Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Making of: The Great Movie Ride

By Keith Mahne

The Great Movie Ride is a classic Disney attraction in every sense of the word. Located as the centerpiece of Disney's Hollywood Studios, it takes guests through scenes from famous films throughout motion picture history. The attraction, housed perfectly inside a recreation of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, is a must-do on any visit to the Park. Join us today as we return to our popular Making of segment and take a look at the creation of one of the most beloved attractions ever to come out of Walt Disney Imagineering...

The Great Movie Ride directly inspired the creation of Disney's Hollywood Studios. The attraction was actually going to be the main attraction in a show business themed pavilion at EPCOT, which was to be called Great Moments at the Movies. In the early 1980s, Disney was considering ideas for new pavilions at EPCOT Center. Imagineering President Marty Sklar and Randy Bright were assigned with the task of creating two new pavilions and they came up with the Wonders of Life pavilion and the Great Moments at the Movies pavilion...

Great Moments at the Movies Pavilion Concept Art

The Great Moments at the Movies pavilion was to be placed between The Land pavilion and the Journey into Imagination pavilion. Its design was supposed to look like a movie set, with a soundstage backdrop and a small ticket booth entrance. The backdrop was intentionally made to look fake because it was a commentary on Hollywood and how movies are made. The attraction itself would give Walt Disney World guests an insider's look into movie making magic with a focus on films from the 1920s to the modern era.

Concept Art of Disney-MGM Studios featuring a huge hidden Mickey

The Great Moments at the Movies pavilion caught the attention of then Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner who felt the pavilion had more potential than just a pavilion at EPCOT Center. Instead, Eisner envisioned building a brand new theme park around the concept, which could compete against the then-recently announced Universal Studios theme park that was slated to open in Orlando. The idea for the attraction was expanded, and Disney-MGM Studios went into official development.

Concept Art

Since its inception, The Great Movie Ride has had some modifications worth noting. The first sequence of the ride, Footlight Parade, was plagued with engineering and technical problems from the beginning. When the ride was newly opened, the Footlight Parade segment was different than it is today. The entire portion following the neon lit entrance was fleshed out. All the walls leading up to, around, and beyond the "cake" were painted in art deco style patterns as seen in the movie By A Waterfall. Approximately three diving boards with three mannequin dancers wearing caps were perched on the right hand side of the wall as you enter the ride segment. The five-tiered "cake" was prominently displayed at a left hand turn. It was in the open air and illuminated with an array of animated lights. During this pass through the Footlight Parade segment, riders would hear a music loop of By A Waterfall (a song featured in Footlight Parade) lasting approximately 40 seconds as bubbles fell from the ceiling.

For approximately the first year, the "cake" actually rotated and was adorned with water jets as seen in the film. Allegedly, the rotating "cake" mechanism was constantly breaking down, causing frequent repairs and downtime. In addition, the water pumps would constantly fail, flooding the ride path. Park operations believed it was much cheaper and less problematic to leave the "cake" in place with lighting effects used to provide what Imagineers term as "kinetics" to the segment. This is what guests see today.

Currently, this segment is still the "opening act" of The Great Movie Ride, but significantly toned down. Guests now enter a segment with its lighting significantly diminished. The outer walls are dark with practically no art deco recreations from the film set and the diving boards have all been replaced with wall sconces. So now, guests pass through a deco inspired archway to find themselves facing a large scrim-lined proscenium decorated with grey/blue clouds and remnants of the art deco set designs. Throughout the segment, three large rotating projections of Busby Berkeley-style kaleidoscope dance sequences appear on the scrim (from By A Waterfall, Dames, and Shadow Waltz). These disappear to expose the "cake," which is behind the scrim, and is simultaneously illuminated with washes of light and reflective water effects. The caped dancers on diving boards are now located to the far left of the "cake" behind the scrim. The art deco style wall panels still reside behind the "cake." The looping song segment and bubbles remain.

The classic attraction calls the inside of a recreation of the famous Hollywood landmark, the TCL Chinese Theatre home. At the time the attraction opened, the actual theater's name was "Mann's Chinese Theater" and later "Grauman's Chinese Theatre", however, because The Walt Disney Company was denied permission to use either official name, the park's proper name for the building is simply "The Chinese Theatre." The beautiful theatre façade that originally lured guests down Hollywood Blvd became obscured from view (when looking from the park's entrance) in 2001, when a giant replica of Mickey's Sorcerer Hat was built directly in front of the attraction. Since then, the hat has served as the park's new icon until it was removed in 2015. Rumors have swirled around that the Sorcerer's Hat would be rebuilt else where, but that remains to be seen...

The Sorcerer's Hat under construction

The queue winds through a recreation of the Chinese Theatre lobby past glass display cases containing actual costumes, props, and set pieces from various films. The queue then takes guests into a small pre-show theatre where guests view a series of condensed film trailers for the various films that are featured on the attraction. The queue line ends at a pair of automatic doors at the front of the theatre that lead into a 1930s era Hollywood soundstage where guests are loaded onto waiting ride vehicles.

As guests reach the end of the queue, they enter a 1930s-era Hollywood sound stage where they are loaded by cast members into one of two sets of open, theatre-style seating ride vehicles. The vehicles utilize a "traveling theatre"-style ride system similar to the Universe of Energy attraction at Epcot. However, here the ride vehicles are much smaller in size, are grouped together in pairs of two, and feature an open cab in the first row of the front vehicle for a live tour guide to stand, provide narration, and operate the ride vehicle. Both pairs of vehicles are used every day, but, as the day goes on, the front vehicles begin to be pulled, leaving only the back vehicles.

The film set within the soundstage features a large neon theatre marquee and a cyclorama of the 1930s-era Hollywood Hills complete with the original Hollywoodland sign. As the ride begins, "Hooray for Hollywood" plays overhead as the tour guide on the ride vehicle welcomes guests and informs them that they will be taking them through scenes from different classic films throughout history.

Concept art for the audio-animatronic of Gene Kelly

The first genre of films introduced are musicals, which begins with a cake of starlets in a scene from Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade. The next musical scenes include audio-animatronics of Gene Kelly swinging from a lamp post from the film Singin' in the Rain, followed by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke singing on the rooftops of London in Mary Poppins.

The next scene is a tribute to gangster films. The ride vehicle passes through the dark and seedy backstreets of 1930s Chicago and past an audio-animatronic James Cagney in a scene from The Public Enemy. When both pairs of ride vehicles are in use, the first continues on to the next show scene while the second is stopped by a red light at the entrance to a tunnel. Here, the tour guide stops the ride vehicle and waits for a green light.

Concept Art for the gangster scene shoot-out

While stopped, a live gangster named Mugsy (male) or Mugsi (female) and their audio-animatronic companions Squid and Beans show up and get involved in a shoot-out with rival mobsters (Brains, Legs, and Weasel) in a car on the opposite side of the street where the ride vehicle is stopped. During the shoot out, the live gangster then chases away the tour guide and hijacks the ride vehicle. When the gangster notices the red light above the tunnel entrance, they shoot it out and make their getaway aboard the ride vehicle, leaving Squid and Beans behind to "give [the gangster's] regards to the warden."

Concept Art of a audio-animatronic John Wayne sitting atop his horse

Next is a tribute to the Western film genre. Here, guests encounter audio-animatronics of Clint Eastwood standing outside of a saloon and John Wayne sitting atop his horse. The second vehicle (which is already being driven by the gangster) continues past a shoot-out between the town sheriff and an audio-animatronic bank robber named Snake. However, on very busy days this area will be used to make the switch as the first ride vehicle (which is still being driven by the tour guide) stops in front of the town bank while a robbery is in progress. Suddenly, a live bank robber named Kate Durango (female) or Kid Carson (male) appears from inside the bank. After getting into a shoot-out with the town sheriff and chasing the tour guide into the bank, the bandit blows up the town bank along with the Tour Guide inside it with dynamite and hijacks the ride vehicle. Following this scene, the remainder of the attraction is the same for both ride vehicles.

As the ride vehicle continues into a seemingly abandoned spaceship, a narrator's voice states that this is the Nostromo, the doomed ship from the film Alien. The narrator then informs guests of a dangerous creature lurking within the ship that is waiting to claim its next victim. The tram passes an audio-animatronic Sigourney Weaver holding a flamethrower as she prepares to confront the creature. Guests can also hear the Nostromo's "Mother" computer warning of an imminent ship self-destruction countdown. Hearing this, the hijacker becomes nervous and speeds the ride vehicle through the ship, but not before the Alien appears and attacks the guests, popping out from both the ceiling and the wall.

The ride vehicle next enters a scene set in an ancient Egyptian temple filled with snakes. The narrator informs guests that they are in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark as audio-animatronic figures of Harrison Ford and John Rhys-Davies struggle to lift the Ark of the Covenant. A second room within the temple (though not from the film) features a large altar in the form of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis. Near the top of the altar, a large jewel is being watched over by a cloaked temple priest.

The hijacker sees the jewel, stops the ride vehicle, and disembarks to retrieve it. Before touching the jewel, the temple guard gives a warning that those who disturb the jewel must pay with their life. Ignoring the warning, the hijacker reaches to grab the jewel. Suddenly, a plume of fiery smoke shoots from the ground. When it disperses, the hijacker is now nothing more than a skeleton (still reaching for the jewel) and the temple priest is revealed to be the original live tour guide, who re-boards the vehicle and continues the ride.

The next film genre introduced are horror films as the ride vehicle travels through an ancient burial chamber full of mummies, some of which have come to life. The ride vehicle soon leaves the tomb and enters a jungle, which is home to Tarzan the Ape Man. Here, audio-animatronic figures of Tarzan swinging on a vine, Jane sitting atop Timba the elephant, and Cheeta the chimpanzee can be seen. The ride vehicle then moves past the final scene from Casablanca featuring audio-animatronics of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as they stand in front of a waiting airplane. Next, the ride vehicle passes a film projection of Mickey Mouse in his role as The Sorcerer's Apprentice from the classic Disney animated film Fantasia.

Concept art for the scene from The Wizard of Oz

Construction of the original Wicked Witch audio-animatronic

The ride vehicle then enters into the Munchkinland scene from The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. When both pairs of ride vehicles are in use, they meet up here and come to a stop in the middle of the scene. Audio-Animatronic Munchkins begin to appear from various places and sing as they welcome guests to their home. However, a plume of smoke suddenly rises from the ground as an audio-animatronic Wicked Witch of the West appears and asks who is responsible for killing the Wicked Witch of the East.

Sarcos-equipped audio-animatronics of the Wicked Witch

The Wizard of Oz scene, much like the rest of the attraction, has not had any major structural changes over the years, but Walt Disney Imagineering did replace the Wicked Witch audio-animatronic character with a newer-design figure utilizing what is called Sarcos technology. The Sarcos-equipped audio-animatronics are capable of a great deal more movement possibilities than the original "limited animation" figure designs, and can move much more quickly. As a result, they can be made to look much more lifelike. The new witch was reprogrammed to take advantage of the underlying robot, and is one of, if not the, most lifelike audio-animatronic characters in the attraction. The tour guide aboard the first ride vehicle interacts with her before she disappears in another puff of smoke. The Munchkins reappear from their hiding places and begin to sing again as both ride vehicles follow the Yellow Brick Road out of Munchkinland past older audio-animatronic figures of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man , Cowardly Lion and Toto standing in front of the Emerald City, and onto the ride's Grand Finale.

For the grand finale, both ride vehicles enter a large, dark theatre where they line up side-by-side and come to a stop in front of a large movie screen. There, a fast-paced three-minute film montage of classic film moments is shown. At the conclusion of the film, both ride vehicles exit the theatre, line up single-file again and return to the 1930s soundstage where the ride concludes. Before guests disembark the vehicles and exit the attraction, the tour guide wants them to do one more "scene" by applauding.

Unlike many Disney dark rides that feature separate embarkation and debarkation areas, The Great Movie Ride has only a single combined unloading and loading area. The last people to exit the vehicles often pass the next group of guests waiting to board the vehicles. At the time the ride was designed (the mid to late 1980s), it was common throughout the theme park industry to have all major rides exit into a store selling merchandise associated with the attraction. The Great Movie Ride, however, does not exit directly into a store...thank heavens!

Concept Art for the Disney-MGM Studio Backlot Project for California

Three separate attempts were made by Walt Disney Imagineering to bring The Great Movie Ride to California. First were plans to incorporate the attraction into the proposed “Disney-MGM Studio Backlot” project, a 40-acre studio themed retail and entertainment district that was planned (but ultimately never built) for downtown Burbank, California during the late 1980s. Several years later, plans called for the attraction to serve as the centerpiece of the proposed Hollywoodland at Disneyland, which would have been added to the park during the planned Disney Decade in the 1990s. Due to budget cuts, however, Hollywoodland was canceled. Later, plans called for the attraction to be built as part of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area of Disney California Adventure. But budget cuts in the park's original development planning forced the attraction's projected cost to be spent on smaller, original and less expensive attractions.

Muppet Movie Ride Concept Art

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Disney came very close to buying Jim Henson's Muppets before eventually doing so in 2004. Walt Disney Imagineering developed a Muppet-themed land for Disney-MGM Studios called Muppet Movieland. The land was to feature two main attractions; one was Muppet Vision 3D and the other was The Great Muppet Movie Ride, a parody of The Great Movie Ride featuring Muppet characters such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo re-enacting scenes from famous films such as Frankenstein and Peter Pan. However, after Jim Henson died, the deal fell apart and Disney cut back on the Muppet-themed area to just Muppet Vision 3D.

On the park's opening day and over the years, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Roger Rabbit, Kermit the frog, and other Disney characters and famous actors placed their signatures, footprints, and handprints in front of the façade of The Great Movie Ride.

The ending of The Great Movie Ride was originally going to have more of a foundation in The Wizard of Oz with the Fantasia scene being the Cyclone, and also adding a divider down the middle of the theatre separating the A and B vehicles in the final (film clip) scene. Where the large screen is now was where the Wizard would have appeared surrounded by flames. The Wizard would say his famous line, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" and the show would be interrupted as the curtains to the left or right of the screen would open to reveal either your live bandit (on the A vehicle side) or gangster (on the B vehicle side). Along the outer walls of the theatre (to the left of the A vehicle or to the right of the B vehicle), is currently large empty carpeted areas. Here was supposed to be large platforms where models of all of the audio-animatronic characters seen earlier in the attraction would be standing and would take a bow.

In 2014, as part of an exclusive programming deal with Disney, Turner Classic Movies agreed to become the sponsor of the attraction. The attraction underwent a minor refurbishment to include a new pre-show and post-show hosted by Robert Osborne.

And now friends, for the grand finale of this Making of article, we present The Great Movie Ride from opening day, May 1, 1989, in its original state and brand spanking new! Enjoy...


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.


  1. Keith, If I'm not mistaken, that concept art for California Backlot lot is actually proposed Disney MGM. Same hidden Mickey, same layout as the Florida park minus the additions which becalm Muppets area and Gertie the dino is at the lake. Great article!


    1. Hey Mark! This was the photo Jim Hill used in an article about the Burbank MGM park, which is how I discovered it. I'll see if I can track down that article to verify. I rerelease this article today that I originally released last year so I am not 100%. You may be correct but I'll double check that.

  2. Wow, what a great article. I know a lot of Disney trivia, but had never heard of the original proposed ride ending that you discussed. I'm sure the budget for the ride was high enough without having to make every audio-animatronic character twice! Very interesting to think about what could have been... though I always liked the movie at the end.

    Also, I'm old enough to remember when the "cake" rotated and had water effects, and the video was a nice trip back in time. The aliens seemed scarier back then too! I always wondered why the vehicles had to go SO SLOW in there!