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The End of The Great Movie Ride (And an Era of Movie Theme Parks)

The Great Movie Ride

Walt Disney World has had a Haunted Mansion since the day the Magic Kingdom opened to the public in October of 1971. But a couple of months ago, entirely by accident, it added a Haunted Movie Theater.

That would be the Great Movie Ride, which, for the moment, sits at the center of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. From the outside, the ride does not look particularly haunted. An impressive recreation of Los Angeles’ Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Great Movie Ride is adorned with beloved props and artifacts from throughout film history, along with a courtyard filled, like the original Chinese, with handprints of famous celebrities (the roster of legends includes George Lucas, Michael Jackson, and, uh, the Rocketeer). Once guests make their way inside, they arrive at a boarding area cleverly designed to look like an auditorium, with a large screen playing a loop of classic movie highlights narrated, like the ride to follow, by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.

Osborne’s comments are insightful and entertaining. As of March 6, they are also spoken from beyond the grave; Osborne died that month at the age of 84. TCM and Osborne’s contributions were added to the Great Movie Ride as part of a refurbishment in 2015. He will continue to serve as the ride’s host until it closes later this month to make way for a new attraction, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. For the time being, Osborne’s ongoing presence means the Great Movie Ride is currently hosted by a ghost.

Though Osborne now lends the proceedings an air of the uncanny, he makes a certain amount of sense as the voice of a ride in which the spirits of movies and actors of yesteryear remain permanently frozen in animatronic amber. The Great Movie Ride is the only opening day attraction from what was originally called Disney-MGM Studios that’s still in operation in 2017. While the wider world of movies (not to mention the rest of the theme park around it) has changed in almost every conceivable way in the last three decades, the Great Movie Ride carries on largely unaltered from its initial incarnation, offering visitors a valuable glimpse not just of Hollywood history and classic cinema, but also of the way Hollywood history and classic cinema was envisioned in a different era.

The Great Movie Ride was conceived before Disney-MGM Studios was even a glimmer in former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s eye. Plans originally called for a movie-themed attraction at Epcot, but as the concepts came together, Eisner and his team decided that a movie ride had the potential to anchor an entire film-based amusement park. Originally called “Great Moments at the Movies,” the Great Movie Ride became the flagship of Disney-MGM Studios, which, at least for a while, was a functioning television and film production facility in addition to its primary role as a tourist attraction. On opening day, park-goers could take a two-hour (!) walking-and-tram-assisted backlot tour, or see Disney animators in action at the Magic of Disney Animation pavilion. When guests were done watching craftsmen create the movies of the future, they could learn about the movies of the past at the Great Movie Ride.

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For nostalgic theme park fans and movie buffs, it’ll be sad to see the Great Movie Ride go. But realistically, the ride doesn’t make much sense in the current Disney Hollywood Studios (neither, for that matter, does the name “Disney Hollywood Studios,” since the park is located in Orlando and possesses a sum total of zero working soundstages). Over its 25-plus year history, DHS has hosted many attractions that purported to give guests a glimpse behind-the-scenes of how movies and TV shows were made. In addition to the backlot tour, there were stage shows where tourists could try their hand at foley work, stunts, or green screens. Today, the only remaining attraction that even approximates this sort of thing is the Indiana Jones “Epic Stunt Spectacular.” In their place are roller coasters and simulator rides for Toy Story, The Twilight Zone, and The Little Mermaid, along with a Frozen sing-along stage show and a supercut of the various Star Wars films called Path of the Jedi

The evolution of Disney Hollywood Studios mirrors that of its chief rival, Universal Studios Florida, which has steadily phased out anything remotely informational in favor of immersive thrill rides featuring Harry Potter, Fast & Furious, and the Transformers. When Universal first opened the East Coast wing of its studio theme park, it boasted that it was the only place where you could “Ride the Movies.” Today, that slogan is truer than ever.

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The Great Movie Ride could have been updated for 2017, but it would have required an almost complete overhaul of its content. Here are all the movies featured in animatronics, in order:

  • Footlight Parade (1933)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  • Mary Poppins (1964)
  • The Public Enemy (1931)
  • A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • Alien (1979)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
  • Casablanca (1942)
  • Fantasia (1940)
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)

As classic film canons go, this is a strange one. The closest the Great Movie Ride gets to a foreign film are the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, which were released in English in the United States. The attraction also conveniently (and deliberately) ignores every film ever released by Universal Pictures. The most recent movie featured, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is now more than 35 years old.

Theme park enthusiasts sometimes complain about the relatively brief length of certain attractions; you wait an hour or more for an experience that’s over in a minute or less. No one has ever made this complaint about the Great Movie Ride. Running a leisurely 22 minutes, trams of cars are gradually (and I mean very graduallyled by human guides through a series of old movie scenes reenacted by animatronics and a few actors. Everyone and everything proceeds at a shockingly sluggish pace. It would make a little more sense if the Great Movie Ride was about the history of slow-motion in cinema, with exhibits based on The UntouchablesBonnie and Clyde, and John Woo films. Alas, it is not. In 2017 the Great Movie Ride feels like a film history class taught in a wax museum that went out of business during the Reagan administration.

Even with a fresh coat of paint (and a new, not-dead narrator) the Great Movie Ride would still feel utterly out of place amidst the renovations currently underway at Hollywood Studios, which will soon add even more Toy Story attractions and an entire land of Star Wars rides. (The “Hollywood Studios” name will supposedly change too, although its replacement hasn’t been revealed yet.) Still, even if its time has come and gone, the closure of the Great Movie Ride makes me a little sad. Its continuing presence seemed to confirm that there still were such things as “great movies,” and people who genuinely cared about them and their history. Now the very concept of an attraction designed to educate as well as entertain seems hopelessly out of date.

So, farewell, Great Movie Ride. We’ll always have Paris — or at least that one scene from Casablanca where animatronic Humphrey Bogart said that line to animatronic Ingrid Bergman. Here’s looking at you, stiff, disconcertingly robotic kid.

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