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Photo of Animatronic John Wayne and Horse at Disney’s MGM Hollywood Studios in Orlando Florida USA. Photo: JHP Attractions / Alamy Stock Photo

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The Great Movie Ride was the first time I experienced ‘Disney magic’

The decommissioned Disney attraction lives on in photos, videos, and fond memories

On March 4, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a new dark ride based on the latest series of Mickey Mouse shorts, opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and squashed any hope and dream of my beloved Great Movie Ride ever returning to the park.

Runaway Railway, from released photos and video, looks like a testament to Disney theme parks’ innovation, blending 2D animation and scenic illusions. I have no doubt it’ll be a great ride, but it’s a bittersweet moment for me, fan of The Great Movie Ride, the dark ride built inside a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre that took riders on an immersive tour of cinema history. The attraction was the first time I ever remember experiencing that quintessential Disney magic.

Around the age of five, I became obsessed with Walt Disney World in Florida, despite having never been there. But thanks to a promotional VHS tape gifted to me by my dad (given as a sort of consolation since we couldn’t afford a Disney World vacation then), I saw everything Disney World promised: blue skies, laughter, princesses wandering the streets, and magic in the form of Mickey balloons and ice cream. There were attractions that would bring me to different worlds and times, rides that were scary, but not too scary, and experiences like no other. Disney, or at least the glorified commercial for Disney, promised me something I wouldn’t find on any other place on Earth. This was “Disney magic.”

Seven years later, my family and I finally visited the Magic Kingdom. But visiting the park left me with a vague sense of disillusionment: While I was absolutely the most excited person in my whole family, tugging everyone along to line up for rides, I never experienced the “magic” of Disney that I saw on my burned-out VHS tape. The Cinderella castle, which I expected to loom large and grand over the whole park, was just a big building. Instead of princesses wandering the street and smiling at me, there was a line wrapping around the castle to see them. Was this a case of reality not meeting expectations? Or was I, at age 12, too jaded by the nature of the world?

A few months later, my family went to a Hollywood Studios — which I still stubbornly referred to as “MGM studios” because my VHS tape was not up on 2008 rebranding — and I was more or less expecting the same sort of experience, if not one less enjoyable. What I got was an experience that redefined that initial pitch of Disney magic.

Image: Walt Disney World

Disney sells Hollywood Studios on the very loose theme of “Hollywood” and “studios.” When it was first opened in 1989, the park contained an actual animation studio on the property; now it houses attractions like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story land. The deliberate IP-ification of the space would hit a few years after I visited the park, so at that point, besides housing well-known rides like Rock N’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, everything else about the influx Hollywood Studios was a general mystery to me.

The Great Movie Ride had a major selling point to my 12-year-old self: there was basically no line. The ride’s queue took riders into the past movie props and costumes encased in glass. In the waiting area, a collection of classic film scenes played on a screen, before cast members dressed as old-timey movie theater attendants ushered us to the actual ride. The train-like vehicle had multiple cars designed to look like movie theater seats, and a charismatic cast member with a crisp British accent welcomed guests to the tour. The Great Movie Ride launched right through the marquee of a theater into a living history of Hollywood.

I vividly remember passing animatronics of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain and scenes from Mary Poppins. My tour guide told us about the 1933 Busby Berkeley musical extravaganza, Footlight Parade. This was not the ride I had expected, but a fusion of Epcot’s educational approach and a touch of theatrical flare.

And then the gangster switch happened.

There are two ways the Imagineers built towards The Great Movie Ride’s grand switcheroo. The ride takes passengers through the 1930s gangster movie The Public Enemy, and then a classic John Wayne Western. Depending on which car someone boards, they either get stuck in the middle of a gangster shootout, where a smart talking mobster hijacks your car, or a Wild West bank robbery, where an outlaw takes command. The original tour guide, gone off to inspect the situation, disappears, leaving riders in the hands of a criminal.

Our initial tour guide had been charming and knowledgeable, but in the hands of Mugsy the mobster, the ride took a darker turn. I was thrilled. We dove right into the set of Alien, where a heavy breathing Xenomorph loomed over us, and our smart-talking mobster guide did little to alleviate my fears. After nearly being devoured by the alien, we entered a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a creepy temple full of cobwebs, snakes, and skeletons.

The lure of treasure prompted the mobster to stop the vehicle and steal a glowing jewel, though as he reached for it, a booming voice warned him of an impending curse. He didn’t care. The moment he touched it, fire erupted around him! Then smoke, noise, a whole hullabaloo! My jaw dropped. After everything dissipated, a skeleton remained in his place — and above him, standing triumphant above the statue, our original tour guide was back to save us.

a scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in The Great Movie Ride
Hey look it’s Harrison Ford!
Image: Walt Disney World

This was the most fantastic thing I’d seen in my life. The Great Movie Ride promised to take me into the movies, and accomplished the feat with animatronics and practical effects. But I hadn’t counted on becoming part of a movie itself. I was filled with sheer excitement as the ride spun into a dark theater and culminated in a spectacular montage of movie scenes swirling all around. I finally felt vindicated. The ride made good on my VHS tape.

Looking back, I can see how Imagineers perfectly engineered this moment of Disney magic for me. For one, the didactic approach worked well. The Great Movie Ride was originally conceived for Epcot and the “edu-tainment” trip through a fleet of animatronics is more reminiscent of Spaceship Earth than Pirates of the Caribbean. The use of live actors blended into the ride also made for a more engaging and immersive experience. Disney cast members are always on point when it comes to committing to the experience, be it First Order dressed ride attendants barking orders before Rise of the Resistance or attendants at Space Mountain wishing you safe travels, but the Great Movie Ride took it a step further. This wasn’t just a ride — it was a show too, it was an immersive roleplaying experience before Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was even conceived.

My sister, my mom, and me in front of the Chinese Theatre in 2011
Photo: Petrana Radulovic

The Great Movie Ride closed its doors on Aug. 13, 2017. By then, the Hollywood aspects of Hollywood Studios had started to phase out as the park transitioned to integrating Disney’s IP. The animatronics were old, the movie references outdated. The last time I rode it, just a few months prior to its closing, the line was just 20 minutes. Of course, I boarded. Knowing every beat of the ride, I thought I’d just experience it for one last time.

Except, when I rolled past The Public Enemy scene, no mobster boarded my car. I was confused for a moment, forgetting that an alternate sequence of events could unfold. I’ve ridden it a handful of times since 2008, but I’d never actually gotten the cowboy version of events. So when boisterous outlaw Kate Durango boarded my ride, guns ablazing, I smiled so wide like it was my very first time. In our last moments together, The Great Movie Ride still gave me something new.