Like it or not, and for better or worse, things at Disney Parks don't tend to stay the same for long... Beloved as they may be, even classic rides flicker out of existence year after year, making way for new technologies, hot intellectual properties, and modern experiences that set out to change the themed entertainment industry. Sometimes, Imagineers get the replacements exactly right, managing to create incredible new experiences that go on to become classics themselves. Sometimes, the closure of a fan-favorite ends up not being worth it...
Today, we're launching our new THEN & NOW mini-series, where we peel back the ceilings of Disney's gargantuan showbuildings to see how Imagineers cleverly re-use existing real estate when they design new attractions for their parks. Today, we'll take a glimpse at the layouts of Hollywood Studios' long-lost cinematic classic and its animated replacement to see how Imagineers transformed the Chinese Theater into the cartoon world.
The Great Movie Ride (1989 - 2017)
At the grand opening of the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, the Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride was one of only two rides in the park. Luckily, it was an epic one. Housed in the iconic Chinese Theater, this 25-minute dark ride was “EPCOT Center” caliber, taking guests on “A Spectacular Journey Into The Movies.” Narrated by a live, on-board host, “moving theaters” would advance through the most famous (licensing accessible) scenes in cinema history, from Casablanca to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Often described as the park’s “thesis” attraction – its centering ride a la EPCOT's Spaceship Earth – no one would’ve imagined that the Great Movie Ride would ever go dark. A wholesale swap for Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox films? Definitely in the cards… But a complete closure? Never! Until August 2017, when it was “curtains” for the classic. After a 28 year run, the doors of the Chinese Theater were closed.
Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway (2020 - Today)
In March 2020, its replacement – Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway – made its red carpet debut. Now, the Chinese Theater hosts the premiere of a brand new cartoon short (“Perfect Picnic”), when a goofy mishap leads guests to cross into the cartoon world of Paul Rudish’s modern Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse shorts. The trackless dark ride sees Goofy’s peaceful ride around Runnamuck Park gone wrong, sending guests through incredible animated environments cast in such vivid color, texture, and depth, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.
On one hand, there's no denying that Runaway Railway is an E-Ticket in its own right, and a wonderful embodiment of the mischief, music, chaos, and color of Walt's most beloved creation. On the other, it's a shame that Imagineering didn't choose to leverage its "blessing of size" to salvage the former ride and send Runaway Railway elsewhere in the park. And that brings us to how these two rides fit into the same physical space...
Aside from their loading areas, there are hardly any parallels between the Great Movie Ride and Runaway Railway. But there is one connection. The beautiful, opulent theater space that served as a queue for the Great Movie Ride (showing clips from the movies guests were about to pass through) has been subdivided into two smaller theaters (each maintaining the Chinese Theater aesthetic) that serve as the new ride’s preshow – a cinematic overlap between two very, very different rides.
Otherwise, it's interesting that the two attractions generally follow the same flow through the building. In an accidental parallel, both also feature stops in the Old West, a tropical jungle, the alleys of a big city, and a big, triumphant, orchestral finale.
You can even spot an homage to the Great Movie Ride in the carnival scene of Runaway Railway, where a ride poster invites guests to "The Great Moving Ride" – apparently, a very thrilling escalator.
Looking at the two layouts we've shared here, we have to ask – which do you think represents the best use of the space? Think about it... we're not necessarily asking which ride you like better, so this is a tough one! Take our poll to let us know whether the "Then" or the "Now" is the better use of space in this Hollywood Studios showbuilding!