The origin of The Great Movie ride is tied very closely to the origin of the entire Disney Hollywood Studios, formerly Disney-MGM Studios (1989-2007). The idea that incorporates a film studio and an amusement park dates back to the days when Walt Disney was in the early conceptual stage of developing Disneyland in the late 1950s. Universal Studios was already having success with their tram studio tour in their backlot in California. Likewise, Disney sought to use land across the street from the Disney Studios in Los Angeles to host his own tram tour. The price of the land and traffic issues led Disney to start breaking ground in nearby Anaheim, California, thus prompting a change from the idea of a studio tour to a much more theatric magical kingdom.
In the early 1980's a team of Imagineers led by Marty Sklar and Randy Bright had been given an assignment to create two new pavilions for EPCOT Center's Future World section. The results of their brainstorming rendered two new ideas: The Wonders of Life pavilion and the Great Movie Ride pavilion. Both attractions were developed in the spirit of EPCOT, educating the guests in an entertaining manner. The Wonders of Life Pavilion was a series of attractions that explored the mysteries of biology, and was constructed as planned. Meanwhile, the plans for The Great Movie Ride pavilion caught the eye of newly appointed Disney CEO, Michael Eisner.
[ Photo: Concept art for the Great Movie Ride pavilion in Epcot.
Image compliments of Allison of Walt Dated World. ]
Originally to be placed between The Land and The Journey Into the Imagination pavilions, The Great Movie Ride pavilion was designed to look as a movie set backdrop. With a soundstage background and a small ticket booth entrance, the falseness of Hollywood was embraced in the project's facade. By design, the ride was meant to give guests an insider's look into the magic of film. In this surreal, time-bending setting, the audience would not only experience a film but live it.
Michael Eisner saw enough value in The Great Movie Ride's potential as a new attraction to not only add more to it, but to comission the building of an entirely new theme park around it. The new park, based on a show business and Hollywood entertainment, was to be constructed around the The Great Movie Ride pavilion, which also went through a series of changes as it now has become the central location to its own park. Around the same time, Universal Studios was beginning talks to break ground in Orlando, FL. The controversy surrounding Eisner's prior knowledge of Universal's plans is often used as reasoning for the park's hasty opening. Breaking ground in 1986, the new park's initial opening date was for 1988, only to be pushed back a year when development scale changed. The park officially opened May 1, 1989 to much fan fare and a media blitz.
Opening the Gate
As the Disney company had done previously with their theme parks, there was an important focus on design. Rather than make the entire park look like a studio lot, it was themed in the aesthetics of the classic Hollywood era, circa 1920s-1940s. Gift shops resembled real Hollywood landmarks, such as a gift shop that looked like a classic pharmacy. Restaurants took note from high end Hollywood eateries. All of Disney's theme parks have a large structure in the center of the park that visually and physically draws in guests through the park. Since The Great Movie Ride pavilion's original design was rather simplistic, Imagineers decided to craft it after one of Hollywood's most well-known landmarks, the infamous Grauman's Chinese Theater. This was the premiere location for large scale film premieres of the golden era of film. The new building would focus less on the education of film production but rather entertain through first-hand accounts of films. The to-scale structure would not only host The Great Movie Ride, but also act as the central hub of the park. The building stands at the end of the historically themed, palm tree-lined Hollywood Boulevard.
[Photo: Hollywood Blvd. view prior to 2001]
Disney was also able to secure a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer to create the dually named theme park, the Disney-MGM Studios. The usage of the MGM name led for use of some of the classic film properties within the park. Most notable was the usage of many MGM properties in The Great Movie Ride. The entire attraction was meant to resemble a studio tram tour of famous movie studios. Unlike a traditional tram tour, The Great Movie Ride takes guests into classic scenes of a film, brought to life by Disney's own audio-animatronics technology.
Legal Issues Arise
It has been rumored that there was a legal dispute, in the late 1990s, between the owners of the original Grumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the Disney company. As a result, Disney entirely lost its ability to use the theater in promotional materials. It also prevented the celebrity handprint events that occured in front of the building. To remedy the legal issues, Disney built a large replica of Mickey's sorcerer hat, from the film "Fantasia." in front of the Great Movie Ride. The obscured view allowed Disney to keep the Great Movie Ride facade intact.
The Great Movie ride opened in May 1989, on the opening day of the Disney-MGM Studios. While many have argued that the attraction needs updating, it is best to view it as a catalog of film experiences that are timeless. Despite featuring films that are over fifty years old, The Great Movie Ride accomplishes its original intent - to give the guests a spectacular journey into the movies.