Disney's Hollywood Studios has been a work in progress for the last two decades. With Toy Story Land and Star Wars taking center stage, executives believe the park is finally coming into its own.
A little more than a year from now in a galaxy not far away, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will open the gates to a much-anticipated new land full of smugglers, resistance fighters — and inevitably tourists — that executives hope will transform the park 20 years after it opened.
Transformation, in fact, was the buzzword at last week’s opening of the park’s most recent expansion, the 11-acre Toy Story Land.
“We’re taking a big step in the evolution of Disney’s Hollywood Studios as we transform it from a place that took you behind the scenes into one that actually puts you and your family at the center of the action,” said Bob Chapek, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Consumer Products, at a June 29 dedication event in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Kathy Mangum, Atlantic regional executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, continued the theme at a press event later that day.
“Toy Story Land is really just the beginning. We have started a multi-year transformation of this park and we’re just so excited about it,” she said. “It still has some of our favorite Walt Disney World attractions. … We’re just making it better.”
The changes come amid a period of prolonged investment at Walt Disney World Resort in Central Florida, the crown jewel of Disney’s theme park empire, as well as at the entertainment company’s properties around the world. Disney is expected to spend about $4.6 billion on capital projects this year, a billion more than last year. Most of that is going toward the parks and resorts businesses.
“If you think about it, we opened Pandora — The World of Avatar last year, we just dedicated Toy Story Land, and we will open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in the late fall of 2019 as part of our total transformation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios,” said Walt Disney World Resort President George Kalogridis. “That’s three new lands in three years. We now call that the Disney theme park trifecta. It’s been the most significant period of growth at Disney in the last 20 years.”
And Disney’s growth is not happening in a vacuum: Comcast-owned Universal Parks & Resorts is pouring cash into its Orlando theme parks and surrounding hotels as its immersive lands built around Harry Potter continue to draw visitors.
“Times change and I think you have to evolve,” said Greg Antonelle, chief brand officer for the Disney-focused travel agency MickeyTravels. “Universal, I think, taught them that a little bit with the Harry Potter [addition] a couple years ago.”
The Original: Disney-MGM Studios
In fact, Universal has kept Disney on its toes from the very beginning. Its first Florida park, Universal Studios Florida, opened the year after Disney’s movie-themed attraction, which was known as Disney-MGM Studios when it opened in 1989.
“It’s been a tough park almost from the beginning just because it was put together relatively quickly,” said former Disney human resources executive Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “It was put together to counteract the Universal park coming. So [Chairman and CEO] Michael [Eisner] said do it and we did it.”
The pair of openings came with some controversy after MCA, which owned Universal at the time, accused Eisner of pilfering its plans. Disney denied the allegations, but the rivalry continued to simmer.
In a story in July of 1989, the Deseret News wrote a story with a headline that has remained true ever since: “IT WILL BE DISNEY-MGM VS. UNIVERSAL IN FLORIDA THEME-PARK WAR.”
“Of course, at the moment, Universal Studios Florida is little more than conceptual drawings, models, architectural plans and heavy construction,” the story said. “But by this time next year Universal hopes to be teeming with tourists as serious competition for Disney World.”
Both companies planned to move some film and television production to their Florida parks and offer behind-the-scenes tours as well as movie-based rides. Each reportedly spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million on the properties.
Disney-MGM Studios, the third park at the Walt Disney World Resort, boasted a backlot tram tour that gave visitors a glimpse of soundstages, working sets, prop departments, and costume designers when it opened. One of its top attractions was a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater that housed The Great Movie Ride, which traveled through recreated movie scenes. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular showed crowds how dangerous movie scenes got made. And Star Tours, a simulator experience, came online by the end of 1989.
But, Dickson said, both Disney and Universal discovered fairly quickly that their film production aspirations would not become a reality.
“Both of the studio sides of the parks kind of dried up and went away,” he said. The question became: “OK, what do we do now?”
Over time, the park opened a Muppets 3-D movie, a Little Mermaid attraction, and more thrilling rides, including the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. The park changed its name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008, the same year it opened a Toy Story ride that doubles as an interactive video game.
The park has consistently been in the Top 10 in the world, according to an industry attendance estimate, but fell one spot to No. 9 in 2017, with 10.7 million visitors.
“It kind of petered out through the years,” said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “It never really gelled the way they expected it to. And it kind of languished for a while. But they typically figure out what to do with something that’s not performing.”
In Disney’s case, the answer is in intellectual property. The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar, the studio that created Toy Story, in 2006, followed by Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm, the studio behind Star Wars, in 2012.
Now Showing: Toy Story Land
The latest addition includes the same Toy Story Mania ride that opened 10 years ago, now expanded to accommodate more visitors.
It is also home to a roller coaster in which the Slinky Dog character is the car that people ride in, and a spinning ride called Alien Swirling Saucers. Oversized toys fill the land to make guests feel like they too are the size of Green Army characters, which patrol the area throughout the day.
“What this park is becoming is a place for all ages,” said Mangum, the regional Imagineering executive. “We’ve got something for everybody and what I love about Toy Story Land is that it is for everybody.”
That was one of the talking points during the opening event last week, as was the desire to create an environment that was truly immersive.
“Clearly the new thing has been the concept of a more immersive park,” said J. Jeff Kober, whose book Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz was published by Theme Park Press in 2014. “And Harry Potter and all of that at Universal has really played a role in stepping up the game.”
Kober formerly worked as a consultant with the Disney Institute, which trains outside companies on customer service and best practices. Now he has his own training and development company, Performance Journeys, with a similar mission. He was at Toy Story Land on Saturday, the first day it opened to the public.
“I felt the Studios was waking up out of a coma,” he said. “Where it had been so dormant for so long it was suddenly now breathing new life.”
Even though he needs to update his book because so much has changed since it came out — and he misses some of the original rides that are gone now — Kober said he is excited about the future of the park. He expects to see more of Disney’s intellectual property be used in later expansions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
“The crowds are grasping for more Disney experiences,” he said. “And they are embracing the level of attention and detail that Disney can pour into it.”
Coming Soon: Star Wars
Disney is carefully controlling details about the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which will open at both Hollywood Studios and Disneyland Resort in California next year.
“It’s one of our most ambitious projects here at Hollywood Studios and also at Disneyland,” Scott Mallwitz, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, said last week at a press event. “Each one covers over 14 acres and is our largest single themed land expansion in our history.”
What is known: the area will include two “signature attractions”: one that involves piloting the Millennium Falcon and one that takes visitors into a battle between the First Order and Resistance. There will also be “unique concoctions like blue milk,” according to a Disney Parks blog post.
“This entire world is being designed so that every detail will help visitors suspend disbelief — completely immersive,” Mallwitz said. “The sights, sounds, and smells all come together to set the stage, the jumping-off point for their own Star Wars adventure.”
The setting will include a village called the Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, which Disney has described as “an infamous stop for traders, adventurers, and smugglers traveling around the Outer Rim and Wild Space.”
Mallwitz stressed that the land will not tell “the story of the Skywalkers” but let visitors explore and interact on their own terms. Chapek, the Disney Parks chairman, last year announced a themed hotel at the Hollywood Studios location that will include a “dedicated multi-day adventure” with “starship transportation,” windows that show a view into space, and status as “an active citizen of the galaxy.”
In May, the company said the hotel would be located on the south side of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, allowing for seamless connectivity to Galaxy’s Edge.
“I believe we haven’t talked a lot about it,” Mallwitz said about the hotel. “But I would expect the same kind of level of immersion, the storytelling, and exploration and self-direction … this idea that you’re setting your own path, you’re exploring this galaxy, you get to do it on your own terms.”
Mangum said last week that the opening of the two new lands will be unprecedented.
“What it’s going to do to this park — we’re going to have at that point 25 acres of brand new immersive experiences,” she said. “That’s just massive. We’ve never done anything on that scale.”
Fans of Disney and Star Wars are already preparing.
Greg Antonelle, who owns MickeyTravels with his wife Elyssa, said clients are already asking if they can book the Star Wars hotel. And they are trying to plan a stay to coincide with the opening of the new land, even though no date has been announced.
“As big as Pandora was, as big as Toy Story Land is going to be, Star Wars land is going to be completely off the charts,” he said. “It’s going to blow everything else away.”
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Photo credit: A Walt Disney employee signs a steel beam that will be the highest point in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the new land at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The land opens in late 2019. Matt Stroshane / Walt Disney World Resort