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Disney MGM/Hollywood Studios - The Hollywood That Never Was And Always Will Be

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by , 12-07-2011 at 06:01 PM

I have always been fascinated by Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). The idea for this park was hatched in 1985, and for the first time, a Disney theme park of limited scale was intentionally opened to the public. The park was intended to be a model of controlled growth in reaction to anticipated demand.

DHS opened in 1989 and was originally known as the Disney-MGM Studios. It was designed to be a half-day experience and to compliment a visit to Typhoon Lagoon and Pleasure Island. Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, took a look at what the Imagineers were up to and noticed a large-scale pavilion that was going to celebrate the cinema in EPCOT’s Future World. That pavilion would have been located between the Land and the Imagination Pavilions. He encouraged his Imagineers to expand on the idea and create a third gate. What they created was a tiny park with a handful of attractions. DHS is only 85 acres, or roughly the size of Disneyland. This would be a much smaller park then the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. The Imagineers wanted to capture Disneyland’s “human scale, warmth, and feeling.”

The facility would also function as a real production studio with three sound stages, production offices, and a postproduction audio and video facility; its own wardrobe, property, camera, and lighting departments. The production facilities featured glass walls so that visitors could peek inside a working movie-making facility. Projects shot on the back lot include Honey, I Blew Up the Kids, Passenger 57 and TV shows like The Mickey Mouse Club and Wheel of Fortune.
Most of the Disney theme parks are based on the Disneyland model. You go big. As big as you can afford. Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo DisneySea are directly related to that philosophy. DHS represents a new formula for designing and operating a theme park that has had significant influence on the Disney empire.

The place was packed on day one and it became necessary to expand the park rapidly. The immediate success of DHS set the stage for such parks as Disney’s California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios in Paris. Instead of fully realized, immersive environments, with monstrous budgets, the Studios pointed toward a sort of MBA solution – a just in time theme park. Build it small and quickly add capacity as necessary. You see evidence of this even as you arrive to the front gate.

DHS was the first park built with the bus system in mind. At both the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, the buses are tucked away to the side. At DHS, the buses are prominent at the entry plaza and the auto-parking shuttle further complicates pedestrians’ access. You can also arrive by one of the slowest moving boats known to mankind - which run from the Epcot area hotels to DHS.

The main axis orientation is not true to north/south like the other parks. I find the first impression to be a mess that only sorts itself out once you are standing at the turnstiles. Walking through the main gates feels like a period Hollywood postcard coming to life with the bonus of a time travel tour of iconic Los Angeles architecture. Inspired by the early filmmakers who used the real Los Angeles as the background for their movies, the Imagineers used the impressions from real building facades and billboards to tap into what Imagineer John Hench said was a “glamorous, dreamlike Hollywood of the collective consciousness.”

Thematically, DHS represents “not a place on a map, but a state of mind” the “Hollywood that never was - and always will be.” A visual trick that is used throughout DHS is called “shrink and edit.” They take a real building as inspiration and then they change the scale, color or details in order to support the story they are trying to tell. The park's Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards are filled with such examples.

Once you step on to Hollywood Boulevard, you become immersed in an environment that is as rich as the Main Streets at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. The first structure you encounter is a scale model of the entrance to the Pan-Pacific Auditorium. This iconic building was Los Angeles’s primary convention center from 1935 to 1972. The Pan-Pacific Auditorium was where all of the big shows, conventions, the circus, and other exhibitions were presented. It is a wonderful example of the Streamline Moderne architectural style. Walt’s good friend designed the building, architect Welton Beckett. Sadly, in 1989, just 3 weeks after DHS opened, the Pan-Pacific Auditorium burnt down in a spectacular fire.

The front plaza is at the intersection of Prospect and Hollywood Boulevards. This perfectly describes the optimistic spirit of Hollywood during its heyday and the theme park that lies beyond. On the right, after entering, is Oscar’s Service Station. This facility is named after the famous Hollywood statue and this is where you can rent your wheeled vehicle, naturally. A fan favorite is the 1938 Darkroom Building. Once again, a real life structure is the inspiration for what Bob Gurr calls “California Corny.”

In the middle of the plaza is a kiosk based on the Crossroads of the World building. The original was built in 1936 and is considered America’s first outdoor mall. The DHS version is much, much smaller and is topped by a 5’3” Mickey with one copper ear that works as a lightning rod.

Sid Cahuenga’s One-of-a-Kind is an excellent example of the California Bungalow done in the Arts and Crafts architectural style. It is inspired by the true story of the Janes House. The homeowner was offered a chance to sell his home to a shopping mall developer, but the guy held out and didn’t want to sell. Frustrated, the shopping mall developer went ahead and built the mall around his house. He decided to cash in by selling souvenirs. The house and mall are still around.

By the way, the reference to Sid is a tribute to Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame. The Cahuenga refers to a pass through the hills near the Hollywood Bowl that connects the Los Angeles basin to the San Fernando Valley (and the Disney Studios).

Other buildings on Hollywood Boulevard include an electric substation (1907) from Culver City that is now a performance space, the Blaine Building (1926), a J.J. Newberry (1928), a bank on Wilshire Boulevard (1929), the Chapman Market (1929), Max Factor Building (1931), Owl Drug Store (1933), the Darkroom (1938), and many, many others. A highlight of the area is The Hollywood Brown Derby (1929), which is a treasure inside and out. Werner Weiss of Yesterland became obsessed by this and went through a lot of trouble to identify each of the building here, here and here.

The Imagineers use billboards to support a mythology of the Southern California experience promoted by real estate developers. Rarely has the region lived up to the hype.

If you look on top of the bank façade you see a billboard celebrating the Pacific Electric Railroad “Red Cars.” This rail network was a vast system (see the map on the back side of the information booth) that connected all points within the Los Angeles area well into the early 1960s. Evidence of the Red Cars can be found on Sunset Boulevard as well. Notice trolley tracks left half uncovered below your feet. These were laid in anticipation of a major Roger Rabbit themed expansion that would have included the Toontown Trolley Ride, Herman’s Runaway Buggy Ride, and the Benny the Cab attraction that ended up at Disneyland. As you recall, the demise of the Red Car system was at the heart of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Across the way are two more billboards. The billboards establish the architectural time-frame for Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards as well as Echo Lake (1923-1945). The Hollywoodland billboard refers to an early residential subdivision that opened in 1923. This date has special meaning, as it was the year Walt Disney moved to California. Nearby is another billboard for the 1945 Hollywood Canteen. This entertainment palace was an oasis for soldiers fighting in World War II.

Sunset Boulevard and Echo Lake are based on the same design principles as Hollywood Boulevard. Those areas have been restricted to facades of historic buildings from Los Angeles built before 1945 with one exception. One of the most important is the Carthay Circle Theater (1926) where Snow White and Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937. Down the block, the spiral marquee belongs to the Academy Theater (1938) in Inglewood. There are two building from Pasadena, the Winter Garden (1940) and a bar called the 35er. Sunset Ranch Market is based on Los Angeles’s famous Farmers Market (1941).

Throughout the front part of DHS you will tend to find buildings based on two styles of architecture, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Deco uses geometric designs, bold colors and modern materials and combines them to be elegant and make an optimistic statement. Streamline Moderne is a style that celebrates the machine age and is influenced by modern aerodynamic designs. Sweeping curves, symmetry, and repetition are part of the design language. Imagineer John Hench said the use of these distinctive and familiar architectural styles gives the park “archetypal truths.” The stylized buildings are out of context and the scale is different but you accept that you could be in Hollywood set in the 1930s because all of the visual clues add up and create the underlying emotional appeal.

Here is a piece of trivia. Once upon a time, DHS was home to the world’s largest hidden Mickey. Echo Lake was one ear, the large circular plaza in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater was the head, and there was a matching circular plaza to the east. Planters gently suggested the eyes. If you look at the aerial photo, it become quite obvious. The addition of Sunset Boulevard and Mickey’s hat destroyed this bit of fun.

When walking around the park with Werner Weiss of Yesterland, he was constantly on the hunt for the trashcans that signified the difference between the "city" part of the park up front and the "backlot" section. Very subtle. It was also a reminder of just how random the site plan for this park has become. Areas have been repurposed and there is a disjointed feeling. Disney California Adventure suffers from the same problem and it is costing Disney Billions to fix it. The good news is the quality of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards gets me excited about the new entrance to the west coast park.

As an urban planner, I've focused on the parts of the park that hold my interest and create a convincing illusion and a real sense of place. I'll leave the rest of the park for a future discussion, as it doesn't quite live up to the same high standard as Hollywood and Sunset Blvd. But, I'd love to hear your comments about the Disney MGM Hollywood Studios park below. It certainly has its pluses and minuses, and who better than you to help us make a list of our favorite and least favorite aspects of this new kind of Disney theme park. Was it the right model for the many Disney parks which would follow (build small and grow formula)?

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Updated 12-08-2011 at 09:30 AM by SAMLAND



  1. SpectroMan's Avatar
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    Having not seen WDS in France, this is without a doubt my least favorite park ever. It has a few wonderful attractions but on the whole, if I'm at WDW for 7 days, I spend about 3/4 of one day here and that's it.
  2. Wagi's Avatar
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    Excellent article. I followed the links to Werner Weiss's articles and learned so much between the two of you!
  3. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    By the way, I would like to encourage you to friend me on Facebook. I usually post updates, weird things that cross my mind, and reminders of when new articles are posted.

    Sam Gennawey
  4. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Thank you Sam. I always look forward to your articles and your unique take on the way the parks are built!

    I think the Studios has one of the best first acts of any of the Disney parks -at least before they built the big Sorcerer Hat. Walking into the park and finding yourself on Hollywood Blvd looking toward the Chinese Theater was magic. Sunset Blvd also does a great job of setting the scene with Tower of Terror in the distance.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the park is an absolute tangle of streets, themes and ideas. Really a train wreck as far as Disney parks go.

    For whatever reason, this park actually makes me feel depressed and I usually can't spend more than a few hours there at a time. I don't know why it does, but without fail, I suffer from a growing feeling of discomfort, anxiety and depression when in that park. Event DCA doesn't do that to me. I wish I could put my finger on the exact reason.

    I'd guess that it would take about a billion dollars to really fix the Hollywood Studios park. Everything behind the Chinese Theater should be leveled and rebuilt with some sort of hub and spoke or loop design which is easier to navigate and with lands and themes which help tell a story.

    The Studios park is a GREAT example of exactly how NOT to build a Disney theme park. Build it small and then grow it is a blue print for disaster - almost forcing design principles to be abandoned, traffic flows to be disrupted and a total lack of overall theme.

    All of the following parks built with this philosophy have failed out of the gate (DCA, Studios Paris, HKDL). Even the Animal Kingdom was hampered by being under-built, though its great design and stewardship by Joe Rhode has kept it from being a disaster like the others I've mentioned.

    If something is worth building, it is worth building right from the beginning. Disney needs to stop building these tiny half day parks in the hopes they will some day succeed and be magically transformed into full day wonderlands. Experience has shown us that this model is doomed to failure and requires massive capital outlays later to correct the folly of the initial designs.
  5. steve2wdw's Avatar
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    I actually enjoy the "quickyness" of DHS. It reminds me of most of the amusement parks around the country that have expanded with no particular sense of order or planning. Hollywood and Sunset after dark ooze of atmosphere. Of course (as most will agree), I find that the park is just a mere shadow of what it could have been if many of the planned attractions had been completed (Great Muppet Movie Ride, the Roger Rabbit area, and D Tracy's lots more). There is no reason that WDI shouldn't be able to salvage this park with little effort. There seems to be room for a much needed attraction beyond MuppetVision 3D (heck, dust of the plans for the Muppet ride), and what's left of the Backlot Tour is ripe for new developement. These are the two areas that could vastly improve the whole feel of the it is now, once the performances of Lights, Motors, Action, are concluded for the day, that whole end of the park becomes a morgue. (I love what Osborne Lights do to that end of the park during Christmas, as the crowds in the park get to spread out). The old Monster Sound Show was one of my seems as though something as creative could be brought into that space, and planning should start on a replacement for the American Idol Experience. Anyway....there's my rant! Hopefully WDI is working on some solutions to the DHS problem.
    Updated 12-08-2011 at 10:25 AM by steve2wdw
  6. steve2wdw's Avatar
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    PS to my post....I just read Dustysage's post (we were obviously posting at the same time) and I do agree with the whole "build it small and expand when neccessary" is the wrong way to go. While I don't think everything behind the theatre needs to be leveled, "fixes" are definately needed.

    I really enjoyed the article and the ensuing comments. I loved the D-MGM Studios when it's hoping that DHS can be returned to it's former greatness.
  7. danyoung's Avatar
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    Sam, as someone who appreciates good theming, it must bother you as it bothers me to see the Big A** Hat covering up the beautiful structure of the Chinese Theater, and completely changing the feel of Hollywood Blvd. The BAH isn't a totally bad structure - just in the wrong place. Maybe outside the park in the area near the boat dock would be a good location. But it's not a proper wienie to draw your eye into the core of the park.
  8. jpg391's Avatar
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    Sam, another great article.
  9. Twist1234's Avatar
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    I liked how it looked like Hollywood and a back lot years ago but today it just doesn't work.
  10. steve2wdw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung
    Sam, as someone who appreciates good theming, it must bother you as it bothers me to see the Big A** Hat covering up the beautiful structure of the Chinese Theater, and completely changing the feel of Hollywood Blvd. The BAH isn't a totally bad structure - just in the wrong place. Maybe outside the park in the area near the boat dock would be a good location. But it's not a proper wienie to draw your eye into the core of the park.
    Completely Agree! Put it in the plaza in front of the entrance...heck, have the security (bag check) booths beneath it!
  11. Monorail Man's Avatar
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    You can also arrive by one of the slowest moving boats known to mankind - which run from the Epcot area hotels to DHS.
    Haha! Their called the Friendship boats, but we call them the "With friends like these, who needs enemies ships." - So slow!

    Great article. I think the DHS does have lots of problems, but it's biggest are the Streets of America. Besides Osborne lights, there's nothing going on back there. It's too bad they already have Test Track at Epcot, because this would be great for Cars Land.

    Personally, with things like the Star Tours redo, I'm just happy to see that they are moving away from the "See, it's a real movie studio!" gimmick. It needs more quality attractions, some walkways expanded, the hat moved, and it will work just fine.
  12. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Okay everybody, I think there is a call to action starting to form. Dusty and some others got it started on Facebook and I see the movement growing. It is called Occupy BAH. BAH stands for Big A++ Hat naturally. Not my idea just passing it along. Don't imagine we all stand under the thing but it has already been amortized so the bean counters won't care. Maybe we can appeal to a better angel. Meet recently with Marty Sklar and he says there is a crop of new Imagineers that really get it.
  13. DisneyResort's Avatar
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    I agree with Dustysage. I can't say DHS depresses me, but it isn't what you think a Disney theme park should be. On my first visit, I was a little confused as to what was going on as well. And I thought about what exactly didn't feel right.
    My best guess would be, it's all the same. Unlike Disneyland (which is the same size) there is no variety. It's all Hollywood themed. Disneyland is a perfect example of how you can take 85 acres and make it seem like a much larger place. DHS felt like it had only one land.
    And for those out there who think Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure is just going to be a carbon copy of DHS, you couldn't be more wrong. Unlike DHS's tangled mess of generic, off the shelf Hollywood theming, Buena Vista Street tells a story. It's the story of Walt Disney when he first arrived in Los Angeles. You'll walk down Buena Vista Street starting in 1927 when he had no money, just a dream. And you end at the Carthay Circle Theater in 1937, where Snow White debuted and started everything for Walt. Every element of Buena Vista Street has a significant meaning about the man. DHS was just thrown together without much thought.
    Updated 12-08-2011 at 08:41 PM by DisneyResort
  14. EC82's Avatar
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    Disney-MGM Studios used to be my favorite park. I grew up fascinated by the movies. DMGM stoked that fascination. It was everything I imagined Hollywood should be, plus it was Disney. It was almost the "nerdy" park (more so than EPCOT) because it so glorified one subject. It seemed to LOVE the movies. Then came The Hat. And the "branding."

    Now, DHS is a crappy place. It's all one big, garish commercial for Disney stuff and current TV shows like American Idol. It feels haphazard. Nothing feels of a piece there. It's a terrible, terrible place. There are moments of enjoyment to be had, but few.

    It went from being inspiring to being disheartening.

    And the Hat. Oh, don't get me started.
  15. almandot's Avatar
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    like dusty said, the beginning of DHS is great. But like so many of the "build as you go" parks, once you get past the front facade the rest of it falls flat. When you convert the back end of your park from a tram tour into a walking area and just leave it be you end up with that abandoned theme park look and little to do. This is supposed to be part of a Disney theme park?
  16. JeffHeimbuch's Avatar
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    I posted the first part of this on Sam's FB too, but....

    This is honestly my least favorite Park. To me, THIS is the half day park, not DAK. From a building stand point, the entire thing is an absolute mess beyond the front...and even now, that's iffy with the gigantic Hat in the way (hmm...what do I hate more? The hat or the Wand? haha)

    I really feel like they half assed this thing from the beginning. Eisner was looking for a quick way to make some cash on a third gate, and this idea wasn't fully thought out. If actually planned out longer, and really executed well, this could have been a brilliant addition to the Disney Parks family. Instead, it's almost like the red headed step child!
  17. DizMiiLand's Avatar
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    So easy to see where the original DCA received its inspiration and concept. I have never been to this park, but many of the images looked like DCA as does the description. And, hey, DCA just got their front gate. Thankfully, behind the gate is turning into anything but the Florida park.
  18. AvanteGardens's Avatar
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    Build small and grow is a great formula, but the shining example of this is the original Disneyland. How many of the attractions you love at Disneyland were present on opening day 1955? Not many Ill bet. Mixing things up along the way isn't necessarily what kills it. It is said imagineers warned Walt not to put in a Swiss mountain looming over main street, but he told them it would be alright and it works. Perhaps it was the great layout of Disneyland or the painstaking attention to detail of new attractions that allowed growth without detracting from the original experience. My impression is that management had the opposite plan for DCA. They thought they could open a half-assed park and get the same attendance as Disneyland of 2001. They should have shot for Disneyland 1955 attendance numbers, then building along the way would have made sense. As much as everyone on here seems to be down on DHS, I wish DCA had a consistent theme like DHS. Instead it feels like the Disneyland Annex, just a place for the rides that don’t fit in that other park.