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Blue Sky Update – Walt Disney Studios Paris

Disney Studios Paris entrance

In the realm of Disney parks these days, there are the haves and the have-nots. The “haves” are fortunate enough to have an executive team that recognizes the need for expansion and refurbishment, and were also lucky enough to secure funding for these projects before the economic situation worsened. The “have-nots” are… well, in Florida.

Most fans know of the massive development underway in California, and Disney continues to negotiate with the Hong Kong government about expansion there. The Tokyo parks, benefiting from the largesse of the Oriental Land Company, continue to see a series of additions. Even in distant Paris, at the historically troubled Disneyland Resort Paris, a number of possible new attractions continue to percolate under the radar.

Sadly, as with California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland, this expansion mostly deals with emergency additions to a woefully under-built park. In the case of Paris, rumors center around the Walt Disney Studios – the resort’s under-funded second gate that opened in 2002. Built in a rush and on a shoestring, the Paris Studios is, in fact, the worst of the parks in Disney’s roster.

Area comparison of Disney Studios Paris and Disneyland ParisDiminished Expectations: The comparative areas of Disneyland Paris (opened in 1992) and the Walt Disney Studios (opened 2002)

The park was never meant to be spectacular; originally intended to open in 1995, a plan scuttled due to EuroDisney’s financial troubles, even the original designs for the park were modest. Part of Eisner’s obsession with spreading his low-cost Studios concept worldwide, the project had been announced as the “Disney-MGM Studios Europe” before its sister park even opened. When the idea was revived in later years, it was completely redesigned to even more modest proportions and stripped of nearly all the elements that make Disney parks special – theme, design and that wonderful sense of place. The original intention to have a working studio and backlot were abandoned, and what opened in 2002 was essentially a long strip of tarmac with several warehouse-sized soundstage buildings and little else.

The Studios’ crowds were as sparse as its contents, and expansion became an imperative. Even worse, the failure of the Studios to attract guests imperiled the financial success of the entire resort just as it finally found itself on fairly sound financial footing after years of instability. It was ironic that the desire to save money by cutting corners on the second gate actually led to further financial woes. More financial restructuring and an infusion of cash in the form of a check from the Walt Disney Company led to the first wave of Studios expansion, which included a Tower of Terror, two kiddie rides in the new “Toon Studio” area, and the Finding Nemo-themed Crush’s Coaster. The expansion also provided a degree of “placemaking”, adding a thematic layover to previously unthemed areas. A small “Hollywood Boulevard” was created, leading up to the Studio Backstage Tour station, but it consists only of facades instead of fully constructed buildings like its Florida counterpart.

Walt Disney Studios Paris expansion area mapRoom to grow: The actual park areas of the Walt Disney Studios, in green, as compared to the possible room for expansion

As modest as these additions were overall, they helped. Attendance has increased at the park and the resort as a whole has turned back onto a path towards profitability. But much remains to be done to make this park respectable, and over the last couple of years several rumors have emerged as to what the next wave of expansion will entail. First, let’s look at what’s not coming to the Walt Disney Studios.

One of the earliest and most prominent rumors for this phase of additions was Soarin’. The simulator attraction, which debuted at California Adventure and was later cloned at EPCOT Center, was allegedly slated for an expansion pad near the entrance to the park. Apparently these plans have been put on the back burner, as the park is already heavy on film-based attractions. Two of these shows, CinéMagique and Animagique, are staged in poorly themed and rather low quality structures; another frequent rumor is that they would receive a placemaking rehab, turning their area into something called the “theater district.” Those plans, too, seem to be delayed.

A final obsolete rumor involves the Armageddon – Les Effets Speciaux attraction. Last year there was talk that this underwhelming show would be replaced with a walk-though based on the Chronicles of Narnia films. Based on a similar attraction at Florida’s Hollywood Studios, one would suspect that since Disney recently decided to no longer distribute the Narnia films that this attraction is no longer a possibility.

Walt Disney Studios Paris expansion sitesThe next wave of expansion: Playhouse Disney (red), the Soarin’ expansion site (blue), Hollywood Boulevard (purple), Toy Story Playland (green) and the possible Ratatouille site (yellow)

As far as actual expansion goes, the first new show to open is the park’s version of Florida’s Playhouse Disney attraction. The show, which actually officially debuted this past weekend, is one of two attractions housed in the former Disney Channel Television Production Tour building. The Television Production Tour, the first of the Studios park’s attractions to close, was by all accounts a complete embarrassment at the time of its opening and, much like California Adventure’s Superstar Limo, the park was actually better off without it. The Television Tour closed in 2007, and part of its former building is already occupied by Stitch Live!, a living character initiative show (think Turtle Talk with Crush) which has already been cloned in Hong Kong and which inspired the upcoming Stitch show in Florida’s Tomorrowland.

A second area that I’ve marked for expansion but for which no current rumors exist is Hollywood Boulevard. This area didn’t even exist until the placemaking efforts that attended the construction of the Tower of Terror. Now it leads to the Tram Tour depot, but this central spot in the park obviously calls for a real “weenie” to draw guests into the area.

Disney-MGM Studios EuropeWhile the original plans for the Disney-MGM Studios Europe were not spectacular in scope, they did at least feature some level of theming

The most obvious solution would be another version of Graumann’s Chinese Theater, as in Florida, with a new version of The Great Movie Ride. This attraction was actually planned for the Disney-MGM Studios Europe version of the park, but was most likely cut due to cost. The Tram Tour is already being re-routed due to current expansion, and since it holds no actual purpose one could assume that it won’t be in the park forever. An expansion of Hollywood Boulevard, with actual buildings and a central iconic attraction, would take the park a long way towards resembling a real Disney park.

One rumor for this area of the park that did circulate last year involved a team of Imagineers that were allegedly surveying the area with the intention of adding themed backdrops off of side-streets similar to the San Francisco backlot scene in Florida’s Hollywood Studios. I have no idea if this is something being considered, but if the park continues to expand it will need new pathways to get from one end to the other, and to create a more traditional park layout.

Walt Disney Studios Paris - Toon Studio expansion sitesThe Toon Studio and surroundings: Current guest areas in blue, and expansion site in green

As we move towards the “Toon Studio” area, we also move into the realm of more definite plans. This mini-land was the park’s first expansion, with two Pixar-themed attractions – the Cars Rally kiddie spinner and the indoor wild mouse coaster themed to Finding Nemo. Several other concepts have been rumored over the last few years for this area, but the one that has emerged as the next possible E-ticket is my absolute favorite.

Taking a cue from its real-world setting, the park’s big attraction for the resort’s 20th anniversary in 2012 is rumored to be a brand new dark ride based on Pixar’s Ratatouille. Said to be based on the same trackless ride system used in Tokyo Disneyland’s Winnie the Pooh attraction, the ride would allow for multiple ride vehicles to move through the scenes independently of each other, giving guests a Remy-level perspective of treacherous Parisian kitchens. I know that I grouse about toonification and the Pixar slant of everything these days, and maybe it’s because Ratatouille is my favorite Pixar film (yeah, I said it, wanna make something of it?), but this sounds awesome. If they attach a real restaurant themed to one of those from the film, the park will have its first legitimate dining venue. Everyone probably expects a re-creation of Gusteau’s, but how about a version of the cafe from the film’s finale with animatronic copies of Remy and friends skittering about overhead? It would be a nice use of living character initiative technology.

Chef Paul Bocuse and animatronic RemyImagineering’s interactive Remy animatronic would be a perfect match for a themed dining venue

Most rumors claim that this new dark ride will either be grafted onto the side of, or replace completely, the costuming building that currently sits behind Toon Studio. In a burst of creative cheapness paralleled only by Walt posting signs labeling the weeds in Latin for Disneyland’s opening day, the expanded cast member costuming building necessitated by the creation of a second gate was incorporated into the Studios park. The Studio Tour trams, much like their Florida counterparts, would pass through the costuming building, claiming that it was part of some active production process underway at the Studios. Since there was obviously no real production going on in the Paris park, these were clearly just the everyday cast costumes for the Disney Studios and Parc Disneyland.

The Tram Tour no longer goes through this building, so the costuming department is now a large building in a very desirable location. Hopefully the department will be relocated somewhere suitably off-stage, and the building repurposed for something more befitting its location – the Ratatouille ride.

This, at last, brings us to Toy Story Playland. This mini-land within a mini-land remains officially unannounced, although the site is currently fenced off and construction has already begun. Based – brace yourselves – on Toy Story, this area will contain yet more kiddie carnival attractions themed to characters from the film. Based on leaked rumors and Disney’s own guest surveys, the attraction lineup looks like this:

Jumpin' Jellyfish at California AdventureSlap on some Army Men and this is what’s coming to Paris

- A Children’s Parachute Tower themed to the Green Army Men. Another version of this attraction, called “Jumpin Jellyfish”, already exists at California Adventure and in Tokyo DisneySea’s Mermaid Lagoon area. One of the earlier plans for the California Adventure remodeling called for an adult-scale version of this attraction to replace the Maliboomer drop tower.

- A Music Express ride – think the Himalaya at your local county fair – themed to Slinky Dog. An aquatic-themed version of this ride system also exists in Tokyo’s Mermaid Lagoon.

- Perhaps most controversially, a Half-Pipe Coaster themed around the R.C. Racer character. Speculation has gone back and forth as to whether this attraction would take the form of Intamin A.G.’s half-pipe or Zamperla’s Mega Disk’O. Currently, sources insist that the contract will go to Zamperla, but for a customized attraction that borrows somewhat from both designs. Recently, it has also been leaked that two ride tracks will be built, thus doubling the guest capacity of the attraction.

Half-Pipe CoasterIntamin A.G.’s Half-Pipe Coaster: Less Disney than Disney?

Fans of the park are concerned about the track of the half-pipe coaster, which typically takes the form of an unadorned metal tower. The site destined for the coaster – in the forest above the grassy knoll highlighted on the map above – puts it in a place to interfere with sightlines from the Studio’s Hollywood Boulevard and Parc Disneyland’s Frontierland.

Other concerns come from the nature of the rides; these are attractions that can be found in many funfairs around the world and the addition of some carny rides will do nothing to cure the fundamental issues with the park. While it’s good that there will be increased capacity for younger guests, these rides still aren’t anything along the lines of real Disney attractions.

Buzz Lightyear at the All-Star Movies ResortPlease, no

The theming of the area is also suspect; renderings have yet to emerge but descriptions that have leaked out speak of lots of megalithic figures shaped like the Toy Story characters. Much like Florida’s Pixar Place, the area would be scattered with giant versions of the licensed toy brands from the films, and while the original marquee for the land was allegedly a giant robot holding a sign composed of Scrabble blocks, it’s now said that WDI will instead install a giant Buzz Lightyear similar to those at Florida’s All-Star Resorts. What any of this has to do with the movie studio theme of the park is debatable, and it evokes a number of metaphysical questions about theming. Why created an area where the toys allegedly “live”, and then have giant statues of the characters around? One would expect that they’d have a Buzz Lightyear walkaround character at some point – how do they reconcile that with the giant fiberglass Buzz that stands at the entrance to the land? These might seem like nitpicking questions, but it’s what happens when you shift from using familiar characters to help guests relive famous moments from popular films and stories, and instead just use them as window dressing for generic thrill rides that bear no experiential relation to the characters they’re supposed to represent. Things like this and the fiberglass characters in Animal Kingdom’s Camp Minnie-Mickey remind me less of Disneyland and more of Carowinds’s Smurf Island in the 1980s.

That, in so many words, is the scoop as it stands on the Walt Disney Studios park. Construction on Toy Story Playland is underway though unannounced, and I’m sure they’d like to get it open in time for Toy Story 3‘s release in 2011. Ratatouille, if it happens, would allegedly follow in 2012. Plans, of course, are always subject to change without notice!

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