Theme park rides are generally thought of as having been based on movies. Disney did particularly well with basing famous rides on existing movies (Peter Pan’s Flight, Mad Tea Party and Mr. Toads’ Wild Ride as a few examples). Universal is known for creating entire lands based on movie franchises (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter being the most famous). But for a brief period, there were a handful of movies based on existing Disney Theme Park rides. While some of them were not so great, a select one or two were actually quite entertaining.
The Made-For-TV movie “Tower of Terror” was made in 1997 and shows Disney testing the waters. The original “Tower of Terror” was based on the Twilight Zone TV series, but this movie ignores that reference (probably due to massive licensing fees). In any case, the story follows reporter Buzzy Crocker and his niece Anna, who investigate the mysterious disappearance of five people in the Hollywood Tower Hotel in 1939. Along the way, they meet an old lady named Abigail, who turns out to be the sister of young child star Sally who disappeared all those years ago, and may hold the key to why they all vanished…
In 2000 Disney made “Mission to Mars”, which was based on the ride of the same name that was open from 1975 to 1992 in the Magic Kingdom. Gary Sinise leads a group of astronauts who travel to Mars on a mission to find and investigate what happened to the astronauts on the first mission, which ended in tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie was panned by critics and had only a modest box office. It’s a mostly forgotten chapter of movies based on theme park rides.
In 2002, the first of three movies based on popular Disney rides were released theatrically. This one was called The Country Bears, based on the animatronics show, The Country Bear Jamboree. It focuses on a young Bear, Beary Barrington, who decides to find the band the Country Bears, which had broken up. He finds the bears and convinces them to put on show to save their old concert hall, Country Bear Hall. The movie had terrible reviews and box office returns, leaving it as interesting note in the history of theme park ride movies.
In the summer of 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released. The movie starts with young Elizabeth Swann, the daughter of a governor, discovering young Will Turner adrift in the water. Eight years later, Will Turner is a blacksmith’s apprentice and Elizabeth was just proposed to by Commodore Norrington, but she is saved by the Pirate Jack Sparrow. However, there is danger afoot: pirates attack the harbor and kidnap Elizabeth. It’s up to Jack and Will to save her and find treasure. The movie had mixed to positive reviews and was a huge financial success, incorporating the elements of the ride subtly with the story. The movie was followed by three sequels, the first two of which (Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End) were a continuous story line and the third being a stand-alone story.
In the fall of 2003, Disney released The Haunted Mansion. Starring Eddie Murphy, the movie focuses on a workaholic realtor father (Murphy) and wife and business partner and their two kids who go to Gracy Manor to do a business deal. When they arrive, the find out the Mansion is haunted by ghosts who must be set free by Master Gracy and his lover Elizabeth, who must be reunited. Of course, through the film the father learns to appreciate his wife and children. The movie had the worst reviews of all of the theme park ride movies, but at the same time, it grossed $182 million worldwide on a $90 million budget, making it a modest success.
For a while, with the exception the “Pirates,” franchise, that was the end of theme park movies. Then it was announced that in 2015 a new movie called Tomorrowland will be released. As long as the story is interesting and the characters are engaging (not an easy task), then the new films will succeed.