Ride the Movies

The news out of last week’s all-things-Disney D23 Expo that the venerable The Great Movie ride attraction would be closing soon at Disney’s Hollywood Studios hit me with a wave of sadness more powerful than I would have expected. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the news. Disney’s been closing down and revamping rides for years in the name of progress, and tapping into its new properties and brands for maximum attendance It’s part of their DNA.

Attractions like the troll-themed boat ride Maelstrom in EPCOT Center, which gave way recently to a ride themed around the movie Frozen, or a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride, which was demolished and replaced by a Finding Nemo undersea ride, are part of Disney legend. These and other closures make me sad, but I know time moves on, and these things happen.

A view from above of the Nautilus.

Of course, I’m drawn to news like this because I grew up in Orlando and visited the park dozens of times in my youth. So these were never just rides to me. My fertile imagination transformed the sights and sounds of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus and the knobby-nosed trolls lurking in the mists of Norway into actual voyages to far-off lands, deep in the Pacific Ocean, or far out in the North Sea.

It was transformative in a way I’ll probably never begin to appreciate.

And I think I’m finally old enough to understand the utter gut-punch that the loss of a beacon from childhood is. Things get bulldozed and they don’t come back.

In one of my favorite novels, the title character Jay Gatsby screams crazily at his friend Nick Carraway, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” And I get it, this urge to rebuild a bastion from our youth, to make things the way they were. But that’s not what this is really about, I think.

As I’ve been musing on this, I’ve come upon another conclusion about rides like The Great Movie Ride, and another ride which will be closing soon in the name of progress, what I grew up knowing as the Universe of Energy, in which park patrons ride slowly past stories-tall robotic dinosaurs as they move through the ferns and mists of the Jurassic period. These and other rides – Catastrophe Canyon, MuppetVision 4D to name a few – shaped me by thrusting me directly into the stories I loved. I grew up living inside the stories I loved.

If you’ve never ridden The Great Movie Ride, there’s no way to adequately explain what it felt like as a 12-year old to glide slowly in a car designed to feel like a movie theater seat from room to room inside the worlds of movies. They didn’t feel like sets; they felt like worlds. There was a seedy New York back alley alongside gangsters, Gene Kelly singing in the rain, Mary Poppins and Bert on the rooftops of London, the jungles with Tarzan, and a giant room of Oz, munchkins everywhere, Glinda, Dorothy and friends, and the arrival in a cloud of smoke, of a green-skinned life size Wicked Witch. You knew she was a robot, but in that moment, it didn’t matter.

Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes?

The only thing that topped the Oz scene was the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene inside Well of Souls alongside Indy, Sallah, and of course, those snakes. After that, one final test awaited – could I ride through the Alien scene aboard the Spaceship Nostromo, staring at the crevice in the wall where I knew the alien would emerge, and not flinch or look away when it appeared in all its slathering glory? (Side note – It’s probably why I named the creature in my monster-hunting novel Nostromo).

Rides like this one and so many more from the Disney portion of my childhood planted a foundational truth in me:

Stories are meant to be entered.

They’re not something we hold at arm’s length, exploring intellectually, considering brain-first and gut-second. Plunge in, walk around, see, smell, taste. I’m being figurative to a certain extent, of course, but there’s a point to be made here.

What’s needed are stories so vivid, with settings so lush and rich, characters so authentic, and conflicts so truthful, that they yank us from our comfortable chair and demand we live there. It’s not escapist, I don’t think. Stories are waking dreams which return us to our chair, our house, our neighborhood, with a sharper ability to see. I think that’s why it’s perfectly understandable to finish a riveting action scene or a breathless romance scene, close the book or walk out of the theater, and wonder if there are monsters lurking behind a bush, or to straighten one’s hair in the mirror on the possibility of a chance encounter with a significant other.

It’s this blurring of reality and story that is necessary to sharpen our ability to process our own world. Entering stories teaches us to see properly because it plunges us into a world simultaneously unlike our own, and very much like our own. We emerge with our imaginations altered, our perceptions changed. In this way, stories work on our consciousness like no other part of life. They can reach down into us, bypassing our biases and the walls we’ve built around our carefully-held assumptions, and inspire, challenge, and most of all, get us to dream of a world that’s better, more truthful, and more good than the one we live in.

So, I’m sad I won’t be able to ride the movies ever again. But I hope the stories I write, and the stories I share with my children and others, will be the kind that pull them out of their own world into a place of truth and beauty in a way that leaves them seeing their own world clearer, and longing for something beyond.