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Why For Central Florida never actually became Hollywood East

Jim Hill

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Why For Central Florida never actually became Hollywood East

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Earlier this week, Steve B. wrote in to ask:

Dear Jim,

When the Disney-MGM Studios theme park opened, it was promoted as a working studio.  Both live action and animation were being produced there.  There was discussion in the news about the high costs in California driving production out of that state and into places like Florida.

Today, the working studio idea is a thing of the past, the animation building no longer features real animators working on future films, the sound stages are being converted into rides like Toy Story Midway Mania, and the backlot tour now features amazing views of tires stacked in a room for use by the car stunt show.  In the meantime, cities like Chicago, not exactly known for right-to-work laws or cheap labor, are seeing an increase in film production.  Why for?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Dear Steve B.,

To be fair, when Universal Studios Florida first opened in June of 1990, it too was touted as a working studio. Back then, Orlando area officials were happy to talk up the idea that Central Florida was becoming Hollywood East. More importantly, that all manner of high profile motion pictures & television shows would soon begin shooting at Disney-MGM & USF. Which would then translate into lots of high paying jobs & steady work for Central Floridians.

Which isn't what happened.

Don't get me wrong. A few films were shot on those state-of-the-art soundstages that the Imagineers had built at Disney-MGM. The plane interior sequences for "Passenger 57" come immediately to mind. Likewise the Anthony Hopkins film, "Instinct." And a handful on non-Disney-owned and/or produced TV program like "The Adventures of Superboy," "Thunder in Paradise" and HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon" were shot in and around this theme park's backlot. But beyond that, it was mostly game shows like "Win, Lose or Draw" and "Let's Make a Deal" or Disney Channel series like "MMC" and "Adventures in Wonderland."

The cast of MMC AKA The Mickey Mouse Club. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Universal had a similar sort of problem when it came to luring production to USF. I remember that - back when a good portion of Universal Studios Hollywood's New York Street set burned down in November of 1990 - that production of "Oscar" (which - ironically enough - was a Touchstone Pictures release) was moved to the New York City-themed section of Universal's Florida theme park. And - of course - there were all of those family-friendly sitcoms like "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Kenan and Kel" that were shot at USF's Nickelodeon Studios facility. But beyond that, it was mostly music videos and the occasional commercial,

But as to why Orlando didn't become a major movie & television production center ... There were a number of factors, actually. First of all, the cost savings that you mention (which was supposed to come from shooting in a right-to-work state like Florida) was often offset by the enormous additional cost of flying name talent & key creatives in from LA. Not to mention paying for meals & housing for these folks over the length of the shoot.

More to the point, many of the filmmakers that were sorely tempted to make movies at Central Florida's Central Florida production facilities were then put off by the idea of having tourists look in on them as they worked. It didn't matter that the Imagineers and/or Universal Creative had made these glassed-in viewing areas sound-proof. Or - in some cases - had lined these production corridors with one-way mirrored glass, so that these auteurs wouldn't even known when they were being observed. Just the idea that there were people up there, potentially looking down (figuratively as well as literally) at them working was enough to make some directors & actors deliberately take a pass on working at Disney-MGM and/or USF.

Ironically enough, the one real success that came out of Disney & Universal's flirtation with establishing full-blown production facilities in Central Florida was the one place where the people who worked there knew that they were always being observed.

Max Howard and the artists & animators who made up the Opening Day team at
Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida

I'm talking - of course - about that satellite studio which Walt Disney Animation Studios staffed and maintained at MGM. Which - thanks to its giant glass windows -- gave WDW visitors the chance to peer down into "The Pit" (that's what the artists & animators who actually worked in this exposed studio floor section of the Animation Tour called it) and see what work was being done at that time on WDAS's next short and/or soon-to-be-released feature-length project.

Of course, what's kind of ironic about this particular turn-of-events is that the animators who worked in the "Magic of Disney Animation" fish bowl were never supposed to work on feature-length releases like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." The original plan for the Central Florida facility is that the artists based here would only be working on special projects like the Roger Rabbit shorts and Mickey-based featurettes like "The Prince & The Pauper."

But when "The Little Mermaid" was released in November of 1989 and then turned into this genuine box office phenomenon, Disney's future plans for its feature animation department changed virtually overnight. Then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg suddenly wanted to move WDAS from a one-new-feature-film-every-two-years production schedule to a much more ambitious plan. One that called for the Studio's staff to crank out a brand-new full-length animated feature every single year.

And in order to pull off what Jeffrey was planning ... Well, that meant that it was "All Hands on Deck" time at Disney-MGM. With the relatively young crew at Feature Animation Florida (which had only been working for the Mouse for about six months at this point) suddenly being handed entire sequences for "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Lion King" to animate. And given what a great job they did with those assignments, the artists and animators at WDFAF eventually found themselves working on their very own feature-length project, "Mulan."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I have to tell you folks that - between May of 1989 and March of 2004 -- I spent many happy hours wandering the corridors of Feature Animation Florida. I knew dozens of the artists & animators that worked there at that time. And you could not ask for a nicer, more talented & dedicated group of people. Who would then do flat-out amazing work on Disney hand-drawn movies like "Mulan," "Lilo & Stitch" and "Brother Bear."

And when Walt Disney Feature Animation (back in the bad old days when David Stainton was running the Mouse Factory) began talking about reinventing itself in 2002 & 2003 so that Mickey's movies could then better compete with those that were being produced by Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios, I always kind of hoped that Stainton would leave Feature Animation Florida alone. That - given the charming, quirky, ambitious, highly successful hand-drawn films that the team at Disney-MGM were consistently turning out at this point - you don't fix what ain't broke. It only made sense to maintain the status quo in Orlando and then limit Feature Animation's reinvention to the crew that was working on the Burbank Lot.

But David ... He didn't see things that way. He wanted all of Disney's artists to be in one place. So Stainton not only shut down Feature Animation Florida, he also pulled the plug on Disney's Paris-based facility (i.e. the animation studio that did the bulk of the work on "A Goofy Movie" and "Tarzan"). He then gutted hand-drawn animation in an attempt to turn Disney Feature Animation into this CG-only production facility.

And we all remember (with the possible exception of the people in charge of Paramount's Motion Picture Group. Who just hired David to be the president of this studio's new animation division) how well that went.

Concept art for WDI's original vision forDisney-MGM's Muppet Studios "land." Which -- in
addition to MuppetVision 3D -- was supposed to have featured a Swedish Chef-themed
restaurant in addition to a "Great Muppet Movie" ride-through attraction. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway ... Getting back to Disney-MGM Studios ... Excuse me ... Disney's Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios Florida: The Imagineers tried to address the whole big-name-filmmakers-who-don't-like-being-looking-at-while-they-work issue in 1990 by proposing building four more soundstages. Only these new production facilities wouldn't be located inside of the studio theme park. They were actually supposed to built on the other side of World Drive, directly across from Disney-MGM. Which would then insure that -- if they ever wanted to come shoot a movie in Central Florida -- the George Lucases, Steven Spielbergs, Peter Jacksons and James Camerons of the world could then work in private. Well away from the prying eyes of WDW Guests.

Of course, by doing something like this, it would then become much, much harder to sell Disney-MGM Studio theme park as this working studio where Disney World visitors would then be able to see really-for-real movies & TV shows being made. Which is why -- about this same time -- it was revealed that the Sunset Boulevard and Muppet Studios expansion projects were in the works. With the hope that -- once all of these new rides, shows and attractions came online at Disney-MGM -- the paying customers wouldn't even notice that they were seeing precious little work actually being done at this allegedly working studio.

Mind you, a constant source of frustration for the Imagineers was that Disney's own movie divisions -- Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures -- were reluctant to come on down to Central Florida and then shoot a film at the Company's studio theme park. Though -- to be fair -- the executives who worked for these three divisions at the Studio would then argue that they had a responsibility to Disney's shareholders and the Company's board of directors to be fiscally responsible. And after weighing the cross-promotional possibilities of shooting something like "Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon" or "Honey, I Turned the Kids Invisible" (Believe it or not, these were actually  premises that were seriously considered for the proposed third & fourth installments of the "Honey" series. Disney even went so far as to register these titles with the MPAA [i.e. The Motion Picture Association of America] -- along with "Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog" -- before they eventually opted to go the direct-to-video route with 1997's "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves") at Disney-MGM versus the cost savings that would be had by shooting this very same movie up in Toronto or Vancouver, the projected cost savings would almost  invariably win out.

So in spite of the tens of millions of dollars that had been poured into building all these state-of-the-state soundstages in and around Orlando, Central Florida's dream of becoming Hollywood East slowly faded away. These days, while you'll occasionally see a TV game show like "Wheel of Fortune" being shot at Walt Disney World and the "IMPACT Wrestling" show is still being produced at Universal Studios Florida, most of the time these buildings stand empty. Which is why -- for years now -- USF has staged some of the mazes that it builds annually for "Halloween Horror Nights" inside of these soundstages.

The "IMPACT Wrestling" set on a Universal Studios Florida soundstage

Which now brings us to the problem that the Imagineers have been struggling with for the better part of a decade. In that Disney's movie-themed theme park was originally built around all of these soundstages & production facilities that were meant to support a working studio. And given that many of these buildings were deliberately designed so that the Guests could then peek in on the work that was being done ... Since there haven't been any movies or TV shows of note being shot at the studio theme park in years, how do you now reinvent Disney's Hollywood Studios to reflect that reality?

WDI has learned the hard way (i.e. the congestion problems that continually plaque Pixar Place. Especially right in front of "Toy Story Mania," where - thanks to the extremely narrow street that cuts through this part of the studio theme park - WDW visitors pushing strollers and/or Guests riding on ECVs find this section of DHS extremely difficult to travel through) that it's sometimes a mistake to try and repurpose a pre-existing structure at the Studios like a soundstage.

On the other hand, when you consider the expense involved with first ripping out something of size (like one or more of Disney-MGM's original soundstages) so that you then have enough room to build a proper show building - complete with a FastPass-friendly queue, a load/unload area that's both wheelchair & ECV accessible plus, of course, the inevitable post-show gift shop ... That's an awful lot of money to have to tack onto the already-hefty cost of building a NextGen ride, show or attraction for one of the stateside theme parks.

Which is why the Imagineers have usually opted to retrofit (EX: gutting DHS's old "Superstar Television" theater to make way for the "American Idol Experience") rather than tear things down. But with primo pieces of real estate at Disney's Hollywood Studios now being occupied by facilities that aren't being used as they were originally intended, one wonders how long it's going to be before WDI finally do officially let go of Central Florida's Hollywood East dream and starts knocking down buildings in order to bump out the borders of this WDW theme park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of Walt Disney World ... I just wanted to give you folks up that the latest installment of the "Unofficial Guide's Disney Dish with Jim Hill" podcast series is now available for downloading from iTunes. And this time around, Len Testa and I tour the Magic Kingdom Resorts. So if you'd like to learn about what the Imagineers were considering as possible replacements for Discovery Island or - better yet - take an audio tour of the Grand One (i.e. the yacht that Guests staying at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa can rent for an evening for an extra-special viewing experience when it comes to the Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks), you should definitely give this show a listen.

Anyway ... That's it for this week's Why For. If you have a Disney-related question that you'd like to see answered in a future column - you need to send those queries along to [email protected]

Also, could you please do my ex -- Shelly Valladolid -- a favor and go vote for her teacher? Thanks.

Your thoughts?

The article was updated / corrected on October 14, 2011 to fold in additional information

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  • I'm interested in checking out the podcast mentioned in this post.  However the link goes to a website at iTunes, it does not appear to be possible to access the podcast without the iTunes client, and I do not use iTunes.

    I've been looking around for the feed for the podcast, but can't find it.  I can't even find mention of it on the touring plans site.  Any chance you could share a link to the RSS feed here?  Thanks.

  • Nevermind...


  • Even if it was meant to be a working studio, why would narrow streets helpful for film production? Narrow streets wouldn't help to bring large equipment and vehicles into the park, nor will it help to bring the guests closer to the working sets for gawking. I think the whole park was designed improperly. Perhaps Toy Story Mania was also designed improperly at the entrance. Congestion at the narrow walkway could be alleviated by simply changing the entrance to another part of the building. Sigh.

  • You can't "copyright" a movie title.  Jim Hill already is well known for spouting unreliable nonsense, so I'm not surprised, but I am curious what he really meant.

  • James Smith is right. You can't actually copyright a title of a forthcoming film. But you can register it with the Motion Picture Association of America.

    And that's exactly what Disney did on the heels of  "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" box office success over the Summer of 1989. That Fall, they registered a slew of titles for would-be sequels to this Joe Johnston film.

    Want proof? From the October 8, 1989 edition of the Los Angeles Times:


    Money, Honey

    With ticket sales in excess of $100 million, a sequel to Disney's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" is a foregone conclusion. Not so definite: the direction in which it'll be headed.

    To cover its bases, Disney's registered these titles with the MPAA: "Honey, I Can't Get the Kids Out of My Head," "Honey, I Turned the Kids Into Animals," "Honey, I Turned the Kids Into Giants," "Honey, I Faxed the Kids," "Honey, I Turned the Kids Invisible," "Honey, I Sent the Kids to the Moon," "Honey, I Xeroxed the Kids" and "Honey, I Ate the Kids."


    As you can see by the news story above, two of the would-be sequel titles that I mention in today's "Why For" column. The third -- "Honey, I Switched Brains with the Dog" -- was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article which was published about this same time which then discussed this same set of would-be sequel titles that Walt Disney Pictures had just registered with the MPAA.

    Thanks for pointing out my error, James Smith. I'll now go back into today's "Why For" column and make the necessary correction.

  • Gimbo --

    RE: "if it was meant to be a working studio, why would narrow streets helpful for film production?"

    You have to remember that -- when Disney-MGM first opened back in May of 1989 -- that Guests weren't actually allowed to walk on and/or pass through the New York Street section of this studio theme park backlot AND that narrow street that now runs through Pixar Place.

    These areas were only opened up to the public after WDW visitors complained about how the Backstage Studio Tour was originally set up. Back then, this Disney-MGM experience was a two-hour-long guided tour where you first rode the tram, viewing things like WDW's wardrobe department, the bone yard as well as experiencing Catastrophe Canyon. Then -- after you were menaced by the Dip Mobile while your tram was rolling through New York Street -- you were then let off at the ACME warehouse. Where you could grab a quick bite to eat and use the restroom before you then had to begin the walking-tour portion of your tour of Disney-MGM's production center.

    The problem with this particular set-up was that the only way that you could get back to where you had started in Disney-MGM  was to take the walking tour. Which -- for many parents with young children (who had parked their strollers -- more importantly, left their kid's diaper bags -- back in the heart of this theme park) -- was a completely unworkable concept.

    Which is why -- after being inundated with Guest complaints -- the Park's Ops department then decided after just a few months to make several formerly-off-limits-to-Guests / Cast-Members-Only areas open to Guests. These include the formerly backstage-only area that's now known as Pixar Place. Not to mention the only-designed-to-look-good-while-you're-riding-through-it-quickly-aboard-a-Tram New York Street.

    This is why the street that runs through Pixar Place is so narrow. It was never intended to be a thoroughfare that tens of thousands of Disney-MGM ... Excuse me ... Disney's Hollywood Studios Guests would use every day. As originally designed, this space was meant for use only by the people who were working inside of those soundstages and/or WDW Cast Members who were quickly cutting through here in order to reach other parts of this theme park.

    That -- in a nutshell -- is why it's so tight back there in this particular part of that theme park. This section of DHS was never meant to be open to Guests. Which is why -- by placing a super-popular attraction like "Toy Story Mania" back here -- the Imagineers have exacerbated an already difficult traffic situation.

    Which is one of the reasons that I've heard that the "Monsters, Inc." coaster project (which was originally supposed to be built in and around DHS's Soundstage One) has been placed on hold. There are genuine concerns that -- if WDI drops another super-popular attraction back in this part of the Studios -- Pixar Place's traffic controlproblem could then reach critical mass. That -- in order to deal with all of these Guest flow issues -- the Ops team at this theme park may have to do something radical like make Pixar Place one way (i.e. make it so you can only enter this area from up by the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure." That access to Pixar Place from down by "The Voyage of the Little Mermaid" would then be restricted).

    Just be aware that the Imagineers are well aware of this traffic issue and have been working with Ops at the Studio theme park to come up with a suitable / affordable solution to Pixar Place's current difficult flow-thru situation which then doesn't have too much of a negative impact on the Guests experience.

    But as they say, you can't unmake an omelette. And given that -- as this theme park was originally designed -- Pixar Place was never intended to be a Guest pass-through area. Which is why -- some nearly-25 years after the fact -- it's supremely difficult to make this part of DHS pedestrian / stroller / ECV friendly.

  • Jim - this article about Disney-MGM (I still call it by that name) is why I access your website on a daily basis.  I love the bit of backstage history that you share.

    I loved the podcast that you and Len did on the monorail line resorts.  My wife and I stayed at the Grand Floridian for our honeymoon in August 2008 prior to their official grand opening.  I was told by a friend of mine ho had close connections to Disney to try out Victoria & Albert, and never regretted it.  We were human "guinea pigs" on various courses before they settled on a specific set.  The one thing that was not mentioned, and that I miss about the Grand Floridian, was that you were offered glasses of ice cold lemonade when you checked in.  Keep up the good work.

  • I'm having a really hard time believing that the main reason shoots didn't catch on was because crews didn't want to be watched. As you say, money always speaks loudest, and a paid-for soundstage should have trumped any such concerns for anyone under contract. Cheap lodging and food is no problem in Central Florida. There had to be a another reason along the lines of tax breaks, etc.

  • I think it's because the studios were haunted.

  • Jim! Great Article! Keep up the great Work!!

  • Actually, one of the reasons for lack of film projects in Central Florida was the lack of support facilities.  If you were filming in Los Angeles or some other media friendly location, there were support facilities like editing, lighting, cameras etc.  If you ran into a challenge of something you needed, within hours you could locate what you needed and access it.   In the 1980s none of those things existed in Central Florida.  They would have to be purchased or rented elsewhere and flown to Florida.  When I had to do recording for the off camera narration of the syndicated tv series SECRETS OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, Disney sent me  to four different studios....two built literally in people's backyards in the backwoods.

    For those really interested, there is a a book entitled HOLLYWOOD EAST by James Ponti (Tribune Publishing 1992) that details the countless films (and sequences)  made in Florida over the decades from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON to PORKY'S to TARZAN FINDS A SON to DEEP THROAT..  

    Jim is correct that animators working at Disney Feature Animation Florida did not like working in the "fish bowl" as it was dubbed, since it didn't allow some of the non-Disney drawings and pranks common in animation studios.  I had friends working there and some would either do big signs saying "we are not audio-animatronics" or try to act like an animatronic (repeated movements) when tour guests were near.  After awhile, primarily ink and paint personnel were put in the fish bowl.

  • I remember visiting the park during this time. I always thought it was a good idea to get away from it, but the animation part should have stayed

  • I'd like to know why Orange County Florida didn't end up more like Orange County California. Both have Disney parks, but the similarities end there. Leave Disney World and there really isn't much to do other than visit the other theme parks. Orange County California is part of the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. Orlando has swamps and gators,not to mention an infamous resident who got away with killing her daughter and disposing of her body.

  • My ex-husband, who had been a childhood actor, got caught up in the frenzy of Hollywood East. The Powers That Be did such a great job of selling it that acting studios and classes sprang up all over the place. Of course, it just never happened. We both believed the hype and one of the things that kept us from moving along to Atlanta, where much of big information technology was going, was believing this hype.

    Silly us.

  • Hollywood East was a sales job for more tax incentives for theme parks hidden behind production. These sound stages were designed pretty poorly to be working stages. These are theme parks everything for show and look with nothing behind it. How do you record sound for a scene in the middle of a theme park it was a nightmare. Even if it was possible to become Hollywood East there were never intentions for decision makers to be here and without it you will not be a player to be Hollywood East.. There was almost no production office space why? I found it very telling back then that it was for show. Most theme park executives do not live in Fl they live in CA so money and decisions are out of state. So allot of money in theme parks is made in FL and sent to CA all provided by hard working low paid Floridians. The intention of these studios first was show to tourist, collect tax incentives and production like a short term game show but even that was difficult in a theme park environment. We did get a boom of film/video schools ripping off students with overpriced weak degrees. They provide cheap labor to these theme park studios and sometimes a few get to actually work in film/video at some of the cheapest rates in the country. This article gives a great story that there was interest by executives in making Hollywood East but I think interest was lope warm at best.

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