You’ve Got a Friend in Toy Story Land

Now you can hang with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang from Andy’s toy chest at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening at the end of June, this is the newest expansion at Hollywood Studios located behind the former Pixar Place. This colorful land is sure to make you smile and wax nostalgic. Not only do you get to enjoy the company of Andy’s toys, but you’ll also find many toys, craft supplies, board games, and more from your childhood in and around the area. It was unfortunately raining when my friend and I went, but we still had a great time! The rain certainly didn’t put a damper on our fun. So many wonderful details in the atmospheric design of Toy Story Land. Incidentally, you also get some great views of the progress on Galaxy’s Edge!

When entering Toy Story Land, you are greeted by Woody! You’ll definitely want to stop by for a photo. When you pass through the gateway to this land of toys, you’ll be shrunk down to toy size in order to fully enjoy all that Andy’s toy box has to offer. The element that stands out to me more than anything is the colorful nature of everything. Even on the overcast, dreary day that we were having, the colors brightened up the land. Between the giant footprints and towering privacy fence, it truly feels like you are one of Andy’s toys.

Unlike when the land first opened at the end of June, the wait times in the queues for Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash are considerably less. Fortunately, the rainy weather contributed to the even lower than typical wait times while I was there. The main attraction (or E Ticket attraction for Disney enthusiasts) is the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash. Just to put the experience into perspective, the coaster falls somewhere between Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa. My favorite part of the Slinky Dog coaster is the launch! Not nearly as intense as Cheetah Hunt, but quite enjoyable! In terms of duration, it lasts longer than typical family coasters. I was also impressed by the guest cycle time. The cast members were on their A game with loading and unloading park guests. Although we waited in queue for about one hour, the line was consistently moving. You’ll notice there are ceiling fans throughout the queue and plenty to look at. My friend Brittany and I both immensely enjoyed Slinky Dog and felt it was worth the hour we waited.

Woodys Lunch Box is a window (quick service) restaurant in Toy Story Land, and although the menu has changed since opening day, there is still a sufficient variety for a quick meal. Check out the menu here!

Slink Dog Dash isn’t the only new attraction in Toy Story Land. You can experience some swirling fun with the aliens from Pizza Planet at Alien Swirling Saucers. In this glorified “tea cup” attraction, you and your friend board a flying saucer to whirl through the universe. Unlike Alice’s Magic Tea Cups, you have no control over how fast you spin as your flying saucer is connected to the mother ship. Still, it’s a cute, fun ride that was a need for Hollywood Studios.

Make Toy Story Land a must-do on your next Disney trip! Now that the summer is winding down, you’ll probably benefit from shorter wait times in this brand new area. With the rain, I was unable to experience any of the character meet and greets, but I did see green army men walking about. Hopefully next time, I’ll get a chance to say hi to Woody and the gang.


Of Mice and Movies

Twitter is a’buzz with the latest from the 2017 D23 Expo. Not to be outdone, Facebook, Instagram, and the theme park blogosphere are all but fully consumed with the big announcements for Walt Disney World out of D23 in Anaheim. BIG changes are coming, and will radically modify the existing attraction offerings at Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). While there were many announcements, the biggest ones are arguably the detailed look at the new Star Wars Land, the update on Toy Story Land (opening next summer), Ellen’s Energy Adventure (Epcot) getting replaced by Guardians of the Galaxy. Lastly, the final big announcement that will really hit close to home for many who have been going to DHS for a large portion of his or her life–the announcement of the closure of The Great Movie Ride (GMR) to make way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride at Walt Disney World. And it’s that last announcement that speaks volumes regarding the direction that the Walt Disney Company is moving.

Although it’s been fairly common knowledge that the Ellen attraction was going to be replaced with something more contemporary and relevant, the announcement of the closure of GMR came as a shock to many (note: this change WAS hinted at within the last few months). Fortunately, the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre facade is slated to be largely untouched, so it will remain the icon of the park; however, GMR will go by way of The Streets of America. On the plus side, this change paves the way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride in the parks period. That’s right. Neither Mickey nor Minnie had a ride based off their respective characters. Strange, right? Since “it all started with a Mouse.” Yes, Mickey has been included in other attractions (i.e. Philharmagic, Fantasmic, etc), but this presents the first time that he will have an actual ride in the parks. Of all the changes coming to Walt Disney World, this represents the most symbolic, and some might argue, the most significant. In order to understand just why this particular change is so important, and to many controversial, we have to look back at a brief history of The Great Movie Ride and by extension DHS itself. If you have read my article entitled A Theme Park in Flux, published back in September 2016, you may be familiar with the following. For all others, let’s hop in the wayback machine!

It’s the mid 1980s. And Disney Imagineers are pictching the idea to add an attraction that explores iconic films to Epcot’s Wonders of Life pavilion. The name of that attraction: The Great Movie Ride. At the same time, Disney is working with MGM/UA to build movie and television production facilities to be the Florida counterparts to the California operations. Concurrent to Disney, Universal Studios and Nickelodeon are doing the same thing just up the road from Disney. Anyway. Led by Michael Eisner at the time, he made the executive decision to–instead of adding a movie-based attraction to Epcot–to build an entire theme park with a filmmaking or film industry theme. Long story short, in 1989 then Disney-MGM Studios opened up with facility tours and two attractions: GMR and the former Studio Backlot Tour inclusive of Streets of America and Residential Street. After the licensing deal with MGM was ended, the park changed its name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008 and removed all the MGM branding. Shortly thereafter, Residential Street was removed and Lights Motors Action was added. Since that time, all attractions in that area of the park have been closed to make way for Star Wars and Toy Story Lands.

Speeding up to present day. The decision to remove GMR from DHS represents the end of an era. With the closure of that iconic attraction, the park’s original concept, original idea, the very soul of the park is being rewritten. What was once material for waxing nostalgic at the parks–nostalgia being a significant draw to theme parks–will now merely be a distant memory. It’s not that theme parks should avoid evolving to remain relevant–quite the contrary. They need to! But to remove an attraction that represents the original identity of the park, stirs up quite a lot of emotions. Many might argue that this is the equivalent of closing Epcot’s iconic Spaceship Earth because Epcot’s direction has shifted from an educational component to food and thrills. More than riding the movies, DHS (much like Universal Studios) was a park that immersed park guests into filmmaking itself. Granted, the filmmaking process is not as magical as it once was, given that most of the magic exists within a computer and is comprised of 0s and 1s; still, there was a magic to the whole thing that park guests found fascinating, and enjoyed approaching films from a different perspective. If GMR isn’t safe, if the tides of time wash this park-opener attraction off the maps, then is any attraction safe???

Keeping roots in the original concept of a park is truly important, but it seems the powers that be do not feel that any connection to the soul of the park, the history of the park, is important. Not that I don’t think Mickey and Minnie deserve a ride. Of course they do! And there are likely other places where their new attraction could have gone. Take One Man’s Dream for instance. If you’ve been to DHS, you know this as the Walt Disney museum with a focus his early filmmaking days as well as the plans for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It’s a biographical museum, of sorts. Great attraction. Does it need to be at DHS? No. It’s an example of an attraction that can be moved to another location without a negative impact left by its absence. Disney Springs would be a great location for the museum, and would probably see more guests than it does now. The present One Man’s Dream location could be retrofitted and remodeled for a new attraction. In fact, that area of the park is referred to as the Animation Courtyard. Therefore, it’s best suited for a new attraction where Mickey and Minnie are the stars! For years, I’ve thought that GMR needed to be refurbished. So, I am fully aware that many of the scenes lack sufficient relevance to the kids and teens today–even some young adults. But, because the attraction needed a massive refurbishment does not mean that it should be removed altogether.

It is clear from the announcements at D23 that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will see a complete departure from its founding theme and concept–old Hollywood and the magic of the movies–and move to a sort of diegetic immersion. Instead of learning about the movies, the guests will feel as if they are IN the movies. Instead of celebrating movies, Star Wars and Toy Story will provide guests with a complete escape from the outside world and into the world of these popular franchises. The addition of these properties and lands is exciting! They look beautiful and will offer some fascinating attractions; but, I wish it had not come at the expense of losing the very foundational idea that inspired Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

The best laid plans…

A Theme Park in Flux

DHS_MainIt’s no secret that the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) is undergoing some massive builds and refurbishments. With Universal Orlando (UO) stealing the leading market share from the media and entertainment conglomerate’s flagship resort, Disney is running to catch up. Although there are a number of refurbishments and builds presently taking place, the one that is the most obvious and potentially dangerous is the near-reboot of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). Just this week, it was announced that the extremely popular thrill ride Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster is soon to be closed for a relatively short amount of time; however, during this time, all references to Aerosmith will be removed. Whether that is due to inside or outside influences is not what’s really important. What IS important is the number of closures over the last couple of years and even ones that are reported to be taking place within the next few.

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GMR_VintageIt’s the late 1980s, and then Disney CEO Michael Eisner has an idea for a new theme park at WDW. Unlike other parks which were more strategically planned, this one has a rather spontaneous birth. In short, Eisner desired to put a movie-based ride at Epcot. The name of that attraction? The Great Movie Ride (GMR). Sound familiar? From that attraction concept sprung the now Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The genesis of this park parallels Universal Studios Florida in many ways. Both began as Florida production counterparts to their respective Los Angeles headquarters and both opened within one year of one another featuring attractions based on film/TV IP; furthermore, both parks were active film and television production facilities and offered tours, live audience opportunities, and meet and greets with some of the stars. Back then (from 1989-2008) DHS was named Disney-MGM Studios with a scale replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as the centerpiece. The operating hours were less than Magic Kingdom or Epcot because of the few offerings, so DHS was originally operated as a half-day park. The design of the park was mostly based on the idea of Hollywood at the hight of its golden age in the 1930s and 40s. From the buildings to the backlot, it was clear that this park was celebrating the art of motion pictures.


Here is a map of the park at the height of attractions offerings (minus Toy Story Midway Mania and The American Idol Experience both added in 2008).

Disney_GG_HouseDuring the late 1990s and early 2000s, both Disney and Universal began to phase out the Florida production facilities. With that phasing out, the connection to the art of motion picture making began to mitigate. Specifically speaking about, Disney-MGM Studios, there were two major changes that directly affected the identity of the park during this first period of flux. While many may not recall the set tours of Adventures in Wonderland or playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, many long-time fans and guests of the park will remember the closure of Residential Street (part of the Backlot Tour) to make way for the now-closed Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show. Residential Street included, among other houses, THE Golden Girls‘ house (used for the exterior shots starting in the 2nd season). During the pilot episode and the first season of the critically acclaimed show–still–with a huge fan base today, the house seen in the exterior shots (which you can drive to today) was/is located in Brentwood, CA. But I digress. With the closure of Residential Street, the now-closed Backlot Tour had to be reinvented to accommodate the new stunt show. This closure represented the first steps in the eventual identity crisis of the park.

DHS_TOTRegarding the addition of new attractions, the 1990s were a booming time for DHS because in 1994, something huge dropped in. The iconic and popular flagship attraction The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (TOT) opened on Sunset Blvd! At the time, it was considered the most technologically advanced theme park attraction in the world. The attraction was so popular in Florida that a counterpart was constructed at Disneyland as part of Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). Sadly, Disney has confirmed all rumors and timeframes regarding the rebranding of the DCA Tower of Terror to be rethemed with Guardians of the Galaxy. Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage and The Tower of Terror welcomed the addition of Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (RRC) in 1999. RRC was the first (and still only) roller coaster at DHS and continues to be a huge draw today. In addition to the 1990s welcoming TOT and RRC, Sunset Boulevard would also become the home of the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic! With room for close to 10K park guests, Fantasmic continues to be a popular show that requires guests to arrive 1-1.5hrs prior to showtime. However, the popularity of Sunset Blvd is not immune to radical changes. As you may be aware, and as I wrote in the opening paragraph, it was announced recently that RRC will be undergoing a short but drastic refurbishment in the next month that will transform the coaster into a more generic version of its current self. (Personally, I’d like to see RRC Starring Journey, 21 Pilots, Bleachers, or a range of songs by bands/artists about rollercoasters).

My sister "wearing" Mickey's hat!

My sister “wearing” Mickey’s hat!

The mid to late 2000s began to see some changes that would completely redefine the identity of the park as it continued to move away from the production of television and film. From Residential Street to the center of the park, due to licensing issues with the then new owners of the real Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Disney erected Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat to serve as the centerpiece for the park and as the logo for marketing. In retrospect, the erection of this hat upstaged the Chinese Theatre, representing the end of the first season of Disney-MGM and ushered in the second season. Contrary to popular opinion, the hat was not connected to the eventual renaming of the park in 2008 but the result of the owners of the Chinese Theatre wanting more money for the famous Hollywood landmark to be featured in marketing materials. Obviously, if you have been to the park in the last year, you have noticed that the Chinese Theatre is back to being the centerpiece thanks to–again–new owners of The Chinese Theatre (TCL). It would appear that DHS is going back to its roots in the art of motion picture production, but that may not be the case. While the entrance to the park is almost back to its vintage state, the rest of the park is being redefined and is presently in a state of flux as the seasons change once again.

DHS_NewLogoEven before Star Wars and Frozen, DHS was already in a identity crisis. The most notable change, whether you are a park regular or not, was the complete renaming of the park in 2008 from Disney-MGM Studios to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (on that note, the park will be getting a new name again with the opening of Star Wars and Toy Story lands). Although the renaming is partly due to the disconnect from motion picture making, it is mostly due to MGM falling into bankruptcy. 2008 continued to be a big year of changes with the opening of the still-popular Toy Story Midway Mania attraction located in the Pixar area near then-Animation. Furthermore in 2008, DHS opened the now-closed American Idol Experience (licensed from Fox). It took the place of Doug Live in the show building that was vacant from 2001-2008. From 2008-2012ish, it was extremely popular and hundreds, if not thousands, of park guests auditioned everyday. Towards the end, the attraction would have to cancel shows because so few guests auditioned. The attraction finally closed its doors at the Superstar Theatre in 2014 to make way for the Frozen Live show that can now be seen daily. More recently, the–what was left of the–Backlot Tour is now closed, DHS_ OFSDLalong with the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground, Streets of America (home to the now deceased Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights during the holidays); and it’s rumored that in 2018 that The Great Movie Ride (GMR) will be massively rethemed to a Mickey dark ride. Supporting evidence of this is in the decline to renew the–actually still new–licensing agreement and sponsorship of GMR by Turner Classic Movies. The removal of GMR would essentially mean the park will lose all connections to the original idea for the park. Theme park researchers are also predicting the closure of the Indiana Jones Stunt Show to make way for more Start Wars. Looks like DHS is moving into season three of its life. What does all this mean?

dhs_map_2016_aHere is a map of Disney’s Hollywood Studios today. Notice anything?

DHS_TSL_WallIt is clear that this park is continuing to truly find and solidify its identity. If you look at the map above, you will notice that there are far fewer offerings than in the mid-late 2000s at DHS. This new season of DHS is simply the next in a long history of fluctuations. Originally designed as a half-day park, it appears as though DHS is unofficially returning to that model–for now, anyway. Once RRC closes (even though it is for a relatively short time), there will only be a few rides left: Star Tours, Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, and Toy Story. As far as other attractions, guests will still be able to enjoy Indiana Jones, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasmic, Little Mermaid, and Muppet Vision 3D. Comparing that list to what was offered in DHS’ prime years, the offerings are somewhat anemic. Although it is too early to announce a target opening date for either Toy Story or Star Wars Lands respectively, Disney is known for prolonged expansion construction. So, it is safe to assume that we are looking at 3-5yrs until the lands open. The danger in closing so many attractions over the years and nearly cutting the park in half (when it was already small) is a potential side effect of a significant drop in guest numbers. Hopefully, the numbers will climb back up once the lands open. DHS_SWL_WallThat being said, here is an idea. It’s no secret that Disney is presently losing out to Universal. Of all the parks, DHS is definitely seeing the sharpest decline in numbers (which translates to revenue). Not knowing what the daily operating cost of the park is, I can only speculate; but,  WDW may be in a better position if it were to completely close DHS for 18-24mos and ramp up the construction of Star Wars and Toy Story. With the park remaining open, the construction moves more slowly than if the entire park were to shut down. Cities have proven that this approach works when it comes to massive repairs or expansions of expressways. Would you rather keep a park open that has a few attractions and the new lands take twice as long to build or would it be better to close the park (which could potentially save money in the long run) and the lands open up in half the time? Whatever the case, it’s definitely something interesting to think about. All we can do is watch as Disney’s “movie” based theme park transforms yet again. On the plus side, the new lands look awesome! I will, though, miss the magic of the movies at this park.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 9)

My BookIn order for the creative teams at cinema-influenced theme parks to understand what the public is going to want months, sometimes years, ahead of time, they have to understand the past attractions, the present ones, and what to look for in the future. Over the years, the attractions at these parks have undergone many changes. And, with the way the trends are going, the “behind the scenes” and nostalgic movie-based attractions are going by way of the dodo, and glorified IMAX® simulator interactive multi-dimensional rides are taking their place. Some of the prominent attractions in the vein of “behind the scenes” and robotic movie or television show attractions were located at Disney’s Hollywood (MGM) Studios and Universal Studios (Florida and Hollywood). Although a few of the park-opener attractions are still around, most have been replaced by other attractions.

MSW_SoundstageOriginally Universal was an excellent theme park for learning about the magic behind the camera and the, mostly analog, technology that enabled directors to become magicians. There was a clear educational component to the theme park experience. And, to some extent, Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the same way. But, with the movie technology changing as rapidly as it is, some of the more nostalgic legacy attractions are going away. Many of the original Universal Studios attractions were about taking you behind the magic, revealing the secrets of movie and TV making. From 1990-1996 at Universal Studios Florida, there was a Murder, She Wrote: Mystery Theatre with sound stages that showed the audience about video editing and foley sound generation based on the hit series starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury. On the tour, the audience would get to watch scenes from the show, talk to industry professionals (played by actors), and volunteers would be used to interact with some of the equipment. But, probably, the most prolific and inspirational attractions about the magic of movies was the Alfred Hitchcock: Art of Making Movies attraction (1990-2002) and Bates Motel and House set from Psycho IV (1990-1998), both located at Universal Studios Florida. (I am actually going to write a separate article on this specific attraction after this series of excerpts is completed).

Psycho_SoundstageThis was a main attraction at the theme park until its dismantlement in 2002 to make way for the Shrek: 4D experience. From the aforementioned explanation by one of the producers of the attraction, the audience was completely immersed in the magic of bringing a Hitchcock thriller to life, and got to witness the most famous single scene in all of cinema history. This was all done with practical effects, just as Hitchcock would have done it. But, with the advent of computer-generated imagery and incredibly accurate and time efficient non-linear video editing, most of the effects can be generated in other ways. Although it remained one of the most popular attractions at the theme park until its closure, Universal saw the future of attractions and decided to do away with nostalgia and pave the way for digital simulated attractions (Singer, 2013). Doing away with cinema and television nostalgia wasn’t the sole prerogative of Universal. Although Disney World is famous for holding on to the nostalgia of the past, especially at Magic Kingdom (Singer, 2013), its parks, too, have learned to adopt new attractions for what they feel the guests want. On the (now closed) Studio Backlot Tour, guests would take a walking and tram tour through a special effects water show on the set of Pearl Harbor, featuring volunteers from the audience, and ride a tram through the production houses where props and costumes were made. Also on the tour was a special effects sequence in an oil refinery canyon that burst into flames and was also flooded. This put the guests in the middle of the movie-making action.

Disney_GG_HouseUntil 2003, there was a street called Residential Street on the tram tour. Here, park guests would come face-to-face with some of the most famous houses in Buena Vista/Touchstone Television shows. The most famous of the houses was the upper middle class home of the Golden Girls. The house was a replica of the North Saltaire Street house in the Los Angeles area that Disney used for the exterior shots during the first few seasons. From 1989-1992, Disney used the replica at then Disney-MGM Studios for shooting the exterior shots of the house. In 2003, the houses were torn down to make way for an epic car stunt show, featuring how car action sequences are filmed in the movies. Keeping with the over-all theme of the park, this was staying with the concept of learning about the magic of making movies. As of October 2014, the Studio Backlot Tour was closed (History of the Backlot Tour, 2014).

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