If there’s a single word to describe the current state of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it’s limbo. The park has never delivered as consistent a theme as the other Florida parks and is preparing for a massive overhaul. This article would be very different if I wrote it before the Star Wars and Toy Story expansion announcements at the D23 Expo last month. In one sense, it’s an exciting time for DHS. On the other hand, the park remains limited and feels like an incomplete package.
This continuing series looks at each Disney World park to explore the balance of new growth with the expectations of a mature resort. I covered Disney’s Animal Kingdom last month, and now it’s time to dig into Disney’s biggest challenge. How do they please guests at a park that’s still in a state of flux? These changes go beyond the construction of New Fantasyland and the overhaul of Disney’s California Adventure. Disney continues to charge a full admission for a park where much is closed.
The challenge with analyzing Disney’s Hollywood Studios is recognizing the difference between the original plans and what’s in place today. Michael Eisner hoped that film and TV production would come to Florida, but the park had limitations. Once that ship had sailed, Disney needed to rethink everything. Instead, they’ve taken a deliberate approach under Bob Iger’s leadership. Popular attractions like Toy Story Mania, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, and the Tower of Terror draw crowds along with events like Star Wars Weekends. The park still makes money, but it isn’t a top-notch experience.
Growth: Star Wars to the Rescue!
Many fans lost their minds when Iger delivered the news that Star Wars lands are coming to both Disney World and Disneyland. It seemed obvious that Disney would take advantage of this hot property, especially with The Force Awakens destined for box-office glory this winter. The surprising part was how long it took Disney to move; Universal has opened multiple Harry Potter lands in the past five years. Why did Disney let Star Wars languish for years? The answer refers back to Disney’s approach to its Orlando parks. Despite the announced growth, management still considers Disney World a mature property.
I dissected the proposed expansion after D23, so I won’t go too much in depth this time. The 14-acre lands sound ambitious and should draw massive crowds. When combined with the Toy Story Land that will probably arrive sooner, it will revitalize Disney’s Hollywood Studios and solve many of the problems. There’s still a question of the overall theme of the park once those changes happen. Will it feel like a complete experience or a collection of smaller ones? One of the reasons that Disneyland works so well is how the lands flow into one another. That’s never been true in DHS, and I’m not sure these changes fix the issue.
Ride the Movies!
You can’t discuss Disney’s Hollywood Studios without connecting its evolution to Universal Studios, which is changing rapidly. Universal opened with the slogan “Ride the Movies!” and promised a more up-close experience than Disney’s studio. Guests were not passive observers learning about the production process. Instead, there were part of the story and riding through the action! Disney appears to be employing that approach now with DHS. Rides like Star Tours and Tower of Terror already follow that model, and the new expansions should go even further. It’s the natural evolution but still creates a disjointed feeling at times.
Despite the large spaces for both the Star Wars and Toy Story lands, there is a lot of real estate that’s unaccounted for in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Are we in store for new announcements in the coming years about sections themed to Pixar or Indiana Jones? Rumors have been flying about a potential name change for the park, and it’s possible the D23 announcements were just the beginning. They’re a step in the right direction towards building a more complete park, but we aren’t there so far. I still feel like Disney is taking half measures and needs a master plan that provides a coherent message for the park going forward.
Maturity: The Necessity of Live Entertainment
There’s been an endless debate among fans about whether Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a “full-day park”. Your choice generally comes down to opinions on the park’s long-running live shows. If you see the Indiana Jones, Lights, Motors, Action!, and Beauty and the Beast shows, it’s easy to spend a day at the park. This may work for new guests, but repeat visitors may find themselves skipping them. Disney has closed much of the park in the past year, but they’ve wisely kept the entertainment. Each presentation can easily take up an hour when you consider time to reach the theater and find a seat.
These are mostly high-quality shows, so any issues aren’t with the quality. It’s more about the sameness of repeating similar experiences during each visit. This feeling is the essence of a mature property. Attendance has been nearly flat in recent years, but it hasn’t decreased. Universal Studios is moving closer but still has ground to capture. Because of the park-hopping structure in Florida, Disney hasn’t found the incentive to provide quick upgrades. It’s like the “stars and scrubs” approach to fantasy football. The headliners bring the people, and shows keep them engaged.
The Importance of Star Wars
Even without the new land, Star Wars already plays a key role in the park’s financial success. The Star Wars Weekends are a huge draw for crowds, especially when popular stars of the original films appear. Next year, the Star Wars Launch Bay and Season of the Force event will keep fans happy for the time being. They’re also adding new destinations to Star Tours. These upgrades are fairly inexpensive and feel like a stopgap to keep attendance in check while the park transforms. I expect them to be very popular, however.
As a fan of Star Wars (especially the original trilogy), I completely understand Disney’s strategy. It’s a brilliant way to market the new film and capitalize on the property while construction gets rolling. They’ll need to pull out every trick imaginable to keep visitors engaged. Special events are the key for selling a mature park, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is not going to feel fresh for at least several years (if not longer).
Hooray for Hollywood
I’m a serious movie fan, and there’s great potential in a park that explores Hollywood and its properties. Universal’s Harry Potter lands (especially Diagon Alley) have revealed the potential to create immersive lands that amaze visitors. Disney also succeeded with Cars Land, and I expect they will do the same with Star Wars. The question is whether that’s the only approach for the movie parks. Do all expansions need to be massive undertakings that take years to complete?
Universal has found a way to bypass the expense and time by duplicating attractions at multiple parks. That allows them to be nimbler and have a shorter production timeframe. It will be interesting to see how quickly Disney can move. The clock will be ticking, especially when Reign of Kong arrives next summer. Disney’s Hollywood Studios was a mature park that needed an upgrade, but the growth may be a slow process. The final destination should be remarkable, but getting there may be a real challenge. I’m intriguing to see what happens and hope we’re in store for a revitalized park.