Disney’s Hollywood Studios park is limping into the ICU; what’s taking Mickey so long with the overhaul?

Disney’s Hollywood Studios park is limping into the ICU; what’s taking Mickey so long with the overhaul?

Longtime Live Active Cultures readers may have noticed that when it comes to attractions, I'm a bit of a necrophiliac. One of the first articles I ever wrote for Orlando Weekly was about the death of I-Drive's Skull Kingdom, and in the years since I've covered everything from stillborn seasonal events to zombie shopping malls. One thing I never thought I'd be writing about was a Walt Disney World theme park on critical life support, but after a series of recent amputations, it's no stretch to say that Disney's Hollywood Studios is in the ICU.

Even in the darkest days of the post-9/11 tourism slump, when Disney shuttered several hotels and slashed staffing to the bone, the parks' major attractions kept operating in order to preserve perceived value. Today, with one-day adult passes priced at $103 after tax, the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios has had its attraction lineup decimated, leaving it with barely more rides than when it opened in 1989 as a "half-day park." The list of recent casualties (Backlot Tour, American Idol Experience) and those rumored for imminent closure (One Man's Dream, Voyage of the Little Mermaid) is so long, it's easier to list what's left: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Toy Story Midway Mania, Great Movie Ride and Star Tours are now the only operating E-Tickets of interest in the entire park.

This coming Sunday (July 12), another opening-day Studios attraction will welcome guests for the final time before being gutted. The Magic of Disney Animation tour has been a shell of its former self ever since the actual animators were given pink slips, but its "learn to draw a character" class always drew a queue, and the air-conditioned character greeting was packed with families during my most recent visit. While the educational value had been whittled away, it was one of the park's last tributes to Disney's hand-animated legacy.

The euthanizing of the Animation attraction is emblematic of the long-expected extreme makeover of Disney's Hollywood Studios, which may be announced as soon as August's D23 Expo in Anaheim. A widely reblogged article by Billy Donnelly at ThisIsInfamous.com quoted a $3 billion budget for the park's overhaul, but (if accurate) I'd expect a large portion of that to go toward infrastructure improvements rather than attractions. When complete – likely sometime around WDW's 50th anniversary in 2021 – the park will bear a new name reflecting a new focus on film-inspired fantasy, rather than the reality of moviemaking.

The big winners in Hollywood Studios' overhaul are Star Wars and Pixar, whose properties will overtake the areas currently occupied by Echo Lake and the old backlot tour, respectively. Pixar will probably arrive first with some colorful carnival rides similar to those seen in Disney's Hong Kong and Paris parks, while new attractions inspired by The Force Awakens and future episodes will eventually surround the existing Star Wars simulator. A replacement for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular show is possible, but a clone of California's Indy jeep adventure is unlikely. Losers will probably include fans of Jim Henson (MuppetVision 3D has already been put on indefinite hiatus in Anaheim) and car engines (the Lights Motors Action stunt show is expensive to run and occupies prime real estate).

When finished, the Imagineers may very well transform Disney's Hollywood Studios into a park that can again go toe-to-toe with Universal Studios Florida, which has surpassed its once-close competitor thanks to Potter power. But that yet-unannounced future is cold comfort to families spending their hard-earned vacation days and dollars at the DHS of today, only to discover that attraction after attraction is unavailable. In some cases, it's simply embarrassing; the unlamented Captain Jack Sparrow show just reopened as a spartan sitting room, and the vacant Premiere Theater has ragged masking tape hanging from its barren marquee.

Fortunately for Disney's stockholders, a new Frozen parade and fireworks will keep the crowds coming through the summer, and according to the latest TEA/AECOM attendance report the resort remains comfortably ahead of its rivals. With Mouse management occupied with their delayed Shanghai project (recent news of which has been suspiciously lacking), Walt Disney World will continue to be used as a cash cow. But eventually, visitors are going to look up the road at Universal's King Kong ride, Volcano Bay water park and Sapphire Falls hotel – all scheduled to open before Avatar-land at Animal Kingdom, which is WDW's next major expansion – and wonder what's taking Mickey so long.

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