The World InThe Late 80’s: A Visit to Disney-MGM Studios

With Disney-MGM Studios’ renaming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios recently, what better time to talk about my very first trip to that park?

Turn the clock back. It’s 1989.

Mr. Answer and I had not gone back to the World since our 1986 honeymoon, and we were ready to go again. Not having to follow school schedules, since Minnie Answer wouldn’t make her debut for another year and a half, we decided to take an early October roadtrip.

Our first stop would be in Atlanta for a long visit with our close friend and former roommate, who had recently relocated there. The plan was to leave Atlanta and drive down to Orlando for the second part of our trip. We had booked a few days at the Radisson, just outside of property. At the last minute, Ms. A decided to join us.

The drive seemed interminable, because we were so excited about seeing the parks again! This was Ms. A’s very first trip, so she was doubly excited. Truth be told, I remember very little of this trip other than the Studios and the hotel! The Radisson was nice enough, though not fancy.

I longed to stay at one of the glamorous Disney Resorts, which by then included the Grand Floridian and the Caribbean Beach, Disney’s very first moderate resort. Being poor newlyweds, that dream would have to be put on hold for another few years, however, so there we were at the Radisson. I believe we picked the Radisson from a AAA hotel guide. Can you imagine even trying to plan a trip without the internet? Thank goodness Al Gore had the foresight to invent it a few years later! (Just kidding…)

We purchased 4 Day Passports for around $100 each. $100 was a hefty sum for us, but well worth it. We had to buy a 4 Day because the 3 Day Passports didn’t include Disney-MGM! We planned to use 1 day for each of the parks, and the remaining day to revisit a park, but as it turned out, after the 4 days, we didn’t want to leave, and extended our stay and our tickets for another couple of days. Hey, it’s only money, right?

4day Ticket circa 1989

As I mentioned earlier, I remember little of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot on this trip, probably because so little had changed since our 1986 trip.

At the Magic Kingdom, a new land had opened (Mickey’s Birthday Land), but the village of Duckburg held little of interest for anyone over the age of 6.

EPCOT Center had a few exciting additions, including a new World Showcase Pavilion (Norway), a 3-D movie (Captain Eo,) and an almost-finished Future World Pavilion, Wonders of Life.

Captain EO

Wonders of Life didn’t officially open until a week or so after we went home, but I have vague memories of touring the pavilion on this trip, which may or may not have happened. Those particular braincells are stored in the back of the vault, if you get my drift. Also at EPCOT, IllumiNations had made its debut.

The star of this trip, however, was definitely the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, which had opened on May 1, 1989, a few months later than its original targeted opening of Oct.1, 1988.

In those days, Disney-MGM actually was a working production facility as well as a theme park. The focus at the park’s beginning was on a “living movie set,” according to early park guides. What we see on the Backstage Tour now is a pale imitation of the original, where you actually might have seen a TV show or film in production.

Much later, I was lucky enough to work very briefly behind the scenes on one of the last TV series produced there before the soundstages closed forever to be turned into first the Millionaire attraction and now into Toy Story Mania.

In 1989, the animation tour featured what at least looked to me like real animators working on real animated films. To clarify, animated films were definitely produced there, but I don’t know if the people I saw during the tour were really animators or actors. I suspect they were low level members of the animation team, since they did appear to be working. Animated features produced at the Studios included “Mulan” and “Lilo and Stitch.”

But let’s get back to 1989. So, there we were, three young adults about to experience a brand new park. We walked under the Art Deco archways housing the ticket booths, and through the turnstiles. The park was divided into three main areas: Hollywood Boulevard, Lakeside Circle/Backlot Annex and the Production Center/Backlot area.

Hollywood Boulevard

Hollywood Boulevard was much like it is today, with an avenue of stores designed to resemble early 20th Century Los Angeles, with the crown jewel looming at the end of the street: A wonderfully detailed replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, home of the Great Movie Ride.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Today, there’s a…um…rather large, out of place and obtrusive hat blocking the view of the theater, completely ruining Hollywood Boulevard’s intended sightline. Sure wish we could just airlift it out of there and put it someplace else, say near the Animation Courtyard, or perhaps outside of the park in the entrance plaza, but as usual, I’ve taken a side trip from my subject.

We pretty much by-passed the stores, as we were being drawn to the beautiful theatrer at the end of the street. (This is why Walt Disney and the Imagineers call park icons like Cinderella Castle and Spaceship Earth “wienies” — they draw you deeper into the park.)

Speaking of Hollywood Boulevard, if you turned those early Studios park maps upside down, you would have seen that you were standing in the middle of the World’s largest hidden Mickey! The plaza in front of the theater comprised Mickey’s face, Echo Lake formed one ear and the area by the tipboard and the Brown Derby formed the other ear. With the addition of the…um…rather large and obtrusive hat and the development of the Sunset Boulevard area, this cool “secret” is pretty much gone now. What a shame.

We entered the queue area of The Great Movie Ride, and ooh’ed and ah’ed at the movie prop and costume displays. In the theater area we watched the same clips we’re watching today. As far as I can tell, this has never been changed. Once on the ride, we marveled at the moving theaters, gliding silently through movie scenes. Everything but the final film clips is the same as it was then, with the exception of the Busby Berkeley scene, which used to rotate.

What to do next? There wasn’t much to do attraction-wise here on Hollywood Boulevard; only The Great Movie Ride and a stage show in a tiny outdoor amphitheater called “Theater of the Stars” that was squeezed in between the Brown Derby and the shops on Hollywood Boulevard. In 1993, it was moved to it’s current and much larger home on Sunset Boulevard, where it now houses the Beauty and The Beast Live On Stage show.

Theatre of the Stars

We skipped the show, and headed for Lakeside Circle/Backlot Annex to see Superstar Television (where the currently unused ABC Theater is now, and where the future American Idol show will go.) I was picked from the audience to be in the show to be part of a girl-group trio called “The Vonzels.” We sang “Da Doo Ron Ron” on the Ed Sullivan show. It was the beginning and the end of my onstage showbiz career. Some people would call that a blessing.

Also in Lakeside Circle, next to Superstar Television, was the “Monster Sound Show,” where audience members added sound effects to a hilarious “horror” film starring Chevy Chase and Martin Short. “Sounds Dangerous,” which is in that spot now, isn’t even remotely as entertaining as “Monster Sound Show” was, and in fact after I experienced it once, I have never been back. I went back to see “Monster” over and over again before it closed in 1997.

We also spent some time in the post show area, “Soundsations,” which today is pretty much the same as it was back then. We wandered back a bit and saw the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, which I’m fairly sure hasn’t changed since then either. Maybe with the new Indy movie opening this summer, we might see something new? By the way, one of Mr. Answer’s life’s goals is to be chosen to participate in this show, but so far, no offers. Showbiz is so fickle!

After stopping for lunch at the Backlot Express, we found our way over to the Backstage Studio Tour. In the early days of the park, the Backstage Tour was at least two hours long and divided into two parts: the tram tour and the walking tour. This attraction was so long, guests were encouraged to make a potty stop before beginning the tour.

Backstage Studio Tour

The tram tour took you through Costuming, the Scenic Shop, the late, lamented Residential Street (where Lights, Motors, Action! is now,) Catastrophe Canyon, and New York Street (now Streets of America.)

The walking portion of the tour began with the Water Effects Tank (you know, where hapless guests get completely drenched,) the Special Effects Workshop, the Soundstages where you might see an actual production being shot, Post Production Editing and Audio department, and finally a film with clips of upcoming movies presented in the Walt Disney Theater.

Our final attraction for the day was the Magic Of Disney Animation Tour. The old tour started with a hilarious film called Back To Neverland, which featured the voices of Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite. Next was a tour of the Animation Studio, which showed the various processes necessary to bring an animated film to life. Finally, clips from favorite Disney animated films were shown in the Disney Classics Theater.

Our first day in the Disney-MGM Studios was over. Reluctantly, we went back to our hotel, and Immediately began to plan out our extended stay so we could go back again!

Hollywood Blvd

Special thanks to Jack Spence for the loan of the pictures of the Disney-MGM Studios.

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