Thursday, June 18, 2020

Disney's Hollywood Studios Backlot Tram Tour

One of Walt Disney World's most historical attractions was the Tram Tour at the Studios park, one of only two "ride" attractions when Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989. Over the years, it went through many formats and name changes before eventually becoming the Backlot Tram Tour. I got to ride it in 2014, its final year of operation. At the time, the ride's closure had not yet been announced, but I was somewhat aware that it was on borrowed time. When Hollywood Studios had opened that day, my Dad and I ran to Toy Story Mania, only to find it closed. At the end of our day at the park, I had the option to either ride that attraction or the Tram Tour. I never rode Midway Mania in 2014, but I definitely made the right choice... I can even recall the family in front of us talking about how Midway Mania was their favorite, and I was second-guessing my decision. :-o
File:Studio Backlot Tour marquee and entrance.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Not my photo - but licensed for reuse!
The tour started out with a brief walking tour that used to be longer: there was a water effects pool where volunteers were called upon to show how water effects are juxtaposed in films, then you walked through a prop building. I remember being confused by this bit: what were these things for, and where did they come from? I still think that it's kind of random and haphazard, but I'm glad that Dad took a few pictures, as you can see some of the old EPCOT World of Motion animatronics in the rafters in one shot.
Props from the Rocketeer

World of Motion figures
The tram tour was a shell of what it once was, so my dad didn't take a ton of pictures. Here's one of the Earful Tower, the Hollywood Studios icon that was taken down in 2016.
Herbie the Love Bug - there was a "battered" version to the left.
Of course, props like these were the build-up to the only truly impressive thing on the Tram Tour, Catastrophe Canyon. First, though, you couldn't miss Walt Disney's airplane, used to scout the land that eventually become Walt Disney World.
File:Walt Disney's Airplane (N234MM) on the Studio Backlot Tour in ...
Not mine either

Catastrophe Canyon, Disney's attempt at a Universal-like special effects "disaster" show was pretty cool. I have a video clip to share if you are interested, though you probably have seen it somewhere.
Right behind Catastrophe Canyon was the Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show. I did watch it on this visit, but I'm not sure if that show is well-enough respected to warrant a post. Turning around near the end of the Tour, we saw the Streets of America, which were only accessible by the tram in the park's very earliest days.
After the Tram Tour, there was an American Film Institute exhibit. My Dad is a big movie fan, so he took a bunch of pictures.
Indiana Jones whip
Lifeboat from Titanic

Axe from The Shining

I came away from the ride not very impressed but glad that I experienced it. When I got home, I watched some videos of the lengthy, original version, which gave me a better perspective on how the ride had evolved into its then-current state. Catastrophe Canyon was awesome and I would be picturing oil tankers tipping over and bursting into flames for months (instigated by collapsing telephone poles). ;-) I'm glad that I got to ride the Backlot Tram Tour and several other extinct Walt Disney World attractions that closed between this trip and my next in 2014, like Maelstrom, the Great Movie Ride, and Stitch's Great Escape, but I am still kicking myself for not seeing Universe of Energy! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Roadside America

Roadside America, located in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, was on my bucket list visit for years before I finally got there in 2018. The layout was the dream of one man, Laurence Gieringer, who worked on its hundreds of miniature buildings for years before finally displaying them for the public in 1935. In 1953, it opened in its current building, where it has operated ever since. Even though an interstate runs right by its front door, the nearest exit is a little down the road, making it somewhat of a hidden gem.
In Roadside America's brochures and billboards, just small details of the layout are shown, along with the slogan "Be prepared to see more than you expect." Once you enter the gift shop, there are no windows into the display whatsoever, not even on the door. However, there is a sign that states, "If you think this a trap, or a 'gip', so to speak, just ask anyone coming out, and they will tell you otherwise. " Then you push away the door and see this:
I had to steal this picture because my pictures have bad flash.
The scene when you step inside is truly jaw-dropping (if somewhat amplified by the rear mirror). Roadside America is 8,000 square feet, and it isn't until you go in for yourself do you become aware of its magnitude. Every one of these tiny buildings was handmade by one person. There are so many awesome details, from the working waterfall along the wall (go underneath and see a Luray Caverns mock-up) to the hundreds of tiny figures.
From the RA website
One of the cool things about the layout is observation decks that put you a good ten or so feet above the scenes.
 If you look at the bottom here, you can see some of the many push buttons that operate little movements around the layout. Oh yeah, and there're (O gauge) miniature trains too!
When Gieringer died in 1963, the display was preserved as-is and has been for more than 50 years. It is one of the closest things to a time capsule that you can get in a roadside attraction anywhere. It's even still owned by his extended family, although they are looking for an owner who can take it over for the future.
By far the most impressive moment of the Roadside America experience is the "Night Pageant," which occurs every half hour. The first warning is a muffled announcement over the loudspeaker, which you are only starting to decipher when the lights begin to dim and interior lights turn on in the little buildings. Projections of Jesus are juxtaposed against a waving American flag, and the pageant ends in an epic performance of "God Bless America" by Kate Smith. It's a kind of patriotism that you don't get anywhere anymore and is good for everyone once in a while. My favorite part is when right on cue with "from the mountains..." backlights light up right behind them along the wall!  The video doesn't do it justice. Okay, I'll stop rambling. Just get out to central PA and see it for yourself!

Note 11/2020: Roadside America permanently closed before this post was written in March 2020, although the closure was not announced until November.