For a lot of tourists a trip to Los Angeles has the usual elements: the Walk of Fame, a trip to the beach, pictures of the Hollywood sign, a bus tour of celebrity homes and hotspots, and maybe a side trip to Disneyland. For those who love film and television a studio tour might be on the itinerary. Paramount and Warner Brothers offer once-in-a-lifetime tours of real, working facilities (sorry Universal, but most of the time you’re a theme park and when you do film we can’t see it from the trams).
For Disney fans the historic Walt Disney Studios in Burbank would be on that list except for one big thing: they’re close to the public. There is one easy way to get a tour, though: be a D23 Gold or Family member and participate in D23 Day. We participated in 2016 and were so thrilled to finally see where the magic gets made.
D23 Day is a ticketed event for D23 Gold and Family members. Since I’m a Gold member I can bring a guest (pack your bags Busy Bumble!), but Family members can bring four people including the main card holder. When you sign up there are different time slots for your tour with a cap on how many people can be in a slot. While no one time is better than the others, the tour does take around 2-3 hours, barring any stops or emergencies, so if you have other plans think about that when choosing a tour time.
All D23 events held at the Studios require you to present identification to security before entering and parking. Your name will be on a list of attendees. If you feel any worry about whether or not you’ll be on the list make sure to print out your confirmation email from D23 as proof. I’ve never had a problem and I’ve not heard from other members of an issue, but you can never be too careful.
We signed in with Cast Members at the Hyperion Bungalow. This history structure was the first home for the fledgling Disney Studios and was where many of Walt Disney’s early shorts were created. It used to be in another part of Los Angeles but was moved to the current Studio property and is used for various functions throughout the year.
All of the Cast Members who participate in D23 events are Walt Disney Company employees who volunteer their time to share with fans like us. Our tour guide for the day, Susan, was a former Marketing employee for the Disney Stores in the 90s. We were also accompanied by a Studio security officer and a Disneyland Cast Member who assisted with keeping the group together.
There is a lot of cover on the tour and our guide kept us moving as quickly as possible so tour groups didn’t overlap. We toured on a Saturday so we wouldn’t interfere with the workday tasks of Studio employees, but even so they wanted to keep us on time and on task.
Walt Disney Company Flag
The Walt Disney Company has an actual official flag, but it only flies in one place: here at the Studios. For those who know the differences between all the different styles of Mickey Mouse and his common poses, which one is depicted on the flag?
Hyperion Health Club
What is now the company gym used to be the Casting offices. Familiar names like Annette Funicello and Kurt Russell once screen tested here and started their careers with Disney.
The Mickey Topiary
A bit of a folly from Michael Eisner’s time as CEO, this is the last remaining topiary from one of his sillier decisions. Mr. Eisner was fond of how lush the landscaping could be at Walt Disney World and wanted to put character topiaries all over the Studio. The thing he didn’t think about was that California growing weather was different from Florida’s and that the Studio did not employ gardeners to care of topiaries the same way the theme parks employed horticulturists and gardeners to care for just the plants.
The Studio groundskeepers care for the landscaping but had no experience with topiaries. Then there was the water bill to keep the things growing. They ended up removing all of them except for this one, which is supposed to look like Mickey. The employees seem to roll their eyes at the “resemblance”, too.
Saint Joseph Medical Center
This medical center is right across the street from the Studio and is notable as the place where Walt Disney died.
The Buena Vista Cafe
This company commissary is just one place where employees can grab a bite to eat these days. This cafeteria is notable for always selling Walt’s famous chili.
Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive; Pluto’s Corner
This sign is very famous as a symbol of the Studios. While the lanes on the property really have names this sign is actually inaccurate. It’s a prop! It was made for the short film The Reluctant Dragon, which had a segment detailing the filmmaking process. This prop was part of the film to give viewers a guide to the various departments of the Studios.
Right beside it is what’s known as Pluto’s Corner. It has a brightly painted fire hydrant and cheeky evidence that a certain canine stepped in wet cement. Count how many paw prints are there. Why do think there are only three? Someone had a sense of humor.
The Studio Theatre
Nope, Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t currently playing. This small cinema is where films tested for company execs and Walt himself. D23 hosts screening events here throughout the year so fans can have a chance to experience Disney films on the same historic screen.
The Old Campus Buildings
Since Disney Feature Animation has changed over the years a new building exists across the street that holds all the talent and tech behind your favorite films since the 1990s. The old Animation and Ink and Paint buildings are a bit of history that are still in use today as various offices and studios. The buildings were laid out to make sure that animators and other employees always had the best light available. There are wings, courtyards, and atriums all designed to allow maximum light inside. Different animation tasks were assigned rooms on specific sides of the building so that they could get the best light for their work (color painting on one side, black and white on the other, etc.)
There are also buildings for other specifics departments: Shorts, Cutting, etc. It makes you appreciate how complex a task animation was when it was first becoming popular. One of the big problems for the process was making sure that exposure to dust and light was kept at a minimum (dust = specks on the big screen). A tunnel was constructed beneath the Animation and Ink and Paint buildings to make sure that no cel would ever encounter the outside environment.
Stages B and C
This soundstage is where much of the music for Disney films was recorded. It is still in use today as a recording studio for various projects.
Stages 1 and 2
These soundstages are the largest on the property and can hold colossal sets and filming equipment. These soundstages have played host to countless films and television shows.
Stage 1 has some fun, relatively current history: Our tour guide told us she was on site the day they loaded the Black Pearl onto the stage to film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. That was probably the biggest set she’s recalled seeing.
Stage 2 is known as the Julie Andrews Soundstage. This is because Mary Poppins was filmed inside! There is a plaque honoring Ms. Andrews and the production of Mary Poppins on the outside. Cherry Tree Lane was built inside as well as other sets for the film.
Because this is a working film studio there are a lot of little things hinting at the filmmaking process. There are plenty of signs warning you to keep quiet or keep doors closed during filming.
The Studio Medical Center is staffed for simple workplace health (who wants a flu shot?) as well as emergencies. Imagine telling someone, “Yeah, I’m a nurse. I work at Walt Disney Studios.”
There are generators placed strategically throughout the Studio for everything from emergencies to the need for portable power. They’re all named after the dwarves from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
The Production Operations Center is home base for the many employees who aid in film production on a less glamorous scale. Parked outside are trucks, cranes, lifters, and other tools of the trade.
The ABC Building
Across the street near the freeway is the ABC Television building. This is where all the decision-making behind ABC is done. We did not tour this facility but it was cool to know this is where I should send fan mail/hate mail regarding ABC programming decisions. A number of the offices on the main campus hosted the creative teams behind ABC’s television shows. Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives, once had an office in the Animation building.
The Zorro Parking Structure
This is one of a few parking structures for employees and is the typical parking area for D23 events. It is named because this used to be an open backlot area used for the old Zorro television show in the 1960s. This ranch backlot was used on a number of films and television shows until the property had to be changed to accommodate the lane expansion on the Ventura Freeway. They needed somewhere to put parking, so the backlot is now a parking lot.
By the way, the parking spaces in here are the tiniest I have ever seen. I drive a Mini and I’ve had to crawl out through the passenger side because the car on my side was too close. And this was a normal parking space, not compact.
The Water Tower
It doesn’t have ears like the old Earful Tower from Hollywood Studios in Florida, but this is still a Burbank icon. As a child when we drove on the freeway and I’d see this water tower I’d get exciting thinking that was where Mickey lived.
The Feature Animation Building
The Studios can get confusing when talking about the Animation buildings. It really depends on context to figure out if a person is referring to the old Animation building on the main campus or the new Animation building across the street.
The new Animation building is the home of Feature Length Animation. Films from The Little Mermaid through Moana have been planned, created, and fine tuned here. The iconic Sorcerer’s hat can be seen from the freeway and provides a whimsical exterior that most studio buildings lack. While we did not get a chance to tour inside I’ve heard that the inside is like a living museum of artwork, artifacts, and technology from the entire history of Walt Disney Animation.
Walt Disney Motion Picture Archive
Physical and digital copies of all film work done by the Company is kept in this unassuming building. If someone wants to replicate something or a documentary needs footage, this is where they’re directed.
The Team Disney Building aka the Eisner Building
Another iconic building that’s on the property is the Team Disney building. With the seven dwarves acting like caryatids holding up the upper facade of the building, this is where the head honchos are. We didn’t get a chance to go inside, but this building like so many others on site is filled with sets, props, and artwork from various projects. Somewhere in there is Bob Iger planning his retirement strategy and succession plan (please don’t go Mr. Iger! You saved the company when Comcast wanted a hostile takeover!)
This stately courtyard is a place to honor those who have made significant contributions to the Walt Disney Company. In a place of honor is the famous Partners statue that theme park guests are familiar with. There is also the lesser known statue of Roy Disney with Minnie Mouse. In WDW’s Magic Kingdom there is a copy but many do not know this depicts Walt’s beloved brother who was such a critical part of creating and protecting the Walt Disney Company.
The columns in the courtyard have bronze plaques with each Legend’s hand prints and signature. A few Legends passed away or were unable to have their hands casted. In those cases an image of Mickey’s hand waving a wand is depicted. This was bittersweet as a number of these Legends played such an important part in my appreciation of Disney.
At the other end of the plaza opposite Partners is a stylized statue depicting Mickey’s hand, a magic wand, and icons of the Company such as Steamboat Willie Mickey, Sleeping Beauty castle, and more.
Our guide told us there is a special Hidden Mickey within this statue if we could find it. With the thing covered in various Mickeys it was hard to determine what was “hidden” and what was deliberate. Then I found him:
The Archives and Walt Disney’s Office
These were two surprise treats on our tour. There is so much that happened with these segments that I’ll post them separately. Suffice to say we were awed and thrilled.
In the End
This was an amazing opportunity and we’re so grateful to D23 and Walt Disney Studios for allowing fans a chance to be a part of the magic. This will be an annual event for D23 members, so if you want to take your own tour in the future you can sign up online at D23.com when dates are announced.