During my Disney College Program I was able to participate in a couple of backstage tours- Lights, Motors, Action! (totally ironic as I ended up working there after doing the tour), Spaceship Earth (didn’t take pictures…probably my biggest regret in life if we’re being totally honest), and one of the most highly sought after, The Haunted Mansion (did take loads of pictures but you won’t be seeing them on here because I follow the rules/NSFM/”Not Safe for Magic” and whatnot). One tour I can totally share the details of as the ride has since closed however is the Great Movie Ride.
First off, I’m thinking a little background is required because the ride is now closed, so if you did not get to Disney’s Hollywood Studios before August of 2017, you may not be entirely familiar with it. The Great Movie Ride opened with the park (then Disney MGM Studios) as a “spectacular journey into the movies” on May 1, 1989. It was a slow moving dark ride, loaded with everything any good theme park attraction should come with, in my opinion- Audio Animatronics from a variety of classic films, tons of attention to detail in each show scene, live Cast Member hosts, multiple ride experiences, a fun preshow featuring original trailers, and a touching montage at the ride’s finale.
The entire experience took place inside the park’s replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and (at least for me) the full experience included a walk around the exterior handprints and signatures in the cement (that are all originals, check them out if you haven’t already next time you’re over there) plus a slow walk through the queue to check out some of the costumes from the movies as well as the preshow of original trailers for the films featured in the attraction. Guests boarded the slow-moving ride vehicles in what appeared to be a classic Hollywood sound stage, and with that they were off with their guide to get right into the movies. (Full ride video below)
From Footlight Parade to Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with hits like Mary Poppins, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casablanca, the ride truly did cover a lot of ground when it came to giving guests the ultimate movie experience. Along with show scenes from specific films, the ride also featured some generalized scenes covering the entire genres of gangster and and western movies, complete with Audio Animatronics of James Cagney and John Wayne. At one point during the ride, the vehicles would stop in one of these scenes and the live Cast Member leading your tour would be held up by either cowboys or gangsters who after some action-packed sequences would take over as your host momentarily steering your vehicle through the next show scene, Alien…or as the gangster Cast Members would typically refer to it as…”Jersey?”
By the time you’d reach the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene, your gangster or cowboy guide would be duped by your actual guide while attempting to steal a gem and in true old Hollywood fashion you’d have your trusty guide back in action to guide you through the final couple of scenes, which among others included Tarzan, Fantasia, and the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz scene (along with the rest of the ride, to be fair) was loaded with details and when the ride opened in 1989 it had one of the most impressive Audio Animatronics figures of any theme park attraction, the Wicked Witch of the West. This Audio Animatronic traumatized me as a kid- I was convinced she was real and I always seemed to find myself in the exact seat on the ride where she’d point and say, “I’ll get you my pretty…” I’m sure I was a real dream for my parents to deal with in the parks after that as a kid.
The ride would finish with a pretty spectacular montage covering a nice variety of films including everything from 1950s musicals to animated features, horror films, westerns, and everything in between. The montage was definitely one of those moments that always made me feel really nostalgic and emotional about Disney’s Hollywood Studios (especially back in the day when some of the more ‘classic’ elements of the park still existed like the Studio Backlot Tour and The Magic of Disney Animation…Hey, at least we still have Indiana Jones: Epic Stunt Spectacular, right?!) Now that I feel like I’ve sold you on this awesome attraction you’ll never get to experience (again), let’s get into the backstage tour!
I participated in this backstage tour while I was working at DinoLand USA, so just getting out of Animal Kingdom to see something behind the scenes at another Disney park was always exciting. (I know, I know…I worked in merchandise, I theoretically could have seen backstage areas by picking up shifts in other locations, but as a non-Attractions Cast Member getting a behind the scenes look at any ride, especially something so complicated with the different scenes and actors like the Great Movie Ride was incredibly exciting). As most backstage tours do, we arrived at the park bright and early well before it would open to regular guests, and since this was way back in 2014 it was one of the last times I’d get a decent view of the Sorcerer Mickey hat that used to effectively block the Chinese Theater. I’m really a huge fan of Sorcerer Mickey, but that hat was an eye sore so I was not complaining when we got that classic view of the theater back instead…
I don’t remember all of the details of the tour (clearly I should have taken notes) but I do remember going in through the main entrance and learning about the architecture of the Chinese Theater building and how the building in Hollywood Studios is actually closer to the real theater’s original design than the current structure in Hollywood. Various updates have been made over the years to the real-life version, but the Hollywood Studios version was designed using original blueprints.
We went through the queue and learned about how authentic the designs of everything from the printed wallpaper to the carpeting was compared to what was originally in the real Chinese Theater, and we spent some time browsing some of the costumes and props in the exhibit cases before the preshow area. These items were rotated out frequently, but I always loved seeing pieces from Mary Poppins the most!
Once inside the loading area, we were able to step down onto the ride path-an act that in itself is always incredibly exciting for anyone who does not work in Attractions. From what I remember, the Footlight Parade, Singin’ in the Rain and Mary Poppins scenes were essentially just photo ops for us on the tour, though we did learn that the Footlight Parade dancers stopped rotating shortly into the attraction’s life because the nearby bubble effects caused issues with them quite frequently.
The gangster scene was up next, and after a quick photo op with James Cagney we learned that this scene is inspired by a variety of settings from gangster movies as a whole. Parts of the skyline in the backdrop were designed after LA, while the train sound in the audio was picked up from Chicago. This was also where we learned about Disney’s bizarre rules for the Cast Members who used the guns during this scene- Apparently they all needed to complete a pretty legit firearms safety course despite the fact that they’d only be shooting blanks, and they’d have to hold the gun some distance away from themselves as an extra precaution while acting out the scene, so if you’ve ever wondered why the gangster holding the shotgun on the Great Movie Ride looks so goofy, now you know! There is also a catwalk above this scene (and actually most areas of the attraction) that Cast Members could use to get around the set and we were able to explore that too. It was pretty awesome getting to go that level of ‘backstage’ at such a classic attraction.
The next part of the tour followed the ride path to the Western scene. I wish I remembered all of the details, but for some reason the only thing that stuck with me here was that apparently members of John Wayne’s family had some sort of input on the way his Animatronic look (wonder where that Animatronic is now? Dick Van Dyke recently shared a video that seemed to show him standing next to the Bert Animatronic from the quick Mary Poppins scene in the beginning of the ride, so maybe Wayne’s Animatronic is in a family home somewhere now…) They also used one of the figures in this scene to demonstrate the fact that in any Disney attraction the only parts of Animatronics (or any parts of a set really) that are fully completed are the parts that you can see. I’m not sure why I didn’t angle the camera so you actually see this in the photo, but for an example, the figure below from this scene is incomplete below his torso because that’s all guests would ever see.
I’m sure our guide gave us information on the use of pyro in this scene. If you haven’t ridden the Great Movie Ride, or if you’ve never experienced the Western scene, it’s an alternative to the gangster scene. So you’d never get both in the same ride and the gangster scene was more common because that’s the only one they’d run when there wasn’t a high guest capacity on the ride at a given time to need the two scenes going. I have a huge sense of nostalgia for the gangster scene as that’s understandably the one I’ve experienced more often, but the Western scene was really cool- during the shootout, the bank building would catch on fire and it was always exciting to see.
The next part of the tour brought us through one of the favorite scenes in the ride, Alien. I love Alien so getting to walk through the Nostromo and see all of the details of this scene up close was one of the coolest behind the scenes experiences I think I had working from Disney. (Wait, can we talk about this scene for a second….When I was a kid, why was I totally comfortable with an alien coming at me from the ceiling and not at all okay with the Wicked Witch of the West?) The level of detail in Sigourney Weaver’s Animatronic was really cool, as you’d be able to see lots of details in the suit she’s wearing and how her fact was sculpted to give her that panicked look where all she really did movement-wise was turn her head as the ride vehicle passed by. (The thing with backstage tours like this is that you’re often rushed as you have to finish with enough time for them to open the ride for when the park opens so getting pictures isn’t always easy, hence the quality of the selfie below…)
I also loved the Alien scene because the way the script for the attraction was written (or the way the Cast Members sometimes improvised) it was fun to see either the cowboy or gangster taken out of their element and thrown onto the Nostromo. They’d always be (understandably) terrified of the alien, and I’d always get such a kick out of how they interacted with something so out of any setting those kinds of characters would ever know what to do with. It was just such great storytelling and little things like that for me always made this one of the most memorable Disney attractions.
The next scene brought us to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where either the gangster or the cowboy goes after a gem sitting on a platform atop a pyramid of snakes of course, but they’re stopped when your trusty tour guide returns and handles the situation. It had some of the most simple yet really cool special effects where the ‘bad guy’ disappears behind a wall of fog and reappears as a skeleton- you could have kind of figured out how it’s done from the ride vehicle (at least if you were like me and would turn around while leaving the scene to see if you could catch it all re-setting) but essentially the Cast Member stands on a turntable that puts them behind the scene while the fog was covering them. It was such a simple trick but a really effective one and seeing the route Cast Members would take between scenes to get to and from that spot backstage was totally fascinating to me.
Also in the Raiders of the Lost Ark area are a number of Easter eggs in the hieroglyphics- it was nearly impossible to get decent photos of them but if you looked closely you’d find things like Hidden Mickeys and even hidden Star Wars characters like C-3PO and R2-D2. There was also a “101” etched above an archway in this scene, which is a nod to Cast Member-speak for when an attraction or park area is temporarily closed (that foreshadowing though…)
Tarzan and Casablanca were next- I’m sure we learned things about these scenes during the tour but I don’t remember too much of the details. I do know that I always thought the Tarzan Animatronic that swings through the scene was always so old looking but in a way that was kind of adorably kitschy and worked in some sort of way perhaps just because the original live action film was so old. The Casablanca scene (from the end of the film/”Here’s looking at you kid”) I always thought was so beautifully done. The screen over the set created a quality that was somehow very classic Hollywood and almost dreamlike and it’s one of the scenes in the attraction where I always felt totally immersed in the film. Fun fact from the Casablanca scene- the airplane was missing the tail section, but you can actually still see the tail section of the plane from this scene today while riding the Jungle Cruise in the Magic Kingdom.
Casablanca blends pretty seamlessly into the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene of Fantasia, which goes by pretty quickly as it would primarily just show you the animated sequence, eventually leaving you right in the middle of the Wizard of Oz. This scene was loaded with details in the way it was designed, and getting to see it on foot as opposed to simply riding through was unreal. Our guide gave us a bunch of facts and trivia about the movie and how the different Animatronics in the scene works (as while you can’t tell in the photos of the set while you’re on the ride the whole space really comes alive), including the technological advancements that made the Wicked Witch so terrifying and realistic during the attraction’s prime.
Although I was absolutely traumatized by this scene was a kid, I really loved it as an adult. I especially love the way it showcased the Wicked Witch and the Munchkins in the grander part of the scene and ended with a view of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tinman with their backs to your ride vehicle looking off towards the Emerald City. Not only in this attraction, but in general, I love when various kinds of storytelling focus on the characters you wouldn’t expect. I think it gives more depth to the main characters you’re more familiar with and it’s just interesting to me to focus on someone lesser known. (Another instance of this in Disney is in the American Adventure show during the Valley Forge scene as the focus is on two soldiers while George Washington is silent in the background.)
From there the ride would end with a montage of all different kinds of movies, and I’ve always found incredibly touching even for the movies I haven’t seen (which admittedly is a lot of them…I keep meaning to make it a goal to see all of the movies shown in the montage). When the montage finished and the ride vehicles pulled back into the station, the Cast Member would give a quick closing spiel that ended with something along the lines of, “Enjoy the rest of your day here at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and I’ll see you at the movies!” The ending montage and spiel perfectly summed up what the park as a whole was all about and it always just put me in a good mood and inspired me to see more movies, so hearing from Cast Members who actually worked there during the tour about how passionate they were about all of it was also just a really fun experience.
In case you haven’t guessed it from this incredibly long post, I’m still pretty sad about the Great Movie Ride closing. The ride it’s been replaced with, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, looks awesome (though I’m trying to hold off from watching a video to see it in person first), and I’m really not one to get upset about Disney rides closing (with the obvious exception of Lights, Motors, Action!). I totally get the need to revamp things and keep everything fresh, and I typically agree that most of the time when we’re not into changing something like this the feelings are the result of pure nostalgia. For the Great Movie Ride though, I have all the nostalgia as a regular guest plus some extra sense of appreciation for the park since working there during my Disney College Program (which is kind of insane when you factor in that the show I worked at caused the shortening of one of the park’s best opening day attractions, the Studio Backlot Tour). I know the whole direction of the park is changing, and I’m glad the facade of the Chinese Theater was either largely untouched if not improved when the Great Movie Ride closed, but in my opinion it’s still just a kind of sad change to see the direction of the park getting away from those classic Hollywood vibes that I’ve always associated with it. I’m still pretty optimistic that the new attraction is great, I’m just simultaneously still kind of stunned that the Great Movie Ride is gone. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land replaced Lights, Motors, Action! though (and all of the Streets of America for that matter) and while I was obviously skeptical of all this at first given my love for LMA, it’s pretty clear now that the trade-off was worth it, so it will definitely be interesting to see the even more recent changes on my next trip to Hollywood Studios.