20 secrets of Disney's Hollywood Studios

LA Times | Travel

Hooray for Hollywood! Disney's Hollywood Studios, that is. Why? Celebrating its 20th birthday Friday is Disney's Hollywood Studios, the third theme park created at Walt Disney World, that tourism behemoth that rates among Chicagoans' top year-round destinations. But the brainstorm that blos...

By Bruce Pecho // 05.04.09

Hooray for Hollywood! Disney's Hollywood Studios, that is. Why?

Celebrating its 20th birthday Friday is Disney's Hollywood Studios, the third theme park created at Walt Disney World, that tourism behemoth that rates among Chicagoans' top year-round destinations.

But the brainstorm that blossomed into Disney's Hollywood Studios dates back much further. Walt Disney first dreamed of a park that would showcase filmmaking more than 40 years ago; a park where guests could readily take back-lot tours and learn how TV shows and movies are made. With available land sorely lacking in California and an abundance of land in Florida, the initiative shifted to the East Coast Disney property.

Here's the rub: Walt Disney Imagineering was preparing all its wondrous filmmaking and Hollywood ideas in planning a new pavilion for Future World in Epcot. But there proved to be too much to contain in just one pavilion.

That small kernel evolved into an entire theme park based on the golden age of Hollywood. In 1989, Disney-MGM Studios (later to undergo the name change) opened with an enticing premise. Unlike its sister theme parks, the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, which built their names on the magic and wonder of the illusions they spun, this new theme park promised to undo all that tantalizing mystery. It would be a sort of "anti-theme park" that wouldn't elaborately layer on magic and fantasy. Instead, this park would unveil the secrets behind television and movie production.

You might not think that a theme park that has built its reputation on extensive revelation would harbor any secrets of its own.

Think again.

Just like any Disney theme park, there are secrets all around you. From hidden Mickeys to underground utility corridors to recessed rooftop lighting, Walt Disney World has amazed and delighted guests for almost 38 years. Disney's Hollywood Studios wouldn't be a true Walt Disney World park if it didn't possess its very own special brand of mystery.

So, in honor of the Studios' 20th anniversary, we throw open the padlocked doors to bring you 20 secrets of Disney's Hollywood Studios.

1. One of the most famous architectural devices that Disney Imagineers use in their construction is forced perspective, where the scaling of buildings decreases the higher up you go. Forced perspective creates the illusion that buildings are larger than they are. In the Magic Kingdom, the buildings along Main Street as well as Cinderella Castle are built using forced perspective. Of course, it's no different at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The facades along Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard incorporate forced perspective, making the thoroughfares appear grander in scale.

2. Disney also is renowned for a meticulous attention to detail that gives its architecture its famous authenticity -- such as the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom, a to-scale replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the Temple of Heaven in the China pavilion in Epcot, a half-size replica of the Beijing original. Likewise, the buildings that line the Studios' Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard are replicas of Hollywood buildings constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. Walt Disney Imagineering used the original 1927 blueprints from Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood to construct the exact replica in the Studios, with a fa├žade built to full scale. And the Carthay Circle Theater building on Sunset Boulevard is an exact replica of the original Carthay Circle Theater in Beverly Hills, where " Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premiered in 1937.

3. Speaking of attention to detail, when the Imagineers decided to create an attraction based on the "Toy Story" movies, they knew they wanted to build something special. So rather than build just one building, they created an entire district, Pixar Place, based on the Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif., the studio behind "Toy Story," "The Incredibles" and so many Disney-Pixar classics. So the Imagineers exactly matched the color of the brick and mortar from the original Pixar Studios building in the construction of Toy Story Midway Mania. When Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs came to Toy Story Midway Mania and saw how much it looked like "home," his eyes welled with tears.

4. You can't get any more realistic and authentic in detail than the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The back story of this ride states that the Hollywood Tower Hotel was populated by the glitzy and glamorous elite of yesteryear. As always, Disney Imagineers went to extreme lengths to make sure the props, furnishings and decorative items in the lobby accurately reflected that time. But meticulous attention to detail in the Tower has been conjured by an even higher power. As the legend goes, one night while some guests were taking the elevator to the top of the hotel, the building was struck by lightning, sending the elevator zooming to the bottom of the shaft and its riders into the 5th dimension. That's the story every guest learns before riding the attraction. Something that all riders should know: While the Tower was being built, it actually was struck by lightning. How's that for authenticity?

5. And what is it about the mystical, ghostly forces inhabiting the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? They grab your elevator and send it reeling up and down, back and forth, over and over again. Truth be told, there is more at work here than the force of gravity. The reason the drops are so thrilling is that the elevator falls faster than free fall, faster than the force of gravity. The Tower actually pulls the elevators up and down giving the ride its out-of-this-world thrill.

6. The high -peed, indoor Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith was the first Disney roller coaster -- in any of its theme parks in the United States -- to invert riders during the ride. The dark interior, rock-concert lighting and thundering soundtrack from Aerosmith pumps up the excitement and ambience of the ride. But the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster was once an outdoor coaster. Many people think the coaster was constructed inside the building that houses it. Actually, the coaster was built first, in the great outdoors, and then the building was assembled around it.

7. The high-speed launch of the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is one of the attraction's great rushes. There are three inversions in the ride -- two rollover loops and one corkscrew. As riders enter the first inversion, they are feeling a G-force between 4 and 5, more than astronauts feel.

8. Of course, size and statistics play a big role in Disney's Hollywood Studios. Perfect example: the Sorcerer's Hat. The Studios' main icon, dedicated on Dec. 5, 2001, to commemorate Walt Disney's 100th birthday, is a giant showpiece based on the hat worn by Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in "Fantasia." The hat sits on a foundation made from enough concrete to cover a football field. The Sorcerer's Hat is painted with a custom technique called "chameleon paint" that shifts color as guests move around it. The fiberglass hat stands 122 feet tall and has an interior space of 60,000 cubic feet. That converts to a hat size of 6067/8.

9. Even a former Disney-MGM Studios icon has a hat tale to tell. Before the Sorcerer's Hat was built in the main plaza of Hollywood Boulevard, the Earfell Tower served as the Studios' official icon. The 130-foot water tower doesn't actually contain any water. But the picturesque black mouse ears (hat size 3423/8) instilled the tower with landmark status from Day One.

10. Fantasmic! the laser, fireworks and water-animation extravaganza, proved to be such a smash at Disneyland that a 6,900-seat amphitheater (with room for an additional 3,000 standing guests) was constructed at Disney's Hollywood Studios. A mountainous island stage surrounded by water serves as the setting for the 50 performers in a multimedia show that brings to life scenes from many Disney animated classics. But in true theatrical form, the part of the stage that you see is only what they want you to see. That mountaintop setting is actually 571/2 feet tall, housing six levels plus a basement.

11. When it comes to sheer size, nothing beats the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. In its quest to reveal filmmaking special-effects secrets, the attraction replicates the famous opening sequence from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," in which Indiana must outrun a huge stone ball. To re-create that scene, the cavernous space of the Studios' attraction is transformed into the Mayan temple -- the heaviest piece of moving scenery on the planet, tipping the scales at 100 tons. The giant rolling ball alone weighs 440 pounds.

12. Let's move from the heaviest to the largest. One of the legendary aspects of all Disney theme parks are the hidden Mickeys, the mouse head-and-ears shape that the Imagineers concealed inside attractions, on vehicles, in restaurants -- just about everywhere. The largest one ever created was once very prominent, but earthbound guests couldn't even see it. The entire main courtyard of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theatre once formed Mickey Mouse's face. Echo Lake formed one ear, the roofs of Playhouse Disney and the Brown Derby formed another ear, the eyes were gray ovals in the pavement, and the mouth was the courtyard in front of the Great Movie Ride. Over the years, certain aspects have been altered or disappeared -- for example, the Sorcerer's Hat obliterated the nose. But the remainder still exists in the plaza.

13. Stroll down Hollywood Boulevard any afternoon, and you'll be able to enjoy the explosive energy of the Block Party Bash, a party and dance interactive traveling parade. But did you know that Block Party Bash is the sixth full-fledged parade presented by the Studios in its 20-year history? The first was Aladdin's Royal Caravan, which debuted Dec. 21, 1992. The longest-running Studios parade was Disney Stars and Motor Cars, which ran for 61/2 years, winding up on March 8, 2008.

14. In 1995, the Studios presented the Osborne Spectacle of Lights, an extravaganza of millions of holiday lights donated by Jennings Osborne, a businessman from Arkansas who had designed the light display for his home. In 2006 the Imagineers took the next step by unveiling the Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights, in which lights flicker and dance to the beat of various holiday songs. The light display consists of more than 5 million lights, 35 miles of electrical cable and 10 miles of rope lights.

15. During planning for the high-speed thrill ride Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, the Imagineers knew they needed to select one of the world's greatest bands around which to build the back story for the attraction. They decided Aerosmith would be the perfect fit. But initially the Imagineers were unable to reach Steven Tyler and Joe Perry because they were vacationing with their families at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

16. Every Walt Disney World theme park icon contains some type of attraction or facility. So what's inside the Sorcerer's Hat? Nothing. It's the first WDW theme park icon void of any special attraction.

17. The Great Movie Ride immerses guests into famous sequences from some of Tinseltown's classic movies, from Gene Kelly's dance routine in "Singin' in the Rain" to an alien attack sequence from "Alien." But it's all capped off when guests become part of "The Wizard of Oz" and are transported to Munchkinland, where they face the Wicked Witch of the West. Just before guests enter the scene, they are treated to a scene from "Fantasia." But what's with all the wind? Actually, the room originally was designed to house the Kansas tornado that would whisk guests over the rainbow and into Munchkinland.

18. For Disney, the back story is the backbone of each attraction. Nothing propels the story along like a show with big character or perhaps a show with larger-than-life characters. The Voyage of the Little Mermaid is a breathtaking retelling of the classic movie. The audience is plunged under the sea through the use of lasers, smoke, showering water and bubbles. More than 100 black-light puppets musically welcome guests "under the sea." But even they are dwarfed by the villainous Ursula, who at 12 feet high and 10 feet wide is just about the largest Ursula ever created by Walt Disney Imagineering.

19. Speaking of larger-than-life characters, Disney also is renowned for its trademarked Audio-Animatronics characters, the electronic wizardry that makes U.S. presidents, various historical figures and classic movie stars come amazingly to life. But the Mr. Potato Head figure at Toy Story Midway Mania represents significant advances in Audio-Animatronic technology. Mr. Potato Head is the first such figure whose mouth appears to form actual words when he's talking. It's also the first Audio-Animatronic figure than can remove a body part and then reattach it (his ear).

20. So exactly how complex is Toy Story Midway Mania? The smash-hit attraction takes guests on a raucous 3-D ride through virtual-reality carnival games. Guests wear 3-D glasses and use a spring-action shooter to break plates, play ring toss, burst balloons with darts, hit moving bull's-eyes, among other virtual games. For the attraction to respond to every pull of every guest's shooter while shuttling trams through the Midway course (as well as propelling virtual 3-D objects that pop out of the screen and whir past guests), there are more than 150 computers communicating over multiple networks.

Bruce Pecho, a freelance writer from Niles, is a Walt Disney World aficionado who has vacationed there 47 times.