The Rise and Fall of Movie Studio Theme Parks

Amusement Park History

Movie studios-themed theme parks were once one of the most common and most popular types of theme parks out there especially for the power players in the industry Disney and Universal. But in recent years the theme has almost entirely died out.

We are going to take you through the beginning and subsequent end of the movie studio theme in theme parks, and what remains of it today.

Universal Studios Hollywood Plane Crash Set Studio Tour

The movie studio theme really began with Universal Hollywood, which opened gradually as a kind of theme park by accident. It started out as a studio tour and gradually started adding more and more attractions beyond the tour, eventually becoming the theme park that it is today.

This is why it has such a really awkward layout. Anyone who has been to Universal Studios Hollywood knows what I'm talking about, although they have been making some improvements recently. For many years it was entirely based around that studio theme, with the majority of attractions all being based around that general idea. Universal eventually sought to expand, specifically in Orlando.

Disney, it is generally believed, found out about Universal's plans and as a result, began developing a studio theme park of their own. However, this was not Disney's first attempt to break into the studio theme park genre. They had initially planned to develop an addition to Epcot based on the general idea of a movie studio theme. This idea would later inspire Disney's MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) and its flagship attraction, The Great Movie Ride.

Catastrophe Canyon Fire Studio Backlot Tour Disney's MGM Studios Walt Disney World

Disney MGM studios would recreate much of what Universal Hollywood had at the time, although in a different way. It recreated massive stunt shows based around the general idea of filmmaking with the Indiana Jones stunt show. It recreated backlots with the Streets of America, and it even attempted to recreate film production with a few active sound stages and a part of Disney Animation working out of Orlando.

But, this park was built quickly and on the cheap with few attractions to try and beat Universal Orlando which would open just slightly after the park.

Classic Blues Brothers Show Universal Studios Florida

Universal Orlando would open as sort of a hybrid between a more traditional theme park and a theme park based around making movies. It did have a studio tour, but many of the attractions were purely based their movies, and not in making the movies they were based on. 

In attractions like Jaws and Kongfrontation, once you entered the actual attraction, the story was entirely based on the respective worlds of each film. But the park did include a lot of moviemaking style attractions.

Initially, these two theme parks were built at a time when there was not wide access to behind-the-scenes content on your favorite films. There was an occasional documentary made, but that was about it. Eventually, with the spread of DVDs and bonus content, access to behind-the-scenes looks at the production of your favorite movies became widely accessible and you didn't need to travel to a specific location in order to get it.

Universal Studios Hollywood What's New Chalkboard

Some of these locations still worked because they were actually filming locations. Universal Studios Hollywood still works as a studio-themed theme park to this day because it has a century worth of history of being used as an active film studio.

That was not the case in either Disney's MGM Studios or Disney's Hollywood Studios or Universal Orlando.

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish Spinner Ride Seuss Landing Universal Island's Of Adventure

Universal would be the first of the two to outright abandon the studio theme as they did not continue it over to their second park, Islands of Adventure went for immersion over moviemaking. It attempted to fully immerse you in the worlds of its individual lands as opposed to telling you how those worlds were made on screen.

As Universal began replacing attractions in Orlando, it first began replacing ones that were about teaching you how the movies were made. Today very little of those remain. Arguably the only two attractions left at Universal Orlando based on this original theme are the horror makeup show and ET Adventure. Most recently Twister Ride It Out, which featured a behind-the-scenes look at how practical tornado effects can be made was replaced with a Jimmy Fallon ride.

Really it all boils down to a larger shift that we have seen in both Disney and Universal Parks from watching how you make the movies, to wanting to ride the movies, to steal Universal's slogan.

Disney would close half of their studio park to add to the fully immersive land's Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land. In the process, they almost entirely demolished their backlot Streets of America, and removed the majority of their soundstage as well as the former animation studio, all to replace it with attractions that help you to ride the movies.

Universal Orlando never had this kind of backlot, and the only comparable thing to it was the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. That backlot had a century of film history with historic sites like the clock tower courtyard that will likely never be replaced willingly.

Recently Universal tore down a soundstage where Phantom of the Opera was filmed and that led to a significant level of controversy, and that was just a soundstage, let alone any actual set of a famous movie.

Streets of America Disney MGM Studios Walt Disney World

The most high-profile thing to ever film on the Streets of America was probably The Lottery starring Bette Midler (if you don't know what that is look it up it's really strange) and it was pretty much filmed just so they could say something was filmed on the Streets of America.

Disney would gradually remove the remaining studio-themed parts of Disney's Hollywood Studios as it was then known, removing their backlot tour and their actual back lot which closed to make way for Galaxy's Edge and Toy Story Land.

Star Tours would receive an update and paint job that minimized how much it was based on entering a movie set. The remaining parts of Streets of America was rethemed as an actual LA city block. The Great Movie Ride, which had once been the flagship attraction of the park was replaced by a Mickey Mouse attraction where you step into the cartoon.

The last remnant of the studio theme at Disney's Hollywood Studios today is really the Indiana Jones stunt spectacular, which still contains all of the filmmaking elements that it did when it was first added to the park. Because of this, it really sticks out like a sore thumb. Everything else in the park is about entering the world of your favorite movies. This show remains as the last part of the park's original theme, showing you how movies are made.

Indiana Jones Character Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular Disney's Hollywood Studios

Watching it feels like a trip into the past of the park. The show is nostalgic in that way, and it's still impressive even after 30 years running at the park. But it and it's Echo Lake area are constantly rumored to be the next section Disney is looking to remove at the park, possibly for in immersive Indiana Jones land.

In a way that would be a fitting end to the studio theme at Disney's Hollywood Studios, replacing a show focused on showing how Indiana Jones was made with a land taking you into the world of Indiana Jones. Disney has not yet announced this, and the pandemic probably has many ideas on hold at Disney Parks around the world, so we are going to have to wait and see if it actually happens, but in a way that would almost too poetic of an ending.

Waterworld Stunt Show Speed Boat Universal Studios Hollywood

The studio theme in theme parks never really worked the way the companies wanted it to. Universal tried to replicate the success of their Hollywood studio tour in a park that had never had significant active filming they quickly learned that this was the wrong approach, and altered course with future additions to the park, like Back to the Future straight through to the Wizarding World attractions of today.

Now they are at the forefront of immersive theme park lands and we can't wait to see what they do with Epic Universe. What remains are really the two best of their studio-themed attractions in ET in the horror makeup show, and honestly, you barely noticed the studio theme in them.

Wicked Witch of the West Animatronic Wizard of Oz Scene The Great Movie Ride Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney also sought to replicate with Disney's MGM Studios, the decade's worth of history that had made Universal Studios Hollywood a success, but in a quickly built theme park, and it did not work. It gave the world some great attractions, but the park never had the active studio feel that Universal Studios Hollywood did.

The only area that came close to capturing that magic was the animation studio, and once that shutdown, the end of the studio theme in the park should have been seen as inevitable.

It never had the level of active filming that Universal Studios Hollywood, did and it wouldn't have worked as a theme park if it did. It was too small and had to reinvent itself. It went from a great park about making movies to a great park about entering them.

Even Disney's other venture into a studio-themed theme park, Walt Disney Studios in Paris is about to see or has recently seen the majority of its studios-themed attractions leave the park. Its Armageddon attraction based on entering the set for the hit Disney film Armageddon (that's right Disney made an attraction based on one of the two asteroid themed disaster films of 1998) was recently removed to be replaced by a Spiderman attraction.

Also at the park, Rock N Roller Coaster, which still remains at Disney's Hollywood Studios, was closed to be replaced by an Iron Man coaster, leaving open the question of how long Rock N Roller Coaster has at Disney's Hollywood Studios. A much larger expansion is planned, all based around the general ride the movies idea. 

Universal's Animal Actors Show Universal Studios Hollywood

The studio theme worked if you had an active studio, but unfortunately, many of the attempts to create a studio theme park were unable to replicate the magic of Universal Studios Hollywood, a theme park operating perfectly alongside an active studio, providing a real reason for the theme. It remains unlikely that outside of Universal Studios Hollywood either company will make another behind-the-scenes attraction in their parks.

With the proliferation of behind-the-scenes content in bonus features and even entire series like Disney's recent Prop Culture, the need simply isn't there, but at least we have the memories and videos of the great attractions the theme gave us over the years.