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Talkin’ Bout Studios

About a week ago, Matt Hochberg at the Studios Central site posted a thoughtful counterpoint to my “top ten” article about fixing the Hollywood Studios park. It’s understandable that our viewpoints differ on the matter of the Studios; obviously I have a number of significant problems with the way the park has developed, while Matt is not only the creator of Studios Central but also RocknRollerCoaster.com and TowerOfTerror.org. I wanted to reply sooner, but wanted to wait until I could give the subject the attention it deserved. I posted my response earlier today in the comments thread under the original article, but thought I’d crosspost them here too. So, to quote Samuel L. Jackson, allow me to retort!

First, I appreciate the thoughtful analysis, even if it’s dissenting from my post. On most of my trips to WDW, I don’t even bother with the Studios anymore. This hasn’t always been the case, as I used to be really fond of the park. And there are obviously still parts with which I find a lot of merit – I think the front of the park, with Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, is one of the most beautifully themed areas in any Disney park. As a fan of film, and especially classic Hollywood films from the 30s and 40s, the park should be a home run for me. In fact, I think a lot of the problems I have with the Studios come from how much real potential it has to astound, and how it’s fallen short of that goal so far.

I’ll follow the model in their reply, and respond point by point. Their quotes are in italics:

“Each of the four parks has been the victim of grandiose ideas followed by cost-cutting slashes to projects that resulted in a watered down result. Look no further than the original plans for Animal Kingdom (Beastly Kingdom), Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland or Epcot (World Showcase countries, World showcase attractions, Seas pavilion) as starting points. Every park has big dreams and then reality sets in.”

This is true, but I think it hurts the Studios more than the others for a couple of reasons. Most glaring is the fact that Studios was created with the express purpose of being a working production facility. There have been a lot of prominent broken promises at all of the parks, but it’s most noticeable at the Studios because the production facility was such a huge part of the park’s original roster. EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom have had a lot of canceled projects, but they have many many other attractions to make up the difference. If the MK had opened with just 3-4 attractions, and the promise of Western River Expedition, it would have been far more glaring when that attraction didn’t materialize.

A more apt comparison is definitely Animal Kingdom, with its unbuilt Beastly Kingdom, but I think that even that park holds together better despite its overall lack of attractions. In a way, its walking trails are a version of the old Studio Tour, as they can easily soak up a few hours for the guests that are interested in that sort of thing.

The fact that the Studios started off so small, and had a major part of its function wither away, made it that much more of a problem when they didn’t add all the new lands and attractions that were conceived for the Disney Decade.

“If you want to talk about a theme park that started out one idea and became a very different park with a different purpose, Epcot is about as grandiose an example as one can find. Epcot was Walt’s idea for the perfect city of the future and if you look at those plans and look at Epcot today (or even in 1982), they are about as close in similarity as a Ferrari is to a Ford Taurus.”

While that’s true, and it’s also true that EPCOT’s mission has changed since 1982 from education to… whatever… the actual physical purpose of the park remains the same. The pavilions might have changed their content, but there’s still the giant figure-8 layout of pavilions around a central core. Studios has changed its purpose in a much greater fashion – half of the park, formerly closed to guest traffic, was a working studio. Now it’s a theme park. So while the function has changed, the form really hasn’t. That, for me, is why it’s a mess. The new guest areas simply weren’t designed to function that way, and so they don’t have the same effect that traditionally themed areas do.

“That’s a problem if you’re looking to make the park size larger to match the scale of Animal Kingdom or Epcot. I think the mistake is look outside the Studios’ gates when there’s is room inside. Let’s not forget that the Backlot Tour and the former animation areas take up a great deal of space. Now, you can sign me up for bulldozing the Backlot Tour since it’s a shell of it’s former self and I won’t sit here and defend it. In addition, you have plenty of space in the facilities that were built for the animation and production business that never came to the Studios. Instead, those bugalows and offices are used by park management as offices. I’m sure park management can be relocated elsewhere while this area is re utilized for the park.”

I totally agree with this – the Studios has plenty of room to expand within its own borders. There’s a lot of unused or underused real estate remaining from the park’s original setup. My main concern for the future is where to stick large show buildings for attractions, and where to put back-of-house offices without cramming up against the freeway like Disneyland. It’s not a major issue, but it should be kept in mind when planning future expansion.

“I beg to differ regarding the difficulty of navigating the park. It’s by no means perfect (Aside from perhaps Epcot, none of the parks are easily navigated by the average guest) and I think the walkways in Asia and Africa at Animal Kingdom are far worse in terms of getting from point A to point B. Most of the walkways in the backlot area of the park are wider than many walkways in the Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom, which makes it far easier to move around without being stalled by slow moving guests ahead of you.”

Again, I’ll agree that Animal Kingdom has some huge issues involving guest flow and traffic routes. That’s one reason I really frowned on that park for a long time, and it’s still an issue in a lot of respects. The problem with Studios, again, is that many areas that are onstage now were never intended to be guest areas. This means that while they may be efficient in handling traffic, they’re also straight featureless corridors. When you add theming to the buildings, like in the current Pixar Place, it squeezes the space available for foot traffic. And since most of these corridors are the only optimal way of getting from one area to the other, all traffic must go that way.

Again, it’s because those “backlot” areas weren’t meant for guests. Those soundstages are laid out on a grid pattern instead of the hub-and-spoke arrangement that seems to be more efficient for theme parks. Guests were never meant to have to walk around the huge Great Movie Ride show building, etc. That’s what I meant by the need to bulldoze – everything north of Echo Lake/Chinese Theater/Sunset Blvd needs to get knocked down and rebuilt to the standards (aesthetic and practical) of other parks. It’d be better show, and it would be better flow. See, it rhymes! That must mean it’s a good idea!

One last example: The park’s most popular, most visited attractions are both at the end of Sunset Boulevard (three, if they’re showing Fantasmic!). There’s only one way in, and one way out of that area, and it’s a real traffic disaster on even moderately busy days. I can’t fathom why they’ve never opened up a corridor from Sunset Market to the Animation Courtyard. That would so much improve the experience there, and make it much more convenient to get around.

“Outside of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards or Echo Lake, many people do not understand the theme the Backlot area. Like a real movie Studio, the Backlot area of the Studios is set as if you are looking through the viewfinder of a movie camera. … The attractions are set up like movie sets and just like a movie set, you don’t need to have some “overarching theme” between the two beyond the movie studio stuff we see between (guard stations, archways, billboards, etc). Hollywood Studios’ Backlot is designed to be the way it is not out of cheapness or lack of vision, but because it’s modeled after Hollywood movie studios.”

I have to disagree here, and say that it’s completely out of cheapness. the Disney-MGM Studios park was built in an extremely short time on a small budget, to beat Universal to the punch, and I see these “soundstage” elements as an easy cop-out to save some money. I have no problem with the idea of a “live set” on the New York Street or what used to be the backlot; when there was the pretense of actual filming it was fun to see how perspective worked with the city backgrounds or the residential street false-fronts. But it doesn’t work, for me, with the “theme park” side of things. Setting Star Tours on a soundstage, for instance, is an enormous cop-out. I thought so the first time I went as a kid – I didn’t know what they were going for, with C-3PO’s coffee break area and bulletin board off to the side. Are we going to Endor, or are we watching people make a movie about people going to Endor? Introducing the “working set” idea creates a whole extra layer of stuff to get between the guest and the experience. Cramming all these big-box attraction buildings in back to back makes it look like Universal, and robs the properties of the rich areas they deserve. Indy deserves an area of its own. Star Wars deserves an area of its own. Not a set, or a big warehouse building, but a fully-themed area.

Now other areas can play by other rules. The Muppets, which you mention, are essentially running their own “studio” so that type of theming makes sense. It also makes sense within the confines of their humor, which is very meta and self-referential. I’ve no problem with that – but I do think that Muppets deserve to have their area all to themselves, and another attraction to boot!

The point of my rant is that I don’t think Disney has done well in the post-“working studio” era of combining those old facilities with the existing theme park. I love movies, and the process of making movies, so these are all concepts that should appeal to me, but they’re so haphazard and poorly defined in the park now, it’s hard to see where they’ve committed to any single idea. The idea of not knowing what’s around the next corner is appealing in a way, but not when what’s around the corner is the Lights, Motors, Action marquee and state fair grandstand or the weird old Hunchback theater building. Hence, again, the need for the bulldozers. Give Lucas and the Muppets their own areas. Either remove the eyesore that is the Sounds Dangerous/SuperStar Television building or re-theme it extensively to match the period look of Echo Lake and the Chinese Theater. Clear out the muck. Add layers of activity, and add water! The backlot is like the Sonora desert.

“I’d love to see the trolley cars come to Hollywood Studios, although that may be easier said than done given some of the challenges, but it’d be nice to see one on Sunset Boulevard, similar to how you can ride the vehicles in the Magic Kingdom from the train station to the hub. Otherwise, I won’t argue against adding more touches, but I do think it has it’s fair share of them (Coke bottle? Singing in the Rain umbrella? The well near Indiana Jones?)”

The Red Car would be hard to add now, with traffic being so bad on Sunset, but if you open up other pedestrian corridors it could work. Imagine a trolley from the entrance, to the Tower of Terror, to the Chinese Theater. Cool.

“I don’t disagree, because I wont sit here and say randomness is the way to go. Rather, I think budgets need to match the dreams that Imagineers have for the Studios, or any park. How many times have we heard about what the Imagineers really wanted to do at a given attraction, only to be curtailed by the necessities of a budget? Any perceived “random attractions” are the result of someone watering down an idea presented to them until it meets whatever budgets they have.”

True, but I’m thinking more of the fact that the attractions now get inserted to any thought or reason why they should be there. Of course, I’m mainly grousing about Midway Mania, because while it’s a fun attraction it has absolutely no connection to the theme of the park. It makes perfect sense in California Adventure, but no sense at the Studios. Why not, instead, a ride like Tokyo’s Monsters, Inc. ride where instead of flashlights you’re trying to film the monsters with movie cameras? That would at least make sense. If you’re going to theme an area to represent a movie studio, like Pixar Place attempts to, that needs to tie in with the attraction. It’s not good enough just to have random rides based on movies put into brick or stucco buildings. I’m not asking them to bend over backwards, just to think a little bit about what they’re doing before they do it.

The article mentions American Idol, but as much as I hate that show I have to admit that at least that attraction has some connection to the theme of the park. Although, for the life of me, I’ll never understand why they haven’t brought back SuperStar Television. With Disney’s obsession for synergy, it would be the PERFECT way to plug ABC shows. And guests would love to get put into Lost, or V, or Desperate Housewives, or whatever is the new hotness. That just seems like an obvious pick, but that’s another story altogether.

Anyway, thanks again to Studios Central for the comments and for reading. I appreciate the dialogue. Again, my main beef with the Studios is that it could possibly be my favorite park if the promise of the entrance plaza held up throughout. My brain lives somewhere between 1928 & 1945, so there were times when those areas along Sunset Boulevard could have been my favorite place in any Disney park. They just need to think about what they want to do with the park, and speak with one voice.

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11 comments to Talkin’ Bout Studios

  • Seriously. As a lover of Golden Era Hollywood production and theme park design, sometimes i just need to go to MGM to walk up Hollywood Blvd, around Echo Lake, down Sunset Blvd, and leave. It’s good for my soul. What makes me start hating life is when I walk ten feet past One Man’s Dream and realize that I could be backstage at the MK again, between Haunted Mansion and Small World, except instead of sickly green the buildings are painted tan. It’s THEMED!

    The other problem I have with MGM is that, as a film maker, I know a big secret that the public shouldn’t be allowed to know: that making movies is boring. Anybody who’s ever been on a film set knows that most of the time is spent waiting for something to happen. So I kind of loathe seeing the backs of facades and set lights and stuff; to me, that’s the *boring* stuff that the Magic Kingdom type of themed design tactfully cuts out. You know there’s something wrong when the movie-themed park is less inherently cinematic than a park which predated it by almost twenty years!

    Once you get to walking back by the old soundstages and New York Street, it gets especially dire. Call me a cynic but I was more irritated by that big Coke bottle last time, which soaked my top. Actually the whole area from the end of the new Pixar overlay to the NY street has always confounded me and is pretty representative of what’s wrong with Disney-MGM. You walk past some boarded up soundstages. You walk past part of a facade. You walk past a giant bottle of Coke. You see a crashed attraction vehicle. It honks at you. You see some bathrooms. There’s a fountain. A sign tells you it’s from the movie Splash, but you can’t remember because nobody cares about Splash anymore. You’re offered a flatbread. You see giant blades of grass. Then you’re in New York City. What?

    It’s so frustrating to me because I could live off the atmosphere of Sid Cahengua’s, or Rosie’s Victory Garden, or the Celebrity Five and Dime. Some of the coolest and most unique stuff is at Disney-MGM. Eddie Valiant’s Office, the real Hollywood Tower Hotel, or that side street that goes around Muppets, which is just beautiful theming. Did I mention that Muppet-Vision is the best 3D movie ever made? Because it is.

    But the realist in me says that I ultimately can’t even buy into the nostalgia for the Hollywood studio system, because it’s something I also fundamentally oppose artistically. Even if Hollywood’s vertical monopolies gave us astonishing works of cultural art like The Public Enemy or The Grapes of Wrath or Sunset Boulevard, their biggest moment of importance sometimes seems to be the fact that they allowed somebody like Orson Welles to come in and turn that political, economic force in on itself. So ultimately I can’t see something like a poster for Angels With Dirty Faces without also knowing that Jack Warner was exploiting underage actors to make it, or that Cagney just hated those kind of movies. In short I still find it kind of hard to buy into it all, or rather, it doesn’t work hard enough to pull me into it. I know that America was in the midst of an economic collapse on the *real* Main Street, USA, or that Frontierland’s real clapboard was painted more with blood than paint. But the Magic Kingdom is art, and I forget these things. Too little in Disney-MGM is very good art, and I never really buy in.

  • Michael,

    I love the fact that you were just as confused by the large soundstage idea as I was! During my first visit in 1994, I had no idea why so many attractions were inside large and unattractive buildings.

    “Setting Star Tours on a soundstage, for instance, is an enormous cop-out. I thought so the first time I went as a kid – I didn’t know what they were going for, with C-3PO’s coffee break area and bulletin board off to the side. Are we going to Endor, or are we watching people make a movie about people going to Endor?”

    It wasn’t until reading about the Studios later that I understood the concept. When we visit, DHS is third on our list of theme parks due to TSMM and Star Tours. Otherwise, we would spend our time at MK and EPCOT!

  • [ this is jerry ]

    A thoughtful and incredible response, Michael. You and Matt should have a little baby blog and name it Progress Studios.

    The fact is, Disney has a huge stake in ‘current’ entertainment. To me, the park tries to give a nod to the ones whose shoulders they stood on (Sunset Blvd, Hollywood Blvd) and show off what they’re doing to improve it (Pixar Place, Backlot). At least they’re not trying to wedge High School Musical into Future World (yet).

    DHS isn’t a perfect representation of either of those ideas, but for me, it sure comes close.

  • One thing about DHS that bugs me (besides all that written up top): the ABC commissary/Sci-Fi Drive In is so hidden in the park. Once the steam has run out of the American Idol show, they need to tear this building out and work on this area (maybe this could be a station for a trolley ride?).

  • Another thing that bugs me: too many live shows. Two princess-based shows, two stunt shows, Playhouse Disney show, Fantasmic, the American Idol show, and the Backlot Tour pre-show (I’d also consider the park opening it’s own show… I’m obviously not counting Muppets, One Man’s Dream, the end to GMR, and the Animation pre-show… which I’m not sure if they do anymore).

    Shows are great, but I’d rather see more rides. That was one area where Universal Studios seems to have an edge over this park. Even the Sleeping Beauty walk through like they’re putting in Tokyo would work better than sitting through another show (put it in the Animation tour… at least give you something to do on the tour). Maybe with Fantasyland Forest coming along, we can get some decent rides in here (another idea: demolish Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and move Magic Carpets from the MK to it’s spot).

  • Chuck (Floridaboy!)

    I just wish they would ramp up their traditional animation (hand drawn or otherwise) so when I move back to Orlando (and I will move back to Orlando someday)
    I will have a chance to become one of the many animators that are needed!
    A few Orlando based productions wouldnt hurt either!

  • Great response Michael! I love a good debate (Especially when I win!)

    Thanks for the fun opportunity to talk Studios!

  • Hehe Matt… at least we can all agree on one thing – the Hat must go!!!

    Ryan: I’ve always thought they should move the Magic Carpets to the Animation Courtyard.

    Jerry: That would be fine – linking the past and the present – if they did it in a consistent and clearly defined way. I wouldn’t mind a series of “Studios” themed to different franchises, if they were well-themed and clearly laid out.

    Foxx: You express my thoughts perfectly on the experience of walking too far into the backlot. The Coke thing irritates me too. I will say, though, that I’m completely able to block out reality and buy into the lie of the studio era. I know that L.B. Mayer was a grade-A jerk and that every other studio head was either a megalomaniac or a sociopath but I can still buy the lie. Heck, so much of my beloved film, fashion and music from that era was defined by the effects of either a crippling economic breakdown or a unprecedented global war. When I find myself wishing that I lived in the era of Fedoras and Myrna Loy I have to remember that it probably kinda sucked to actually be there. Whoever wrote the line about the Studios representing Hollywood “as it never was and always will be” was spot-on. It’s a platitude, but a good one.

  • I used to work at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe. One of my favorite things about working there was standing outside of the restaurant while the park cleared out. There was a feeling of magic as I would look at the bright lights, neon signs, and stylized version of a Hollywood street.

    Even better, going to lost and found at the end of the night and hearing the audio outside of Sid’s and enjoying the sights and sounds of an empty Hollywood Blvd all by myself.

  • Another Voice

    It would be impossible to say that today’s Hollywood is any better than Old Hollywood. It is so much worse in each and every aspect…Jack Warner ‘exploiting child actors’ was nothing compared to what Roman Polanski did.

    The Magic Kingdom brings us wonders of the imagination. EPCOT brings us wonders of the real world beyond our sight and the world yet to be. But the Studios brings us….stuff we can watch on television whenever we want. The other parks work because they take our fantasies and our dreams and make them tangible. The Studio is just recreating existing entertainment between media – first ‘American Idol’ was a television show (I don’t watch) and now it’s a stage show (I won’t go see). The Studios would work better if it went more the Magic Kingdom route and made specific environments so that guests could immerse themselves – make us feel like we were on Endor instead of just on the set of ‘Star Wars’, but that seems beyond Disney’s interest these days. It’s much easier to slap Toy Story graphics on a carnival ride and say it’s ‘Pixar Studios’.

  • philphoggs

    The park that never was but always might be…
    Studios could still pull it out of the hat, but it would take a big bulldozed loss of tangle “assets” followed by good engineering and investment. (yada yada yada right ;) )
    Most importantly, as AV says, bring on design that leads to guest immersion.
    Really, this park has great upside potential, if looking to fight Universal as intended, where better to take them head on?

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