Remembering the Great Movie Rideby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The Great Movie Ride was the last original attraction that was still operating since the opening of Disney MGM Studios in May 1989. It was the signature attraction for the park housed in a full-scale, detailed replica of the iconic Grauman's Chinese Theater, one of the most famous movie palaces of the Golden Age of Film.
At the D23 Expo in 2017, it was announced that the attraction would close August 13, 2017, and be replaced with Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway. That new attraction "will take guests on a journey inside the wacky and unpredictable world of Disney Channel's Emmy Award-winning Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts using new technologies that transform the flat cartoon world into an incredible dimensional experience," according to Imagineer Kevin Rafferty, who is designing the attraction.
Among other reasons for the change were that it was determined that younger guests were unfamiliar with most of the movies being referenced, Turner Classic Movies hesitancy to invest more money to refresh and repair the attraction, and the need to re-theme the area to the new approach for the park where guests are actually part of the film experience, not just observers.
While there was some controversy year ago that Disney knew of Universal Studios' plans to build a movie-themed park in Orlando, and wanted to beat them to the punch, it is clear that Disney Imagineers already had an idea for a movie attraction before CEO Michael Eisner took the helm.
In the mid-1980s, Imagineers suggested a movie pavilion for Epcot to be located in the area between The Land and Imagination pavilions. It would have been designed as a huge box-like structure painted to blend in with the sky so it would be almost invisible. The entrance would be a classic theater marquee with a ticket booth underneath.
Inside the building would be two ride attractions. One of them was tentatively called "Great Movie Moments" as well as other variations on that title that would have celebrated scenes from great Hollywood films. The other smaller attraction would have been a dark ride into a vintage Mickey Mouse animated cartoon short.
In 1976, Disney Legend Ward Kimball designed an attraction called "Mickey's Mad House" for Fantasyland. Using the traditional amusement park Wild Mouse Coaster, like the one used in the Primeval Whirl at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park and Goofy's Sky School at Disney California Adventure Park, guests would have careened madly back and forth through this indoor dark ride not being able to see clearly where they were going while experiencing some of the wild antics in early black-and-white Mickey Mouse animated cartoons.
In the early 1980s, when a movie pavilion was planned for Epcot, Kimball revised his original proposal and tentatively named it "Mickey's Movie Land." The attraction would have allowed guests in omnimover vehicles to glimpse a tongue-in-cheek, behind-the-scenes process of making of a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon with the guests eventually becoming part of the cartoon itself.
Eisner decided that there was more potential in the concept of classic movies in terms of developing a "half-day" park where guests could spend half of their day at the park and the other half at the new Typhoon Lagoon water park, to open the same year.
When it officially opened on May 1, 1989, Eisner described what was then-called Disney MGM Studios as "The Hollywood That Never Was But Always Will Be." The park was to be a representation of the Hollywood seen in the movies and on postcards and in fan magazines, not an actual geographical location, but a state of mind.
At the time, the actual city of Hollywood was a fairly dangerous location and had fallen into a state of seediness and most Hollywood films were made outside of Southern California.
In order to achieve that illusion of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there had to be some iconic landmarks that guests associated with that fabled location, including the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater, a classic movie palace that was famous for its forecourt where movie stars left impressions of their handprints and footprints.
The Chinese Theater (Disney was not allowed to use the word "Grauman's") found at the Disney MGM Studios was a full-scale reproduction of the original movie theater still located in Hollywood at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard.
The Disney Imagineers use the original blueprints of the 1927 Meyer and Holler building for reference, and the facade was built to full scale, rather than the forced perspective of the other buildings on the pseudo Hollywood Boulevard. One of the few adjustments was that the ticket booth that was in front of the original theater was moved to the side for the Disney version in order not to block the entrance.
The 22-ton central roof section was constructed separately and hoisted into place by crane as a finishing touch.
The plaque on the outside of the building says that the original theater opened in 1928. It actually opened in 1927 and some claim it is not a foolish mistake, but an intentional gag by the Imagineers because there is 1,928 feet of track in the attraction.
Of course, since the overall theme of the park was to be about classic movies, it was a natural choice to have the major attraction located at the end of Hollywood Boulevard showcase those famous films.
One of the challenges facing Disney was that it had not produced classic live-action films in the 1930s and 1940s that it could use to recreate the era. In 1985, Disney signed a contract with MGM/UA (United Artists) to use up to 250 films from its movie library.
Some series were considered so valuable on their own that they had to be negotiated separately, including The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Gone With the Wind and the James Bond films.
That's why the final film montage had just seconds featuring Sean Connery as Bond, and a room devoted to the tornado that carried little Dorothy to the land of Oz had to be redesigned to feature the storm from Disney's Fantasia. It was too expensive to license these films, and the amount of money was tied to the length of time the material was shown.
In initial discussions, one of the ideas suggested for the attraction was to have live celebrity impersonators inside interacting with the guests. At the time, that was a common practice at some entertainment venues, including Universal Studios Hollywood, which had Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, and W.C. Fields at its park.
Wisely, it was decided that Audio-Animatronics figures would not only be more cost-effective, but would provide a more consistent show experience for guests.
However, using the likenesses of movie stars required licenses from the celebrities or their estates. Sometimes celebrities want to see themselves portrayed differently (e.g., taller, more hair, etc.) than they actually are so it makes negotiations difficult.
In addition, voices had to be licensed, as well, so sometimes other voices are used in the attraction to avoid paying those fees. Liza Minnelli recorded the voice of the character of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz scene to avoid the fees of using her mother Judy Garland's voice from the original film.
Many different movie genres were considered and storyboarded for the attraction, including scenes that would have included the Keystone Kops, Ghostbusters and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In June 2015, the attraction saw minor changes with the new sponsorship of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), including extensive signage, having movie historian Robert Osborne not only host a longer pre-show film but also provide commentary during the ride. In addition, there was a different movie montage as the finale that brought in sequences from more recent films.
The gangster (appetizer/drinks), Western (sit down plated or buffet dinner) and Wizard of Oz (dessert) scenes were sometimes utilized for Disney wedding receptions or special events. Appropriate costumed entertainment performed in each scene.
Over the years, at least three separate attempts were made to bring a version of the attraction to Southern California. First, it was earmarked for the planned, but never built, Disney MGM Studio Backlot in Burbank. Then it was green-lit several years later for the proposed Hollywoodland addition to Disneyland. Finally, it was seriously considered for the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area of Disney California Adventure Park, but budget costs doomed its appearance.
The queue for the attraction contained a constantly rotating exhibit of actual movie props from Dorothy's fabled ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, to Sam's piano from Casablanca to a carousel horse from Mary Poppins.
The loading area for the vehicles is designed to look much like a vintage soundstage, with vintage cameras, and a cyclorama of the Hollywood Hills mansions underneath the fabled Hollywoodland sign. Walt Disney World's only "Hidden Minnie" can be located in that scenery.
The phrase "Ready when you are, C.B." refers to director Cecil B. DeMille. A cutout of his head is attached to one of the rafters above the vehicle and could be clearly seen by the ride operator, but not the guests.
The blank guns used by the cast members are housed in a locked safe in a passageway just to the right of the marquee. Cast members were required to go through training with the Orange County police department in order to use them.
Here are some things you may not have noticed during the attraction:
Footlight Parade (1933)
Originally, each tier of the set would continually rotate in opposite directions, but it frequently broke down. All the walls surrounding it were painted in Art Deco patterns. There were three diving boards with mannequins in swimsuits and caps prominently visible.
The water pumps that sprayed jets of water would also constantly fail, flooding the ride path. It was determined it was more cost effective to no longer repair these malfunctions but to put a scrim in front of the scene and add lighting to suggest movement.
The music loop of the song By A Waterfall (featured in the actual film) accompanied by bubbles floating down from the ceiling remained.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Imagineers intensively wined and dined actor and director Gene Kelly to get him in a good mood before showing him his doppelganger for the ride in California, and the result was that Kelly signed his approval immediately.
When the ride first debuted, Kelly's umbrella was open to protect the Audio-Animatronics figure, but the water occasionally splattered off of it and hit the guests so it was closed.
Mary Poppins (1964)
The device that levitates the Mary Poppins' figure is attached to her carpetbag and its movement is disguised by the chimney.
Dick Van Dyke, who plays the role of Bert in the film, put his handprints in the cement in the forecourt on April 4, 1989. Julie Andrews, although she visited the park and this attraction, never did.
Gangster Alley: The Underworld
Actor James Cagney's family was unhappy with his attire in the gangster scene from his classic film Public Enemy (1931), so they gave the Imagineers one of Cagney's actual tuxedos so he would appear more "classy," even though he did not wear a tuxedo in the movie scene.
The prop newspapers scattered around the outside of Patrick J. Ryan's bar (also from the film Public Enemy) that cannot be seen clearly by the guests are actually copies of the local Florida paper, the Orlando Sentinel. The puddles on the ground are not real liquid and often accumulate dust and need to be wiped during maintenance as do the "horse puddles" in the Western scene.
The gangsters hiding to the left of the tram car in the gangster scene are named "Squint and Beans" and were created from the same molds as two of the buccaneers in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.
The gangster car that crashes into the scene has the license plate number "021 429" which is a reference to the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929.
The Red and Blue Cab Company and Gold Shield Whiskey are both references from the Cagney movie The Roaring Twenties (1939).
One of the cleverest Hidden Mickeys in the attraction is Mickey's distinctive foot on a re-creation of an actual 1930s Mickey Mouse theater poster sticking out beneath the torn Public Enemy movie poster on the wall on the left-hand side, opposite the Cagney character.
John Wayne's voice was impersonated by actor Doug McClure. When he was alive, Wayne had heard McClure impersonating him and apparently approved of him doing it. When the ride originally opened, the figure did wear the real belt buckle that the actor wore in the movie Red River (1948). However, as soon as that information became public knowledge, it was stolen and a replica took its place.
The little band that the Wayne figure wears on his right wrist was one that Wayne was given for good luck when he visited Vietnam, so the figure does indeed wear something authentic from the actor.
Only the side of the horse facing the audience was completed, the side facing the wall was never covered. Before its recent renovation, a complete duplicate of this figure stood outside the entrance of the Black Angus Steakhouse on State Road 535 near Crossroads.
The cards on the floor by the Clint Eastwood figure originally had numbers on them, but during a rehab were changed out to cards with just the suits, which were more authentic to the time period.
Eastwood's figure does not represent a specific scene from any of his films, but to suggest his star-making roles in spaghetti westerns like Fistful of Dollars (1964). The figure was a next-to-last-minute replacement for actor Lee Marvin, when Marvin's family refused to authorize his Oscar winning portrayal of an over-the-hill gunfighter sitting on a tipsy horse leaning against the building from the comedy Cat Ballou (1965) as being disrespectful.
Eisner authorized building the Eastwood figure without the knowledge of the actor, hoping to leverage his friendship to get approval. The figure's head was covered by a sack to dissuade any gossip and when Eastwood accompanied Eisner through the attraction, the sack was removed and, as Eisner hoped, Eastwood approved.
The sheriff who pops up on the balcony on the right hand side to shoot at the bank robbers is a reused figure of President Thomas Jefferson from the Hall of Presidents.
The Sheriff Office's sign swings when it is shot by an unseen but definitely heard bullet.
The "Ransom Stoddard" placard is a reference to the attorney character played by actor Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The Monarch Saloon was once home to the real Doc Holliday and the Cochise County Courthouse was located where the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place.
Alien is not an MGM film, but made by 20th Century Fox. However, Disney had previously licensed the rights to it for a proposed attraction that later evolved into the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter attraction at Magic Kingdom.
Originally, only one Audio-Animatronics alien popped out unexpectedly from the ceiling, but as guests became accustomed to that happening, another was added to the right-hand side in an attempt to create the illusion of two different attacks by the same creature from two different locations.
Those guests who listen carefully can hear Ripley's cat meowing in the distance.
The names on the screen consoles on the lower left floor by the tram are names of the Imagineers who worked on the attraction, along with sometimes some amusing notations including "Intergalactic Goo Analyst" and "Still Programming the Witch."
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The dramatic scene from the film where Indiana Jones and Sallah lift the Ark of the Covenant from its resting place in the Well of Souls divert guests' attention from the walls on the opposite side where, hiding in the hieroglyphics, are images of C3PO and R2D2 (that were also hidden in the film itself), as well as Pharaoh Mickey Mouse being served a wedge of Swiss cheese by Egyptian slave Donald Duck.
It never seemed to bother anyone that the costume on the skeleton at the top of the stairs of the temple that is burned resembles no costume that any of the Disney cast members wear, either as the gangster, Western character or guide.
Since classic horror films are generally tied to Universal Studios, the only reference that could be included was one to "living dead" mummies, since that was considered generic.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Actress Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Jane in the movie Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), did come to Orlando and got a picture taken with her Audio-Animatronics double on the elephant, as well as putting her handprints in the forecourt.
When her figure was built in California and ready to be shipped to Florida, it was wrapped in clear plastic and completely unclothed (since the clothes would be added when the figure was installed so that they would hang properly) and many people made unnecessary trips to the loading dock just to check it out since the figure looked so realistic.
The figure of Tarzan swinging on a vine was later re-used as a pirate swinging on a rope at Disneyland Paris' Pirates of the Caribbean.
Ingrid Bergman does not speak in this scene, because her family would not give permission to use her voice, even though Bergman's grandchildren have been brought through the attraction several times to see their grandmother.
By the way, actor Humphrey Bogart was shorter than Bergman in real life, but his figure is taller in the attraction as it was manipulated in the film.
There is continuing debate whether the plane in this scene was actually used in the original film despite Disney's assertion that the serial number is the same. However, there is no debate that the back half of this plane is the one that has crashed in the jungle in Adventureland's Jungle Cruise.
Cast members refer to the huge fan as "Mickey's biggest fan." Underneath the ride vehicle are several different painted sections as Imagineers tried to develop the proper gold color for the Yellow Brick Road. This section was originally meant to showcase the tornado from the film and the screen would have shown swirling objects, included the Wicked Witch on her bicycle and broom.
Wizard of Oz (1939)
At the time of its opening, the Wicked Witch figure was the most elaborate and realistic Audio-Animatronics figure ever produced. There is a door at the bottom of the tower on which she stands that allows access for maintenance of the figure.
The figure was later updated with Sarcos technology to make it even more lifelike. It was so sophisticated that it took a week to program 15 seconds of motion.
Liza Minnelli, the daughter of actress Judy Garland, supplies the voice for the character of Dorothy for the scene.
The original finale was not to be a movie montage, but an appearance of the great Wizard of Oz as the previous scene was the characters approaching the city of Oz. Curtains would have opened on either side of the vehicles featuring Audio-Animatronics versions of characters seen in the attraction taking their bows.