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Disney’s Hollywood Studios: A Theme Park Finding a New Identity


It opened as “the Hollywood that never was and always will be.” What it has become is something much different. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a theme park in transition.

It currently rests between two distinct eras of its history, and is struggling to find the balance within that space. It’s quickly ushering out its former self, but it’s not ready just yet to welcome us into its new regime.

With the promise of huge expansions dedicated to Star Wars and Toy Story, as well as a newly announced attraction starring Mickey Mouse, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is reshaping who it is. It’s going from delving backstage at favorite productions to bringing those productions to life in fully realized ways. Its importance to guests’ vacations will be assessed on different terms, its merit on a different playing field. If we look very closely and allow ourselves the possibility of viewing the entire park—all of it—as a collective portfolio, we may find that Disney’s Hollywood Studios, once the most straightforward of all Disney’s parks, is actually trying to show us something (gasp!) abstract.


“Hooray for Hollywood indeed. What better way to start our journey?”

When it debuted as Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, the park took bold steps to educate its guests about the magic of the movies through elaborate experiences and demonstrations. Hollywood’s history was celebrated and showcased, employing the aid of not just Disney productions, but that of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Absent were thrill rides. In their place were hours-long tours of real, working media facilities and an entourage of shows pulling back the curtain on filmmaking know-how.

The original vision for the park was admirable for its time, but didn’t have the legs to withstand for generations as well as Disney’s other parks. The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Hollywood Studios by Imagineer Alex Wright claims two primary suspects. For one, Disney now has enough live-action film credibility that it doesn’t need to rely on another studio’s film library to fill a park with attractions. Second and perhaps more pointedly, the average guest today is much more familiar with the process of moviemaking than 1989 ever allowed. Then, there was no endless treasure trove of behind-the-scenes literature to be devoured online, no bountiful menu of bonus features on a full calendar of Blu-ray releases. The need for a theme park attraction that showed such wonders is no longer novel. If these justifications were true in 2010 when Wright’s book was first published, they’re even truer today, when the park is nearly void of anything “backstage” with minimal MGM affiliation… the last of which is about to be extinguished for good.


“I’ve seen enough movies to know that you really shouldn’t even think about trying to steal that jewel.”

The future of Disney’s Hollywood Studios was given greater clarity at D23 Expo 2017. Toy Story Land—which will anchor Toy Story Midway Mania! in an area recreating Andy’s backyard, featuring a Slinky Dog roller coaster and a spinning flat-ride starring the Pizza Planet aliens—will open summer 2018. The Star Wars expansion—opening 2019 and spotlighting two E-Tickets involving piloting the Millennium Falcon and being thrust into the middle of a battle between the First Order and the Resistance—will officially be called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. However, these were both minor announcements; the meat of them had been revealed at prior events. No, the biggest Hollywood Studios news to come from D23 Expo 2017 was that the park will welcome the world’s first ride starring Mickey Mouse—and The Great Movie Ride will close to make room for it.

There’s a lot to break down here: History, emotion, marketability, potential, legacy, integrity… but to put it succinctly, this new Mickey attraction presents a maddening dichotomy. How wonderfully special to finally have a full-blown attraction (not just show or character greeting) dedicated to Disney’s most famous and most important character. In contrast, though, what a shame that it comes at the cost of an integral piece of the park’s history. The Great Movie Ride is the only opening-day attraction still standing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Once it closes, the park will have nothing left that existed when it first opened its gates in 1989.

It’s almost unimaginable, especially given the token “old, beloved attraction they’ll never get rid of” in every other Disney park ever. That’s not to say that The Great Movie Ride hasn’t held up well or isn’t an excellent attraction—it is on both accounts—which is all the more reason why its removal is shocking. It would seem that the stain of those two now-irrelevant early initiatives stated by Wright—MGM’s involvement and backstage demos—weigh more than heritage in this case. While the exterior will remain as a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the removal of the attraction inside is still a huge deal.

The good news is that its replacement is something to look forward to. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway will transport guests directly into the middle of a Mickey Mouse short. It’s a colorful, cartoony environment where the laws of physics are ignored, objects come to life, and wacky is normal. As Mickey and Minnie take an afternoon car drive, they come upon Goofy conducting a train. They hop aboard, and we’re taken along for the ride. The attraction will use what is described as “two-and-a-half D,” a technology that makes its settings appear as 3D, but doesn’t require 3D glasses. The story also spotlights a new song, promised to be a classic for a new generation in the tradition of “it’s a small world” and “Grim, Grinning Ghosts.” Imagineer Kevin Rafferty, who previously helmed Radiator Springs Racers and has a score of writing credits for Imagineering, leads the project.

Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway will be stylized after the Emmy-award-winning Mickey shorts that have aired since 2013 on Disney Channel. Developed by Disney Television Animation, the series is admittedly sometimes jarring (like when Mickey stuffs ice cream down his pants to cool off on a hot day), but mostly delightful, with striking character development for these classic characters (like when Mickey and Donald create a theme park made of potatoes to appease Goofy’s childhood fantasy). The new shorts celebrate the younger, scrappier side of Mickey, the mouse with a drive for adventure and loyalty to his pals. The team from Disney Television Animation is working alongside Imagineering to create Runaway Railway. Even given the series’ success, surely no one anticipated it being immortalized in such a way as this. The attraction’s approach also begs the question of who will voice Mickey. While Bret Iwan remains to this day the official voice of Mickey Mouse in all media, productions, projects, and initiatives, Disney Channel’s series of shorts is the only entity in which Iwan is absent in favor of actor Chris Diamantopoulos, offering a more fast-paced Mickey to Iwan’s poised, patriarchal Mickey necessary in most of his appearances.

It’s certainly no surprise that Disney’s Hollywood Studios is headed—and has been headed for some time now—in a new direction. The jaw drop comes from the fact that this new direction wants to eclipse the most potent reminder of its former self, The Great Movie Ride. Personally, I have equal emotion toward disappointment for what’s closing and anticipation for what’s coming. I suppose that technically renders my stance indifferent as each side cancels out the other, but the feelings on both ends are so passionate that they read as anything but. The Great Movie Ride is a classic showcase of Audio-Animatronics tech and Imagineering storytelling gold. It seemed untouchable. That being said, the vintage Mickey shorts are my favorite pieces of Disney animation of all time, and the recent series is a dream come true. The idea to enter that world in the form of an attraction—especially when it stars such an iconic character whose personality we’ve never gotten to see played with in this medium—is extremely exciting and even historic. That’s something to look forward to.


“The heat’s on, see? And your fancy car is my ticket outta here.”

During a recent visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I approached the center of the park to get in line for The Great Movie Ride. As I passed Center Stage, a Star Wars live show was taking place. Moving my way behind the stage and toward The Great Movie Ride‘s entrance, the film score from Pirates of the Caribbean played as background music, Lilo was nearby holding a character greeting, and a poster for Frozen was plastered at the attraction’s threshold. It all felt symbolic of the park’s current hodgepodge nature. As it shakes off the old and waits to welcome the new, the now is left to be somewhat awkward.

While themed areas still exist in Hollywood BoulevardSunset Boulevard, and Pixar Place (and kinda Muppet Courtyard), the long stretch between Star Tours and Star Wars Launch Bay is essentially a Disney gumbo, with no distinct theme aside from simply being a studio. Specific attractions are themed for certain, but in terms of the “land” in which they inhabit, any theme that once existed has either been removed or over time become so generic as to be indistinguishable. We could read this large footprint of the park being a fictional studio, and the randomness that comes with the productions happening on a studio lot on any given day, but I think the real answer is that these areas are fragments of history that haven’t received the TLC that the rest of the park is getting.

The demand for Star Wars experiences takes command of nearly the entire length of the park, with recent, short-term solutions popping up in any available space: Star Wars Launch Bay, Path of the JediJedi Training Academy, the aforementioned stage show, and, of course, the incredible nighttime spectacular. Walking from Point A to Point B, no matter the destination, it’s nearly impossible not to encounter something Star Wars. It’s all over this park, an unusual quality for a resort that’s trained guests to anticipate a specific story inhabiting a specific area. Instead, here we have no identifiable theme and a story that seemingly fits across any given area in the park. That’s the way things have to be, I suppose, as a temporary solution before Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is ready to open in 2019 and the Star Wars experiences can all be relegated to one space (except for Star Tours, whose fate remains unspoken), but it relays the message clearly: Star Wars is the dominant franchise of this park at this point in time.


“A twist ending! That just goes to show you that anything can happen in the movies.”

Toy Story Land Concept Art - disneyWhen Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge open, the park will effectively be divided in half: the existing park as it stands today with its Hollywood flare and obviously fictional facades, and the new areas that treat their fictional subjects as real places, and materialize those places for us to literally step into. This sends a very mixed message for what the park strides to be. Granted, having a distinct split has always been part of the park’s DNA. Its 1989 iteration was also divided in half, with the front being old Hollywood and the back being a working studio facility. (The giant arch leading into Star War Launch Bay‘s courtyard originally acted as the divider between these two neighborhoods. Today the arch still stands unceremoniously for no true purpose.) Competition is ok with this logic, too, as it’s arguably the exact same theme as Universal Studios Florida: fictional studio areas + fully-immersive environments treated as real, with no effort made to establish any connective tissue between the two. Even if the experiences within these parks are excellent, are we ok as a public with that philosophy? Should we accept that there can be no descriptor that succinctly defines what Disney’s Hollywood Studios is without being obnoxiously cynical? I don’t think we should, but I also don’t think we’ll ever need to. There’s a solution here if we really stop to think about this.

There is no denying that the closure of The Great Movie Ride is a hard pill to swallow. It was the ultimate celebration of Hollywood and the signature attraction of the park’s first iteration. It defined the park in that era. But that’s just the thing. Where Disney’s Hollywood Studios is going, The Great Movie Ride is a non sequitir if we are to presume the attraction in its building defines the whole park. It doesn’t. It once did, but it doesn’t anymore. It is in this idea that we find a very telling hypothesis about Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. If The Great Movie Ride was the living embodiment of the park’s purpose when it opened, who’s to say Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway doesn’t exist to serve that same function? Of course that’s not to say the entire park revolves around Mickey Mouse or the cartoony world his story inhabits, but it’s an intriguing starting point to assess how Imagineers want Disney’s Hollywood Studios to be approached by guests going forward.

Mickey Mouse is who gave The Walt Disney Company its strong beginnings. Yes, there were Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts prior to Mickey’s creation, but Mickey was what got Disney off the ground and propelled him and his studio into success. It was all started by a mouse.

Here’s the hypothesis: What if the new Disney’s Hollywood Studios is meant to act as a biography of the Disney brand? Think about it. Its roster of attractions will allow guests to experience the company’s very first star in Mickey, its most recent synergy phenomenon in Star Wars, and everything in between, from its animation heritage (Fantasmic!), its television presence (Disney Junior Live on Stage), its relationship with Pixar (Toy Story Land), its affinity for princesses (The Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastFrozen), its theme park wizardry with the occasional non-Disney partnership (The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster), and its acquisitions of other brands that are then brought into the Disney fold (Muppet*Vision 3D and Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular). Aside from Marvel, whose presence here is limited due to Universal’s exclusivity deal, Disney’s Hollywood Studios successfully represents every beat of the Disney story. This park will be a living biography, with its physical and spiritual center being its most important character, Mickey Mouse.

Now let’s play devil’s advocate: Isn’t every Disney park representative of the Disney brand? Yes, but not in such a complete way as this will become. Disney’s Hollywood Studios will effectively present every different flavor of Disney in contrast to other parks that hone in on just one or a few of those flavors. Additionally, one might argue that the truth of the matter is that Disney’s just trying to aggressively add trendy, multi-acre expansions, there is no master plan, and any idea of a park being a Disney biography is just an excuse for poor theming. Not to mention that the park will continue to add new experiences in the years to come, which could replace representation of some of the categories listed above as being part of Disney’s story. I get that. In fact, this “Disney Bio” theory isn’t something I think Disney is intentionally doing. I don’t expect them to ever brand Disney’s Hollywood Studios that way. However, since the park’s former purpose is no longer true and there has yet to be an explicit new purpose established, I think it’s important to have at least something to base our reading of the park on from the standpoint of a guest, even if it’s something unintentional.

At a shareholders meeting several years ago, Disney CEO Bob Iger mentioned that Disney’s Hollywood Studios would receive a name change (again). No specific name was stated, and given that that was now years ago and the perfect opportunity just passed to announce a new name prior to major new additions, perhaps the park isn’t getting any new name at all. This, too, as with everything discussed today, is telling: That in a park so drastically committed to leading the charge forward into a sea of change, some things remain constant.


Images ©Disney.


Will you miss The Great Movie Ride? Are you excited for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway? Which of the new projects at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are you most looking forward to?


To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.