April 2012: Just 10 years ago, tourists wrestled with the question: “Should I visit Universal Studios or Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Disney-MGM not so long ago) since there’s no need to see two film studios in a single vacation?” Today the question is moot. While both parks have a movie theme, neither has significant film production nor pretends to. And while Disney still has a handful of attractions dedicated to how-we-make-movies, Universal Studios converted most of their movie-education space to more thrilling attractions.
Disney tried to customize Hollywood Studios with separate lands, the way it divided the Magic Kingdom into sections – it didn’t really work, though. Generally, the front of the park is, to quote 1989 Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, “the Hollywood that never was and always will be.” The Disney version pretty much nixes the ugly side of Hollywood, or the seedy underbelly in film noir terms. The back of the park replicates a working movie studio, including a Hollywood backlot.
Designers couldn’t decide if they should make an attraction seem real, or if they should show the audience how they faked it for a movie. While Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is fake – a bunch of false fronts covering a shopping center – designers took great pains to make it look and feel as real as possible. If you’re willing to buy into the fantasy, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination. Not so in many areas of Hollywood Studios. “It seems real” is quickly replaced by “look how we faked it” when designers show the plywood behind the façade. As a result, you never quite believe you’re in Hollywood; but you also don’t believe you’re in a working movie studio. Still, that criticism is slight and doesn’t impact enjoyment of the park.
Hollywood Studios is a must-see for kids enamored with the Disney Channel and the best place to meet those characters. It also expands beyond Disney’s trademarked characters – tracing its roots back to its former affiliation with MGM Studios – and includes rides that feature non-Disney movies and people. As the smallest Disney park in size, it’s a bit easier on the feet too.
Years ago, Disney World issued tickets, A through E. “A tickets” were very simple rides, while “E tickets” were top of the line. The same system is used here to describe Hollywood Studios rides in a roughly clockwise tour of the park. The rating level reflects an attraction’s technology, size, and “wow” factor. (Don’t consider the rating a review. You may not enjoy a ride even if it’s an “E” attraction.) While many of the “A through E” ratings in the Magic Kingdom remain true to Walt’s original vision, however, Hollywood Studios did not exist until after the all-rides-included pricing system came into being. Consequently, I made these up. Feel free to disagree:
D: American Idol Experience. Stage show, and pretty much what you’d guess from the name.
C: Sounds Dangerous Starring Drew Carey. Mainly a show/movie explaining how Hollywood fakes sound effects.
E: Indiana Jones Stunt Show. Live-action show explaining how stunt men/women work in the movies generally, and in the first Indiana Jones movie specifically.
E: Star Tours. Rough-and-tumble motion simulator, where an entire car moves in sync with a movie played in front. If your space vehicle appears to be climbing, the audience tilts back to simulate the feeling of acceleration.
E: Muppet Vision 3-D. Movie in (duh) 3-D with glasses and a few special effects. The jokes make it worthwhile, and it’s refreshing to see Disney make fun of itself.
E: Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show. A huge outdoor arena shows how stunt cars fake action scenes. The drivers take more chances than you’d expect.
B: American Film Institute Showcase. Self-guided tour of movie memorabilia, which sounds boring for kids – and it could be – but the rotating exhibit many times includes some child-friendly artifacts, such as the small sets from The Nightmare Before Christmas or costumes from Star Wars films.
C: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set. A playground that looks like a backyard lawn if you’re the size of an ant. Pure kid stuff, but worth a walk-through for adults.
E: Studio Backlot Tour (Catastrophe Canyon). They tore down the one Hollywood-type movie backlot to build the Lights, Motors, Action stunt show, so the “how we make movies” part isn’t extensive anymore. Toured on trams, this show also includes Catastrophe Canyon, however, which Disney features in many commercials. That makes the tour worthwhile.
D: Toy Story Mania. One of Disney’s newest rides. Tourists shoot fake 3-D balls at fake 3-D targets, competing for the highest score. Pretty cool.
C: Journey into Narnia. Artifacts from the movie and more.
C: Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream. This is Walt’s “how I did it” venue, and in a museum-type tour shows all the innovations Disney developed. It’s interesting if you care; boring if you don’t.
E: Voyage of the Little Mermaid. A favorite for guests, the indoor show simulates underwater viewing as live performers and puppets sing the best songs from the movie.
D: The Magic of Disney Animation. Another how-we-do-it, walk-through attraction. At the end, a large area offers hands-on exhibits and character meet-and-greets. A free class – first come, first served – allows visitors to draw their own Disney character at an animation table under the instruction of a Disney animator who shows them how circle by circle and line by line. At the end, guests may take their drawing home.
C: Playhouse Disney. If you have kids who watch the Disney Channel, this is the show for them. If not, move on.
E: The Great Movie Ride. A must-see, this centerpiece of the park in Mann’s Theater recreates scenes from a number of old movies, including a knock-down version of The Wizard of Oz. It’s viewed in large theater-style cars that move slowly.
E: Rock ‘n Roller Coaster. An indoor coaster with low/no lighting – the rest is just details.
E: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The ride, of course, ends with multiple falls in an out-of-control elevator. Prior to the drop, however, riders enjoy a few cool effects, including a window-breaking thing. (I can’t figure out how they do it, though I know it includes mirrors.)
D: Beauty and the Beast. Stage show that predates the Broadway version.
E: Fantasmic! Hollywood Studio’s nighttime finale is comparable in size and scope to Magic Kingdom’s SpectroMagic Parade. It’s live action, with boats and special effects. Front row visitors may get slightly wet. On a busy day, arrive early, though the audience arena is huge.