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Turning Point: The Death and Rebirth of Disney's Hollywood Studios

Do you know what’s amazing about the internet? When someone has a complaint about something, they can voice their displeasure online. Should enough others agree with this point of view, the feedback will lead to a news cycle and possibly a complete change in public opinion.

Corporations can read these comments in real-time and learn when their customers don’t feel satisfied. They know when something could be better. And it’s this knowledge that is the backbone of today’s discussion. We’re going to talk about the Turning Point when Disney shuttered the Hollywood Studios that you’ve always known in favor of Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, and Darth Vader.

Walt Disney World’s greatest disappointment

From the beginning, Disney-MGM Studios struggled to find an audience. Part of the problem stemmed from the paucity of attractions when the park debuted. The third gate at Walt Disney World offered only one true ride on opening day plus a couple of tours. The primary attraction was certainly an instant classic, the now-defunct Great Movie Ride. Still, critics assailed Disney for such a mediocre early product.

Over the years, Disney dumped MGM as a partner and built up Disney's Hollywood Studios as a worthy theme park. They added quality attractions such as Star Tours, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. Still, the park always maintained a stigma that it didn’t have enough going for it.

The negative opinions toward Hollywood Studios only intensified over the years. I can actually quantify the disappointment with statistics. Since 2006, Hollywood Studios was the least trafficked park at Walt Disney World for eight out of 10 years. Yes, the numbers are usually close between Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, but the animal-centric park has done better every year since 2009. Until the arrival of Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney's Hollywood Studios claimed a decided edge in the quality of its rides, but Animal Kingdom still beat it.

How a timeless theme grows outdated

The core concept of Hollywood Studios has proven its undoing over time. It’s intended as a celebration of classic Hollywood, the golden age of cinema. That era was also when Walt Disney asserted dominance, inventing a new form of filmmaking that rendered actors superfluous. His animated works were of such immaculate quality that to this day, Disney remains the most decorated person in the history of the Academy Awards.

A theme park celebrating the movies that he loved and the movies that he made once seemed like a great idea. Over time, the advent of the internet has reduced the specialness of Hollywood legends…and I say that as someone who has run a movie website since 2001. In the social media era, the passion for Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Gene Kelly has declined. All of them played integral roles in The Great Movie Ride, but guests seemed to stop caring.

In recent years, the wait-times at Hollywood Studios have declined at a time when other parks have seen an increase in traffic. That’s troubling for a gate with few attractions to begin with. The Great Movie Ride in particular rarely had a prolonged wait, and in the time between Star Wars movies, Star Tours also declined in popularity. The hook of Disney's Hollywood Studios, everyone’s love of movies, became something of an anchor. There was one notable exception, though…

Disney fans love Disney movies. Go figure.

What’s the most popular ride at Hollywood Studios? I’ll give you a hint. It’s the one with such consistent lines that Disney eventually added a third track to host more guests. Yes, Toy Story Midway Mania has defied the trend of other attractions at this park. Its demand has remained consistently high even as other attractions faltered. The same is true at another struggling North American Disney park, Disney California Adventure (DCA). It, too, has a shaky overall park theme, but the issues guests had with the place didn’t negatively impact the Toy Story ride.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Disney park planner. First of all, congratulations on getting your dream job! Second, look at the information that you have in front of you. Parks with unpopular concepts like DCA and Disney's Hollywood Studios are struggling. There’s one glaring exception, and it’s an intellectual property that your company owns. Specifically, it’s the Toy Story brand from your Pixar library. Guests can’t seem to get enough of it even as they’re ambivalent about other formerly popular attractions such as The Great Movie Ride and Star Tours. What do you take from this information?

Now, narrow your focus to Disney's Hollywood Studios. You know that the theme is Hollywood entertainment, and you know that nobody else does that better than your own employer, The Walt Disney Company. In fact, your movie studio makes the best products in the industry. These films grossed more than $5.2 billion domestically in 2016-2017. No other studio managed even $4 billion.

If Hollywood is the theme, isn’t Disney the main carrier of the movie flag today? Their recent hits include Beauty & the Beast, Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Coco. All of those films could have a park presence, and two currently do. With so many A-list titles released by the studio each year, a logical conclusion is easy to reach. Disney doesn’t need anybody else for Hollywood Studios. They probably should have realized that back when they removed MGM from the name of the park. What’s different now is…

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