Home » Carnivals, Boardwalks, and Backlots: The Stories of Disney’s Least Immersive Lands

Carnivals, Boardwalks, and Backlots: The Stories of Disney’s Least Immersive Lands

Since 1955, one thing has set Disney Parks apart: immersion. Built by filmmakers, Disneyland did what no other amusement park had done before by daring to transport guests to new worlds, long-lost places, and long-since-passed times. From exotic jungle outposts to frontier towns at the edge of the American West; fantasy fairs and cities of the future; the Jazz era New Orleans and the enchanted forests of the Pacific Northwest…

And that was only the beginning. Last month, we walked through a special Countdown: The Most Immersive Themed Lands on Earth to see Disney and Universal’s most astounding attempts to carry guests away to new and exciting worlds – and to see the projects in the pipeline that just may change the industry once again. But today, we want to take a very different look by analyzing the seven least immersive lands at Disney Parks across the globe – lands that just don’t seem to “fit” with Disney’s normal way of doing things by failing to transport guests in immersive, cinematic ways.

Image: Disney

What makes this exploration so unique is that Disney knows what it’s good at, so most of the time, if a land fails to bring guests to a “world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” it’s on purpose! But for some of the examples we’ll feature here, lands have simply lost their cinematic splendor or world-building over time. We’ll leave it to you to decide which is which. But once you’ve seen the Disney Parks lands that pull guests from the moment and ignore immersive styles, you may never see Disney Parks the same again…

1. Hollywood Land 

Location: Disney California Adventure

Look – Disney can do Hollywood right. Look no further than Hollywood Blvd., the “Main Street” equivalent at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. That neon-lit streetscape accurately and affectionately recreates a “Hollywood that never was, but always will be” – a gleaming, glitz-and-glitter Tinseltown at the height of its Golden Age as we all imagine it must’ve been. Classic cars, movie stars, Hollywood hopefuls, epic big screen scores, and the iconic architecture of the Golden Age, ending in the iconic Chinese Theater. 

Image: Disney

That’s why it was so surprising that when Disney’s California Adventure opened in 2001, it had a land dedicated to Hollywood as well, but one that looked nothing like Florida’s. Instead of taking guests back in time to a romanticized Hollywood as only Disney can, designers curiously decided to create a land dedicated to modern Hollywood. So California Adventure’s land was a street of mere facades; a Hollywood set of Hollywood, terminating in a “studio” style blue sky backdrop, decked out in puns, leopard print, and allusions to the paparazzi-obsessed reality-TV culture of the ’90s. The land’s only ride was one that some call Disney’s worst ride ever – the Declassified Disaster: Superstar Limo.

In 2012, Disney completed a five-year, billion dollar, apologetic reconstruction of the park, renaming Hollywood Pictures Backlot to Hollywood Land and emphasizing those much-missed “historical” elements (even if it wasn’t the full-blown facelift fans had hoped for). The addition of the Red Car Trolley ding-ing down the street helped, and the bare-bones “studio” style was relegated to a back corner of the land where a Monsters Inc. dark ride replaced Superstar Limo.

Image: Disney

The anchor of it all, though, was the construction of the looming, dilapidated Hollywood Tower Hotel, housing a value-engineered version of the Walt Disney World classic, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. While it lacked some of the pizzazz of its Floridian sister, California’s Tower of Terror nonetheless served as a much-needed headliner, a thematic anchor for Hollywood Land, and a distinctly-Californian legend perfect for the park’s new, historic Californian story.

It also set the tone for Hollywood Land, looming over Sunset Blvd. and cementing the land’s timeline; even casting the condemned shell of the Hollywood Tower Hotel as a stop on the Red Car Trolley.

Image: Disney / Marvel

In 2017, though, the Hollywood Tower Hotel was decommissioned. Now the subject of its own in-depth Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror feature, the hotel’s art deco exterior was painted with warning stripes and affixed with pipes and satellite dishes as it became the E-Ticket Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, a thrilling multi-media ride based on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The problem is that that sci-fi superhero warehouse prison powerplant is now looming over Hollywood Land (and indeed, all of California Adventure). Though it’ll eventually be annexed on paper to the new Avengers Campus land taking shape around it, that leaves Hollywood Land with a modern, space-set super hero ride, a Frozen stage musical, and Monsters Inc. That’s it.

So while the name change and some light placemaking might’ve made Hollywood Land feel like a better fit in the reborn park, it may be in worse shape than ever. There’s no attraction to suggest we’re in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and – once Guardians of the Galaxy is officially transferred to the Avengers Campus in 2020 – no anchor attraction for Hollywood Land at all.

2. Tomorrowland

Location: Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris (as Discoveryland)

Image: Disney

What will tomorrow bring? Since 1955, Disney designers have been trying to answer that question. Back then, the Tomorrowland that opened alongside Disneyland was supposed to represent a real, scientific, actual prediction of what the world would look like in 1986 (imagine if today’s Tomorrowland tried to truly capture the look, feel, and technology of 2049). Walt’s New Tomorrowland 1969 (above) recast the future once more as a “World on the Move” rooted in the wonders of atomic energy and the Space Age!

In the ’90s, Tomorrowlands across the globe diverted as executives requested redesigns that would be budget-friendly and downplay actual scientific predictions or technological demonstrations (which, of course, inherently require continuous upgrades and investment).

Image: Disney

The result was that Tomorrowlands either became fantasy futures (like Disneyland Paris’ – a Victorian retro-future based on literary works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells) or science-fiction futures (like Magic Kingdom’s, above – an intergalactic comic book spaceport based on Buck Rogers).

Magic Kingdom’s ’90s redesign, for example, stocked Tomorrowland with creatively-wild original attractions that ambitiously connected to one another. The land’s Peoplemover was recast as the spaceport “city’s” real public transportation, connecting Rockettower Plaza to the Interplanetary Convention Center (hosting X-S Tech and their Lost Legend: Alien Encounter), the Metropolis Science Center (home of the Lost Legend: The Timekeeper), the city’s space sport (Space Mountain), and even its alien-owned restaurants and shops (like Merchant of Venus and Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe). For the first time, Tomorrowland was more than a showcase of concepts and ideas; it was immersive, wrapping all of its rides, shows, and restaurants into one overarching story in a “real” comic book spaceport.

Image: Disney / Pixar 

But then came the cartoon invasion. We explored the influx of Pixar properties specifically in our special feature, DisneyPixarland, but the result is well-known to Disney Parks fans: Tomorrowland – once “a vista into a world of wondrous ideas” and “constructed things to come” – has more or less become a catch-all for animated characters, hosting Lilo and Stitch, Monsters Inc. Finding Nemo, Toy StoryThe Incredibles, and Marvel super heroes. In fact, just about the only Pixar character absent from Tomorrowland is the one who belongs there: Wall•e! 

Image: Disney / Pixar

In any case, even the Tomorrowlands that offer a consistant style have abandoned the substance that made them feel like immersive, living worlds. If Stitch is hanging out across the street from Mike and Sulley, or Darth Vader mere steps from Emperor Zurg, you’re probably not in an immersive land, even if the decorations and facades might match.

3. Dinoland, U.S.A.

Image: Disney

Location: Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Let’s get one thing straight: contrary to popular belief, Dinoland, U.S.A. is a richly detailed and thoughtfully-crafted land. In fact, we explored some of the backstory of Dinoland in a behind-the-ride feature about its headlining E-Ticket – the Modern Marvel: DINOSAUR. Despite the baked-in backstory, Dinoland has always stuck out like a sore thumb in a park whose other themed lands include photorealistic, spectacularly detailed, National Geographic-style lands dedicated to Asia and Africa, and now the immensely scaled and deeply immersive moon of Pandora.

That’s because – unlike the park’s other lands – Dinoland is rooted right in the U.S.A., telling the story of the small town of Diggs County, which became a roadside wonder when dinosaur fossils were discovered there. Seemingly overnight, we’re told, the town was overrun with paleontology students who established the Dino Institute, transforming the town’s meager infrastructure into fly-by-night labs and (eventually) the more scholarly Dino Institute museum that houses the anchor attraction. But the other side of the story is of the enterprising locals who opted to cash in on the sudden surge of tourists eager to see the Institute’s dig sites and collections.

Image: Disney

Enter Chester and Hester, a married couple and lucky proprietors of a Diggs County gas station who decide to convert their rest stop into a full-blown tourist attraction. So while Disney fans are known to roll their eyes at Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama – a collection of loud, bright, gaudy, off-the-shelf carnival rides seemingly stolen from a traveling fair and set-up on a cracked blacktop parking lot – that’s exactly what Imagineers wanted the mini-land to look like!

In a sense, Dinoland is as much about roadside America and family vacations as it is about dinosaurs! But given that the intentionality is lost on most guests, Dinoland is often percieved as distinctly un-Disney cop-out carnival. (And admittedly, the Dinoland expansion was undeniably an inexpensive way to up the park’s ride count and provide attractions for families in the park that otherwise offered only Kilimanjaro Safaris and the terrifying DINOSAUR as rides.)

Image: Disney

For those who care to find it, the seemingly “dumb” elements of Dinoland (like Restaurantosaurus, the Dig Site, and Chester and Hester’s) are actually packed with detail and placemaking. The problem is that with most guests unable or unwilling to unpack all that backstory, the land feels like an odd-man-out at Animal Kingdom, and will likely remain a punchline for fans no matter how many well-intentioned dissections by theme park enthusiasts valiantly justify its existence. At the end of the day, when people visit Disney Parks, they don’t want to be taken to a cheap-looking carnival, no matter how much it might be explained away via story layered under it.

4. Echo Lake

Image: Disney

Location: Disney’s Hollywood Studios

When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, it had only two rides: the Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride and the Declassified Disaster: Backstage Studio Tour. That’s fitting, because each of those epically-sized attractions was meant to headline one of the park’s two halves: a theme park celebrating Hollywood history, and a movie studio creating the Hollywood of today, respectively. Pretty quickly, any hopes of having an actual, real, working movie studio in Orlando folded, leaving the Studios’ theme park half to expand. Especially after the opening of Animal Kingdom and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, “studio” parks like Disney’s began to look like cheap cop-outs lacking in immersive environments and attention to detail.

Obviously, the pendulum has swung away from the “studio” style and toward the immersive Wizarding World style lands incarnate in 2018’s Toy Story Land, and that will crescendo with the 2019 opening of STAR WARS: Galaxy’s Edge. But while the park will soon offer two lands that will let guests step into the movies, it’ll also still offer two lands dedicated to historic Hollywood (Hollywood Blvd. and Sunset Blvd.), the unusual Grand Avenue (themed to a gentrified modern district of Los Angeles, but containing a Muppets-themed land styled after Brooklyn, New York), and the unfortunate Echo Lake…

Image: Disney

Currently housing the soundstage-set STAR TOURS and the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular arena show, you could maybe squint and pretend that the land is somehow themed to Lucasfilm… but then explain the presence of the ABC Commissary, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Restaurant, or the ’50s Prime Time Cafe; the presence of For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration; the call-outs to kitschy roadside attractions in Gertie the Dinosaur.

The fact of the matter is that Echo Lake will probably remain an overtly “studio” stylized land of mis-matched intellectual properties in a non-immersive setting, and that’s by design. But in a park shifting to a new model, Hollywood Studios’ jumbled lands with an unclear overall message is likely to remain a sticking point for fans of Imagineering.

5. Pixar Pier

Location: Disney California Adventure

Image: Disney

When Disneyland’s infamous second gate opened back in 2001, the park was… well… coolly recieved. As we detailed in its own in-depth feature here – Disney’s California Adventure: Part I – the underbuilt theme park lacked much to see or do. The exception was its Paradise Pier district, meant to recreate modern California boardwalks. And like real amusement piers along the West Coast, Paradise Pier was outfitted with plenty of “off-the-shelf” thrill rides, stucco walls and neon lights, “carnie” style games of skill, and practically no Disney characters.

Image: Disney

A sweeping, billion-dollar renovation to the park in 2012 saw Paradise Pier reborn in a style more closely aligned with the precedent set by Disneyland’s areas, turning back the clock and redressing the land not as a modern boardwalk, but a Victorian leisure pier of strung Edison bulbs, elegant dancehall architecture, ragtime music, bandstand gardens, seaside clapboard exteriors, and the infusion of ultra-classic Disney characters in their pie-eyed form. Far from perfect, the new Paradise Pier at least did a better job of making guests feel transported to a new place and time.

But in 2017, Disney announced that the land would undergo a third facelift, becoming Pixar Pier.

Image: Disney

The good? Pixar Pier doubled down on the incredible Victorian style started in 2012, adding even more fanciful, historic, seaside styling. The bad? Yikes. The Pier underwent a redistricting to create four “neighborhoods” themed to The Incredibles, Toy Story, Inside Out, and… well… “Other,” curiously mashing mid-century modern, “giant” props (a la Toy Story Land), and classical Victorian architecture with Pixar characters overlaid on snack stands and souvenir shops.

Nothing on Pixar Pier is strictly a downgrade from its predecessor (except perhaps Mickey’s Fun Wheel being renamed the Pixar Pal-a-Round, despite the fact that pie-eyed Mickey remains on the Ferris wheel’s face), but there’s really no substantial upgrade either, with many of the land’s “new” offerings amounting to vinyl stickers, static props, and a swap toward Pixar’s primary color scheme.

Image: Disney / Pixar

In Disney’s California Adventure: Part II, we argue that the “story” of Pixar Pier (the thing Disney designers continually tell us is most important in Imagineering) appears practically non-existent. At best, the “story” would be that the modern Walt Disney Company owns a historically-preserved Californian boardwalk dating back to the turn-of-the-century and has decided to overlay its high-earning Pixar brand on the carnival rides there. It’s not too far off. The story created for the Incredicoaster is that the Incredibles are being honored with the rededication and renaming of an old wooden roller coaster on Pixar Pier…! So… I guess art imitates life?

Image: Disney / Pixar

Though some of the scenery may convince you that you’ve been transported to an elegant, historic, seaside pier, a Wall-e themed carnival game, Incredibles roller coaster, or giant Poultry Palace food service kiosk will quickly remind you that you’re squarely in the present. What’s more, it’s a shame that emotional, beloved, and heart-wrenching films like Inside Out, Wall•e, and Finding Nemo are relegated to merely being stickered overlays of carnival rides and games… Disney Tourist Blog’s Tom Bricker probably put it best: “Pixar is not a theme.”

6. Walt Disney Studios Park

Image: Disney

Call us unfair, but we’re going to lump all of the lands at Disneyland Paris’ second gate together. The most underbuilt, underfunded, and creatively starved Disney Park ever (yes, worse than 2001’s California Adventure), Walt Disney Studios was a contractual obligation that obliged at the downright-worst time in Disney Parks history. Voila! We took a walk through the pathetic park in its own feature, Declassified Disaster: Walt Disney Studios Park, but imagine taking all that was wrong with Disney’s Hollywood Studios and removing the attractions that helped make it right. 

In fact, the park was made of only four lands when it opened: Studio 1 (an enclosed entry modeled after Hollywood Blvd., but exclusively populated with flat facades and studio lighting rigs), Production Courtyard (offering only the park’s Studio Tram Tour, even more pointless than Florida’s), Production Courtyard (with a clone of Florida’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster) and Animation Courtyard (with a simple Dumbo-style spinning ride of Flying Carpets). That’s it. The park was mostly made of wide open blacktop expanses and industrial “backlot” plazas of oversized attraction marquees and bland, beige studio soundstages.

Now, in the years since its opening, Disney has – of course – invested heavily in the miniscule mini-park (to the detriment of poor Disneyland Paris next door, who hasn’t recieved a new E-Ticket since 1995). The addition of a small Toy Story Land helped some, and a mini-land themed to Ratatouille and featuring an anchor E-Ticket was much-needed. But Walt Disney Studios needed its own California Adventure-sized redo… and thankfully, it’s on the way.

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

In 2018, Disney surprised everyone by revealing that Walt Disney Studios will soon undergo a floor-to-ceiling transformation, creating a lagoon encircled by World Showcase style pavilions, except that – rather than international countries  – those “pavilions” will be immersive worlds from Disney films: Marvel, Star Wars, and Frozen to start, joining Toy Story and Ratatouille. You can see the beginnings of a new model arising here, melding Disney’s hit lands with an Islands-of-Adventure layout to create the next generation of what a “movie” park could be. But until that transformation is complete, Walt Disney Studios will remain – by a wide margin – the worst Disney Park on Earth.

7. Future World

Image: Disney

Location: Epcot

We mentioned at the start of this feature that if a Disney land isn’t immersive, it’s probably because designers didn’t want it to be. That’s definitely the case with Future World, one of the two realms of EPCOT Center. At least at its origin, EPCOT Center’s thesis was surprisingly simple: it would be a permanent World’s Fair that – like the real international expos of the century (and especially in Disney’s case, decades) prior – would feature large “pavilions” with rides, shows, restaurants, and shops inside. A well-circulated antecdote story says that EPCOT Center came about when a model of a “science and industry” themed World’s Fair and a “culture” themed World’s Fair were pushed together, with Future World and World Showcase as the result.

Image: Disney

At its height, Future World offered nine pavilions – each dedicated to an area of industry and innovation, sponsored by a mega-corporation, almost inevitably featuring a closed classic Lost Legend, and focused on a single area of study: energy (Universe of Energy), health and medicine (Wonders of Life), transportation (World of Motion), communication (Spaceship Earth), technology (Communicore), oceans (The Living Seas), agriculture (The Land), creativity (Journey into Imagination), and the keystone to bring them all together (Horizons). 

Think of how revolutionary it was in 1982 that Disney – synonymous with castles, princesses, and pirates – had built a park entirely abstaining from Disney characters, fairy tales, or fantasy! EPCOT Center was something different entirely – something arguably grander. And maybe that was its downfall.

Image: Disney

Obviously, we know today that the groundbreaking “edutainment” pavilions of Future World have fallen, replacing conceptually-connected, epic, educational dark rides with Guardians of the Galaxy, Mission: SPACE, TEST TRACK, Nemo and Friends, Soarin’, and the Imagination Institute, cutting the ties that bound them together into a larger-than-life narrative about civilization and instead becoming piecemeal parts of a seemingly aimless shift in direction without a core vision. But at its heart, Future World is unique in its unprecedented rejection of the “immersive,” cinematic styling Disney Parks had been otherwise known for, opting for optimistic reality and futurism instead. 

“Here you leave today…”

From the start, Disney Parks have done things differently. Their “bread and butter” is inviting guests to step into “worlds that never were, but always will be;” cinematic scenes born of pop culture; historic, idealized, romanticized worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

But once in a while, lands diverge from Disney’s strengths – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes accidentally. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a Disney land failing to be “immersive.” But it’s interesting to see where Disney ditches its signature style… and why.

What do you think? Are some of the lands here among Disney’s strongest, even though they ditch fantasy or fail to fully immerse guests into a living world? And don’t forget to make the jump to our Countdown: The Most Immersive Themed Lands on Earth to see the lands we rank highest in immersion and “magic,” and the immersive lands soon-to-come that may dethrone them all…