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Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 4

Looking back on the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project -- Part 4

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ...

The real problems for Disney began to emerge in the fall of 1987.

Though the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot had originally been budgeted at $150 million to $300 million, in September Disney received new estimates from architecture and construction firms that placed the price tag at $611 million. To add to the bad news, Disney’s original plan to lease out part of the Backlot to traditional retailers wasn’t working out so well, as most retailers were unwilling to invest in such an unusual new retail venture. Taken together, these two reports forced Disney to scale back its plans for the Backlot.

In October, executives at MGM added to Disney’s problems by demanding that the MGM name be removed from the California park. MGM-UA Chairman Lee Rich claimed that the agreement to partner with Disney for a park in Florida did not give Disney the right to build a second MGM park in California. “We were very upset about it,” Rich told the press. “We’re going to do anything we can to get them not to use it.”

The only good news came from the courts. On Jan 20, 1988, a judge dismissed one of the MCA lawsuits. Because Disney was only developing preliminary plans, the judge concluded, no environmental impact report was yet required.

After the ruling, Burbank Mayor Michael Hastings said to a group of reporters: “We were challenged with a bogus lawsuit, but we won. I hope now we can bury the hatchet with MCA.”



 
But the remaining MCA lawsuit, the escalating construction costs, the disagreements with MGM-UA, and the lack of retail co-investment were causing Michael Eisner to have his own doubts about this new park in Burbank. During January and February, Disney entered talks with international retailers—including London’s famous Harrods department store—about co-investing in the Burbank project, but these talks did not produce a mega-store to anchor the Backlot.


Rumors soon spread that the Disney project in Burbank was dead.

City Manager Bud Ovrom recalls: "I had an intuitive feeling that things were not going well. Whenever I went over to Disney to meet with Alan Epstein, there were no renderings of the project on the walls, no models on the tables."

Mayor Hastings vividly remembers the day when Disney representatives came to City Hall with plans for a new corporate office building. When the mayor inquired about progress on the Burbank park, one Disney representative responded, “I wish you wouldn’t ask me that question.”

On Friday, April 8, Disney publicly announced what most everyone in Burbank already knew, that it was dropping plans to develop the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot.

The official reason, money. To complete the park as originally designed would cost over $600 million. To build a scaled-back version would reduce the total number of guests—and therefore lower the park’s overall gross. “When we started playing around with the concept,” Eisner explained, “and eliminating things like the Burbank Ocean, it started becoming a project that it would not take Disney to do. With Disney, we have to exceed our guests’ expectations, they expect a lot.”

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But there were other possible reasons: Disney had recently purchased the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose in Long Beach, California (about 35 miles from Burbank) where they were now pursuing plans to build a much larger theme park—a park that would include a festival shopping district similar to the one proposed in Burbank. They had also entered into an agreement to build a European Disney park in Paris, which would drain money and creative resources from the company. It is also possible the Disney execs finally came to their senses, realizing that a longstanding rivalry with MCA might have lured them into an extremely expensive park proposal for Burbank.

Hours after the Disney announcement, one Burbank Councilman bitterly quipped, “Let’s see if MCA will come running over now with their checkbook.”

In a news release, MCA claimed that they hadn’t yet come to a decision “regarding its future actions in Burbank,” nor had they decided on a date for “concluding its consideration of the site.” Needless to say, MCA never made an offer on the Burbank property. From their actions, it was clear that their only interest in the site was to prevent Disney from opening its own studio-based park near the Universal Studios Tour.

With Disney deal dead, the City of Burbank solicited bids from developers for a retail entertainment complex. They received many. Most proposed traditional mall-type developments, though one did propose to build a marine park complete with a giant aquarium and a dolphin show. The city would eventually approve plans for a modern mall with national chain stores and a multi-screen movie theater. Years later, Mayor Hastings would express his disappointment over Disney’s decision to abandon the project. “They promised us the world and then they pulled the rug. It was a very cold shower for the community and the community government.”



In 1989, the Walt Disney Company opened the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida (now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios) to mostly tepid reviews. The park included many attractions also slated for the proposed Burbank park, including a working animation studio, "The Great Movie Ride," and back-lot dining and retail establishments. Many guests noted that the park seemed incomplete and did not yet offer enough for a full day’s entertainment.

In 1990, MCA opened Universal Studios Florida in Orlando to mostly positive reviews. Also in 1990, MCA developed plans to create new free-standing rides for its park in California to better compete with Disneyland. In 1999, Universal Studios added a second park to its Florida property, Islands of Adventure, to make its property into a resort destination, similar in style to the Walt Disney World complex.

Nine years after the failure of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot, Disney again set out to conquer regional retail space. This time they were armed with a new product called DisneyQuest—which was an indoor video theme park. Each DisneyQuest would feature cutting-edge games and interactive ride simulators. The first DisneyQuest opened in a five-story, windowless industrial building at Walt Disney World in 1998. The second opened in Chicago in 1999. Disney broke ground for a Philadelphia location but abandoned the project before it was completed. Another was planned for the Disneyland Resort but never built. Disney sought out sites in large American cities—including sites in Times Square and Rockefeller Center—as the company believed these regional video parks would offer guests far from California and Florida a way to enjoy a Disney themed experience without a lengthy vacation. But the DisneyQuest parks did not meet company profit expectations.

The final remnants of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot can be found in Anaheim. When designing Disney’s California Adventure, Imagineers revisited the plans for the Burbank Backlot and absorbed the California Boardwalk and giant Ferris wheel concepts into the plans for the new Anaheim park. Toward the back of Disney’s California Adventure, in an area called Paradise Pier, guests can ride a giant Ferris wheel that dips down into a manmade lake—just like the one originally planned for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot. From the top of the Ferris wheel, guests can enjoy a panoramic view of both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure—the only two parks Disney has ever completed in California.

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  • For everyone's info--the photo of the current Burbank mall is not the original post-Disney-debacle "look." The whole place, after many years of serious downturns and much empty retail space, was given a massive facelift a couple of years ago including the entry shown in the picture which is flanked by P.F. Chang's restaurant and which faces the downtown walking-street mall of Burbank which also leads to a huge new AMC multiplex and a retail-on-the-bottom/condo-lofts-on-top development on the last of what used to be the long-vacant Disney-intended property in beautiful Downtown Burbank. So it goes....

  • P.S.--Disney never actually "purchased" the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary. They took over the operating lease on those landmarks which were and remained owned by the City of Long Beach. This was done to get a foot in the door with L.B. to promote the Long Beach DisneySea plans which never happened largely because of environmental laws that would have seriously hampered and added to the expense of building the project. The City of Long Beach bought the Queen Mary from Cunard when it was retired from oceangoing service and was NOT in fact the high bidder. However, the fact that they planned to preserve it rather than scrap it was the deciding factor in the Cunard folks' decision. Originally Long Beach ran the hotel and shops on its own and had a deal with Jacques Cousteau to operate an oceanographic museum in the bowels of the liner. Later Cousteau pulled out and the influx of Disney operations helped revive the fading tourist attraction, especially with the addition of a Disney-created "Haunted Queen Mary" tour to liven up the otherwise historical walking tour through the ship. When the LB DisneySea project faded, so did Disney's interest, and the city eventually sold the Spruce Goose airplane to Evergreen, a charter airline with an historic airplane collection, and it was moved to their facillity in Oregon. The former Spruce Goose "dome" was turned into a super-sized soundstage for major movie shoots--notably it was the location for the set of the massive Riddler/Two-Face Headquarters where Batman & Robin fought evil and several other major motion pictures because of its huge pillar-less span roof. Meanwhile, the Queen Mary remains an open shopping, tourist-touring, and hotel operation plus its "London-Towne" tudor-themed shopping village alongside. A few years ago they bought an old Russian submarine as an added gate to moor alongside, and boats to Catalina Island also leave from the same dockside.  Two minor trivia notes of interest re. the Queen Mary's refurbishment as a tourist attraction: First, when it was brought to Long Beach, they had to remove the engines to make it utterly un-seaworthy for a very practical reason--as long as it was capable of getting up steam, it was officially a "ship" and therefore all of the construction, maintenance, and operations unions had to be maritime ones---much more expensive than landlubber unions. They left one demonstration-but-disabled engine room (out of FOUR that originally existed inside the massive hull) intact but disabled, but yanked the guts of the other three out (also making room for the Jacques Cousteau attraction space in the process.) The OTHER trivia note is about how they accomplished that. Ships, of course, are built from the inside OUT and its easy to put massive boilers INTO an open hull, but once a whole passenger liner has sealed them in, not so easy. To do the job, they actually REMOVED the Queen Mary's iconic four smokestacks in order to go DOWN into the guts of the craft via the "stack shafts".....which sounded like a good idea, but created an unexpected problem. The massive rings of steel that made up the stacks were hoisted by huge cranes to be set on the pier/dock with the plan being to re-install them piece by piece once the extraction of scrap metal from the innards was done....but when the huge sections were put down on the dock, freed of all the guy-wires and supports and their structural integrity from being bolted together on the ship....workers were amazed as they quite literally DISINTEGRATED! They fell apart and dissolved into bits and pieces and dust! Metalurgists were called in, and discovered that over her many many years of life at sea, an amazing thing had happened----the stack shafts, originally made of heavy-gauge steel, had been constantly eroded on the INSIDE by the smoke and steam and heat passing up them, but constantly repainted over and over again on the OUTside with heavy lead marine paint to protect against the salt air's rusting ways. The result? There was virtually NONE of the original metal left, only coat after coat after coat of paint! WHile intact and guywired and supported in one piece, it held, but once put on the dock, they collapsed unable to hold their own weight. SOoooooooooooooooooo...when you visit the Queen in Long Beach today, you are seeing the original ship...but NOT the original smokestacks. They were replicated in NEW metal as part of the restoration.

  • I am glad that Disney didn't go through with the Burbank park.  I remember when that property was an empty lot.  The only area that was anywhere near developed was San Fernando Blvd which was an open air mall at the time.  You might remember it from Pee Wee's Big Adventure which is where Pee Wee's bike gets stolen from.  That was eventually removed and made into a street which is where they filmed a T REX attack in The Lost World. (The scene where the T Rex chases the bus.)  The only building that looks like it's always been there anymore used to be a Woolworths and is now some kind of upscale furniture store.  What is now called Burbank Town Center Mall used to be called Media City Center.  The name was confusing which is why the name eventually changed.  The new AMC 16 used to be a parking lot and an Elk's Lodge.  The condos that are being built across from the movie theater used to be my old job and the old AMC Burbank theaters which were originally ten screens and then being built up to 14.  The AMC theater in the mall used to be  4 screens and was upscaled to 8 screens in the late 90's.  I bring this all up because had Disney made what they wanted to make there, I probably would have never met my wife at the AMC theaters in the mall which is where we were working at the time and where we met.  

    MCA eveutually got its small revenge on Disney as well with the Jaws attraction in Florida which features a boat that has been attacked by the shark and a set of mickey ears with the name Mike pathetically floating by the boat.  The same was done on Jurassic Park both out in California and in Florida

  • I'm stunned.  A multiple chapter story on JHM, with each segment posted at 12:00 AM on sequential days.  It's a sign of the apocalypse!

  • A completed series on this site! Wow!!

    And it was a great one. I really enjoyed it, thanks so much!

  • Great series, well written and with lot's of insight...I hope this will be just the first of more to come!

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