Home » You Only Ride Once – The Classified Story of “James Bond 007: License to Thrill”

    You Only Ride Once – The Classified Story of “James Bond 007: License to Thrill”

    No Time to Die poster

    It wouldn’t be the holiday season without a James Bond marathon. The medium might change – streaming services now instead of basic cable channels dedicated to men and Cops reruns – but the world’s greatest secret agent never does. He always returns right on time, when the lights start to twinkle and the sinuses start to congest, regular as Santa Claus.

    Next year’s belated release of No Time to Die makes 25 films in 59 years, the second-longest running franchise in film history behind only Godzilla. But even that sells the character’s legacy short. Publishing. Video games. Lifestyle brands of everything from wristwatches to sportscars. 007 is pop cultural force of nature.

    No Time to Die poster
    Image: MGM & Danjaq

    And yet he’s only starred in a single theme park attraction, though not for lack of trying.

    The first earnest attempt came about in the Hollywood East arms race.

    Disney and Universal were locked in a dead heat to nail down the latest, greatest movies for their respective studio parks. Though they each had their respective libraries to fall back on, both companies looked farther afield for lucrative properties, occasionally in the same place. Disney made a play for Ghostbusters, fumbled it on a likeness snag with Bill Murray, and Universal picked up the ball, skirting the need for animatronic resemblance entirely.

    The blue-sky dead heat between parks was so ruthless that Universal went after Bond, a franchise owned by Disney partner MGM/UA.

    In 1986, about a year after Disney and MGM signed on their dotted line, Universal commissioned the Landmark Entertainment Group to work on concepts for a 007 stunt show. The team had already designed The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular for Universal Studios Hollywood and would soon after tackle the Ghostbusters Spooktacular in Florida. The so-called 007 JAMES BOND ACTION SPECTACULAR was one of four pitches aimed at the new park, but the only one with concept art from Star Wars legend Ralph McQuarrie.

    Ralph McQuarrie concept art for Bond stunt show
    Image: Legacy Entertainment (formerly Goddard Group)

    His lavishly painted rendering covered all the bases of Landmark’s plan. A cavernous underground lair complete with overhead hangar doors just wide enough for a nuclear missile. The subterranean lagoon breached by a Soviet submarine mid-lasering. Bond’s most familiar foes watching on via too many big screens to count.

    It’s striking, a lavish distillation of everything iconic about the franchise. If not for the rows of heads along the bottom, it could pass for the blockbuster finale of You Only Live Twice.

    A treatment dated February 2nd, 1987 only cemented the unprecedented scale, promising “a fifteen-minute show filled with technological wonders, grand-scale explosions, high-tech transformations, and of course, humor; all the trademarks of the James Bond films.” Landmark even worked in a villainous Bond girl for the hero to seduce to his side of the Cold War.

    For reasons now lost to time and non-disclosure agreements, the 007 JAMES BOND ACTION SPECTACULAR never happened. It could’ve been the sheer cost, but another possibility was the other rights-holder to the franchise – Eon Productions Ltd. Since its 1961 inauguration, the company has overseen every Bond film since Dr. No. To this day, it’s run by the children of co-founder Albert R. Broccoli. Careful control of the character is a family tradition.

    Concept art for License to Thrill
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    Which is why the first, last, and only James Bond theme park attraction to ever break ground was a surprisingly faithful extension of the films at the time.

    Despite iWerks Entertainment chasing the license with a motion simulator take on GoldenEye, Landmark fittingly scored the worldwide attraction rights to the 007 franchise. Though the end product of this golden-ticket deal would be another motion simulator,  James Bond 007: License to Thrill was wholly original.

    MI6 needed new 00s. Luckily Q devised an elaborate front for testing potential recruits – a theme park attraction based in exotic ports of call like Cincinnati, Ohio. Wary passersby might notice the “007” planted among flowers, visible only by birds-eye, or the unmarked shipping containers from Universal Exports.

    Paramount entrance for License to Thrill
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    There were also massive signs screaming James Bond 007: License to Thrill and using Pierce Brosnan’s silhouette, for anybody less observant.

    Depending on the location, props from various Bond films occupied the waiting areas. The North American installations got smaller vehicles, like the BMW R1200C from Tomorrow Never Dies. The London installation, on the other hand, got the amphibious Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me and the Bede Acrostar Mini-Jet from Octopussy, along with a sizzle reel of series-best stunts.

    The preshow was the same across the lot.

    Dame Judi Dench reprised her role as M to present the latest mission of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dr. Callie Reeves, an esteemed seismologist, has just announced a breakthrough – a technological means to predict and prevent earthquakes by controlling tectonic pressure. Of course, this inspires bad guy Gunther Thorne to kidnap the good doctor and use this power, in M’s words, “Not to avoid earthquakes, but to trigger them.”

    Dame Judi Dench in Tomorrow Never Dies
    Image: MGM & Danjaq

    Fortunately, Bond is already on-location to save the day, wearing a very special pair of sunglasses described by Q as, “Kind of a high-tech view to a kill.”

    Like his boss, the MI6 quartermaster is played by a familiar face, beloved Bond veteran Desmond Llewelyn. Not counting TV specials or commercials, the ride marked his sixteenth appearance as the character and sadly one of his last – Llewelyn would die in a car crash shortly after the premiere of The World Is Not Enough just two years later.

    His warm-milk presence was put to good use in the preshow, assuring recruits that it’s all a glorified physical. He’ll be monitoring their vitals as they see what Bond sees and live how Bond lives on his latest mission.

    Desmond Llewelyn as seen in The World Is Not Enough
    Image: MGM & Danjaq

    Though that mission, the ride film itself, is now considered lost media, the script survives thanks to the Wayback Machine and the long-defunct Landmark website.

    Once everybody’s strapped in – “Even secret agents are required to use seatbelts,” admonishes Q – the live feed opens on Dr. Reeves wrapping up a press conference outside the Geo Thermal Institute.

    Dr. Callie Reeves
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    A helicopter interrupts with a well-placed missile, then Gunther and friends arrive on their motorcycles. Just as the bad guy grabs the doctor, Bond arrives on his own motorcycle, punches one henchman, and shoots another.

    “System on,” he says, bringing the room full of 00-hopefuls into his head.

    From there, License to Thrill became a first-person video game, minus the controller. It was both a savvy complement to Bond’s near-simultaneous video game explosion and a sly portend of filmmaking like Hardcore Henry.

    Stills from the lost ride film
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    Astride their motorcycles, Bond chases Thorne through the Institute, dodging errant grenades and thrown barrels. With a flick of the wrist and launch of a rocket, 007 makes an improvised escape onto a mountainside road which promptly dead ends.

    Making lemonade out of lemons, Bond speeds up and jumps off the road anyway, landing on train tracks.

    Thorne is still one step ahead of him, racing his bike into the back of an expectant and moving boxcar.

    Bond pursues on a motorcycle
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    Feeling the suspension fighting for its life, Q butts in as he always does: “I expect you to take better care of my equipment.”

    Bond shrugs it off as he always does: “Sorry to cut you off, Q, but I’ve got a train to catch.”

    He steers Q’s multimillion-dollar motorcycle into the woods, up a mound of dirt, and onto the top of the train, bailing it into an ill-fated gunman and watching it explode.

    “Sorry about that, Q,” he says, already trading blows with an oversized bruiser. But not to worry – there’s a fast-approaching tunnel that’s exactly two inches shorter than he is.

    Safely on the other side of a hidden cut, Bond spots Thorne taking off from a flat car in a helicopter. It dangles a rope ladder, as these things are wont to dangle.

    The chase continues into the sky as 007 makes the jump and holds on for dear life.

    Until Thorne drops another grenade and takes a flying leap with Dr. Reeves.

    The helicopter explodes and Bond falls, zeroing in on a pilot with a parachute. After losing signal and trading blows, the better man pulls the ripcord with a customary quip: “I hate flying economy class.”

    The skydiving scene
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    But 007’s day at the office isn’t over yet. On the lake below, Thorne is making his getaway on a Zodiac boat with backup on jet skis.

    Still falling albeit slightly slower, Bond draws his Walther PPK and picks off one of the trailing henchmen. He lands on the newly vacant jet ski without much trouble, then takes off.

    The grand finale is a rocket duel on the high seas, until Dr. Reeves dives into the waves and Thorne’s launcher jams.

    It’s all the time Bond needs to take aim with his wristwatch, moving crosshairs across his high-tech glasses.

    The pièce de résistance is a POV – a warheads-eye view from the tip of Bond’s guided missile. Thorne’s realization and regret are captured in close-up and slow-motion, right before the explosion.

    Thorne gets it in the end
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    Everything goes black as Bond hits the water. The video feed might’ve failed, but there’s still a good enough connection for one last innuendo: “So Doctor, can you teach me how to make the Earth move?”

    If any of the test subjects showed sufficient promise, they would be properly recruited at an unknown time and place by an anonymous contact with a three-word code: “Shaken, not stirred.”

    Given how brief James Bond 007: License to Thrill lasted, it’s unlikely MI6 handed out too many Walthers.

    The attraction premiered at Paramount parks across North America on May 9th, 1998. Kings Island, Kings Dominion, Great America, Carowinds, and Canada’s Wonderland screened it in their respective Action F/X Theaters, replacing the previous Days of Thunder ride film. The following year, it opened as a standalone attraction at the London Trocadero on August 17th and as part of the short-lived park at Fox Studios Australia on December 1st. Despite scattered accounts of it playing smaller venues with motion theaters, like the West Edmonton Mall, and M establishing the attraction as a “traveling” program, License to Thrill never made it much farther.

    The Action F/X Theater in motion
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    The entirety of the Fox Studios Backlot closed in 2001. In 2002, the Paramount parks replaced the film with Dino Island II, a generic SimEx-Iwerks production. The Trocadero location might’ve lasted the longest – its website, 007Thrills.com, survived until April 2002, when it was replaced with the ambiguous promise: Coming Soon… After several months of defaulting to pornographic spam, the homepage was salvaged: This domain has been registered for future use. It’s currently available for purchase through GoDaddy for just $17.99 a year.

    It’s bizarre to consider anything associated with a brand so enduringly and internationally renowned “lost,” but it’s impossible to consider James Bond 007: License to Thrill anything but.

    The only record of the preshow is a single YouTube video, shot handheld on an 1998 vacation to Paramount’s Kings Dominion. Despite the gun-barrel entrance allegedly outlasting the attraction by years, there is no publicly available footage of the Trocadero location.

    007Thrills.com homepage
    Image: 007Thrills.com

    The ride film itself is lost entirely, with only a few stamp-sized stills left to memorialize it. 007Thrills.com allowed visitors to watch it in full through the crunchy advent of QuickTime. Though the Wayback Machine did not archive that original file – a mere 1.4 MB – it’s always possible an enterprising fan still has it on an unmarked floppy disk.

    Ride films for motion simulators never seem to die. Dino Island II continues to play regional theme parks over 20 years since its release. Elvira’s Superstition premiered in 1997 and is still going strong under an assumed name – Fright Nite – on select Mad Wave Motion Theaters.

    A promotional pamphlet for the ride
    Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

    But Bond is Bond.

    There’s no telling how complex and fragile the licensing agreement was to make License to Thrill work. Deals must’ve been worked out with Dench and Llewelyn, not to mention dedicated Bond scribe, Bruce Feirstein, who wrote parts of the attraction. Landmark, Paramount, Eon, and MGM/UA all had to find common enough ground. It’s possible the contracts only covered four years, as long as the attraction ever operated. Landmark’s website still identifies Bond as “one of the hardest Intellectual Property licenses to get in the world at the time.” 

    Though he only appeared in stock photos on the ride’s website, Pierce Brosnan retired from the role in 2002. The producers let him go as part of a course-corrective reboot, taking the series and its spywork more seriously. What to do about a one-off theme park attraction made so lovingly and lavishly the old-fashioned way?

    Not much.

    There will likely never be an official release of James Bond 007: License to Thrill. Unless someone digitizes their old hard drives and fast, there will likely never be an unofficial release either.

    But despite occasional appearances, Bond never truly dies.

    Fox Studios advert
    Image: Fox Studios Australia

    After the closure of T2-3D: Battle Across Time at Universal Studios Florida, rumors persisted that the park would finally get its James Bond stunt show. There was synergy to the idea – Universal officially acquired the international distribution rights to the franchise seven months later. Word was that Creative already had the take and the tech. All they needed was the secret agent. When negotiations fell through, they just found another one.

    Besides museum exhibitions and temporary installations like 007 ELEMENTS, a Spectre tie-in housed atop the Austrian Alps, James Bond has since evaded the world of themed entertainment. But given the global sprawl of theme parks that has seen attractions dedicated to everything from Zombieland to John Wick, it’s only a matter of time.

    License to Thrill didn’t last as long as it could’ve or should’ve, but take heart in the familiar promise at the end of every 007 mission:

    James Bond will return.

    Bond at the end of the barrel
    Image: MGM & Danjaq