Home » From Box Office Bomb to Blockbuster: The Cinematic Story of Walt Disney Studios Paris

From Box Office Bomb to Blockbuster: The Cinematic Story of Walt Disney Studios Paris

If you’re reading this, chances are high that you’ve had the pleasure of exploring Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, or one of their four international sister parks. In doing so, you’ve left today and entered “the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Since Disneyland opened in 1955, each subsequent Disney park with a castle at its center has strived to more fully immerse guests into romanticized versions of those worlds past, present, and future. The idea is that guests will be transported to another time and place that can’t quite be found on a timeline or map. While they may resemble history, they’re enchanted; passed through an idealized lens. 

You’ve likely walked right down the middle of the glowing, incandescent Main Street, U.S.A. to relive the time period where the gas lamp and the electric lightbulb briefly coexisted; you’ve explored the idling past and the rumbling call of the West in Frontierland; you’ve stepped into a future that never will be in Tomorrowland; you’ve discovered the misty secrets of a dense uncharted jungle in Adventureland.

Image: Disney

And through it all, you’ve likely had one persistent thought repeat again and again in your mind: “I only wish I could leave this fantasy nonsense behind and get back to reality.”

At least, that must’ve been what Disney’s executives imagined when they commissioned the construction of Disney’s most disastrous theme park ever; a park that dispensed entirely with immersion, fantasy, and romance in favor of blistering blacktop, industrial backlots, metal lighting rigs, electrical poles, and big, boxy, tan showbuildings.

Here at Theme Park Tourist, our Disaster Files series has had the unfortunate job of chronicling theme park missteps, mistakes, and outright disasters from beginning to end. We’ve told the in-depth stories behind a number of attractions that Disney designers would probably prefer to never hear about again, from the failed Rocket Rods to Superstar Limo; Epcot’s hated Journey into YOUR Imagination and SeaWorld’s waterlogged Journey to Atlantis to Stitch’s Great Escape. In one entry, we even saw what happened when Disney botched an entire park… you can catch up on that story in our in-depth feature, Disaster Files: Disney’s California Adventure.

But compared to Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris, that disastrous California mis-adventure was practically a masterpiece. When it opened, Walt Disney Studios was by far the smallest, saddest, most pathetic Disney Park on Earth, draining the energy and investment that remained in the already-forlorn Parisian resort. That is about the change. Less than a decade from now, Walt Disney Studios will be bigger than Walt Disney World’s studio park by far, and perhaps more exciting, too. Today, we’ll talk a walk through the box office bomb that opened, then see the blockbuster future this park is preparing for.


In the early 1970s and early ’80s, the Walt Disney Company was struggling. In the 15 years since Walt’s 1966 death, the company had experienced a period of stagnation and – frankly – uncertainty. What was the Walt Disney Company without Walt Disney? Who would take the reins? Whose vision should the company follow? And indeed, the 1970s had been one of the bleakest times at the company. Hit films were becoming increasingly rare, Walt’s EPCOT city was canned, and the theme parks were being left behind.

You may guess who’s coming next… A pivotal figure around whom many of our Lost Legend and Disaster Files revolve.

Image: Disney

In 1984, Michael Eisner appeared with just the credentials to fix it all. Coming to Disney straight from a time as CEO of Paramount Pictures, Eisner was deeply embedded in the film industry, and quickly set to work turning around Disney’s luck there. He kicked off what’s now known as the Disney Renaissance, returning hit after hit after hit at the box office from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King to Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. Likewise, his media industry savvy saw Disney acquire ESPN and ABC and forge a groundbreaking partnership with Pixar.

When it came time to address the shortcomings of Disney’s aging theme parks, Eisner had a cinematic plan there, too. His unique film-centered résumé gave him three controversial ideas for fixing Disney’s parks, each more unimaginable than the last. Eisner believed:

  1. That Disney parks should be places where every member of the family – including thrill-seeking teenagers – would want to visit.
  2. That to entice young people to visit, Disney parks should be hip, cool, cutting-edge places where guests could “ride the movies!”
  3. That those movies didn’t necessarily have to be Disney movies. (After all, Disney wasn’t making many movies worth seeing – or riding – in the 1980s.)

Image: Paramount Pictures

Fresh from his time at Paramount, Eisner had just the connections to breathe new life into Disney parks. Eisner had personally been the one to green light a little concept George Lucas was playing with post-Star Wars: Raiders of the Lost Ark. So Lucas was indebted to Eisner, and eager to work with Disney and bring his growing catalogue along. Of course, audiences of the era couldn’t imagine that a Lost Legend: STAR TOURS (based on Star Wars, distributed by 20th Century Fox) and Indiana Jones (distributed by Paramount) could fit into Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, yet they appeared. So did the hip Videopolis dance club, Michael Jackson’s Lost Legend: Captain EO, and, later on, another Disney / Lucasfilm Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

Eisner was so invested in bringing movies to life at Disney parks, he believed that the film industry deserved its own dedicated pavilion at EPCOT Center, and tasked Disney Legend Marty Sklar with developing a movie-centered project. The resulting pavilion was intended to fit between The Land and Imagination in the park’s future world, concealed behind a massive blue-sky backdrop. Inside, the pavilion’s star would’ve been (like most of EPCOT Center’s pavilion headliners) an all-encompassing dark ride – Great Moments at the Movies – which would transport guests through the most fabled scenes in cinema history.

As the idea grew, Eisner was seized by inspiration… Maybe this oversized dark ride deserved a place of prominence in an entirely new theme park dedicated to filmmaking…

Ride the movies

Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

When the Disney-MGM Studios theme park opened on May 1, 1989, Michael Eisner’s dedication was a thoughtful one. He called for the park to be “dedicated to Hollywood – not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine; a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was – and always will be.”

For all the pomp and circumstance, Walt Disney World’s third theme park was small. Very small. On the map above, the “theme park” is made up of the sections in light pink and orange. In total, the Disney-MGM Studios had only two rides. The first was (naturally) the epic dark ride originally proposed for EPCOT Center. But now, that Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride would be housed in the elegant Chinese Theater recreation that served as the new park’s Cinderella Castle, towering at the end of an idealized golden age Hollywood Blvd…

Image: Disney

The second ride was the real showstopper: a multi-hour Backstage Studio Tour. Part walking tour, part tram tour, this truly gargantuan attraction (any area in deep pink or purple in the map above) would weave in and out of real working production facilities, soundstages, and demonstrations where actual television and film studios would operate. Guests would view pre- and post-production facilities, watch animators craft Disney’s next masterpiece, and even catch real filming in person!

To be clear, Disney-MGM Studios had been more than a pet project for Eisner. It was also a preemptive strike in an Orlando arms race. Eisner knew through his time at paramount that Universal Studios was planning its own theme park for Orlando meant to rival Disney World, so Eisner rush-ordered a movie park of his own to ward Universal away. What’s worse, Disney had effectively stolen Universal’s bread and butter – its famed Hollywood Studio Tour. Ultimately, Universal won out. Instead of duplicating their own Studio Tour in Florida, they simply split up its components into separate, standalone rides… Lost Legends: Jaws, Kongfrontation, Back to the Future: The Ride, and more.

Image: Disney / MGM 

The plan was brilliant! Disney-MGM Studios was a brave, unique new theme park concept… and it just so happened to be perfectly adaptable to Disney’s newest project: a resort in Europe. Read on…


Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

While one core group of Imagineers was putting the finishing touches on the Disney-MGM Studios park, another was hard at work scouting for a location for Disney’s first European theme park. After a brief head-to-head between France and Spain to see who could offer Disney the best financial package, a EuroDisneyland was on its way to France, in the small village of Marne-la-Vallée about 20 miles outside of Paris.

EuroDisneyland was on track for a 1992 debut, and when it opened, it would be a game-changer.

Even today, Disneyland Paris is often regarded as the most beautiful Disney Park on Earth, and for good reason! Somehow, Imagineers would give Disneyland Paris the charm and intimacy of the original Disneyland, the grandeur and size of Magic Kingdom, and the kind of astounding storytelling and scale that wouldn’t be seen again until the debut of Tokyo DisneySea. Even more unexpectedly, they’d ensure that even classic Disney rides were entirely redesigned for the European park…

The EuroDisney Resort would be immense in scale, master-planned and pre-built to handle all of the crowds that would doubtlessly descend. No less than six mega-sized resort hotels would dot the property, as well as a custom-built Festival Disney downtown-style shopping district.

And what’s even more impressive – even before EuroDisneyland opened, plans for a second theme park on the property were revealed…

Disney-MGM Studios Europe

Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

So the announcement was made, and the Disney-MGM Studios Europe would open in 1996 – just for years after EuroDisneyland.

Just as Imagineers had redesigned Disneyland to appeal to European audiences, the Disney-MGM Studios sketched out for the EuroDisney Resort would be tailor-made for the continent. After all, Europeans had a sort of cultural romanticism for Americana (hence why all six of Paris’ resort hotels were themed to regions and time periods in American history), and the draw of the Golden Age of Hollywood would doubtlessly be a hit.

The Disney-MGM Studios Europe park would open with a tremendous new take on a park’s “Main Street” – an idealized Hollywood Blvd. (based on the Floridian park) would be located entirely indoors, setting the cinematic stage for a park unlike any Disney had built before. Under perpetual darkness, the glowing neon avenue would welcome guests before they’d exit into the daylight and stand before the Chinese Theater, home to a French version of The Great Movie Ride.

Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney via wdsfans.com

Beyond, the park would come pre-built with attractions that Orlando’s Studio park would only add later – the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure, Special Effects soundstages, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, Superstar Television, Animation exhibitions, and a gangster shootout high speed thrill ride that we can imagine was based on the Dick Tracey Crimestoppers dark ride once planned for Florida.

One thing this park did not put at the top of its bill? The Studio Tour. That’s because, back in Florida, Disney was encountering a few troubling issues with their stateside Disney-MGM Studios park.

Studio sours

Image: Disney

By the early 1990s, just as EuroDisneyland was poised to open, the fortunes of Disney-MGM Studios were souring. Most production had pulled out of the would-be studio, with only Disney’s own accessory programs being filmed on-site (such as the new Mickey Mouse Club, above). More often than not, the sets were empty. One thing was certain: Disney’s plans to transform Orlando into a “Hollywood East” had been dashed.

That might not have been so catastrophic except that Eisner had intentionally underbuilt the theme park, anticipating that the real draw – the Backstage Studio Tour – would make up for the lack of rides and attractions. The bad news is, he was wrong. With any hopes of Disney-MGM Studios being a real movie studio fading away, seeing so much as a production assistant on the backlot became an exceptional encounter, not the norm, and a walking tour of empty or underutilized soundstages didn’t inspire much confidence. The advertised highlight of the tour quickly became the staged events, like Catastrophe Canyon. That’s why the ride earned its own in-depth entry in this disastrous series, Disaster Files: The Backstage Studio Tour, that traces MGM’s once-headlining ride.

Image: Universal

And maybe that was okay. Certainly the same was true at Universal Studios Hollywood – the originator of the Tram Tour concept – where staged demonstrations, explosive encounters, and the wonder of seeing movie sets in person had become more of a draw than a chance encounter with a real hot set… But at least at Universal’s Hollywood park, you were indeed seeing real sets you might recognize from Psycho, Back to the Future, and Desperate Housewives, plus staged encounters with Jaws, King Kong, Norman Bates, an earthquake, and more.

Disney-MGM Studios, meanwhile, asked you to imagine what it might be like if any movie whose title you might recognize had ever been shot there.

Click and expand for a much larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

By 1992, much of the backlot (including New York Street and Mickey Avenue) was opened to foot traffic as Disney gave up on actual production, and the park’s soundstages designed for filming were reused to house attractions like Voyage of the Little Mermaid and The Magic of Disney Animation. An abridged 25-minute version of the Studio Tour continued (amazingly) until 2014. Though it maintained the pretense of being on an actual studio for the two decades leading up to its closure, few would’ve fallen for the premise.

Pretty quickly, Disney-MGM Studios gained a reputation for being a Disney park without much to do. While Disney smartly stocked the park with can’t-miss E-Tickets (STAR TOURS, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster), it was still denounced by fans with that most ominous and foreboding label: a “half-day park.”

So right about time that EuroDisneyland opened, Disney was forced to re-think its plans for the Disney-MGM Studios Europe by bolstering the park with more to do. As “luck” would have it, none of that would matter anyway…


Image: Disney

One thing no one had imagined is that EuroDisneyland would fail.

In fact, despite warnings of overcrowding, hotels at 100% occupancy, and gridlocked roads, Disneyland Paris opened to a mild crowd. And while they might’ve hoped that it was simply an opening day miscommunication, things stayed that way.

Blame it on the chilly reception of the French (who largely viewed EuroDisney as an invasion of American commercialism and consumer culture akin to placing a McDonald’s under the Eiffel Tower) and Eisner’s overestimation of the park’s draw. Alone, the single theme park couldn’t support six massive hotels. Staffing was cut, one of the hotels was mothballed altogether, and EuroDisneyland was on the brink of disaster.

Image: Disney

Eisner famously quipped at the time that he wasn’t sure any private company could have (or should have) reasonably expended what Disney had on the European resort, and in its wake, he shuttered any and all major projects happening across the company. Budgets were slashed and staffing was cut left and right. Disney’s President and Eisner’s right-hand man, Frank Wells, died unexpectedly in a plane crash in 1994, and that loss sent the already-weary Eisner over the edge. He surrounded himself in financiers and put penny-pinching accountants and retail executives in charge of the parks, exiling Imagineers from having any say on projects.

Partway through Eisner’s fabled “Disney Decade” proclamation, he had tightened the purse strings to spend mere cents for every dollar he’d promised. This is the era when the original Disney’s California Adventure and the wildly underbuilt Hong Kong Disneyland came about as last-ditch pushes to make good on Eisner’s promised expansions on a fraction of the budget. We traced the almost-unbelievable list of cancelled, closed, and cop-out projects all dashed alongside Disneyland Paris in its own must-read feature.

And given that Paris was the problem, any plans for a Disney-MGM Studios Europe were over. Period.

Image: Disney

Only in the late 1990s when the renamed Disneyland Paris’ fortunes seemed to improve did Eisner finally let Disney move forward with the contractually promised second gate in Paris. Seemingly blinded by his own fears, Eisner couldn’t have realized that by giving Disneyland Paris the most pathetic Disney park ever designed, he’d only send the resort spiraling again.

Are you ready to step into the miniscule movie park Disneyland Paris got? We’ll go on a walking tour on the next page…

Imagine it’s spring 2002. Word has spread of a second theme park added to the Disney resort outside of Paris. As the train pulls into the Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy station, you’re bound to notice a few changes, especially if you haven’t visited the resort since its debut a decade earlier.

For one thing, Disney has tinkered with some naming conventions. EuroDisneyland at the Euro Disney Resort is now Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris. The name change, according to Michael Eisner, is because “[a]s Americans, the word ‘Euro’ is believed to mean glamorous or exciting. For Europeans it turned out to be a term they associated with business, currency, and commerce. Renaming the park Disneyland Paris was a way of identifying it with one of the most romantic and exciting cities in the world.”

In addition, the “Downtown Disney” style shopping area once called Festival Disney has become the Disney Village. 

One thing that hasn’t changed? Disneyland Paris still has seven resort hotels – the same seven that opened together on April 12, 1992. It’s no secret that in the decade since opening, Disneyland Paris has been… well… cooly recieved. Hotel occupancy has been down, and while Disney Parks fans call the Parisian park the most detailed, thoughtful, and well-designed Disney’s ever built, that hasn’t gotten locals through the gates.

Maybe a second theme park will!

When Walt Disney World began adding new theme parks, it simply placed them on vacant plots dotted around the 40 square-mile property. When the original Disneyland in California added a second gate, it took a little more work. Disneyland wasn’t designed with a second park in mind, so the company needed to purchase land, reroute roads, build new parking structures, and buy existing hotels to turn their solitary theme park into a “resort.”

Disneyland Paris – while much, much smaller than Walt Disney World – was master-planned and laid out intentionally. From the start, it was designed for multiple parks. Disney even announced the Disney-MGM Studios Europe that would fit perfectly into a plot of land branching off of the central plaza. But the financial failure here hit Disney hard, and executives became infamously wary of large-scale expansions. So instead of the Disney-MGM Studios Europe, Disneyland Paris’ second park is Walt Disney Studios Park. And from the outside, it doesn’t look too shabby!

The entrance to Walt Disney Studios is an elegant studio arch, clearly modeled after the ornate arches that often mark the properties of Hollywood’s elite studios. A wide plaza beyond is in the shadow of three large soundstages, at least lovingly dressed with Golden Age-style arches and architectural flourishes instead of being drab boxes. Presiding over them all is a sight familiar to Walt Disney World visitors of the ’90s and 2000s: the Earffel Tower.

Image: Disney

This comical landmark – a 163-foot tall water tower wearing Mickey Mouse ears – is the park’s de facto icon. Like its older (and shorter) sister in Florida, the water tower is meant to evoke early 20th century studio backlots, where such water towers were kept on property at all times to douse any on-set fires on the very flammable wooden sets of the day. The Earffel Tower in Florida made it to our list of demoted and destroyed park icons, but in Paris, the tower still stands as the park’s signature sight.

A fountain in the center of this plaza showcases Mickey Mouse as he appeared in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment in the 1940 film Fantasia. It also marks the entrance to the park’s unique opening act…

Front Lot – Studio 1

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

The gates of this towering central soundstage – Studio 1 – are pulled back, ushering guests into the park’s “Main Street.” The original plans for Disney-MGM Studios Europe had called for an enclosed version of the Floridian park’s Hollywood Blvd. That’s kind of what Walt Disney Studios has to offer. But while Main Street, Buena Vista Street, and Hollywood Blvd. feel like idealized, magical, living replicas of romantic real places, Studio 1 borrows instead from the motif Disney was using in the 1990s and early 2000s at Disney’s California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland – cheap, cheerful, and flat. 

Image: Disney

Day-glo colors, flat facades, exposed lighting rigs, neon lights reflecting from the visible corrugated steel ceiling, and wooden barricades around props make it clear that this is not a historic Hollywood. It’s a Hollywood set of Hollywood. Make no mistake: you’re standing in a massive soundstage (indeed, look around – you’ll see the walls and ceiling) with flat painted panels giving the “illusion” that the street stretches onto infinity.

Image: Disney

The time is now. The place is here. This is a Hollywood of today, with metal tables and chairs, cameras hoisted on rigs, people passing by on overhead suspended catwalks, and facades that give way to structural supports.

While it does plenty to make you feel that you’re on a modern film set in a modern Hollywood, Studio 1 doesn’t inspire much imagination. But if this park is to be a studio where we get to see “behind the scenes,” then that’s alright!


Image: Disney

Exiting out into daylight once more, you’ll be standing in the park’s center – its “hub.” However, there’s no “Great Movie Ride” directly ahead. In fact, the awkward, open plaza dead-ends in a garish, industrial attraction marquee meant to look like a giant clap board with flat dragons, camera riggings, and painted flames coming out. This is the entrance to the Studio Tram Tour, though we’re not quite ready to visit it yet.

Standing at that central “hub” just outside of Studio 1, you can look to the left. Look to the right. From this vantage point, you can see literally everything else in the park. Walt Disney Studios doesn’t have many “nooks and crannies” to explore. After all, this is a studio lot! Instead, you’ll find large, open, expansive plazas bordered by tan showbuildings. You’re not in any particular “place” or “time.” You’re… in a studio!

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

The park’s layout is somewhat like the letter Y. Studio 1 serves as the letter’s stem. Now, we need only explore the two arms. First, let’s turn to the right and enter the park’s first land.

Animation Courtyard

Image: Anthony S, Flickr (license)

Just a few steps and you’re there! Animation Courtyard is a celebration of Disney’s rich history of animated films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to modern masterpieces like this summer’s upcoming release, Lilo & Stitch. For all the pomp and circumstance around Disney’s animation, Animation Courtyard leaves something to be desired… Blacktop asphalt as far as the eye can see, with towering lighting rigs and industrial backstage elements.

Image: Disney


It’s star attraction is probably the stage show hosted in Studio 3, one of the large soundstages that borders Studio 1. Animagique is a live-action stage show incorporating puppets, inflatables, blacklight, and more as Donald Duck unlocks the Disney Vault and unleashes the worlds of The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid. It’s a fan favorite.

In addition, Animation Courtyard is home to The Art of Disney Animation featuring the Animation Academy, similar to the larger animation attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure, and Flying Carpets Over Agrabah.

Image: Disney

As you might imagine, this is a unique twist on Magic Kingdom’s Magic Carpets of Aladdin. But here, instead of being in an Arabian courtyard decked out with golden camels, palm trees, and a bubbling oasis, you’re on a movie set circling over a concrete pad with a wrapped backdrop painted in vivid colors. Genie’s here, too, hoisted up in a production chair shouting out your cue through a bullhorn. Wait a second… you thought Aladdin and Jasmine were really flying? Or, even sillier, that you could, too? Ha! Keep dreamin’! Isn’t seeing “behind the scenes” fun?

In any case, we have to move on. Animation Courtyard is a dead-end (in more ways than one) and its three attractions don’t elevate it quite to the level of any of next-door Disneyland Paris’ intricate, themed lands.

Production Courtyard

Passing back through the park’s “hub,” we enter the next themed land on the left arm of the “Y.” Production Courtyard leaves the world of animation behind in favor of live action. Fittingly, Studio 2 – the mirrored soundstage opposite Studio 3’s Animagique – is playing Cinémagique. Think of it as the Great Movie Ride tweaked for European audiences and put in stageshow form.

Image: Disney

In fact, Cinémagique may be one of the best shows in Disney’s playbook. Cast as a boring retrospective on films from the silent age to modern blockbusters, the show quickly rerails as a member of the audience (played a live actor) is magically transported into the screen and whisked through a cinematic landscape from Safety First! and Some Like it Hot to Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, stumbling upon everything from Monsters Inc. to The Exorcist along the way.

The would-be star of Production Courtyard, though, is the ride intended to be the park’s headliner: Studio Tram Tour: Behind the Magic. Modeled after the Disney-MGM Studios ride (which is in turn based on the Universal Studios Hollywood original), Paris’ version of the Tram Tour may be the most pointless yet, given that the Parisian park at no time even attempted to be a real movie studio. 

Instead, the Tram Tour passed by would-be props that give the impression that they might have been used in films, by some ambiguous “sets” littered with cameras and dollies, by numerous camera-ready vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and through two staged events. The first is a trip through Catastrophe Canyon (borrowed from Florida) followed by a tour of its backstage reveal.

Image: Disney

The second staged encounter is a tour of the “set” of Touchstone’s largely-forgotten 2002 box office bust Reign of Fire (which was actually filmed in Ireland) displaying a future London wrecked-and-ruined by dragons, including a physical effects display with a flamethrower. 

As quickly as it began, the Studio Tram Tour is over, and with it, Production Courtyard.


The most ominously-named of the park’s themed “lots” is the Backlot, where designers were able to dispense with any indication whatsoever that they were trying to theme the park. Instead, the Backlot can have exposed steel, unthemed showbuildings, industrial signage, and more. Its three attractions similarly ensure that any pretense of story is quickly disposed of.

First, a familiar sight for Disney World visitors – Rock n’ Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith. Though here on the Backlot, the attraction does away with any insinuation that you’re visiting a recording studio and even with the razor-thin plot of racing through Hollywood to attend a premier. 

Image: DLP.info

Ironically, dropping the bulk of the “race through Hollywood” storyline ended up benefitting Paris’ version of the ride. While the track layout is identical to Orlando’s, the ride instead takes place in an abstract space of spinning, flashing, undulating lights that give the ride an astounding element. The intricate and ambitious light show that occurs around riders has to be seen to be believed, and you can watch it take place here. The more abstract style actually holds up better than the blacklight cartoon-perspective of Orlando’s.

Image: Brian Holland, Flickr (license)

Here in the Backlot, you’ll also find the Moteurs… Action Stunt Show Spectacular. The ambitious (if brainless) stunt car show actually made its debut in Paris, before being duplicated at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida in 2005 (where it’s already come and gone, closed to make way for lands based on Star Wars and Toy Story). 

Already, we’ve arrived at the park’s final inhabitant: Armageddon – Les Effets Speciaux. As the name implies, we’re here to get an insider’s perspective of the special effects that powered the 1998 Jerry Bruckheimer film for Touchstone Pictures, Armageddon. Similar in style and scope to Universal’s “Twister… Ride It Out!” this living demonstration puts guests within feet of fireballs, sparks, steam, flickering lights, and an asteroid that seems to destroy all life on Earth until… “CUT!” 

At just about 25 developed acres, Walt Disney Studios is by far the smallest Disney Park on Earth. But what’s worse, its miniscule attraction offerings include just three – yes, three – rides. Next door, Disneyland Paris includes as much to do in Frontierland alone. And yet, this brand new Disney park meant to salvage Disneyland Paris seemed poised to do more harm than good… What happened next? Read on…


While Walt Disney Studios’ 2002 opening had left Disney fans the world over speechless and did absolutely nothing to help the resort’s sinking finances, Disney did begin to inject more life into the miniscule and underbuilt park. It just took a few years.

Image: Disney via wdsfans.com

Its first notable expansion came about in 2007 – five years after opening – when the Animation Courtyard area of the park was joined by (or maybe, became?) Toon Studio. On paper, we’re meant to believe that this portion of the park is somewhat like an extension of Toontown (which Disneyland Paris doesn’t have) where cartoon stars film their movies.

In practice, the expansion brought with it two attractions to join the Flying Carpets: a spinning family flat ride called Cars Race Rally and – most impressively – Crush’s Coaster. This indoor spinning family coaster is, at its core, an off-the-shelf carnival ride, but a few show scenes made it an unexpected highlight for the park. The problem is that for years, the low-capacity family coaster was essentially the park’s only family feature and one of only five rides, period, earning multi-hour waits on even the most lightly attended days.

Image: David Jafra, Flickr

That same year, the park opened its first certifiable E-Ticket… The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror rose in the park’s “hub” area (technically Production Courtyard).

The version of the ride used in Paris – identical to California Adventure’s with its pueblo-deco architecture and high-efficiency ride system – is a wonder even if it doesn’t live up to the Floridian original. It goes without saying that the ride was a much-needed boost to the park’s lineup, and the incredible in-depth story of how Disney designed and “dropped in” the ride is part of our must-read Lost Legends: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror feature.

Image: Disney

Almost as important as the towering ride itself, a much-needed placemaking project created a sort of “mini” Hollywood Blvd. of detail around the towering 1920s hotel. The new avenue of romantic West Coast architecture leads to a new entry for the Studio Tour, too – a flat panel “tunnel” beneath the Hollywood Hills.

Image: Disney

The next big boost came in 2010 with the opening of Toy Story Playland – the first of four eventual versions of the mini-land that would open at Disney Parks worldwide. The expansion upped the park’s ride count by three, though each ride included is a lightly-dressed off-the-shelf carnival ride, and Disney fans typically view such Toy Story themed lands critically as “cheap and cheerful” additions that don’t add much to a park’s experience… 

In other words, Toy Story Playland brought the park’s ride count to nine, though five are fairly inoccuous family flat rides… much less grand on average than, say, Epcot’s nine ride lineup.

Image: Disney

The park’s real star opened in 2014. Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy is a superb dark ride using Disney’s heralded trackless technology, and the ride fittingly rocketed to the top of the park’s billing. Most easily understood as Disney’s take on Universal’s Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the Ratatouille dark ride is a hit, and finally gives the park a can’t-miss experience for international visitors and locals alike.

(And for that matter, Ratatouille also gave the park its 10th ride. If you can believe it, that officially gives Walt Disney Studios Park an unthinkable twice as many rides as the original Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida… a surprising fact found in our must-read Ride Count Countdown.)

But perhaps even more telling than what it is is what the new Ratatouille attraction is not. It is not, for example, placed on a large studio “soundstage.” Instead, a brand new cul-de-sac off of Toon Studio leads to a sub-area themed to a Parisian courtyard.

Image: Disney

Every bit as beautiful as Epcot’s France pavilion, this mini plaza really ought to be a “land” in and of itself. While the Ratatouille attraction is the star, you’ll also find shops and a restaurant perfectly situated along the lifelike streetscape. In short, it’s the kind of area you’d like to visit, explore, and spend time in – arguably, the first such area for Walt Disney Studios Park.

That means that Ratatouille not only gave the park something worth talking about, it also made a very clear distinction: going forward, this park will shed its “behind-the-scenes” views for stepping into your favorite Disney and Pixar films. And that is perhaps the most important sign yet… Why?

Studio fatigue

While Disney and Universal led the charge with their Orlando parks (in 1989 and 1990 respectively), they’d inadvertently opened the floodgates for “studio” themed amusement parks the world over. Warner Bros. Movie World (1991), the Paramount Parks (1992), and MGM Grand Adventures (1993) opened in consecutive years, spurred by Disney’s example… Under the guise of visiting a “real” movie studio, big, boxy, tan showbuildings and façade-lined streets could populate these parks. Owning a theme park no longer required the detail and immersion of Magic Kingdom.

And for the time, it was a perfect fit. People longed to see behind-the-scenes of moviemaking, and the emerging world of special effects and a lingering and growing interest in celebrity made the idea of a glamorous movie-making park seem all the rage.

Image: Disney

But the glitz and glamor of a movie studio park didn’t age well… On the last page, we’ll look at the three killer blows to the concept and analyze how – or maybe if – Disney has any chance of saving this box office bomb of a theme park from itself. 

While a glut of “studio” themed parks emerged in the early 1990s, the concept proved itself to be tethered to the time period. As the world (and the themed entertainment design industry) changed, so too did the allure of the “studio” park. By our count, at least three major factors played a role in the shift away from the “studio” park. Chances are that you’ve felt these three in practice, even if you’ve never put them into words:

1. DVDs, social media, and the 21st Century

By the end of the 1990s, the end of the VHS was in sight.

It wasn’t just that DVDs presented a more high definition, user-friendly experience. They also offered something unprecedented: behind-the-scenes extras, making-of featurettes, and commentaries with the stars.

Image: Disney

In fact, industry followers say that the rise of DVDs lead to a cultural shift. Put simply, seeing the “magic” of moviemaking was no longer interesting. We could see “behind the scenes” from our own couches and, to be very honest, what happened on movie sets was far less thrilling that we had collectively imagined. Given that, parks like Universal Studios Florida and Disney-MGM Studios had lost their selling point.

Add to that: roundabout the New Millennium, digital effects were well on their way to replacing practical effects outright. Put simply, “movie magic” wasn’t happening on soundstages anymore… It was happening on computers. Of course, watching digital animators hunched over Macs all day isn’t very exciting, which left these “studio” parks between a rock and a hard place.

The problem only amplified as social media moved in. While we’d pined and ached over imagining the lavish lives of movie stars, we can now check their Twitters to see when that Jennifer Garner is attending her daughters’ school play, Meryl Streep is making coffee, and that Tom Cruise is plugging his next movie. The dramatic and outrageous life we’d imagined vanished as the 21st century let on that stars are people, too.

2. The renaissance of theme parks

Image: Disney

In 1998 – nine years after the debut of the Disney-MGM Studios – Disney World opened its fourth park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. A complete departure from showbuildings, soundstages, and lighting rigs, Animal Kingdom represented a Renaissance of theme park design, returning to (and vastly expanding upon) the cinematic immersion of parks like Disneyland. Absolutely surrounding guests in real, habitable worlds, Animal Kingdom felt like a reinvention.

It was followed the next year by another game-changer just a few miles away. Universal’s Islands of Adventure represented Universal’s first attempt at besting Disney at its own game, and the park succeeded wildly in that regard.

Image: Universal

Rather than seeing the industrial process of making movies, Islands of Adventure let guests step into them – Jurassic Park, the Lost Continent, Port of Entry, Seuss Landing, Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Port of Entry… without a showbuilding in sight, Islands of Adventure had tweaked Disney’s own 1955 formula and merged it with a breathtaking collection of original concepts and revered intellectual properties.

Image: Universal / Warner Bros.

What’s more, Universal marked the start of its own Renaissance when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened there in 2010, reigniting the theme park wars in Orlando and the world. In the snow-capped streets of Hogsmeade, guests queued for hours to get into gift shops and restaurants! They wanted to buy wands, and drink Butterbeer, send mail at the Owlery, and explore the grounds of Hogwarts. Just as groundbreaking, series creator J.K. Rowling had insisted that every square foot of the land be isolated from the rest of the park (no Coca-Cola here… only pumpkin juice and the like) and that it be true-to-scale… cramped shops mopped with eager visitors on purpose!

Intentional and thoughtful and detailed, this was the new standard. It became clear to industry observers that from that moment on, one-off attractions wouldn’t do. The public had spoken – they wanted lands. Fully immersive, themed lands where they could shop, eat, and adventure like the stars from their favorite movies. In Hogsmeade, people could finally become part of the world they’d longed to live in. A Harry Potter ride in a showbuilding wasn’t the same. 

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

And thus came New Fantasyland, Cars Land, Star Wars lands, PANDORA – The World of Avatar, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, Skull Island… Universal Studios Florida and Disney’s Hollywood Studios both rushed new lands into production all in hopes of shedding their “studio” styling in favor of built-out, elaborate, immersive worlds like Springfield USA, Despicable Me Super Silly Fun Land, upcoming Nintendo lands, a Star Wars land, Toy Story Playland…

Put simply: the “studio” park was dead, and placing rides in big boxy showbuildings explained away as a “working backlot” wouldn’t work anymore. Which brings us to…

3. Seeing “Behind the Scenes” isn’t much of a vacation

Despite the initial thrill of the concept, there’s something inherently hollow about seeing “behind the scenes.” Rather than becoming part of an adventure, world, or universe we’ve longed to inhabit, we’re dropped into the fairly ugly business of creating it. Worse, we’re often cast as “extras,” continuously reminded that we’re not on a real adventure, we’re simply filming something on a set. The time is now, the place is here. No need for imagination or detail; those blank walls, exposed lighting rigs, flat backdrops, and the gift shop are here to remind you that you’re only pretending.

In one easy-to-dissect case, consider the Flying Carpets as they exist in two places:

Image: Disney

Jasmine’s Flying Carpets
 Tokyo DisneySea

Seated on a flying carpet, you’ll revolve in a tiled arabesque courtyard of topiaries, golden peacocks, marble urns, and dancing fountains just outside of the labyrinthine marketplace of the park’s astoundingly detailed Arabian Coast.

Image: Disney

Flying Carpets Over Agrabah
Location: Walt Disney Studios Park

Seated on a flying carpet, you revolve over concrete in front of a flat painted backdrop of a desert while a Plexiglas genie hoisted high on a mechanical rig yells out your cue in the Toon Studio backlot.

Being put “to work” on vacation just isn’t much fun. Its location and its narrative shape the same ride experience wildly. Playing an “extra” on a film set saps any hope of being immersed into a world or imagining a fantastic role for yourself.

And even subconsciously, that experience can be vastly different. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, your tour of the Hollywood Tower Hotel is a thrilling journey into a haunted remote hotel towering over an overgrown Sunset Blvd. In Paris, does it feel slightly different to have the same general experience plopped on a Front Lot overlooking soundstages and exposed façades after a day immersed in moviemaking? Maybe…

What’s next?

2002 (top) vs. 2017 (bottom). Click and expand each for a larger and more detailed view. Images: Disney

Walt Disney Studios Park may have grown by leaps and bounds in its first 15 years, but and unfortunate truth remained: like Disney’s California Adventure, the park didn’t just need new rides, shows, and attractions (though it did). But Crush’s Coaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Toy Story Land, and Ratatouille were merely band-aids on a broken bone. Fifteen new E-Tickets wouldn’t really fix Walt Disney Studios, because its problem was much larger: it was broken at its foundation… 

It needed a California-Adventure-sized reboot.

And despite total disbelief by fans, it will get one.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

On February 27, 2019, in a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron, Disney CEO Bob Iger did the unthinkable: he announced a €2 billion investment in the still-miniscule French park. With the deletion of the Studio Tour, Walt Disney Studios would expand outward to create a lagoon (complete with World of Color-style nighttime spectacular, according to the artwork) with three brand new, massive, gargantuan themed land along its shores. Clearly following the model of Universal’s Islands of Adventure with its IP-focused islands circling a central lagoon, this new park will indeed add at least three new lands:

Image: Disney

  • A full-scale version of the Kingdom of Arendelle from Disney’s Frozen

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

  • A copy of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed lands being added to Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida
  • A complete revamp of the park’s Backlot into a Marvel-themed land, including an Avengers overlay of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

Image: Disney

Most astoundingly, it appears that – rather than being absorbed into this new Marvel land as Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! – the park’s Twilight Zone Tower of Terror will remain, paired with Studio 1 as the last remaining vestiges of the park’s formerly pervasive “Hollywood” theme.

At least based on this early concept art, it appears that the park will also add a copy of Hollywood Studios’ Alien Swirling Saucers to the pre-existing Toy Story Land. As for the two land-sized expansion pads situated around the lagoon… it’s anyone’s guess. Cars Land? Pandora? 

In the end, that means that Walt Disney Studios Park will essentially have six lands themed to Hollywood, Marvel, Star Wars, Frozen, Ratatouille, and Toy Story. That, of course, makes the “Studios” name even more peculiar. Is a name change in the cards? Possibly. But after apparently testing then cancelling “Disney’s Cinemagine Park” as a rebrand of Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida for the same reason, perhaps we can expect the Studios name to stick in Paris, too.

Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the announcement, the reality is that Disney’s strategy seems to be to use Walt Disney Studios (and its Floridian sister) as a creative-catch all; a “best of” simply cloning headlining lands from other Disney Parks around the globe with little consideration for a specific identity of its own. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. But it does play into fans’ fears that, with current leadership, we may never again see a blockbuster original concept untethered to an existing box office blockbuster.

Not that Disneyland Paris fans would dare complain… The groundbreaking reinvestment in Walt Disney Studios Park is expected to begin construction in earnest in 2021. 

So that’s what we want to know from you – do the plans for Walt Disney Studios go far enough? When it comes out of the other side of this California-Adventure-level reconfiguration, will it be stronger for it? What long-term changes could stop Walt Disney Studios from becoming another catchall IP park explained away as a movie studio?