Today is the birthday of Disney’s Hollywood Studios; the third gate, or park, at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, FL. The park opened as the Disney-MGM Studios on May 1, 1989 and has become one of the most popular theme park destinations in the world.

On the 20th anniversary of the park, several imagineers visited the park and gave a talk about the design and development of the park. Here are some of my notes from that day as we again celebrate the Disney Hollywood Studios anniversary.

Although not directly conceptualized by Walt, the Imagineers like to think they embedded Walt’s DNA into the park’s design. They pulled a lot of the design from Walt’s own plans of the studios in California that he designed with Ken Webber. There is the brown bread and avocado buildings through to the furnishings that Walt and Ken had designed originally.

The park itself, started out as a possible pavilion at EPCOT. As the thoughts grew on what they could include (i.e. sound stages, monorails, etc.) it quickly grew over a 3 week period from a pavilion inside EPCOT to its very own theme park; which was very quickly even for Imagineers.

John Hench, who influenced decades of Disney park design, stated that they didn’t want to design as Hollywood was, but with much more exuberance. Hollywood was not thought of kindly in those days, as so much of it had fallen into disrepair, so the Imagineers really wanted to deisgn a park that was an idealized version of Hollywood that would never age, but change and adapt over time.

This was integral to the park’s concept; a venue that was constantly refreshed with new content from the studios over time and reflect the changes and tastes of the park’s guests. Ultimately, the design of the park was to be a representation of  the way we wished Hollywood was.

Around the same time as the Imagineers were developing the park, Jim Heimann’s book California Crazy cam out and it had a great impact on the inclusion of such whimsical architectural elements throughout the park.

Their were naturally other influences as well, from classical modernist buildings throughout Hollywood to the bungalow culture all over Souther California. All of these elements were expertly designed and woven throughout the park to create a cohesive experience.

One of the original features about the park’s design was the world’s biggest hidden Mickey. Before the books were published, the Imagineers used Mickey’s face as the basis for part of the park’s design and landscaping. If you have an old map from the park’s early days you can see it by turning the map upside-down.

Disney-MGM Studios map

The Chinese Theater

In order to gain the most appropriate color palette for the Chinese Theater, they researched old photos, models, etc. to get the right colors for the Disney version. Ultimately visiting one of the museums in Hollywood and reviewing a scale model of the original theater that had a more accurate depiction of the colors used in the theater. Later on, when the original theater owners were looking to refurbish the theater, they approached the Disney Imagineers to see if they would share their research to help restore the theater.

The Great Movie Ride

Many of the props from the original Wizard of Oz were no longer around, so the imagineers watched the movie repeatedly to get the setting just right for the great movie ride.

They approached John Wayne’s family first for inclusion in the Great Movie Ride. Once they agreed everyone else that was approached were happy to be involved.

The original ride was designed and built in California and then shipped to the park here in Orlando.

The Brown Derby

The Hollywood Brown Derby

The Brown Derby was actually a chain of restaurants that became iconic destinations and a symbols of the golden age in Hollywood. Opened in 1926, the original restaurant at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard remains the most famous due to its distinctive shape. Whimsical architecture was popular at the time, and the restaurant was designed to catch the eye of passing motorists.

The second Brown Derby, which opened on Valentine’s Day 1929 at 1628 North Vine Street in Hollywood, was the branch that played the greater part in Hollywood history. Due to its proximity to movie studios, it became the place to do deals and be seen.

Roy Disney’s first impression upon walking into the Disney-MGM Studios‘ version of the Brown Derby was of awe. He walked over to his booth and said “This is the booth that I used to sit at as a kid with my father and Walt“. The Imagineers had been able to recreate the atmosphere so markedly that even a visitor to the original could feel at home in this version.

Major Attractions:

  • “The American Idol Experience” captures the energy and excitement of the “American Idol” TV series, with some guests auditioning to take the spotlight onstage at Disney’s Hollywood Studioswhile fellow guests cheer them on from the audience and vote for their favorite singer with instant results. The day’s top vote-getter receives “The American Idol Experience” Dream Ticket, which allows an eligible holder to schedule a front-of-the-line audition to a future regional audition for the “American Idol” television show.
  • Toy Story Mania!: Celebrating Disney•Pixar classics “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” this new ride-game experience combined delightful film characters with personality-matching games guests can play. Donning 3-D glasses, guests shrink to the size of a toy and hop fanciful ride vehicles following a midway-themed route. At each game booth, they aim for animated targets using their own special on-board spring-action shooter.
  • “Block Party Bash”: Play, party and dance as the most interactive traveling show in Disney history performs. Guests are invited to rock to retro tunes, be dazzled by high-flying acrobatics and join in the fun as more than 20 partying Disney•Pixar characters fill the theme park streets. This immersive rolling spectacle features favorite characters from “The Incredibles,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “A Bug’s Life.”
  • “Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show,” presented by Brawny/Georgia-Pacific: This action extravaganza spotlights the high-octane best of the movie industry’s stunt masters. Cars, motorcycles and watercraft are .and watercraft are sent careening and jumping across an enormous Mediterranean village set.
  • “Fantasmic!”: Another dream comes true at Walt Disney World Resort, only this time it’s Mickey Mouse’s dream that comes to life in a brilliant display of lights, lasers, fireworks and water animation.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, presented by Hanesbrands Inc.: A “super-stretch limo” catapults guests through a series of unexpected twists and turns. Specially recorded Aerosmith soundtracks echo throughout this indoor roller coaster.
  • The Twilight Zone™ Tower of Terror: A thrilling journey through the eerie corridors of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, culminating as guests plummet 13 stories again and again — faster than free-fall — in a breathtaking finale.
  • “Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!”: Stars from “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Little Einsteins” and “Handy Manny” have children clapping, singing and dancing.
  • “Muppet Vision 3-D,” presented by Kodak: Three-dimensional film spectacular in a 584-seat theater starring Jim Henson’s famous Muppets and featuring explosive in-theater effects.
  • The Great Movie Ride: 22-minute journey into the movies aboard 70-passenger vehicles; stars a cast of Audio-Animatronics characters re-creating memorable movie moments, including “Wizard of Oz,” “Indiana Jones,” “Alien,” and “Casablanca.”
  • “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!”: 30-minute live show in a 2,000-seat amphitheater; daring stunt artists and thrilling special effects, re-creating spine-tingling motion picture stunts.
  • The Magic of Disney Animation: Features animation gallery, showcase of Disney animation and the animation process, and a chance for guests to draw a Disney animated character.
  • Studios Backlot Tour: Tour aboard 200-passenger shuttles through studio backlot including costuming, scenic shop and Catastrophe Canyon.
  • “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” Movie Set Adventure: Based on the hit film “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” the movie set adventure playground features an ant the size of a pony, grass blades 30 feet tall and mushroom caps three stories tall.
  • Star Tours: “Space journey” in a 40-seat advanced flight simulator from the creative forces of Disney and George Lucas, the ultimate “Star Wars” adventure.
  • “Beauty and the Beast-Live on Stage“: A delightful musical stage show based on the hit Disney movie, “Beauty and the Beast,” performed multiple times daily in Theater of the Stars.
  • “Voyage of the Little Mermaid“: Based on the hit animated film “The Little Mermaid,” the show features dazzling special effects that combine with puppets, Audio-Animatronics figures, live performers and favorite animated clips.
  • Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream: Features an interactive gallery showcasing each era of Walt Disney’s life; rare and historic Disney artifacts are on display.

Film and Television Production:

  • Animated film production has included “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas,” “Aladdin,” “Lilo and Stitch” and “Brother Bear.”
  • Films shot at the studios have included: “Marvin’s Room,” “Passenger 57,” “Oscar,” “Quick Change,” “Ernest Saves Christmas,” “Splash Too,” “Separate But Equal” (Emmy-winning TV mini-series) and “Instinct.”
  • TV shows taped at the studios have included: “Sheena,” “Full House,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “World Championship Wrestling,” “ESPN College Football Awards,” “Talk Soup,” “Step By Step,” “Barbara Walters Special,” “Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee,” “ER,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the HBO 13-part series “From the Earth to the Moon.”

Celebrity Visits:

Among the hundreds of actors, comedians and entertainers who’ve appeared at the studios are: Charlton Heston, Dustin Hoffman, Bette Midler, Ann-Margret, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hanks, Liza Minnelli, Billy Joel, Kevin Bacon, Michael J. Fox, Gary Sinise, Samuel L. Jackson, Lou Gossett Jr., Drew Carey, Oprah, Susan Lucci, Christina Aguilera, Rob Thomas, Tori Amos and Britney Spears.

Wrapping it Up

There are a lot of great things about the park and its history and importance in the Disney universe. Although the promise of it being a working set for production never really came to fruition on the scale of making it a Hollywood East, it serves as an important destination for the Disney fan. I have spent many great times at the park and even had my office on the backlot tour for a while as well, so it is home for me and I always enjoy visiting. I look forward to how it expands and grows in the future.