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A skunk by any other name…

Disgusting Giant HatA few weeks ago the folks at Disney HQ announced something that the net nabobs had been expecting for a long time – a name change for the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Orlando. These rumors go way, way back – litigation over the name began even before the park opened and extended well into the 1990’s. MGM management at the time realized that their predecessors had been totally chumped by Disney when they brokered the sweetheart deal over licensing rights, and have been trying to increase their take ever since.

So, for years we’ve been treated to a constant stream of rumors. “This is the year the contract is over… look for the name to change.” “Next year the contract with MGM is running out – it’s going to be Disney Studios then.” The park has been referred to as “Disney Studios” on WDW promotional videos for years, and the name change was always rumored to be right around the corner.

Things heated up again with the Disney – Pixar merger. The rumor mill started cranking with tales of the impending announcement of “Disney-Pixar Studios Theme Park”. Counter-rumors circulated that a thawing relationship with George Lucas after the departure of Michael Eisner would lead to an increased Lucasfilm presence in the park, and out of respect for that “Pixar” would be dropped from the name or “Lucas” added in some way. People photoshopped park logos with Mickey and their favorite Pixar character; various rumor sites contradicted each other but they mostly all agreed that the jury was still out at WDI on what to do with the park.

Disney

So, finally we get the announcement that WDW fans have been waiting for for at least a decade, and it’s something that no one had expected: in January 2008, the park will become “Disney’s Hollywood Studios”. No one really expected this name, and the web immediately began circulating with stories that it wasn’t necessarily a permanent name, and that it would change sometime in the near future once certain improvements were made to the park. But for now “Hollywood Studios” it is.

Oy.What does this all mean, really? Well, in the words of Walt Disney World president Meg Crofton, “as a park all about entertainment, Disney’s Hollywood Studios will deliver like never before. Now we can say that Hollywood is literally our middle name.” Now aside from the fact that someone in PR actually got paid to write that press release, this big name change is worth just about as much as the handful of crumpled paper in the dustbin beside my desk. Namely, very little. The Studios theme park is a mess; a disaster of both theme and execution, and is in more desperate need of immediate and massive overhaul than I think WDC realizes. Slapping a new name on the marquee won’t change that; if this park is really going to catch up to its Florida siblings, the folks in Burbank are going to have to get serious about commiting to change.

First let’s look at what Disney themselves have announced as the “new magic” that is going to make the park a “celebration of the new entertainment that today’s Hollywood has to offer”. These additions were announced in the same press releases as the park’s name change, and have a distinct air of “oh crap, we’ve got to justify this somehow – send Brad around the building to find out if we have anything new coming up!”

Toy Story Mania! Guests get sporty in a new, interactive “Toy Story” competition inspired by Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story” films and hosted by characters like they’ve never before experienced. Past a queuing area featuring a giant Mr. Potato Head, guests grab 3-D glasses, board fanciful ride vehicles and zip into a world of exciting midway-style games hosted by many of their favorite “Toy Story” characters including Woody, Hamm and Rex. Once inside “Andy’s Toy Box,” the competition heats up. Who can rack up the most points? Using spring-action shooters, guests launch darts at balloons, rings at aliens, eggs at whimsical barnyard targets. Toy Story Mania! takes the interactive ride-game experience to infinity — and beyond. (summer 2008)

“Block Party Bash.” Play, party and dance as the Disney-Pixar Film Pals present “Block Party Bash,” the wildest, most interactive parade in Disney history. New to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, “Block Party Bash” will invite guests to rock to retro tunes, be dazzled by high-flying acrobatics and join in the fun as more than 20 partying Disney-Pixar Film Pals fill the theme park streets. This immersive rolling spectacle will feature favorite characters from “The Incredibles,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “A Bug’s Life.” (spring 2008, replaces “Disney Stars and Motor Cars” parade)

“Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!” A whole new cast of friends from Playhouse Disney fills the popular Playhouse Disney stage. Children will be on their feet singing, clapping and dancing to performing stars from “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Little Einsteins,” “Handy Manny” and more. (“Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!” will be dark most of January 2008, reopens February 2008)

“High School Musical 2: School’s Out!” With new songs and a rollicking new spirit, the Disney Channel Original Movie “High School Musical 2″ comes to life on the streets of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It is interactive fun as high-energy performers on a traveling stage invite all ages to catch Wildcat fever by singing and dancing. (fall 2007, replaces “High School Musical Pep Rally”)

Meet and Greet Adds Handy Manny. And what would a Disney theme park be without characters? Disney’s Hollywood Studios is center stage for character meet and greets. Disney Channel stars JoJo and Goliath and the Little Einsteins welcome guests in the Animation Courtyard next to “Playhouse Disney-Live on Stage!” and are joined for the first time by Handy Manny. (November 2007)

Now what’ve we got here? First, we’ve got Toy Story Mania!, the interactive dark-ride shooter. Kinda like Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, minus physical sets and plus some really nice plasma screens and 3-D glasses. This attraction is a clone of a ride designed for California Adventure, where the midway-game theme actually made some sense. While no doubt the ride will have some technical wizardry, and isn’t some off-the-shelf B-ticket, one wonders about the need for a second Toy Story-themed shooter attraction. I’m interested to see if there’s any attempt to make the ride even remotely themed to its area and park, or if this’ll be another ‘monsters-in-Tomorrowland’ instance of “who cares, kids love it!”

Travesty.The rest of the attractions are also clones or updates of current shows. “Block Party Bash” was imported from California Adventure, and is yet another Pixar presence in the park. “Playhouse Disney” and “High School Musical” are just refreshes of stale stage shows, neither of which are of much interest to anyone who can legally drive. And Handy Manny? Well, I’m excited about that. I’ll be camping out at the front gate all night just so I can be the first to meet Handy Manny.

Is this all that’s coming for “Disney’s Hollywood Studios”? Thankfully, no. Rumors have been circulating for a while now that a major re-commitment to the park was coming once WDI and the new Imagineering brain trust got the ball rolling on the California Adventure overhaul. While California Adventure was the definite triage situation, everyone seems to be aware that the Studios are in a bad way and need some TLC as soon as possible. Unlike other parks, which just might need a new ride or two, fixing the Studios would require a lot more commitment and re-thinking of the park’s concept. Now that they’ve at least settled on the name, maybe they can get down to work.

Carthay Circle at California AdventureThe current word is that a major celebration is being scheduled for Walt Disney World’s 40th anniversary in 2011. This will result in each park getting at least a new E-ticket attraction of some sort. Even before then, rumor holds that the transformation of DHS will have begun. Honor at Blue Sky Disney recently posted that after a transitional year during 2008, 2009 will be a major year for the Studios if WDI gets the funding they desire. Expect to see placemaking along the lines of WDI’s California Adventure re-do, new attractions, and other surprises as money allows.

There’s a lot of work to be done at DHS, and hopefully as Disney finally surrenders the last pretenses of a ‘working studio’ it will allow them to fully commit to the theme park itself. There are decades of fantastic ideas for the park sitting abandoned on WDI’s shelves; many of these concepts would still be great jumping-off points for the park’s revitalization. Now is Disney’s chance to get it right; just like at California Adventure they’re probably only going to get one big shot at fixing things, and they need to get it right. Slapdash placement of Pixar rides isn’t going to do it, nor are trendy stageshows for kids. Aside from Hollywood and Sunset Blvds., and the Great Movie Ride itself, the Studios park has mostly lacked that special something that defines Disney parks. They’ve yet to use the possibilities provided by Hollywood’s Golden Era and the massive backlog of Disney intellectual properties to their full potential. They’re going to get their chance, and I hope they take it.

Mickey

You’ll be seeing a lot on this topic here; WDW is the ‘home resort’ of both Beacon Joe and I, and we’re both of the opinion that the former Disney-MGM studios is the busted, flabby fourth wheel of the property. The potential is so massive yet the execution so far has been flawed – let’s hope that changes. We’ll be here documenting it if it does.

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