With the American Idol Experience suddenly shuttering back on August 30th and the Studios Backlot Tour quietly closing on September 27th, theme park fans are wondering what's going on with Disney's Hollywood Studios. Not to mention The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow closure and the eventual Sorcerer's Hat removal.
I mean, something must be in the works for this theme park, right? Given that John Lasseter (the principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering), Tom Staggs (the Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts), George Kalogridis (Walt Disney World president), Dan Cockerell (vice president of Disney's Hollywood Studios), Bruce Vaughn (WDI chief creative executive) and Kathy Mangum (WDI vice president and executive producer) were all seen on September 25th touring this theme park as a group. This cadre of high profile key creatives & suits were observed standing in the street outside of Soundstage One consulting a set of blueprints before they then all ducked backstage.
Given that Walt Disney World
recently pulled permits for something called "Project 3," which, according to the forms that WDW officials filed, will involve a renovation of DHS's Soundstage One that the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company of Framingham, MA will be riding herd on. And given that Whiting-Turner are the folks who built the Lost Continent section of Universal's Islands of Adventure, not mention Downtown Disney's T-Rex restaurant ... Well, that would suggest that something of size is about to get built in & around Soundstage One at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
That is why Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post & Frozen Snowground recently decamped from Soundstage One and then set up shop inside of Disney's Hollywood Studios' old American Film Institute Showcase, which -- FYI -- also closed permanently back on August 17th.
So as you can see, there's lots of activity at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Lots of pieces moving around this theme park's chessboard as the Imagineers get ready to do ... What exactly?
Well, according to Company insiders, this particular theme park is about to undergo a DCA-like transformation (For those of you who don't know, Disney's California Adventure was met with a collective shrug when the Disneyland Resort's second gate first opened back in January of 2001. It took 6 years for The Walt Disney Company to finally admit that this theme park was really missing the mark. But in October of 2007, the Mouse announced a $1.1 billion reimaging / expansion of DCA. Five years later, the completely retooled and rebranded Disney California Adventure was rededicated on June 14, 2012. And it's been a smash hit ever since). One that will see Disney's Hollywood Studios step away from pretending to be this place where motion pictures & TV shows actually get made to then become a theme park where WDW guests can genuinely immerse themselves in their favorite film franchises.
Mind you, this redo of Hollywood Studios isn't going to be cheap. The people that I've spoken with at Walt Disney Imagineering about this ambitious project have suggested that -- while the final budget is still very much in flux as the proposed line-up for new rides, shows & attractions continues to get shuffled -- Mickey will be spending well north of a billion dollars to retool this 25 year-old theme park.
It's also going to take a number of years to address all of Disney's Hollywood Studios' issues (Speaking of which: Don't get too used to that name ... I'll be getting to that story in a minute). The current plan calls for construction prep to begin in January of 2015 and that work will then continue through 2019.
"Why is this redo of DHS going to take four years?" you ask. Because ever since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade first opened at Universal's Islands of Adventure back in June of 2010, WDW officials have seen a slow but steady erosion of attendance levels at that theme park. In fact, according to industry officials that I've spoken with who are privy to Disney's Hollywood Studios attendance numbers, if it hadn't been for the artificial attendance boost that this theme park had gotten over the past six months from holding special events like Star Wars Weekends, "Frozen" Summer Fun - Live! and Villains Unleashed, the Summer of 2014 would have been a disaster for DHS.
"And why was that?" you query. Now that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, people who have previously spent their entire Central Florida vacation staying on WDW property visiting that Resort's theme parks, dining in the Mouse's restaurants and then making purchases in Mickey's stores are now carving out time to go over to the Universal Orlando Resort. And when these folks are looking over WDW's vast array of entertainment experiences and are then trying to decide which theme park they're going to take a pass on so that these people can then have a day to go over to Universal & check out all of that neat new Harry Potter stuff, the park which they invariably opt out of these days is DHS.
This is why -- in order to do battle with all of the genuinely immersive storytelling that can now be found -- the Imagineers are turning to the Star Wars films and Pixar's portfolio of hugely popular / Academy Award-winning animated features as a way to make Disney's Hollywood Studios the theme park that you just can't afford to miss the next time you're vacationing in Orlando.
Disney had originally planned for DHS' "Star Wars Land" to stretch from Echo Lake all the way back to Tatooine Traders. But now that theme park enthusiasts have been wowed by Diagon Alley's five story-tall show buildings (which mean that once you're down deep inside of this Harry Potter-themed area, you really can't see any other aspect of the Universal Studios Florida theme park because you're completely enveloped in the world that J.K. Rowling created), the Imagineers have decided to step up their game. Which is why the spot that the former American Idol Experience theater currently occupies has recently been added to the overall acreage that this DHS addition will soon occupy. More to the point, to make sure that nothing visually intrudes into this new area which is supposed to celebrate the Star Wars films and their characters, the Imagineers are reportedly looking into relocating that 122 foot-tall Sorcerer's Hat which sits at the end of Hollywood Boulevard (The removal has already been announced.)
And as for the 16 or so acres that the trams used to roll through at they took Guests for a ride on DHS' Studio Backlot Tour ... That's now supposed to be part of a radical expansion of this theme park's Pixar Place area. When all is said and done by 2019, it will become the Disney's Hollywood Studios equivalent of Fantasyland at WDW's Magic Kingdom. By that I mean: A family-friendly collection of dark rides, spinners, shops and restaurants all themed around many of the more popular motion pictures that have been produced in Emeryville, CA.
And speaking of produced ... Given that it's been years now since any TV shows and movies have been produced on DHS' soundstages, the Imagineers have decided that they really need to reposition / rebrand this theme park. Give it a new name that will better reflect the billion-dollars-plus that The Walt Disney Company will soon be pouring into this property to make it more competitive in the Orlando tourism market. And since the ultimate point of building these huge new Star Wars & Pixar-themed lands is to give WDW Guests the chance to "live the adventure" alongside their favorite characters ... Well, that seems to be the name that WDI (this week, anyway) is getting ready to saddle DHS with: Disney Hollywood Adventure.
If all goes according to plan, this beefed-up and rebranded theme park will be construction fence-free zone by 2019. Which will give WDW management a year to work out all of the kinks before the Resort then begins a year-long 50th anniversary celebration in January of 2021.
But hey, you didn't hear that from me.
Orlando, FL – 11/5/14