Home » Walt Disney World Just Lost its Most Unique Attraction. This is Why.

Walt Disney World Just Lost its Most Unique Attraction. This is Why.

Disney-MGM Studios

Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, was a shrewd, shrewd man. In his time with Disney, he revolutionized the film division, overseeing an era that saw Walt Disney Animation produce countless classic films, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. He guided Disney through its acquisition of ABC and ESPN – properties that now make up an enormous chunk of Disney’s overall valuation.

But where Eisner was most successful, principally, was Walt Disney World – and it was there that his shrewdness came into sharp focus. Under his watch, Walt Disney World grew from a vacation resort into an international destination, complete with world class hotels, high-brow restaurants, and utterly unique experiences – even those outside the parks. He and his Imagineers continued to push the boundaries of what Walt Disney World could be, going as far as to greenlight two additional theme parks for construction in the resort.

The first of those parks, then called Disney-MGM Studios, is perhaps Eisner’s most fascinating creation. Bourne out of the nascent rivalry between Disney and Universal, that park was presented to the public as a real, working movie studio – one which could revolutionize not only the Walt Disney World Resort, but Central Florida as well. And, helpfully, it would give Disney the chance to quash the upstart movie theme park located just down I-4.

 Disney-MGM Studios

Image: Disney

The degree to which that was successful is, indeed, what makes this particular park most fascinating. Neither Disney nor Universal was able to create a self-sustaining film studio in Orlando, despite their best efforts otherwise. And now, roughly a quarter century after their rivalry began, one of the last vestiges of that ambitious mandate is shuttering for good: The Magic of Disney Animation.

On July 12, 2015, Disney closed down The Magic of Disney Animation, although the events leading to its closure were set into motion a great many years before that day. It had changed over the years, Disney was just about to announce the most aggressive expansion in the park’s history, and the company would need some space to make that expansion happen. But while this attraction had lost some of its former glory over the years through various refurbishments and refreshings, it’s important to remember that some of the most iconic and influential sequences in animation history were created within that building.

So, let’s take a look back at The Magic of Disney Animation – how it came to be, what it really was, and why, ultimately, it just had to go.

Why did Disney want to build this thing in the first place?

From 1971 to 1986, Walt Disney World existed in a state of calm tranquility. It was doing its own thing, building new attractions, hotels and experiences, while the rest of Florida slowly adjusted to the new reality of having one of the largest tourist destinations in the world at their doorstep. You could call it a honeymoon period – a time when everything was good and easy for everyone: Disney was making money for itself, and by proxy, for the local businesses and governments as well.

But in 1986, that tranquility was broken – briefly – by an upstart theme park with cinematic roots of its own: Universal Studios Florida.

At the time, this was a pretty big curiosity in the theme park world. It’s weird to think of it now, but when the plan for Universal was first announced, It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. While Universal Studios Hollywood was successful, it was essentially an add-on to their already existing movie studio. Universal wasn’t as much seen as an amusement park company as it was a film company with a semi-profitable side business showing off their backlot to curious visitors. Their signature attraction, after all, was a tram tour of their studio – an experience that seemed impossible to replicate in Orlando. 

Disney-MGM Studios construction (2)

Image: Disney

Nevertheless, they’d try – Universal said that, as part of its plan to open in Florida, they’d open a real, working backlot on site. And, to a certain degree, they were successful: Ask any kid raised in the ‘90s about the Nickelodeon studio in Orlando, and they’ll tell you they desperately wanted to go and see it for themselves.

Magically, in 1987, Disney announced plans for a movie-themed park/working film studio of their own, which just happened to be developed at the same time as Universal’s. What a coincidence! And, using the extraordinary municipal powers granted to them through the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney opened its park first in 1989.

The goal of the rapid construction was simple: Neutralize Universal as quickly as possible. Universal had never tried to build a theme park from scratch before, and even Universal Studios Hollywood wasn’t a traditional theme park by any means. They’d never really built large rides before, and would likely need to work out the kinks of the process. 

Disney, on the other hand, had just opened Epcot less than a decade earlier. And, before that, they had decades of experience operating the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. They knew that, even with their own opening day difficulties, they could put together a park that would be better than Universal’s on day one.

Even with all of this knowledge gained through the decades of their theme park operations, Disney still wasn’t 100 percent sure it would be able to beat Universal on its merits. And so, if they were really going to differentiate themselves from the new kids on the block, they’d need something special. Like, say, the offices of the heart and soul of the company.

The birth of Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida

Image: Disney

Even more than their experience, Disney had a trump card that Universal simply couldn’t match with its Florida property: Walt Disney Animation.

The thought process went like this: If we put an outpost of our most historically successful division in Florida, we can outsource work there – right where people could see it happen. It’d give us the ability to say real movies are being made there without having to attract any actual film productions, which is a very competitive process and one which, ultimately, would prove impossible.

And so, Disney decided to build a space to house the newly created Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida – and wouldn’t you know it, it just happened to come at the perfect time in the company’s history.

Image: Disney

The Magic of Disney Animation attraction was really two entities that met in the middle: One was the theme park attraction, and the other was the working studio space housing Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. We’ll get to the former in a second, but we first have to take a look at the backstory of the latter.

After Walt and Roy Disney died, Walt Disney Animation was left somewhat rudderless. That division, much like the rest of the company, took so much of its direction from its iconoclastic and visionary founder that, without him, it was difficult to move forward. The period immediately following Walt’s passing – a time spanning nearly 25 years – featured a dearth of classic Disney animated films. That era produced a few cult hits – films like Pete’s Dragon or The Fox and the Hound – but none of the smash successes Disney was known for, like Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1988, however, that changed – seemingly on a dime. In just one year, Disney released two films that put its animation studio back on the public’s radar: the clever and cute Oliver & Company and the profoundly strange Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Even before those films were released, the atmosphere around Walt Disney Animation was so positive that they took two crazy steps.

The first was to open their satellite studio in Orlando at the soon-to-be-opened Disney-MGM Studios. The second was to put into production a film called The Little Mermaid. One of those two projects caused a new generation of kids to fall in love with Disney, while the other gave them the opportunity to connect with it on an even deeper level.

The Disney renaissance

Image: Disney

There seems to have been an energy in place from 1988-1989 that catapulted Disney into the stratosphere. And, while it’s probably not the only reason, it’s hard not to connect the dots and suggest that Disney’s Orlando studio helped ignite the spark that brought about the golden Disney Decade – one of the most successful eras for the company’s films, theme parks, and other holdings.

When Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, the Magic of Disney Animation opened along with it, giving guests the chance to see Disney’s animators creating new films in real life. Most filmmakers only get to interact with their audience when the film is completed – and, often, the process of making the films can feel disconnected and distant. This disjointed feeling can become even more alienating while working on an animated film; there are no actors and no sets, and very often, the production process can last years instead of months. Yet, unlike their counterparts in California, these animators in Florida were given a constant reminder of why they were doing what they were doing – they were telling stories, and for the first time, they could see who they were telling those stories to. With their studio in Florida, Disney’s animators got to see, while they worked, their audience peering back at them.

Image: Disney

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that some of the most memorable and iconic sequences in the Disney canon came from that studio: the two most notable being the I Just Can’t Wait to Be King sequence from The Lion King, and the Be Our Guest number from Beauty and the Beast. The joy and passion that pour off the screen in those scenes has to come, in part, because of the connection those animators felt with their audience as they were piecing those moments together. In the same way live theater can produce an ambient electricity between the audience and the performers, so too can creating art while under the eye of the filmgoing public add an extra bit of zeal to the work of the animators.

Need more evidence? In the time Walt Disney Feature Animation Orlando was open, Disney produced the following films: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. That is an impressive run of successful films – and most of them were penned, in part, right in the heart of the park we now call Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Maybe it’s not the only reason, but that personal touch has to be part of the equation that brought about some of the most beloved films in the Disney canon.

So, what was the Magic of Disney Animation like as an attraction?

Animation Building

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

While the Magic of Disney Animation has gone through many changes over the years, the signature version of the attraction ran while the animation studio was fully in operation — roughly the period from 1989-2003. The experience was akin to a walkthrough, museum-style attraction, where guests would proceed room-to-room with a tour guide, learning about the animation process as well as the Walt Disney Company’s history.

While it might seem small when described this way, the full tour was an expansive look behind the scenes at one of the largest animation studios in the world – and it was a lengthy experience that was one of Disney-MGM Studios’ keystone attractions.

The tour began with guests entering the attraction queue and winding through various artifacts from Disney history – some cells and sketches from early animated films, one of Walt Disney’s Oscars, and more memorabilia associated with the mouse. From there, the guests would enter a large theater and watch the first filmed portion of the attraction – an utterly charming featurette starring Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite called Back to Neverland.

Back to Neverland

Image: Disney

In the film, Cronkite has been tasked with walking the audience through the Disney animation progress, and in doing so, decides to pick a “volunteer” among a group of tourists to be turned into a cartoon. Naturally, Cronkite chooses Williams – complete with a classic Goofy hat – and the film begins in earnest.

Using Williams as its protagonist, the film showed off each of the technical inventions and artistic skills that go into the production of a Disney animated film – everything from sketching to color to the multi-plane camera to the computer. During the process, Williams becomes one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, and the transformation is as wonderfully done and emotionally resonant as any feature-length Disney film.

Check it out:

The film was directed by Disney vet Jerry Rees, who was more famous at the time for his work on 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster, but has since gone on to collaborate on other Imagineering projects.

From there, Cronkite and Williams would guide guests along glass hallways showing off more artifacts from the animation process, as well as a demonstration from a current Disney animator. And, after that, guests proceeded on a walking tour wherein they could see real Disney animators working on upcoming feature films. And, If they were lucky, they might see some frames and cels from those films displayed out in the open. 

It was genius, when you think about it – Disney gave guests a peek behind the curtain, and in doing so, got them excited to rush off to see the next Disney film the moment it hit theaters.

A few more film presentations followed, one of which featured animators describing the process in their own words, and another of which showcased some high points from Disney animation history. And then, after another brief exhibit hall with more museum-style artifacts, guests were released back into the Animation Courtyard to go about their day.

The whole experience lasted roughly 45 minutes, and was considered a major attraction at its peak. When it was at its best, The Magic of Disney Animation showed guests in Florida something they couldn’t normally see: Their favorite movies, in production. That was special, and early on, it gave Disney what they needed to fend off Universal’s attack.

How it changed and why it ultimately closed

It may seem trite to say, but when you’re in a time of great prosperity, it’s hard to realize that it could ever come to an end. This was the case with the Disney Renaissance and the Disney Decade, both of which seemed to come to a halt around the same time – the dawn of the new millennium.

While Walt Disney Animation’s run from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan was unparalleled in its success, it experienced a slight downturn in the time following those films. In fact, other than Lilo and Stitch in 2002, the Studio didn’t produce another smash hit again for nearly a decade. With diminishing returns coming on Disney’s investment in its animation department, as well as the shift to computer animation following Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995, it didn’t quite make sense for Disney Animation to keep running its Florida outpost.

And so, Disney began a slow drawdown of Florida operations after Lilo and Stitch – and by 2003, hardly anything was produced in the Disney-MGM Studios.

While the Magic of Disney Animation was a fantastic attraction while the studio was open, it lost a spark whenever production shut down. Throughout the Disney Decade, it seemed as though new animated features were being made almost daily in Florida, but as that creative well began to dry up, so too did the production schedule in the Orlando facility.

During the leaner times, the experience left much to be desired. Half the attraction – the portions involving a tour of the animators’ studio – was rendered moot when there wasn’t a film actively being made. Guests weren’t interest in spending their time walking among empty corridors and viewing blank sheets of paper.

As production slowed in Orlando – and was eventually shuttered for good – Disney realized they needed to alter the attraction to be more of a walk-through museum, rather than a tour. The pretense of the area being a working studio was mostly dropped, and with it, the Back to Neverland feature left as well. A new film centered on Mushu from Mulan (a film made in Orlando, no less) was created, and much of the space was converted to be the home of several interactive activities – all culminating with the Animation Academy,where guest animators would teach parkgoers how to draw Disney characters themselves.

The diminished attraction still had its fans, as every Disney attraction does, but by 2015, it had become clear that the experience had run its course. Without real films being made on the premises, it didn’t make sense to dedicate so much real estate to such a simple experience. And so, on July 12, the Magic of Disney Animation closed for good.

What Disney learned, and where the future may take it

Image © Disney

Guests connect with something real – or something so close to being real that they’re able to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy it. In the 1990s, with the original Magic of Disney Animation, Disney gave them something real. They could watch a real film being made, before their eyes, and see everything that went into that process. But ever since that original version of the attraction went away, both it and Disney’s Hollywood Studios at large have had something of an existential crisis.

Where this park has failed is that now, and for the past decade, it has failed to do either of those things – it has neither shown guests something real, nor has it given them a world transporting enough as to seem real. Some attractions, like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, are completely immersive. Others, like Star Tours, have a studio backlot aesthetic that always seems to pull you out in a jarring fashion. While you can seamlessly find your way back to reality after, say, Space Mountain, you don’t have that same experience when you’re thrust into the movie studio vibe of Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

While this has been true for some time with Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it wasn’t until Universal Orlando opened its immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter that it became glaringly obvious. Universal offered real immersion, while Disney’s Hollywood Studios offered something of a knockoff version.

The announcements at D23 show that Disney is now changing that. Gone is the faux-studio aesthetic, and in its place will be real, total immersion. Star Tours will now be transplanted into an actual planet form the world of Star Wars. Toy Story Mania will be given a proper exterior amid a full-sized recreation of the world from its namesake film.

The next 10 years will see Disney’s Hollywood Studios transform into an entirely different park, but, as they say, everything old is new again. Maybe Disney isn’t making movies on that park’s property anymore, but now they’re doing something even better – they’re putting you inside one.

Image © Disney

Back to Neverland worked because Robin Williams was our avatar on screen. We experienced the animation process through him, and his unequaled wit and childlike charm perfectly represented the Disney guest. However, ultimately, you couldn’t help but feel a bit envious of the guy. After all, he got to live out every child’s dream and live inside a Disney movie. That’s the same impulse that drove you to dress up as Aladdin or Belle or Snow White or Robin Hood when you were a kid, and it’s the impulse that drives kids today to show up at the Disney parks dressed as Anna or Elsa or Hiro or Tony Stark. We’ve all wanted to be one of those characters.

Well, with these new developments, now you can. Soon, you’ll be able to blast your way out of a spaceport in the Millennium Falcon, or hang out with Woody and the gang in their very own world. So, maybe Disney isn’t showing us how they make their movies anymore – but what’s the point of being behind-the-scenes when now we can be on stage? Wasn’t that always the magic of Disney animation, anyway?