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

EuroDisneyland

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-sight (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…

Cancelled

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…

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There are 4 comments.

What a great review.
Actually The WDC was obliged by contract to build a second park ten years after opening the first park. Also a third park was part of the contract with the French government but I think that was renegotiated.
What I find extremely depressing is that these problems have been around since 2002, fifteen years and there have no plans been announced for any expansions or improvements of the park. Meaning, even if they'd publish any plans, due to the fact that the current refurbishment plan runs till 2022 we won't be seeing any improvements of the park before 2025-2027. Meaning there is no reason to visit this park for almost another decade!
Also the original DLP park has been refurbished to look great for its 25 anniversary but this park too has not received any new large attraction for over 10 years.
I really don't think it's going to work this way. Especially since the other large european themeparks are churning out amazing attractions year after year.

I totally agree with your assessment of this park. I know it very well as I go every 2 years. It is lacking in magic compared to the main Disneyland park in Paris and particularly the Florida & California parks, and I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why. The horrible boxy studio buildings and lack of theming and immersive lands. The comparison of the two carpet rides in the article was striking! Like you said, fountains under one and concrete under the other! Wish they would do what you've said and close a section at a time and re-do them to be immersive themed lands. Starting with that horrible studio 1 entrance building! Still love the park though but just feel it could be so much better, compared to other Disney parks I've been to. Certainly a lot better now with all the additions, I particularly love crush's coaster and Tower of Terror, and Ratatouille was smart. My little boys adore the cars race rally ride and the toy story rides. They are getting their first taste of Orlando Disney magic next year, so excited, it's a whole other level to Paris.

Great article and I agree with all however currently on Trip Advisor it is currently number 1 in Marne-la-Valley out scoring Disneyland Paris!!!!

Great Article, i absolutely argee with you. I don't get why The Walt Disney Company/ Disney Imagineering do have so much trouble, to come up with a great Idea to make WDS a Beautiful Park.

I have to say, i do find it very easy to make something amazing out of it. Front Lot, Production Courtyard and Backlot melt into one big Hollywoodland, behind R'n'Rc will be Star Wars Land, right of it Marvel Land and the rest Pixar Land and in the middle of The Park a giant Lake. Sure, i could explain it in detail, but that would be as long, as your Article.

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