Monday, July 17, 2017

The Great Movie Ride: An Appreciation

Today in The Cube:

In the wake of the recent Disney Expo, it's being widely reported that The Mouse plans on closing the iconic Great Movie Ride, long a staple at Walt Disney World Resort's Hollywood Studios park, this August.

Honestly, I've got mixed feelings about it. I'll come right out and say I'm a big Disney fan, and I renewed my love of the parks four years ago when my wife and I took our honeymoon in Orlando. In the entertainment world, I get the fact that things need to chance as audiences change. The Great Movie Ride, as I've heard, hasn't been getting the attendance it has in decades past, and that's a lot of real estate to just not be used to its potential. The reports are that Disney plans to build a new Mickey & Minnie-themed ride in its place that is to be state-of-the-art.

On the other hand, Disney and Hollywood Studios (which was originally called MGM Studios - and that's how I'll always think of it) hold a special place in my childhood memory.

I first rode on The Great Movie Ride in the early 1990s, not long after park originally opened in 1989. It was my second-ever trip to Disney, and my brothers and I, already movie geeks, were also toy geeks. We read all the toy collecting magazines and through them came to be aware of the Alien series of films. One of the major segments of GMR (I'll abbreviate the name of the ride from here on out) of course features Sigourney Weaver's Ripley being menaced by H. R. Geiger's xenomorphs. The creatures appear twice in the ride, wreathed in steam. I read all about that part of the ride, and I loved it when it came - though I was creeped out also, and hid my eyes initially.

The entrance to the ride is a fantastic recreation of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and once you're inside you're led past well-known parts of film history, and even through a room playing trailers of the films featured in the ride.

The ride itself is basically a tour of a number of vignettes and tableaux depicting well-known scenes from movies. The cars are kind of big and futuristic-looking and you're accompanied by a tour "guide" who goes along with you and narrates what's going on in each scene.

And there are plenty of scenes - audio-animatronic recreation of a lot of classic actors are there, from Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain" to John Wayne in "Red River," James Cagney, Wizard of Oz (the recreation of Munchkin Land is enormous and epic-looking), Mary Poppins, Tarzan and Jane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca (on the backlot tour ride at Hollywood Studios, they used to tell riders that the plane used in the GMR vignette is the real one from the film), and others.

At some point in your tour, your guide would be hijacked, either by a gangster in the Cagney area, or a bank robber in the John Wayne area, and they'd take you for a while until they met an untimely end trying to steal a bauble from an idol near the Raiders of the Lost Ark area.

My favorite part of the ride comes next: Your tram travels into a tomb-like throne room, and there, in ruined splendor, is an Egyptian Pharaoh, his family and retinue, desiccated but still on their thrones. The scene is wonderfully atmospheric and feels like something that should have been in an Indiana Jones movie.

At the end, the tram takes you into a large room where you watch a montage of great film clips.

For all of that, the ride, while big on visual splendor, is short on other things. As a kid I remember the thrill of waiting for the alien, but as an adult, I found it lacking. I'm a big film buff, and it was neat to see great scenes recreated in real life, but something just seemed off about it. The big fire that takes place in the cowboy room, and the gunfight in the gangster area, felt lifted from Pirates of the Caribbean. The "tour guides" seemed hokey. And the Wicked Witch of the West - at the time of her premier, dubbed the most advanced animatronic Disney had created - just didn't "wow" me.

We were able to get on the ride after 10 minutes in line on our most recent, but when I got off, I wished I hadn't gotten on. Riding again did refresh my memory of things I'd forgotten about the ride in the intervening decades since I'd ridden it, but it also showed me that the wonder I'd had as a kid just wasn't there anymore at that ride I'd once been so excited for.

Next time I'm in Disney, it'll be sad to see it's not there anymore. I wonder if they'll keep the facade of the theatre to maintain the Hollywood backlot theme of the park.

But next time I'm down there, my kids will be a bit older, and I'll bet they'll love to ride that new Mickey ride they have planned.

So will I.

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