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The REAL History of 6 Hollywood Icons Brought to Life in Disney Parks

When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, CEO Michael Eisner's opening speech dedicated the park "to Hollywood—not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine." He memorably welcomed guests to "a Hollywood that never was – but always will be."

What he meant is that Disney's Hollywood is dreamlike; passed through a lens of nostalgia and optimism. As usual, Imagineers took the reality of Hollywood and made it romantic and timeless. It's idealized and blurred, with all the skill of storytelling and placemaking Disney can muster. it's the Hollywood we collectively imagine and dream of, even if it never truly existed to begin with. And yet, it's not fiction.

Today, we're going to investigate the real histories of six iconic structures at Disney Parks that sprung not from the minds of Imagineers, but from real landmarks of Tinseltown. It's all in hopes that, next time we step into Disney's Hollywood Studios, California Adventure, or Walt Disney Studios Park, we can see things differently... Let's take a look.

1. Hollywood Tower

Image: Joe Wolf, Flickr (license)

THE REAL PLACE: "Hollywood Tower. 1929. Sophisticated living for film luminaries during the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood." A prologue to an episode of The Twilight Zone? You may not be far off... But in reality, those are the words enscribed on a brass plaque at the entrance to the real Hollywood Tower. Built in 1929, the building truly was the height of living at the time, with 50 apartment units, three penthouse suites, underground parking, and a rooftop pool. 

Built in a French Normany Renaissance style, the tower is imposing and elegant. Though it once resided alone on a hill, today it overlooks the Hollywood Freeway, with – can you believe it? – a glowing neon sign reading "HOLLYWOOD TOWER." 

Image: Disney

IN THE PARKS: Depending on where you are in the world, there are two Hollywood Tower Hotels in two very different styles. At Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida, the original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is an imposing, sunset-hued Spanish Colonial Revival tower of minarets, twisted columns, and pointed spires looming at the end of Sunset Blvd. Exposed exterior maintenence stairways lead to a neon sign (just like on the real Hollywood Tower), but given that Disney's version is meant to look lightning-scarred and abandoned, the flickering, sparking sign doesn't look quite as well-kept.

Image: David Jafra, Flickr (license)

A Twilight Zone Tower of Terror exists at Disneyland Paris' Walt Disney Studios Park, as well. There, though, the Hollywood Tower Hotel looks very different. It's a light sandstone color with oxidized teal domes and Egyptian-influenced ironwork in a Southern Californian-influenced "Pueblo Deco" architectural style. It's not as imposingly positioned or as tall, but it's still an attractive building... except for the lightning burns and the crumbling attachments where wings of the hotel have apparently been evaporated.

Neither looks exactly like the real Hollywood Tower. Though strangely, the Parisian version does have a striking similarity to the "space warehouse prison powerplant" looming over Disney California Adventure's Hollywood Land, which looks quite a bit like an art deco 1920s hotel affixed with pipes, satellite dishes, and warning stripes... Odd!

2. Pan-Pacific

Image: Los Angeles Public Library

THE REAL PLACE: When the Pan-Pacific Auditorium opened in 1935, it instantly became the premier event venue of Los Angeles. From 1935 to 1972, sporting events (including UCLA and USC men's basketball), car shows, and the Ice Capades were performed there, not to mention visits by the Harlem Globetrotters, Elvis Presley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. The 100,000 square foot auditorium with seating for 6,000 was – by most accounts – surprisingly simple: essentially a very, very large rectangular gymnasium in a wooden structure, able to be reconfigured for concerts, sporting events, speeches, and more.

What made "the Pan" so iconic were the four soaring, muted green pylon flagpole towers, noted as one of the finest examples of Streamline Moderne architecture – an aerodynamic, stripped-down Art Deco emphasizing sleek, cylindrical forms conveying motion, progress, and speed. Those fins were instantly recognizable, and that made the Pan-Pacific an iconic Los Angeles resident known the world over.

Image: Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archives

The Pan-Pacific was closed in 1972, made obsolete by the opening of the Los Angeles Convention Center. In 1978, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and while several attempts were made to repurpose the structure as an ice rink or community center, it fell into disrepair. The Pan-Pacific burned down on May 24, 1989.

IN THE PARKS: The soaring, streamlined towers of the Pan-Pacific became equally iconic for a new generation when they were recreated in nearly full scale (albeit in a vibrant turquoise) as the entry gates to the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, leading to the 1930s Hollywood Blvd. entry land. The park opened on May 1, 1989, meaning that the real Pan-Pacific and its Disney counterpart coexisted for three weeks.

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

When we told the story of the Declassified Disaster: Disney California Adventure's five-year, billion-dollar overhaul, part of the package was a new entry land for the park: Buena Vista Street, celebrating a 1920s and '30s Los Angeles. The Pan-Pacific Gates were re-used there, too, placing them opposite Disneyland's beloved Main Street Station. Beyond the gates lies another real-life building brought back to life...

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