The year was 1989. Universal Studios had recently announced its intention to build a movie theme park in Orlando, and Disney’s young CEO, Michael Eisner, knew he needed to beat the competition to the punch. Thanks to certain legal concessions that Walt had put into place when Walt Disney World came to town, Disney was able to circumvent much of the permitting process that Universal faced, and opened its own movie park more than a year ahead of Universal’s grand opening.
Then known as Disney-MGM Studios, the park was supposed to herald a new era for Orlando. Dubbed “Hollywood East” by industry insiders, Central Florida was expected to become a centerpiece for film and television production, and Disney-MGM Studios would be its crown jewel. With carefully designed soundstages and post-production facilities that gave guests a birds-eye, yet soundproof, view of the action, the new park would allow visitors behind the scenes as never before. Every attraction was carefully crafted to fulfill this dream, while providing the sort of immersive blend of education and entertainment for which Disney was already famous.
A look at the attractions of the park’s opening day shows how seamlessly this experience was crafted. Granted, many people complained that there was not enough to do—but for wanna-be actors and film buffs in Central Florida, it was pure magic. Almost all of these attractions are long gone, as is the concept of Hollywood East, which proved untenable for many reasons. Even the park’s name changed in 2008 to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, marking a dramatic change to the original vision.
1. Backstage Studio Tour
Anchored by the 1990s version of the Mickey Mouse Club, which filmed at the park from 1989 through 1994, filming was a regular occurrence on the Disney-MGM Studios soundstages. The original incarnation of the Backstage Studio Tour was a 2-hour extravaganza that took guests into the heart of the action.
The imposing entrance to what is now the Animation Courtyard was designed to mark your entrance to the “backstage” world of the soundstages from the “public” areas of Hollywood Boulevard. Here visitors would board a tram for an hour-long journey that included such behind-the-scenes areas as the costume and prop shops, a tour of Residential Street (removed in 2003 to make room for Lights, Motors, Action!), a spin through Catastrophe Canyon (then billed as “filming gone wrong”), and a ride through New York Street (considered a Hot Set, with pedestrian traffic forbidden).
After disembarking from the tram, there was a short break before the walking portion of the tour. This began with a fun and educational look at how special effects were created before moving on to an up-close peek behind the scenes. Through soundproof glass walkways, guests could observe filming of their favorite productions, and then look in on the post-production process before taking in previews of upcoming films at the Walt Disney Theater.
A drastically shortened version of this tour limped along until September 2014, when it finally closed for good. Filming had long since moved on, and for the last several years there really wasn’t much to see.
2. The Magic of Disney Animation Tour
Accessed through a modest entrance to the right of the Backstage Studio Tour loading area, The Magic of Disney Animation Tour was a charming look at the legendary Disney animation process. It began with “Back to Neverland,” a short film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams, in which Williams was turned into one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. Afterwards, guests had the opportunity, via glassed-in elevated walkways, to watch the animators of Walt Disney Animation Orlando at work on such now-classics as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Mulan. Two more short films followed, one featuring the Disney Animators talking about their love of the process, and one encapsulating key moments from animated Disney films.
Both Walt Disney Animation Orlando and the tour were gradually gutted over the years, and when Disney closed its Orlando animation facility altogether in 2004, the experience was fundamentally over. A shell still exists today, with an “animator” giving a short presentation. But by and large, what was once magical is now gone for good.