In the spring of 1989, Disney’s MGM-Studios opened at Walt Disney World. It was to be Disney’s answer to the Universal Studios parks, one of which was — not so coincidentally — opening a year later in Disney’s Orlando backyard. Universal Studios in Hollywood was renowned for being a part of Universal’s actual working studio lot, able to give visitors a glimpse at films and television shows in production.
At the same time, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) was declining in popularity as it shifted from being a regional southern professional wrestling promotion to a worldwide company with big name stars in an attempt to compete with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF.) A marriage of the two was the brainchild of Eric Bischoff, a brash Turner executive with bright ideas about how to give the company’s wrestling shows a modern and more mainstream image. One way of doing this was to ditch the often dilapidated and half-filled arenas they usually filmed in for a controlled studio audience who, unlike typical wrestling arena crowds, would cheer and boo whomever and whenever WCW producers wanted them to, not unlike a taping of the Price is Right.
Disney MGM Studios was the perfect fit. The park needed “real” television productions to film on their lot and WCW, for its share, got a captive studio audience for its shows. So on July 7, 1993 one of the most unique attractions of all time at Walt Disney World opened its doors to guests when WCW Worldwide was filmed. The crowd, comprised almost entirely of park guests and not wrestling fans, saw a variety of bouts including champions Ricky Steamboat and Arn Anderson as well as virtual unknowns like Yoshi Kwan and the Ice Train. Appropriately the first show also featured “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair who spent years punctuating interviews with his signature catchphrase comparing himself to Space Mountain. More dubiously the historic first match ever taped at the park saw the legendary facepainted Sting team with British powerhouse Davey Boy Smith to defeat Bobby Eaton and future real-life double murderer Chris Benoit.
WCW continued taping television shows at the park, changing the professional wrestling business in the process. While most fans are well aware that the match results are pre-determined and wrestlers are performing a show while only appearing to attempt to maim one another, those inside the business had always gone to great lengths to not reveal this to their audience and the public at large. WCW’s Disney tapings threw this tradition completely in the garbage. The shows, taped to air weeks and months in the future, often included different wrestlers wearing the same championship belts in different matches, thus giving away that these wrestlers were to win and lose their titles at live events in the future.
History was also made in 1996 when wrestlers Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall, known collectively as the New World Order, “invaded” WCW’s live Monday Nitro telecast from the park and put a beating on a number of WCW stars in a backstage melee near Fantasmic. Among them was diminutive masked Mexican Rey Misterio Jr., who was flung into the side of a production truck like a lawn dart. It was all part of the planned show, of course, but still stands as one of the most memorable moments of the late 1990’s “attitude era” of pro wrestling.
By 1997 the tapings came to an end as WCW’s popularity outgrew the small crowds of freely admitted theme park guests and Disney’s MGM Studios shifted focus away from being a working film studio. In its short time in operation, beyond being a novelty for whatever guests happened to watch on those occasional days of filming, WCW at Disney MGM Studios both modernized the professional wrestling business and legitimized Disney’s third Florida gate.
The end of WCW at Disney did not end up being the end of pro wrestling at Orlando area theme parks. Today, TNA Impact Wrestling films at Universal Orlando’s Soundstage 20. Although no future dates are currently announced for the remainder of 2015 as the show seeks a new television partner.
Were you one of the few people in attendance at any of the WCW shows at Walt Disney World? Did you watch them from home as a wrestling fan? If you care to admit to either, we’d love to hear about it in the comment section. Relive episodes of WCW Nitro from Walt Disney World whenever you’d like, on demand, on the WWE Network.