1989 was a different age. That seems obvious when you consider just how (shockingly) long ago it was (please don’t think about it), but all those years seem like eons in the Disneysphere. How different was 1989 from today in the realm o’ Disney? Well just consider that in the year 1989 alone, The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, Wonders of Life, Pleasure Island, and Typhoon Lagoon all opened at Walt Disney World. Several new attractions had opened the previous year, and several more would roll out in the year to follow. It was a time of constant activity, and an endless parade of new adventures.
The Disney-MGM Studios was the last stateside Disney park to receive a certain peak level of media attention covering the behind-the-scenes creation of the park. In the past we’ve looked at some of this coverage, ranging from Disney Channel specials to national media attention. But here’s a look at the new park from its own backyard, courtesy of Tampa’s WTVT. Aside from the fact that the theme song doesn’t quite scan, it’s an interesting peek into a bygone era.
There’s quite a lot to talk about here. The Disney-MGM Studios, now Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is probably the Disney park to undergo the most significant changes since opening. While Epcot has seen most of its landmark attractions closed or repurposed, the entire point of the Studios park has completely altered since this film was made. You can see it in all the talk of a working facility; Disney’s executives took great pride in creating a new, cutting-edge production facility that could serve as “Hollywood East”, serving the company’s ambitious new film production slate.
Unlike old studios in California that had grown piecemeal as production warranted, this new facility would be master-planned and built from the ground up to accommodate modern filming needs. And it was made from the start with the intention of allowing a constant flow of daily guests, seeing how the magic was made.
All of this is now gone. Everything from the soundstage catwalks to the sound and video production suites to the special effects demonstrations to the working backlot are gone. One of the park’s jewels, the working animation facility, is now long gone. Whether it was all a pipe dream in the first place, or hubris to think you could build a studio in Orlando, or whether they just lost their focus and gave up, the fact remains that the park’s intent now is remarkably different than in 1989.
That makes all the heady excitement you see in this video seem that much more from another world. Consider their pride in the design and execution of the Chinese Theater, when nowadays you can’t even see it from Hollywood Boulevard. That pristine park, with everything in its intended place, seems like a completely different venue than the park today.
One thing we must discuss is perhaps the biggest fib ever told on camera about any new Disney attraction – Michael Eisner’s astounding, amazing lie that it was originally Walt’s plan to build a studio park. This is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly untrue that I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard it. Rest assured that this was never the case; while Walt originally thought to build a small park across the street from his studio lot in Burbank, what he had in mind at the time was a tiny version of what would become Disneyland. Walt wasn’t wanting to build soundstages and backlots, he wanted to build rivers with steamboats, and quaint fantasy villages all encircled by a railroad. Eisner, you fib. And Frank! Et tu, Frank? At least I hope Frank just had his story mixed up, and wasn’t fabricating things like Eisner’s artwork of a studio tour with a monorail.
Can we talk about how great Frank Wells is? He so rarely was featured in television specials at the time, content to let Eisner take the spotlight. But he’s great here – all wound up and excited about the new studio. And he predicts you’ll need Kleenex to make it through the Great Movie Ride! Frank seemed enthusiastic and sincere; I miss that guy.
I do enjoy that this piece features a lot of talking heads with Imagineers that weren’t usually seen on film. It’s rare for so many Imagineers to make it on camera, even back then, and there’s something refreshing about their authenticity. They aren’t pulled from central casting like so many talking heads today, and you get the feeling that they’ve actually been down in the trenches and know what they’re talking about. Can you imagine someone like Bob Jolley getting put in a media puff piece today?
Speaking of Jolley, it’s great to see Disney’s rockwork master get some credit. Bob Weis, who led the Studio project, would later leave Disney but return to help bail out Disney’s California Adventure. He’s currently heading up the team on Shanghai Disney. Eric Jacobson, now a big poobah at WDI, makes an appearance with his big hair and spring colors. Even sound effects wizard Jimmy MacDonald makes an appearance; he’s killing it, as usual, and gets in a great zinger directed at Mickey. Aside: Jimmy totally should have recorded a rap album. And, of course, there’s Dick Nunis – always plugging away. Although he must have left his maroon blazer at home that day.
And now some random observations. Hey! A clip of the preview center for the Studio park, held in the old Walt Disney Story at the Magic Kingdom. Hey! The dipmobile from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which you used to see on the Backlot Tour. Hey! Aerial photos of the park from before Sunset Boulevard was built. Hey! A weirdly-placed clip of Burt Reynolds and Roger Rabbit cutting the ribbon for the Grand Floridian! Hey! A mention of Splash, Too. That went well.
I loved seeing the remaining Nine Old Men at the opening of the animation facility. Roy was obviously proud; after all, this was the beginning of Disney animation’s second golden age and things were really taking off. Being an animation fan was just as exciting at the time as being a park fan; I couldn’t wait for those new Mickey and Donald cartoons, or for new Roger Rabbit shorts. And every time you visited the Magic of Disney Animation tour there was a whole new slate of upcoming films to get excited about. Those were the days.
And, of course, there was weirdness. The weird park groundbreaking, with Bob Hope. The park dedication, with Bob Hope. And everything with Bette Midler. Bette Midler surgically attached to Eisner. Of course she dedicated the backstage tour. I enjoyed the segment that was “Siskel and Ebert being jerks on the New York Street while people randomly circle them taking pictures.” And there was the weird celebrity welcome ceremony at the airport with Ear Force One looming in the background. And Nimoy! Nimoy!
Is it just me, or is the promise of a cross “between theme park and renaissance faire” not completely as enticing as the gentleman seemed to think? Between Streetmosphere, the Prime Time Cafe, and the Great Movie Ride, this was an era with a heavy focus on life-action performances in the park and interactivity on that level.
I wonder, when they were planning to make the New York Street adaptable for filming, promising that it could double as Chicago or Boston as production warranted, did they wonder if the jewelry store window would one day feature a tree made out of toilet paper?
Maybe my favorite moment is when George Lucas is so visibly unenthused about the Epic Stunt Spectacular. Don’t worry, says he! They’re going to make it more realistic! I can’t believe that clip made it out to the public.
And if you ever needed any more evidence that Eisner was pretty much a jerk, check out the ribbon cutting for the Studio Tour at the end. Sure the voice-over is really a bizarre choice, but watch Eisner impatiently eye-roll and wave at the guy to hurry up. Dude, you’re on-camera. Just chill out. You’re cutting a ribbon with Mickey Mouse and Bette Midler, for a tour of empty soundstages. It can wait 10 seconds.
And, as always, we’re promised that big things are ahead. An expansion of the soundstages! More cartoons! A bustling production facility! And all sorts of new things in 1989, including the XZFR Rockin’ Rollerdrome. Now is the time when I’ll point out that, at Eisner’s behest, three of the four major Walt Disney World expansions in 1989 were once intended to have tie-ins to Splash. Eisner loved that movie.
Now sing along! Hooooo…raaaayyyy… forrrrr…