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Disney's Hollywood Studios

Robert Niles

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Published: March 15, 2014

After Epcot opened in 1982, Disney's Imagineers started thinking about what was missing from Future World, specifically, which industries they could feature in new pavilions. The Imagineers put Disney's own industry, entertainment, at the top of the list. But the idea for an “Entertainment Pavilion” at Epcot soon grew into a proposal for a third theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort: Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. That proposal got expanded and fast-tracked when Universal Studios began developing a nearby site for its Universal Studios Florida theme park in 1986.

Three years later, on May 1, 1989, Disney-MGM Studios opened, beating Universal Studios Florida by nearly a year. Universal executives cried foul, claiming Disney had copied the plans that Universal had shown then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner several years earlier, when he was the head of Paramount Pictures, and Universal was looking for partners for its Florida park. Eisner denied seeing the plans, and, anyway, Universal Studios Hollywood had already established a very public template for a movie studio theme park nearly two decades before — shows and attractions built around a working movie studio.

Except that no one was doing any substantial film or movie production in Orlando at the time. So Disney started some. It created a satellite of its Burbank animation studio, which would create new animated films as theme park visitors would look on through windows into the studio. And it launched a new version of its Mickey Mouse Club for the Disney Channel, to occupy soundstages in the studio theme park.

Disney long ago converted those soundstages into attraction spaces, but that All-New Mickey Mouse Club continues to influence pop culture, having launched the careers of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, and Christina Aguilera, among others. Disney's Florida animation studio also created the films Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear before Disney closed it in 2004.

When MGM declined to renew the licensing deal that gave Disney the right to use its name, Disney renamed the park Disney's Hollywood Studios in January 2008. Yet MGM properties such as The Wizard of Oz continue to be featured in the park's Great Movie Ride. (At least for now.)

Disney has substantially expanded its studios theme park over the years, mostly at the expense of its backstage tram tour, which is expected to close entirely within the next few years to make way for yet another expansion. The Muppets' 3D movie, Lights, Motors, Action auto stunt show, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, Toy Story Midway Mania, and the Walt Disney retrospective ("One Man's Dream") all occupy areas once taken by the park's backstage studio tour.

In 1994, the park opened its Sunset Boulevard expansion, anchored by Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and the award-winning Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. A dedicated theater for Fantasmic! followed in 1998.

Today, Disney's Hollywood Studios is the fifth most-visited theme park in the United States, drawing nearly 10 million visitors a year, but last among the four Disney World theme parks. (Disneyland in Anaheim is the only non-WDW park in the top five.) In an effort to boost the park's attendance, Disney has begun designing a long-awaited Star Wars Land, to be built around the park's existing Star Wars attraction, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. The new land won't be open for several years, as Disney's not yet started construction in the park.

In the meantime, Star Wars fans can enjoy the park's annual Star Wars Weekends, which are held in May through early June. Included with park admission, the event features meet-and-greets with actors from the various Star Wars movies and TV shows, special merchandise sales and nightly performances of Hyperspace Hoopla, a deliciously irreverent dance show featuring Star Wars characters. You'll need to queue up in the middle of the night before the park opens for the day to get a reservation for the meet-and-greets, and claim your space in front of the stage at least an hour in advance for the Hyperspace Hoopla show. Expect hours-long waits to get into the merchandise tents, too. Fans love Star Wars at Disney — so it's no wonder Disney wants a permanent Star Wars Land for the park.

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