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Even today, Walt Disney’s presence can still be felt in his only Magic Kingdom.
For example, he personally designed Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Rivers Of America.
The balcony in the Golden Horseshoe on the left side of the stage was his personal space, and he always watched the show from there when he was in the park. If he was hosting personal guests, they would always be accommodated in his special space.
And finally, Mr. Disney had a private apartment in the park, which remains as he left it. A desk lamp is kept lit in his honor, displayed in the window.
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Disney-MGM Studios opened up on May 1, 1989. The half day park would achieve what no American Disney park since DISNEYLAND had done; it was a rip, roaring success from day one. Guests flooded the park on opening day, forcing it to close its gates. Disney was forced to rush expansion of the park to give guests more things to do. Star Tours, which had already opened in DISNEYLAND and was slated to open in Florida’s Magic Kingdom amusement park, was hurriedly moved to Disney-MGM Studios instead.
The park began to run into growing pains caused by the rush to get it open. It quickly became a hodgepodge of random streets and attractions that were poorly laid out because of the lack of planning. Another issue, however, would resolve that problem. Filming in Orlando was unappealing for talent and other than Disney Channel shows like The New Mickey Mouse Club, the company couldn’t get many productions to move to the humid Florida swamp. This freed up the soundstages for conversion to attraction buildings.
The runaway success of the park led the company to build other “half-day” parks that proved to be less successful. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney Studios Paris and Disney California Adventure were built as “half-day” parks and all originally had problems attracting guests.
Disney-MGM Studios would eventually be renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios and begin re-inventing itself to fix some of its problems. The park will become the east coast home of Star Wars Land later this year, its thirtieth anniversary.
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When Universal Pictures announced that it would build a new theme park in Orlando, it finally became clear to The Walt Disney Company that it hadn’t really “fixed” the problems it had in Anaheim; it just pushed them further away. And, more importantly, Universal was planning to leech off Disney World the way it had leeched off DISNEYLAND since the 1960’s. The company decided it would have to do something quickly. Thus it would build a studio park of its own and try to open it before Universal Studios Orlando.
There were two issues that the company faced that could delay the opening of this new theme park. The first issue was more of an opinion that the company’s leadership held; that it did not have enough of a live action film catalog to draw from for a theme park. This issue was solved by licensing MGM’s name and film catalog to beef up the possible franchises it could draw from. At no time did MGM actually hold any ownership stake in the park; in fact, Disney’s deal with MGM was heavily weighted in favor of Disney, something that angered MGM owner Kirk Kirkorian. Seeing as how Mr. Kirkorian sold anything not nailed down once he took control of MGM, he shouldn’t have been surprised when his staff did the same.
The other issue that the company had was finding a location to build on. While the company owns thousands of acres in Orlando, much of it stands on unstable swamp land. It can take months of surveying and testing to find stable land suitable for construction. Since the company wanted to get this project built quickly, they didn’t want to wait for the land surveying process to identify a new parcel of land. An oddly shaped piece of land located behind EPCOT Center was chosen, as it had already been cleared for construction, though it was originally intended to host new hotels, not a theme park. Surrounded by major roads, this would limit the size of the actual theme park in ways that would become apparent later.
Disney would announce the construction of this theme park that would also be a working studio, set to be completed in 1989. Universal was incensed. Disney’s Special private government plus its decision to locate on pre-surveyed land meant that it would open its park most likely months before Universal Studios Orlando would open, even though Universal had been much further along in its building process. Disney’s half day, half hearted effort would open a full year before Universal Studios Orlando, but would it be successful?
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After EPCOT Center opened in 1982, Walt Disney Productions went into a tailspin. After Disney CEO Card Walker opened the park, he passed the keys to the kingdom (and all of its problems) to Ron Miller, who was Walt Disney’s son-in-Law. Ron began trying to re-invent the company and get it out of the hole that EPCOT Center had dug for it. He wouldn’t get the chance; he was replaced in 1984.
The company’s new leadership originally wanted to sell off the theme parks and license the characters and trademarks to the new owners. Elder executives convinced them that other than the EPCOT Center debacle, the theme parks were what kept the company afloat inbetween film releases. More money would be needed to fix the EPCOT Center debacle, but for the most part the theme parks were keeping the company solvent. New Disney CEO Michael Eisner quickly saw a new issue in Orlando; the company had singlehandedly built the tourism industry in Central Florida yet it had the same issues there as in Anaheim. Most of the dollars it brought to the swamplands of Florida were going into other people’s pockets. Eisner sought to expand the company’s holdings to increase the resort’s profitability.
Universal Studios Hollywood predated DISNEYLAND by decades. The studio offered tourists access to the grounds in the 1920’s, though the dawn of the sound era required soundproof stages and relative quiet on the set. When DISNEYLAND opened in 1955, however, Universal saw an opportunity to get in on the action and take advantage of the tourism brought in by DISNEYLAND. Thus the studio became another leech attached to the tourism industry that had been invigorated by DISNEYLAND. In the mid-1980’s, Universal decided to do it all again- in Orlando. This time, Disney would seek to use its larger resources to blunt the attack from Universal by announcing its very own studio theme park.
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