Extinct Attractions: Back to the Future: The Ride

Welcome to Extinct Attractions. My name is Cole, and today we’ll be go-ing baaack in time. (Cue musical riff.)

Though Disney won more Oscars than any other studio at the 2019 Academy Awards (if you include the upcoming acquisitions of Fox and National Geographic), the big winner of the night was Universal with Green Book taking Best Picture. It was a return to the top for Universal, which hadn’t taken the top prize since 2001 when A Beautiful Mind was victorious. While I don’t necessarily agree with the choice of Green Book, it does continue on a long legacy of Oscar glory for the Universal company, one that ties back to Hill Valley, California during the middle of the 1980s.

Back to the Future hit theaters on July 3, 1985 and quickly took the world by storm. The movie was the highest grossing movie of the year by a long shot and even garnered four Academy Award nominations, winning one of them. The movie was a cultural phenomenon because it was so unique and different from any film that people had ever seen. (Personally, I still consider it as one of my favorite films to this day.)

With Back to the Future still popular throughout the late 1980s, especially with the sequels not being released until the dawn of the 1990s, the film was a prime candidate to be adapted as an attraction for the Universal Studios park coming to Florida. Interestingly enough, the idea to include it was actual pitched by Steven Spielberg after he rode Star Tours over at Disneyland. His good friend George Lucas bragged about how Universal could never pull off an attraction like that, so Spielberg relayed that information over to his friends at Universal Creative. They took it as a challenge, and Spielberg suggested they look at Back to the Future as a potential franchise for this ground-breaking attraction.

As the ideas began to flow for the attraction, originally the plan was to create a roller coaster, but then Universal smartly realized that you’d be traveling too fast and there would be no way tell a proper story (especially if the coaster actually went 88 mph). Then, they had a brilliant idea when they began to think about George Lucas’ comment again and realized that a simulator would be a perfect way to combat the success of Star Tours.

Originally, the plan was to debut Back to the Future: The Ride in Universal Studios Florida when the park opened in 1990, and then a year later it would began its run in Hollywood. However, Universal Studios Florida had one of the messiest opening days since Disneyland itself, with Kongfrontation and Jaws: The Ride malfunctioning most of the day. Universal anticipated a messy day, so they delayed the opening of Back to the Future: The Ride because they had more faith in it than any other attraction and wanted it to be perfect upon its debut.

Via Uproxx

With the construction lagging, there was plenty of time to get the story and film of the attraction right, with Peyton Reed (who directed both Ant-Man films) handling the screenplay and special effects guru Douglas Trumbull directing the film. These filmmakers’ bonafide talent helped establish this project and kept it moving in even in the face of the construction issues.

About a year after the park opened, Universal finally figured Back to the Future out and the attraction opened in Florida on May 2, 1991 to much aplomb. People loved the attraction from the outset, and it quickly became one of the park’s big E-Ticket attraction as was intended. Plus, they made the shrewd move of creating two theaters for the simulators, so that if one went down, the ride could still function (albeit at a slower rate).

Interestingly enough, the Hollywood version got so far behind because of foundation issues, that they were able to get some input from Florida. Florida told them that having the two theaters right next to each other was not ideal, so Hollywood did a little redesign and built their theaters separately, creating the symmetric building that you can still find there today. (One other fun fact about Hollywood’s is that is on rollers to help protect against earthquakes.) All of these changes finally came together when the attraction finally opened on June 12, 1993.

As you can see by the photo above, Back to the Future: The Ride was a simulator unlike anything else. Utilizing a 70 foot tall OMNIMAX Dome Screen (that is common in planetariums and such), 12 vehicles could experience the attraction simultaneously. It seems like that would take away from the experience, but all of the cars were strategically placed so that you couldn’t see any of the other guests, only the gigantic screen towering above you.

In terms of the actual experience, your journey began by entering the Institute of Future Technology, where Doc Brown was finally successful and was one of the prominent scientists there. Throughout the beginning of the queue, there were actually a bunch of little videos that lauded Doc for the inventions that he had created. A few minutes later, Doc came on screen himself to give you a little tour of what he was working on at the IFT. Of course, things didn’t go as planned (as seems to happen with Doc), and Biff Tannen had broken into the IFT, intent on stealing a time machine for himself. Biff begins to wreck havoc on the Institute and ultimately locks Doc Brown in his own office. But luckily for him, you have free rein of the building, so Doc implores you to hop in a Delorean and help him catch Biff.

Luckily, Doc has a remote control, so he can control the car for you because as you try to navigate the streets of Hill Valley in 2015, Biff keeps trying to ram your car, so you won’t stop him. Everything is wild and out of control, so there is no way you’d be able to navigate without Doc’s help.

Eventually, he jumps back to the Ice Age and then back millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs where you come face to face with a T-Rex…multiple times! As your harrowing journey continues, you escape the dinosaurs and hit a lava waterfall where Biff’s engines die out, and you manage to save his life by bumping his car at 88 miles per hour and sending everyone home to the present.

Revisiting this attraction, my favorite aspect is definitely the use of miniatures and practical effects. It’s a true blast from the past and reminds me of the classic way that films used to be made. Sure, it looks a little corny today, but I live for that corniness.

Watching it again also brought back a lot of great memories of the attraction from when I was younger. Back to the Future: The Ride was always my favorite attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, and my family and I would go on it each and every time we were at the park. And then one day, it was gone.

Well, it wasn’t exactly all of a sudden because Back to the Future was no longer a huge draw in the way that it originally was back in the early 1990s. Most of the attractions in both of the parks were based on films from the 1970s and 1980s, so slowly but surely, they began to get phased out. In both Florida and Hollywood, the attraction closed in 2007, on March 30th and September 3rd respectively. In its place today, we have The Simpsons Ride, which actually uses the same ride system as Back to the Future and even has a reference to the old attraction in the queue, where Doc Brown appears with his Delorean.

The ride actually did manage to survive a bit longer over in Japan, where the ride was an opening day attraction on March 31, 2001. It stuck around there until May 31, 2016, at which point we unfortunately began to live in a world without Back to the Future: The Ride. I know that I for one, miss Back to the Future every time that I ride The Simpsons Ride.

Well, that brings our journey to a close, and next week we’ll be taking a week off to focus on the box office, but the following week we’ll be back with an attraction relating to these clues.

  1. This attraction is still around in three Disney parks worldwide.
  2. This attraction was replaced by a Marvel property.
  3. This attraction’s IP was licensed from another company.

Thanks for reading and have a magical day!

Cole Geryak
Cole Geryak is a childless millennial making his way through the world. He has ridden every single ride in Disneyland in one day, all while wearing a shirt and tie. Imagination is his middle name, and his heart truly lies in the parks.