The official description from 1989 of The Magic of Animation pavilion at Disney MGM Studios was “The new Animation Building at the Disney-MGM Studios is a working animation studio that just happens to have visiting hours. The magic of Disney animation is created here, every day, by a staff of over eighty talents artists and technicians who are producing new featurettes, starring classic Disney characters, for theatrical and cable release.
“Inside: Films provide the insiders’ view of animation. Exhibits explain the intrcacies of ink and paint, extremes and in-betweens. The Disney Animation Collection presents stunning art from sixty years of animated filmmaking. Guests watch from soundproof walkways as animators create new adventures for beloved Disney characters.”
Following in the tradition of the Art of Animation exhibit that was at Tomorrowland at Disneyland from May 28, 1960 to September 5, 1966 that tried to explain the process of animation, display Disney art and then provide related merchandise like How to Draw books, cels and flip books, the Magic of Disney Animation pavilion tried to “plus” that experience.
In 1988, WDI approached former Imagineer Bob Rogers and his BRC company to create a tour of a working animation studio to handle approximately a thousand guests an hour. In addition, BRC was responsible for scripting and producing the three different films shown during the tour: Back to Neverland, Animators on Animation and Disney Classics.
The experience began in a movie theater (this theater and the finale theater each holding approximately 250 audience members), then moved through all the departments of an animation studio–storyboard, layout, character animation, etc.–in elevated tiered passageways that allowed the guests to view the artists behind glass enclosures. On overhead screens, brief animated segments helped explain what was happening in each step of the process.
The animators at Disney Feature Animation Florida referred to this area as “the fishbowl” referencing that they felt like goldfish in a bowl being constantly looked at by gawkers as they did their regular tasks. They sometimes put signs or things on their desks to amuse the guests, including occasionally inappropriate items or tried to locate themselves towards the back of the room.
“I worked on Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990) short at the Florida studio and was in the fish bowl for most of it,” remembered my long time friend, animator Mark Kausler who also worked on the Back to Neverland short. “I remember shooting a scene on 3/4 inch video one day and looked up to see Jeffery Katzenberg looking at me from the other side of the glass! I picked a good time to be shooting!
“Michael Eisner occasionally dropped in on us wearing shorts and sneakers and a Mickey T-shirt. Singer Rosemary Clooney and cartoonist Jim Davis (Garfield) came by and so many others. It’s so hard to realize that the whole Florida studio is history now.
“I didn’t hate being on display in Florida so much; they took such good care of us that you couldn’t complain. There was a pitch room for story and music right next to the glass and sometimes we would gather in there and pretend to pitch story ideas to amuse the guests.”
At the end of the tour, guests queued up in a carpeted lobby area for their final film experience in another movie theater which was a retrospective montage collection of clips of highlights from Disney animated films.
While waiting to enter the Disney Classics Theater to see this show, on the walls of the lobby were screens with short clips of Disney animators talking about the creation of Disney characters and their love of animation called “Animators on Animation”. When it finished, an animator or show artist was seated in front of an animation desk on a elevated platform showing how to draw a character and discussing animation (and sometimes avoiding the often-asked question of what films he had worked on and what he did).
After the finale film, guests moved into a museum-like display of artwork, cels, maquettes, duplicates of Oscars won by Disney for animation and more items usually promoting the latest Disney animated project and then exited into a store selling animation related merchandise.
This original version of the tour ran from opening day until it closed on September 30th, 2003 where it was replaced with a much different version since the Disney Feature Animation Florida unit had been dissolved.
For the original tour, guests quickly determined that the best time to visit was usually Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm because it coincided with the regular working hours of the artists. Although occasionally, there might be a small handful of people working in the evenings or on weekends, in general, it was during the weekday hours that most of the areas were filled.
In 1998, Disney Feature Animation Florida moved from temporary backstage trailers into a new $70 million facility designed specifically for animation that was connected to the area with the tour. At the studio’s height in the mid-1990s, it employed approximately 400 artists and technicians.
To consolidate production, the Disney Company closed its Orlando annex division officially on Monday, January 12th, 2004 as well as its animation annex studios in Paris and Tokyo and the animation building was converted into office space for different departments.
The new version of the animation tour that began in 2004 reversed the pathway and began in the Disney Classics Theater where guests interacted with a Disney show artist (not necessarily an actual Disney animator) who bantered with an animated Mushu the small dragon from Mulan (1998), ironically a film made entirely at the Florida studio.
Then guests journeyed pass display cases, an interactive area including an opportunity to learn how to draw a Disney character and meet Disney costumed characters. This version closed on July 12th, 2015 and the area was remade into the Star Wars Launch Bay.
On May 1st, 1989, the pavilion was dedicated.
Roy E. Disney talked at a podium set up in the front of the attraction where he emphasized that hand drawn animation was really the focal point of the Disney Company. He continued to talk about the fact that animation was the start of the Disney Company and that with the newly opened Disney Feature Animation Studio Florida “a new day for animation will be dawning”.
The animated feature film The Little Mermaid would debut in November, just six months later, proving Roy absolutely correct.
Joining in the dedication were several Disney Legends who had made significant contributions to animation: Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Ken O’Connor and Ken Anderson. O’ Connor was there because he had worked as an art consultant on the Back to Neverland short film in the pavilion.
There was also a ceremony where these six animation legends put their handprints and autographs (along with imprints of their drawing pencils) into cement blocks to be placed in an alcove of the outdoor animation courtyard inside the building.
Those hidden handprints were available for every guest to enjoy until they were removed when the Star Wars Launch Bay opened on December 1st, 2015.
So, today, where once guests eagerly learned the secrets of Disney animation and watched talented artists hard at work, now they greet Kylo Ren and Chewbacca and enjoy galleries and games themed to a galaxy far, far away.
Disney Films Done at Disney Feature Animation Florida:
The Little Mermaid (1989) — Florida artists contributed ink and paint support to the film
The Rescuers Down Under (1990) — About 10 minutes of the 77-minute sequel to 1977’s The Rescuers was animated in Florida, as well as 10 minutes of the Mickey Mouse short feature The Prince and the Pauper double-billed with the movie.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) — Florida animators assisted in the “Be Our Guest” sequence.
The Lion King (1994) — Florida animators provided about 20 minutes of the film, including the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” sequence
Pocahontas (1995) — Florida animators contributed about 18 minutes to the film, including scenes involving Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) — Florida animators were only responsible for about 4 minutes of this movie, including scenes involving both Quasimodo and the villain Judge Frollo.
Mulan (1998) — This was the first animated feature film produced primarily by Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida at Disney-MGM Studios, all while theme park guests watched. It is also the first Disney animated feature made outside of Burbank.
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) Additional Animation Production Services
Dinosaur (2000) Additional Animation Production Services
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Additional Animation Production Services
Lilo and Stitch (2002) — Made almost entirely in Florida, this film was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature.
Brother Bear (2003) — The last major film to be released by the Florida studio. In development at the time was another feature entitled “My Peoples” (also known as “A Few Good Ghosts” and “Once in a Blue Moon”) that was cancelled.
Other projects done at the Feature Animation Florida included the Roger Rabbit short cartoons Tummy Trouble (1989), Rollercoaster Rabbit (1990) and Trail Mix-Up (1993), the shorts John Henry (2000), Off His Rockers (1992), How to Haunt a House (1998) for Toon Disney featuring Goofy, a Manatee PSA (1992), and in 1993 “The House meets The Mouse Parts 1 and 2” (A Non-Disney Project for Warner Bros. Television’s Full House) (Animated Segment for “Joey’s Caricature” and Cameo (Uncredited except for Mark Henn)).