When it comes to Disney parks, I think anyone who knows me would suspect that maybe, just maybe, I would enjoy Hollywood Studios. The clue is in the name: this is the park that mostly closely considers the actual process of filmmaking and the magic behind the proverbial curtain. Because of this, it isn’t just themed rides that you will find in Hollywood Studios, but also plenty of stage shows and performances. When I was trying to decide on the order of writing these posts about Disney in order of my favourites, I struggled to decide whether I preferred Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios more. The thing that swung the balance in Hollywood Studios favour was simply the feel of the park; the aesthetic of the studios is very much my jam, and this is a fact that travel buddy Liz would attest to. Even before I went there, I knew I’d prefer it.
Hollywood Studios opened in May 1989 and was the third of the four Disney World theme parks to be built. It focuses on film, TV, music, and theatre and is definitely heavily inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood. Originally, it was intended to function as both a theme park inspired by this and also operate as a production studio, complete with working backlot. Nowadays it more so goes for “the feel” of a functioning studio lot and it’s probably also the park that most closely resembles competitor Universal Studios.
“The World you have entered was created by The Walt Disney Company and is dedicated to Hollywood—not a place on a map, but a state of mind that exists wherever people dream and wonder and imagine, a place where illusion and reality are fused by technological magic. We welcome you to a Hollywood that never was—and always will be.”
The park is split into six areas: Hollywood Boulevard, Echo Lake, Grand Avenue, Animation Courtyard, Sunset Boulevard, and Toy Story Land. Work is currently underway for a new Star Wars land which will expand the park, and feature two rides themed on the film franchise, as well as a new themed hotel. Because of this there was a bunch of construction going on at the Studios, with some areas blocked off, so this won’t be an exhaustive list of the attractions there but is a pretty accurate travel diary of what I thought of what I did go on…
Operating as the Studios’ version of Main Street USA, Hollywood Boulevard is lined with shops selling merchandise – but obviously everything is themed to within an inch of its life. At the top of Hollywood Boulevard sits a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which will soon host a new ride, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the first to feature Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It is also onto which the projections during Disney Movie Magic are positioned, and is the backdrop for the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular display on an evening. As it’s the main street from the entrance of the park, it’s also a prime location for parades throughout the day, and you’ll be sure to find something marching up and down – most likely a band of scary stormtroopers. (Don’t try to slip-stream their parade though, they double back on themselves, as we quickly discovered!)
I actually thoroughly enjoyed Disney Movie Magic which was a projection show we only even saw because we arrived super early in the area to wait for Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks having expected a huge crowd to gather for that and wanting to scope out a good spot early. I have to say, I LOVED Disney Movie Magic. It’s projected onto the Chinese Theatre which makes for an incredible backdrop as footage and music of everything from Mary Poppins to 101 Dalmatians and Beauty and the Beast to Doctor Strange is combined into this 10-minute long celebration of all things Disney films. It was glorious and I even felt myself get a little tiny bit choked up watching it when I realised just how many of my favourite films were produced, in some way, by Disney. I’m sad that it’s going to be replaced in 2019 so I won’t get another chance to see it properly.
However, the “main event” if you like of the area’s nighttime attractions is Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. Guys, I wish with all my heart that I could give you a proper full review of this show but there was one very key thing that stopped me from focusing my entire attention on the show: literally the second that the proverbial lights went down and the show began, the heavens opened and Florida showed its particular qualities within, what, five seconds. Torrential downpour, no word of a lie. Now, when you’re trying to look up at a theatre to see the enormous fireworks and projections going on, having torrential rain beating down on you isn’t the most ideal of situations: for one, you get drenched, soaked to the bone, and stand shivering; for two, you can’t see if there’s so much rain that even creating a shield with your hands over your eyes doesn’t help. So, I mean, what I saw of it was phenomenal, but what I saw wasn’t very much. We had to run/wade our way to some tables near Dockside Diner to even try to take stock of the very soggy situation we were in (imagine a nice flowy, layered skirt suddenly SATURATED with water, it was like walking with weights on my legs guys) and we caught some of the show then whilst we were ringing out our clothing to the best of our ability. I can say that after that development, the enormous wall of heat you experience when the Dark Side shows up in the projection show is very much welcomed. If my review leaves something to be desired (and I’m not surprised by this) then just go watch someone’s HQ recording of the show, that’s what we did when we got back to our hotel room that night!
Inspired obviously by the actual Sunset Boulevard, the main focus is the The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror which sits at its far end. I’m going to be honest, I was too chicken to even try the Tower of Terror but whilst I waited for Liz in the scaredy cat waiting area at the end I perused the gift shop and can definitely report that I adore the entire aesthetic of the Hollywood Hotel, if not the prospect of the randomised drop sequence inside an elevator that makes up the actual ride within it.
Nearby is yet another ride I was too chicken to try: the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith. This is an indoor dark roller coaster with the schtick that you’re late for a gig so end up in a high-speed limo being fired to the venue, all to a soundtrack featuring (you guessed it) Aerosmith. There’s a couple of inversions in there too because why not? Since I didn’t go on this ride, I spent a while hanging around in the courtyard outside and it was probably the nicest area to chill for a while (even when it started raining) because they played a lot of rock music which was my jam.
Sunset Boulevard is also home to two outdoor theatres – the Theater of the Stars, which hosts Beauty and Beast Live on Stage (which was… well, an experience, kind of crap but in the very best and cheesiest of ways) and the Hollywood Hills Ampitheatre which is home to Fantasmic (an experience in and of itself).
First to Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage which is, you guessed it, an abbreviated version of the film performed on stage. The performers are talented, no doubt about it, but when any performer is shoved inside a squishy suit in the shape of a teacup… well, that shit is just funny to anyone over the age of, say, 10? Me and Liz kept looking at each other and giggling in amusement. The real MVPs of the show weren’t Belle or Gaston or even the Beast but rather whoever played Lumiere, that candle-stick sure had a wiggle of a walk and it kept us amused throughout the entire thing. If you want somewhere for a low-key downtime break with the kids to break up the day? Take them here. I don’t know how given the loud singing but there were kids legit sleeping throughout the entire thing.
Fantasmic, on the other hand, is something which I feel is best experienced whilst under the influence of the substance of your choice: be that drugs, alcohol, caffeine, or just pure Disney joy. I certainly felt high whilst watching it and I’m pretty damn sure that someone on the Imagineers team was on LSD when designing this entertainment show. I’m going to try and explain the show and undoubtedly fail to capture its… uniqueness… so please do go watch this HQ recording of it for a better idea of it. Taking place on a small lake, imagine walls of water (which when the wind changes mid-show will slightly soak you in your seat if you’re near the front) onto which animations are projected. Now imagine Mickey Mouse appearing to do some magic spells every so often, and to help the water along. Now imagine the villains popping up and everything going a bit dark and scary. Now imagine the show closing with a steamer boat with all your favourite Disney characters on, waving as they dance along to the song and sail past. Imagining that? No, you’re nowhere close to visualising how surreal of an experience it is: go see it for real.
Toy Story Land
The newest expansion of the park, it contains three attractions: Toy Story Mania, Slinky Dog Dash, and the Alien Swirling Saucers, all inspired by characters from the Toy Story films. I passed by the swirling saucers because motion sickness plus spinning round isn’t a good idea.
Slinky Dog Dash is probably the “Flight of Passage” of Hollywood Studios, in that it frequently enjoys ridiculously long wait times even after the park has only just opened for the day. Slinky Dog Dash is an outdoor roller coaster which was a lot of fun. You ride in Slinky Dog, going round and round and over bumpy track, and everything feels just a little bit like it could run out of control at any point. The ride theming is bright and colourful and it’s like you’re a toy yourself as huge replicas of colourful building blocks, crayons, and some familiar faces in Rex, Jessie, and Woody line the track. And the ride operators call you “toys”. It’s a lot of fun. But I think it says something about the ride that, entertaining though it was, halfway through and at its highest point us and the two guys in front of us were distracted by the view we got of the under-construction Star Wars area. (Top tip: if you want to see how Galaxy’s Edge is progressing, go on Slinky Dog Dash; you get a great view of behind those barriers. And yes Galaxy’s Edge looks like it’s going to be incredible.)
The other attraction in Toy Story Land was Toy Story Mania which I can safely say was one of my favourite rides in the entirety of Disney, likely because it’s not a roller coaster at all but rather a carnival game style ride using 4D technology and blasters on the ride cart, a little like Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin but with less aliens and Zorg and more smashing plates and taking out green plastic army men. The “blaster” in this case is activated by pulling repeatedly and quickly on an elastic string… I won’t demonstrate what practiced wrist movement is most useful to be good at this ride but… you can probably put that joke together yourself if you’re an adult. The amount of time collectively that Liz and I spent in there probably makes it one of our most ridden rides in our entire time there and, I’ll tell you something else, if/when I go back to Disney World, I’ll be making a beeline for this one on any Hollywood Studios day.
I’m informed that allegedly Echo Lake is inspired by the Echo Park neighbourhood of LA and designed to echo the “California Crazy” form of architecture from Hollywood’s Golden Age – I must bow down to Wikipedia’s alleged collective knowledge here. All I know is Echo Lake has a huge dinosaur in it called Gertie. We weren’t there late enough to see her sporting a Santa hat but said hi as we passed by all the same. Something you definitely should stop by is the Dockside Diner which contains possibly one of the sloppiest but best things I ate: Carolina All-Beef Foot Long Hot Dog. Yes, that’s right, a foot long hot dog topped with pulled pork. Because what do you need to serve with pork? MORE pork. I kid you not, it was a beast of a hot dog, and I loved it. The Minute Maid Frozen Lemonade is also A++.
Echo Lake is the section mostly focused on all things Lucasfilm and it happens to be home to something I knew would be one of my favourite things in the whole of Disney: the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! It took three times for us to successfully see the entirety of the Stunt Spectacular, largely because part of it is outside so relies on it not raining (something of a feat in Florida which enjoys thunderstorm level rain like clockwork in the afternoon) and on the large props (a plane, for one) working properly. It’s dangerous for all the performers if either of these things are at play, so they tend to cut the show short, or not perform it at all. Still, the stunt show was one which I knew I’d enjoy even before I stepped foot in Hollywood Studios. I’d seen bits and pieces of it before on people’s Instagrams and in their Disney vlogs and I am a sucker for anything that explains Behind the Scenes parts of the movie-making process, especially anything about fight sequences and stunt performers. Add in the Indiana Jones theme and I’m sold. (I was just about talked out of buying an Indiana Jones hat at the nearby gift shop. I still kind of still slightly regret not wasting that money on a useless hat, to be honest.)
When it comes to all things Lucasfilm, Star Wars is something that I enjoy in passing, but I’m not a huge fan. However, Star Tours – The Adventures Continues was a lot of fun. The ride is what it sounds like: a 3D motion simulator that is a virtual tour around the galaxy, piloted by an incompetent C3PO. The schtick here is that the Empire has been informed there’s a wanted rebel hiding within the tour group so you end up having to fly at light speed to lose them from your tail, and then Jar Jar Binks pops up, and there’s crashes and all sorts of Star Wars goodness that I’m sure I would have appreciated more if I’d been a proper fan. Still, the technology was really great, and it was fun. The queuing area alone will be like a candy store for any Star Wars fan.
Speaking of fun, if you ever have time to kill and you happen to be in the Echo Lake area: stick around and watch the kids do Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple. They basically round up kids (willing, or pushed into doing it by their jealous parents) and give them jedi robes and lightsabers and teach them how to fight. Then, the temple opens and they have to face their trial: fighting Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. I feel sorry for the people who have to stand in Florida heat in black robes, I hope they’re fairly compensated for that, and the fact that children are literally encouraged to whack the shit out of them with plastic lightsabers. The fun in this is largely in watching the very envious parents and adults without children standing about when this spectacle happens. But it’s ok, there’s crowd participation necessary: when Yoda’s voice is heard and he asks everyone to really concentrate and channel the Force to help defeat Darth Vader and Kylo Ren once and for all. It shouldn’t be so funny to see grown adults passionately hold their hands up in front of them with supreme concentration on their faces but it is.
(I presume that these Star Wars-related areas will eventually marry up to the construction happening on Galaxy’s Edge and it is going to be a huge attraction for anyone even remotely interested in the franchise. As I said, I’m barely interested in Star Wars and even I am marking down the date to come back and see it once the construction is finished and the new land is opened in Hollywood Studios.)
Tucked into the other side of Echo Lake is something that I don’t understand why was allowed to be placed next to all this Lucasfilm business but I’m glad it was: For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration. I know what you’re thinking, Frozen, I’ve heard those songs a billion times anyway, why would I willingly go to a sing-along of it? I’ll tell you why, it’s hilarious. Maybe it was the time of day we went (evening) or the scarcity of people in the audience but the two storytellers who are responsible for padding out the sing-along elements of the soundtrack into a proper entertainment length show are HILARIOUS. All the jokes they cracked were borderline risqué – like I said, might just have been the performers we had, might have been the time of day, might have been our own slightly hysterical emotional states, but it was SO much fun, would highly recommend. Also you get covered in fake snow at the end of it so, you know, WORTH IT.
All in all, experiencing Hollywood Studios was indeed some of my favourite days in Disney. Although I was too chicken to try out all the rides, I just loved the entire feel of the park, it’s so very much my aesthetic and the whole “behind the scenes” studio vibe is very much my jam. If you like getting a glimpse behind the magic and celebrating some of your favourite Disney films as pieces of cinema, I would very much recommend you make a beeline for Hollywood Studios if you’re fortunate enough to have the chance.