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Ride the Movies!

Years ago, somewhere back in the mid-80s, some folks at Paramount had a good idea: to build a theme park that re-created Hollywood and had rides based on Paramount movies. After all, Disneyland and Walt Disney World made tons of money and, in fact, had kept the company in the black during the dark years when Ron Miller was running the show. The Disney parks are really fantasy-oriented and focus on Disney's animated films, but Paramount's park would be Hollywood-oriented and based on live-action movies. But then, Michael Eisner left Paramount, and a few years later, the Disney-MGM Studios (sometimes just known as the "Disney Studios") theme park was born.

About the same time, Universal got into the theme park business, too, through a slightly different route. For several years they had been operating a popular tour of the Hollywood studio and, to spice it up, added a few things, such as the Jaws shark chasing the tour tram, and then King Kong attacking it. From there a theme park emerged as they added more attractions, such as Back to the Future -- The Ride. The Hollywood park was really a movie studio with a little theme park attached, so they went where the money is and built a theme park with a little studio attached on Disney's home turf in Florida (a move which Disney fought like hell to keep from happening).

Cut to a few more years later, and poor Paramount, who'd really started this whole Hollywood-as-theme-park thing, finally gets into the game. But instead of building their own parks like Disney and Universal, they decided to purchase existing parks, such as Carowinds, King's Island, and King's Dominion.

The idea of melding movies and theme parks seems to be the ultimate pinnacle of sheer entertainment. What better way to thrill the masses than, as Universal aptly puts it, to let you "ride the movies." It's one thing to see an exciting movie on the screen, but it's (sometimes) a better thing to actually experience it. So, with these thoughts in mind, we thought we'd take a look at how well these parks let you "ride the movies." What really makes a good ride is a synergy between the film and the ride, so that the ride really captures the spirit of the film, and you feel like you've been there. There's a few rides that do this incredibly well, and a few which are a bit disappointing.

Disney's Magic Kingdom (Disneyland, Walt Disney World)

We'd be remiss in not starting with the grandmother of them all, Disneyland and her younger kin, Walt Disney World and Disney-MGM Studios. It may surprise you to realize, however, that many of Disney's most popular rides in its Magic Kingdoms are NOT based on Disney movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise (inspired by a movie, but the African Queen wasn't made by Disney), the Haunted Mansion, It's A Small World, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Alien Encounter (which also owes a tip of the hat to another series of films from another studio), and more. Still, there are some that are, such as the Mad Hatter's Teacups, Snow White's Scary Adventures (the word "Scary" was added a few years ago to appease wimpy parents), Peter Pan's Flight, the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and a few more. Disney doesn't really have any bad movie-inspired rides, except for maybe Snow White, which is fun, but doesn't really deliver what you're expecting when you hop on a ride based on Snow White (hence the word "Scary" added to the name). The following rides are the real stand-outs:

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride: I mention this one first because it is no longer in operation at Walt Disney World, which is a crying shame. Not the most technically advanced and similar to Snow White (but gives you the right expectations going in), this ride is just fun. Disney closed down the WDW version (in favor of a new Winnie the Pooh ride) claiming that attendance was down to the fact that most people don't remember the movie on which it was based, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (a package film that features the shorts The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Wind in the Willows). This begs the obvious question which apparently didn't dawn on the folks at Disney: Why not just release the movie on video? Well, they finally did, but only AFTER closing down the ride. After watching Wind in the Willows, it made we want to climb aboard Mr. Toadís Wild Ride all over again. Luckily, itís still running in Disneyland. For now.

Splash Mountain: A log flume ride based on Song of the South, this is what most rides should aspire to be. Not only does it capture the spirit of the original movie, tell a fun story, have toe-tapping music through-out, and lots of colorful detail, but it also incorporates the thrills of the ride into the story itself. One major item has been changed -- instead of the Tar Baby, Brer Fox and Brer Bear manage to snag Brer Rabbit with a honey-filled bee hive to make it more PC. But it actually works well here. The climax comes when Brer Rabbit screams, "Please don't throw me in dat dere Briar Patch!" and down you go on a huge drop, headed straight for it! But the ride doesn't end there, because the story has an ending, too, that leaves you singing "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" on the way out. Out of all these pluses, Splash Mountain has only one drawback: "Where in the heck is the video release?"

Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin: One of WDW's latest additions, this Tomorrowland attraction is a combination ride and video game. The Evil Emperor Zurg is stealing the power from all the batteries in the universe, and it's up to you to stop him! Your Space Ranger car spins around and has a laser gun that lets you shoot at targets and earn points. Check your score at the end of the ride to see how you ranked! This ride is just plain cool and exciting from beginning to end.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Another sad note, as this ride no longer exists either, but it was great and really captured the movie, right down to the music (however, I donít remember topless mermaids in the film). Disney has yet to put another ride in it's place, though a Little Mermaid ride has been rumored.

Disney-MGM Studios

The Disney-MGM Studios is a fun, recreation of the Golden Age of Hollywood. When you first enter the park, you really feel like you're there. Another section is dressed like the "New York" back lot, there's a back lot tour, and more. Naturally, Disney-MGM has several great rides that really put you into the movies on which they're based. The only big negative about Disney-MGM is it's size -- this park should be twice as big as it is. You can walk around the whole park in about ten minutes. The streets are too small (a mistake in planning) and the attractions are too close together. And as long as it's been open, Disney should have doubled the size of it by now. Aside from those gripes, there's some great stuff to do. The only odd thing is that the best rides aren't based on movies made by Disney. But considering Disneyís track record with live actions films over the past few years, that really isnít surprising at all.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: This is a great ride. Like Splash Mountain, it tells a complete story that really captures the essence of the TV show. The setting is an old, run-down Hollywood hotel from which several guests mysteriously disappeared on the elevator in the 1940s. Rod Serling himself introduces the story, which includes two plummets to near-certain death in the service elevator. Like all Disney rides, even the queue is full of detail and immerses you in the experience.

Star Tours: A simulated ride based on Star Wars (this ride is in Disneyland in CA). C-3PO and R2-D2 greet you as you are about to board a tour to Endor. Unfortunately, this is the first flight for your robot pilot, Rex, and after nearly wrecking on the way out of the space station, he lands you right in the middle of the attack on the Death Star. A super-cool ride which would be even cooler if it were longer. There was once a rumor that George Lucas planned to update the ride to reflect Episode I, but nothing has come of it yet. While still great, this ride would benefit from an update. The "Rex's maiden flight" angle doesn't hold up on repeat rides. We've also heard that Lucas plans to add more destinations, so that you can go on it several times and have a different experience each time. That would be ideal, and easy to do.

Indiana Jones: Actually, Disney has three different Indiana Jones attractions, so I'm lumping them all together. The shame of it all is that none of them are the Indiana Jones ride that should be. Disney-MGM has the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, a live stunt show that re-creates all the exciting moments from Raiders, from the giant ball to the plane blowing up. Disneyland has a completely different Indy ride, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (based on the character, but not the actual movies). Here, you ride in a humvee through a booby-trapped Mayan temple, and the ride has three different routes, for three different experiences and is absolutely uber-cool. But the Indiana Jones movie that screams THEME PARK RIDE is the mine car chase from Temple of Doom! Disney made a halfway attempt with a Temple du Peril rollercoaster at Disneyland Paris, but from what I've read, it's mostly an outdoor coaster and doesn't really live up to what the ride could be. Since the Indy flicks were all made by Paramount, this could have been one of their best rides, but they lost it to Disney by getting into the theme park biz too late.

Universal Studios (Hollywood and Florida, coming soon to Japan)

While Universal Studios Florida attempts to re-create Hollywood, the West Coast Universal Studios is actually in Hollywood, but is much smaller. Some of the rides, like Back to the Future, E.T., and Jurassic Park are in both parks, while others such as Backdraft (Hollywood) are only in one park. Aside from a few missteps like Backdraft (hot, but no excitement), most of the Universal attractions really make you feel like you're "riding the movies."

Back to the Future: The best movie-based ride, hands down (though I'll admit I haven't ridden Jurassic Park yet). This ride is basically Back to the Future 4 -- it continues the story from the films, features Christopher Lloyd and Thomas Wilson reprising their roles as Doc Brown and Biff, respectively, and sets up the story from the moment you get in line at the Institute of Future Technology. Biff has broken in and stolen the original DeLorean. It's up to you to catch him and send him "back to the future" in the new eight-passenger convertible DeLorean, piloted via remote control by Doc Brown. You chase Biff into the future and back to the beginning of time. This ride leaves you white-knuckled and dizzy when it's over. This is easily the measuring stick for all other movie-based rides!

Jurassic Park: Can't really give this one a review, because when I went to Universal Studios Hollywood last year, it was closed down for maintenance (drats!). Still, it looks pretty cool and like it's lots of fun. The only question I have to ask is, "Why a water ride?"

T2: Haven't done this one either (haven't been to the Florida park in quite a while, and it just opened in Hollywood), but this one looks incredible, and was directed by James Cameron himself, and features the entire original cast.

E.T.'s Adventure: Not the most thrilling ride, but it does capture the spirit of the film (you actually ride bicycles). Good fun for the whole family.

Jaws, King Kong, and Earthquake: In Hollywood, these are part of the studio tour, but in Florida, they're separate rides. Haven't done the Florida Jaws ride (they closed it down after the park first opened, and it took a few YEARS to get the kinks worked out). The Florida King Kong ride (Kongfrontation!) is longer (naturally), and much more exciting, because they really get you in the mood from the moment you step in line. The Florida version of Earthquake is only a little longer than the Hollywood version, but nearly the same. Very exciting, though.

Paramount's Carowinds, King's Dominion, Great America, and Kings Island

Poor Paramount. They could have been first, but now are pulling up the rear, and just can't seem to get their act together. I went to their King's Dominion Park shortly after it opened, which, admittedly, hadn't been enough time for them to really do anything. They had a little Star Trek exhibition of sets and props from the shows and movies. The only new ride was a Days of Thunder "semi-simulation" ride (the theater seats reacted to the driver's POV movie on a big screen), which was actually pretty cool. Since then they've added a Wayne's World mini-park, complete with a roller coaster called "The Hurler."

James Bond 007 Licence to Thrill (Paramountís Great America): This is a cool-sounding James Bond simulation ride. But one has to ask, why is a ride for an MGM movie at a Paramount Park instead of Disney-MGM Studios? Answer, Disney hasnít been getting along with MGM too well. Heís also had some problems with the Muppets. I think the Mouse needs to work on his people skills.

But they still havenít done much of anything with their top properties. A quick look at Paramount's movies shows some major ride potential (even with the loss of Indiana Jones) that, unfortunately, hasnít been pursued.

Star Trek: So where's the Star Trek simulated ride? Do they build it in one, or both (which they should have done) of their theme parks? No, the built the thing in Las Vegas! Why buy a couple of theme parks and put their best ride somewhere else? Makes no sense. THIS RIDE IS INCREDIBLE! It's called Star Trek: The Experience, which sums it up perfectly, because it is definitely more than a ride. It's a totally immersive experience. I don't want to say too much, because half the fun is going in without any knowledge of what's going to happen, but suffice it to say that you do walk on the bridge of the Enterprise and the ride runs over twenty minutes. The only drawback is that you pay 20 bucks to ride it as many times as you want, but they don't have a one-time ticket price, which is a bummer if you're in a hurry and don't have all day. Maybe one day Paramount will get their act together and actually build Star Trek rides in their theme parks. Maybe.

Top Gun: And it gets worse. Here we have the potential for an incredible, mind-blowing simulated ride that actually puts you (I'm talking YOU) in the cockpit of an F-14, blasts your butt off an Aircraft Carrier, throws you into the middle of a dogfight with a couple of MiGs, and then takes you back to the Carrier for a jolting, wet-your-pants finish. This ride practically designs itself. So what does Paramount do? They build a Top Gun roller coaster. What were they thinking? Duh, obviously, they werenít.