On September 19, 2014 Cast Members at the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios were told that the attraction will be closing on September 27, 2014 and some will be assigned new roles within the company as a result. Even though it has gone through some major changes/neutering over the years, this was one of the original attractions that opened with the Disney/MGM Studios back in May of 1989.
With all the announcements of closures recently at Walt Disney World, this may put some of you into a cardiac arrest, a coma or even worse. Never fear! I have a fool proof plan to #SaveTheTramTour… or what’s left of it… but first, a little history….
When Jay Stein of Universal Studios announced that he was going to build a sister theme park to Universal Studios Hollywood in Mickey’s Florida backyard, you could almost hear the walls of Team Disney shake with Michael Eisner’s “They’re gonna do what?!” response. Almost immediately, Disney’s plans for a movie-based theme park of their own were put on fast forward and before you knew it, they had a tentative opening date of May 1989, one full year ahead of Universal Studios Florida’s opening date.
The problem was that the Disney/MGM Studios was put on a fairly small plot of land considering it was supposed to serve two purposes: be a theme park and an actual working studio. Similar to Universal Studios Hollywood’s approach, the park was divided with more backlot space than theme park space, due to how many productions they expected. However, that would change rather rapidly.
Originally envisioned as a half-day extravaganza, the Disney/MGM Studios was bumped up to a full-day park (arguably) for opening day thanks to competition from Universal opening down the street. Universal had cornered the market on a theme park that combined behind-the-scenes movie and television production with a chance to “ride the movies” and Disney’s approach, in a broad sense, was fairly identical.
Eisner and Imagineering didn’t feel that they had enough familiar branded movie properties in the vault to lend themselves to a theme park, so they reached out to MGM Studios and co-branded the park when it opened in 1989. Mickey wanted his own version of the iconic Universal Backlot Tram Tour, so it was worked into their own Studio Backlot Tour.
However, Disney’s tour was going to blow what Universal Studios Hollywood had away. When it opened, the Backstage Studio Tour was a whopping 2 1/2 hour affair. Guests boarded trams that took them through wardrobe departments, scenic shops, reproductions of a New York street facade (at the time not allowed to guest foot traffic), down through Residential Street and eventually to Catastrophe Canyon (Disney’s answer to Earthquake at Universal Hollywood).
Hold on to your bladder, because the fun is just starting! Now it’s time to see how a special effects water tank works, then it’s off to the Jim Henson Creature Workshop to see how movie puppets are made, next we get to see all three sound stages (one by one) and peek in on actual productions. Next, we do a screen test on the back of a bumble bee (from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”) to show guests how chroma key works. Then we get to see what post production looks like with all sorts of edit bays, recording booths and hilarious videos explaining it all by the day’s hottest stars like Pee-Wee Herman and Mel Gibson.
Finally, we get to sit down after three hours and watch trailers of upcoming films and television shows that the Walt Disney Company has in their cannon for the next few months.
All in all, it was way too long of an attraction for anyone to have to go through, and fairly quickly, it was neutered and broken into two sections: the walking tour and the tram ride. The Studio Backlot Tour’s tram route was also sliced within the first few years because the park needed extra arteries for guests to be able to walk around and those “city streets” provided the perfect opportunity.
As time marched on, film and television production slowed to a crawl and an eventual stand still. The Studio Tram Tour became more of a tribute to what a studio could do with a filming space like this instead of what it was currently doing. Catastrophe Canyon continues to chug along, but Residential Street was given the ax due to needing even more park capacity, yet again. Lights! Motors! Action! opened in 2005 with a theater capacity of 5,000.
Even though the Studio Tram Tour’s route was cut yet again, the idea was for the tram to be able to drive straight on to the French Street set when it wasn’t being used for a show or rehearsal, yet that rarely happened.
Down the road, Universal Studios Florida has closed or drastically changed nearly all of its attractions showcasing how movies and television shows are made. Instead, guests seem to respond better to branded attractions like Transformers: The Ride, Revenge of The Mummy, The Simpsons Ride and Men In Black: Alien Attack.
Similarly, when Disney/MGM Studio closed their Backstage Pass walking tour of the sound stages, it was replaced by Who Wants to be A Millionaire: Play It and ultimately with Toy Story Midway Mania, another branded attraction that has zero to do with behind-the-scenes of movie making. In addition The Magic of Disney Animation, while it still exists, no longer offers a view of actual animators, but rather a short film in how characters and story lines are developed for an animated feature.
The Monster Sound Show was replaced by One Saturday Morning Sound Show, both giving a behind-the-scenes look at how sound is added to a film or television show in post-production. Eventually, that was replaced by Sounds Dangerous starring Drew Carey, which had absolutely zero to do with behind-the-scenes anything.
Now, the Studio Backlot Tour is up on the chopping block and by the end of September 2014, will also be just a memory. Perhaps it’s because you can see how films are made on virtually any DVD you buy in the bonus features section or maybe it’s because guests taste have changed over the years, the tram tour hasn’t been hip or current in years.
Even though it hasn’t been announced yet as to what will be replacing the Studio Backlot Tour when it closes, I am willing to bet it will be a branded attraction (or several) that dips into the many franchises that Disney guests are flocking to. Like it or not, the days or having attractions with unique story lines or are based on unique premises are slipping away. Instead, attractions based on well-known movies and characters are popping up in their place.
Perfect example? The recent announcement of the closing of Maelstrom at Epcot when it’s replaced by a “Frozen” ride in early 2016. Sure, the theming of World Showcase begins to morph when you start to add attractions based on movies and not a country, but that isn’t the world we live in right now. Families want to bring their children to a place where they Disney movies that clog their DVD player on repeat for hours a day come to life. Sure, Disney can stick to their guns and force feed them how movies are made at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and make sure they get a dose of culture in World Showcase at Epcot… or….
They can run their business based on guest demand of wanting more Disney-branded experiences and not stick to their original mission of “edutainment.” In case you don’t believe me that this is the demand of the public these days, I propose the following test. Go to a public place with a group of elementary school kids: a classroom, a kid’s birthday party or a playground. Now give them a hypothetical….
If they were going on a field trip to Disney World, they can either: 1. Go on a boat ride and learn about Norwegian culture and folklore… or… 2. Go on a boat ride based on the movie “Frozen.” Similarly, give them the option of 1. A tram tour to learn about how costumes and sets for movies are made with a pretty cool water and fire finale… or.. 2. Let’s say, go in a land with rides themed around Pixar movies.
If either one of those groups of children chooses option 1 for either scenario, I will eat my shoes. No mistake about it, I will eat them. Many of you, I am sure, will miss the Studio Tram Tour when it closes and I am sure there is a grass roots campaign right now to #SaveTheTramTour. If I may offer a bit of advice on that?
Forget #SaveMaelstrom, #SaveOffKilter and #SaveTheTramTour. Let’s all band together and show these kids who just want to go on silly movie-based rides that we won’t be bullied anymore. We, as adults, have paid our dues and made Walt Disney World what it is today and they need to see what we love, right?
Already, there has been media attention on campaigns on Twitter and Facebook for fans trying to stop the closure of Maelstrom and various entertainment in World Showcase in Epcot. Now with the Studio Tram Tour closing, there are too many hashtags for Disney to read. So, let’s all band together and just use one solidified campaign: #SaveWDW. It’s simple, to the point… and if we all band together we can stop these changes from happening! Now who’s with me?