The thrill ride that spans one million years! Revisiting history on Back to the Future the ride!
As we celebrate the 35th Anniversary of this beloved franchise, it’s a great opportunity to look back at all things Back To The Future. The trilogy spawned a short-lived animated series and was a crucial part of Universal Studios’ theme park plans. Throughout the ’80s Universal began shifting its original Hollywood park to feature attractions to complement their Tram Tour and began planning a Florida project that would be a more fully realized theme park.
Universal Studios Florida was designed as a living production studio where guests could “Ride The Movies“. Featuring some of the greatest and most iconic stories ever put to film – including JAWS, E.T., and Back To The Future the idea was to let the guests cross the barrier of the screen and step into these classics by putting a focus on plot and storytelling. That’s why Back To The Future: The Ride was such a huge success and still resonates with its fans even years after its final trip through time.
Take Me Back!
Although it opened in Universal Florida’s second year of operation, Back To The Future: The Ride was in the plans from the very beginning. Steven Spielberg has said that he worked with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale on the films through Amblin around the same time he was working with Universal for the Florida park and it seemed like a natural fit to bring BTTF to life with a ride. While the Bobs weren’t directly involved with making the ride or pre-shows, they were consulted to make sure the ride “got Doc right”.
What made the idea so exciting to Spielberg was the same thing that made the film’s fans fall in love with it; this wouldn’t serve as a “Greatest Hits” with scenes from the movie but instead would put you into an all new story in Marty’s shoes. Growing up loving Back To The Future, that’s what always captured my heart and imagination. They took the time to focus on the characters and story to really bring them to life.
BTTF: The Ride was a motion simulator that utilized two massive domed screens, with rows of 8 passengers “DeLorean” ride vehicles. The ride video was filmed on IMAX cameras with miniatures of the sets from Part II and had some use of stop-motion animation. Given the majority of the footage is practical the level of detail was top notch, giving a beautiful effect with the domed screen.
To top it off, each vehicle featured a secondary screen that brought Doc Brown along for the ride with you. The ride system broke new ground, both by paving the way for a new era of motion simulator and its 2-screen design meant that tech issues would rarely close the ride entirely. The challenges paid off when the ride opened in 1991 and was an immediate hit with guests and fans.
The story began the moment you approached the show building. The ride was set inside The Institute of Future Technology, a scientific research facility run by Doctor “Doc” Emmett L. Brown who is brilliantly reprised by Christopher Lloyd. The queue featured videos that flesh out the world of Back To The Future and fill in the blanks as to what Doc has been up to since we last see him in Part III.
There was amazing detail sprinkled through the experience in easter eggs from all 3 films found through the waiting rooms. Replicas of Griff’s gang’s hoverboards, newspapers, the Save The Clock Tower flyer, Doc’s collection of various clocks, photos of Doc and Marty, among many other recognizable props were on shelves and other storage marked as “artifacts” from different dates. I would always spot different winks and nods to moments in the trilogy and it felt like the ride was made with the same enthusiasm for the films as the fans have.
Once inside, the guests become Time Travel Volunteers on a mission to travel one day into the future to test Doc’s new 8-passenger DeLorean Time Machine. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he really did have a change of heart about the dangers of time travel in the final moments of the trilogy. Doc’s not only working on the new DeLorean, but he also has what’s referred to as the “Original” 2-seater we all know and love. You really can’t keep a good scientist down.
That is until, in true theme park fashion, things take a turn for the worst. A teenaged Biff Tannen (reprised by Tom Wilson) has stowed-away on a research mission on its way back to the Institute from 1955. Biff manages to trap Doc in his office so he can steal the original Time Machine and take it on a joyride through time. Your test drive becomes a rescue mission as Doc recruits you to follow Biff with the new 8-seated DeLorean through the future, the past, and back again to save the space-time continuum!
Outside of the Institute was the obligatory gift-shop – “Back To The Future: The Store”, as well as a hover-converted DeLorean on display mounted “hovering” a few feet off the ground near the store and the Jules Verne Train on a set of train tracks on the opposite side of the ride’s main building. Interestingly enough, the cars on display throughout the years were replicas but the Train was the very one seen in the final moments of Part III.
Hollywood got the original DeLorean for its movie car collection, but we in Orlando got the original Train. For a long time, you could sneak a peek at the right side of the engine, and see there are no steampunk-esque gadgets. Only the left side was finished because that’s the side facing the camera.
The Future…Becomes History
Sadly, the problem with Tomorrow is it always becomes Today. In late 2006, Universal announced that BTTF: The Ride would make its final flight through time in March of 2007. The official announcements suggested that since the ride featured the year 2015 it would soon become outdated.
Personally, I think the real reason was that the Orlando parks have always been limited in space and wanted to retire some older attractions to free up some real estate for newer more modern franchises. In 2008, The Simpsons Ride opened in Doc Brown’s former home but even the new ride pays homage to its predecessor with a cameo from Christopher Lloyd. But I think if the Institute were around today, they’d still have no trouble filling those DeLoreans.
A Legacy in Time
Despite its relatively short life-span, the ride was a staple of Universal Studios Florida not only because of the popularity of the films but the popularity of the park as well. BTTF became an iconic piece of Universal Florida so much so it’s still a part of the park’s DNA today. The Jules Verne Train and one of the DeLorean replicas have been moved, but are still on display in the park.
Both vehicles received plaques detailing their history in the parks and the Train received a full refurbishment. All these years later, Alan Silvestri’s iconic score from the films is still regularly heard around the park and resort, and even Doc himself can still be spotted conducting his “weather experiments” in between greeting guests.
Fortunately, if you’ve never had the opportunity to experience the ride yourself (or just need a ride down memory lane) you don’t need plutonium to see the pre-show videos and ride video. Universal Pictures was kind enough to include much of this footage on the 30th Anniversary release of the Back To The Future Trilogy Bluray and DVD.
Despite moving ever forward, Universal luckily hasn’t forgotten its roots. Not only does 2020 mark the 35th Anniversary for Back To The Future, but Universal Studios Florida’s 30th as well. To celebrate, they’ve showcased four classic rides on limited merchandise and signage around the parks. One of which of course being Back To The Future: The Ride, as it should be. Not only did it leave a lasting memory with the fans, but it also helped set the stage for a new era of theme park rides. The ride itself may be in the past, but its legacy reminds us that the future is what you make it.