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Looking back at the early days of Universal Studios Florida and Disney-MGM Studios theme parks


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Looking back at the early days of Universal Studios Florida and Disney-MGM Studios theme parks

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Given that Disney's Hollywood Studios is now in the process of reinventing itself, I thought that it might be fun to take a look back at the very beginnings of WDW's third theme park.

Of course, back then, Disney-MGM wasn't actually supposed to be a theme park. But rather  ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... a full-scale motion picture and television studio, to be located at Walt Disney World in Florida.

That's how this project was jointed announced by Michael D. Eisner, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walt Disney Productions, and Florida Governor Bob Graham back on July 8, 1985.

Mind you, what really excited people back then was that Disney had obtained the rights to use the MGM/UA film library. Not to mention being able to attach the MGM name and that studio's famed "Leo the Lion" logo to this project.

Copyright MGM / UA / Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Governor Graham seemed particularly excited that this new Orlando-based enterprise would combine Disney's family appeal with MGM/UA's cinematic history, insisted that " ... this development, combining two of Hollywood's most famous names, will bolster Florida's emergence as a world-class center for motion picture production." Graham then went on to say that he consider this project to be '' ... one of the most exciting business breakthroughs in this decade for Florida."

Once they broke ground on the Disney-MGM Studio Tour back on March 27, 1986, Mouse House managers had originally hoped to have this 100 acre complex up & running by October of 1988.

As Bob Hope, Mickey, Minnie & Donald look on, Michael Eisner speaks
at the 1986 groundbreaking ceremony for the Disney-MGM Studio Tour.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Bob Hope & Michael Eisner try to exit the stage amid a blizzard of confetti.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Me personally, I always enjoy pouring over WDI's original plans for this " ... third gated attraction for Walt Disney World" (that's how the Disney-MGM Studio Tour was described in early press releases" and then checking out the " ... variety of viewing and participation adventures" the Imagineers had planned.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Take -- for example -- Video Theater (which would eventually be renamed Superstar Television). According to an early project overview, this Disney MGM Studio attraction was supposed to be an interactive experience where " .... guests can participate in TV show segments." Below, you can see where the Imagineers had hoped to give WDW visitors the chance to recreate a classic bar fight from a TV western.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

While over in this corner of the stage, one lucky Guest was going to get the chance to pretend to the George Reeves version of Superman and zoom through the air, old school style.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Better yet, check out this early take on the version of Hollywood Boulevard that the Imagineers wanted to build at WDW's "third gated attraction."

Copyright Disney Enterprise, Inc. All rights reserved

Please note that -- if WDI had had its way -- the Red Car would have rolled right down Hollywood Boulevard in  much the same way that the Trolley Cars go to & fro along Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland Park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

More to the point, actors portraying famous performers from Hollywood's Golden Age like Stan Laurel, Oliver and Edgar Kennedy would have been part of the featured entertainment at the Disney-MGM Studio Tour.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This publicity still for Laurel & Hardy's 1928 short, "Leave 'Em Laughing" obviously inspired
the image of these three legendary screen comics used in the above concept painting.

Unfortunately for Disney, MCA decided that it also needed look-alikes to make Universal Studios Florida's Hollywood Boulevard look more like the real thing. So they got in there ahead of the Mouse and snagged the theme park rights for real-life entertainment legends like Oliver "Babe" Hardy.

That's Ollie on the left. And to the right? Not Stanley
but a very skinny Jim Hill back in the Fall of 1990.

It's important here to note why Mickey had fast-tracked its "third gated attraction" for Walt Disney World. And that was because Mouse House managers had hoped that they got the Disney-MGM Studio Tour built first, MCA would then abandon its years-in-the-making plans to build a clone of its Universal Studios Tour in Florida. But as you can see ...

Copyright 1989 MCA Inc. All rights reserved

... MCA called Mickey's bluff. They not all went ahead with construction of an Orlando-area theme park that also featured its very own Hollywood Boulevard ...

Copyright 1990 MCA. All rights reserved

... they also made sure that Universal Studios Florida had rides (which was one of the big complaints that people had -- and still have -- about Disney-MGM Studios theme park / Disney's Hollywood Studios. How few actual rides this WDW theme park has) like the "E.T. Adventure."

Copyright 1989 MCA Inc. All rights reserved

You know what I love about the above photo? If you look in the background, you can see Universal Studios Florida's Psycho house. Now what's kind of cool about that structure is that ... Well, 26 years ago this week, construction workers began assembling a Central Florida version of this Alfred Hitchcock icon to serve as sort of a coming attraction for that theme park.

Bulldozers first moved more than 60,000 cubic yards of earth to create this 22 foot-tall hill. They then built a full-sized recreation of the famed house from the "Pyscho" motion picture atop of that mound. Not only that, but they deliberately positioned this sinister structure so that anyone driving by on Kirkman Road could see.

Then -- at the foot of this three-quarters of an acre site -- these artisans built a full-sized recreation of the Bates Motel. Better yet, they had both buildings built & photo-ready by October 31, 1988.

1989 MCA Inc. All rights reserved

As you might expect, when MCA released photos of Universal Studios Florida's new "Pyscho" house on Halloween, the press back in that era just went nuts. The wire services spread that image far & wide. Which not only helped promote MCA's theme park (which wouldn't then open 'til June of 1990) but also Universal Pictures' upcoming cable TV movie, "Psycho 4: The Beginning" (which was actually filmed onsite at USF from June 4 - July 13, 1990).

1988 MCA Inc. All rights reserved

And given USF's "Pyscho" house soon found itself folded into the selection of seasonal attractions that would be offered at that theme park's "Fright Nights" / "Halloween Horror Nights" as both the site of the Beetlejuice Graveyard Tours as well as the "Pyscho" Path Maze ... Well, I figured that this is as good a place as any to conclude JHM's newsletter photo-heavy story for October of 2014.

So do you folks have any favorite memories of the early, early days of Disney-MGM and/or Universal Studios Florida. If so, please share them here.

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