave the feel of a fully functioning movie studio.  Sadly, however, Hollywood East never truly materialized and Disney-MGM Studios turned into just a theme park (sans working studio).

Over the year shows were added (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Fantasmic”) while others were changed. Monster Sound Show became Sounds Dangerous, for example. Tours were shortened and eventually eliminated.  Over the years additional experiences like  Muppets 3D, Toy Story Mania,  Little Mermaid, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, were added and the tiny park evolved into a full day experience.  The MGM name was eventually dropped (2008) and the movie themed park was renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

WATCH: an audio history of Disney’s MGM/Hollywood Studios theme park:

With the closing of The Great Movie Ride earlier this year, that marked the last original attraction from opening day to give way to something new. Even the park’s first icon, the Earffel Tower was eventually removed to make way upcoming changes. While a name change was originally hinted at by Disney CEO Bob Iger last year, it seems that the entire park is now swiftly moving  forward towards transformation.

Are you looking forward to the new experiences at Disney’s Hollywood Studios?  What were/are your favorite attractions from the park?  Please share your lines in the comments below.

Source and images: Wikipedia, Disney.com, This Day in Disney History, YouTube

8 Comments

  1. Robert

    I was also lucky enough to have been there opening day, and coincidentally, was able to attend the last day of the Backlot Tour. Interesting article, but there is one error. Robin Williams did not voice the Genie for the Animation Tour, but a Lost Boy.

    1. Michael Gavin

      thank you for the clarification, the memories of his voice/antics are what stood out.

  2. Garaan

    I visited when it was still Disney/MGM. I remember having a lot of fun, but at the same time I grew up near Universal Hollywood and it really did feel like Disney was just trying to copy them (and honestly not doing a good job since U:H had the genuine veracity of being an actual working studio). I still liked going through the animation studio, since that’s what interested me, but again, it felt kind of superficial… like they were trying, but the content just wasn’t there. I’m sure it’ll be a lot more successful as a park once they’re done with what they have planned.

  3. Troy

    In the first paragraph I think you mean Toy Story Land unless there is a secret Cars Land underway somewhere we’ve never heard of. 😀

  4. Telb

    I remember seeing the live stage show of The Hunchback Of Norte Dame in 1999 , this I had considered to be one of the best live Disney shows of all times, and is surely one of the most underrated films in the Disney Animated series.
    It was a mixture of live singing and puppetry and the performances were excellent, both my young sons at the time were absolutely spellbound by the whole show.
    Luckily there are versions on You Tube which are well worth a look and seeing it again brought back so many memories.
    I was saddened to see when I returned in 2003 it had disappeared from the park, although I do remember walking past the Theatre which was still standing but cordoned off.
    This is the One Memory of Disney M.G.M. That will always stay with me.

  5. I was there on the opening day. And, I visited many times. I remember a lot of funny moments from there.

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