Twitter is a’buzz with the latest from the 2017 D23 Expo. Not to be outdone, Facebook, Instagram, and the theme park blogosphere are all but fully consumed with the big announcements for Walt Disney World out of D23 in Anaheim. BIG changes are coming, and will radically modify the existing attraction offerings at Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). While there were many announcements, the biggest ones are arguably the detailed look at the new Star Wars Land, the update on Toy Story Land (opening next summer), Ellen’s Energy Adventure (Epcot) getting replaced by Guardians of the Galaxy. Lastly, the final big announcement that will really hit close to home for many who have been going to DHS for a large portion of his or her life–the announcement of the closure of The Great Movie Ride (GMR) to make way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride at Walt Disney World. And it’s that last announcement that speaks volumes regarding the direction that the Walt Disney Company is moving.
Although it’s been fairly common knowledge that the Ellen attraction was going to be replaced with something more contemporary and relevant, the announcement of the closure of GMR came as a shock to many (note: this change WAS hinted at within the last few months). Fortunately, the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre facade is slated to be largely untouched, so it will remain the icon of the park; however, GMR will go by way of The Streets of America. On the plus side, this change paves the way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride in the parks period. That’s right. Neither Mickey nor Minnie had a ride based off their respective characters. Strange, right? Since “it all started with a Mouse.” Yes, Mickey has been included in other attractions (i.e. Philharmagic, Fantasmic, etc), but this presents the first time that he will have an actual ride in the parks. Of all the changes coming to Walt Disney World, this represents the most symbolic, and some might argue, the most significant. In order to understand just why this particular change is so important, and to many controversial, we have to look back at a brief history of The Great Movie Ride and by extension DHS itself. If you have read my article entitled A Theme Park in Flux, published back in September 2016, you may be familiar with the following. For all others, let’s hop in the wayback machine!
It’s the mid 1980s. And Disney Imagineers are pictching the idea to add an attraction that explores iconic films to Epcot’s Wonders of Life pavilion. The name of that attraction: The Great Movie Ride. At the same time, Disney is working with MGM/UA to build movie and television production facilities to be the Florida counterparts to the California operations. Concurrent to Disney, Universal Studios and Nickelodeon are doing the same thing just up the road from Disney. Anyway. Led by Michael Eisner at the time, he made the executive decision to–instead of adding a movie-based attraction to Epcot–to build an entire theme park with a filmmaking or film industry theme. Long story short, in 1989 then Disney-MGM Studios opened up with facility tours and two attractions: GMR and the former Studio Backlot Tour inclusive of Streets of America and Residential Street. After the licensing deal with MGM was ended, the park changed its name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008 and removed all the MGM branding. Shortly thereafter, Residential Street was removed and Lights Motors Action was added. Since that time, all attractions in that area of the park have been closed to make way for Star Wars and Toy Story Lands.
Speeding up to present day. The decision to remove GMR from DHS represents the end of an era. With the closure of that iconic attraction, the park’s original concept, original idea, the very soul of the park is being rewritten. What was once material for waxing nostalgic at the parks–nostalgia being a significant draw to theme parks–will now merely be a distant memory. It’s not that theme parks should avoid evolving to remain relevant–quite the contrary. They need to! But to remove an attraction that represents the original identity of the park, stirs up quite a lot of emotions. Many might argue that this is the equivalent of closing Epcot’s iconic Spaceship Earth because Epcot’s direction has shifted from an educational component to food and thrills. More than riding the movies, DHS (much like Universal Studios) was a park that immersed park guests into filmmaking itself. Granted, the filmmaking process is not as magical as it once was, given that most of the magic exists within a computer and is comprised of 0s and 1s; still, there was a magic to the whole thing that park guests found fascinating, and enjoyed approaching films from a different perspective. If GMR isn’t safe, if the tides of time wash this park-opener attraction off the maps, then is any attraction safe???
Keeping roots in the original concept of a park is truly important, but it seems the powers that be do not feel that any connection to the soul of the park, the history of the park, is important. Not that I don’t think Mickey and Minnie deserve a ride. Of course they do! And there are likely other places where their new attraction could have gone. Take One Man’s Dream for instance. If you’ve been to DHS, you know this as the Walt Disney museum with a focus his early filmmaking days as well as the plans for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It’s a biographical museum, of sorts. Great attraction. Does it need to be at DHS? No. It’s an example of an attraction that can be moved to another location without a negative impact left by its absence. Disney Springs would be a great location for the museum, and would probably see more guests than it does now. The present One Man’s Dream location could be retrofitted and remodeled for a new attraction. In fact, that area of the park is referred to as the Animation Courtyard. Therefore, it’s best suited for a new attraction where Mickey and Minnie are the stars! For years, I’ve thought that GMR needed to be refurbished. So, I am fully aware that many of the scenes lack sufficient relevance to the kids and teens today–even some young adults. But, because the attraction needed a massive refurbishment does not mean that it should be removed altogether.
It is clear from the announcements at D23 that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will see a complete departure from its founding theme and concept–old Hollywood and the magic of the movies–and move to a sort of diegetic immersion. Instead of learning about the movies, the guests will feel as if they are IN the movies. Instead of celebrating movies, Star Wars and Toy Story will provide guests with a complete escape from the outside world and into the world of these popular franchises. The addition of these properties and lands is exciting! They look beautiful and will offer some fascinating attractions; but, I wish it had not come at the expense of losing the very foundational idea that inspired Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The best laid plans…