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

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
Location:
 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?

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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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