Characteristic of all Disney parks, music is first thing to greet as you approach the entrance. Un-characteristically, the music isn’t that of familiar Disney standards but classic movie and TV themes recognizable to all: “The Magnificent Seven,” “Rocky,” “Goldfinger,” “Silverado,” and even the theme from the TV series, “Dallas,” are all strong, powerful scores that make you walk a little taller and a little more deliberately, as if propelled by the hero within you. This is the spirit of the Studios experience, to pull you in to the essence of entertainment, from backlot to blockbuster, storyboard to screen.
You don’t need to be a Los Angeles native to recognize Hollywood when you see it. However, if you are familiar with Hollywood, you’ll feel like you’re really there from the moment you enter the park and lay eyes on the near-exact replica of the iconic landmark, “Crossroads of the World,” whose only obvious difference is the addition of Mickey Mouse atop the globe capping the spire. The original, built in 1936, still stands, beautifully preserved, on Sunset Blvd at Las Palmas, where it had once stood as the vanguard of America’s first outdoor mall and is now a star in its own right.
The Studios takes you from Hollywood Blvd. to Sunset Blvd., just as it would in “real” life, were you on a sight-seeing junket in Los Angeles, only, there are rides—not many, but well worth the visit. Still, the Studios is more for strolling than for running from attraction to attraction, which, again, is authentic to the Hollywood experience, where you’ll want to spend some time browsing the shops, watching the street performers, and getting a quick bite or meal at a local eatery.
If you grew up in Los Angeles, you know that Farmers Market isn’t just a historical monument but a place still very much frequented for fresh produce, homemade peanut butter, pizza by the slice, soft ice cream and handmade carmel apples, and abalone shells and souvenirs. Disney’s Studios did such a faithful job reproducing it, we nearly walked right past it as if we were home. Admittedly, we were also focused on picking up a FastPass for “Rockin’ Rollercoaster” on our way to “The [Twilight Zone] Hollywood Tower of Terror, where we’d pick up a Fastpass on our way out. Truth be, we’d go back and forth between “Rockin’ Rollercoaster” and “Tower of Terror” all day if we could—”The Tower” is just up the street and up the hill—right where you’d expect a secluded hotel for the Hollywood elite to be located. If you’re a Twilight Zone fan but don’t like that plummeting feeling, at least go through the first part of the queue. You won’t be disappointed. The queue for “Rockin’,” on the other hand, is mostly unpleasant—even with a Fastpass. But it does have a few genius touches that help you forgive and accept—unless you’re good with that sardine in a can feeling as you cram into a small club to see a cool group, which, in this case, is Aerosmith.
At the corner of Hollywood and Sunset is the renowned “Brown Derby” restaurant meticulously resurrected—celebrity caricatures, Cobb salad and all—from its infamous past near Hollywood & Vine. Even if you didn’t make a reservation at this signature restaurant in the park, don’t miss the opportunity to explore this tour de force from Hollywood’s legendary past—and that includes the restroom!
Keep going and you’ll come to “The Magic of Disney Animation” pavilion, which can be entered directly or from the 10-minute movie, Drawn to Animation, hosted by Mulan’s Mushu (Eddie Murphy). Either way, this is an impressively immersive experience, despite the activities being aimed more at children than adults. Still, the concepts behind animation and the different skills required for each of the “layers” that contribute to a single “cel” or frame will widen your eyes with awe and appreciation even if you thought you knew plenty already, and especially when you see all the Academy Awards—yes, the actual statues—Disney’s won for animation over the years. There’s even an animator on premises—particularly fitting since this was the original workplace for the Disney animators—on display in a glass room surrounded by Disney memorabilia. Take photos, because you can’t possibly identify all the wonderful treasures in a single viewing.
Pull yourself away and continue on to Pixar Place, home of one of the park’s highlight experiences, “Toy Story Midway Mania.” Unless you had the foresight to get a Fastpass or make a Magic Plus reservation, this 3D animated carnival-game extravaganza is consistently an hour wait—and for good reason. Even the queue is magical, pulling you into the world of Toy Story and casting you as one of the toys.
From there you can circle ’round Echo Park, a charming representation of Hollywood’s past, with entertainment-based attractions, fun eateries and snack spots, and a larger than life Gertie the Dinosaur, who holds court in Echo Lake as the first dinosaur to appear in animated form (in 1914 by Winsor McCay). Stroll up the Streets of America for a sightseeing extravaganza, Hollywood-style, of New York City and San Francisco. Facades with forced perspectives and realistic window settings, doorways and awnings make every step a photo op, and authentic city sounds are a subtle add to the believability factor. Even in this make-believe version of Hollywood, illusion is real.
Leaving the Studios is a lot like leaving Hollywood: The city lights turn dusk into a magical experience of sparkles and rainbows that makes everything feel like a real-life fantasy and you’re ready to explore everything anew. And you can. And if you’re hitting the Studios between November and January, you’ll be treated to a spectacle like no other: the Osborne Lights. The Streets of America are a fun tour of famous sights in the daylight, but when you see every square inch illuminated with Christmas lights and Disney cheer, you will know what it’s like to be the happiest kid that ever was, even if you were never that kid.
Regardless of the timing of your visit, Disney’s Hollywood Studios blends the past with the present, and the glamour and glitter with just the right amount of grit. Here you can be a tourist, a movie buff or enthusiastic audience, or a window-shopping sightseer with a taste for destination dining. The Studios offers high entertainment value and a lot of different ways to experience it.