LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Thirty years ago, a little bit of old Hollywood came to Florida. The much-anticipated grand opening of Disney’s MGM Studios took place on May 1, 1989, expanding the Walt Disney World footprint with a third park.
And while MGM Studios – now Hollywood Studios – never really lived up to its billing as “Hollywood of the East,” it remains one of the most-visited theme parks in the world ahead of its most significant overhaul in three decades.
The original vision for MGM Studios was to be a unique production site for Disney films and television shows, one that would give fans a first-hand view at how such productions are made. Shows like ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ and ‘Win, Lose, or Draw,’ were already in production at the site ahead of the park’s grand opening.
“I think for our audience to be able to share and touch that experience is what makes this truly unique,” explained Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “There is no other place like it in concept or design, or in experience for our guests.”
The 135-acre park drew its inspiration from Hollywood’s golden age, with Disney’s trademark attention to detail.
“I think without really being in Hollywood, this is about as close as you’re going to come,” original Mouseketeer Annette Funicello observed at the grand opening. “It’s pretty real, it’s pretty right on.”
“There was a Hollywood that was in the glamorous imagination of the American people -- which was never precisely the same as the reality -- and it’s remarkably well recreated right here,” Steve Allen offered.
Some fans lined up as early as 2 a.m. on May 1, hoping to be among the first to rush into the new park. Joined by Bob Hope, Disney chairman Michael Eisner chatted with the crowd, then picked the Gutierrez family from Pennsylvania to be the first guests.
The group joined Mickey and Minnie themselves, marching arm-in-arm down the center of Hollywood Boulevard.
Inside, the only two operating attractions were the Studio Backlot Tour and the Great Movie Ride. Guests were greeted with hours-long waits, but most faced the news with smiles, despite the Florida heat and humidity.
The big day finished with a parade of stars and a concert featuring the Pointer Sisters and Willie Nelson.
As attendance grew, Disney park managers opened spaces to create more attractions and ease crowding. In 2004, the company opted to close the busy on-site animation studio and move production back to California, citing a corporate consolidation effort.
In the following years, more of the studio-style attractions closed as the park transitioned to keep up with Disney’s latest brands, like the Toy Story franchise. Disney also dropped the “MGM” name, which had years earlier been the subject of legal battles between the studios, and the park was re-christened “Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”
The next big thing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios comes from a galaxy far, far away. The ‘Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge’ attraction is scheduled to open on August 29, 2019, taking the place of many of the remaining backstage areas.
The 14-acre attraction – and its twin park at Disneyland in California – will feature a giant replica of the Millennium Falcon spaceship, taking tourists on a secret mission. A second part of the attraction will allow guests to face off in a space battle based on the movies.