Disney Closes Another Iconic Ride, Is Mum on Replacement

Rick Aristotle Munarriz
Backlot Tour is an attraction at Walt Disney World's Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Lake Buena Vista
Flame/AlamyCatastrophe Canyon is part of the Studio Backlot Tour that Disney is closing.

September hasn't been a good month for purists of Disney World in greater Orlando. Earlier this month, Disney (DIS) announced that it would be closing Epcot's Maelstrom attraction in the Norway pavilion to pave the way for a "Frozen"-themed attraction. Now it's announcing that Disney's Hollywood Studios will close its Studio Backlot Tour this weekend.

The Studio Backlot Tour is one of the few remaining attractions from when the park opened in 1989. Guests board a tram on a narrated tour through the backlot, highlighted by Catastrophe Canyon, where water and fire effects go off to simulate the movie-making process. Before boarding the tram, guests enjoy a live show in which audience volunteers assist in creating a naval battle scene.

It may have been dated and perhaps hokey, but it's one of the rare experiences in the park that has something to do with making movies, which is the theme of the theme park.

Something Borrowed

Theme parks change, and it's often for the better. You won't find many people lamenting about how World of Motion is now Test Track at Epcot. When Avatar opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom in a few years, only those in the minority will lament the Camp Minnie Mickey that went away to make room. After seeing what rival Comcast (CMCSK) did a few miles up I-4 in transforming the once-beloved Jaws boat ride at Universal Studios Florida into the ambitious Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it's hard to complain about industry updates.

However, it does create a temporary void. When the two attractions close -- Studio Backlot Tour closes on Saturday; Maelstrom sets sail through Norwegian troll country for the last time the following weekend -- the two parks will have one fewer attraction to entertain guests. Maelstrom's replacement isn't expected to open until early 2016, making 2015 a challenging year for Disney to keep attendance growing.

This may not be a big problem at Epcot, but it will limit the appeal and length-of-stay at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The experience -- including the pre-show, prop area walk-through, tram tour and memorabilia-filled exit -- took at least an hour. It's also one of the few family-friendly rides at the park. Its absence will create a void until a replacement opens, and that's not a good thing for the park, which may have entertained 10.1 million guests last year but still ranks last in attendance for Disney's four theme parks in Florida.

Something New

Disney gave Maelstrom fans nearly a month to experience Norway's attraction, and it's telling park guests what is coming next. It's got a shorter leash on the narrated tram tour, with Disney making the announcement a week before its closure. That's not going to give fans a lot of time to check it out one last time, though there's always time to virtually experience the Studio Backlot Tour through online videos.

It's also intriguing that unlike Maelstrom making way for Anna and Elsa, we have not been told what will take the place of the nixed attraction. The building itself that housed the pre-show and tram queue is substantial, and that's before considering the area covered by the tram.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-The smart money has to be on a richly themed "Star Wars" area.%One popular rumor is that Disney will try to re-create the success that it has had in reviving Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim with its Cars Land update. Replacing Catastrophe Canyon and surrounding roads with the Radiator Springs attraction would be a no-brainer, but let's not forget that Disney has spent billions in recent years to acquire Marvel and Lucasfilm.

Disney is limited in the Marvel properties that it can tap for park attractions as long as Universal's Islands of Adventure has exclusive state rights to four of its biggest franchises, but Lucasfilm's "Star Wars" is only limited to the imagination of Disney's famous Imagineers.

The smart money has to be on a richly themed "Star Wars" area, especially since Star Tours -- Disney's only ride about the classic sci-fi franchise -- isn't too far away. Relocating the Streets of America cityscape shouldn't be a deal breaker with so much riding on "Star Wars" for Disney. With the movie series getting a reboot in time for next year's holiday season, it would make sense for Disney to scramble to try to cash in on the upcoming trilogy. The clock's ticking, and not just on a once-beloved tram tour through TV-show and movie homes that no longer exist and a sensory canyon that is also about to no longer exist. "Star Wars" needs the showroom space. Use the Force, Luke.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any Motley Fool newsletter service free for 30 days. Find new ways to earn high yields withour free reporton dividend stocks.

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