The Wonderful World of Disney Has a Long History With the Wonderful World of Oz

Many Disney fans were crushed when word came down that The Great Movie Ride in Hollywood Studios was closing.

Dorothy, Tinman, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Toto, too, follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City in a scene from the now-closed Great Movie Ride attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. [The Walt Disney Company]
The attraction, which was housed in a building with an exterior that replicated the fabled Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, took guests on a nostalgic and entertaining journey through some of the movies’ most memorable moments.

The Great Movie Ride featured numerous Audio-Animatronics figures – including those of many of moviedom’s most famous stars – positioned throughout the attraction, with several live actors and actresses sprinkled in for good measure.

Perhaps the most endearing scene in The Great Movie Ride came when the ride vehicle motored its way into Munchkinland.

The elaborately detailed set from The Wizard of Oz was stunning the first time you saw it. And it remained a favorite every time you returned to experience the life-sized recreation from the beloved film.

In short, The Wizard of Oz scene in The Great Movie Ride was pure Disney magic.

The Great Movie Ride’s Munchkinland was filled with so many intricate details that you were hard-pressed not to discover something new during subsequent visits … from the dozens of Munchkins welcoming you to their colorful land, to the rounded huts and over-sized flowers, to the house that landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, to the winding yellow brick road.

And who could ever forget the Wicked Witch of the West’s smoky entrance and her defiant “I’ll get you my pretty! And your little dog, too!” as the vehicle exited to the sounds of “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz”?

Tinman, Dorothy, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion in a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” [MGM Studios]
The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 and became one of MGM Studios’ most profitable ventures. The movie was based on the literary works of L. Frank Baum.

Two years before the release of The Wizard of Oz, Walt Disney expressed interest in purchasing the rights to Baum’s stories.

But with work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio occupying all of his studio’s attention at the time, Walt passed on pursuing Baum’s works.

It wasn’t until 1954 when Walt Disney Productions finally bought the film rights to 11 of Baum’s Oz novels, with the intent to use them in the Disneyland television series.

Two production numbers aired on Disneyland TV show

Although a live-action film, Rainbow Road to Oz, made it into production, it was never completed. However, two production numbers related to that ill-fated film did air on the Disneyland program in 1957.

At that point, Disney put the Oz stories on a back burner, in part because of renewed interest in the original The Wizard of Oz, which was now being broadcast on television, and the fear of competition.

The marque for the world-famous Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s when Disney and Oz would resurface. That’s when Return to Oz, the unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz, was green-lighted by Walt Disney Pictures.

In 1985, Radio City Music Hall in New York City exclusively screened Return to Oz, which was based on the Baum novels The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz begins in the real world: Dorothy Gale [played by Fairuza Balk in her screen debut] is thought to have psychological problems because of the fantastic tales she’s been spinning about her visit to the land of Oz.

She’s sent to an institution and is about to receive shock treatment when a lightning storm allows her to escape down a fast-flowing river.

The next day, she finds herself transported back in Oz … but Oz and the Emerald City are now in shambles after being overthrown by a villain known as the Nome King.

A scene from “Return to Oz.” Dorothy is surrounded by old and new friends: The Cowardly Lion, Tinman, Scarecrow, Jack Pumpkinhead and Tik-Tok. [The Walt Disney Company]
Dorothy gathers several new friends, including Princess Ozma, Tik-Tok, Billina, the Gump, and Jack Pumpkinhead, to help in her quest to restore Oz to its past glory.

Also featured in the film are some of her old companions, including Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

Return to Oz features several dastardly villains, in addition to the Nome King. There’s a witch named Mombi [who comes complete with 31 interchangeable heads], and a screeching, nasty pack of meanies known as The Wheelers.

The movie employs state-of-the-art [for that time, anyway] filmmaking techniques, mechanical effects, computerized animatronics and Claymation, a process that uses stop-motion photography and plasticine forms rather than flat artwork.

Although Return to Oz was a box office dud, it did give Disney a toehold on the Broadway entertainment scene, which it would expand upon several years later, thanks in no small way to the renaissance of Disney’s animated films.

For years after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Disney’s animated features, once the backbone of the company, had floundered.

But under the leadership of CEO Michael Eisner, who assumed his new role in 1984, and with significant contributions made by Roy E. Disney [Walt’s nephew], Jeffrey Katzenberg, Frank Wells, and theatrical producers Peter Schneider and Peter Schumacher, Disney’s animation wing strung together a series of box office blockbusters, among them The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Aladdin.

Although each film was unique in story and approach, a recurring theme permeated each of those movies: Namely, a Broadway-quality musical score.

Instead of following a yellow brick road to a promised land, the formation of Disney Theatrical Productions gave the company a clear path to success on another fabled thoroughfare … namely, Broadway.

Disney did tap into the Oz catalog again in 2013 with the release of Oz The Great and Powerful, a major motion picture starring James Franco.

Here’s some ‘Wizard of Oz’ trivia with a Disney twist

Did you know that Adriana Caselotti, the voice of the title character in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had an uncredited singing role in The Wizard of Oz?

Ms. Caselotti, who was named a Disney Legend in 1994, sang along with the Tinman during his rendition of “If I Only Had a Heart.” Her character’s name was Juliet.

And speaking of the Tinman, actor Buddy Ebsen was the original choice to play the character, but he had a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum dust that was applied to his face in order to give his skin a metallic appearance.

Buddy Ebsen and Walt Disney. [The Walt Disney Company]
Ebsen, who would go on to star as Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies TV series, played Davy Crockett’s sidekick, Georgie Russel, in Disney’s TV miniseries Davy Crockett from 1953-1954.

Ebsen, along with Davy Crockett star Fess Parker, appeared in character during Disneyland’s press preview day on July 17, 1955.

Perhaps most importantly, Ebsen was filmed dancing so that Walt Disney and his technicians could study human movement as part of the original Project Little Man.

That project eventually led to the creation of Audio-Animatronics.

For his contributions to the company, Ebsen was named a Disney Legend in 1993.

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What do you think of the Wizard of Oz? Let us know in the comments.

Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2016. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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3 Replies to “The Wonderful World of Disney Has a Long History With the Wonderful World of Oz”

  1. What do you mean by: “Although Return to Oz was a box office dud, it did give Disney a toehold on the Broadway entertainment scene…”? “Return to Oz’ was not a musical, and I don’t see how it connects to Broadway. How are you linking that film to laterfilms like “Beauty & the Beast” or The Little Mermaid”? Please explain.

  2. The Great Movie Ride was a perfect ride for the Hollywood Studios. Not sure why they decided to remove it,after all it was all about the movies, right : ) I just loved the Great Movie Ride especially when they had all the pyrotechnics; the salon shootout! Some of my favorites were Mary Poppins, the scene from Alien, Casablanca and of course the iconic scene from the Wizard of Oz and everyone would sing along! The Great Move Ride was such a wonderful look back at some of the greatest movies ever made, so nostalgic, a little bit of movie history. It will be missed