Personal Reflections on The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.)

“Hooray for Hollywood” will never sound right to me without the tin-can hiss of a VHS tape many times rewound. Growing up in the bleak hinterlands of northeast Ohio, I longed for what a 5-year-old considers Shangri-La – Central Florida. We made an almost-annual pilgrimage to Postcardland, to wave at Goofy, scream at Jaws and, as soon as I was old enough to understand the free market, gasp at prices. But that’s one week in 52 spent in the Vacation Capital of the World. I may not have been good enough with percentages yet to realize that not even 2% of my adolescent year was being spent in paradise, but I knew my itch was hardly scratched.

That’s where the tapes came in. Scotch brand T120s, with a cover I could draw in my sleep – a spherical sunset floating over a gray tower of thinning stripes. Dad, our steadfast documentarian and sarcastic narrator, swore by the T120s and the family camcorder, mercilessly heavy machine that looked more suited to destroying enemy helicopters than capturing vacation memories. Whenever I needed to be whisked away, I turned to that library of T120s, each with a white sticker down the side and a hand-scrawled note hinting at the exotic contents within, and chose my destination for the next two hours. Every tape was different, of course. There was the one where infant-me drank pool water to the on-screen protests of mom and off-screen protests of dad. The one where my brother approached the Ghostbusters at Universal Studios with a cautious reverence usually reserved for holy figures and heads of state. But there were a few things that showed up again and again, things that dad couldn’t help but shoot every time, like employees explaining that video recording was strictly prohibited and the joyous opening scene of The Great Movie Ride.

Under the dreamy painted flats of Hollywoodland by moonlight, in cars like rolling theaters, we press on toward a marquee alive in candy-colored neon, promising “A SWEEPING SPECTACLE OF THRILLS! CHILLS! ROMANCE!” Now Playing, “A SPECTACULAR JOURNEY INTO THE MOVIES!” As we leave the real world behind, the big band plays us off. “Hooray for Hollywood, where you’re terrific if you’re even good.”  From the plywood sets of reality into movieland, the Hollywood that never was and always will be.

I stole that last part from Michael Eisner, who used it to dedicated the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park on May 1, 1989. Twenty-eight years and a name change later, The Great Movie Ride is the last opening day attraction left in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As announced at the D23 Expo, that streak will come to an end on August 13. The lonely survivor of The Hollywood That Never Was and The Hollywood That Never Would Be.

Mayor Bill Frederick promised voters that someday they’d be calling Hollywood “Orlando West.” It might’ve been a joke, but only just. At the tail end of the 1980s, Central Florida was anxiously on the edge of a new era. Between Disney’s long-awaited third gate and Universal Studios’s first-ever scratch-built theme park, over a billion dollars were betting on Orlando’s future as a filmmaking nexus. And not just for production, but inspiration. These new theme parks would celebrate both movie magic and its conjuring. Learn how miniatures were used to fake an earthquake and then live one. Wander elaborate backlot sets until you stumble into an actual shoot. See the set of Ernest Saves Christmas.

After a bitter, occasionally toxic race to the finish, Disney-MGM Studios beat Universal Studios Florida by a year. It would be a hollow victory, however, since neither park was prepared for the public, in very different ways. Universal’s fatal flaw was ambition — each of its technologically ground-breaking attractions required Swiss-watch timing to work and it was their first time building clocks. Disney’s fatal flaw was almost the exact opposite. The Disney-MGM Studios opened its doors with a grand total of two rides. As in more than one and less than three. There were a handful of shows (three, and that’s including a combination walking tour), but only two actual rides. The first and most famous was The Backstage Studio Tour, a two-hour(!) odyssey, by foot and tram, across soundstages and the park’s sprawling backlot, home to the house from The Golden Girls. The ride was reconfigured and whittled away until its last incarnation, running a mere fifteen minutes, closed last year.

The other was The Great Movie Ride.

Following Epcot’s lead, The Great Movie Ride would not only serve as the park’s centerpiece attraction, but also rest inside its centerpiece landmark, a near-flawless replica of the iconic  Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Or at least the park’s first centerpiece landmark. It was quickly usurped by the Earffel Tower, a water tower with ears, in advertising for the Studios. In 2001, a 122-foot statue of the Sorcerer’s Hat from Fantasia was dumped directly in front of the Chinese Theater. It served as a combination gift shop and eyesore for 14 years. But even now with the original view restored and the Earffel Tower toppled, the Theater hasn’t reclaimed the spotlight. T-shirts commemorating the whole resort use The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror instead, a ride perpetually on-loan from CBS about a haunted hotel with negligent maintenance. By no means an undeserving attraction, but hardly the best representative of a park called Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Then again, the Chinese Theatre never quite fit with its iconic neighbors. Cinderella Castle. The Tree of Life. The golf ball at Epcot. Staggering architectural mission statements of fantasy, nature, and the harmonious future on the other side of tomorrow. The Chinese Theatre doesn’t even break 100 feet. Its tapered, horned crown cuts an imposing profile at the end of the park’s Hollywood Boulevard, but it never overtakes the gift shops and has only shrunk in the leaning shadows of palm trees with 28 years of growth. Up close, it’s a fortress. Carved dragons snarl over stone lions. Its courtyard keeps out the polite riot of theme park ambiance, leaving it calm and empty save for the handprints of famous visitors and scattered bonsai. Since the destruction of the park’s backlot, it’s one of the last remaining quiet corners of the Studios. Approaching The Great Movie Ride inspires reflection, wonder, and more than a little foreboding.

It’s a fitting first impression for a 20-minute crash course on the scope, scale, and history of film. The Great Movie Ride belongs to a gilded class of Disney attraction that only lasted about seven years: the animatronic essay. If that sounds too academic, the shoe fits. When Epcot opened in 1982 as EPCOT Center, its future-focused front-nine was occupied (and further expanded) by dark rides that didn’t have plots so much as subjects. Instead of flying with Peter Pan, guests would glide through the history of transportation (World of Motion). Instead of earning a reckless driving charge with Mr. Toad, guests would learn how cave paintings led to the telephone (Spaceship Earth). Ambitious, enlightening whirlwinds through topics as far removed as energy and imagination, populated with dozens of audio-animatronic figures and inflected with a romantic optimism for what tomorrow might bring. Fittingly, The Great Movie Ride began life as a potential pavilion for Epcot. The idea, “Great Moments at the Movies,” excited the CEO enough to promote it to crown jewel of a whole new theme park.

There’s no set-up for the ride, only an appropriate tease — trailers for the coming attractions, rolling on an endless loop for the folks in line. As soon as you’re under that glittering marquee, you’re on the other side of the screen. The ride-along montage opens in musicals — Footlight Parade, Singin’ in the Rain, Mary Poppins. From soot-stained London to the seediest of underbellies, 1930s Chicago. The gangster scene is one of the most detailed in any theme park attraction. Yellowed newspapers sprout from overfilled trash cans. Crates of bathtub gin provide volatile cover for the crooks brewing it. James Cagney glowers from a poster for The Public Enemy at his animatronic counterpart across the street. Then the movies fight back. The typewriter roar of tommy guns deafens as a pinstriped hood hijacks the ride and leaves our tour guide behind. On only the busiest days, the hijacking duties are split with the next scene, the Western, where an outlaw sets fire to the bank and makes off with the entire tram. Either way, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood wave us along the trail and onto the Spaceship Nostromo. For a brief moment in the land that Mickey built, we’re menaced by the xenomorph in the sweaty, mechanical hell of Ridley Scott’s Alien. And so it goes, seamlessly progressing through Raiders of Lost Ark, Tarzan the Ape Man, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and so on, ending appropriately enough with a movie. In about three minutes, they cover everything else. Saturday Night Fever and the Airplane! scene that skewers it. Freddy Krueger. Marlon Brando. Tootsie and the parting of the Red Sea.

Then it’s over. Make sure you have all your children and enjoy the rest of your day here at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Against all odds, there isn’t even a gift shop at the end.

But that’s the beauty of the Great Movie Ride; it’s a perfect translation and poetic elaboration on what so often seems an ordinary experience — going to the movies. That mystery and trepidation on approach — what are you going to see inside? Will it underwhelm, inspire, or terrify? Waiting patiently through the purgatory of trailers, only here they’re exclusively for some of the greatest films ever made. Settling into a field of seats with complete strangers all rolling the same dice you are, all wanting to be moved. The best movies double as emotional transportation, inviting you in for just a short while to a world both recognizable and unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The Great Movie Ride makes that transportation literal, too. The hundred-strong hiss of snakes in the Well of Souls. The Wicked Witch of the West threatening you and your little dog personally. Tarzan screaming overhead. And then come the credits. All the famous faces that made it possible. Not a movie. The movies. Lights up. Onto the parking lot with nothing to show for it but a ticket stub and the feeling in your gut. When the movies move you.

The Great Movie Ride would be the last animatronic essay attempted by Disney. Even now, it’s never been as highly regarded as its more scientifically minded forebears. Like everything that ends, a vocal faction of the internet has seen fit to eulogize it as boring, overrated and outdated. To the Imagineers’ credit, the movies they included still pass pop-culture scrutiny for the most part, even if the ride’s opening genres — musicals, gangsters and Westerns — are mostly novelties today, not unlike the ride itself.

The foolhardy dream of “Hollywood East” barely lasted a decade. While Universal Studios Florida still hosts productions from time to time, Disney-MGM Studios went very quiet, very fast. In 2004, the in-park animation studio, responsible for Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, shut down. The related tour, with long walks past empty desks behind glass, closed in 2015. It was replaced by a Chewbacca meet-and-greet. The Streets of America, blocks of sets painstakingly recreating New York City and San Francisco, were bulldozed last year to make room for immersive new lands dedicated to Star Wars and Toy Story.

Even though The Great Movie Ride still sits in the center of a theme park dedicated to the movies, it doesn’t fit like it used to. A love letter to cinema so sincere, Disney had to negotiate with MGM and 20th Century Fox for the rights to certain scenes, and negotiated with everyone else (except Universal) for the closing montage clips, all to be replaced by synergy.

Dad’s gone now. The Scotch T120s get fuzzier by the viewing. On August 13, The Great Movie Ride will have its final showing. Fortunately, it survived into an age where everyone keeps an HD camera in their pocket. It won’t go unremembered or undocumented. But I’ll always need that tin-can hiss to take me back, to another time and place, when the silver screen was a complete, romantic mystery and not yet a passion. And that’s what the movies are all about.

Hooray for Hollywood. Roll credits.

Jeremy Herbert lives in Cleveland, the Orlando of the north. 

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