How to Watch Every Movie Based on Disney World and Disneyland Attractions
You will not believe the big stars in these quirky films
En español | Disney's theme parks are filled with attractions inspired by the studio's decades of hit films, from Dumbo the Flying Elephant to the Mad Tea Party and Peter Pan's Flight. Much rarer, however, is the inverse: Disney movies inspired by original theme park attractions. Jungle Cruise (July 30), which stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, joins this short list, which includes the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. While they weren't always critical or box office hits, these films make for a unique marathon for Disney completists — and they're filled with clever nods to the theme parks that only a true fanatic would notice.
Tower of Terror (1997)
The gist: Originally presented as part of The Wonderful World of Disney, this made-for-TV movie was the studio's first film based on an attraction. Steve Guttenberg, 62, stars as a disgraced tabloid journalist who sets out with his young niece Anna (Kirsten Dunst) to investigate a mysterious disappearance: On Halloween 1939, lightning struck the Hollywood Tower Hotel, and five guests who were in the elevator at the time vanished without a trace. Looking ahead, Scarlett Johansson is set to produce and potentially star in a new movie based on the thrill ride.
Trivia: Much of the hotel footage was filmed at the actual attraction in Florida's Hollywood Studios theme park.
Watch it: Tower of Terror on DVD to purchase on Disney.com
Mission to Mars (2000)
The gist: Mission to Mars was never one of Disney's most popular attractions; in fact, it shut down at Disneyland in 1992 and at the Magic Kingdom in 1993. Nevertheless, the studio spent $100 million on this sci-fi epic directed by Brian De Palma (80), with a score by Hollywood legend Ennio Morricone. After the first manned mission to Mars ends in disaster, a crew of astronauts — played by Tim Robbins (62), Connie Nielsen (56), Gary Sinise (66) and Jerry O'Connell — heads to the Red Planet to rescue sole survivor Luke Graham (Don Cheadle, 56). Despite some impressive special effects, the film was panned by critics and was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for worst director.
Trivia: While the original rides are no longer, props from the movie now appear in the queue at Epcot's Mission: Space thrill ride — which was hosted by Sinise from 2003 to 2017.
Watch it: Mission to Mars, on Amazon Prime
The Country Bears (2002)
The gist: Based on Frontierland's musical revue, the Country Bear Jamboree, this trippy movie features animatronic bear suits created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a world in which humans and anthropomorphic bears live together in harmony. The Country Bears, an all-bear country rock band, has disbanded, and greedy banker Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken, 78) is threatening to tear down their old concert hall. Preteen cub Beary Barrington (voiced by The Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment) sets out to reunite the band for a benefit concert to save the theater. The film was a flop, but you'll be impressed by the many stars who make cameos as themselves, including Don Henley (74), John Hiatt (68), Sir Elton John (74), Queen Latifah (51), Willie Nelson (88) and Bonnie Raitt (71).
Trivia: Big Al, the groundskeeper at Country Bear Hall, is one of the fan-favorite singing bears at Disney World, where he plays an out-of-tune guitar and croons Tex Ritter's morbid “Blood on the Saddle.”
Watch it: The Country Bears, on Disney+
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The Haunted Mansion (2003)
The gist: Realtors Jim and Sara Evers (Eddie Murphy, 60, and Marsha Thomason) are summoned to Gracey Manor, a spooky estate deep in Louisiana's bayou country, and they soon find that there's more than meets the eye inside these walls. Once there, they encounter a cast of ghostly residents that includes the footman, Ezra (Wallace Shawn, 77), and Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly, 62), a floating head in a crystal ball.
Trivia: The Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet that performs in Disney theme parks around the world, voice the mansion's Singing Busts.
Watch it: The Haunted Mansion, on Disney+
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and its sequels
The gist: The undisputed champs of the ride-to-reel pipeline, The Curse of the Black Pearl and its four sequels (and counting) rank as the 14th-highest-grossing franchise in film history, with a total worldwide box office of $4.5 billion. Based on a so-weird-it-works combination of Keith Richards (77) and Pepé Le Pew, Captain Jack Sparrow is a swashbuckling high point in Johnny Depp's (58) career, earning him two Golden Globe nominations. He's joined along the way by a slew of serious actors having a campy good time, including Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush (70), Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem (52).
Trivia: The attraction's extremely catchy theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)” is sung three times during the first film.
Watch it: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and its sequels, on Disney+
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The gist: This underrated sci-fi adventure comes from the ever-creative minds of director Brad Bird, 63 (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers). A boy genius turned recluse Frank Walker (George Clooney, 60) and a science-loving teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) team up to uncover a futuristic world called Tomorrowland, which was founded in another dimension by Nikola Tesla, Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, and Jules Verne. The film co-stars House's Hugh Laurie (62) as Tomorrowland's leader, country star Tim McGraw (54) as Casey's father, and Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key (50) as two assassins.
Trivia: Look closely at Tomorrowland's skyline and you'll notice the inclusion of Space Mountain and Spaceship Earth — Epcot's famed geodesic sphere — on the horizon.
Watch it: Tomorrowland, on Disney+ (premiering Sept. 3); Amazon Prime
Jungle Cruise (2021)
The gist: A staple at four Disney parks since Disneyland opened in 1955, Jungle Cruise inspired this rollicking action-comedy, which evokes classics like Romancing the Stone and The African Queen. Emily Blunt stars as eccentric scientist Dr. Lily Houghton, who hires a steamboat captain (played by Dwayne Johnson) to take her deep into the Amazon in search of the healing Tree of Life, which she believes will cure terminal diseases. Jesse Plemons, who you might recognize from Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights, steals scenes as a villainous German aristocrat who sets out to claim the tree for himself.
Trivia: The attraction is known for its tour guides’ oft-groan-inducing puns, such as when they point out “the backside of water” — a line that gets a shoutout from Johnson in the film.
Watch it: Jungle Cruise, in theaters or on Disney+ with Premier Access ($29.99) on July 30
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.