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Looking back on Burbank's Disney-MGM Backlot project

Looking back on Burbank's Disney-MGM Backlot project

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Most Disneyana fans already know the history of the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, which first officially opened its gates for visitors back in May of 1989. How this project initially started off life as an Entertainment pavilion which was proposed for Epcot's Future World section.

This Epcot addition - which was to have been built between that theme park's "Land" pavilion and the "Journey into Imagination" ride - was supposed have featured an exterior that looked like a giant blue sky. In order to enter Epcot's "Entertainment" pavilion, you would have had to have pushed through the turnstiles at an old fashioned movie theater ticket booth.

Once inside, guests could have chosen between taking a ride through a new Future World show entitled "Great Movie Moments" (Which was WDI's first pass at the attraction that eventually became Disney-MGM's "Great Movie Ride"). Or they could wander through an interactive display that was designed by Disney vet Ward Kimball, which revealed how a Mickey Mouse cartoon was really put together.

It was Disney's CEO Michael Eisner who first realized that the history of motion pictures really couldn't be crammed into a single Epcot pavilion. That - if this idea was allowed to fully flower - that it could serve as the basis of a half day attraction. (To explain: A half day attraction is something like WDW's "Typhoon Lagoon" water park. Where guests could spend the morning there, then go off and visit some other section of the resort).

So - with Eisner's encouragement - the Imagineers greatly expanded their initial concept for Epcot's "Entertainment' pavilion. Using about the same amount of acreage as Disneyland as well as the same basic design of the Anaheim theme park (Please note how Disney-MGM's Hollywood Boulevard echoes exactly the size & scale of Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. area. Right down to have a movie palace - AKA the Chinese Theater - standing in for Sleeping Beauty's Castle), Disney-MGM Studios theme park came to life.

When the studio theme park opened in the Spring of 1989, it was immediately mobbed. Which was why WDI quickly abandoned the park's original "half day" plan, as the Imagineers went into overdrive to quickly "grow" Disney-MGM out into a full-size Disney theme park. Among the project that got greenlit during the theme park's frantic first five years of operation was the Sunset Boulevard expansion project, which included a certain Hollywood Hotel...of Terror!

Like I said, many Disneyana fans are already aware of Disney-MGM's history. But how many of you are aware that - due to this new Florida theme park's popularity with guests - that Michael Eisner actually toyed with turning the Disney-MGM concept into the Walt Disney Company's next franchisable attraction.?

For a brief time there, Disney's Big Cheese was deadly serious about building at least three more Disney-MGM Studio theme parks. The first one was to have been built right next door to Euro Disneyland. But - when that theme park under-performed after it initially opened in April 1992 - this plan was put on hold for nearly a decade. Before it finally went forward (in a severely truncated form) as Disneyland Paris' second gate, the Walt Disney Studios theme park.

Eisner also tried at Michael Eisner actually toyed with turning the Disney-MGM concept into the Walt Disney Company's next franchisable attraction.?

For a brief time there, Disney's Big Cheese was deadly serious about building at least three more Disney-MGM Studio theme parks. The first one was to have been built right next door to Euro Disneyland. But - when that theme park under-performed after it initially opened in April 1992 - this plan was put on hold for nearly a decade. Before it finally went forward (in a severely truncated form) as Disneyland Paris' second gate, the Walt Disney Studios theme park.

Eisner also tried to persuade the Oriental Land Company to allow the Imagineers to build a Japanese version of Disney-MGM Studio theme park. Which was to has served as Tokyo Disneyland's second gate. But - after more than a year of considering the Imagineers' plans - OLC executives rejected the studio theme park proposal. Preferring to go with a totally new concept (Which was based - in large part - on the aborted "Disney Seas" theme park that the Walt Disney Company had once hoped to build in Southern California, right down by the water in Long Beach.
Anyway ...)

Speaking of Southern California ... Perhaps the most intriguing Disney./MGM spin-off that was ever proposed was the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot. An ambitious entertainment complex that was to have been built right in "...beautiful downtown Burbank." Right next door to the Disney lot.

How close did this project come to becoming a reality? According to a press release that the Mouse's marketing staff released back in 1987:

"The Disney-MGM Studio Backlot has been approved and is destined to become the entertainment marketplace of the 1990s. This new generation Disney attraction will be located in the City of Burbank, home to the Walt Disney Studios and may run a construction cost of $300 million."

"So where would this project supposedly have been built?," you ask. On a forty acre site (approximately one-fourth the size of the Florida Disney-MGM Studios) that ABC Corporate Headquarters, the Feature Animation building as well as Disney's multistory parking structure were eventually built on.

And the plans that Michael had for this Burbank expansion project were nothing short of ambitious. Again quoting from that press release, Michael supposedly said:

" ... Entertainment will be our magnet. The behind-the scenes Hollywood themes, street performances, live theater, Disney animation tours and operating radio and TV media centers will create an entertainment attraction and shopping and dining experience unlike anything else in the country."

Under an agreement with MGM/UA Entertainment Company, Disney obtained the rights in Burbank (as it had for Florida) use to the MGM name. In this same agreement, Mickey acquired the rights to use that historic movie studio's famed "Leo the Lion" logo as well as MGM motion picture and television titles, excerpts, music, costumes, sets, artwork and props. (Some of those rights -- like for the use of James Bond and "Gone with the Wind" -- had to be negotiated separately. And here's an interesting bit of trivia: Preliminary plans for Florida's Disney-MGM Studios theme park called for a James Bond stunt show, not an Indiana Jones-themed one.)

Getting back to that press release again:

"We are already developing ideas for special effects thrill rides utilizing the simulator technology we created for Star Tours at Disneyland and night clubs using our 'ghost' techniques from the Haunted Mansion."

Speaking of special effects ... A huge part of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project was to have been a West Coast clone of the Florida theme park's "Great Moments at the Movies" ride. Which Michael Eisner described as being the "... quintessential Disney adventure ride, totally based on the magic of Hollywood and the movies."

But the key difference between the Florida studio theme park and what the Imagineers were proposing for construction in Burbank was that fully one third of the development's space was to be devoted to retail. With WDI's goal evidently being to create the world's first entertainment marketplace. Where the shopping would range from traditional and contemporary stores to exotic specialty shops and street bazaars.

Getting back to that pesky press release, Michael Eisner said:

"We will enlarge upon the movie-set themes of our Backlot to provide international shopping, dinning and nightlife like Tokyo's Ginza and Paris' Champs-Elysées. We can expand the themes of 'lost cities' of the past, the Wild West, California's Gold Rush Days or Disney Fantasy for retail, restaurant and entertainment experiences."

One of the more intriguing aspects for the project was the "Hollywood Fantasy Hotel." Which the Imagineers envisioned as being the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot's tallest structure. A luxurious hotel that was deliberately themed to be a celebration of Hollywood's Golden Age. Where the cast members who worked at the "Hollywood Fantasy Hotel" would have worn costumes that made them look like characters from memorable movies. And the individual rooms & suites at the resort would have been designed to look like replicas of famous movie sets.

And - at the very top of the "Hollywood Fantasy Hotel" - guests would have found the Celestial Dining Room, an elegant eatery that was to have featured a planetarium ceiling. Where - as you dined - the heavens would seem to rotate, showing guests how the night sky changes as we go through the calendar year.

To the southwest of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project, the Imagineers envisioned building something truly spectacular. On the topmost floor of a multistory parking structure, WDI wanted to the "Burbank Ocean." A heavily themed outdoor area pool area which was to have cascaded down the side of that parking structure.

Other entertainment planned for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project included a ten screen movie theater, an ice and roller skating arena, an audience participation video theater as well as several heavily themed nightclubs and restaurants. Guest were also supposed to be able to tour Disney's historic old animation buildings to see where classic films like "Cinderella" & "101 Dalmatians" were made.

In addition to all this, all of the scenic locals that the Imagineers were to have created for nightclubs, restaurants, shops, etc. were - in theory - to have doubled as possible movie sets. The idea being that - where you to visit the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot - that you might actually get to see a movie being filmed or your favorite Disney TV show being shot live on location.

The press release closes out by saying:

"All in all the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot will be more than just Lights! Camera! Action!....and Shopping too!"

Sounds like a pretty intriguing project, don't you think? So why didn't the Walt Disney Company actually go forward with construction of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project?

According to what Jim Hill tells me, the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot really does have one of the more bizarre back stories ever associated with an aborted Disney project. You see, Universal Studios execs were said to be extremely ticked off at Michael Eisner at the time. Reportedly because Disney's CEO had "borrowed" many of the ideas for Disney-MGM's shows & attractions from a Universal Studios Florida pitch that Eisner had supposedly seen while Michael was still head of Paramount Studios.

Which was why - when Eisner announced that he wanted to bring the studio backlot in Burbank - Universal allegedly declared war on the project. Even supposedly going so far as to pay for the printing of some anti-Disney-MGM brochures. Which were then distributed to people who lived around Walt Disney Studios, talking up how this ambitious project would cause traffic tie-ups, increase tax rates, etc.

So was it Universal's anti-Disney-MGM campaign that got construction of the studio backlot canceled? Actually, to hear the folks at WDI tell the story: Eisner eventually decided to pull the plug on the project because Disney's accountants told him that the Walt Disney Company would never get a big enough return on its investment.

Of course, just about the time that Disney canceled its Burbank studio backlot project, Universal announced Citywalk, the dining, shopping & retail complex that was built right outside of the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood. A complex that reportedly makes mountains of money for that motion picture company.

Hopefully, someday Jim will actually get around to chronicling the full story of the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot project. I seem to remember Hill saying that - after he completes that Disneyland history book that he owes Intrepid Traveler Press - that Jim is going to do a book called "Neverlands." Which will talk about all sorts of Disney projects that never quite got of the drawing board. Like Westcot, Mineral King, Riverboat Square and - of course - the aborted retail / entertainment complex planned for Burbank.

You see, the history of the Walt Disney Company is littered with projects like this. Even Walt had tons of proposals that never made it past the talking stage.

I remember reading - in a 1962 issue of "Newsweek" - how excited Disney was about audio animatronics. How he hoped to follow up the "Enchanted Tiki Room" show with an attraction that would feature AA versions of all the Disney characters. Where robotic versions of some of your favorite Disney characters would be performing on stage, while still others would be seated in the audience - heckling the various acts as they came on.

Of course, that attraction never actually made it off the drawing board. But bits & pieces of that proposed show that Walt was so enthusiastic about 'way back when wound up in WDW's "Mickey Mouse Revue," "The Country Bear Jamboree" as well as "Kermit the Frog presents Jim Henson's Muppetvision 3D."

So - given that WDI never ever lets a good idea die - who knows? Maybe someday soon we will be able to spend a pleasant evening bobbing around in the Burbank Ocean.

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