The Disney Parks and the Movies

Long before the Disney parks, Walt Disney was making movies.  He grew up when movies were a new form of entertainment, and he loved them.  He was able to combine his love of moving pictures with his talent for art by making animated films. Even early on, he had big dreams for the future of movies, including early ideas for what we now know as 4-D movies. Walt’s business was primarily movie making, so it is no surprise that the parks reflect that, in the rides and shows. He also had a gift for telling a story, and recognized the importance of stories, how they draw people in and give them an emotional connection to any experience. Even today, stories are still an important part of all Disney parks, worldwide. Every thing and every place has a backstory.


When the  Disneyland® Resort first opened, it had a mix of attractions based on Disney movies as well as some with their own unique storylines that were developed specifically for the park. First day crowds at Disneyland® in 1955 could take a spin on the Mad Tea Party (Alice in Wonderland), enjoy an eagle’s eye view of London on Peter Pan’s Flight, take a Wild Ride with Mr. Toad, and be frightened by Snow White’s Scary Adventures. They could also enjoy Autotopia, the Jungle Cruise, the Storybook Land Canal Boats, and the Mark Twain Riverboat, none of which were inspired by the Disney catalog of films. Over the years, more rides were added to Disneyland®, and they were again, a blend of movie-inspired and, original. Many of those that were not film-based have become some of the most iconic and beloved experiences in the parks. It is hard to think of either the Disneyland® Resort or the Magic Kingdom without considering the classic rides. Although these were not among the charter attractions, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, are, in a manner of speaking, in the DNA of the Disney Parks. They, along with Jungle Cruise appear on both coasts, while some rides are park specific.  Some of these rides are also represented in Disney Parks worldwide.


In recent years, most new additions to the Disney Parks in the US, have taken their inspiration from Disney Studios or Disney owned films. Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, Under the Sea- Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Radiator Springs Racers, Star Tours, and the upcoming Toy Story Land in Orlando are all character driven attractions, straight from the movies. In addition, there have been several rides, including Guardians of the Galaxy-Mission Breakout, Frozen Ever After, and The Seas with Nemo and Friends that have been added as overlays or redesigns of existing, non-movie related attractions.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, until recently, featured two live shows and one 4-D movie that were inspired by films, the rest drew their inspiration from nature or places in the world. That changed with the opening of the new Pandora-The World of Avatar. While still keeping with the theme and mission of the park, Pandora remains a fictional world, inspired by the work of James Cameron.



The connection between the parks and movies is strong. In fact, the design of the Magic Kingdom is meant to evoke the experience of going to the movies. As you approach, the WDW Railroad blocks your view of what is inside, much like the theatre curtains used to block the screen. Then you show your ticket to gain admission. As you pass through the entrance of the park, there are posters of the rides on the walls as though advertising the “coming attractions” just ahead.  Emerging from the tunnel, the smell of  fresh buttery popcorn wafts by and,  the “curtain” lifts, where you see the main attraction, Cinderella Castle. As you walk down Main Street, if you look up, you can see the “opening credits” on the windows on the upper floors. These are the names of the various contributors and Imagineers who brought the park to life. The very last credit is to the original Imagineer himself, Walter E. Disney.


Even with his tremendous imagination, probably even Walt himself could not have predicted that the creative process around a park attraction would eventually work in reverse, resulting in movies inspired by the parks.


In 1997, a made-for-TV movie, Tower of Terror, was shown on the Wonderful World of Disney. It was based, of course, on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, then known as Disney-MGM Studios. Directed by D.J. McHale, some of the filing was even done in the park, at the ride itself.  This was the first, but certainly not the last, movie adaption of a Disney theme park experience.



Before Stitch’s Great Escape in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom, came Mission to Mars. In 2000, it was made into a movie about a manned trip to Mars that runs into trouble. Featuring a lot of special effects, Mission to Mars had themes of alien life, space exploration, and astronomy.


Country Bear Jamboree served as the basis for The Country Bears in 2002. Staring Haley Joel Osmont, the movie blends live actors with puppetry and audio-animatronics


That same year, the best known and most successful theme-park-to-film incarnation, The Pirates of the Caribbean sailed into theatres. Featuring A list star Johnny Depp, it was a smash hit and is now a five film series. Not only was inspiration take from the general ride storyline, there were at least two specific scenes in the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride that became scenes in the film. Watch for Jack Sparrow to encourage a dog to help him escape from jail and for another pirate to wallow with pigs. After the huge success of the movie, Johnny Depp’s likeness as Captain Jack was added to the ride.


In 2015, Disney released the movie Tomorrowland, inspired by a whole Land at a Disney Park, rather than an individual attraction. Starring George Clooney, this science fiction feature tells the story of a mismatched duo travelling to an alternate dimension.  There is also an animated series on the Disney Channel, Miles from Tomorrowland, based on the Land.


Looking ahead, Dwane Johnson is planning to both star in and produce a film adaption of The Jungle Cruise. Scheduled to begin production in 2018, it is expected to be an adventure film. No word yet on whether it will be as “punderful” as the Cruise itself.


Also, in 2016, Disney hired screenwriters to make It’s a Small World into a feature film. No further news is available on the project, so it may have been shuttered.

What do you think? Should they go ahead with it? Would you go see it? What other Disney rides or attractions do you think would make a good feature film?

Written by Dorothy Holland an Independent Agent with The Mouse Experts.








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