My unfinished open letter to Disney Executives, or… “Armchair Imagineering”

***What follows is the initial, unfinished draft of a blog post I started about 2 and a half years ago. The purpose of the post was to lay out some constructive criticism about the current state of my favorite Disney World park, Disney Hollywood Studios, and to offer up a few suggestions for how they could improve.

I decided to have some fun with it and pretend it was an open letter to the Disney powers-that-be, so I looked up who was (at that point) the Executives in charge of various programs/areas involving the Parks.

When I found this post as I was digging around in some forgotten file folders, what first struck me were the major changes in upper management that have happened since I first wrote this draft. Since the ouster of Michael Eisner, Disney had actually seen a fairly stable management situation under Bob Iger. That changed, rather dramatically, beginning in the months following when I wrote this up.

Not to get too “inside baseball” (because likely no one is terribly interested)… but, Chairman and CEO Bob Iger had basically been in the process of grooming a replacement for his future retirement (his contract ends in 2018…and at this point in 2015, it seemed like he was ready to pursue other interests by the time his tenure ended). The horse race came down between Jay Rasulo and Thomas Staggs. Rasulo was Chairman of Parks and Resorts and Staggs was CFO until 2009 when they swapped positions. Iger seemed to be trying out both of them in these different positions to see who performed best and could confidently lead this mammoth Company through the next decade.

In February of 2015, it became apparent that Staggs had won when he was named COO. By June of that year, a naturally disappointed Rasulo had left the company. Staggs was in position now as COO to smoothly take over the reins from Iger after 2018.

And then – seemingly out of nowhere – Staggs was “future endeavored” in April of 2016. Speculation runs rampant…But the true reasons for this are simply between Staggs, Iger, and the Disney board.

So… I haven’t updated the list of names below (because the original piece has been left completely unedited).

After the original draft ends, I will offer some new thoughts based on developments since I first wrote the draft.

And finally, before we jump into the original draft, here is a brief timeline of events to help put things in proper context:

May 1st, 1989 – Disney-MGM Studios opens to the public

January 7th, 2008 – Theme Park is officially renamed as Disney’s Hollywood Studios

October 30th, 2012 – Disney purchases Lucasfilm

February 5th, 2015 – Staggs is named COO

January 22nd-February ?, 2016 – The original draft of this post was composed

June 2015 – Jay Rasulo leaves the company

August 2015 – Bob Iger announces the plans for a Star Wars and Pixar “Lands” to be added to Disney’s Hollywood Studios

April 4th, 2016 – Staggs leaves the Disney company

August 13th, 2017 – The Great Movie Ride, which was the last of the Opening Day Attractions still at the park, closes for replacement***


To:

Thomas O. Staggs

Chief Operating Officer, The Walt Disney Company, and Chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts

Jay Rasulo

Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, The Walt Disney Company

George Kalogridis

President, Walt Disney World Resort

Jim MacPhee

Senior Vice President of Operations and Next Generation Experiences, Walt Disney World Resort

Dan Cockerell

Vice President, Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Bruce Vaughn

Chief Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering

Craig Russell

Chief Design and Project Delivery Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering

(Heck, I’ll even add the current Big Cheese himself…)

Cc: Robert A. Iger

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

An Open Letter to those in Charge of Disney Theme Parks

Dear All,

I hope this letter finds you having a pleasant day. I am keenly aware that the chances of any of you actually reading this are less than the chances that we will ever see a Blu-Ray Song of the South Platinum Edition release. However, I still wanted to put these thoughts out there, as it were (and ‘out there’ is perhaps an apt description for all my thoughts, but that is another issue).

The specific topic I would like to address concerns the direction of my favorite Walt Disney World Theme Park… namely, Disney-MG…oh wait, no, I mean… Disney’s Hollywood Studios. (even after seven years, I still can’t get used to the new name). I feel an overwhelming affinity for this park – partly because of nostalgia (it was the first ‘new’ Walt Disney World Park built after my family had moved to Florida in 1983 – missed the opening of Epcot by a year, but I was 4 in 1983, so I doubt it would have held quite as special a place in my heart), partly out of its intended (more on that later) theming (“the Hollywood that never was and always will be” is my favorite subject), and partly out of a true sense of attachment (I worked on The Great Movie Ride during the summer of 1999 and for the first year of our marriage in 2001, my wife and I lived in Orlando and our favorite thing to do on Saturdays was to stroll through the Disney Parks – especially the ‘Studios’ – with our seasonal passes).

And that, I’m afraid, is the sum total of my authority on the matter. I’m a Disneyana fan with a special place in my heart for Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

With those sterling credentials, I am about to embark on some serious ‘armchair imagineering’ (though, if you would like to hire me on as a consultant of some kind, I will gladly leave the comfort of my armchair).

I’m not the first to say this, but hopefully I will be that last… what you have with Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a huge missed opportunity. Mr. Eisner rushed the development of the park, so a bit of its tonal ‘messiness’ can be attributed to that (in a tongue-and-cheek way, and not at all with any sense actual comparison, I kind of liken the Disney-MGM/Universal Orlando war to a Cold War-era Arms Race. I fear that Disney-MGM’s results ended up being closer to the Soviet Union’s than the U.S.’s). And I also know that EuroDisney’s significantly troubled opening ended up scuttling many plans for improving Disney-MGM. However, in the intervening years, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has basically become a Theme Park without a Theme.

Rumor has it you guys do have big plans for the park (particularly in light of the Lucasfilm acquisition). But my fervent hope is that you would consider a “Whole Park Picture” when thinking about changes and improvements. To that end, I’d like to suggest a “four-year plan” to get Disney’s Hollywood Studios ready for its 30th Anniversary in 2019.

And, we truly have a great amount of work to do, so the sooner you hire me on as a consultant, the better off we will all be.

Let’s start by looking at what we’ve got (… Please forgive the crudity of my own poor illustrations, I didn’t have time to make them to scale… there is also the fact that I have about zero visual art talent)

studios drawing

Here is the whole park, as is… (I didn.t bother drawing the Backlot Tour Area since you guys decided to shut that down… but I may include that space in “close-up” drawings for my ideas. It would be a shame to waste any of the limited space this park has).

I tried to label all the major attractions (I got kind of cramped in the Animation Courtyard, so I didn’t label anything there… but, you get the picture). On the surface, it looks like a whole lot of empty or ill-used buildings as well as a pretty glaring lack of coherency and theme. But, what I see is Opportunity!

So, let’s start with the big picture. Is it possible to re-capture the original theme of Disney(-MGM)’s Hollywood Studios? Again… since it bears repeating, “The Hollywood That Never Was And Always Will Be”.

In short, no.

There are too many disparate directions the park has gone in (and, to be honest, that original ideal never truly came to fruition in the first place). However, I think it will be important to pay homage to this idea.

For the first 10-15 years of the parks existence, the main theme seemed to be more about Movie Magic. You could experience the feel of actually being on a Backlot, sometimes seeing the curtain lifted up a little bit to show the fascinating “How’s?” of actual movie production. That idea as an overarching theme doesn’t really work anymore either.

The actual Animation Studio as well as the working Production stages are long gone. In addition the “movie-making” attractions are quite noticeable in their absence (Superstar Television, Monster Sound Show/Sounds Dangerous, Backlot Tour, etc.) ….”


8-16-2017

…And that is where I stopped 2 and a half years ago. I honestly don’t remember exactly where I was going…I am kind of curious as to what exactly my “4-year plan” was. But it is now lost to the dusty recesses of by cobweb-clouded memory. I *think* my ideas were fairly similar to the direction they seem to be going now. But, like I mentioned, I wanted a truly ambituous “Whole Park” type makeover.

The Movie Magic/Behind The Curtain-type theming seems sadly to be impossible to get back to. Instead, I think I was envisioning the idea of “stepping into the movies” and having different areas represent different genres or types of films.

Enter Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

I think my vision was to see a Lucas Land type area that could incorporate both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Update Star Tours, add some kind of new Star Wars ride…Star Wars character meet and greets…Star Wars shows even? Maybe even bring back some of the old behind-the-scenes type attractions and look at the special effects and sound effects of Star Wars. Bring the Indiana Jones thrill ride from California Adventure here too (since the ride system and track is identical to Dinosaur, maybe tweak it a little or create a brand new ride experience. My thoughts ran along those lines.

But it seems my thinking was a little too 90’s. Immersive experiences are all the rage now. I am not sure that that is better….but, it certainly will serve my idea of “stepping into the movies”. Galaxy’s Edge (what little we *actually* know about it) sounds like they are taking a page from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter playbook. And Disney being Disney, they are trying to one-up their arch rivals.

The idea seems to be a fully immersive (there’s that word again) experience. I guess you could call it Extreme Theming (?) But this area of the Park will allow guests to step into the Star Wars Universe in a way that has never existed before. Toy Story Land seems to be taking a “more traditional” Disney approach…in that the theming will be top notch, but from what I have read about it so far, it won’t be quite as…, well, what other word is there for it but… “immersive”?

Toy Story Land (I believe) is supposed to be Andy’s backyard. So, there is still that idea of “stepping into” the movies. We will see how well they pull it all off.

My fear though is that they still have a mess of a park.

The hub-and-spoke model might seem not as fresh…but, by-golly it works. Think of the layout of the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom (and Islands of Adventure, for that matter…and Epcot to a certain extent). The idea is that you have a central hub (a castle, a tree, and two “lakes” in my previous examples) and then the different “lands” surround that central hub and can be looked at as “spokes”.

Short of demolishing everything and starting from scratch, they could never convert Disney’s Hollywood Studios into a hub and spoke style.

But what they can’t do physically, they need to do a better job of aesthetically, operationally, and philosophically. What I mean is, come up with cohesive themes for different areas of the park…and then STICK TO THOSE THEMES.

Details just broke yesterday about Grand Avenue and Grand Park (replacing Streets of America and Muppets Courtyard). Muppet-Vision 3-D is supposedly staying, but they have already updated the signage on the building:

Muppets-3D-two

This Grand Avenue is said to represent modern-day downtown Los Angeles and its main feature is a bar…or something. BaseLine Tap House. A corner pub featuring small appetizers and a variety of California Beers and Wines.

Frankly this all sounds like a horrible idea (Current Downtown L.A.? Really?) But I am almost sensing it is a temporary thing while they figure out exactly what to do with this area that will act as a transition into Galaxy’s Edge.

In any case… lots of questions still remain (what will happen to Star Tours and Tatooine Traders since they are cut-off from Galaxy’s Edge by this newly-renamed Grand Avenue and Muppet Vision?, If Star Tours goes, what happens to Echo Lake area? etc)

Again, my main vision is simply to see the different areas of the Park clearly defined and clearly themed.

For example, I love Sunset Boulevard as a tribute to 1950’s Hollywood. More needs to be done to make that theme stand out. If Aerosmith ever backs out of the Rock N Roller Coaster…make it a tribute to the birth of Rock N Roll (just minor tweaks and theming improvements would be needed). I can picture songs like Johnny B. Goode blasting as that coaster whips and winds along. And that would fit the 50’s (albeit late 50’s) theming.

Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land work as disntint areas with unified themes, obviously.

The question is what to do with the rest of the Park besides these prepackaged theme areas (Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land) and easily “themable” (Sunset Boulevard to 1950’s Hollywood).

Frankly, the rest of the park is…well, as I’ve said before, a mess.

But, maybe there is now potential to reinvigorate and reinvest in the long abandoned but sorely missed theme of behind the scenes movie magic…

Use the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular- side of Echo Lake and curve around clockwise from there. Repurpose the following temporary “attractions” : the Frozen singalong, the Olaf meet-and-greet, the Jedi training, the Sorcerer Mickey and Red Carpet Minnie meet-and-greet and maybe a few other areas in that vicinity.

This way you keep the Indiana Jones show as it now fits with the theme of Backstage Magic and is a tribute to stunt work on films.

Bring back a Superstar Television type show (today’s technology would make this lots of fun!) and don’t limit it to just old tv shows. Disney owns just about everything now, so bring in classic clips from timeless films through major blockbusters. And maybe even make this a mini tribute to Special Effects through cinema history.

Then, bring back a Sound Effects show/interactive exhibit and have it themed around Ben Burtt and his iconic contributions.

Find a way to also pay tribute to classic films and general film history (the way the Great Movie Ride used to do).

Have a few more attractions and/or shows like those, and you’ve got yourself a perfectly themed new area!

I am curious to see if Disney ever will follow through and allow the Disney-MGM…er Disney Hollywood Studios…(or whatever the new name will be, as it was confirmed that Disney Hollywood Studios was just a placeholder and a new, more permanent name is actually still in the works)… to truly fulfill all of its potential.

Definitely won’t be easy… but as Walt himself once said…”It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”.

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