The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

The Great Movie Ride, the beloved Walt Disney World attraction that opened with the Hollywood Studios (then Disney-MGM Studios) theme park back in 1989, is closing its doors forever this weekend. On August 13, to be specific. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the first Disney theme park attraction built around Mickey Mouse, will take its place.

Like many iconic Disney attractions, The Great Movie Ride holds a special place place in the heart of countless visitors, but it was always a favorite amongst film buffs. The /Film crew has gathered to pour one out for this legendary attraction in its final days. Join Jacob Hall, Josh Spiegel, Peter Sciretta, Dalin Rowell, and Joshua Meyer as they discuss why this attraction won them over, how it broke their hearts, and what this means for the future of Disney theme parks in general.

The Journey Begins…

(In which we recount our first exposure to The Great Movie Ride…)

Joshua Meyer: Trying to remember the very first time I rode The Great Movie Ride is sort of like trying to remember the first time I watched Star Wars on VHS. Both of them were staples of my childhood. They were always just there, part of the natural environment. I grew up in Florida, and my family almost never traveled anywhere farther than Walt Disney World for vacation. We took multiple car rides there every year, so the first time I rode The Great Movie Ride would have probably been in 1989, the year Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then called Disney-MGM Studios) opened. At the time, I was 8 years old, and I had just started getting into movies. My earliest memories of being in a movie theater are all from that year. 1989 was the year of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, and Back to the Future Part II. As a budding movie fan, the movie theme at Disney-MGM Studios struck a particular chord with me. I quickly adopted the park as my own personal playground. And The Great Movie Ride was always its flagship attraction.

Dalin Rowell: In 1996, I went to Walt Disney World for the first time. My grandfather had won the lottery (using my birthdate as the winning numbers) and was able to take a group of four (including my grandmother and mother) to Orlando’s Happiest Place on Earth. There I learned of the epic worlds of Epcot, along with the sparkle that resided inside the Magic Kingdom. But I knew I had discovered my favorite theme park once I stepped inside the recreation of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theatre. I passed the costumes and props and the big movie screen playing trailers on a loop and I found what I would dub as my personal church: The Great Movie Ride.

Jacob Hall: My first visit to The Great Movie Ride came when I was 12 years old and didn’t know that I loved movies yet. I knew I liked movies (I was at a Disney park, after all), but I can say without hesitation that this ride literally changed my life. I got in that queue as a kid who watched movies and got off the ride as a kid who knew his life would revolve around movies.

Josh Spiegel: The first experience I have with The Great Movie Ride that I remember was from my second trip to Walt Disney World, when I traveled there with my high school jazz band in 2000. I have two primary memories of that trip: the first was the sense of immersion into so many different film genres in just a half-hour. What The Great Movie Ride has always done so well is what Disney theme-park attractions offer at their finest: a sense of removing yourself from the real world and being sent on a journey somewhere else, foreign to your experience. Jumping from splashy Broadway musicals to gangster movies to Westerns to science-fiction and adventure was captivating. Here was one of the best examples of why the Disney theme parks were ever created: to let guests feel like they were inside of the movies.

Peter Sciretta: I remember first experiencing MGM Studios and Universal Studios as a kid and visiting theme parks based on movies and moviemaking was mind-blowing to the young film geek that I was. But the thing about The Great Movie Ride is that it transported you through movie history, and was unlike any of the other offerings at the two movie-based theme parks. I remember returning home from the vacation, now suddenly interested in being exposed to the older classics, films I had not been interested in before the experience. I think that’s quite an impact.

Jacob Hall: During that same Orlando trip, I also toured the now-defunct Alfred Hitchcock experience at Universal Studios, which also broke my brain in the right ways. In retrospect, they were complementary experiences: Disney cracked open my imagination, expanded it, and pumped me full of wonder. And then Universal filled in those cracks with an interest in technical know-how – how’d they do that?

Dalin Rowell: During the ride, I felt as if I stepped into my grandparents’ personal film collection. This is where I would learn from the masters of film and come to discover even more classics I would soon love. Between the animatronics, use of music, and silly interactive humor, The Great Movie Ride became a staple of every Disney vacation for the last 20-something years. It also led me to want to create my own movie magic, and get a film-related degree. If a ride can do all that, it deserves to have the word “great” in front of it.

Josh Spiegel: The other memory I have (and I share it as embarrassed now as I was back then) was of being a jerky teenager (so, you know…a teenager). In an early section of the ride, Singin’ In The Rain is highlighted, with an Audio-Animatronic version of Gene Kelly holding an umbrella and dancing. The tour guide pointed out – correctly – that the film was released in 1952. I, in the front row, felt the urge to point out – incorrectly – that it was released in 1951. She tried to correct me, and I wouldn’t have it. (Moral of the story: 15-year old me was a real dunce.)

Joshua Meyer: To say that it impacted me in a significant way would be an understatement. When I heard that The Great Movie Ride was closing (coincidentally, on the 7-year anniversary of the date I left America for Japan), I booked a $1,500 round trip from Tokyo to Florida so I could be there to ride the attraction with my family one last time during its closing week. That is how important it was to me as a piece of my childhood.

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The Magic Moments

(In which we recall our favorite scenes, moments and details…)

Jacob Hall: When I was younger, the journey down the darkened corridor of the Nostromo was my favorite part of the ride. I knew Alien was a great movie (even though it would take me years to understand why) and the sense of danger and suspense was palpable. It may feel a little cheesy years later, but it was the scene I dug the most, the sequence that really felt like you were plunged into a movie.

Dalin Rowell: Still some 20 years later, the Alien scene still spooks me to my core. Of course, I know when the xenomorph is supposed to come out, and yeah, I know it is only water, but there’s something about the “unpredictable” nature of when I first visit went past this section of the ride that still makes me duck my head until we reach the Indiana Jones room. Judge me all you want, but fake acid spit is no joke!

Jacob Hall: In retrospect, I think I understand why this scene of all scenes had such an impact on me. It’s not that we were in Alien, although that was certainly cool, it’s that it’s the part of the ride where it feels like we’ve gone off the rails. By this point, our live host has been kicked out of the vehicle, hijacked by a gangster or an outlaw (for whatever reason, I only got the outlaw experience once out of the dozens of times I rode the ride) and there was a sense of unease in the story of the ride, a sense that we have gone off course and can’t trust the person at the front of the vehicle. Sure, it’s all a little hammy, but you need to meet theme park rides halfway. We weren’t just in the ship from Alien, we were in the ship from Alien with a tour guide who literally had no idea what he was doing. How cinematic is that?

Joshua Meyer: My favorite moment was always the part when the ride vehicle made it through the Western shootout to the other side of the barn doors. Suddenly, you’d be going from this cowboy scene to a room with chains hanging from the ceiling and the pixels of stars showing through the windows. That was always the moment when shit got real (or as Jacob put it, went off the rails). Because you knew you were boarding the spaceship Nostromo, where the xenomorph from Alien lurked. This, coupled with the color commentary of the vehicle hijacker, really did a good job of setting the scene for the alien attack.

Josh Spiegel: I think my favorite moment will always be when the ride stops so that the regular tour guide can switch out with either the gangster or the cowboy, depending on which version you’re on. If anything else, what I love is that sense of being in the movie getting reinforced. It’s no longer enough for us to simply see what it’s like to walk through a set a la The Public Enemy; the movie is coming to us. And, of course, the way it reverses in the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequence, with the cowboy/gangster getting too greedy for their own good and our tour guide returning, is a wonderful way to pay off the gag.

Peter Sciretta: I loved the idea of there being a live host and that the script and experience changes from ride-to-ride, even if the execution was not always so great. But my favorite part of the movie ride as a kid was probably the Wizard of Oz room, just because it was so elaborate, filled with audio animatronic munchkins and that Wicked Witch.

Joshua Meyer: In the early days of the ride, the Alien and Indiana Jones rooms always held a stronger adventure component for me, perhaps because the movies aligned more with my tastes, but also because the movies seemed more modern and exciting than some of the other old classics that were before my time. There’s a whole generation now that probably feels the same way about all of the movies in The Great Movie Ride. By not updating the movie scenes, Disney let the ride become a rolling museum piece (literally, with TCM taking the fun of the guided tour, turning it into an educational thing). And that ultimately proved to be the ride’s undoing. Because while we grew up, the ride never did.

Continue Reading /Film Pays Tribute to The Great Movie Ride >>

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