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

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).

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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).

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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…

5. BLEGH: Mission to Mars

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THE RIDE: Disneyland, 1955. Tomorrowland was set in the then-distant year of 1986, when designers imagined that passenger service to the moon would be a simple process. So under the 80-foot beacon of the TWA Moonliner rocket, guests could get a preview of that experience aboard Rocket to the Moon – a “simulator” (minus the motion we associate with them today) in which guests sat in concentric, elevated circles. In the center of the room, circular screens in the floor and ceiling would act as “windows” (paired with additional “windows” around the room’s circumference), giving guests the impression that they were in a capsule launching from Anaheim to encircle the moon.

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When Walt’s “New Tomorrowland” debuted in 1967, it offered a from-scratch, larger rebuild of the theater housing an updated Flight to the Moon, again with two concentric-circle theaters. Likewise, Magic Kingdom in Florida was constructed with Flight to the Moon in its Tomorrowland, placed in a prominent position along the land’s main entry corridor.

Of course, “tomorrow” always tends to become “today,” and by 1972, NASA’s real-life manned missions to the moon had made Disney’s rides look dated. In an era when Tomorrowland was still dedicated to being scientifically serious, that required a change. Mission to Mars opened in 1975, re-using the same format and adding seat vibration to create a mostly-scientific journey to the “red planet.”

When it finally closed at Disneyland in 1992, it was for something significantly more horrific. Plans for a Possibilityland: Tomorrowland 2055 called for Disneyland’s version of the ride to become a new horror attraction born of a new cinematic era and a partnership with George Lucas. Disney was determined to re-use the stagnant, simple circular theaters for a thrill ride, but one that wouldn’t need an expensive from-scratch build. By simply outfitting the seats with multi-sensory special effects and surround sound and turning the center of each chamber into an enormous teleportation tube…

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Yes, Mission to Mars was set to become the Lost Legend: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Unfortunately, plans for Disneyland’s elaborate New Tomorrowland 2055 stalled, and the concept’s test was shifted to Florida where it terrorized a generation of Walt Disney World guests. Disneyland’s Tomorrowland got an ill-concieved, low-budget redo (as told in its own Disaster File: Tomorrowland ’98) that saw the former Mission to Mars theater gutted and turned into a pizza restaurant instead of Alien Encounter. 

THE MOVIE: Disney’s 2000 film Mission to Mars isn’t exactly an adaptation of the ride (which was only a lightly-plotted, mostly-educational “sight-seeing” trip to the “red planet” before the ship is damaged by volcanic activity and must return home). The film stars Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise as two among a space crew who arrive on Mars to find almost supernatural occurances, like crystalized columns of water burst forth from the surface, and mountains eroded to resemble human faces. It soon descends into a poorly-scripted, clunky exploration into the origin of humanity – a sci-fi film without much heart.

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Mission to Mars earned an unimpressive $111 million against its $100 million budget, earning both praise and ridicule for its visuals and story / dialogue respectively. It ranks low on our list, though, not because of what it was,  but what it wasn’t. It would be understandable if you didn’t even know that Mission to Mars was a film at all. Despite being a big budget late spring release, Mission to Mars left practically no footprint in pop culture whatsoever… 

6. BAD: Haunted Mansion

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THE RIDE: Opened in 1969, the Haunted Mansion is unique in that it was the first major project undertaken after Walt’s death. And though Walt had overseen the construction of the ride’s pristine plantation house exterior six years earlier, other projects (like the 1964 – 65 New York World’s Fair and 1967’s New Tomorrowland) had stalled the development of what would go inside the ride. So when Walt died in 1966, designers still didn’t know what Walt would’ve wanted. The story of the Haunted Mansion is the story of two Imagineers – Claude Coats and Marc Davis – whose differing styles ended up turning the Haunted Mansion into the hybrid it is today: a moody, atmospheric, eerie, strictly-scenic first half, and a goofy, sing-along, character-filled second half of perfectly-staged vignettes.

Most interestingly, the ride famously lacks a plot, intentionally hinting, but remaining abstract. The Ghost Host; the hanging man; the bride; the hatbox ghost; the hitchhiking ghosts… Imagineers believed that by simply featuring spooky sights and sounds and memorable characters without a definitive plot guests would be able to ride over and over, always discovering something new.

All-in-all, the Haunted Mansion is perhaps the Disney ride stocked with the most memorable scenes. From start-to-finish, guests pass through a haunting “Limbo” boarding area, creaking hallways of ghostly doors, endless corridors, an otherworldly seance conducted by the disembodied Madame Leota, an attic of wedding remains, and a sing-along graveyard full of “grim, grinning ghosts” who’ve come out to socalize. It’s no surprise that the Haunted Mansion stands as a pinnacle of classic dark rides.

THE MOVIE: Just missing a Halloween-season release, November 2003’s The Haunted Mansion signaled an unusual direction for the storied ride. The film (whose mansion has a sort of mutated fusion of California and Florida’s exteriors) indeed features many of the iconic settings and scenes from the ride, but it remixes them as a family comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a realtor who yelps and babbles at each of the home’s supernatural sights, like the iconic Madame Leota (voiced by the vocally-fried Jennifer Tilly for comedic effect) or the always-musical singing busts.

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While the Haunted Mansion attraction stands as a perfect union of balance between two Imagineers’ otherwise opposing styles, the film feels pulled in too many directions, none of which coalesce nicely. On one hand, the visuals and practical sets the film employs are stunning; on another, it’s scary, with some legitimately frightening characters and moments; at places, it pays homage to the ride and to fans; but it’s all overlaid with a comedic “family friendly” act that doesn’t quite resonate, and even tarnishes the ride’s signature scenes. The end result is that it’s not quite creepy, and not quite comedic, wrapped up in a story that hints at the purposefully-plotless attraction, but becomes a standard descent into “good vs. evil” with a sappy finale.

The Haunted Mansion did well at the box office despite some pretty scary reviews but – like so many of the films on this list – it was ultimately forgotten by pop culture and left as a remnant of another time. Ultimately, that’s a good thing, as otherwise we might’ve ended up with Audio Animatronic figures of Eddie Murphy in mansions across the globe!

7. THE WORST: The Country Bears

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THE ATTRACTION: When Disney’s Imagineers developed the Country Bear Jamboree, it wasn’t intended to play at Disney Parks at all. In fact, the Audio Animtronic production was originally earmarked for a very new kind of entertainment enterprise Walt envisioned for a remote stretch of the Sierra Nevada Mountains hours from Disneyland. There, he planned to build the Mineral King Ski Resort, the world’s leading winter sports family destination. Unfortunately, hurdle after hurdle sidelined the project, and Walt’s death seemed to signal the end of Mineral King and its animatronic bear band.

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Ultimately, the Country Bear Jamboree did open alongside Magic Kingdom in 1971, and its immense popularity led to it being the first Walt Disney World attraction to be cloned back to Disneyland! We traced the development of the attraction and its leading Imagineer in its own in-depth feature, Modern Marvels: The Country Bear Jamboree. Ultimately, the attraction remains a Magic Kingdom classic to this day – a rootin’ tootin’ country revue that harkens back to a simpler time at Imagineering.

THE MOVIE: The Country Bears was released in 2002. The film re-uses the tried-and-true storyline (used several times by The Muppets alone) of an innocent-hearted young fan (in this case, “Beary Barrington” – a bear raised by a human family, voiced by a young Haley Joel Osment) earnestly trying to convince his favorite band – The Country Bears – to reunite and save their condemned theater from the wrecking ball. As always, the film then follows Beary as he wins over the band’s members one-by-one on a roadtrip style recruitment adventure, leading to the re-opening of Country Bear Hall.

Despite a relatively well-known cast, audiences simply didn’t connect with The Country Bears. Maybe it was the fact that Disney Parks fans didn’t get behind the film since it didn’t use any of the characters or songs from the attraction; maybe it was the story that felt like a retread of so many films before…

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…maybe it was uncomfortable and awkward Audio Animatronic bear suits created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop that somehow missed all the whimsy that made Marc Davis’ original figures so friendly and fun in favor of looking like uncanny-valley-style “real” bears wearing clothes.

The film made only $18 million against its $35 million budget, becoming a financial disaster. Meanwhile, film critic Sean O’Connell probably put it best when he said “Bears is bad. Not ‘terrible filmmaking’ bad, but more like, ‘I once had a nightmare like this, and it’s now coming true’ bad.”

In production?

From best to worst, it may seem that most of Disney’s attempts to translate their films to the screen have gone belly up. Most film fans and Disney Parks afficianados will agree that Pirates of the Caribbean is, by far, Disney’s most successful attempt to reverse engineer a film yet. But yet is the key word… On the last page, we’ll explore three projects at various stages of Disney development to see if they might one day top this list themselves…

Naturally, the success of Pirates has given Disney new hope that it’s ride-to-screen strategy can have big payoffs with big franchises… Which is why there are reportedly some spectacular adaptations in the works to bring Disney attractions to the big (and small) screen… Here are just a few of the projects either in-production, or rumored to be on Disney’s short-list.

The Jungle Cruise

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THE RIDE: The Jungle Cruise opened alongside Disneyland in 1955 as the park’s starring attraction. Featuring unthinkable electro-mechanical creatures alongside its exotic river banks, the ride became an instant example of what Disney could bring to life. In the 1960s, Jungle Cruise was reimagined with help from veteran Disney animator-turned-Imagineer Marc Davis, who devised some of its more cleverly-staged and iconic scenes (like the “lost safari” who’s about to get “the point,” the Indian elephant bathing pool, and the lost ruins of Southeast Asia) and shifted the ride’s attitude toward the humor and puns it’s known for today.

The Jungle Cruise exists at Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland, having recieved incremental upgrades and iterative changes at each. Increasingly, the humor on-board is paired with a more epic, adventurous backstory that fans suggest connects the ride in-universe to S.E.A.: The Society of Explorers and Adventurers, melding the “world famous” ride’s founding into the early-20th-century world created by Imagineers. So while the ride stays light-hearted and knowing, layers of story and detail are applied every decade as it grows in esteem. 

THE MOVIE: Currently in-production, the idea of a Jungle Cruise movie is enough to get Disney Parks fans talking. After all, the 1930s-ish setting and story seem to make the ride perfect for an “Indiana Jones” style film series delving into ancient adventures, lost ruins, and steaming jungles. A truly-exotic exploration into the same kind of serial adventure films that inspired Indy, a Jungle Cruise tied into the S.E.A. story would be an incredible concept. If you ask Disney fans, there’s just one potential problem…

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will star.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the wrestler-turned-actor, who’s made a name for himself in dozens of big budget action films including The Scorpion King, the Fast and Furious franchise, Baywatch, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Rampage (plus Disney’s Moana). It’s that the inclusion of Johnson seems to indicate exactly what Disney has planned for this film: that it’ll be just another family “adventure” comedy, akin to Johnson’s own Journey 2: Mysterious Island. The addition of Emily Blunt may indicate that Disney does have bigger plans than another simple comedy, but until the first teaser trailers, we’ll expect that Jungle Cruise will fall closer to Haunted Mansion than Indiana Jones

Big Thunder Mountain

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THE RIDE: First opened at Disneyland in 1979, Big Thunder Mountain was among the last of a generation of relatively cheap thrill rides that permeated the parks after Walt’s death. In fact, the ride only exists because it was intentionally pulled out of a much larger project that would’ve given Magic Kingdom a Western-themed version of Pirates of the Caribbean, as chronicled in our must-read feature, Possibilityland: Western River Expedition. Rather than an expensive and elaborate dark ride, Big Thunder Mountain would quickly and cheaply bolster the tired, dusty Frontierland (given that pop culture had moved on from The Lone Ranger and Howdy Doody by the ’70s). And the thrill ride was enough to support Disney Parks temporarily before the more cinematic Eisner era that would follow.

In its own way, though, “the wildest ride in the wilderness” became its own kind of Disney classic, the rustic red peaks forever synonymous with Disney’s castle parks. The ride was given even more prominence within Disneyland Paris’ one-of-a-kind Frontierland, where the mountain’s more epic backstory merges with the heartbreaking love story concocted for the park’s Modern Marvel: Phantom Manor – Paris’ spectacular, new take on the Haunted Mansion. 

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THE SHOW: In 2013, Disney officially ordered a pilot  episode of a TV series based on the Western-set roller coaster, but it was scrapped shortly thereafter. There’s no telling if the 2016 debut of HBO’s big-budget series Westworld (based on the novel by Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame) would make Disney more or less likely to pursue a Western series of its own, but it’s a shame. Especially when we see the way that Disney created an adventurous, exciting, haunting love story around the town of Thunder Mesa to coincide with Disneyland Paris’ version of the ride, it’s easy to see how spectacular a series about the town could be.

The Haunted Mansion

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THE MOVIE: Way back in 2010, Disney announced at San Diego Comic Con that a new adaptation of the Haunted Mansion was in the works, this time with acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro writing and producing. He said at the time, “We are not making it a comedy. We are making it scary and fun at the same time, but the scary will be scary.” Del Toro also noted that he was aiming for a PG-13 film, starring the infamous and elusive Hatbox Ghost as the main spectre haunting the household. Allegedly, the screenplay was submitted in 2012, and as recently as 2015 rumblings of who would star and who would direct made waves. But so far… nothing else.

We don’t yet know if Del Toro’s more gritty, gothic telling of the Haunted Mansion tale will ever see the light of day, but it stands to reason that the ride still deserves an otherworldly, ethereal, and legitimately creepy telling… We’ll see… 

Do you agree with our countdown of the best-to-worst ride-to-film adaptations in Disney’s catalogue? Are we too harsh on the movies Disney has created? Would you rather see more movies based on rides, or rides based on movies? Use the comments below to share your thoughts!