For 90 years now, Mickey Mouse has been Mickey Mouse. The major branding element of the original Walt Disney Productions and everything that has followed: animated films, movie features, television shows hosted by Walt himself that ran the gamut from cartoons to backstage specials to nature documentaries; television shows with cute young stars going from the Annette Funicello era right through to Hannah Montana, Mickey is the key to all Disney theme parks, and the strongest and most recognizable branding element in the world.
If have any doubt about the strength of the Mickey Mouse brand, just try to appropriate it or satirize it or approximate it in any way. Mickey is protected at all costs by the Disney company and not for a day has the company strayed from the Mickey mantra. Through all the successes, mistakes, acquisitions, and side ventures of Walt Disney and the corporate officers that have come in his wake, the Mouse has been the vessel through which everything flows.
Surprising then, that in its wildly successful Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, one park has escaped all attempts at successful branding. That park is Disney's Hollywood Studios, formerly the Disney- MGM Studios, which is soon to become branded all over again. (One rumor has it that the park will be rebranded as Disney Cinemagine Park, though that seems a bit unwieldy in my mind.)
The project that became the Disney-MGM Studios and Hollywood Studios started in 1984. Its genesis was an idea for a film-based pavilion to be placed at Epcot Center's Future World. The Pavilion would feature a ride through moments from classic movies, and was to be located between the Land and Imagination Pavilions, on the site where the show building for Soarin' stands today.
However, Disney's then-new CEO Michael Eisner saw a bigger future for the concept. Eisner felt that the "Great Moments at the Movies" concept was strong enough to anchor a third theme park dedicated to the behind the scenes magic of the movies as well as a working film and animation studio for guests to tour. At his behest, work began on developing more of the land that Walt had set aside for Disney magic in the Florida swamps.
Built around the renamed "Great Movie Ride" was to be a complete Hollywood-themed park that celebrated movies, television, animation, and all kinds of creativity. Sounds like a successful formula. And to a certain extent, and at certain times, it certainly was.
Two attractions formed the core of the Disney-MGM Studios when it opened in 1989: The Great Movie Ride and the backstage studio tour. The Great Movie Ride was pretty much the ride that was originally envisioned: a journey through classic movie scenes with detailed sets, a "traveling theater," and the "most advanced audio-animatronic" ever built at the time: the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz scene. Throughout the history of the Studios Park, The Movie Ride was its centerpiece, even at times when it wasn't the most visited attraction.
The Backstage Studio Tour was a walking and tram tour through the different facilities that were trademarks of a Hollywood studio, including sound, editing, costuming etc. as well as a tour of the Florida branch of Walt Disney Feature Animation, where guests could observe actual animators working on Disney animated films. Because in its early years, MGM Studios was not just a park, but also a working studio.
Towering above the Studio Tour was the "Earful" Tower, a tall water tower (note: not a working tower) that featured Mickey Mouse ears, which was the primary icon used through 2001.
By the end of 1989, two other top-line attractions joined the fledgling Park's lineup. First came a remake of the Disneyland staple Star Tours, an action-simulator adventure based on the Star Wars original trilogy (at this point there were only three Star Wars movies and the property did not belong to Disney as it now does). The same year saw the launch of a stunt show based on the Indiana Jones series.
Over the first few years of its existence, Disney-MGM Studios was fleshed out with several effective, though not blockbuster attractions. These included the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Play area, Beauty and the Beast Live, and Muppet Vision 3D, which is notable for being the final Muppets project to have Jim Henson's personal involvement. Had he lived longer, the show would have anchored a whole Muppet-Themed area of the park but sadly, that was not to be
In 1994, the first major expansion of the Studios brought a new area: Sunset Boulevard, which was to have its own headliner attraction. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a thrilling attraction based on the 1960s television series The Twilight Zone. The ride was unlike anything seen before at a theme park: guests checked in to the "Hollywood Tower Hotel" only to experience an elevator ride that was unlike anything they had experienced before.
The mid-90s brought other developments as well. In 1996, A Hunchback of Notre Dame-themed show debuted at the Back-lot Theater. The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights became a yearly Christmas tradition at the Studios. In 1998, Mulan, the first film to be entirely produced at the Florida Animation Studio was released to theaters worldwide, boosting credibility for the animation studios that were a big stop for many families.
Also in 1998 came a new show called Fantasmic, a major live production based on the same-named show that was already entrenched at Disneyland. Florida's Fantasmic! debuted at a new amphitheater built off of Sunset Boulevard. This version of Fantasmic featured more recent movies and villains than the Disneyland original.
In 1999, Sunset Boulevard got one more mega-attraction that made it the hottest neighborhood in all of MGM studios: The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith. This high-speed roller coaster, as state-of-the-art as Disney had launched in some time, opened in a confusingly placed cul-de-sac off the Boulevard. No matter the placement: highly advertised and generating incredible word of mouth, the ride was an instant sensation.
In 2001, for the 100 Years of Magic Celebration, a gigantic 122-foot tall Sorcerer's Hat was erected directly in front of the Chinese Theater replica housing The Great Movie Ride. The response was underwhelming and aesthetically, it was something of a disaster: blocking the view of the Chinese Theater entrance facade for over a decade. The winning streak for MGM Studios was about to reverse.
First, in 2003, the Florida Branch of Walt Disney Feature Animation shut down. The Magic of Disney Animation Attraction remained open, but losing direct access to actual working Disney animators made the attraction much less impressive.
In 2005, the "Lights, Motors, Action" stunt show, a transplant from the Studios Park in Paris, opened in Florida. It was moderately successful but again had a cost: taking out a chunk of the Backstage tram tour route—in the process reducing this ride to little more than a shadow of its opening day self.
In 2008, Disney abandoned its license to use the MGM name and re-branded the park as Disney's Hollywood Studios. This was pretty much an unprecedented move by Disney: for a company that had always stuck hard to the mouse, the idea of rebranding a fairly successful park that had some very successful components was curious indeed. Perhaps the original branding had been faulty in some way, but this move seemed to be one significant step in distancing the park from its heyday.
Also in 2008, Toy Story Midway Mania opened in the former sound stages, perhaps the last truly successful opening the "Hollywood Studios" park would see, with the only other positive development coming in 2011 when Star Tours was updated into Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
By the mid-2010s, it became clear that the park needed new life and a new identity. No films were actually being produced on the premises, and old sound stages were being used by temporary exhibits, such as "The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow" which closed in 2014. By late that year, what was left of the Studio Back-lot Tour was also finally shut down.
Now the winds of change at Disney's Hollywood Studios really started to blow. In early 2015, the long-controversial Sorcerer's Hat was removed and The Great Movie Ride was spruced up for new sponsor Turner Classic Movies. Disney Animation finally shut down, to be replaced with Star Wars Launchbay, a temporary exhibit promoting the then-upcoming film The Force Awakens.
At the D23 Expo in 2015, Disney announced it would be building a Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land on the area then occupied by the back lot and Streets of America section. In early 2016, these areas and all their attractions closed for good and construction walls went up. The iconic "Earful" Tower was also removed. The area around MuppetVision 3D was temporarily re-themed as Muppets Courtyard, with the opening of PizzeRizzo in the former home of Pizza Planet across the street. Eventually, the surviving part of the Streets of America not taken out by Star Wars Galaxy's Edge (as the new land will be called) and the Muppets courtyard was absorbed into a new section called Grand Park.
At the 2017 D23 Expo, it was announced that The Great Movie Ride would pass into the past, to be replaced by Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, based on Disney's current series of Mickey Mouse shorts. On August 13, 2017, The Great Movie Ride closed as the last opening day attraction left from the MGM Studios days.
In this author's opinion, closing the ride was a huge mistake for a park that is in dire need of more attractions, not less. In any case, the old Animation Building area would be ideal for the Mickey attraction.
Most of the rumored name changes would remove the word Studios from the park moniker, which is appropriate on some level but represents a significant abandonment of brand. So far, the approach for the park's future seems to be the establishment of a collection of lands based on various film intellectual properties rather than on the art of filmmaking itself. I find this very sad but inevitable with the changes in the film industry and Disney's failure to keep the park as a working studio.
Disney-MGM Studios was a unique and bold idea which sadly, did not pan out as expected. Despite many successes, it never became the theme park production hub originally envisioned. It's still a successful park, but oddly so with the Hollywood Boulevard Area always holding most of its traffic. In fact, right now everything else is pretty much a construction zone.
I guess it's hard to fault the concept of updating this theme park, and I hope it's done successfully. But for those of us who found the studio concept intriguing and creatively stimulating, it's sad to see that vision so thoroughly abandoned.