View RSS Feed


The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 2

Rate this Entry
by , 06-15-2011 at 04:37 PM

Last week, we looked at the genesis of the Walt Disney Studios in Part One of our two part series on Disney's magic factory. Today, we wrap things up as we take a tour of the facility which makes the silver screen sing.

Like a small midwestern town, the Burbank studio is laid out along a rational grid of streets. As you travel north along Mickey Avenue, the Animation Building is on the east side of the street and the Hyperion Health Club, Commissary, and the Roy O. Disney building (1976) are on the west side. At the end of the street is the Michael Eisner Building.

Hyperion Health Club

The 345,000 square foot Michael D. Eisner Building (formerly Team Disney) was designed by Michael Graves and opened in 1990. The building pays tribute to the film that made the Burbank studio possible; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is an example of pure Post-Modernism and the façade is an interpretation of the Parthenon with 20-foot dwarfs holding up the pediment.

Facing the Michael Eisner Building across the Legends Plaza is the five-story Frank Wells office building. Designed by Robert Venturi and built in 1997, the architect had the challenge of being sympathetic with the adjacent original modest low-slung Kem Weber buildings as well as the post-modern temple-like Eisner Building. The Wells building features loft like office spaces surrounding a large open interior courtyard. The façade is a porcelain enamel image of film reels on a filmstrip background. Public areas are done in black and white with patterned terrazzo floor and brushed aluminum panels holding digitally pixilated marble that creates a black and white image. The Wells building is also home to the Disney Archives.

The Frank Wells Building.

The street that runs south of the Animation Building is Dopey Drive. Across the street is the Studio Theater and Soundstages A, B, & C. The Studio Theater was first used to mix the soundtrack for Fantasia. The soundstages were specially built to mitigate the noise from the nearby Bob Hope (formerly Burbank) Airport. The airport was originally a Lockheed production facility. Its strategic importance was one reason why the Disney studio was taken over by the military during World War II.
Although Walt wanted to design a new studio from the ground up, not everything was original to the new property. Disney moved a number of buildings from the Hyperion lot. These included the Employee Center and Studio Store plus the Hyperion Bungalow. The Shorts Building was made up from two different Hyperion structures with one half built in 1934 and the other in 1938. This move was driven as much by emotion as it was by practicality. According to Disney Twenty-Three magazine, “the easternmost part of the building is where Walt and his team created Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” They ask, “How could he leave that behind?”

Soundstages and the Backlot

The capabilities of the Disney studio were expanded, as live-action films became part of the production mix by the construction of soundstages and a backlot. Stage One was built as part of the original project. The live-action sequences in Fantasia with conductor Leopold Stokowski were filmed on Stage One. In 1949, Disney added Stage Two. Jack Webb paid for the project so that he could film the Dragnet television series. The Mickey Mouse Club was also filmed here. It was one of the largest sound stages on the West Coast. Stage Three was built in 1954 and was specifically designed for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It featured a huge water tank. The Studio continued to expand in 1958 with the addition of Stage Four. By 1988, that building was divided and Stage Five was born.

A common feature at most movie studios is a backlot, which is an area with permanent exterior sets for outdoor scenes. Backlots are part of the magic necessary in filmmaking. Building facades that represent various time periods frame the public areas. The facades are merely decorative fronts and not complete buildings. They can easily be dressed to represent any location or setting as needed by the production. The three-dimensional sets found in the backlots are the forerunners of the themed facades that would be used at Disneyland.

The largest backlot in Hollywood is located at Universal Studios. A smaller backlot still exists at nearby Warner Brothers Studios. Most of the other famous backlots have been torn down and re-purposed. This was the case at the Disney studios as well.

At Disney, there were four themed back lot areas. They included Western Street, Zorro Plaza and Zorro Street, Residential Street, and Town Square. Each area was added as production needs demanded. Over time, the back lot was slowly removed and replaced with office buildings and production facilities such as Stages Seven and Eight.

Also in the backlot are shops that provide the crafts and services necessary for live-production. These include the Machine Shop, which was originally built to service the cameras and other technical equipment. The Machine Shop is also where Walt built many non-film related projects including his Carolwood Pacific home railroad and many of the vehicles, watercraft, and attractions we see at Disneyland. The Machine Shop no longer exists. The Electric/Plumbing building is next to the Special Effects shop. There is also a Paint shop, Sign Graphics, Craft Services, and the Mill.

Another landscape feature of the backlot was the earthen berms that shielded the film productions from the surrounding community. Walt had five berms built around the north and east edges of the property. There was also a small berm that protected a lake on the south end used for films. The use of berms as a landscaping feature can also be found at Walt’s home and Disneyland.

The Disney brothers also owned property south of Riverside Drive.
Walt was constantly receiving letters from fans asking if they could tour the studio. Walt knew that animation process was not the most exciting thing for visitors so he began to develop something grander. He started toying with the idea of an amusement park adjacent to the studio. He felt there was a need for a three-dimensional environment in which guests could interact with the characters.

Early concept for a park across from the Disney Studios

The concept of a Mickey Mouse park continued to evolve until it outgrew the available land and eventually resulted in Disneyland being built in Anaheim (You can read more about how the idea for Disneyland was born in our article: Where's The Window). Part of this property was sold and is currently under the Ventura Freeway. The remaining land became home to the Feature Animation and the ABC Buildings.

Roy E. Disney Animation Building

Robert A.M. Stern designed the 240,000 square-foot Feature Animation Building in 1994 at a cost of $54 million. The four-story post-modern structure is currently the headquarters for The Walt Disney Company Feature Animation department. The building’s design, details, and materials were influenced by Kem Weber’s original Animation Building. The building was specifically designed to act as a buffer between the pedestrian oriented studio lot and the bustling nearby freeway. Inside is a screening room with a lobby that can be used when the rest of the facility is closed.
The ten-story ABC Building was completed in 1998 and was designed by Aldo Rossi. When Disney purchased ABC in 1995, they decided to move the leadership from New York to Burbank. The building is approximately 300,000 square feet and divided into three areas. There is a serpentine pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive connecting the facility to the rest of the studio. A parking garage goes six levels below grade and the estimated cost was between $75 million and $90 million.

The water tower is an iconic visual element of the Studio and is no longer in use. The 135-1/2 foot tower cost $300,000 and held 150,000 gallons of water. It is also a rare example of Roy’s influence on Disney design. While most water towers stood on four legs, the one at the Disney studios has six. There is no functional reason. However, Roy did claim it would be more stable in an earthquake but more importantly, he thought it would look better.

Virtually No Limitations
The Disney Burbank Studio is a rare example of a Hollywood movie production facility that is still relatively intact. Walt was able to design the facility with virtually no limitations. None of the other major Hollywood studios were built with such a singular vision.

While the back lot has given way to new office buildings, every new act of construction enhanced or embellished what was there before. For Disney today, many of the back lot functions have been moved to the Golden Oak Ranch near Newhall, which will be discussed in detail later.

All of this attention to detail would become a double-edged sword. Some artists would say that the plush new facilities lacked the intimate nature of the Hyperion Studio and made it difficult to interact with Walt and others. That interaction was central to the early success within the organization. The lack of contact was cited as one factor that led to a labor strike that started on May 28, 1941.

The old animation building.

The studio would go on to produce more than movies and television programs. Many of the attractions in the early days at Disneyland were designed, developed, and fabricated on the lot. Then they would truck these items down to Anaheim. For example, most of the park’s vehicles were built at the studio, including the Main Street vehicles, the monorail trains, and much of the Mark Twain.

Walt Disney Productions may have started out in a garage but they would end up at Walt Disney’s state-of-the-art animation factory. This is the only construction project overseen by Walt where he really did not have to compromise. The Burbank Studio is a pure expression of the way Walt viewed the built environment and how to control it for his own means.

And that, folks, is the story of Disney's magic factory.

We invite you to join Sam and MiceChat at the Huntington Gardens in July
Presented by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Huntington Library and Gardens

Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the Huntington Library and Gardens
Coffee & Pastries: 9:30 a.m. Colloquium and Lunch: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination. The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – has provided planners, designers and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure. What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented” places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible. A distinguished panel, moderated by author and planner Sam Gennawey, will address these questions.

  • David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
  • Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
  • Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
  • Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates
  • Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners

Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20

Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington

Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary
[email protected] (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Submit "The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 2" to Digg Submit "The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 2" to Submit "The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 2" to StumbleUpon Submit "The History of the Walt Disney Studios - Part 2" to Google



  1. jpg391's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Part 2 is just as great as part 1. I used to live about 5 miles from the Disney Studios. That was before all the recent construction over the last few years. I remember that you could see the tops of some of the structures in the back lot over the top of the berms.
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Great job Sam. Really enjoyed this two part history of the Studios.

    Secondly, am I the only one who thinks they should rename the Eisner building? How about calling it the Snow White building?
  3. mr. taag's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I'm fine with it being called the Eisner Building. Maybe its just an east coast thing, but Walt Disney World wouldn't be what it is today (in terms of offerings) without him.
  4. Marko50's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I agree. Without Eisner and Wells, Disney would have been sectioned up and sold piecemeal. Of course, that's the compressed version...
  5. bamato's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    Excellent article