What is Disney's Hollywood Studios, and what should it be?
That question has hung over decades of Disney Imagineers like a dark cloud. It makes sense... after all, you have to remember that when Walt Disney World's third gate (then called the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park) opened in 1989, its purpose was twofold: externally, to whisk guests away into the real, behind-the-scenes filmmaking of Walt Disney Pictures, and internally, to scare competitors at Universal Studios out of their plans to build a version of their world famous Studio Tour in Orlando. Long story short: neither endeavor was successful.
As a result, Disney spent decades laboring over the park, stuffing it with one-off E-Tickets to draw in guests. The park's "studio backlot" theme was a scapegoat of sorts, allowing designers to abandon the standards they'd set at Magic Kingdom and EPCOT and instead mash piecemeal IPs into beige studio soundstages, focusing on promotion over permanence. Even by the early 2000s, the park's "studio" style had soured. In an era defined by immersive, timeless projects like Islands of Adventure and Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios looked like a cop-out.
In the mid-2010s, Disney began polling guests on potential new names for the park, at last signalling that it might turn away from its "backlot" origins... "Disney Cinemagine Kingdom." "Disney XL Park." "Disney Beyond Park." "Disney Kaleidoscope Park." None stuck. That's probably because – especially with Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge announced – it was obvious that Disney's Hollywood Studios wasn't a Studio... but... what was it?
Ultimately, the Hollywood Studios name stuck (with a redesigned logo simply downplaying the word "Studio," as if it might shrink into obsolescence to be replaced with the word "Adventure" at any moment). But even with Toy Story Land and Galaxy's Edge in play, Hollywood Studios remains a park confused. Too many E-Tickets. Too little for families. Tons of underutilized space, dead-ends, soundstages, and mish-mashed IPs... If you've ever daydreamed about what you would do to fix Hollywood Studios, you've come to the right place...
So what do we think Hollywood Studios could be? It's a very good question... and today, we'll step into our own, idealized, dreamy reimagining of Disney World's third gate – a celebration of the magic of Hollywood, and the worlds it has created. In Part I of our walkthrough, we'll explore the first four lands in our ideal, armchair-Imagineered version of this park – two existing lands that we've "plussed" and "built-out," and two from-scratch projects we've imagined.
Along the way, remember that the point of a "Blue Sky" build-out is to dream big... to think outside the box, and to work with the existing pieces of this park to create something better for everyone. Is our version of Hollywood Studios perfect? Of course not! But I hope that once you've toured Part I and next month's Part II, you'll feel like this multiversal, fully-matured variant of the park would be on your bucket list to visit.
So with that said, let's explore the first half of our lovingly-reimagined Hollywood Studios, land-by-land from the real background to the full build-out...
I truly believe that in the patheon of Disney Parks “main streets,” Hollywood Blvd. must be among the best. It truly takes everything that makes Imagineering’s projects so powerful and combines it into one.
It’s habitable and historic, but idealized and romanticized; “a Hollywood that never was, but always will be;” in an instant, it transports guests to a place and time that they may not even be able to pin down. It doesn’t matter. Hollywood Blvd. is this vibrant, glowing, powerful, cultural mirage of what the Golden Age of Hollywood was, with every crack papered over; every wrinkle erased, and even a castle at the end of the street: the scaled recreation of the Chinese Theater.
If Hollywood Blvd. has a flaw, it’s that it’s too short (basically as if Main Street U.S.A. terminated at Center Street) and has too many gaps, where pathways branch off and expose that the street isn’t very “real” upon close inspection. I didn’t address the former, but I did try to iron out the latter.
I started by plugging the hole in the street that branches off halfway down on the left, leading to (in the real park) Echo Lake. Why? Mostly because that’s the start of this park descending into pathway chaos, with random breakaways and obsolete plazas and frustrating revertions to “studio backlot” aesthetic. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the area in front of the Chinese Theater as the park’s “Hub,” from which everything diverges, with as little sightline intrusion as possible.
The plaza in front of the Chinese Theater was famously designed as a large, upside down Hidden Mickey with Echo Lake as the character’s left ear. Over time, that feature has been pretty hideously disfigured by new planters that have ruined the eyes, “Center Stage” being built over the nose, and Sunset Blvd. erasing the right ear out of existence. So I brought it back (albeit, rightside-up this time) using an ear for an accessory plaza.
Otherwise, I made relatively few changes to Hollywood Blvd.! Just a new SILVER SCREEN MUSEUM exhibit behind a newly-extended facade along the Hub, and CLUB OBI WAN – a “lounge” style bar paying homage to the Shanghai club as seen in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Seemed to me like a sweet little “in-universe,” period-appropriate hangout that could become a favorite of Annual Passholders. These additions also have the benefit of helping to box in the park’s “Hub” so it feels like a part of Hollywood Blvd. instead of a massive, sun-drenched plaza. (As it is, the Chinese Theater is so far from the place where Hollywood Blvd. terminates that it feels like something else entirely.)
I also decided to add the HOLLYWOOD LINE STREET CARS, a version of Disney California Adventure’s Red Car Trolley that would whisks guests down Hollywood Blvd. and around the corner to Sunset Blvd. As simple as it seems, a ride like this adds so much life, vibrancy, and – yes – capacity to Hollywood Studios and makes this entry land feel like a real must-have. (Granted, part of Disney World’s problem is that operations deems it easier to simply pull these kinds of attractions than to navigate the crowds.)
Last but not least, I decided to swap out the contents of the Chinese Theater, namely by returning a new version of THE GREAT MOVIE RIDE. Don’t get me wrong – I actually love Runaway Railway, and I like setting it in the Chinese Theater so much that I did exactly that in my build-out plan for California Adventure. But at this park, in this land, this building calls for something more akin to a “thesis” attraction – something truly epic, and a great foundational piece for the world to come.
Would I bring the Great Movie Ride back exactly as it was? Probably not. But try as I might, I can’t think of a better basis than the “moving theater” with a live tour guide. It’s really no surprise that it started development as a potential EPCOT Center ride; it was ambitious, thoughtful, weighty, and immersive in a way that I’m not sure a trackless dark ride could re-capture, you know?
Would I bring the Great Movie Ride back in the way the modern Walt Disney Company would? (That is, as a revisionist history of Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars?) Of course not. There’s probably no universe in which Disney would ever consider tipping a hat to pre-1970s films, much less from outside its owned and acquired portfolio… but a tribute to great films of the past and how they laid the groundwork for the future feels like a worthy topic and inhabitant of this building.
See how it works? Building out a park means imagining its best form. It's a "Blue Sky" process, not a budgetary one! In this fully-creative thought process, for just a moment, we can be a little "improbable" about what Disney could or would or should do and imagine an emboldened Hollywood Blvd. without the constraints of reality.
And of course, as the Hollywood Line Street Car glides its way around the corner, we arrive at the park’s second land – one expanded and reoriented from its current state, and a fully original, from-scratch new land you've never seen before…
Wow Brian, you've outdone yourself again! I have really enjoyed walking around this version of the Studios (in my mind), everything fits and makes sense, so beautifully themed. Can't wait to see part two!!