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Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 2

Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 2

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ...

During the first five months of 1987, Burbank city officials worked toward an agreement with Disney to build a theme-park-slash-shopping-center in their downtown district. At issue was the money: Disney wanted to buy the land for next to nothing. Disney also wanted the city to pay for a parking structure large enough to hold 3,500 cars.

On April 24th, the Mayor of Burbank Michael Hastings was invited to the Walt Disney Imagineering complex in Glendale to view tentative plans for the park. “Every little bit of wall space in that room was taken up with drawings, sketches and ideas,” he remembers. The drawings featured elaborate buildings, ornate street environments and even a Ferris wheel. “My first reaction was ‘I wonder where our stuff is, because this looks so tremendous, it can’t be for us.’ Then I began looking closer at the walls, and I saw the map of our property on the wall beside all these ideas.”

But his initial reaction wasn’t one of awe. Rather, it was one of being overwhelmed. As he left the Imagineering complex, the elaborate plans caused him to have second thoughts about a Disney park in Burbank. Did the city really want a permanent carnival set up downtown?

Mayor Hastings took his doubts back to the city council, where he found that others shared his concerns. More than one council member wondered if a formal agreement with Disney would be in the best interest of the city. Some wanted to approach other interested parties about developing a traditional mall project on the land, while others thought it might be in the city’s best interest to sell the property for more money than Disney was willing to pay.

 Disney Vice President Gary Wilson

The turning point came on April 28th, when Eisner again invited city officials to a formal conference room at the studio. During this meeting, Eisner and Disney Vice President Gary Wilson, played a videotape sent in by the city of Dallas. Professionally produced, the taped featured dozens of tuxedo-wearing youngsters, all of them begging Disney to build a project in their town.

“Here we were in Burbank,” City Manager Bud Ovrom later reflected, “playing hard-to-get, and any other city in the country or the world would have given their eyeteeth for a Disney project. That tape opened our eyes.”

On Friday, May 1, 1987, Burbank city officials held a meeting to discuss their plans to sell 30-acres of prime Burbank real estate to the Walt Disney Company for the ridiculously low price of 57-cents per square foot. The land was worth an estimated $20 per square foot—or $35 million for the entire parcel. Disney would get it for a song, a mere $1 million. The city also offered Disney the option of buying 10 more acres for $8.7 million.

The official terms locked Burbank and Disney in to a one-year exclusive development agreement. Disney would have one year to develop plans for the property. Once these plans were approved by the city, Disney would then be able to purchase the land. Even with the heavily discounted land price, Disney estimated that the project would cost between $150 million and $300 million to complete.

But Disney wasn’t the only multinational company represented at the Council meeting. Also in attendance were MCA lawyers who repeatedly objected to Burbank’s plan to partner with Disney. At stake was not just the land — but Disney’s intentions to build a studio-based theme park just five miles away from the MCA-owned Universal Studios Tour. Attorney Dan Shapiro asked the council: “There is a question whether this is the proper thing to do with city property without asking for competitive bids. You're giving away 40 acres.”

“At $1 million,” City Manager Bud Ovrom explained, “Disney is clearly getting a special price, but we would be getting a special project … The Disney Company has been talking about creating an all new ‘animal,’ which would combine the best aspects of a festival shopping center together with a significant entertainment element.” The project would combine theme park attractions from Disney-MGM Studios (then under construction in Florida) with a boutique shopping mall. “It is important to note,” he added, “that it would not be a ‘gated’ facility such as Disneyland or Magic Mountain.”

The following week, Michael Eisner announced that he would personally present Disney’s plans for the 40-acre site to the Burbank Redevelopment Agency. But before Eisner could unveil his plans, details about the project began to leak out of Orlando. Some areas of the Backlot, insiders suggested, would be modeled after the Pleasure Island complex then being developed at Disney World. The Burbank project would include a number of specialty retail stores — just like those which were eventually built for PI's West Side expansion in 1997 — as well as rough copies of six Pleasure Island nightclubs.

 Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Surprisingly the big news about the Burbank project wasn’t leaked to the press in typical Disney fashion. The big news was kept under wraps until Eisner’s formal presentation.

Standing before the Redevelopment Agency, Eisner introduce himself as well as Frank Wells, President of the Walt Disney Company, and Joe Rohde, a lead Disney Imagineer. Together they explained that the Burbank project would be much more than a nightclub and shopping district. “It will be a new generation of Disney attractions,” Eisner announced. The park would indeed include stores and nightclubs. But it would also include an enormous ride that would convey guests through famous movie scenes. The proposed name for this attraction was “Great Moments in the Movies” — but basically, the attraction would be a California clone of the Disney-MGM showcase ride in Florida, later known as "The Great Movie Ride."

Joe Rohde explained that Disney would also build a 400-room Hollywood Fantasy Hotel — a Vegas-style mid-or high-rise in which each floor was decorated according to a different Hollywood genre. Such as the western floor, the space-adventure floor, the New York gangster floor and so on. Hotel employees too would be dressed in period costumes to match each genre.

In cooperation with the city, Disney would build a six-story parking facility, the top of which would hold a manmade lake called the “Burbank Ocean.” Though only 18-inches deep, the “Ocean” would create an enormous 60-foot waterfall spilling down into another manmade lake. The waterfall would also partially screen the property from the nearby freeway.

Copyright 1987 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But the most impressive news concerned the operations of the actual Disney studio. The Disney-MGM Backlot would include a new TV studio and tour. Eisner also planned to move the animation department — or at least one unit of the animation department — over to the Backlot so that park guests could tour a working animation facility.

Frank Wells closed the presentation by suggesting that the project would transform Burbank into a world famous city: "The Backlot,” he explained, “is designed to provide international shopping, dining and nightlife like Tokyo's Ginza and Paris' Champs-Elysees.”

The Redevelopment Agency was impressed — but Eisner’s plans for an elaborate Disney park in Burbank only angered MCA.

According to MCA Vice President Jay Stein, shortly before Eisner’s presentation, Disney execs privately offered to withdraw its plans to build a Burbank park if MCA would abandon its plans to build Universal City in Orlando. To a reporter at the LA Times, Stein called Disney’s proposal “blackmail tactics.”

The day after the “blackmail” story was published, Eisner fired back: “I have no idea what they (MCA) are talking about. Anything MCA does or does not do — or anything anybody else does or does not do—will not affect our plans.”

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roger Rabbit.
Copyright 1989 Disney / Amblin. All Rights Reserved

Disney studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg added: “It sounds to me like it’s sour grapes.”

But Jay Stein held to his original story, telling the press: “There is no doubt in my mind what happened.”

That same week, MCA announced that they intended to file a lawsuit to stop the Disney development in Burbank. Acting as though MCA had the best interest of Burbank residents at heart, Stein told reporters: “If I were on the Burbank City Council, I would not have insulted the taxpayers of Burbank by offering a piece of land for $1 million that I would conservatively say really costs $50 million. If anyone should be outraged, it’s the citizens of Burbank.”

In LA Superior Court, MCA didn’t just file one lawsuit. They filed two. The first argued that the contract between Burbank and Disney should be invalidated because the city had not completed the proper studies to determine the environmental impact of the Disney park. The second claimed that the secret negotiations between Disney and Burbank violated the Brown Act, which “prohibits city councils, school boards and other governmental agencies from meeting on public issues in private, except in certain circumstances, including land negotiations.” Though the suits appealed to environmental and parity issues, the underlying motivation was clear: these were legal maneuvers to prevent Disney from stealing potential customers from Universal Studios Tour.

Over the following week, newspapers and business journals around the nation would feature articles about the MCA lawsuits, most all of them citing the legal action as the latest development in the long-standing feud between Disney and MCA.

Come back tomorrow to read about Disney’s full plans for the Burbank Backlot.

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  • eyeteeth?


  • this is an interesting story that i was unaware about...i enjoy reading this series!

  • Great read.  Looking forward to the next part.

  • This is the type of story that brought me to JHM many years ago.  I always find these "history lessons" intriguing in a what-if kind of way.  Thanks, Todd.  

    PS: I'm hoping you "don't pull a Jim" on us and leave us hanging without completing the story.  ;)

  • Very interesting series Todd. I had totally forgot about the Burbank proposal. I just wish that Disney or somebody would build a western theme park here in Grass Valley CA.

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