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

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

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Most longtime Disney fans know that Disney’s California Adventure was not Michael Eisner’s first attempt at establishing a second Disney theme park in California. There was, of course, WESTCOT in Anaheim and Port Disney in Long Beach. But hardly anyone talks about Eisner’s first attempt to bring a second park to California. That project, the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot, was developed as a 40-acre park in Burbank, not far from the actual Disney studio. This story, now mostly ignored by Disney historians, goes something like this:

In the early-1980s, rivalries heated up between Universal Studios and Disneyland, when MCA (i.e. the parent company of Universal) developed plans to build “Universal City-Florida” in Orlando, a theme park that would compete head-to-head with Walt Disney World. MCA’s intentions were well known inside the outdoor amusement industry, but before they fully committed to their plans, Disney beat them to the punch, by announcing in May of 1985 that they would build their own Hollywood-inspired theme park in Florida, the Disney-MGM Studio Tour. To make the park more attractive to guests, the company acquired rights to use film properties held by MGM, UA and 20th Century Fox, such as "The Wizard of Oz," "Tarzan the Ape Man" and "Alien."

The early announcement of the Disney park—years before plans were finalized—was intended to do one thing: discourage Universal from developing its own park in Orlando. For a while this plan seemed to work. Seven months after the Disney announcement, a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel confirmed that “although MCA has not thrown in the towel officially, insiders are betting that the Disney attraction will negate the Universal City-Florida project—even though MCA has spent more than $40 million on [plans to develop] it.”

MCA executives, however, didn’t back down. To capitalize the project, they quietly talked with Florida Governor Bob Graham about state investment in the Universal park. Under Graham’s leadership, government officials made tentative arrangements to loan MCA $150 million from the state pension fund to develop a Universal theme park in Orlando. The loan would be secured by a first mortgage on the 423-acre parcel that MCA presently owned in the state. In essence, Florida was offering MCA an enormous low-interest loan to keep the Universal City project alive. Only once these plans were made public, Disney used its political muscle to scuttle the deal.

Former MCA Universal president Sid Sheinberg

This tactic infuriated MCA President Sidney Sheinberg. At a press conference, he lambasted Florida officials: “Disney’s ability to decimate you by acting in a predatory way is chilling,” he snipped. “Do you really want a little mouse to become one large, ravenous rat?" He concluded his rant by threatening to abandon the Universal project for good if the board that governs the state pension fund decided to rescind its investment offer for Universal City – Florida.

Over the following year, MCA repeatedly tweaked Disney about the possibility of a Universal park moving into Orlando. In March, 1986, MCA went so far as to place a full-page color ad in the Orlando Sentinel for the grand opening of its King Kong attraction ... an attraction that was opening 3,000 miles from Orlando, at its park in California. The ad could only serve one purpose: to taunt Disney. When a reporter asked about the ad’s meaning, MCA President Sidney Sheinberg said, “Let everyone wonder … Let Disney wonder.”

On December 10, MCA finally announced that it would indeed develop a theme park in Orlando, now called Universal Studios – Florida. The park would be similar to the Universal park in California. “But will include more attractions,” a spokesman added.

For his part, MCA President Sheinberg issued a statement saying that Universal Studios – Florida “will successfully compete with any other theme parks that might seek to mimic or capitalize on the highly successful experience we have developed”—referring of course to the newly announced Disney-MGM studio park.

For the public, Disney officials played nice, officially welcoming MCA to Orlando. “We look to every new attraction that draws vacation and convention visitors to Central Florida as an ally in bringing more people to greater Orlando in general,” a Disney spokesperson said.

But in private, Disney was already working on its next strategic move. The rationale went like this: if Universal was going to push its way into Disney’s territory, then the Mouse wanted to get in on Universal’s action in California.

A few weeks after the MCA announcement, Disney officials entered secret negotiations with the City of Burbank to acquire a 40-acre parcel for a new California theme park.

These talks started innocently enough. Burbank City officials contacted Michael Eisner to see if the Disney organization would help save a proposal to build a local Town Center mall, as key retail businesses (such as Robinson’s) had recently withdrawn from the project. After multiple phone conversations, on Jan 22, Eisner invited Burbank officials to lunch in his executive dining room. Burbank Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard recalls, “He (Eisner) told us right away he wasn’t interest in being involved in the Town Center, but he began to describe what he and Disney would like to do with the property.” Over a two-hour lunch, Eisner repeatedly drew pictures on napkins and even on the tablecloth to illustrate his ideas.

Assuming plans were finalized, this new Disney park—soon to be called the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot—would be built a mere five miles from Universal Studios Tour in California.

To most everyone in the industry, the point was clear: this was payback for MCA forcing its way into Orlando.

Come back tomorrow to read about Disney’s struggle to build a studio-based theme park in California.

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  • I for one am very glad the "MGM" insignia is now gone from the Disney parks. It was a joke to begin with. Why in hell would Disney NEED to team up with MGM? Which studio faded over time and which thrived? And it's not like the properties - Tarzan, Wizard of Oz - were ever used effectively anyway. It stumps me especially about Oz. Talk about a property that would rule if built in theme-park mode...but after all these years, it languishes. Why? Is it the fact that Ted Turner is a complete moron? Perhaps. But anyway, now my favorite park - the Hollywood park...is fully Disney again. As it should be , as it should have been. I'm looking forward to seeing what the Imagineers will do with it, since it's rumored that the park will now be themed towards *Walt's* Hollywood - the years in which he built his company. It could be very cool. I hope it comes to pass...

  • Geesh - the MGM influence is going tobe felt for years...and, it wasn't that much of an influence in the first place.  

    No park is ever fully one thing or another.  Take, for instance, the Indiana Jones (Lucas Films/Paramount) Stunt Show at the Florida "Disney" Studios park and the actual adventure based attractions at Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris....or, how about STAR (Lucas Films/20th Century Fox)WARS/ STAR TOURS at the Florida "Disney" Hollywood Studios park and the other Disney Resorts around the world? Or, the TWILIGHT ZONE (Rod Serling/CBS) TOWER OF TERROR - at three Disney Resorts...only to get a new story line and theme (which is, personal opinion of course, better than the Twilight Zone overlay ever was) at the Tokyo DisneySea park? Or how about ROCK'N'ROLLER COASTER starring AEROSMITH? (Columbia & Geffen labels? - and, Geffen now in SKG/Dreamworks?)  

    Fully Disney?  Oh, please.  

    Not that these aren't great stories and exciting elements to be presented in a Disney Theme Park.  They are.  But, they sure as heack , "Ain't Disney"...at least, in ownership and licensing rights.  And, those factors are as much (if not more so) "Ain't Disney" than MGM joining forces with the Disney Company to build the studio park in the first place!

    Consider also the time period of when the Studio Park was commissioned and released...and, that Eisner had long stod within a history of working with other major production companies to produce an end result.  One point of the history of this merging was the somewhat successful merger of Disney and Paramount on two films, "DRAGONSLAYER", and Altman's "POPEYE."  Yet, POPEYE'S licensing rights from King Feature's Syndicate went to Universal for theme park installment...and, the actual filming sets on the island of Malta (Popeye Village) are a small tourist attraction operated on that Island.  I personally think that a re-creation ofthe village of Sweetwater could have best been done by WDI for use at a Disney Theme park...but, the licensing never happened...and a water flume raft ride was what finally developed.

    I, too, like the extension of the concept of developing the Hollywood that never was when Walt arrived...the overlay and extensions being developed for DCA on that theme look fairly good.  And, it would be nice to see that extended to the Florida Park as well.  And, while we're on the atmosphere...

    How about that entry and Hollywood Blvd. zone music?  Theme film scores from almost every major blockbuster Tinsel Town ever produced...with many of the scores being from companies - other than Disney.  Sure as heck "ain't fully Disney", either.  If it was, we would be hearing score selections from all the major Disney Films ever made...and, believe me, there are ample scores out there that could fill that street's sound system delightfully.  

    Did you know that a James Bond themed adventure almost got released into the lorida Studio Park?  It would have been using the "Spiderman" technology...but, Eisner passed on it due to financial costs he didn't want to expend.  And, Disney got trumped in the technological advancements that the "Spiderman" motion based vehicle brought forward to the industry.  JAmes Bond - a Disney property?  I don't think that the ownership is there, either.

    Disney went with MGM on a marketing strategy, purely and simple.  MGM had the most target recognizable logo and library next to Disney.  Universal, for some reason or the other, was already tied up in another park just up the freeway a bit ... either in California or Flordia.  And, at that point in time when the union was made, it was a profitable move for both companies.

    The split of the two companies should have come sooner...but, it, too, is profitable for both companies...especially now that Disney and Pixar are combining forces as a general overall firm.  And, it is hoped that Disney will re-incent themselves in the live action field (as well as animation) in order to allow new developments for installation in all of their parks that are Disney in theme and base...not just the Hollywood Park, or, the Hollywood themed area of other parks in the Disney chain.

    More important than that, however, is getting rid of that eyesore Sorcerer Hat planted right in front of Grauman's Chinese...which should be the real "Castle Wienie" that draws guests up Hollywood Blvd.  Oh, wait. Grauman's.  That isn't Disney owned, either.  Hmmm.......... ;)

    All kidding aside, that Sorcerer's Hat (the B.A.H. [Big A** Hat]) really needs to get moved out of the way of the central icon of the Chinese Theatre.  Again, personal opinion, only.

  • Hey - you mentioned a couple of films from the library used in the Great Movie Ride - which is about 96% non-Disney in the scenes presented in that attraction...

    TARZAN - eventually made into a fairly good animated feature by Disney.

    WIZARD OF OZ - eventually made into a fairly good (if not dark and frightening) sequel by Disney in 'RETURN TO OZ' - which, sadly, floundered at the box office.  BTW  on the OZ connection - Disney owns the rights to the remaining 39 books in the canon of OZ - only the first book in the series, WIZARD OF OZ, had the rights purchased prior to Disney being able to  purchase the remaining licensing needs.

    And, with the problems faced by the release of 'RETURN TO OZ', i fearthta Disney will not advance with the property further.  To escalate that, the MGM musical version of OZ is, perhaps, the best known and readily recognized visual presentation of Baum's amazing wonderland...which is why the "off and on" again OZ park Project (the project that basically spelled the demise of Landmark Entertainment a few years back due to their amazing conceptual developments and investing in the property before it was constructed) was heavily themed to the MGM film version as well.

    To be honest, Disney's 'RETURN TO OZ' was closer to the look and feel of the 40 books in the canon (and, had based the look on the illustrative artwork of John R. Neill...the man who basically illustrated the majority of the 40 book series).

  • Disney has already lost exclusivity on all of Baum's books (all were public domain by '86 or so), and then some.  http://thewizardofoz.info/faq02.html#13

    Also, I've heard 2 Oz projects are being developed outside Disney. First is one at WB, based on these "Twisted Land of Oz" toys that were put out 5 years back. The other is being developed at Universal with the sort of feel of the original books.

  • thanks for Ozzy update!

  • Just read part 1 and looking forward to the rest, but there's another side to this story that is so-far untold. There was an added element to the MCA/Mouse rivalry re. studio-themed parks in Florida. Back when MCA began planning to do a Florida theme park, they looked for a partner studio and were in serious talks with Paramount on the project and....well, you all know who was one of the top honchos at Paramount in those days: Mike Eisner. There have been a LOT of accusations thrown Mousewards by the Universal brass since then that the Disney-MGM project "stole" a LOT of what Universal had planned and presented to Paramount in those meetings which Eisner either attended or was briefed on. Soooooo...considering the fact that U-Hollywood was the first movie-studio-themed park going, the issue of chickens and eggs will always be with us on this one.

  • Oh, and furthermore.....one of the MAJOR reasons that Disney was able to actually open their Florida movie-studio-themed park ahead of Universal even though they technically started later was a practical advantage that Disney's had ever since they established the Reedy Creek entity---they are their own boss. While Reedy Creek properties must follow STATE building codes, and while what became the "EPCOT Building Codes" are actually in many ways MORE stringent re. safety and structural strength than the state codes, the fact that there were no required COUNTY inspections allowed Disney to do something that Universal, being located within the actual city of Orlando and Orange County limits, could not---OVERLAPPING inspections. In other words, nobody on a Disney project had to stand around holding their...er...hammers...waiting for a busy bureaucrat to show up and check off one stage of construction prior to another stage's start--they could move forward FASTER with OVERLAPPING inspections, cutting construction time quite substantially.

  • Y'know, re. the issue of MGM being the "obvious" choice of partners...maybe not. In fact, it could be argued that Disney's most obvious choice would have been Paramount, and not just because Mike E. and Jeff K. had just left there and had connections there. The two studios had a history together, AND considering the fact that MGM had lots of real estate and the potential to do a park in L.A. someday, whereas Paramount's "backlot" had been shrunk over the years and they did not, Par might have been a good choice. Likewise Fox. HOWEVER. one issue was specific titles that Disney wanted to expand upon that were MGM properties, notably the OZ characters which, as Disney found when they made their Oz pic because they owned the other books, was a VERY HARD THING to get to an audience without the classic iconography of Judy Garland and the rest of the MGM cast and style. Likewise, I remember when Disney was first talking about the Burbank project, they talked about having each ROOM in the hotel themed to a particular movie, sort of a movie-themed version of the famous Madonna Inn up in San Louis Obispo---and the ones mentioned most were (a) a Gone With The Wind suite and (b) a 2001-A  Space Odyssey room or rooms.

    By the way, in the books written about the fall of MGM and about Kirk Kirkorian's ownership of it, it has been documented that Kirk, who owned MGM at the time and was building the MGM-Grand hotel (the first one that is now Ballys', not the newer one yet) in Vegas and was VERY concerned about not diluting the MGM "brand", was INCENSED about the deal once his minions told him about it--that it was done by MGM execs WITHOUT consulting him and very much AGAINST his wishes AND for what he called a ridiculously LOW amount of money. For those who don't remember, the original MGM Grand in Vegas was all about MGM movies and stars--they even had the hallways leading to meeting rooms lined with little lit shadowboxes containing the rare "life masks" of the famou MGM stars from the original MGM makeup department.

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