End of an Era

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This past weekend Disney held its annual D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, where they as always made a slew of big announcements regarding upcoming projects  from every division of the company.  It was revealed, for example, that over at EPCOT the Ellen’s Energy Adventure pavilion would be getting a complete makeover into a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction,  They also informed us all that a Tron roller coaster would be built next to Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom.  They shared sneak peeks at footage of various upcoming film projects, including Mary Poppins Returns and Avengers: Infinity War.  The one that hit me closest to home, however, was the confirmation of the recent rumor that the centerpiece attraction of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, The Great Movie Ride, would be closing down.  The plan is to replace it with a high-tech Mickey Mouse attraction.

I’m saddened by this news.

The current and former Walt Disney World cast members who work and have worked at The Great Movie Ride (GMR) make up a very close community and call themselves MovieRiders.  Their go-to slogan is “Once a movie rider, always a movie rider.”  They have been all over social media the past couple of days since the announcement, pouring out their emotions and sharing their memories of this attraction, their home, and the fellow people who worked there, their family.  It is a difficult time for them, but they are strong and are there for each other, and they reluctantly accept this event over which they have no control.  I am a part of their Facebook group, and have been right there with them as they go through this, but I’m neither a current nor former cast member.

My dad was.

Dad worked at a data processing company in downtown Chicago for many years until the company chose to outsource his entire department, forcing them all to take severance packages and clean out their desks.  Dad and Mom decided to move to Florida, and the first thing he did when he got here was apply to work at Walt Disney World.  He was always a Disney fan and loved WDW from vacations past.  He also was a huge movie aficionado and thought that GMR was one of the greatest attractions in all of the Disney parks.  When he went for his interview, he told me, he didn’t specifically say that he wanted to work at that ride, because he knew he’d be happy just about anywhere at WDW, but he did mention his love of movies.  Apparently his interviewer was good at reading between the lines, because when he was hired that was exactly where they put him — Tour Guide at The Great Movie Ride, at what was then Disney/MGM Studios.

After he’d been there for a while, Dad once told me that even though he could have gotten a job working with computers and data processing like he’d done for so many years, where he would have been making a heck of a lot more money than he was making at this hourly theme park job with co-workers the majority of whom were half his age, he truly believed that he’d probably put ten years back onto his life by being there.  There, at GMR, in the happiest place on Earth.

Of course with my father working there I and the rest of the family rode The Great Movie Ride far more often than we might have otherwise.  We had helped him learn his lines when he was training early on, and we got to the point where we knew the script almost as well as he did.  Whenever we were on it and there was even the slightest mistake by the Tour Guide or Gangster or Bandit on that particular show, we caught it and would smile to each other knowingly.  My kids liked to go on the ride when they were little and they knew that their grandpa was working, although we made sure not to go on it when he had to play one of the “bad guys.”

He worked there for several years, first as Tour Guide and then eventually as Gangster and Bandit, and even became a Trainer.  The GMR cast hosted their own awards night regularly for a few years, and Dad won Best Male Tour Guide and Best Gangster a couple of times while he was there.  As a trainer he was popular among the other cast members, and I was told by one of them once that everyone knew if Keith was reviewing their performance they had to make sure to give a really big “Ta-da!”  Unfortunately, as he got older, the part of the job where he had to run up and/or down the stairs in the Temple of Anubis scene started to bother his back.  And so after a bit Dad reluctantly transferred out of The Great Movie Ride and over to Walt Disney World Transportation.

As much as he insisted starting work at GMR added ten years to his life, I have to say that leaving GMR turned out to be what led ultimately to those years being taken away.  In Transportation, Dad worked on the boats, ferrying guests back and forth between resort hotels and the theme parks across Disney’s various networks of lakes and lagoons under the beautiful Florida sunshine.  He died in September 2015 after contracting melanoma, skin cancer.

The outpouring of emotion from former coworkers at GMR after Dad died was really amazing.  I heard from and met people whose names I had heard Dad mention in conversation about work years before, and more people than I could count whom I hadn’t heard about at all.  I never realized just how much my father meant to so many people at Disney.  Many of them he hadn’t seen or spoken with in years.  “Once a movie rider, always a movie rider,” as they say.  Many of these people I am now friends with myself through Facebook, and I am glad for that.

The Great Movie Ride has gone through a few changes over the years.  The cast got new uniforms, which I think took a bit away from the original concept of the ride.  The script changed a few times, often not for the better in my opinion.  Some of the mechanics of some of the animatronic figures stopped working and didn’t get repaired.  Newer, snazzier, thrill-inducing rides opened up in the park and the crowds were drawn there instead.  There came a time where it was obvious that this attraction’s days were numbered.  It’s a shame, really, considering what it used to be.

Despite all of that, I’m sure that if his back hadn’t started bothering him, my dad would not have left GMR to go drive boats in the cancer-causing sunshine.  He would have stayed there and worked through the frustration because of how much he loved the place and the people.  He would have grumbled and complained about the things that were going downhill, but he would have kept on doing his best job, knowing that every guest deserves the best show he can give them.  He would have learned the new scripts and gone along with them because that was his job and he had to,  but he’d also stubbornly hold onto hope that eventually TCM’s sponsorship deal would end and they’d go back to the old script, which made a lot more sense and told a much better story.  As crazy as this might sound, The Great Movie Ride would have kept my dad alive.

But of course that’s not what happened and there’s nothing we can do to change that.  Dad passed away much too soon for any of our liking, and now The Great Movie Ride is following suit.  As I said earlier, I’m saddened, because for a lot of years, this ride was part of my family, and after Dad passed the people that worked there with him showed me that they were, as well.  I hope that everyone still working at GMR finds happiness at whatever new adventure they move on to after the closing.  I also genuinely hope the new ride being put in its place turns out to be a successful one.

Hopefully I can make it out to the park one more time before the end of the day August 13, 2017.  That’s the day that will mark the end of an era for Disney Hollywood Studios, and for the MovieRider family as well.

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2 thoughts on “End of an Era

  1. Thank you for sharing and writing this. I’m one of the rare few to work with your dad at both GMR and at Watercraft. We shared a special kinship that’s for sure. I always thought he enjoyed the calmness of Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon compared to the Anubis steps. He always had a smile for me even when I was a little frustrated at work. Thanks again for bringing the memory of your dad and his smile back.

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    • Thank you for your words, Laurie. I know Dad enjoyed being out there on the water each day, driving the boats and talking to guests. I only wish he’d been a little better with the sunscreen.

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