Walt Disney World Chronicles: Sightseeing on Sunset

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the February 12, 2013 Issue #699 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Sunset Blvd.Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989 with a theme based on the classic Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. The Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner stated at the opening of the park, "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."

Unlike the Magic Kingdom or Epcot, which might take multiple days to fully enjoy, Disney-MGM Studios, like Typhoon Lagoon that opened the same year, was designed to be a "half-day" experience for Disney guests. It was meant to be a delightful "extra" on a Disney vacation experience, especially for guests who were frequent visitors in the past.

However, Disney-MGM Studios instantly became a hugely popular location and today is consistently ranked among the top ten visited amusement parks in the entire world.

Immediately, The Walt Disney Company realized that it needed to quickly expand the park to satisfy the many guests who wanted to spend all day in Hollywood. There was a need for more attractions, more stores and more eating locations.

It was decided with no objection that the expansion would be themed to the other popular street in Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. It would also continue the chronology of the area into the late World War II time period.

In real life, Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard do not intersect perpendicularly as they do in the theme park, but run parallel about two blocks apart from each other.

Sunset is a long winding thoroughfare that changes personality several times, including the famous Sunset Strip, before it ends at the Pacific Ocean near Malibu Beach. It is part of the much-talked-about Route 66, which begins in Chicago and ends in Los Angeles, just like the life of Walt Disney himself.

Plans were made for the new expansion to have a small orange grove where the Sunset Ranch Market is today, as well as to recreate the 1946 La Cienega Boulevard Tail O' The Pup eatery (an iconic Hollywood building shaped like a hot dog in a bun that sold — what else? — hot dogs).

The success of the feature film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in 1988 inspired the Disney Imagineers to include Maroon Studios, the fictional cartoon studio in the film, at the end of the street to attract guests. It would have been built in the area that now houses Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Because this was the same time that Mickey's Toontown was being developed for Disneyland, some of the same visual gags, including interactive elements, would be incorporated in the design of Maroon Studios.

The billboard for Maroon Studios that still exists near the Hollywood & Vine restaurant in the Echo Lake area was to foreshadow the experience just as the billboards near the Crossroads to the World foreshadow other elements in the park.

A working Red Car trolley system as seen in the film would have taken guests up and down Sunset Boulevard in a similar fashion as the horse-drawn trolleys at the Magic Kingdom. Near the end of the tracks would have been a recreation of detective Eddie Valiant's favorite hangout in the film, the Terminal Bar, as a food and beverage location.

The most important additions would have been several ride attractions: Roger Rabbit's CarToon Spin (just like the one at Disneyland), Toontown Trolley (a simulator ride taking guests on a wild ride through Toontown) and Baby Herman's Runaway Baby Buggy (a dark ride where guests would be in oversized baby buggies careening through the hospital from the Roger Rabbit short "Tummy Trouble").

Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment co-owned the rights to the franchise and the two companies could not come to an agreement for this area to be created.

So, the Imagineers devoted themselves to just imagineering Sunset Boulevard. Amusingly, many of the architectural icons on the Disney version of the famous street never ever existed on the real Sunset Boulevard. There have never been any complaints that some of the beautiful Art Deco style buildings were based on similar structures in Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, and other cities nowhere near Sunset Boulevard.

Hollywood Boulevard was to represent the business district. Echo Park was the residential area. Beyond the guard gates near the Indiana Jones and Great Movie Ride attractions were the areas devoted to the working movie studios. This is why the entrance to Star Tours is an obvious stage set facade, why guests could see animators at work and why there are soundstages.

Sunset Boulevard was to showcase the theater district in Hollywood. Hollywood was notable for its many movie premieres and elaborate movie palaces like Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Red Car TrolleySunset Boulevard opened in June 1994 and two tributes to that date still exist on the street. The red car near the Sunset Ranch Market has the number "694" on it and the side doorway into the Legends of Hollywood shop has a facade for a different store called "Ninety-four".

Starting at the top of the street, to the left is the Beverly Sunset shop with an exterior that looks like a movie theater. Its facade is based on the Warner Beverly Hills Theatre, a movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard that opened in 1931. (The original theater was replaced by a parking lot in 1988.) As guests enter, on the left is the concession counter and ticket stand (actually an opportunity to purchase some sweet treats and pay a cashier).

Lush curtains lead into the main theater and on the wall was a large screen showing Disney cartoons. Observant guests will notice up above and opposite the screen are the projector and film can reels. Some of the original trappings still exist on the walls today.

To the right at the top of the street is the Legends of Hollywood store. The exterior is inspired by the Academy Theater, which was planned to become the home of the annual Academy Awards ceremonies. That never happened for a variety of reasons. However, it did exist as a movie theater from 1933 to 1975, before it was converted to a church. Today it is known as the Academy Cathedral.

The reason the authentic 1941 gold colored Cadillac touring sedan (Series 62 with its distinctive hood ornament) is parked in front of the theater under a canopy is that it has pulled up to let out some important people for a premiere at the theater. Once upon a time, a red carpet went from the car to the entrance.

Clever Disney fans also take a glance at the billboard up above advertising the Hollywood Tower Hotel. The artwork was done by Han Woo Lee. The sign is in disrepair and often foliage obscures it. The reason for this seeming lack of attention is actually a storytelling element. It is meant to suggest that something ominous has happened to a fancy and famous hotel.

At the entrance to Legends of Hollywood is a ticket booth filled with authentic items, including actual coins and tickets from the time period. Just like the station master's office on the second floor of the Main Street Train Station, too many guests ignore the wonderful attention to detail and real artifacts in this humble, glass-enclosed spot.

Reproductions of actual movie posters decorate the outside display cases and also establish the time period. Inside the store is a hand-painted mural featuring all of the old movie theaters recreated at the park.

Nearby is the Planet Hollywood Super Store that also has a movie theater facade. It was inspired by the La Reina Theater in Sherman Oaks, California, which opened in 1937. When the single-screen theater could not be transformed into a multi-screen space, it was sold in 1985 to a shopping center developer who planned to demolish it but met with opposition from preservationists.

While the theater auditorium was demolished in 1987, the theater's exterior facade was preserved but later damaged in a 1995 earthquake.

Unlike Legends of Hollywood, the theater posters that decorate the exterior of the store are fanciful creations of typical Hollywood movie genres. The poster that is an homage to science fiction movies includes the Planet Hollywood logo as part of its design.

Once Upon a Time store has an exterior modeled after the famous Carthay Circle Theater that opened on San Vincente Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1926. The ornate theater was the site of many movie premieres including "Gone With the Wind" in 1939. The theater was torn down in 1969.

However, for Disney enthusiasts, its charm and significance are tied to its many connections to Disney history. It was the theater that hosted the premiere of the first Silly Symphony short, "Skeleton Dance," in 1929.

More importantly, the theater hosted the star-studded premiere seventy-five years ago for Walt Disney's first full-length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Reproductions of the actual film posters used during that time period to advertise the innovative and popular film decorate the outside store windows. In addition, near one of the cashier counters are framed black and white photos from that special premiere.

Theater of the StarsThe Carthay Circle Theater was also one of only a dozen or so theaters fitted with Fantasound equipment for the premiere of "Fantasia" in 1940.

The Theater of the Stars was a stage presenting live entertainment since the park first opened in 1989, but was originally located right next to the Brown Derby. Basically, it covered the area that is now the entrance to Sunset Boulevard.

In 1991, it historically began performances of "Beauty and the Beast — Live On Stage" the same year that the animated feature debuted. The show ran there from 1991 to 1993, when it made way for the new construction. However, the show resumed in 1994 and continues to this day on the stage of the new Theater of the Stars amphitheater.

This new theater was designed to be reminiscent of the famous Hollywood Bowl Theater. Before entering the theater seating, observant guests look down and notice that handprints for stars like actors Tim Conway and Tom Poston that were originally done for the entrance of DHS Chinese Theater at the end of Hollywood Boulevard have been incorporated into the walkway.

Sunset Boulevard is filled with many often-unrecognized tributes to the history of Hollywood. In the future, I will take readers along on another sightseeing trip down the street to share some more of its many surprises.


Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives:



Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of two new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:

"Who's Afraid of the Song of the South"

"The REVISED Vault of Walt": Paperback Version / Kindle version


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.