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Disney's Hollywood Studios: As it turns 30, the least-visited park gets ready for Star Wars crowds

LAKE BUENA VISTA — With a parade of characters from Mickey Mouse to Chewbacca, Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park marked its 30th anniversary on Wednesday, unveiling a new logo and looking ahead to changes.

The art deco park is an homage to the golden age of Tinseltown. And in true Hollywood fashion, the park has had some work done.

It is the only Disney theme park that has been so radically altered. No original attractions are in operation today, and only one show that debuted in 1989 remains — the Indiana Jones stunt show.

It's also the least visited of Disney's four theme parks. But after the makeover currently in the works and the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, it may soon be the most in-demand theme park in Central Florida.

On opening day May 1, 1989, the band cranked up Hooray for Hollywood and comedian Bob Hope selected the first family to pass through the aqua turnstiles.

"This is the only place run by cartoon characters, unless you want to consider Washington, D.C.," Hope joked as he stood in front of Disney's re-creation of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, an exact scale replica of the original famed Hollywood movie palace.

The park was then called the Disney-MGM Studios. The stars came out for opening day. After Bette Midler and Disney CEO Michael Eisner came a steady stream of vintage cars carrying Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Leonard Nimoy, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Betty White, John Ritter and dozens of others.

When MGM declined to renew its licensing deal in 2008, Disney removed MGM from the title, and the park became known as Disney's Hollywood Studios.

The park's original vision was as a working studio. A new version of the Mickey Mouse Club on the Disney Channel was filmed there, launching the careers of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling and Christina Aguilera. And Disney's Florida animation studio created the films Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear before Disney closed it in 2004.

RELATED: 10 things you can buy for less than a one-day ticket to Walt Disney World

Disney raised its daily admission rates in conjunction with the new park's opening, charging $29 a day for adults and $23 for children for any of its parks. This March, Disney World announced price hikes of 15 to 30 percent in advance of the Star Wars attractions. It now uses a fluctuating price system for its four parks of $109 to $159, with the highest prices for in-demand days such as Christmas week.

When Disney opened the $500-million, 135-acre Central Florida complex, it had two sections: the themed area, which was the site of most of the major attractions, and the film production portion, where visitors rode trams and walked through a backstage tour. The last original attraction — the Great Movie Ride — closed in 2017.

The Indiana Jones stunt show premiered on Aug. 25, 1989, and the original Indy is still there, too. Kevin Brassard, 58, directs the show now. He remembers being star struck when he performed for George Lucas. In 1991, he recognized the cute 11 year old in the front row as Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin.

"I had started a tradition of giving my Indy hat to one of the kids in the audience and they had told me there would be a special guest that day," he said. "But I had no idea until I saw him.

A Disney publicity photographer was on hand to catch the moment and it went out on the national wires.

"He was so kind and so nice. It's one of my fondest memories."

Now the park is less about behind-the-scenes filmmaking and more about experiences, such as the new Toy Story Land, stage shows, thrill rides like the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster or the Star Tours 3D projection ride. And Disney is promising a deep fan experience for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Wednesday also marked the first day of new rules prohibiting smoking and large strollers at all parks.

Brassard sees the evolution of the Hollywood Studios as a good metaphor for changes in entertainment. Hokey shows gave way to high-tech thrill rides, and film tours gave way to detailed movie experiences.

"You've got to evolve or you are going to be the circus," Brassard said, "and that's no more, unfortunately."

To celebrate the anniversary, new nighttime show called Wonderful World of Animation premiered on the facade of the Chinese Theatre. Using state-of-the-art projection technology, the show celebrates nearly a century of animation, with nods to every Disney and Pixar animated feature film.

But the biggest movie franchise of the year, Marvel's Avengers, won't be part of it. While Disney parks around the world have made use of popular Marvel characters, Florida has not thanks to a complicated licensing agreement Disney inherited when it bought the Marvel brand. It prohibits Disney from using certain Marvel characters, as well as using the word "Marvel" in any theme park land in Florida.

There are no such restrictions on Star Wars, though. And Disney plans to go big with identical upcoming Star Wars-themed areas opening in California May 31 and at Hollywood Studios on Aug. 29. The domed buildings and rock spires in the 14-acre expansion are visible from a distance, even from the highway.

"The expansion wave hitting Disney's Hollywood Studios will redefine the guest experience at the formerly neglected park," the Motley Fool investor guide observed last fall. It noted that the park, "may not be much of a tourist draw now, but good luck elbowing your way through the crowds by late next year. Disney's Hollywood Studios is ready for its close-up."

Contacting Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow swynne@tampabay.com

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