As Walt Disney World Celebrates the 30th Anniversary of Hollywood Studios, Alex takes a look at the park from a very personal stance.
(Welcome to our new column Raised by Disney! Our founder Alex Lancaster views Disney World as his hometown, and as such, he has some interesting insights into the Happiest Place on Earth. We start off with a look at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in celebration of the park’s 30th Anniversary.)
The Walt Disney World Resort is home to almost 25,000 acres of land. Upon that land sits 27 resort hotels, two water parks, three golf courses, two miniature golf courses, a shopping district, a wedding pavilion, and four theme parks. Since the first park, Magic Kingdom, opened on October 1st 1971, the resort has become the most visited vacation resort on the planet, averaging 52 million attendees each year. During the 47 years since its opening, the resort has seen countless significant changes.
The coming years will see numerous changes leading up to the 50th anniversary of the resort in 2021. One of the most exciting and significant series of changes rests within Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which was originally titled the Disney/MGM Studios due to a licensing deal with MGM to feature their logo and elements of their film library within the park. The Film Centric theme park just opened the Toy Story Land expansion and is preparing to open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, an immersive Star Wars Land that brings you into the Star Wars Universe. Next year will also bring Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a brand new ride through attraction–and the first to feature Mickey and Minnie. The new attraction will reside within the Chinese Theater at the center of the park.
The Chinese Theater has been a staple of the park since its opening. For the first 28 years of the park’s existence, the replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater housed The Great Movie Ride, which took visitors through classic films including Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Wizard of Oz, and Mary Poppins. With the closing of The Great Movie Ride, the park no longer features any of the attractions that it originally had when it opened, making it the most overhauled theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Despite all the changes to the park, it has always been fueled by the idea of Hollywood and film creation. Originally the park was home to a working film studio and an attraction that let you peek into sound stages where TV shows and films were being shot. It also housed a full animation studio that worked on multiple animated Disney features. While the studio was usually a backup to Disney’s primary animation studio in Anaheim, CA, three feature films were produced primarily at the animation studio within the park: Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear.
The sound stages and backlot were removed in pieces over the past 15 years and replaced with attractions and stage shows centered around Disney properties. The animation studio was closed down and turned into a pavilion focused on animation, with interactive activities for guests to take part in. That area would then be “re-imagined” once more as the Star Wars Launch Bay, which now houses character meet-and-greets and video presentations centered on the Star Wars films. In 2008 the park made its biggest change via its name; no longer known as Disney/MGM Studios, it would now be called Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
In the 30 years since its opening, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has brought joy and wonder to all who love film and the world of Hollywood. It has given guests the chance to feel as if they’re truly part of the world of cinema in every way, whether it was allowing them to watch animators create the next Disney animated feature or selecting audience members to be involved in stage show recreations of famous films. The park was christened on the idea of being “the Hollywood that always was and never will be,” and that’s exactly what it has been and still is. It’s an opportunity to live out the dream of this setting without the darker elements.
Personally, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has always been my favorite theme park at Disney World. The resort has always been a fundamental part of my life, and if the entire resort is like my hometown, then Studios is my home. The first time I went to the park was on a family trip with my parents and siblings in 1994, and I still have vague memories of the trip and seeing the working film studio. I remember the excitement of seeing the animators drawing at their desks while Robin Williams starred in a video presentation about how animated films were put together. This experience heavily influenced my childhood desire to be a Disney animator, eventually leading me to want to make films and write about the making of films. In a sense, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the reason this site is around today.
My connection to the park and the Walt Disney World Resort isn’t just because of bi-yearly trips as child. In 1998, just before my 9th birthday, my family moved to Florida to chase my father’s dream of working for Disney. From 1998 to 2005, I lived less than 40 minutes away from Disney property–at one point living within walking distance from the Downtown Disney shopping district (now named Disney Springs). My family and I would go to dinner at restaurants on property, and we would celebrate holidays–including birthdays–at the parks. Whenever family would come to visit from Chicago, we’d take them to the parks and do a big meal at a park or resort.
For most people, you grow up in a certain place and your memories with your family and friends are centered around local monuments and special restaurants only found in your hometown. You may have the occasional major life event on a vacation somewhere, but the foundation of your upbringing is usually based around the places you’ve lived around. My Main Street was Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom. The “fancy restaurant” in town that we only went to when we really saved up money was Ohana at the Polynesian Resort. My first (sort of) date was at the theme parks. I have beautiful memories on property and horrific ones. Walt Disney World is and always will be my home, and that has informed so much of who I am as a person.
This year Hollywood Studios is turning 30, and so am I. The fact that the park and I will share these type of monumental anniversaries is not lost on me. It makes me feel even more connected to the park, as I can always define portions of my life based on what was at the park at certain times. We celebrated my son’s first Christmas the same year the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights held its last presentation. My first trip back down with a significant other was right after the park changed its name. I started my first job (at Downtown Disney) as they were closing the animation studio. My parents separated when the park hosted the 100 Years of Magic Celebration, and the Sorcerer Mickey Hat debuted.
Hollywood Studios has always been something special to me for numerous reasons. It’s always been at the heart of my obsession with film. It gave me the chance to be less than a foot away from an Oscar back when they used to keep some of the statues the company won over the years at the Animation Tour. It has been the place I run to when I need to recenter myself and a place I bring those I love so they can understand me more. It’s a park full of wonder, possibility, and the magic of cinema.
The park may be undergoing some major changes, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios will always be my favorite park because of what it always was and never will be: a dreamland to live out my biggest desires and a place that will never stop inspiring me. If you enjoy this site, you owe it to that park, and so do I.
Happy 30th Anniversary Disney’s Hollywood Studios. May our next 30 years be an even bigger adventure in the wonderful world of cinema.
Keep following Poor Man’s Spoiler for more articles about every aspect of the Walt Disney World Resort and more deep dives into my history with the resort and how I was Raised by Disney.