In the late ’80s and throughout most of the ’90s, the fast-paced world of film and television production had become a budding industry for international interest and public engagement more than it had ever been before. Conjointly, the sunny shores of Orlando, Florida had skyrocketed as a popular location for film and TV production. The coastal city became an industry equal to that of Los Angeles and New York City and a hotbed for screen talent and scenic filming locations. Following the model set by Universal Studios Hollywood, this climate brought about the rise of Universal Studios Florida (later renamed Universal Orlando Resort) and Walt Disney World’s Disney-MGM Studios (later renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Each billed itself as a unique blend of an interactive working film set and an amusement theme park.

With these parks, Orlando was positioned to become a new filmmaking capital and vacation destination, crown-jeweled by these working production studio lots that showcased how the magic of the movies happens firsthand through public tours, special effects demonstrations, and larger-than-life stunt shows. Throughout the ’90s, these studios exhibited the ways of modern filmmaking and housed productions for the entire industry. While these parks allowed guests a sneak peek into live-action filmmaking, it was Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World that gave the public an intimate look at how Walt Disney brings their animated films to life.

As an opening attraction for Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, “The Magic of Disney Animation” took guests on a guided tour of the animation process, much in the spirit of other slower-paced, “edutainment” attractions like Magic Kingdom’s “The Hall of Presidents” and EPCOT’s “Living with the Land”. Guests were treated to a history of the studio’s films, exhibits of original artwork and animation cels, and interactive activities like the Animation Academy, where a Disney artist gives a crash course on how to draw a popular animated character. The Animation Academy was later transferred to Disney’s California Adventure Park, where it still operates today, to the delight of aspiring artists and animation fans. The attraction was also honored by the cement handprints of legendary “Nine Old Men” animators such as Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, and Marc Davis.

The most famous aspect of the attraction was the pre-show film, which explained the animation process in an entertaining way. The first one, “Back to Neverland”, starred Walter Cronkite as he gave a very eager Robin Williams an up-close and personal tour through the animation process, transforming him into an animated lost boy before Robin faced off against Peter Pan’s Captain Hook in Neverland. This short comically demonstrated the animation and original ink-and-paint cel process and was later updated to include the then-new CAPS program of digital art assembly that Disney revolutionized and used regularly, starting with The Rescuers Down Under. This pre-show was later replaced with “Drawn to Animation”, where Mulan’s Mushu would interact with a live park host to explain how stories and designs for animated characters would evolve over the course of a production. This pre-show would also include a teaser of the latest upcoming Disney and Pixar animated films. Both of these pre-shows included appearances from current studio animators working and echoed other behind-the-scenes featurettes like The Reluctant Dragon and The Wonderful World of Disney.

While seemingly billed on the surface as just another park attraction at first glance, the building was not only a living interactive art museum but also served as a fully operational animation production facility stationed within the park itself. The second new animation building to be made for the Walt Disney Animation studios since the 40s and the first one on the East Coast, Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Florida studio was where some of the company’s most celebrated sequences and films of the 90s renaissance were created right before park guests’ eyes. Full animation and coloring for select characters and scenes for films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King were done at the start of the decade in conjunction with the Burbank studio. Musical numbers like “Be Our Guest” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” were entirely produced within feet of Walt Disney World guests.

As the 90s continued and the animation workload for Disney progressed, the Orlando studio took on the task of being the sole production home for shorts like the Roger Rabbit spin-offs Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up, John Henry and How to Haunt a House starring Goofy and Donald Duck. The Florida studio’s greatest claim to fame was that they served as the home for the entire production of Mulan (1998), Lilo and Stitch (2002), and Brother Bear (2003). These three films maintained much of the same crew and held similar, subtle artistic styles and designs throughout each of them, making them aesthetically stand out from the work of their Burbank contemporaries. The films produced by this team incorporated painterly backgrounds and softer-edged character designs that made them appealing and greatly contrasted with the sharper characters and detailed backgrounds of Burbank-produced films like The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Over the course of 15 years, some of Disney animation’s most iconic characters and films were made within a short distance of pretzel stands and gift shops. While the building has since been replaced by Star Wars Launch Bay and is now occupied by Stormtroopers and Jedi warriors, the environment of the facility and the interest in animation that the studio fostered in its guests are emblematic of the Disney Renaissance decade. The Orlando parks may not be as active a spot for film production as they were in the past, but the opportunity for guests to see the work that goes into movie magic created incredible experiences that served as insight and inspiration into the world of moviemaking.

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