The Magic of Disney Animation: A Tribute

It started as an attraction in Epcot. A cozy little building nestled between the Imagination and Land pavilions. The concept art depicted a theater ticket booth wedged up against a large background mural made to look like cumulus clouds spotted against a robin’s egg sky. So many shows and rides were developed for EPCOT Center in the eighties with the explicit intent to educate that actual, Disney-grade entertainment was an afterthought. But this one was different. After all, who doesn’t like movies? This pavilion was going to educate parkgoers about how movies were made.

Disney’s official story dictates that Michael Eisner loved the idea so much he decided a single paltry attraction wasn’t going to do the subject justice. It had to be explored with a whole park! And thus, Disney-MGM Studios was born! (Unofficially, Eisner used to be the executive for Paramount when Universal originally pitched the idea of building another movie theme park in Florida. Eisner claims that there is zero correlation, but it’s not like the timelines and coincidences match up on a ridiculously convenient scale OH WAIT.). The park was to be dedicated to showing the art of filmmaking: stunts, special effects, backlot showcases, the whole thing. But Universal had the upper hand due to actually filming movies on their backlot for nearly a century. Florida didn’t have a film industry. So when Universal and Disney were building their respective parks, they both set out to establish Hollywood on the east coast. Universal succeeded arguably better by filming IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE AT NICKELODEON STUDIOS AT UNIVERSAL STUDIOS IN ORLANDO, FLORIDA!…until it closed to become the Sharp Aquos Theater, home of the Blue Man Group.

Filming at Disney-MGM

But Disney totally got to do some radical filming, too, you know! Like…like that Mickey Mouse Club that had Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake! And Ernest Saves Christmas! And…and, um, Marvin’s Room! And…stuff!

Well, tried as they might, Disney couldn’t make it work. Their soundstages were difficult to access due to being in the middle of the park. Flying talent between California and Florida was too much of a hassle. Florida’s tax incentives weren’t all that great. And most likely, above all, trying to record a show or a movie when the set is the crown jewel of the 2-hour-long backlot tour, the biggest attraction in the heart of a Disney theme park, seen by literally thousands of guests daily. To quote the Grinch, “all the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise!”

Filming at Disney-MGM Studios all but grinded to a screeching halt less than a decade after opening. But luckily, the park was in no danger of losing attendance, thanks to Star Tours, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the Great Movie Ride, Muppet*Vision 3D, and the Studio Backlot Tour that kept the guests coming back. Oh, and The Magic of Disney Animation.

Do you Believe in Magic?

Back in the early eighties, Disney’s film division was…let’s be nice and say “troubled”. A slew of live action films released since Walt Disney’s death in 1966 were at best mediocre box office successes, and their animated films had drastically lost touch with modern audiences. In order to compete with Universal, they needed help from MGM and George Lucas. But Disney animation? That was all theirs. Animated film production couldn’t be disrupted by noise. It fit as being a demonstration in making movies. It didn’t require breaking the bank to have actors and crews fly out for short periods of time. It’s really no wonder they chose to open a branch of Disney Feature Animation at the park. Others would open in Japan (1989), France (1996), Canada (1996), and Australia (1998), but by virtue of being both a functioning studio and a theme park attraction, the Florida branch was arguably the best loved.

The Magic of Disney Animation opened with the park in 1989, right next door to the Studio Backlot Tour attraction. The first thing guests would see was a ten minute-long film called “Back to Neverland” starring the late Walter Cronkite walking viewers through the process of an animated film. He enlisted the help of a random bypasser to show him firsthand how the process worked by turning him into an animated character. The rando, by the way, was Robin Williams.

Yes, years before he “blue” us all away, Robin became an animated character, morphed into a bunch of things, including Disney characters, did celebrity impressions, flew on magic, and…you know what, just watch it here. Fun fact: if Robin’s outfit looks familiar, it’s because the Genie wears the same exact outfit at the end of Aladdin.

After the film, guests would wander further into the building and watch Disney artists hard at work on the next animated feature film, as both a behind-the-scenes look at how animated movies were made, but also a means to showcase the upcoming movies and start the hype train early. Screens throughout the attraction continued to showcase Robin riffing on the artistic process.

So what were they working on? Well, depending on when you visited, you might have seen the animators creating the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Beauty and the Beast, or the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” number from The Lion King. Various sections of The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, The Prince and the Pauper, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Atlantis: the Lost Empire were drafted there. All three Who Framed Roger Rabbit shorts – Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up – were created there. Plus a short about John Henry. After the successes most of these projects, Disney Feature Animation executives felt confident enough to allow a growing studio to do what studios often desire at that age: make it on their own. And so, in 1993, the little satellite studio that could was given the green light to create their first movie made entirely on their own, Mulan.

In the years following, the studio was given freedom to make more of their own animated feature films. Two more were produced by them, 2002’s Lilo and Stitch and 2003’s Brother Bear. Why just two? Well…

And That’s the Way it was.

By the time Brother Bear was released in November of 2003, the writing was on the wall. The Disney Renaissance was over. The parade of animated movies met with thunderous applause, widespread acclaim, and beaucoup box office were now indifferent shrugs, cynical criticisms, and “meh” box office. There’s lots of reasons why this happened: market oversaturation. The rise of computer animated films. Rising costs. But that’s just the animated film aspect. For the Florida studio specifically, the picture was much grimmer. 9/11 hit the tourism industry hard, and the effects were felt for years. Disney had to make numerous cuts to adjust, up to and including shutting down its first water park, River Country. Attractions like Tower of Terror, Rock n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, Fantasmic! and Star Tours were drawing people away from the quieter, educational attractions like MODA. And with the rise of DVD bonus features and the internet meant the magical allure of behind-the-scenes moviemaking just wasn’t as impressive anymore. Sure, there’s something to be said about taking part in the demonstrations, from donning a poncho and dodging torpedo attacks at the Backlot Tour or demonstrating green screens with a giant prop bee at Backstage Pass, but it became obvious that rides about movies were not as popular as rides in movies. Even Universal seemed to resign to this fate by closing down Production Studio Tour (1995), Murder, She Wrote Mystery Theatre (1996), Earthquake: the Big One (2002), Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies (2003), and saddest of all, Nickelodeon Studios (2005).

What’s even more heartbreaking is that the staff definitely wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. After Brother Bear, they were already hard at work on their fourth animated feature, My Peoples, as story about a young couple in Appalachia, Texas, star-crossed lovers amid warring families, with folk art dolls that had come alive. While greenlit at first, the project was rejected by Feature Animation President David Stainton, in favor of Chicken Little.

As of January 12th, 2004, The Magic of Disney Animation was no longer a functioning studio, and 258 artists were either laid off or transferred to California.

A Shell if its Former Self.

Strangely, the public was still given a front row seat to all this. Sure, headlines involved “Disney”, “firing”, “animation”, and “closed” have always been clickbait before there was such a thing as clickbait, but the attraction at the park stayed open. Guests literally witnessed the building restructuring, adjusting, and remodeling. The name stayed the same, but the attraction was completely different.

Now guests entered through the former Backlot Tour queue, into a theater for a fifteen minute show called Drawn to Animation, starring a cast member who bantered with an onscreen Mushu (Not voiced by Eddie Murphy, but Mark Moseley, who voiced Mushu in Mulan II.), and featured cameos from story artist Chris Sanders, animator Tom Bancroft, and producer Pam Coates. While the elevated walkways remained in place, the ground floor areas were turned into a cel-painting office, a storyboard office, and the rest was opened up to guests. Meet-and-Greets with Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Mr. Incredible, and Frozone were present, As well as a rotating roster of characters from recent Disney releases. Minor activities from a face swapping display, a voiceover demonstration, and a Lumiere and Cogsworth personality quiz dotted the floor. But arguably the biggest draw was the Animation Academy. Every half hour, a cast member would demonstrate a step-by-step process on how to draw various Disney characters, and the drawings would become a prized, free souvenir for kids and adults of all ages. While certainly not what it once was, the building still retained a scrap of its previous identity.

My favorite element was the handprints of Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, and Ken O’Connor. The first four were the last surviving members of Walt’s Nine Old Men, while Anderson was a concept artist and O’Connor was a layout artist. All six attended the opening of the attraction and have since passed on, leaving a great historic tribute to the legacy of hand drawn Disney animation.

However, it still remained rooted in the past. The most recent film it ever acknowledged that wasn’t a promotional teaser was Brother Bear. Computer animation wasn’t even referenced. The Mushu show had nothing to do with animation, but character development, and even had inaccurate information (the show claimed Pocahontas had Flit, Meeko, and a turkey named Redfeather as the heroine’s sidekicks. Redfeather was dropped, then Meeko was brought back. From the research I did, Meeko was developed after Redfeather.).

This version of the attraction lasted all of eleven years.

Mushu has Left the Building.

In July of 2015, word cryptically leaked that the Magic of Disney Animation was going to shut its doors for good. The final day came on the fifteenth, and the replacement was known pretty quick.

I talked at length about this in my Star Wars and the 7 Reasons Why I Don’t Care article. For completion’s sake, I’m going cover this again here.

Star Wars had been encroaching on the park since Star Tours took its first flight to Endor in 1990. The Skywalker saga helped Disney reach out to teens and other theme park guests not enchanted by Disney magic. For fifteen years, Lucasfilm had enjoyed a mutually cooperative venture with Disney, selling untold billions in merchandise and hosting Star Wars Weekends annually since 2003. But in 2014, Disney began gearing up to build a land dedicated to Star Wars by shutting down the Backlot Tour. The once 2-hour tour was reduced to a measly 20 minutes, having been getting whole sections getting ripped out systematically, even ending the live tour spiel in 2008. Cast members were given only five days’ notice about its closure. Various shows in the park were retired to be replaced by Star Wars.

The Star Wars Launch Bay is essentially what the ’04 – ’15 incarnation of MODA. The theater became home to a Star Wars teaser. Props and concept art fill the display cases, yet the building still is designed in classic Art Deco. Meet and greets with Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and Kylo Ren are held there. And the Animation Academy is now home to a gaming demo center where you can play Star Wars Angry Birds and Star Wars Disney Infinity. Any remnants of its previous identity, as a home where Mulan and Lilo and Stitch began, where Robin Williams used to fly with Peter Pan, where over 200 artists worked and showcased a great art form, is completely gone. And because of that legacy, I’m shocked Disney park fans haven’t expressed much outrage.

Disney theme park fans, historically, are a very, um, vocal group. When they are displeased with announcements about closings or new attractions, they let everyone know. When Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was set to close in 1997, the world’s first internet protest sparked up in Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. Public outcry when Frozen Ever After replaced Epcot’s Maelstrom was beyond compare. The changes made since the original Journey into Imagination attraction have enraged fans for over twenty years. Disney understands this passion and even capitalizes on it by selling merchandise based on attractions of yesteryear. Surprisingly, this attraction has barely been a blip on the radar. I’ve heard far more fans beg and cry louder for ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Horizons, even the Orange Bird more than I’ve heard the outcry against the loss of MODA. I’m at a loss why this is.

The Future

However, in May of 2019, details were leaked about an upcoming attraction coming to Epcot. Replacing Wonders of Life will be what Disney calls a Play Pavilion, and will feature the Animation Academy, this time hosted by The Incredibles‘ Edna Mode. It’s not the same thing, of course, but I can’t expect it to be. Still, my heart still yearns for the place that Mulan, Stitch, Kenai, and Robin the Lost Boy once called home.

Here’s to The Magic of Disney Animation. Its artists, animators, cast members, and all who kept the legacy alive. That is the true magic.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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