My favorite childhood memories involve visiting Walt Disney World with my family, and specifically,
MGM Disney Hollywood Studios. Even as a kid, I loved the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, but there was something different about this version of Hollywood that Disney had cooked up on top of swampland in central Florida — namely, the fact that this was fake and perfect. To borrow a line directly from the park: It’s the Hollywood that never was, and always will be.
As a kid, this fascinated me. I’ve always been one who loves to see the “behind-the-scenes” aspect of anything, whether it be a movie production or not, and I could actually see that happening at Hollywood Studios. Once upon a time, the theme park housed actual, real-life Disney animators making upcoming Disney movies (but only three feature-length releases would be made in Orlando: Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear), and I remember riding around on the Backlot Tram Tour for two hours to see sound stages, costume workshops, and the Golden Girls house. These things are gone now, so just believe me that they were once there.
The park has always housed another shining salute to the movies: The Great Movie Ride. Situated down at the end of the main entrance is a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The outside is the same architecture, even down to the handprints in cement; inside, there’s a ride. Or, there was a ride, as it closed forever on Sunday.
The Great Movie Ride was always my favorite ride, because — to borrow a line from the attraction — it put me inside the movies. Suddenly, I found myself in a huge musical number, or in a gangster shootout, and I could see the hero save the day firsthand. There was something simply magical about this 22-minute tram ride, and I loved it. The ending movie montage that highlighted past and present cinematic achievements used to make me cry. I’d exit The Great Movie Ride and think to myself, “One day I’m going to have a movie in this montage, and I’m going to make other guests cry!”
This is why I majored in cinema production in college. WOW, I wish I was kidding about this fact. But that was literally my lifelong goal: Get a movie made, and have it be so successful and beloved, Disney has to put it in the closing montage of The Great Movie Ride. Achievable dream, right?
Life has a funny way of working out, and before I could become a filmmaker (and, after I graduated college with a B.S. in cinema production), I found myself back at Disney World. Not visiting, but working. After college, I moved down to Florida for the Disney College Program, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I got to work at The Great Movie Ride, the attraction that has influenced my life so much?”
Before I arrived in Florida, I wrote to Disney and asked to be placed at The Great Movie Ride for my stint in the College Program. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t placed there. However, through an odd turn of events, I ended up there nine months later.
In the weirdest full-circle moment of my life, I became a cast member at The Great Movie Ride. Suddenly, I was driving the tram around the track inside the show building that I had visited so many times as a guest. I was the one speiling to 60+ visitors, yelling into a microphone, “This is the perfect job for me, because I love movies!” That was an actual line in what was once the script for the ride; it was weird and a little too on the nose for me, but I was required to say it. (Fun fact: You were not allowed to go off-book working at Great Movie Ride…but guides did anyway.)
It was weird seeing the backside of Great Movie Ride — but also fascinating. By the time I clocked in for my first shift, I imagine I had been on it upwards of 100+ times over 23 years of life, and now here I was controlling it. That first week of training, I think I had to ride it every single day at least five times, which is not something the average guest does while visiting Hollywood Studios. To be a cast member at Great Movie Ride, I needed to know it backwards and forwards, in case the worst should happen — and the worst that ever happened was one time I got stuck in the Casablanca scene for roughly 10 minutes, and in an effort to improvise and kill time, I just recited off facts I had learned in film school. So see, mom, that degree went to good use.
(I also once fell down the stairs trying to scurry out of the gangster scene and run across the narrow hallway upstairs through the cowboy and then Alien scene, to make it to the Indiana Jones one where I’d return to my ride vehicle — and if you’re like, “What?”, you’ll never understand, as explaining this reference is a moot point since the ride is gone forever.)
My time at Great Movie Ride was short lived, as no sooner did I arrive there was I transferred elsewhere at Disney World. I still went back to Great Movie Ride, and frequently. If I was having a bad day at Disney World, I’d often times find myself at Studios, eating a soft Mickey pretzel and riding the tram ride around in the air conditioning. Even after I left Disney World, I insisted on riding the ride every time I visited the park, now as a guest.
I rode Great Movie Ride for the last time, ever, last week. In its 28 years of life, it never really changed much, but in the last few years it got a new narration system and a new closing movie montage. TBH, I never cared for them. There was something charming and classically “old school” about the cast members speiling non-stop for 22 minutes; IRL storytelling was replaced with voice-over narration from Turner Classic Movies. This new narration didn’t hold the same magical, Disney quality. Thankfully, that’s not the Great Movie Ride I’ll always remember.
None of that matters now, as the ride is gone. It’ll be replaced with a Mickey ride, which I’m sure will be great, but I’ll miss Great Movie Ride terribly. Sure, it was long, it seemed to drag on, somedays I couldn’t bring myself to wait in the 20+ minute line to ride the 20-minute ride, and the technology inside was severely outdated. But it was my ride. I fell in love with it as a kid, and latched onto it, and I really never let go. It’s why I majored in film, it’s where I wanted to (and did) work at Disney, and it’s eventually why I left Disney so I could get back to my entertainment roots.
Now, The Great Movie Ride is nothing more than a memory, but maybe it was always supposed to be like that. All along, it was always so much more than a ride to me, and — to borrow from the park again — it was a state of mind. It’s the Hollywood that never was and forever will be for me.