This Sunday August 13, something will happen at Walt Disney World that has never happened before: Epcot will permanently close one of its Opening Day pavilions, the Universe of Energy.
Much more importantly, something far more significant is happening at the opposite end of Crescent Lake… Disney Hollywood Studios is shuttering the LAST remaining ride from its Opening Day: the Great Movie Ride. (In comparison, the Magic Kingdom is nearly two decades older and still has 14 of its Opening Day attractions.)
The studio park’s more drastic changes in half the time reflect (a) its low number of Opening Day attractions and (b) its most extreme change in direction from its Opening Day identity. The dismantling will now be complete.
Last week, when I first aired some of these thoughts on Twitter (@davekoenig), a forward-thinking minority calmly, compassionately replied, “GET OVER IT!” The Great Movie Ride was fun once, but modern audiences need something hipper, higher-tech, and built around more marketable Characters™. The ride had become nothing more than a creaky, under-visited, Eighties version of the Enchanted Tiki Room or Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, only with no trace of Walt’s fingerprints.
I disagree. I view the closing of the Great Movie Ride as one of the most significant losses any theme park has ever sustained. The ride is utterly unique. I can’t think of a more one-of-a-kind attraction at any Disney park worldwide. And more than at any other Disney park, the Studios was built on nostalgia. It now has zero links to its own beginning.
Literally, Disney Hollywood Studios is losing its icon.
Symbolically, its closure marks the official end of what the Studios was intended to be, circa 1989.
Practically, it leaves the Studios with all of four vehicle-based rides, basically removing 20% of its already strapped capacity. Imagine one or two of the four breaking down for an extended period, or closing for rehab.
And personally, I’ll miss it dearly. The Great Movie Ride needed to be updated, not abandoned. Not every ride has to have a 90-minute wait.
It needed new scenes, cooler special effects, and an entirely different script. It needed cast members who could adlib like skippers on the Jungle Cruise (ironically, the location a number of the stronger Great Movie Ride hosts and hostesses will be reassigned to). And, it needed to scrap the intrusive recorded narration.
Certainly, this ride has had one foot in the grave ever since the brilliant art designers hid it behind a Godzilla-sized Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat in 2001. After 15 years in hiding, the Great Movie Ride finally reemerged, only to be obscured again soon after behind an ugly stage.
The Great Movie Ride’s closure illustrates the direction Disney theme park rides are taking, as well as the fact that once you extinguish a park’s original vision, there’s nothing left to protect the components of that vision. Inevitably, Epcot will formally abandon its Opening Day identity, and I expect original attractions and pavilions will be discarded at an even faster pace.
Meanwhile, over at Disneyland…
After an aging tree fell over in Frontierland in 2001, injuring 20 guests and one popcorn stand, Disneyland began rooting out a lot of the older trees and replacing them with smaller, younger plantings. This year, there appears to be a resurgence in tree removal, particularly around the Hub, where one was taken from about a month ago. The suspicion is that TDA is getting rid of them so the ever-expanding crowds can see more of the fireworks – at the price of much-needed and complained-about shade.
“The trees disappear without warning,” shared one cast member. “One day they’re there, the next morning, gone! I heard that TDA wants to get rid of all the old trees or replace them with new, smaller ones. It seems there is less shade in Disneyland, with the planters disappearing to make room for bigger crowds and their strollers.”
Hopefully the template is not Florida’s Magic Kingdom, which a couple years ago replaced sections of its (albeit massively larger) Plaza with gated gardens of artificial turf, which they could rent out for fireworks viewing packages.
One way that is being discussed to drum up money in the resorts next year is the return of the 24-hour party. Whether it’s going to be just one day or more has not been finalized. Park attendance has been flat this year and next year could be worse if guests are saving up for a visit when Star Wars Land opens in 2019. Relying on short-term gimmicks will be TDA’s go-to strategy to bridge the gap.
The internal debate over serving alcohol at the cantina in Star Wars Land also continues raging, with several Team Disney Anaheim executives strongly advocating the idea, despite pushback from WDI. “Right now, the majority of Imagineers are against alcohol being served, but they have realized that TDA will override them,” noted one insider.
Parks execs, knowing how profitable alcohol sales in all other areas of the resort, are arguing for the compromise of restricting booze to the new land, but have not been forthcoming with a gameplan for how exactly they’ll make this happen (such as stopping guests from taking drinks into other areas of the park).
And, finally, a number of cast members in Attractions, Custodial, Foods and Merchandise, mostly leads and trainers, have been scheduled to take a “happy” class. “TDA wants the cast members to smile and be more friendly to the guests,” one employee explained. The happiness training is currently a pilot program and, after it’s tweaked, will become mandatory for all cast members.
I’m all for any way Disney can encourage cast members to be happier and friendlier, but might I suggest that improving their pay, benefits and working conditions could do the trick at least as well as sending them to Smile School?