Backstage at the Movies: The Great Movie Ride by Aaron McElwee

“Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, in just a few moments the doors behind me will open and your magical journey into the movies will begin…” these words have invoked excitement in thousands of movie enthusiasts who have visited in one of the most beloved attractions at Walt Disney World. “The Great Movie Ride” is not an ordinary trip to the movies, for inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Chinese Theater, you are whisked beyond the screen and into some of the most memorable movies of all times. This signature attraction more than any other reflects the parks overall objective and what guests should take away from their experience when visiting this once working studio of the Walt Disney Company. But what brought this attraction to Florida, what plans were there for the ride in the beginning, and what changes have been made to the attraction over the years? Come find out as we venture Backstage at the movies.

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In the early 1980’s EPCOT Center was alive and well at the Walt Disney World Resort. With 2 gates and more space than they ever could have could have imagined at Disneyland Walt Disney World had become the “Vacation Kingdom” the head of the company had always hoped for. Plans for expansions to EPCOT Center were already well under way and one planned FutureWorld Pavilion was a Show Business Themed location headlined by an attraction to be known as “Great Moment at the Movies”. This attraction would take guests into some of their favorite movie moments and in the end allow them to explore the pavilion area featuring many other facets that make up the entertainment industry. The newly named CEO of the Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner as well and Walt Disney Imagineering President Marty Sklar both talked over the large array of ideas they both had in mind for this pavilion. After many talks, it was decided these ideas were diverse and numerous enough to support a 3rd gate for the Florida resort. After contracting with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the “Disney MGM Studios” was born and May 1st 1989 after a star studded gala the evening before, this new theme park and working counterpart to the Burbank Studios in California greeted its first of many guest. The headline attraction opening day and one of the first sights all guests saw, shining at the end of Hollywood Boulevard was the Chinese Theater, home to The Great Movie Ride.

Just as, now, TCL Chinese Theater, formally Mann’s Chinese Theater, has in front of it in Hollywood, the Chinese Theater at Disney’s Hollywood Studios forecourt is adorned with the handprints, footprints, and signatures of some of Hollywoods biggest celebrities. The version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is home to 102 signature slabs including names such as Michael Jackson, Carol Burnett, George Lucas, Betty White, Bette Midler, Robin Williams, and of course Mickey Mouse. After walking through the doors into the theater’s lobby area, the queue area is home to display cases which through the years have featured some of Tinsletowns most notable props. Some of the most famous include Sam’s Piano from Casablanca, a model of the Nautilus submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Dejarik board from the Millennium Falcon used in Episode IV of the Star Wars series, and the pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of OZ. These props have all changed over time but for the time the different items have been displayed, they have been the delight of numerous guests who had the opportunity to see them.

Once aboard the tram and greeted by your guide your “magically journey into the movies” begins. As you round the corner you are greeted by your first of many movies. Footlight Parade is a 1933 musical produced by Warner Brothers Studios. Most notable in this display is the “cake” of women, all smiling who greet you while they swim in perfect synchronization. Of all the movies featured in this attraction this is the only one to have undergone any major changes. At opening the “cake” of women rotated and were surrounded by spouts of water. Along side them 3 woman atop a high dive waited to plunge into the pool below. A multitude malfunctions with the turntable brought the rotation to a halt a few years after the attraction opened, and issues with the water pumps freezing up and flooding part of the attraction meant the end of the splashing. The addition of a screen and bubbles have kept some of the kinetic energy in the area but many still have fond memories of the original swimming girls smiling as they splash about.

As you travel though the attraction guests come across many of their favorite parts of movies. Located just beyond the Alien section guest enter the Raider of the Lost Ark and witness Indy and Sallah unearthing a great treasure. But of you are not to distracted by the shiny gold ark, or the number of snakes creeping around you, on the opposite wall you may find 2 other notable Lucasfilm characters. R2-D2 and C-3P0 are emblazoned on the wall as hieroglyphics speaking to some of the others. Entering the Casablanca scene, guest witness the “best last line of a movie ever”. As Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman share their final moments a plan warms up in the background. Some have been told this is the actual plane from the movie. Unfortunately this isn’t true. Truth is there is were no real Lockheed Electra 12A’s used in the film. The Warner Brothers soundstage was too small to accommodate a full sized plane thus their workshop created half and quarter sized models used for filming. The plane in the attraction is a real Lockheed Electra 12A with the tail removed. The tail has appeared in both the Studios Backlot Tour and in the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise.

Leaving the Casablanca scene guests approach the end of the attraction. The original plans for the attraction included an extended The Wizard of Oz scene. The first part would have included the scene where The Sorcerer’s Apprentice currently resides would have been the opening for this section. Ever notice the great amount of wind in this area? This is because the area was designed to be the twister scene from The Wizard of Oz and on the screen guests would have witnessed Dorothy’s house fly by before seeing the house in as they enter Munchkinland. After further thought and just before opening of the park, CEO Michael Eisner was upset by the lack of Disney movies and characters in the attraction. Thus Mickey Mouse in one of his most notable roles was added. After the Munchkinland scene guest see Dorothy and her friends staring at the Emerald City in the distance before entering a theater to witness just a few more of the greatest moments in movie history. Most don’t know this was going to be additional area of The Wizard of Oz as well. As you entered this final section the Wizard would appear surrounded by flames proclaiming “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.With this the film would start rolling and as guests were entranced with movie magic on the screen they wouldn’t notice a dark curtain rising. Behind the curtain would be animatronics of all the characters guests encountered on this journey as well as their gangster or cowboy. At the end of the film the lights would come up on this group, guests would cheer, and the entire cast would take a bow. In the end the decision to change the ending was made due to time constraints and limited funds.

“As we come to a complete stop, please rise dramatically to your feet, and exit to the rear of the tram. Oh and when I say action, don’t forget the thunderous applause for yours truly. And ACTION!” We’ve reached the end of another great journey through the movies. Hope this journey has inspired you to experience this attraction in a new light. Enjoy your next visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studio and see you at the movies.

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