A Theme Park University reader, who also happens to be a Cast Member at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, wrote in to ask, “What happened to all the production that happened at Universal Studios Florida and the Disney/MGM Studios? I look around, but there is little-to-no information concerning why Universal, Disney AND Nickelodeon all shut down one by one in the early 21st century. Why did they all shut down? Why all at once? Was it the studios’ decisions or was it the state of Florida?”
Thanks for the great question. This week’s taping of “The Tonight Show” was a rare exception to the norm of filming around Central Florida theme parks these days. That particular piece of cross-promotion was a joint effort between NBC/Universal and Universal Orlando to help promote Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.
It was an extremely expensive venture flying the entire crew of “The Tonight Show” down to O-town and set up shop in one of their soundstages. Plus, they put that fancy lighting package into the Universal Plaza Stage that was only used for four different five-minute concerts. Clearly the top brass want you to come and visit Universal Orlando and all the new offerings this summer, including the Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Now, those six soundstages at Universal Studios Florida will go mostly unused in terms of actual production. Sure, there may be the occasional shoot for a commercial, TNA Wrestling or even a student film, but that’s few and far between and hardly a need to justify having six soundstages.
For the most part, these buildings are now used to house about half of the mazes for Halloween Horror Nights, while the ones not being utilized help provide support for that event in terms of make-up and wardrobe. Same goes for “Macy’s Holiday Parade” during the Christmas season, which uses them as storage for those huge balloons. Where Disney’s Hollywood Studios has pretty much given up hope on any production happening again, seeing that former Soundstages 2 and 3 are now home to Toy Story Midway Mania. Soundstage 1 is still empty, but is still used occasionally for special events like Star Wars events.
So why aren’t these spaces used for actual production anymore? Well, as with most answers I give, it’s complicated. For Disney’s Hollywood Studios in particular, the soundstages are located in the middle of the park. Keep in mind, when Disney/MGM Studios opened in 1989, those three stages were the center of a two-and-a-half hour attraction that included the tram tour through Catastrophe Canyon and residential street, New York Street, the special effects water tank, Jim Henson Creature Workshop, post-production facilities and the Walt Disney theater where guests got to see coming attractions of the latest from the Mouse.
Even though they quickly split those experiences up into different attractions over the years (how long can your 4-year-old hold their pee? 2.5 hours? I doubt it), the soundstages were an integral part of the experience. However, their location wasn’t exactly easy for production trucks to get in an out.
Sure, Disney had their own edit bays, but those were available for rent, they were far from free. Most shows like “Wheel of Fortune” would bring their own trucks and equipment to edit and upload the shows for broadcast later in the same day they were shot. However, there was hardly any place to park those trucks that wasn’t completely blocking a road (against fire code) or in the way of a tour tram.
However, Universal built their soundstages on the exterior of the park where trucks could load in and out without ever seeing a theme park guest at all. A smarter design, but they built more stages than were necessary.
Also, Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning film and television shoots aren’t required to be unionized, which is a cost savings to film here (assuming you want to pay your crew less). On the flip side, those costs are often offset by having to fly talent from actors and directors and writers (who aren’t going to take a cut in pay) and put them up in dozens of hotel rooms and then have cars pick them up and bring them to set every day. Needless to say, no production using those soundstages would put their talent up at the Motel 6, so if you’re filming for four-to-six weeks, it could end up being more expensive to film here than back in Hollywood.
Considering Nickelodeon used pretty much nothing but “green” kid talent that could be paid very little, often times those kids (and their families) would move to Central Florida just so they wouldn’t have to change schools and fly back and forth. Most kids who were on the “Mickey Mouse Club” on the Disney Channel, “Welcome Freshman” and “Clarissa Explains It All” did just that. However, keep in mind, Nickelodeon was never owned by Universal Studios. Nickelodeon is owned by parent company Viacom, meaning they paid a lot of money to Universal to rent those soundstages in addition to the park attraction that gave a behind-the-scenes look at Nickelodeon’s productions as well as a chance to see how slime and Gak were made.
Nickelodeon was paying a good sum of money to rent all that space from Universal. However, it was a great partnership for both parties. Universal Studios Florida got a lot of great advertisement from every Nickelodeon show taped there due to the fifteen second bumper at the end of every episode proclaiming “Family Double Dare (or insert name here) was taped in front of a live studio audience at Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida!”
However, after closing in 2005 after a successful 15-year run, Nickelodeon decided to end its partnership with Universal and focus on production back in California. As with all deals, they needed a way to reign in costs. There are thousands of ways to market your brand and they felt their money was best spent elsewhere, so they pulled the plug.
In addition, aside from the free press your television or movie gets from filming in a theme park, there aren’t that many great reasons to film here. A soundstage is ultimately a soundstage to anyone watching at home and they can’t tell (or usually care) where it’s filmed. However, if you film in Los Angeles, you have all sorts of great city locations in downtown Los Angeles, the beach, even mountains are just a short drive away from your studio. Orlando offers very little of that, so for the most part, there is no advantage to filming here unless you just enjoy sweating from all crevices of your body while you try to film anything outdoors here.
Why film here at all then? Disney and Universal both own their own movie studios (with west coast foundations) and they could just force certain productions to film down here to give these theme parks that extra boost, right? Not exactly. Say you want to film a big action movie, you’ve got your actors in place, you know what needs to be filmed and for the most part, it certainly could be filmed at say, Universal Studios Florida. However, due to those budget issues we talked about earlier of putting your talent and even some crew up in hotels, this now will cost your production an extra $2 million dollars.
Certainly the theme parks can’t afford to spend that kind of money to bring you down, especially when the most you’ll even be in town will be six weeks. The producers definitely don’t want to spend that kind of money, not when the same film can be done in Hollywood for less. However, the great state of Florida might be willing to give you a tax incentive for filming here.
That’s right, for many years in the early days to help attract film companies to bring their productions to Florida (and in the early 90’s, specifically to Orlando with nine new soundstages to fill, in addition to helping promote tourism with two new movie based parks), the Florida government would just hand out millions of dollars to certain producers based on how much money the shoot would cost.
In other words, Florida felt like they would get at least some of that money back in taxes paid on hotels, meals, camera rentals, etc., if they just gave them a little extra reason to pack up and come down to the Sunshine State. In recent years, Louisiana and Georgia have both made headlines offering huge incentives to film in their states and now have their own mini-studios with far more production than Florida could currently dream of.
As things go, politicians change and so do their priorities. Some believe that bringing those films here, even if Florida loses money in the long run, will help boost our economy by showcasing all the state has to offer to the world. However, on the other hand, that money could go to help add new roads, pay for education or be used as incentives for new businesses to open up shop and permanently stay in Florida as opposed to just a few weeks for a film shoot, you can see why some may think that those incentives are a waste of tax payer money.
I certainly hope this answers your question. I know it’s not neat and tidy, nor is it sexy (“someone died from filming here and now everyone’s afraid to do it!”) However, it’s a small sampling of the truth. These are the major factors that drove production elsewhere. Hope this helps answer your question and who knows? Maybe they will film here more once again. Crazier things have happened.