If a theme park could experience something of an identity crisis, it might be Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This park, originally named Disney-MGM Studios, opened in 1989, one year ahead of Universal Florida when it first showed up in Orlando. Its original intent was to compete against Universal. In doing so, it borrowed the MGM name to give the fledgling studio greater identity. Then it modeled its signature attraction around the key attraction found at the original Universal Studios out in California. That movie studio park identified itself with going behind the movies to see just how they were made. Its big ride was a tram-style tour that whisked you away through actual studio backlots showcasing decades of films Universal had created over the years.
So Disney followed suit by opening with an extensive tram tour and backstage walking tour. It also added an animation tour—after all, it was Disney. Added to that was several shows and a ride known as The Great Movie Ride, which resided in the park’s icon, The Chinese Theater. This was found at the end of Hollywood Boulevard, which acted as a Main Street U.S.A. to the park.
Meanwhile, Universal Orlando took a cue from Disney’s parks and opened with major rides and attractions, and only a modest backstage tram tour. Never mind, Disney’s Hollywood Studios still had so many guests staying on property that attendance continued to be greater than Universal. Moreover, Disney continued to build out the park, by adding attractions like Star Tours, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Midway Mania, and the venerable Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
This competition continued for many years. But the magic of making the movies with soundstages and back lots eventually gave way to making movies digitally behind computer screens. Guests lost interest with the behind the scenes experiences, favoring instead more immersive experiences into movie-like experiences. Then Universal Orlando came up with a strategy that would make Disney re-look big time at its studio park. Universal created the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an experience so immersive that it included not only great rides but experiences like buying magical wands and drinking butterbeer. Disney knew that it had to do something very different than what had worked successfully for so many years.
So in 2015, Disney announced two new lands would be built where former backstage tour attractions once held reign. The first would be a Toy Story Land, similar to attractions built in Hong Kong and Paris, but this one including a major roller coaster based on Slinky the Dog. But the big news was that rather than featuring a ride based on Star Wars, they would build an entire land that would immerse you into a galaxy far, far away. In 2017, they then added to those announcements with an immersive hotel/resort experience that would connect guests to Star Wars. It also announced that The Great Movie Ride would be replaced with a new ride attraction based on Mickey Mouse.
That brings us to today, where Disney’s Hollywood Studios is more of a construction zone than a theme park. Half of the park is undergoing a major transformation. When done, its attendance may rival the Magic Kingdom itself as it’s expected to bring millions of guests. But in the meantime, it’s easy to question whether it’s worth spending the time visiting the park, especially if time is limited.
The park has been greatly eclipsed of its previous offerings. But don’t think you can’t spend the better part of a day enjoying its offerings. Its thrill rides—Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror—are some of the best thrill rides Disney has to offer. Toy Story Midway Mania! is one of the most popular attractions in all of Walt Disney World.
Then there are the shows. A favorite is Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. It continues to deliver amazing stunts and special effects.
The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast both offer shows, and there is For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along. It’s great to watch moms and dads sing right along with their kids while they watch this fairly hilarious show, thanks to Arendelle’s two royal historians. Afterwards you can line up to visit Olaf.
There are lots of Disney character meet ‘n’ greet experiences to be found at this park. But some of the best character interactions are not with Disney characters, but with the Citizens of Hollywood. These are live streetmosphere-style characters. They roam around Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. If you come across them, take the time to interact and experience their individual performances. It will be a highlight of your stay.
Can’t wait for Star Wars to arrive as an entirely new land and experience? Well, they offer many options in the meantime. Beyond Star Tours—The Adventures Continue, there are shows in front of the Chinese Theater to include the March of the First Order and Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away. Youngsters love Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple, where they will be taught the ways of the Force. Two films can be found. Star Wars: Path of the Jedi is a great primer for those not familiar with the saga, and at Star Wars Launch Bay Theater you hear from a new generation of filmmakers creating the latest Star Wars offerings. It’s at Launch Bay that you can also meet characters such as Kylo Ren and BB-8 Astromech. And don’t forget the retail—all things Star Wars can be found here as well.
Youngsters will love enjoy Disney Junior—Live on Stage! Muppet fans are sure to catch Muppet Vision 3D, the last film project that Jim Henson personally labored on. Walt Disney Presents is a great showcase for Disney fans old and young. It looks at the life of Walt Disney, but then offers previews of attractions and movies coming in the near future.
The shows at night are amazing, but you have to make a tough choice as to which to visit. There is the infamous Fantasmic! It’s played out in a full-size amphitheater and is Disney magic at its best with characters, music, pyro, fireworks, fountains and more.
Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular is a fireworks nighttime show that plays out above the Chinese Theater. It too is amazing, and is preceded by Disney Movie Magic, a nighttime projection show that showcases Disney’s live action films from Tron to Mary Poppins, From Pirates of the Caribbean to Herbie the Love Bug. You won’t go wrong with either choice, but given its timing, you will probably have to choose between one and the other. Or, you’ll have to visit another evening.
Clearly, as 2018 brings in Toy Story Land, and 2019 brings in the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land, you will want to be at this park. But know that there is still plenty to see and do in the interim. Disney’s Hollywood Studios may be the most intimate of parks in the crown jewels of Walt Disney World. But sometimes the best gifts come in small packages.