I've been covering Central Florida's attractions in Orlando Weekly for almost a decade, but long before there was a Live Active Cultures column, Jim Hill's Eye Drive was watching the theme parks for the Weekly. Hill is now a popular Disney Dish podcaster and entertainment blogger for the Huffington Post, but he returned to talk with me about OW's occasionally contentious quarter-century covering Mickey's empire.
Orlando Weekly: How did you start writing for the Weekly?
Jim Hill: I was actually recruited by Jeff Truesdell. He had read "California Misadventure," a story that I had written for the OC Weekly ... and wanted to reprint it in Orlando Weekly.
As he and I were reworking "California Misadventure" so that it would be more Orlando-centric/friendly, Jeff and I got talking about how he wanted to start running a column in Orlando Weekly that would focus on Central Florida's theme parks and the people who worked there. I thought that that sounded like a fun gig.
What were some memorable stories you covered for OW?
I think the piece-by-piece dismantling of Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida at Disney-MGM Studios was probably the most memorable and toughest story to cover. I knew a number of people who worked there at that time ... operating at the very top of their game. And it was just sad and infuriating to watch all of these talented artists, animators and story people just get swept out the door because the micromanaging suits who were in charge of Feature Animation at Disney at that time didn't have a clue about how to make a movie that modern audiences would actually want to go to.
The best two films that were ever made at WDFAF – Mulan and Lilo & Stitch – slipped in under the wire. They were made at times when the execs back in Burbank were primarily focused on producing what they thought were prestige projects, Fantasia 2000 and Dinosaur, back in California. So they never thought to meddle with what was going on down in Florida. But once Stitch became the second hit in a row to come out of WDFAF, that's when Disney's supposedly creative executives turned their attention to the company's animation studio in Florida.
Did you ever get any reaction (positive or negative) from the parks or insiders about something you wrote for OW?
I had a number of animators reach out and thank me for shining a spotlight on what was going on at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. They appreciated that someone [was] paying attention as Disney executives seemed hellbent on driving the Titanic straight into that iceberg.
Disney had just spent over $100 million building this state-of-the-art animation studio, which had actually been designed by the folks who had previously worked in Disney-MGM's fishbowl. The end result was this facility that was designed to reflect the way modern-day animated features were actually produced. And now? It's just full of these WDW executives who are focused on finding new ways to sell character-based merchandise inside of the theme parks. To these guys, the greatest perk of working inside this building isn't that it's artist- and creative-friendly, but rather that there's a multi-story parking garage with assigned slots just steps away.
What are the most significant moments in Orlando attractions during the 25 years OW has been around?
This one's easy. It's been watching Universal Studios Florida rise up out of the ground and throw open its doors. Universal obviously flailed around for a number of years as it tried to find its place in the Central Florida tourism market. But eventually the Universal Orlando Resort found its footing, created a brand identity that was distinctly different than Disney and emerged as serious competition for the Mouse – which had become a little too fat and happy over the past 25 years.
Well, that's all changed now. If anyone seriously believes that the Mouse is building Pandora: The World of Avatar and/or Star Wars Land out of the kindness of Mickey's heart, I have some Central Florida swampland to sell them. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter now has Disney looking over its shoulder. It genuinely bothers Mouse House managers that when people talk about hyper-detailed, truly immersive theme park attractions, they're not talking about anything that the Imagineers have designed and built recently. Rather, it's something that Mark Woodbury and the team at Universal Creative got built in half the time and with a third of the budget that WDI would have needed to build a similar project.
Of course, the upside is – since Disney now feels that it has to seriously compete with Universal in the Central Florida tourism market, reclaim the higher ground in the theme park sphere, if you will – we all win. There are some flat-out amazing rides, shows and attractions that are due to pop in and around the tourist corridor over the next 10 years. Which will give Orlando Weekly staffers plenty of fun new things to write about.
I really enjoyed my time writing for the Orlando Weekly. As a guy who started out in print, it was great fun to have a weekly column again. Jeff Truesdell was a great boss and a very willing collaborator. Sadly, when he got fired, the new editor wanted to take the Weekly in a different direction, so Eye Drive went from once a week to twice monthly to monthly to not running anymore. But it was genuinely fun while it lasted. And I'm proud to have been (even for a short time) a member of the Orlando Weekly staff.
So happy anniversary, guys! Here's hoping that the Weekly gets to spend the next 25 years doing an equally fine job covering the more colorful aspects of living in and around the Metro Orlando area.
Seth Kubersky began covering arts and attractions for Orlando Weekly in 2006, and has written the Live Active Cultures column since 2008.