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Disney’s Hollywood Studios: A Theme Park in Search of a Theme

“The world you have entered was created by the Walt Disney Company and is dedicated to Hollywood  — not a place on a map but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine — a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic.  We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was — and always will be.”   Michael Eisner, May 1, 1989: Opening day dedication of Disney-MGM Studios

You have to admit that’s a pretty good quote for opening a theme park.  You also have to admit that Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as it is currently known, has never lived up to that quote.  The park has an interesting and complex history.  It’s a park that has had name changes, multiple icon changes and is constantly the subject of rumors of major change.  Not just the typical fan or internet community rumors, but rumors that build up so much steam and angst that the Walt Disney Company has to make statements quelling them.

With Toy Story Land set to open on June 30, 2018 and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge seemingly ready to start rolling out in 2019, it seems like a good time to take a look at the changes coming to the park, how they might fit into the park as a whole, and if it even matters whether they fit at all anymore.

The quote from Michael Eisner actually lays out quite a good theme for a park.  Its goal was not to create a park necessarily based on a specific time or place, but on a feeling.  A feeling of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood.  An age that never existed anywhere in reality, but lived in people’s memories.  It’s akin to your grandfather telling you about the “good ol’ days.”  You are certain things weren’t the way he remembers it, but you are also certain he truly believes they were.  It’s that feeling and emotion that the park was looking for.  In some ways it achieved its goal superbly.  Some of the architecture and buildings are terrific; and the streetmosphere, even if it’s not your thing, serves very well in creating the right atmosphere.  But in too many ways it missed the mark.  The theme wasn’t carried throughout the park, and certainly not in all the attractions.  Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is a great ride, but there was no effort to make it fit into the park.  (There’s plenty of age, but not so much golden about Steven Tyler in 2018.)  The park ended up as a mishmash of themes and attractions.  You realize this as you sit outside of the SciFi Dine-in Theater in a mock 1950’s era car waiting for your table, staring at a giant AT-AT from Star Wars and wondering how this all fits together.

Disney has done things to try to make changes, but they have mostly fallen flat: Changing the park logo from the Water Tower to the Sorcerer’s hat; then getting rid of the Sorcerer’s hat and making the Grauman Chinese Theater the focal point; then getting rid of the ride insider the theater that, while clearly in need of updating, fit perfectly into the stated theme and style of the park.


The problem is that Disney has never been certain what Hollywood Studios is supposed to be.  Is it transporting the guest back in time to Old Hollywood?  Is it an homage to Old Hollywood?  Is it a working studio lot that the guest is experiencing?  Is it just a park where the guest experiences attractions based on movie properties?  Disney never really chose a direction, and instead pulled from all of them, and others, ending up with a jumble of things.

But perhaps it’s time to change our views of the parks from a macro to a micro.  Looking at an attraction or even a series of attractions and trying to see how they fit into the story of the park as a whole isn’t how it will work anymore.  Disney is creating lands that are so rich and detailed that it doesn’t matter where you put them.  So immersive that when you are in that land, it doesn’t matter what park you are in.  Maybe they will blend Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge so well into the Star Wars hotel that park boundaries really won’t matter; that walking through a turnstile or gate won’t transport you anymore, because you already left when you checked into your hotel.  Rather than trying to tie an attraction or a land to the other attractions or lands in the park to tell the story, the story will be tied to your hotel or to your transportation.

star wars hotel

This will unshackle Disney in a practical geographical sense.  There is only so much physical space, and the attractions and lands have to go somewhere.  It will, however, change the hallmark of a Disney Theme Park.  What separated Disney from other amusement parks was that their attractions were detailed and told stories, and the stories were intertwined throughout the park.  Disney is still trying to adhere to that goal in some ways, attempting to link Pandora’s conservation themes into the broader themes of Animal Kingdom; or trying to explain how Guardians of the Galaxy fits into Epcot. (Disney will face the most resistance from fans with Epcot, as it is the park which is most grounded in its theme and goals; although even this resistance seems overstated.)  But when they announced the big changes coming to Hollywood Studios, they didn’t spend as much time trying to explain how the stories fit together as a whole for the park.  Maybe because they didn’t feel it was necessary, or maybe because you don’t have to explain how it fits into the theme of a park that never really found one.

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