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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 is 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 a new Marvel-themed area 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 Marvel land 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.

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