The Walt Disney Company is known for its innovative ideas—movies and theme park attractions in particular. Over the years, several popular Disney movies have inspired attractions where guests can see their favorite characters and stories come to life. But in a few cases, certain rides were so iconic that they inspired Disney to translate them to the big screen in movies of their own. These are the Disney movies based on Disney rides.
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Turning a Disney Ride into a Movie
Because Walt Disney had been making films for over a decade before he opened his first theme park, many of the opening day attractions created for Disneyland and Disney World featured the beloved stories and characters from his films.
It makes sense then that some of the original rides, shows, and lands designed for the theme parks would inspire movies of their own. However, there are far more attractions based on Disney movies than there are movies based on attractions, which makes the following seven examples that much more unique.
Creating an original movie concept that is popular and successful is a major achievement by itself. Taking the concept of a standalone, 5-10 minute Disney attraction and creating a 1-2 hour movie storyline around it is a feat that has only been accomplished a handful of times.
Mission to Mars
Mission to Mars was the third version of a Disneyland attraction originally titled Rocket to the Moon. Rocket to the Moon was an opening day attraction in 1955 and was refurbished and renamed to Flight to the Moon in 1967. After the moon landings began successfully occurring in 1969, the attraction was reimagined a third time in March 1975 as Mission to Mars.
The ride took guests to view the mission control center of a space station before boarding a ship to Mars. Although the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions of the attraction closed in November 1992 and October 1993 respectively, the company thought that a film version of the concept would still be exciting to produce.
The movie Mission to Mars premiered in March 2000, 25 years after the Mission to Mars ride opened for the first time. Set in the distant year of 2020, the film follows the story of the first spaceflight to Mars and the troubles the team runs into as they attempt to navigate the unfamiliar territory. While the movie is only very loosely based on the attraction, both the ride and movie version of Mission to Mars did a great job of bringing the audience into the experience and making them feel as though they were part of an official space expedition.
The Country Bears
The idea of Country Bear Jamboree originally came about when Disney was planning to build the Mineral King Ski Resort. Walt Disney wanted the resort to feature a show with bears singing and playing instruments, and Country Bear Jamboree was the answer. Since Disney’s Mineral King Ski Resort never ended up coming to fruition, the show was brought to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World as an opening day attraction in October 1971.
Country Bear Jamboree was so well-received in Florida that the attraction opened in Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland as well. Imagineers even created a limited run holiday version of the show called Country Bear Christmas Special, and then a summertime version called Country Bear Vacation Hoedown.
Because the attraction was loved by so many people, Disney created a movie based on the characters featured in the show. The Country Bears premiered in July 2002, and the movie tells the story of the bears that make up the Country Bear band. The group disbanded many years prior, but when Country Bear Hall is in danger of being demolished, the main characters decide to bring all the band members back together to try to save it.
Unfortunately, while the attraction has remained very popular since its opening, the movie was not well received and ended up doing very poorly in theaters. Shortly before the movie’s premiere, a sequel was announced, but it was cancelled and never produced.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Out of all the movies Disney has created that are based on theme park attractions, the most famous by far are the Pirates of the Caribbean films. There are currently five movies in the series with a sixth movie potentially being added at some point in the future. The original Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, premiered in June 2003, but the inspiration has been around much longer than that.
The Pirates of the Caribbean dark ride first opened at Disneyland in March 1967 and has since been recreated for Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Shanghai Disneyland. Out of all the films on this list, this attraction has been the most significantly connected to the movie storyline. We documented all of the times that the Pirates films reference the original Disneyland attraction.
The boat ride takes guests on a journey through a small seaside town that has been taken over by pirates, and in the original versions of the ride, the audio-animatronics were all unique characters created specifically for the storyline. When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest experienced major success, the attraction was refurbished to include the main character of the series, Captain Jack Sparrow, in several scenes. Different versions of the attraction throughout the years have also included the characters of Captain Barbosa, Davy Jones, and Captain Blackbeard.
Tower of Terror
The first Disney theme park attraction turned into a movie was initially inspired by a television show that premiered long before the ride was conceptualized. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was based on The Twilight Zone, a science fiction/horror show from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
When Disney’s MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) was expanding to include several new attractions, Disney Imagineers wanted to feature a drop tower-style ride with a spooky theme, and they decided the perfect way to accomplish this was to design the ride as a haunted hotel. They added in the idea of the Fifth Dimension that was so often referenced in The Twilight Zone, and Tower of Terror was born.
The first version of the attraction opened in July 1994, and the creation of the film came shortly after, with Tower of Terror premiering in October 1997 on ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney. The movie takes its main plot from the attraction’s storyline, where five people staying at the luxurious Hollywood Tower Hotel step into the elevator and disappear into thin air when the mechanism is struck by lightning.
While the attraction leads guests into the hotel to experience the haunted elevator for themselves, it does not explore what really happened to the original five hotel guests. The movie, on the other hand, does a nice job of detailing the backgrounds of the hotel guests and solves the mystery of the lightning-struck elevator by the end.
The Haunted Mansion
Disney Imagineers first began considering the idea of including a haunted house-themed attraction at Disneyland several years before the park opened in 1955. Due to a series of major events, including the New York World’s Fair in 1954 and 1955 and Walt Disney’s death in 1966, The Haunted Mansion did not officially open until August 1969, but it was a major success when it did.
Since the opening of the attraction at Disneyland, similar versions have been built at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. The ride also sparked the idea of making similar haunted house attractions with different storylines at some of the international parks, which is how Phantom Manor at Disneyland Park Paris and Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland were created.
There have been multiple movie adaptations of The Haunted Mansion, each with a slightly different feel. The original film, The Haunted Mansion, premiered in November 2003 and told the story of a realtor who ends up trapped in the mansion with his family and must work with his kids to save his wife. Muppets Haunted Mansion was released in October 2021 on Disney+ and stars all the beloved Muppet characters as Gonzo and Pepe attempt to stay one night in the mansion.
There will be a third version of the story premiering in theaters in July of 2023, where a single mother hires a team to remove the ghosts from her newly-bought mansion. It’s clear that there are endless tales to be told about The Haunted Mansion, and it continues to be a fan favorite in all the theme parks around the world.
Out of all the lands featured in the Disney parks, Tomorrowland is definitely the most innovative. Every Disney park in the world has a version of this land that has its own unique elements, as there are so many different areas of space, technology, and science that can be the focus of “tomorrow.” Beginning with the opening of Disneyland in July 1955, Tomorrowland has had many attractions come and go throughout the years, with its primary goal to immerse guests in a futuristic world.
The inspiration for the movie Tomorrowland came from the otherworldly feeling of the land. It premiered in May 2015 and showcased what could happen if the ability to enter alternate dimensions became a reality. The main characters travel to Tomorrowland but learn that everything they do there has an impact on their real life outside of the land. Unfortunately, the response to the movie was underwhelming, and it did not end up doing well in theaters, but the fact that it was a completely original concept from Disney meant it ended up being special in its own right.
The most recent movie to come from a Disney park attraction is Jungle Cruise, which premiered in July 2021. The Jungle Cruise attraction was an opening day Disneyland attraction in 1955, and it eventually came to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World as an opening day attraction in 1971, along with versions in Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland.
The premise of the ride is fairly straightforward: a skipper takes guests out on a boat tour through various rivers and jungle areas, all while telling corny jokes and bad puns. The movie creates a compelling plot that also does a great job of incorporating some of the best moments in the attraction.
Jungle Cruise had been on the production idea list since 2004, but due to several different events, the movie did not begin filming until 2018. It was well worth the wait, because it gave a whole new generation the opportunity to fall in love with the attraction, giving the film an even bigger audience who enjoyed it. Jungle Cruise ended up being an overall success, and a sequel is in the process of being created, with the main characters returning for a second adventure.
The Challenge of Creating Movies from Attractions
Although there have only been seven Disney movies based on original theme park attractions, they all had a common theme: they were created because the rides and shows they were based upon have been beloved by guests of all ages for a long time. The Walt Disney Company believed that because people enjoyed experiencing these attractions so much, they would enjoy watching an entire film based around the themes, characters, and storylines too.
However, many of these attractions take on a more episodic structure and do not have much of a fully consistent storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, making difficult to translate them into an entire film. Audiences may have fun seeing ghosts or pirates on an attraction but may not be as interested in a brand-new story about them. Attempting to give the unique characters in an attraction their own backstory that branches off from ride or show they came from will not always work out perfectly, so it makes sense that some movies were more successful than others.
Which Movies Have Been Most Successful?
Out of the seven attraction-based movies on this list, there is a clear leader of the pack that has been the most successful. With Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the creators were able to invent a gripping storyline with characters who were so lovable and memorable that they returned for four more films.
Movies based on Disney theme park attractions will only really work if either the ride or show already has a fully fleshed out plot and characters or the creators of the movie are able to develop a nuanced story from a few aspects of the ride or show. Otherwise, a Disney film based on an attraction may not be enticing to the average moviegoer.
There are so many iconic Disney attractions that could be made into movies. Which attraction do you think should be next to get its own movie?
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