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A celebration of cinema or a hodge-podge of all-things-nominally-Disney?

Disney's Hollywood Studios Sorcerer's Hat at Night
Image: Flickr, Dawn Ashley (license)

With the closing of production-centric attractions like The Art of Disney Animation and The American Idol Experience, Disney’s Hollywood Studios began a subtle shift. New attractions no longer focused on the making of film, music, and television—rather, the vision was expanded to dive directly into Disney’s most popular stories in immersive ways, particularly those stories that didn’t quite fit in other parks.

This change happened gradually, and it has left the vision for Disney’s Hollywood Studios in a rather nebulous state. Everything from the park’s primary icon to its content has remained in flux (I don’t lament the demise of the sorcerer’s hat, personally). The only connection to Hollywood, really, is the park’s décor and the fact that you could say almost any Disney property has roots in Hollywood. Disney seems to have realized this—at one point, they even started floating potential alternate names for the park in guest surveys.

The natural conclusion is that Disney’s Hollywood Studios has become something of a catch-all for Disney’s popular properties that just don’t fit in other parks. Magic Kingdom is the home of Disney classics—even TRON has a long enough legacy to make sense there. Disney’s Animal Kingdom remains the resort’s most cohesive park thematically, with new ventures like The World of Pandora integrating seamlessly into the core vision exploring nature. Epcot remains an odd egg among theme parks overall, but even with the park’s current re-envisioning, the core concepts have remained the same—celebrating discovery, innovation, diversity, and the human experience.

That leaves Disney’s Hollywood Studios as the only logical landing point for properties like Pixar, Star Wars, The Muppets, Indiana Jones, and more. Just because a park works as a catch-all doesn’t make a core thematic concept, however…

A winning combination

Rise of the Resistance stormtroopers in Star Destroyer hangar
Image: Disney

The biggest move towards a solid direction for Disney’s Hollywood Studios has only come in the last few years—particularly surrounding the arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

While the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge stirred much controversy (partially because the Star Wars franchise itself has become wildly divisive), the land’s arrival at Walt Disney World proved a staggering success. Unlike its California counterpart which seemed to draw mixed reactions, “Batuu East” drew such impressive crowds that Disney had to navigate a complex dance opening the park early many days just to contend with the numbers of fans hoping for a chance to explore the Black Spire Outpost.

While some of this simmered off after the initial opening, things bounced back in an insane way with the arrival of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance—an attraction that has remained Disney’s most popular to date. Rise of the Resistance proved so successful, it launched Disney’s Hollywood Studios from being the resort’s least popular park to its most popular, even outpacing attendance at Magic Kingdom for a season.

Disney scored two other big wins for Disney’s Hollywood Studios with the opening of Toy Story Land and the surprisingly charming Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The park feels better balanced these days with a range of rides for the whole family, the common thread being beloved stories connected to the Walt Disney Company that aren’t necessarily Disney classics. Even Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway is themed after the newer zany adventures of Disney’s most popular couple rather than the classic cartoons one might find referenced at Magic Kingdom.

The question remains, though—will Disney ride this wave to a revitalization for Disney’s Hollywood Studios to a place of exciting creativity, or will they cave to the temptation to let the marketing monster steer the ship, resulting in a park that feels unfocused and disjointed?

Where do they go next?

Slinky Dog Dash coaster car
Image: Disney

There are a lot of great ideas for where Disney’s Hollywood Studios could go next to integrate the pieces they have in place and make room for new ideas. There is definitely potential for Disney to lean into exploring more ultra-immersive worlds like The World of Pandora and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as one possibility. Some Marvel content could even make sense in the park if Disney can identify more ways to capitalize on the MCU without violating their agreement with Universal Studios.

Finding creative ways to keep the park cohesive is going to be the tricky part, though, and the “Hollywood” theme may not be the best way to do so. This pains me to say, as I absolutely loved the movie-making focus of the park’s original concept to the point it influenced my own career in film, but it’s true, nonetheless.

One of my big complaints about Universal Studios Orlando is that the park feels crazy disjointed in some ways. Unlike Universal Islands of Adventure--a beautifully themed park that encourages guests to ride the waves of immersion between fantastical islands of storytelling--Universal Studios Orlando can feel a bit like a crazy patchwork of sound-stage rides with little relation to each other. With the exception of the insulated Diagon Alley section, the atmosphere just isn’t as cohesive as what guests might expect at Walt Disney World.

If Disney isn’t careful, Disney’s Hollywood Studios could fall into the same conundrum, and we are at a key moment where the park balances on that knife’s edge. The establishment of dedicated lands like Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has helped, but it begs the question if the park needs an overall re-theme to accommodate the new direction. The Hollywood focus could theoretically remain part of the overall legacy, but in its current state, it’s not a very strong spine to build an entire park around.

Tower of Terror
Image: Disney

In this current season, many longtime fans have confessed frustration feeling like Disney’s financial decision-makers are driving the company’s creative departments right now. It’s a trap Disney has fallen into before (during the tumultuous years surrounding the opening of EuroDisney, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Disney California Adventure), and it’s something Walt largely tried to avoid. He preferred to keep a healthy separation between creative minds and those in charge of budgets.

If raising Disney’s bottom line becomes the sole priority, there will be a strong temptation to pack the fertile ground of Disney’s Hollywood Studios with as many marketable Disney IP’s as possible, whether the implementation of those new elements makes thematic sense or not. If you’ve ever compared the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of Fantasmic, you’ll know what I mean. Disneyland’s Fantasmic feels like a brilliant expression of storytelling, while Walt Disney World’s at times feels like a slapdash collage of IP’s mashed together (albeit with more comfortable seating).  

Only time will tell, but we do hope Disney will ride the recent wins revitalizing Disney’s Hollywood Studios to mold the park into something truly unique, exciting, and beautiful—a celebration of their most exhilarating stories—rather than allowing it to become a dumping ground for tantalizing marketable properties that just won’t fit elsewhere.

What do you think about Disney’s Hollywood Studios—where the park is now and where it should go next? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook! Thanks for reading!

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