A Disney park has to have a premise; that premise can be narrow or broad, but it must exist in order to give context to the attractions and experiences held within.
From the Animal Kingdom’s simple but powerful remit to celebrate animals and the environment we share with them, to the expansive promise of Disneyland to whisk you from the mundane present to the remarkable worlds of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy, each park has its own “mission statement”, to steer the design and purpose of everything, from the e-Ticket attractions to the napkin designs.
When Disney-MGM Studios first opened in 1989, its premise was to lift the curtain of moviemaking and show you first-hand every facet of how films were made, from props, to special effects, to stunts and costume making. Each of these educational experiences were brought to life though storytelling and thrills, giving them greater substance than your average them park ride.
These ‘edutainment‘ experiences were augmented by thrill rides, themed either as “live” productions (e.g. Star Tours) or exciting experiences within the setting of ‘the Hollywood that never was and always will be (e.g. Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror).
There are myriad reasons why this faux-studio tour approach declined; the 90’s saw the dawn of DVDs and their special features, ever-more sophisticated computers ushered in an industry-wide move from models and matte-paintings to 3D environments and digital composing, and finally Michael Eisner’s dream of founding a fully-working studio at the park never materialised.
This seismic shift in the film industry left the studios struggling for relevance; demonstrations of green screen and miniatures looked increasingly quaint and a change was needed to keep guests interested.
This is where the tricky subject of the park’s premise comes back into play – if the park is no longer a working studios, and you’re not learning about filmmaking, what is the park about?
Pixar Place was a major new addition to the park in 2008, bringing the hugely popular Midway Mania (as well as huge crowds) with it – but it’s relationship to the park and its identity became even more tangential: the park is about filmmaking, Pixar makes films, one of these films was Toy Story. The staggering amount of Frozen-themed additions, including Frozen Sing-Along Celebration, Wondering Oaken’s Outpost and Frozen Summer Fun had little to do with the park’s theme besides “This park is about films, Frozen is a film”.
With the announcement of a Star Wars and Toy Story-themed lands, Disney have officially changed the park’s mission statement, which is now to “put you in your favourite movies”, and a new name for the park is expected to follow.
My concern about this is, it isn’t so much a mission statement as an axiom for all Disney parks – whether you’re flying to Neverland on Peter Pan’s Flight, or finding Nemo at The Living Seas, Disney Parks have always been about making those stories real and letting you experience them.
Having an overarching theme isn’t just to keep the Imagineering geeks happy, it is what makes your experience of a Disney park greater than the sum of its parts, and holds this collection of experiences together. It’s like having a Chinese Restaurant that serves quesadillas and pizza – individually, these are all great dishes, but altogether it’s a confusing mess of clashing ideas.
I have confidence that this is being taken care of by people who care, but currently I feel that without a change, Disney’s Hollywood Studios risks being “the park with Tower of Terror and the Star Wars bit” rather than its own, unique experience.