Studio Backlot Tour – Daps From the Past

BACKLOT (3)Disney Hollywood Studios will be closing the doors on its Studio Backlot Tour soon, according to Orlando’s News 13. This attraction is one of the few opening day attractions when the theme park first opened as Disney MGM Studios back in 1989.

Disney MGM Studios opened as a working studio with several sound stages and a whole backlot with facades for outdoor filming. The Backlot Tour functioned as a behind the scenes look at the magic of filmmaking.

The entrance before closing is found towards the back of the park, by Lights, Motors, Action! The original was found in the Animation Courtyard. Guests went through three different acts, so to speak. It started with boarding the trams that drove guests around the Streets of America and Catastrophe Canyon. The Streets were the functioning facades that were used in production. Catastrophe Canyon was more of an illusion of filming where an elaborate real time effects set thrilled guests.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids: Movie Set Adventure
Honey, I Shrunk The Kids: Movie Set Adventure

Catastrophe Canyon had the trams drive into a big rock quarry type area. A semi truck and several gas and oil tanks were seen on the canyon wall. An overhang kept the tram covered, but it all didn’t seem safe. Suddenly explosions and rivers of water come onto the scene. The truck begins to slide down because of the force of the water! The tanks are spewing fire! Finally, a waterfall comes down on the side of the tram, soaking those on that side of it, and misting everyone on the others side of the seats. Everything begins to get back into place and the truth comes out: This was all a controlled environment to show how effects can be done on location. The trams drive around to show how the whole thing is put together, including the pipes and vacuums to recycle the water.
After the tram portion of the tour, guests took a break around where the Studio Catering Co. is now located beside the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids: Movie Set Adventure. The Set was build specifically to give families something to do as they waited for the next leg of the tour.

Part of the break in the walking portion of the Backlot Tour where there was picture opportunities. Yes, that's little Murray in 80's shorts.
Part of the break in the walking portion of the Backlot Tour where there was picture opportunities. Yes, that’s little Murray in 80’s shorts.

The next portion was a walking tour through soundstages and effects tanks.  The water tank held a special effects demonstration of real time explosions and other battle effects. Volunteers were used to provide some comic relief as water would drench them. The first incarnation had a story of a storm with a tug boat. One camera would be on the closeup of the volunteer in a wheel house. The other camera was on the small model boat in the big water tank. Rain effects were used to simulate the storm, and the punchline was a big dump of water on the volunteer via a tank that spewed it down a ramp and through a window of the wheel house room. The whole thing was played back on overhead monitors while the volunteer got dried up.

The walking tour took guests through a green screen demonstration where a guest sat on a giant bee to show how a scene in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The tour also took guests onto a soundstage set, but after watching a short movie starring Bette Midler. The film is The Lottery and was all a production to show a completed film and then the behind the scenes of it. The set on the soundstage was used for this theme park only film. It was a great demonstration of how television and movies seem to be on location somewhere, but really are movie magic. Real soundstages were available for the walking part of the tour. One such stage hosted the new Mickey Mouse Club that was on the Disney Channel and launched such stars as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. Upper story bridges were constructed, and windows looked onto the sets so as not to disturb productions.

Another part of the prop warehouse with boxes that made sounds.
Another part of the prop warehouse with boxes that made sounds.

Many changes have been made to the Tour and parts of it. The most significant is taking out the Streets of America as being part of the Tour. This opened up to people being able to walk around without needing to wait in line for the rest of the attraction. The “break area” including the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids playground became accessible from the main paths of the park. Another significant change was taking out the soundstage portion of the Backlot Tour. When the studios became a non-working facility…just a theme park…the idea of showing how current shows and movies are made became unappealing. These buildings now house attractions like Toy Story Midway Mania and The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow. Some of the bridges that took guests along the upper story route still exist.

Finally, as it was before closing, the Studio Backlot Tour had a much smaller path. The start of it was the water tank effects demonstration. At some point in its history it got converted from a story of a tug boat in a storm to recreating the big scene from Pearl Harbor…the movie, mind you, not the actual historical event. Air cannons in the water would soak guests on the three levels of viewing area, and especially the volunteers.

BACKLOTAfter watching the watery show, guests went through the prop warehouse, which was full of great artifacts from movies and even theme park attractions, to the queue to board the trams. The tram part took guests through the “boneyard” which was a name given to rows of vehicles from movies and theme park attractions. Some highlights were the plane that took Walt Disney through aerial views of the glades that became Walt Disney World. Others include a couple of vehicles from Star Wars films. After traveling through these vehicle props, the tram went through behind the scenes of Lights, Motors, Action! and a building that houses the costuming department for Walt Disney World.

The Studio Backlot Tour was a great attraction in the heyday of the park. It was a spectacular look at the making of film and television, and it was always exciting to try to catch a production being done. The amount of detail and great care in stories and effects that Disney made it an over the top experience. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the theme park losing its number one appeal in being a working studio. I don’t blame them for taking out the soundstage experiences.
Another hard to deal with element was the length of the tour. It was long. It would take the majority of the time for families at the park. When it’s a Disney park, a guest might expect being able to have multiple experiences at will. The Tour was broken up into different experiences.

In the end, the attraction suffered, in my opinion. It was still fun to see different props and vehicles, to experience Catastrophe Canyon. But, to call it a Studio Backlot Tour made it seem dull, and well, depressing to me. That also might have been because of going on it not that long after it first opened and having that whole experience.

Though it suffered through many changes, it was still a fun experience throughout the years. My brother and I got to be volunteers for the water effects demonstration where we flexed our acting abilities looking panicked on the deck of a battleship. Yes, we got soaked, but it was refreshing in the hot, summer Florida sun. Plus, how many can say they got to be in the middle of production effects? I learned a lot about movie making through the Tour. I loved seeing the sets and hoping to see a glimpse of a filming in progress. The tram portion always served as a great respite from constant walking. It also seemed like water soaking was tamed down during colder seasons. In all, it was a fun, enjoyable experience. Some years were better than others. But, in all, a classic Disney attraction.

With it being gone, it will be missed, I’m sure. But, I look forward to what will be coming in its place!