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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Bon Voyage!

We’re taking some time off, returning to our full posting schedule on July 1, 2019. See you then!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Theme Park Thursdays: Walt Disney in his Magic Kingdom

Even today, Walt Disney’s presence can still be felt in his only Magic Kingdom.

For example, he personally designed Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Rivers Of America.

The balcony in the Golden Horseshoe on the left side of the stage was his personal space, and he always watched the show from there when he was in the park. If he was hosting personal guests, they would always be accommodated in his special space.

And finally, Mr. Disney had a private apartment in the park, which remains as he left it. A desk lamp is kept lit in his honor, displayed in the window.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Disney Deep Dive: The Florida Studio Park, Part 5

Disney-MGM Studios opened up on May 1, 1989. The half day park would achieve what no American Disney park since DISNEYLAND had done; it was a rip, roaring success from day one. Guests flooded the park on opening day, forcing it to close its gates. Disney was forced to rush expansion of the park to give guests more things to do. Star Tours, which had already opened in DISNEYLAND and was slated to open in Florida’s Magic Kingdom amusement park, was hurriedly moved to Disney-MGM Studios instead.

The park began to run into growing pains caused by the rush to get it open. It quickly became a hodgepodge of random streets and attractions that were poorly laid out because of the lack of planning. Another issue, however, would resolve that problem. Filming in Orlando was unappealing for talent and other than Disney Channel shows like The New Mickey Mouse Club, the company couldn’t get many productions to move to the humid Florida swamp. This freed up the soundstages for conversion to attraction buildings.

The runaway success of the park led the company to build other “half-day” parks that proved to be less successful. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney Studios Paris and Disney California Adventure were built as “half-day” parks and all originally had problems attracting guests. 

Disney-MGM Studios would eventually be renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios and begin re-inventing itself to fix some of its problems. The park will become the east coast home of Star Wars Land later this year, its thirtieth anniversary.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Disney Deep Dive: The Florida Studio Park, Part 4

When Universal Pictures announced that it would build a new theme park in Orlando, it finally became clear to The Walt Disney Company that it hadn’t really “fixed” the problems it had in Anaheim; it just pushed them further away. And, more importantly, Universal was planning to leech off Disney World the way it had leeched off DISNEYLAND since the 1960’s. The company decided it would have to do something quickly. Thus it would build a studio park of its own and try to open it before Universal Studios Orlando.

There were two issues that the company faced that could delay the opening of this new theme park. The first issue was more of an opinion that the company’s leadership held; that it did not have enough of a live action film catalog to draw from for a theme park. This issue was solved by licensing MGM’s name and film catalog to beef up the possible franchises it could draw from. At no time did MGM actually hold any ownership stake in the park; in fact, Disney’s deal with MGM was heavily weighted in favor of Disney, something that angered MGM owner Kirk Kirkorian. Seeing as how Mr. Kirkorian sold anything not nailed down once he took control of MGM, he shouldn’t have been surprised when his staff did the same.

The other issue that the company had was finding a location to build on. While the company owns thousands of acres in Orlando, much of it stands on unstable swamp land. It can take months of surveying and testing to find stable land suitable for construction. Since the company wanted to get this project built quickly, they didn’t want to wait for the land surveying process to identify a new parcel of land. An oddly shaped piece of land located behind EPCOT Center was chosen, as it had already been cleared for construction, though it was originally intended to host new hotels, not a theme park. Surrounded by major roads, this would limit the size of the actual theme park in ways that would become apparent later.

Disney would announce the construction of this theme park that would also be a working studio, set to be completed in 1989. Universal was incensed. Disney’s Special private government plus its decision to locate on pre-surveyed land meant that it would open its park most likely months before Universal Studios Orlando would open, even though Universal had been much further along in its building process. Disney’s half day, half hearted effort would open a full year before Universal Studios Orlando, but would it be successful?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Disney Deep Dive: The Florida Studio Park, Part 3

After EPCOT Center opened in 1982, Walt Disney Productions went into a tailspin. After Disney CEO Card Walker opened the park, he passed the keys to the kingdom (and all of its problems) to Ron Miller, who was Walt Disney’s son-in-Law. Ron began trying to re-invent the company and get it out of the hole that EPCOT Center had dug for it. He wouldn’t get the chance; he was replaced in 1984.

The company’s new leadership originally wanted to sell off the theme parks and license the characters and trademarks to the new owners. Elder executives convinced them that other than the EPCOT Center debacle, the theme parks were what kept the company afloat inbetween film releases. More money would be needed to fix the EPCOT Center debacle, but for the most part the theme parks were keeping the company solvent. New Disney CEO Michael Eisner quickly saw a new issue in Orlando; the company had singlehandedly built the tourism industry in Central Florida yet it had the same issues there as in Anaheim. Most of the dollars it brought to the swamplands of Florida were going into other people’s pockets. Eisner sought to expand the company’s holdings to increase the resort’s profitability.

Universal Studios Hollywood predated DISNEYLAND by decades. The studio offered tourists access to the grounds in the 1920’s, though the dawn of the sound era required soundproof stages and relative quiet on the set. When DISNEYLAND opened in 1955, however, Universal saw an opportunity to get in on the action and take advantage of the tourism brought in by DISNEYLAND. Thus the studio became another leech attached to the tourism industry that had been invigorated by DISNEYLAND. In the mid-1980’s, Universal decided to do it all again- in Orlando. This time, Disney would seek to use its larger resources to blunt the attack from Universal by announcing its very own studio theme park.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Disney Deep Dive: The Florida Studio Park, Part 2

By the mid-1970’s, it was obvious that the initial attendance issues at Florida’s Magic Kingdom Park were an anomaly. The resort was firing on all cylinders, but Roy Disney’s conservative approach to building out the resort was beginning to be a problem. The company needed more things for guests to do and places for them to stay. Roy’s handpicked successor- Card Walker- made it clear that they needed a new theme park to try to keep competitors at bay. But what could it be?

While the Imagineers struggled to answer that question, another guest relations problem sprang up- guests remembered Walt Disney talking about EPCOT on his television show and were constantly asking about it. Lucky for the company, however, most people didn’t realize that Walt Disney’s EPCOT was a real city and not a theme park. Card Walker made the decision that the next theme park built would be called EPCOT Center, so the Imagineers had to come up with a concept that fit the name. When they couldn’t seem to come up with a workable concept, an exasperated Card Walker looked at two of the other theme park concepts they had been working on- “World Showcase” and “Future World”, pushed them together and decreed that they would become EPCOT Center.

The massive project’s budget would balloon to $3 Billion- more than the entire Walt Disney Productions was worth at the time. This would be more of an adult theme park, serving alcoholic beverages and featuring no Disney characters. The soggy Florida swamp land provided an engineering challenge, but luckily the parcel of land they chose for the park (which would have coindentally been the city center of Walt Disney’s EPCOT) was firm enough to build on.

EPCOT Center was seen as a way for the company to cement its dominance in Orlando and possibly discourage others from trying to leech off Walt Disney World’s success. When the park finally opened in 1982, it was a financial disaster. Guests found the park charmless and missed having the Disney characters around. The company desperately tried to address the complaints and had to plow more cash into the already over budget park to entice its guests. The park would eventually threaten the very existence of Walt Disney Productions and send the company into a tailspin. It also opened up an opportunity for competing theme park companies to enter the Orlando market.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Peter Mayhew, 1944 - 2019

Disney Deep Dive: The Florida Studio Park

Before Walt Disney opened DISNEYLAND in 1955, few tourists ever ventured to Anaheim, California. Southern California as a whole, however, was already a major tourist destination. In the beginning, this was undoubtedly a blessing, since Mr. Disney wasn’t necessarily asking his guests to visit an area that they would have never visited on their own. Tourists had already flocked to Southern California’s beaches and Hollywood studios for decades. DISNEYLAND was just another stop. 

DISNEYLAND would soon supplant all other tourist sites in Southern California, becoming the first stop for most visitors. Others took notice and a new tourism ecosystem sprang up to entice DISNEYLAND guests to spend their time and money elsewhere after they had experienced the Magic Kingdom. This began to grate on Mr. Disney. What if he had more control over the surrounding area? What if more of the tourism revenue he was generating stayed at DISNEYLAND? He was uninterested in making money for money’s sake; he wanted to make more money so that he could build ever bigger attractions. These outside enterprises were siphoning funds away that could have been used to expand DISNEYLAND.

So while Mr. Disney’s decision to build what he was calling “Disneyland East” in Florida was mainly made so that he could build his futuristic city, he also wanted to establish more Disney owned businesses that could generate more profits he could use for expansion. After he passed away, his brother Roy canceled plans for the futuristic city of EPCOT and scaled back plans for multiple hotels and amusement enterprises.

Roy Disney based his decision to scale back on hotels and attractions on the fact that Orlando Florida was not a tourism hotspot prior to Disney World. It was where people stopped to fill up on the way to other more interesting places. Unlike Anaheim, which was already surrounded by attractions and beaches, Disney would be asking its east coast guests to trust that it would show them a good time because there was little else around to entertain them. After a lackluster start, Florida’s Magic Kingdom found its footing, but Roy’s conservative, cut down master plan still resulted in the sort of leech development that happened in Anaheim, except the vast acreage owned by Disney in Florida pushed it further away.

It would take over ten years for the resort to build another theme park. The massive project would forever shape the future of Disney in Florida as well as the theme park that would come after it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Walt Wednesdays: A Few Of Walt’s Favorite Things

One of Walt Disney’s favorite foods was popcorn. Whenever he took guests on a tour of DISNEYLAND, he always gave each of them a box of popcorn at the beginning of the day.

Mr. Disney’s favorite song was Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. Coincidentally, he would typically buy an extra box of popcorn when he was at DISNEYLAND so that he could feed the birds who called the park home.