At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Hollywood Boulevard is seen bustling with guests taking photos with a taxicab, shopping, and walking towards the Chinese Theatre.

On with the Show! 35 Years of Disney’s Hollywood Studios

By Lindsey Gregory, Walt Disney Archives

Thirty-five years ago, The Walt Disney Company said “Lights, Camera, Action!” to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which premiered as Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park on May 1, 1989), where guests could experience all the glamour and excitement of Hollywood!

The concept for the park originated long before its first renderings were sketched in the 1980s; in fact, its inspiration began with Walt Disney himself. The idea for a park based on beloved movie themes originated with the grand showman at a time when backlot tours were limited to a privileged few. He first considered a public tour of his studio in Burbank; then, a more elaborate concept for a “Mickey Mouse Park” emerged, but limited land mixed with traffic concerns led Walt to look elsewhere—namely Anaheim, California. The idea evolved, of course, into Disneyland!

While not realized in the 1950s, Walt’s idea of immersing guests in the world of film and entertainment production would continue to echo in the creative minds of the Disney staff, with several adaptations of the concept appearing over the years. One pitch by Disney Entertainment director Bob Jani called for an “Experimental Prototype Community of the Arts” in association with the EPCOT project. By the mid-1980s, a behind-the-scenes look at the magic of filmmaking had been proposed for the park in the form of a Hollywood-themed “Entertainment Pavilion.” The idea quickly grew into its own “boutique” park at Walt Disney World Resort boasting a complete motion picture and television production complex. The project was announced by then-Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner and president Frank G. Wells in July 1985.

Four years after the announcement, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park premiered with a star-studded Grand Opening Spectacular weekend, April 28 through May 1, 1989. This black-tie celebration featured performances by some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities (including Audrey Hepburn, Kevin Costner, Morey Amsterdam, and future Disney Legends Art Linkletter, Betty White, Annette Funicello, and George Lucas)—with a Parade of Stars and “live” television tapings, including the The All New Mickey Mouse Club for The Disney Channel. The opening also coincided with the 50th anniversary of television broadcasting in the United States, which was honored on April 30 with press conferences; a dedication of the SuperStar Television theater; and a special hand-printing ceremony with TV notables at the park’s Chinese Theatre.

Performers dance down the Streets of America at Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) for the taping of the televised Grand Opening Spectacular in 1989.
Performers dance down the Streets of America at Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) for the taping of the televised Grand Opening Spectacular in 1989. © Disney

As Guests entered Disney-MGM Studios and set foot on Hollywood Boulevard (the park officially debuted to the public on May 1), they became immersed in a bustling merchant district populated by a cast of Hollywood hopefuls and pulsing with classic movie-theme tunes, right out of Tinseltown’s first “golden age” of film. (In the summer of 1994, the park expanded to include Sunset Boulevard, a theater district that captured the energy of Hollywood’s second golden age with elaborate facades inspired by famous landmarks like the Warner Beverly Hills and Carthay Circle Theatres.)

Speaking of landmarks, beyond the park’s Chinese Theatre centerpiece, the 130-foot-tall Earffel Tower served as one of the park’s imaginative icons; topped by a 10,000-pound pair of mouse ears, it presided over the park’s backstage production area until 2016. Another Mickey-inspired icon was a 122-foot “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” hat, unveiled at the center of the park in 2001 for Walt Disney World Resort’s 100 Years of Magic celebration. Elaborate icons such as these celebrated the magic and entertainment wizardry of both Disney and the entertainment industry at large.

A nighttime view of the Earfful Tower shimmering over Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
A nighttime view of the Earfful Tower shimmering over Disney’s Hollywood Studios. © Disney

Beyond Hollywood Boulevard, the park was originally divided into two parts: a theme park area, featuring attractions and live shows, and the Backstage Studio Tour, a guided experience showcasing how movies and TV shows were produced. (The first filming took place at the park in February 1988—more than a year before its opening to the public—for the TV movie Splash, Too). Here, Walt Disney’s early dream for a backlot tour was finally realized as guests were immersed in the magic of moviemaking, complete with tours of production facilities, special effects demonstrations, a tram ride past working sets and a residential street, and glimpses at stars at work, all packed into an epic two hours.

At Disney-MGM Studios, a backstage tram passes through the Streets of America on the Backstage Studio Tour.
At Disney-MGM Studios, a backstage tram passes through the Streets of America on the Backstage Studio Tour. © Disney

Nearby, The Magic of Disney Animation offered a memorable behind-the-scenes tour of an actual animation studio, known as Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. Here, guests could see and interact with Disney animation artists as they carried on the traditions that founded The Walt Disney Company and witness for themselves the production of such animated classics as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Pocahontas (1995), plus Roger Rabbit shorts including Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix-Up (1993). Eventually, the Florida studio would serve as the center of production for three animated features—Mulan (1998), Lilo & Stitch (2002), and Brother Bear (2003).

Animators of Mulan (1998) holding maquettes from the film outside of The Magic of Disney Animation attraction at Disney-MGM Studios.
Animators of Mulan (1998) holding maquettes from the film outside of The Magic of Disney Animation attraction at Disney-MGM Studios. Bottom Left to Right: Aaron Blaise, Pres Romanillos, Mark Henn, Ruben A. Aquino, Broose Johnson, Alex Kupershmidt. Top Left to Right: Jeffery Varab, Daniel T. Hofstedt, Tom Bancroft, Barry Temple, Rob Bekuhrs. © Disney

Since opening day, the park’s attractions have immersed visitors into the entertaining worlds of film, television, and other Hollywood entertainment. From 1989 until 2017, The Great Movie Ride, a beloved ride-through attraction featured inside the Chinese Theatre, transported Guests into the movies—with three-dimensional tributes to memorable and enduring scenes from some of Hollywood’s most popular films, including unique interactions between live actors, Audio-Animatronics® figures, and passengers!

In the months following opening day, an elaborate stage production was ready to roll with earthquakes, fiery crashes, and a sensational finale. For nearly 35 years, the Indiana Jones™- Epic Stunt Spectacular! has left viewers on the edge of their seats (and a few lucky audience members in featured roles). This show is a behind-the-scenes look at the work of stunt performers, offering spectators a unique glimpse at what goes on in front of and behind the camera.

After starring in a film, why not visit the stars aboard Star Tours? Opening on December 15, 1989 (after intergalactic space travel was declared safe, according to the Disney News publication), the attraction originally promised passengers daily departures to the moon of Endor and beyond. In the years since, new destinations have been cleared for travel, and guests have visited Hoth, Jakku, Tatooine, and Naboo with some of their favorite light side rebels and dark side leaders on Star Tours — The Adventures Continue. (Learn about the attraction’s latest destinations at Disney Parks Blog!)

Guests jump into hyperspace aboard Star Tours in 1989. © Disney/© & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd
Guests jump into hyperspace aboard Star Tours in 1989.

Although the park has experienced an action-filled evolution since its opening 35 years ago (including its renaming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in January 2008), it continues to immerse guests in the magic of entertainment in harmony with Walt Disney’s original concepts. More recent additions, such as the immersive Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—and iconic attractions like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™, Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster® Starring Aerosmith, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway—put guests in the starring role, keeping bright the spirit of “the Hollywood that never was... and always will be.”

That’s a wrap!