Skip to content

The Past, Present and Future of Animation Attractions in Walt Disney World


“Disney’s Folly” was the term the Hollywood industry gave to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Even Lillian Disney was skeptical regarding her husband’s passion project.  However, the world’s first full-length animated feature film proved the critics wrong and went on to gross more than any other film up to that point in historySnow White and the Seven Dwarfs was only the beginning of a legacy that would continue to impact American culture up through the present.

As the cornerstone of the Walt Disney Company, it seems only fitting that the art of animation deserves a place in the theme parks that bear the company name.  While classics and new blockbusters alike are featured in attractions throughout all four Walt Disney World parks (and one incredible resort hotel), sadly, there is currently no ride, show or exhibit focused solely on the process by which these characters and places entered our world.  For over two and half decades, this was not the case, but hopefully, there will be a reincarnation in years to come.

Take a walk through the history of animation in Disney MGM Studios/Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a brief stroll through its non-existent present, and a hopeful look toward its future.


The Past

On May 1, 1989, Disney MGM Studios opened to the public with a very different purpose from the Disney Hollywood Studios of today.  Striving to offer Guests a look at what went into making the movies, large portions of the theme park were actually working soundstages, costume shops and an animation studio that would eventually produce full-length feature films such as Mulan, Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear.  Long before opening day, Disney animators in Burbank were given the opportunity to relocate to Central Florida.  Several made the move and found it to be a drastically different work environment.  Used to working in private or collaborative spaces, they now found themselves constantly “on stage” as Guests peered into “the fishbowl” from The Magic of Disney Animation guided tour.

This original version of The Magic of Disney Animation included a preshow film called Back to Neverland starring Robin Willims and Walter Cronkite.  Williams played a tourist visiting the newly opened park who Cronkite invites to learn about the animation process by becoming an animated character.  After debating the virtues of Fantasia, Williams selects Peter Pan as his favorite animated film and is eventually turned into one of the Lost Boys.  The film progresses through the various steps required to create a complete scene including voice work, sketching, sericel production, set layout, etc.

Following the film, Guests were taken through elevated, window-lined corridors to watch animators working in various stages of the animation process such as storyboarding and character animation.  Overhead televisions provided guidance as to what was happening in each viewing area.

Once past the work areas, the tour ended with a brief film showcasing clips from various Disney animated classics.  But prior to entering this last theater, an animator was on-hand sketching live for Guests to observe. Upon exiting the theater, there was a large room displaying concept art, sericels, maquettes, and duplicate Oscar statuettes for some of the award winning animation projects.

This is how the tour remained until January 12, 2004, when the animation studio officially closed.  Desiring to consolidate feature animation under one roof, neither cartoon shorts nor feature animation would be produced in Central Florida any longer.  Without the option of peering over the shoulder of working animators, The Magic of Disney Animation needed a revamp.

Later in 2004, the tour re-opened with a new preshow film featuring a live Cast Member interacting with Mulan’s quick-witted sidekick Mushu.  Upon exiting the initial theater, Guests were allowed to roam through various areas.  These included a mock-up display of an animator’s desk and work area; concept art and maquettes from the newest/upcoming feature film; character Meet and Greets; concept art from many of the early animated classics; and a display of several duplicate Oscars. The tour ended by giving Guests the opportunity to learn how to draw Mickey Mouse before exciting into a gift shop offering Disney Fine Art, sericel reproductions, animation books, and other collectibles.

This edition of The Magic of Disney Animation was in place until July 12, 2015, when the theme was abandoned to make way for the Star Wars Launch Bay.


The Present

Marc Davis, Ken Anderson and Kendall O'Connor Magic of Disney Animation hand prints Ward Kimball Magic of Disney Animation hand prints Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas Magic of Disney Animation hand prints

Today, Star Wars Launch Bay continues to welcome Guests in the area still referred to as the Animation Courtyard.  While this attraction is popular, it leaves some wondering what became of the various elements of its predecessor.  Perhaps none more so than the animator handprints and signatures that were imprinted in the cement outside the tour building.  These included legends such as Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Ken O’Connor, Ken Anderson and Ward Kimball.

Not only has the concept of animation been removed from this individual attraction, but this pillar of the Walt Disney Company is not the specific focus of any permanent attraction in Walt Disney World.  Some of the exhibits in Walt Disney Presents give clear nods to the various aspects of 2-D animation such as the multi-plane camera, and the annual Epcot International Festival of the Arts presents opportunities to engage with this specific medium.  However, neither of these serve as a complete “animation attraction.”

It could be argued that the Disney and Pixar Short Film Festival at Epcot is solely animation focused.  While it does present a 4-D experience showcasing popular cartoon shorts, it does not offer the same behind the scenes look at the art form that was present in The Magic of Disney Animation, especially with regard to the classic 2-D process.


The Future

Disney’s Hollywood Studios is in an ever-evolving state when it comes to its theme and focus.  What once was a trip behind the movies (The Backlot Tour) and into the movies (The Great Movie Ride) is becoming a journey into the worlds created via the movies (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land).  It seems that with the loss of an attraction focusing on the art of animation, there will be an opportunity for Guests to become a part of a 2-D animated feature (Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway).

Perhaps with this change of course, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is no longer the proper home for a look into the process and art form of Walt Disney Animation.  In fact, there is a park, and more specifically a pavilion, that would be perfect for a deep dive into the minds, talents and scientific aspects that must converge in order to produce a full-length animated feature.  Rumors have abounded and many agree that the Imagination Pavilion in Epcot is ready for a refresh.  While no one wants to lose Figment and the joyful journey into his imagination, the other half of this pavilion has been in an odd state of flux for quite a long time.

The Disney and Pixar Short Film Festival was believed by many to be a temporary attraction of sorts.  While 4-D attractions are still impressive and engaging, this area could be used for something so much better.  Technology has advanced unbelievably in the decades since Captain EO premiered.

Imagine for a moment stepping into a virtual reality experience where a 2-D film is animated around you, transitioning from a sketch on the animator’s desk, to the brilliant full color backgrounds and finally the addition of classic Disney characters such as Ariel, Robin Hood, Aladdin, Winnie the Pooh, and others.

In 2015, Disney Animator Glen Keane created a video for the Future of Storytelling Summit that featured him animating Ariel around himself in real time via virtual reality.  The result allowed Keane to “step into the paper” and draw the characters life-size.  Fast forward to August 2018.  Disney premiered its first ever 2-D virtual reality short film at the SIGGRAPH conference.  “Cycles” is a 2-D animated feature based on the director’s, Jeff Gipson, grandparents’ home and the experiences had there.  The environments in the short come to life and into color as the viewer’s gaze transitions from area to area.  For a more complete description of this incredible piece of art, follow this link.

Disney is not only just beginning to scratch the surface of what virtual reality looks like on film but also in attractions.  It has been rumored that this technology will have a place in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and it is already featured at The VOID in Disney Springs.  Considering what has already been accomplished on film, when given over to the creative talents of the Imagineers working in conjunction with legendary animators, this medium could once again afford Walt Disney Animation the attraction which it so deserves.


Did you love The Magic of Disney Animation?  How would you like to see animation portrayed in the parks?


(Photos from the author’s personal collection.)


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