Is The Walt Disney Studios Park a Disney Park? That’s a seemingly odd question given that it’s a park and it’s owned by Disney. Logic would thus dictate that it’s a Disney Park. However, the question this article poses is whether the Walt Disney Studios Park has the defining characteristics of a Disney theme park, and whether it’s appropriate to categorize it as such in the absence of such characteristics.
Like other contemporary theme parks that purport to be a “studios” park, the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris is criticized for not being a working studio. It’s also not a working Disney theme park. The park was conceived of in the late 1990s as a quick fix idea for problems plaguing Disneyland Paris since even before its opening, and WDSP has since struggled to find an audience since opening in 2002. It is now widely regarded as the worst Disney theme park on the planet.
It hasn’t turned Disneyland Resort Paris into the multi-day “destination” resort necessary to fill the plethora of empty Disney hotel rooms at Disneyland Resort Paris, but rather has had its own problems that arguably overshadow those of Disneyland Paris. It has expanded and added attractions at a pretty decent clip since opening, and it is now seeing its most ambitious expansion: a “Streets of Paris” area with a Ratatouille E-Ticket dark ride (titled “Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy”…yeah, we’ll just called it the Ratatouille dark ride here). Early speculation is comparing this to Mystic Manor and Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, flagship attractions at their respective parks that showcase the best of Walt Disney Imagineering.
No matter how good, the Ratatouille dark ride will not fix the Walt Disney Studios Park. I fully expect it to be a great attraction, but I don’t think any number of great attractions, on their own, can fix the Walt Disney Studios Park. The quality of the Walt Disney Studios Park was very disappointing to me, especially following two days in Disneyland Paris, which I found to be the most beautiful Disney Castle park in the world. Based upon my sharp criticism of the Walt Disney Studios Park in our Disneyland Paris Trip Report, it should come as no surprise that I am not a fan of the Walt Disney Studios Park. However, I didn’t really expand upon my views there, and with WDSP receiving some attention for the upcoming Ratatouille expansion, I thought this would be a good topic to cover.
I’ve received several questions about this park, most wondering if I’m exaggerating. That comes as no surprise. The attraction lineup at WDSP isn’t half bad. They have a version of Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and Tower of Terror, plus excellent unique attractions like AniMagique, CineMagique, and Crush’s Coaster. Actually, it’s not just these 5 attractions–arguably Stitch Live!, the whole of Toy Story Playland (I’m not a fan of it, but people seem to like it), and other attractions are good, too. On paper, it seems very comparable to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, with the three original attractions compensating for what’s missing from Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
I’m no fan of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but these parks aren’t in the same league. In fact, they aren’t even playing the same sport. Literally. For all of Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ faults, it is a Disney theme park–emphasis on theme. Much of that theme has been eroded over the years and in many ways it’s thematically broken, but at its core, much of it still does work. By contrast, the Walt Disney Studios Park is not a theme park, it’s a collection of attractions.
Some people might say: “So what? Attractions are the core of the theme park experience.” To that I say SO EVERYTHING. Theme is the core of the theme park experience, with attractions being a critical element of that. A Disney theme park fails without both parts succeeding. If theme is not a primary concern, and you’re just interested in fun rides, plenty of amusement parks rival Disney (or do better, if you’re a thrills junkie) when it comes to assembling collections of rides. I have no intention of opening that particular can of worms right now, but I think this paragraph could be applied to other parks that are frequently compared to Disney’s theme parks. Successful theme parks aspire to be something more than collections of attractions. Even Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach do a significantly better job of this than the Walt Disney Studios Park.
Not many people defend the Walt Disney Studios Park, but when I’ve mentioned issues of theme elsewhere, its fans object. The most common counter-point is that it’s a studios park, and its design captures the feel of studios, which have a lot of big box soundstages and not much else. This is true, but I think it’s an awful argument. All it demonstrates is that real studios are dull places without much visual character. This itself begs the question: why closely design a park to the theme of “studio”? Success on execution of that theme is design failure.
To be fair, this argument is not unique to WDSP fans. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has a similar problem with fans of Dinorama, and its fans claim that it perfectly captures the feel of a tacky roadside carnival. The problem with this thinking is that the underlying assumption is that anything, so long as its thematic design is well-executed, is an appropriate theme for a Disney park. I personally do not believe this to be the case. I would hope that when the words “big box” and “tacky” are the first words that come to mind when describing a theme, people would have pause in assuming that theme is appropriate for a park. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, so let’s take the example further.
Let’s say I dream up this ambitious idea for a land themed to a landfill. Landfillorama will have great attractions such as the “Garbage Mountain Coaster,” where riders race down mountain sides of carefully detailed garbage (complete with 53 Hidden Mickeys strategically placed through the garbage), and an excellent 3D game utilizing the Toy Story Mania technology to find and shoot items that should be recycled (be careful not to shoot the friendly raccoon munching on trash–that’ll cost you 100 points!). Fun competition plus a message of conservation–what’s not to love? Tons of design effort will go into the land, and it will even have authentic pungent odors pumped through the land, and a roaming band of A Capella entertainers called “Give Us a Five or a Dime,” who sing classic panhandling tunes (in keeping with theme, these artists will only shower once weekly). It will be totally on point, and don’t worry, there will be an incredible backstory explaining just what went terribly wrong causing this landfill to inexplicably emerge where it is. It will be so well-themed that you will literally be able to immerse yourself in the garbage.
Even if perfectly done, would that be an acceptable land for a theme park? (I know it sounds super rad, but the answer to that question should be “no.”) The same goes for a studio theme that is overly faithful to its source material. Knowing this, the designers of the Disney-MGM Studios got this right when they originally designed the park. Soundstages were present, but were dotted throughout a park that included a lot of other placemaking and design elements related to Hollywood generally, rather than to the specific location of a studio.
Under close inspection, the theme of the Disney-MGM Studios actually fell apart. It had the working studio and the soundstages to give it the feel of a studio, but elements like Hollywood Boulevard, Echo Lake, and (later) Sunset Boulevard, were actually incongruous with the overarching studio theme. Yet they passed the smell test and actually enhanced the park because they embodied the spirit of filmmaking, and for most guests, that was what mattered. Theme parks require an inherent amount of suspending disbelief, and many elements work on a level of “feeling right,” despite not standing up to intense intellectual scrutiny. Some things work (e.g., a Skyway bucket passing through the Matterhorn) but make very little sense. This is one reason why being a theme park designer is such a difficult proposition: it’s just as much a matter of good instinct and a finger on the pulse of what feels right as it is about an analytic and intellectual understanding of design.
More succinctly put, a high prevalence of generic looking soundstages is not a good design choice, even if it does make the park more closely resemble a studio. That doesn’t feel right in terms of what makes a good theme park. The Walt Disney Studios Park needs to drop the pretense that it’s somehow a “studio.” This leads into the next point, which is related to the first, and the second biggest problem of the Walt Disney Studios Park. Studio 1 is not an appropriate “opening act” to the theme park. Again, the counter-point here is that it’s on-theme, and sets the tone for the park. Unfortunately, I think it sets a poor tone for the park. It would be a neat idea for multiple dining options under one roof in the back corner of the park, but the tone it sets is not a good one. Instead of embracing the tone found in every single other Disney park where design is used to create an illusion of some grand concept, here illusion is exposed, front and center as cut-out props, cameras, and false fronts are on full display. It’s like “Bizarro Hollywood Boulevard,” where everything is made of plywood and none of the buildings are real.
The soundstage idea is neat in theory as it puts a roof over guests’ heads to shelter them from the elements, but execution is terrible, and it’s only a good idea in theory (Arcades, by contrast, are a good idea in actuality). Besides just looking cheap and tacky, it immediately raises the curtain and takes guests back stage, rather than setting a stage and introducing guests to the park in an awe-inspiring manor. There is no wienie drawing them further into the park, it’s just a cheap pass through what feels like a mall food court with some slap-shod “in the movies” decorations thrown in for good measure. It is to Hollywood Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios what the Art of Animation Cars section is to Cars Land–and that’s being harsh on the Art of Animation Resort. If the Walt Disney Studios Park is ever to succeed as a Disney theme park, Studio 1 needs the Disney California Adventure treatment. The look of WDSP’s opening act should match the courtyard before Studio 1, which is a pretty nice area.
My third major concern is general design and landscaping. The design and layout really leave something to be desired. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is even something that can be fixed. Reworking pathways and adding a compelling icon (some specific free advice: the Partners statue set against the false street fronts simply does not work) may not even be possible. What would be possible is adding some water features and gradation to the park. At present, it feels like it could have been installed on an old parking lot. To my knowledge, there are no lakes or ponds in the park, nor is there much of anything in the way of landscaping. It’s just flat paved land. Water and gradation aren’t things that are quantified on other theme parks’ guest satisfaction surveys, but they give parks kinetic energy and are a big part of what separates theme parks from amusement parks. These attributes engage guests and add to the experience, even if most guests don’t notice or can’t articulate why. This is part of the reason why people prefer actual parks to a collection of rides set up at the edge of Wal-Mart parking lots (beyond just the general shady feel of the latter).
What else does the Walt Disney Studios Park need to do succeed as a Disney theme park? That’s it. You’ll notice I didn’t mention any attractions. While every theme park fan always wants more attractions (myself included), I don’t think that’s WDSP’s biggest concern. It definitely needs more, but the thematic design quality issues are more pressing. Unfortunately, the things I’ve listed here are not exactly marketable improvements. While the Ratatouille dark ride can be successfully marketed and can easily be quantified in terms of its effect on attendance, you can’t exactly market, “AWESOME NEW PLACEMAKING AND BETTER THEMATIC DESIGN!!1!!!”
These things are just as important in the long term as the impact guest satisfaction, spending, word of mouth, etc., but the connection is much more difficult to quantify. My assumption is that it’s difficult for designers to get a greenlight on expending large sums of money on “expansions” that revolve around these types of changes (likely why Buena Vista Street was rolled into an expansion that included Cars Land…even though I think Buena Vista Street transformed the park more, Cars Land is what is marketed). This seems like a big hurdle for WDSP to overcome, as it seems like its initial choices in building the park were made by non-creatives on the basis of only things that could be easily quantified in an effort to keep costs down. Since that approach clearly has not worked, perhaps it’s time to revisit the Walt Disney Studios Park. Let the creatives do their jobs in making a fully realized theme park that is worthy of having “Walt Disney” in its name.
Regardless of whether you’ve been or just seen photos, what do you think of the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris? Does it look like a Disney theme park to you, or do you agree that serious design fixes are needed to turn this into a park worthy of Walt’s name? Please share your thoughts in the comments!