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From Ride to Screen: The Best (and Worst) Movies Based on Disney Rides

Since the earliest days of Disney Parks, Walt and his designers took special care to bring the stories, settings, songs, and characters of Disney's greatest films to life. Even on its opening day, Disneyland was the place to step through the steaming Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, race through the wicked woods of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, become a Western hero alongside Zorro, sail over the rooftops of London with Peter Pan, and so many more.

During the '80s and '90s, new leadership under Michael Eisner supposed that Disney Parks should take it to the next level, and intentionally become thrilling, 21st century parks where guests could "ride the movies" that mattered them in modern times – even if they weren't Disney movies! That's when Indiana Jones, STAR WARS, The Twilight Zone, and more arrived, each translating the thrills of the screen to three dimensions thanks to the engineering and design wizardry of Disney.

But that's also when Disney explored a curious new idea: that perhaps some of Disney's most storied attractions could in turn become movies themselves... In today's countdown, we'll tackle Disney's ride-to-screen adaptations from best to worst... And trust us, there are some pretty bad ones... Do you agree with our countdown? Which Disney attractions do you think should make the jump from ride-to-screen? Let us know in the comments section...

1. THE BEST: Pirates of the Caribbean

THE RIDE: Opened in 1967, Pirates of the Caribbean was Walt Disney’s magnum opus. He never lived to ride it himself (passing away of lung cancer the year before its grand opening), but whenever people would ask his daughters, “Don’t you wish your dad could’ve seen it?” they were known to reply, “He did see it!” The astounding, free-floating boat ride masterfully combined an atmospheric, eerie, characterless first half (crafted by Disney Legend Claude Coats) with a humorous, perfectly staged, character-filled, singalong second half (the masterwork of Marc Davis).

Image: Disney

Clocking in at a staggering 17-minutes, Disneyland’s original Pirates is often regarded as the best classic dark ride on Earth – the absolute pinnacle of the genre. It's also been duplicated in part at each Disney resort to follow, from Magic Kingdom (where it originally wasn't planned until visitors to the new park stormed guest services to request it) and Tokyo, to Paris (where the rides scenes are essentially 'backwards' from their American counterparts) and Shanghai (where it was reimagined as a stunning 21st century dark ride). Only Hong Kong Disneyland lacks a Pirates of the Caribbean ride. 

THE MOVIE(S): When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl debuted in 2003, the epic two-and-a-half hour adventure (the first PG-13 film released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner) became an instant smash hit. Merely alluding to some of Coats and Davis’s more iconic scenes, the plot and characters of the film were all their own, and centered in large part around the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow.

Since then, four sequels have been released with a sixth on the way (despite constant promises that each entry will be the last. Can you blame Disney? They still make upwards of $800 million at the box office, even five films in).

Image: Disney

The only controversy here is that, in 2006, Disney began retroactively adding Jack Sparrow and the cast of the Pirates films into the rides. Fans can, do, and will argue for the rest of time about how the simple addition of a few Audio Animatronics of a character portrayed by Johnny Depp fundamentally changed every single thing about the ride (or not), but some contend that, for a generation who only knows the 2003 film, a Pirates of the Caribbean without Captain Jack Sparrow would raise more questions. What’s the right answer? It’ll be debated forever. But by far, Pirates is the most successful ride-turned-movie Disney has created yet.

2. NOT TOO BAD: Tower of Terror

Image: Disney

THE RIDE: Halloween, 1939… the Hollywood Tower Hotel, a beacon for the show business elite and a star in its own right… A rogue lightning strike; a wing of the glamorous hotel simply flickering out of existence; a maintence service elevator still in operation and waiting for you, with a journey to the dark side of Hollywood and the supernatural fifth dimension... We all know the tale, and we explored the incredible in-depth story of one of Disney’s greatest E-Tickets ever in its own feature, Lost Legends: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

But to make a long story short, Disney’s fusion of a thrilling drop ride with the renowned and cult classic CBS property The Twilight Zone gave Disney a terrifying ride into the otherworldly “fifth dimension.” The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is at once a masterful storytelling attraction and a testament to the unique genres of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy that fused within Rod Serling’s 1950s television series – perfect for the Disney-MGM Studios.

THE MOVIE: Believe it or not, Tower of Terror was Disney’s first ride-to-film adaptation and strangely remains one of its best, even accounting for the fact that it was a straight-to-TV film that aired on The Wonderful World of Disney. Starring Steve Guttenberg, Melora Hardin, and a young Kirsten Dunst, the film does indeed center on the historically haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel (and was even partially shot on-location at the Disney-MGM Studios… one of the few films to have been shot there… eh hem…), but it does not use CBS’ The Twilight Zone franchise at all.

Image: Disney

In so doing, this Tower of Terror omits the eerie, electrified, sci-fi, amoral attributes that make The Twilight Zone so compelling in favor of a more standard curse, a witch’s spell book, and good old translucent-style ghosts. Still, it’s an entertaining enough film to break out every October. Rumblings also indicate that Disney may be in the market for a proper theatrical film based on the dark ride…

3. EH: Tomorrowland

THE LAND: Tomorrowland was one of the five themed lands of Disneyland when Walt’s park opened in 1955, and on Opening Day, Walt’s dedication called for it to be “A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man's achievements... A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come…” When designed in the 1950s, the original Tomorrowland was supposed to sincerely attempt to predict what the world would look like in 1986. 

Image: Disney

When that proved futile, a sweeping New Tomorrowland in 1967 create a sleek, optimistic, Space Race-inspired “world on the move” influenced by the 1964 - 65 New York World's Fair, featuring the Lost Legends: The Peoplemover and Adventure Thru Inner Space, embodying the Atomic Age.

When that Tomorrowland, too, began looking a little long-in-the-tooth in the much less optimistic ‘80s and ‘90s, Tomorrowlands across the globe diverged into more timeless models that dropped actual scientific pursuits entirely in favor of fantasy… At Disneyland Paris, the land became a golden seaside literary port as if envisioned by Jules Verne, featuring the Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune. In Florida, the land became a sci-fi alien spaceport based on mid-century comics, packed with original attractions like Lost Legends: The Timekeeper and Alien Encounter.

In the years since, Tomorrowland has mostly spiraled out of control, with each land across the globe becoming catch-alls for cartoons from Lilo and Stitch to Monsters Inc., Toy Story to Finding Nemo. The next iteration in Orlando, at least, will likely center around the park’s up-and-coming Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run, but altogether it seems that even the “timeless” Tomorrowlands imagined in the ‘90s just aren’t suited for permanence.

THE MOVIE: When initial trailers for Tomorrowland began appearing in theaters, the film looked like a rare, brave original story from Disney. But even stranger, it seemed almost plotless, with artistic vignettes of a young girl who – upon touching a discarded coin emblazoned with a "T" – instantly and miraculously finds herself transported to an endless wheat field with a distant Oz-like city of tomorrow in the distance. Later trailers introduced allusions to the legendary 1964 - 65 New York World's Fair where Walt Disney debuted "it's a small world," piquing fans' interest even more for an original film that seemed to connect to Walt's story and Imagineering in a clever, smart way.

Image: Disney

Ultimately, Tomorrowland ended up being quite a lot less exciting than most fans had hoped for, with a bright and brilliant premise presented in the marketing quickly unraveling to standard, familiar CGI "family action" fare. Somehow, Disney just doesn't seem realize that these family films drenched in CGI "fantasy" environments (see Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Maleficent, or this year's unfortunately-recieved Wrinkle in Time) just don't seem to resonate or connect with people.

Tomorrowland isn't a bad film, but it's not a great one. From a hokey ineffectual villain with an unclear motivation to a story that’s entirely un-enchanting, Tomorrowland  suffered from poor word of mouth, and ultimately Disney reportedly lost $140 million on the film. Unfortunately, many fans suspect that that disastrous showing will be all the proof executives need that they ought to avoid originality and stick with intellectual properties that are known box-office blockbusters.

4. MEH: DINOSAUR

Image: Disney

THE RIDE: Now here’s a weird case. When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, Countdown to Extinction was one of only two rides at the park. It was a rough, wild, off-roading dark ride through the last moments of the Cretaceous, sending guests tearing through the pitch-black, steaming primeval jungles. The goal? Find the last Iguanodon and return to the present before the life-shattering asteroid hits.

The hurdle? One very angry Carnotaur, a horrific bull-horned meat-eater in relentless pursuit.

Image: Disney

It’s fairly simple to tell that Countdown to Extinction re-used the groundbreaking EMV ride system developed just a few years earlier for Disneyland’s one-of-a-kind Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure, but even those who have ridden both are usually surprised to learn that Animal Kingdom’s time-traveling dark ride re-used Indy’s track layout, too, simply redecorating the ride course.

THE MOVIE: In 2000 – two years after Animal Kingdom opened – Disney released the film DINOSAUR on the big screen. A pet project of then-CEO Michael Eisner, the film incorporated photorealistic CGI dinosaurs with live action backgrounds to create a visually stunning film. Despite the original plan, Eisner insisted that the film feature dialogue to make it more commercially viable, creating an odd film that looked like a nature documentary, but with talking dinosaurs. Roger Ebert famously commented, “An enormous effort had been spent on making these dinosaurs seem real, and then an even greater effort was spent on undermining the illusion.”

In any case, Animal Kingdom’s Countdown to Extinction was renamed DINOSAUR with slight modifications to pacing, plot, and narration to account for the family audiences that would now frequent the still-terrifyingly intense dark ride.

It’s certainly more than coincidence that Disney just so happens to have a 1998 ride and a 2000 film about dinosaurs featuring an Iguanodon as the protagonist and a Carnotaur as the bad guy. It’s just that, in the ride, they don’t talk. And presumably, they die. The movie may not be an adaptation of the ride per se, but the relationship is just too close to ignore. In any case, DINOSAUR didn't exactly leave the lasting impression in pop culture that Michael Eisner hoped, now making it even more obscure of a connection between the in-the-dark Disney dark ride and a largely forgotten CGI movie from two decades ago.

Curiously, Disney's next big-budget, sights-over-story CGI experiment was released just two months earlier and similarly disappeared from pop culture... and it's our next entry. On the next page, we'll explore Disney's worst ride-to-film adaptations so far... Read on...

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