Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hollywood Studios that never was, and always will be.

I love Hollywood Studios.

I’ve graduated from, like, ninety-seven universities, but I have more pride in a theme park. Honestly, it’s my alma mater.

Working at the Backlot Tour changed my life. My writing flourished, and my filmmaking matured. I met some of my best friends, hid from my troubles, fell in love, began my quarter-life crisis, and made a Difference.

I stood beneath the Earful Tower as they removed the Disney-MGM Studios logo. I returned when they painted the Hollywood Studios logo.

And it needs to be razed.

The whole park. It’s lousy. It started lousy, it’s getting lousier, and the future holds no signs of delousing.

Its theme is lazily defined and lazily maintained. Its layout is tortuous. Half of the attractions are irrelevant, and the other half are poorly conceived.

Nothing in Disney brings out my Daddy Issues as much as Studios. Somewhere in there, there’s a great park...a park I’m proud to have in my ancestry...but I take every lousy aspect as a personal offense.

So please excuse the tone of this article. It’s a little severe in places, but that’s only because I care.

Rest assured, that passion will be reflected in forthcoming articles on how I intend to improve Studios. The stuff I’m about to introduce may be the most exciting work you’ll see on this blog.

So let’s give Studios a bath, remove its glasses, let down its hair, and teach it to enunciate its haitches.

Why can't Studios be more like a park?
Parks are so tasteful, yet bursting with flair,
painstakingly themed, but to us,
They excite and delight each parent, teen, and brat!
Why can't Studios be like that?

The Theme.

Presently, the theme is, “Uh...I dunno...Disney franchises, I guess.”

The park has become a dumping ground for cross-promotion. It’s populated with Disney Channel billboards, live versions of trendy game shows, meet-and-greets that won’t fit in other parks, rides that half-heartedly adapt movies, and an entire fucking weekend dedicated to ESPN.

An ESPN scaffold
in front of a giant metal hat
in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater
which swallowed the spider to catch the fly
on a bump on a log in a hole in the bottom of the sea.

How are any of these things related?

"Uh...I dunno...they’re Disney franchises, I guess."

It’s easy to bag on Universal Studios, but their motto is golden:

Ride the movies!

We’re stealing that.

Hollywood Studios is a movie-themed park. We’re going to be immersed in movies. We can go onscreen, or behind the scenes.

If an attraction does not meet these standards, it will not be featured in the park. I know this sounds harsh, but Studios is twenty-two years old. It’s time to get its shit together.

The Aesthetic.

Presently, the park is set in pre-war Hollywood.

Except sometimes we’re in Manhattan. Or on the forest moon of Endor. Or in the ironically titled "Animation Courtyard."

Animated, isn't it?! Why, it's downright looney!!

Michael Eisner showed an uncharacteristic degree of insight in his dedication speech for Studios:

[This park] is dedicated to Hollywood...not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine...a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was, and always will be.

This establishes the park’s look and tone: an idealized, pre-war Hollywood. A city of art deco, exposed brick, and saturated colors.

The Boulevards Hollywood and Sunset achieve this beautifully. We’ll spread their aesthetic to the rest of the park. That'll be our status quo.

Naturally, the park’s lands can adopt whatever architecture their themes require. Everything else will be unified by the theme of the Hollywood That Never Was, and Always Will Be.

The Layout.

I understand that Studios’ layout echoes Los Angeles’ urban sprawl. That’s a clever bit of theming.

Now stop it.

On the left, a tangle of avenues.
On the right, five attractions, separated by park-length runways.

It was hell trying to direct guests from the Backlot Tour's unload dock to the Great Movie Ride.

Make a left towards the Manhattan Skyline. Walk all the way up to the Skyline, and turn left. Don’t take the first left, because that’ll take you to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground. Don’t take the second left, because that’s a dead end where they store old Christmas lights. Take the third left, the one that’s all the way up by the Manhattan Skyline.

That’ll take you down Commissary Lane. You’ll know you’re on Commissary Lane because it’s a featureless, billboarded alleyway. Once you’ve trudged past that, you’ll see the Great Movie Ride on your left, only you might not see it, because there’ll be a giant metal hat on the right, bludgeoning its way into your periphery.

Have a magical day!!

A theme park should be navigable.

Typically, a park's lands encircle a landmark. Disneyland has a plaza in the middle. Islands of Adventure has a lagoon. EPCOT has both: a plaza in front, and a lagoon in back. We need to choose one of these.

LA-themed architecture and geography do belong in Studios, but they shouldn’t be lands. Eisner’s dedication described the park as an ideological Hollywood...not a literal one. If Sunset Boulevard is going to be a land, it belongs in California Adventure.

This is a movie-themed park, and it needs movie-themed lands.

The Lands.

A land’s theme should unify its attractions.

We enter Fantasyland expecting fantasy-themed attractions. We enter Dinoland, USA expecting dinosaur-themed attractions.

One of Studios' largest lands is Echo Lake. It’s based on Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Wikipedia tells us that Echo Park is especially famous for its Lotus Festival, “a pan-Asian celebration complete with Chinese dragon boat races.”

What sort of attractions would we expect to see in an Echo Park-themed land?

Probably not this.

Nor do we enter the Muppets Courtyard expecting to see Pizza Planet, a restaurant from Toy Story.

Nor do we enter the Streets of America expecting to see Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show, Presented by Brawny, which is set in a Mediterranean village in the south of France.

Fortunately, Hollywood Studios has the seeds for decent lands in its very name! "Studios," plural! We’ll make lands out of Disney-affiliated studios.

Here are a few that I've brainstormed.

Lucas Ranch
Marvel Studio
Muppets Courtyard
Pixar Place
Studio Ghibli
Walt Disney Animation Studio

I'll write about all of these in future posts.

Using studios as lands isn't an original idea. The Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris has studio lands...but they’re set inside soundstages. As a result, the park looks like a series of whimsical bunkers.

At the Walt Disney Studios in Paris,
the magic is indoors!!

Our studios will be set outside. They will have locations from their signature movies. Burtontown will have Halloweentown, Studio Ghibli will have Yubaba’s Bathhouse, and so on. We can imagine that the movies were actually filmed there.

The Muppets Courtyard already exemplifies this. Even if the buildings weren't decorated with Muppets, you could still picture the Muppet Show being performed there.

There’s an eighth land dedicated to the filmmaking process. It’s set in a fictional studio, in the Hollywood That Never Was and Always Will Be.

Everything’s open in this studio. We can go behind the scenes. It has attractions that let us act, direct, and edit. We can also learn about visual effects, production design, and sound design.

A re-imagined Backlot Tour will be the E-ticket, because I am vain and powerful.


MuppetVision 3D and the Tower of Terror have immunity.

Beyond that, it’s all fair game. Much of the park will be bulldozed, and even more of it will be changed, but very little will be eradicated.

Sounds Dangerous is insipid, but a Foley-themed attraction is a great idea.

I want to demonstrate the full power of the Death Star, and I’ve set course for Star Tours, but I’ve brainstormed oodles of Star Wars attractions to replace it.

I assure you, in my Federalist way, that my choices may be unpopular, but they are principled, educated, and will lead to a better park.

The Nighttime Show.

We're evicting Fantasmic.

It feels like a live-action interpretation of the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks show, Wishes. I don’t like either show, but if Fantasmic belongs anywhere, it’s the Magic Kingdom.

In its place, Studios will have a movie-themed show, based on an idea by my friend, Richard. Since the movies are a medium of flickering lights, it’ll look quite striking against the night sky.

It won’t be set in the Fantasmic amphitheater. We’re demolishing that. We shouldn’t have to be corralled into a gulag in order to see a nighttime show.

You can't see it, but the gate reads, "Work Sets You Free."

Our show--like most others--will be set in a large, public space, so that the greatest number of guests can see it.

In EPCOT, if we’re anywhere near the World Showcase Lagoon, we can see Illuminations.

Visible from eleven countries.

In Disneyland, Fantasmic is set on Tom Sawyer Island. Whether we’re in New Orleans Square, Frontierland, or the edge of Adventureland, we can see the show.

Guests are the only thing standing between
Maleficent and
Pirates of the Caribbean.

A fastpass for premium seating at California Adventure’s nighttime show, the World of Color, costs ten thousand dollars and a sacrifice of three firstborn children. Once we get the fastpass, it can only be cashed in by the seventh son of a seven son who has a PhD in Quantum Mechanics.

But if we ignore all of that and just pass by, we can still catch a glimpse.

Note how many people are in front of the camera,
and how little that obstructs our visibility.

Since we’re razing Studios, we’ll re-build with that goal in mind. We’ll make a central, accessible location to feature our movie-themed nighttime show.

As for the content of the nighttime show, I’ll write about it in a future post.

For now, I’ll say that it covers one aspect of the park’s movie theme that we’ve left unexplored. Seven of our studios are based on filmmakers, and one of our studios is based on film production. Our nighttime show will cover film history.


I began this blog to turn over a new, constructive leaf. My chest was swollen with ambition and good intentions.

“I’m gonna improve all the parks in all the Disney properties! Maybe I’ll brush up a Universal or two! Why, I might even add a Seventh Flag!”

The real challenges, I knew, were in California Adventure, Disney’s America, and Eisner-era EPCOT. I was anxious to make my mark.

Yet the more I brainstormed, the more Studios dominated my thoughts. There’s so much potential and so little kinesis, it’s hard not to improve things.

Studios apologists perform logical acrobatics to justify the park. “This attraction belongs here because it’s based on a TV show, and they show movies on TV all the time!!”

The best response is almost always, “Let's ditch what we have, and start with a good idea.”

All we need is the courage to do so.


  1. A Studio Ghibli land at DHS?! I think Luke's head just exploded . . .

  2. Predictably well-written and well-argued-- but I'm not sure, for once, that I totally agree with your premise.

    It seems to me that there are other Disney parks devoted to "riding the movies." For example, all of them. Magic Kingdom, DHS, DCA, and Disneyland all have "based-on-a-movie" rides, and even DAK and EPCOT have Disney movie tie-ins. Making DHS the park where there are Even More Rides Based on Movies seems to preserve its current status as a dumping ground.

    If this is indeed a park about *Hollywood*-- its myth, its aesthetic, its workings-- oughtn't the entire thing be your eighth land? Shouldn't "movie-making" be the focus of more-or-less the entire park?

    (Practically speaking, of course, some of the lands you suggest would be non-starters anyway, for the obvious reason that Disney doesn't control the brands. I know this blog is devoted to utopian thinking, and that the ugly fact that the parks' main purpose is cross-promotion has no place in a pretty village such as this-- But even putting that aside, if Disney can't guarantee that, say, Tim Burton won't make a series of kiddie pornos next, then they *really* can't spend a billion dollars promoting him at their parks. The lands could hypothetically be based on *franchises* (Star Wars, etc.) because those are licensable, but they can't be based on living people. Which leads me to another parenthetical:)

    (Don't these lands rub against the theming you describe? Your DHS is, you say, based on inter-war Hollywood-- but its attractions are based on Pixar movies? I sense a rather troubling tension there.*)

    [*FN: You can, of course, make the argument that to have lands based on period movies, however awesome, would be unpopular with guests, which, to some extent, is probably true. That being said, any possible land will be more popular (in America) than a Studio Ghibli land. So I sense that driving traffic isn't your top priority here.]

    Also, I wonder if you're not too dismissive of the importance of geographical Los Angeles-- not because I'm trying to deflate the park's focus on "the idea of Hollywood" into some prosaic fixation on the "corporeality of Hollywood," but because the geography of L.A. is inextricably linked to its mythology. People who have never set foot in Los Angeles (and maybe *only* they) are stirred and transported by names like "Sunset Boulevard" and "Beverly Hills"; to keep that stuff out of the park only weakens its ability to embody the Myth of Hollywood. For the sake of theming, then, I'll take more of that and less, say, "Marvel Studios."

    If you've been reading carefully, you'll note that I have a lot of big opinions about what *shouldn't* be in the park without many helpful suggestions as to what DHS should *include.* It is indeed perplexing. I think the behind-the-scenes stuff currently in the park is correct in concept if not execution. I think having, say, the Brown Derby is a nice touch, and I'd push for more 30s-era-nightclubs, a la The Cocoanut Grove, which seems like the correct form of nighttime entertainment in DHS (fireworks spectaculars having exactly nothing to do with Hollywood). The "parades," if they're not already, should be premieres, complete with big stars and flashing lights and singing boys and dancing girls. Other than that, all I know is that there should be champagne.

    Which leads me to my uber-reservation: I'm not 100% sure the park should exist at all, the Hollywood myth being manifestly inappropriate for children and most of the park's proper function having been folded into DCA long ago. Frankly, the fact that Pure Imagineering believes in DHS so passionately may be the strongest argument I can think of in its favor.

  3. Touche, O Mighty Andrew.

    In the idealistic-yet-unfeasible tone of this blog, most of the movie rides in other parks will be relocated to Studios.

    Ultimately, my vision of Studios IS a dumping ground, but a classy one. It will host the synergized rides so the other parks won’t have to. And it’ll only use the major brands, the brands that the park-going public expects, and the brands that I think will be good for the park-going public (because I am vain and powerful).

    Essentially, yes, the lands are based upon franchises, but branding them by their (studio / auteur) is a more efficient way to group them.

    For example, the park currently has a Star Wars attraction and an Indiana Jones attraction. The two franchises have distinct settings, stories, and--I think you’ll agree--qualities, but it seems wasteful to give them distinct lands.

    They’re united by Lucas’ authorial voice...a tone of “sophisticated pulp.” If we make several lands based upon Lucas seems semantic not to group them together and identify them as one single land of Lucas franchises.

    Let me ask, if we refer to the lands as studios, and not living, scandal-prone people, will that make the difference? If George Lucas get outed as a serial killer, will Lucas land be any more disgraced than Lucasfilm land?

    You raise an excellent point about a clash of theming between the Hollywood That Never Was, and Always Will Be and the studio lands.

    The answer is a simple one: the lands are movie studios. We expect to see clashing sets on movie studios. It creates intrigue. The lands beckon us over to see what all the visual ruckus is about.

    Islands of Adventure uses this principle:

    I suspect that (clashing / anachronistic) lands are permissible, so long as they’re motivated by the unifying theme...and in our Dream Factory of a park, they are. But we have to be careful: a land’s theme should not overwhelm its park’s theme.

    The tricky part, as you note, is keeping these disparate lands submissive to the Hollywood That Never Was, and Always Will Be.

    For this reason, I have NO intention of removing Los Angeles geography from the park. I don’t like they layout of Sunset Boulevard--it’s a tundra-length runway with all the attractions at the far end--but aesthetically, it’s one of my favorite sections of in all of Disney.

    No, I want MORE LA geography! We’ll have a Hollywood sign, those elephants on top of the columns, an Umami Burger dark name it! Every spare inch will be the Hollywood That Never Was, and Always Will Be.

    I just don’t want them to be lands, because I think a land should dictate its attractions, and I don’t know how to make Los Angeles-themed attractions. Or period movie-themed attractions. And I’ve got some strong ideas for filmmaking attractions, but at the moment, there are only enough to fill a land.

    A park that features these things would be incredible. If you have ideas, I’d love to collaborate with you, or if you write something yourself, I’ll gladly post it up here.

    And if they’re anything like your ideas for parades and clubs, do so with haste! We have a park to fix, damn it!

    As a side note, I wonder if your view of the Hollywood myth doesn’t suit a re-theming of Downtown Disney. Or maybe we can make our refurbished Studios become an “adult” park with late hours.

  4. Good points, all. I'll address them sloppily and at random.

    First, I'm willing to amend my earlier comment about theming. While I maintain that preserving the inter-war Hollywood aesthetic throughout the lands would be cool, I see what you're going for. I don't think there's anything wrong with a park where modern studios get the focus. *But:*

    This is still a park about *Hollywood,* right? It's about movies *qua* movies. It's a celebration of *filmmaking.* If there's a Lucasfilm land, oughtn't it be about Lucasfilm *as a movie studio*? (Lucasfilm, of course, isn't a studio-- it's a production company-- but never mind.) If this is a land full of rides where Lucasfilms's characters are presumed to be real (as they are in, say, Indiana Jones), then the rides have nothing to do with filmmaking; in fact, they're specifically a *denial* of filmmaking; they're fantasy, and they belong in Magic Kingdom.

    To be clear, I don't know exactly how to fill a park with attractions dedicated to filmmaking and/or the Hollywood myth. The best thing I can come up with is something like this:

    You'd set it up like the World Showcase, with each of the 7 majors and mini-majors of Hollywood's Golden Age having a pavilion. At MGM, you could watch Judy Garland's screen test, see the Ruby Slippers, walk through a Wizard of Oz soundstage recreation, etc. And all the sound-based attractions would, of course, be re-located to Warner Bros., where you could also drink Bloody Marys (the drink was invented on the Warners lot by comedian George Jessel-- fact). At UA, they'd project Chaplin shorts, with live Wurlitzer accompaniment. Universal would have monster-makeup demonstrations. Et cetera. And for some reason, in this context, the idea of the studios having movie rides doesn't bother me-- perhaps because they'd seem more like *demonstrations* than fantasies.

    Bonus: Disney could get the other studios' to contribute to operating costs, in return for hellified publicity.


    Re: referring to the lands as studios rather than people. I think referring to brands that the company doesn't own is pretty much a non-starter. Marvel, ESPN, ABC, the Disney Channel, Pixar, Touchstone (ha!), Mirimax (haha!), and Dimension (hahaha!) are safe. Large corporations-- say, Paramount-- are also probably safe because huge old companies' reputations are both entrenched and carefully managed.

    But given how much shit Disney has gone through due to their trivial connection to Michael Jackson, they'd be fools to base an *entire land* on an individual or his company. I mean, just think how glad they are that they scrapped their Polanskiland plans in the 1970s!


    I think it'd be *amazing* to re-theme Downtown Disney to old Hollywood glamour! Big bands!-- dancing!-- streamers in the air! And you could have those weird old "oriental" clubs run by corpulent Asians called "the fat man" who are always up to no good!

    Oh-- and you could recreate the Sunset Strip and invite real bands to play!

    And you could have someone murdered on a yacht every night by William Randolph Hearst! (Too soon?)

  5. Your point about basing lands off living people is well taken, my friend.

    As a reminder, here are my proposed lands:

    Lucas Ranch
    Marvel Studio
    Muppets Courtyard
    Pixar Place
    Studio Ghibli
    Walt Disney Animation Studio

    So if we re-name it *Lucasfilm* Ranch, is Burtontown the only remaining issue? Because I’ll gladly lose it. It was a cynical addition.

    I figured Burton’s style would make a nifty theme park land.

    And the Nightmare Before Christmas would make a good dark ride.

    And it’s too easy to come up with Alice in Wonderland attractions. If we themed ‘em to the shitty live action, it would justify giving Burton a land, which would secure Nightmare its own real estate, which would keep it far removed from my precious, precious Haunted Mansion.

    But we might as well design *palatable* Alice attractions, themed to the 1951 cartoon. They could go into Wonderland, a Fantasyland suburb that'd replace Disneyland's Toontown. That'd probably segue nicely into Small World, too.

    And we can stick the Nightmare ride in the Disney Animation Studio.

    (Sighs.) Fiiiiine.

    Also, I told you personally, but so that it’s publicly stated: your Studios is incredible. Yes. Let’s develop it.

    And I know it’s anachronistic, but we should think about a walk-through of Howard Hughes’ (bunker / screening room)!!