Theme Park Cast Member Stories: On stage the first summer at Disney's Hollywood Studios

April 30, 2014, 5:44 PM · [Editor's note: The Disney-MGM Studios theme park, now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios, opened as the third theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort on May 1, 1989. To celebrate the park's 25th anniversary, we turn the blog today over to my wife, also a former Walt Disney World cast member. — Robert]

During the first summer of Disney-MGM Studios, my young musician colleagues and I were slightly amused to find ourselves among the first "attractions" at the park — we were part of the Backstage Tour.

We'd been chosen from all over the country for possibly the best summer job on the planet: playing in the "Disney All-American College Orchestra" at Epcot, with conductor Jim Christensen. I played the violin. Through the course of the summer we appeared with a number of guest artists, who not only performed with us but also sat down for chat sessions about their careers in music. Among them were Roger Williams, Toni Tennille, Sesame Street's Bob McGrath, Rosemary Clooney, composer Bill Conti, Ed Ames, and Maureen McGovern.

Laurie at Epcot
Me, performing on stage at Epcot in the summer of 1989

We came to be "attractions" simply by holding our rehearsals — and those chat sessions — in Soundstage 1, one of the cavernous cement studios at the then-new Studios theme park. We rehearsed five days a week in the far corner of the studio, which had windows lining one wall, rather far above us. Tourists walked by in a constant stream, peering through those windows to observe us. After giving this some initial thought, we completely ignored the windows.

I occasionally did puzzle over what made us interesting, especially considering that the guests could not hear us. Visitors could watch us learning our weekly music; and occasionally they might catch a glimpse of the "World Dancers," who danced as we played selections from West Side Story, or of one of our weekly guest artists, all who were fairly well-known. We suspected Disney had thrown us in there because the company didn't have any other productions going on in these brand-new studios!

Rehearsing at Disney-MGM
The 1989 Disney All-American College Orchestra, rehearsing in a soundstage at Disney-MGM Studios. That's then-Miss America and now-Fox News host Gretchen Carlson playing violin with us, in the middle of the photo.

On one of my days off during that summer 25 years ago, I decided to tour Disney-MGM Studios with a friend, and we visited every attraction at the park. My impressions: The Backstage Tour took forever. The best part of it was Catastrophe Canyon, where they showed us special effects like explosions, fires and a waterfall. I found it very interesting to walk by on the other side of those windows, past the soundstage where we rehearsed. I had been wondering what the tourists saw — not much! It rained as much back then as it does now; while in line for the Monster Sound Show, the sky suddenly opened and drenched us. We had to run for cover, me still eating an ice cream bar. What did I like best? The Magic of Disney Animation, with the introduction film starring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams. It was absolutely new and novel back then. "I just love the artwork, the detail," I gushed in my diary from the time. "It amazes me that someone can capture so much human emotion in animation."

Of course, all the parks were very different back then: fewer visitors, more space, fewer hulking corpses of dead attractions. At Epcot, we played at the American Adventure pavilion's stage, which was then an amphitheater that backed up to the water and did not yet have a shell blocking the view of Spaceship Earth in the distance. It was very beautiful and open, even if that meant that we (and our instruments) were vulnerable to the frequent downpours and occasionally — no, frequently — had to go running off-stage, trying to protect our instruments with our white polyester jackets.

The Disney All-American College Orchestra
The orchestra, at Disney-MGM Studios

Disney-MGM Studios was brand-new, and we just trusted that every single attraction there was awesome; nothing had had enough time to fail. And the country — the world of 1989 — also was a different place. The Internet was barely existent and used only by computer geeks; no one had smartphones that took video; YouTube wasn't a thing. Televisions were clunky apparatuses with screens half the size they are today, and there was no Netflix to stream shows. At home we could watch movies via videos on a VCR, but we still mostly saw movies in the theater, and those movies were literally larger than life. A movie studio could still awe us; those studios created magic. To catch an insider's glimpse of the special effects, the music coming straight from musicians' hands, the animation artists at work, the real source of those sounds effects — was to feel privy to an epic secret.

Laurie Niles is the editor of For more stories about working at the Walt Disney World Resort, pick up a copy of Stories from a Theme Park Insider, available from Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. If you'd like to read more from Laurie, her Interviews: Volume 1 is also available from Amazon.

Replies (7)

May 1, 2014 at 1:33 AM

Oh my God! Suddenly this website is like 1,000 times better!

As an EPCOT Guest Relations Host in the summer of 1986 I saw the college orchestra perform with the Johnny Mann singers and the Rockettes. And I MUCH preferred the original open air stage to the current one.

Ironically, Mr Niles, my better half also performed with the orchestra back in the eighties. Her ears made her really stand out when she was on stage. :o)

April 30, 2014 at 7:27 PM

I greatly enjoyed this article. A nice inside look at a musician's budding career.

April 30, 2014 at 8:55 PM

I was a trumpet player in the 1988 version!!!! Great times!

May 1, 2014 at 3:46 AM

Fun, interesting article! Glad to hear about the performer-side of theme park life. I was wondering- does this mean you are the newest member of Team TPI? Did Robert give you one of the "official" t-shirts that we wear so proudly on our park outings?

I hope we read more from you in here!

May 1, 2014 at 9:37 AM

I think I'm actually one of the oldest members of team TPI, but I tend to be more of a quiet lurker!

May 1, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Sorry, Laurie! It doesn't show on your bio. Perhaps you need to talk to the editor about keeping it updated ;+)

May 1, 2014 at 10:52 AM

Actually, Laurie has "Editor" status in the member database, rather than "Team TPI" status, but I haven't created a profile blurb for that!

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