Streets of America

Streets of America.
Streets of America. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

This weekend, fencing was put around the Streets of America Backlot at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s the end of an era for this significant piece of the park, that was built for opening day in 1989. Indeed, the backlot tram used to literally go down these streets until it was deemed that more pedestrian area was needed in the park. Since then, it has become a cornerstone of the park–especially remembered during the holidays with the Osborne Lights.

One thing that makes a movie studio unique is its backlot. Like the Streets of America Backlot, the original Disney Studios held a backlot as well. Disney’s backlot in Burbank was smaller than that of most studios. But it was used extensively. Anytown USA became home to The Absent-Minded Professor and That Darn Cat. Business Street provided a backdrop to The Ugly Dachshund and Follow Me, Boys! Western Street was used for The Apple Dumpling Gang and other Disney Westerns, but it could also be altered for films like Pete’s Dragon. A dedicated backlot set was created for the television series Zorro, but it would also be used for Monkeys, Go Home! and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.

Streets of America
Not only did the Disney Studios utilize backlots, it would even use its animation studios as a setting for Midfield College in films such as Son of Flubber and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The premise of a backlot is simple. It costs a lot of money to go on location, so by creating façades on studio property, you saved time and money. For decades, studios used backlots, and they still do to some degree, even though computer graphics now make it more realistic and in some ways more affordable than filming on a backlot.

Streets of America
In an effort to be resourceful, Walt had a bungalow built in 1935 moved from the Hyperion Studios to the new Burbank Studios. It still stands today. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

One thing will always be for certain: movies cost a lot and producers are always looking for ways to make them for less. “Making do with less” is a reality even for a magical place like Disney. It’s been a mantra for the Walt Disney Company for as long as there has been a Walt Disney Company. Between fantastic hits like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Mary Poppins and Pirates of the Caribbean, there were somber, difficult times when budgets were hacked and people had to “make do with less”.

To get a sense of this, one of the sets on the Streets of America is a re-creation of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Actual rights to shoot at the hotel could not be obtained when Big Business, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, was being filmed, so the Plaza was created on backlots and sound stages. To recoup construction costs, Disney built a sitcom called The Nutt House and reused the set. Also, from those designs, set pieces were employed as part of the décor for the original Soundstage Restaurant at the Studios. Even the restaurant has since been retired and re-used as the Playhouse Disney Theater.  Disney recycles whenever possible.

The Plaza Hotel on the Streets of America backlot. Photo by J. Jeff Kober
The Plaza Hotel on the Streets of America backlot. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It can also be about getting the biggest bang for your investment. One way that is happening here is that the same Star Wars Land going into Disney’s Hollywood Studios will be a near mirror of the land going into Disneyland out in California. This way, there will be investment savings in the upfront costs of designing and developing the concepts that will go into this land.

This illustration by Disney reflects the amount of room needed to build the new Star Wars Land.
This illustration by Disney reflects the amount of room needed to build the new Star Wars Land, going where Streets of America once was.

Curiously, while all of this is happening, some bloggers suggest that because of Shanghai Disney’s costs, other areas of the operation are having to trim back. I’m not sure that there is such a direct correlation. But every big new adventure Disney has had required having to hold your breath. In the event of Disneyland opening, managers even had to hold their checks until the monies were available in the bank.

At the end of the day, it’s about quality…and about being creative around making do with less. It’s how you approach ventures resourcefully as well as creatively that makes the magic in your business.

By the way, one of the great places to read about this fantastic park is my book, Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz. It is the most complete book on Disney’s Hollywood Studios ever written. In it you will find stories and details you never considered–and all of them tier up to better understanding your own organization. From the Tower of Terror to the Streets of America, I promise you, it’s not only a fun read–but one that will give you insights you haven’t considered to your day to day work.

Disney's Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz. By J. Jeff Kober.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: From Show Biz to Your Biz. By J. Jeff Kober.

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