Under-rated Orlando: The Great Movie Ride
There aren’t many attractions in Orlando which I consider to be under-rated. If anything, I would argue that a lot of attractions at Disney World and its competitor are over-rated. But there are a few attractions that I feel do not get their due. Today, I am putting the spotlight on one such attraction. The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was once the park’s flagship attraction. These days, rumor has it that it is scheduled for replacement. Rumors aside, Disney fans are constantly complaining that the ride is dated. Are they right? Well, yes and no.
The Great Movie Ride is an important part of Disney World history. Without it, the park currently known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios and due for another name change in the future) would not exist. Originally, the Great Movie Ride was intended to be a new pavilion at Epcot.
The exact reason for opening a movie-themed park as opposed to a pavilion is a matter of debate. According to then-C.E.O. Michael Eisner, he recognized that there was enough potential in the idea to support a third gate. Many speculate that the fact that Universal was planning to open their own studio park in Orlando probably influenced the decision. Proponents of this theory will point to the park’s hasty development and opening.
When the park opened its gates in 1989, the focus was on presenting guests with information about how movies are made. There were only two rides in the park. Aside from the Great Movie Ride, the park’s primary attraction was an interactive tour that included a tram ride. In the nearly three decades since the park’s opening day, Disney has added additional attractions. Despite the new additions, Hollywood Studios continues to have a line-up that is relatively light on rides.
Ironically, Disney built its movie-themed park in the mold of Universal Studios Hollywood. Universal Studios became a tourist destination when they started offering tours of their fully functional movie studio. Rides and attractions were added over time until a theme park developed around the movie studio. When Universal move East to Orlando, they made no attempt to replicate what they had built out West. Obviously, there isn’t enough film and television production in central Florida to support that concept. But that didn’t stop Eisner and Disney from trying.
When Disney-MGM Studios opened, the primary attraction was a four hour tour of the “studio”. Disney set up a team of animators in Florida who are responsible for making Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. They also set up production on some television programs like The Mickey Mouse Club. The facilities also included a costume shop which mostly made costumes for the in-park performers. To supplement the illusion of a fully functional movie studio, the tour would coincidentally interrupt the filming of a (fake) music video. Eisner’s ambition was nothing less than to create Hollywood East, but it was an idea that was doomed to fail. It was also central to the original mission statement of the park.
Over time, Disney chipped away at the Backlot Tour. By the time they finally closed it completely, the experience had been reduced to a shell of its former self. The original tour was a half-day attraction. Eventually it was stripped down to a 15-minutes effects demonstration. Had it not been for the park’s crippling lack of attractions, the Backlot Tour would have been put out of its misery much earlier. Disney had added attractions to the park since it opened, but most of them were thrill rides that included height restrictions. For guests with young children or an aversion to loops and drops, Hollywood Studios was branded a half-day park.
With the tour now defunct, the legacy of the MGM era of the park resides in The Great Movie Ride. The exterior of the attraction is a replica of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. For years, the building served as the park’s central icon. When guests enter the park they stroll down Hollywood Blvd which serves as the Studio’s version of Main Street. The street evokes what Eisner referred to as “the Hollywood that never was and always will be.” But for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery to this day, Disney blocked this view with a giant blue sorcerer’s hat.
The hat, dubbed by fans and critics as the BAH (Big Ass Hat) was originally designed as an attraction for Disney’s California Adventure. It was designed as a ferris wheel with the wheels serving as ears on either side of the hat. When the Anaheim management passed on the idea, Imagineering shopped it around to Orlando. They weren’t interested in the ferris wheel design, but they did like that big blue hat. They used it to house a shop that sold collectible pins which are popular among park guests. More importantly, the BAH became the park’s icon in marketing materials and merchandise. The Magic Kingdom has Cinderella’s Castle, Epcot has Spaceship Earth, Animal Kingdom has the Tree of Life and now Hollywood Studios had the BAH.
There were rumors that the hat was a legal necessity. For years, fans speculated that Disney had lost the rights to the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and were legally obligated to block it from view. This theory never made a whole lot of sense. You would think that if Disney no longer had the rights to use a replica of the iconic theater, they would have to make changes to the exterior building rather than drop something in front of it. Recently, in preparation for the reinvention of the park, Disney tore down the hat returning the original view of the Great Movie Ride at the end of Hollywood Blvd.
The ride is hard to describe if you have never experienced it. It combines elements of a classic Disney dark ride with live performers. Guests board a large, slow-moving vehicle which takes them on a ride through elaborate sets with audio-animatronic figures recreating scenes from classic movies like Mary Poppins, Casablanca, Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Narration is provided by a live tour guide who becomes part of the show when the ride vehicle is hijacked by either a Western outlaw or an old fashioned movie mobster.
When the Great Movie Ride opened, the audio-animatronic figures were the most advanced in Disney history. The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz had more articulation than any of the other robots to entertain Disney World guests. But over time, the ride lost some of its luster. Effects were shut off when they proved difficult to maintain. The very first show scene was a recreation of the ‘By a Waterfall’ scene from the Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade. When the water effects malfunctioned, the whole scene was shut off. The scene which is supposed to evoke a dazzling musical number on a fountain was rendered dry and motionless.
Over time, the advanced animatronics became less impressive. The Wicked Witch remains a showstopper, but other figures look like they were borrowed from a wax museum. Guests get an upclose view of a nervous Ripley from Alien looking especially plastic and stationary. Later in the ride, Tarzan swings by on a vine looking like a mannequin on a rope. Had Disney kept these figures up to date, the ride might have continued to live up to its name. But as is, it’s dated.
“Dated” is a common complaint by guests who feel that Disney should also update the selection of movies from time to time. However, these guests are dead wrong. The ride is dedicated to classic movies, not whatever soon-to-be forgotten Disney blockbuster had a massive opening weekend last summer. The movies and genres represented in the Great Movie Ride are timeless. They don’t need to be replaced. They just need some TLC.
But that’s not in the cards. Like the Backlot Tour, The Great Movie Ride is living on borrowed time. The only reason it continues entertaining guests is that the park currently lacks all-ages rides. With scary elements like gunfights, mummies, aliens, witches and snakes, the GMR barely fits that description. But it doesn’t have a height restriction which currently makes it indispensable.
That’s a temporary situation. As eluded to earlier, Disney is in the process of remaking the park. Almost nothing is off limits as Disney adds in lands themed to Toy Story and Star Wars. Once this years-long project is completed, Disney has plans to gut the Great Movie Ride and replace it with something more family-friendly; Mickey Mouse. If it’s well executed, the Great Mickey Ride (or whatever it ends up being called) will likely be a fine addition to the park. But it’s a shame to see the last remnants of MGM’s hey day sacrificed to make that happen.
Admittedly, in its current form, the Great Movie Ride is something less than great. The experience depends largely on the live actors whom Disney has demoted. It used to be that the ride was staffed with higher-paid theme park performers. But they decided to save money by replacing them with lower paid cast members. It’s just one of many small ways in which the Great Movie Ride has been diminished over time.
I won’t argue that Disney is wrong to replace the venerable attraction. I don’t think most guests will miss it when it’s gone which is why I consider it to be under-rated. There’s still a lot of good stuff in the Formerly Great Movie Ride. Assuming the rumored replacement comes to pass, when it is gone it will signal the old MGM park and that will be a shame.