We inch closer on our countdown of the greatest attractions in America’s vacation kingdom, Walt Disney World. Our group of ten this time around includes some more controversial choices and guilty pleasures. As always, I implore my gentle readers to remember that while I am ranking these rides partly on merits, innovation, and success on their own terms, there is a highly nostalgic and therefore incorrigible subjective element to these proceedings. If you would like to see the earlier entrees, just hit the #ranktherides hashtag at the end of this post. So, step onto the moving platform (it is moving at the same speed as your vehicle), and let us continue:
30. Maelstrom (Epcot, 1988-2014): When you are a little kid, it is so very difficult to appreciate the value of the World Showcase, which involves meandering, lingering, browsing, chatting with cast members, dawdling over coffee, and above all else, patience. No; when you’re a little kid you want to go on rides! All the rides! Maelstrom scratched that itch for a lot of us as one of only two rides in the World Showcase, and a sojourn in those viking boats was always welcome after an agonizing half hour of one’s parents fawning over porcelain in the China pavilion. It was only five minutes long, but what five minutes those were: fantastic narration from the Greek god Odin, a foray into Viking history, an encounter with trolls, a trip down a waterfall backwards, and passage through stormy seas before finding safe harbor. Say what you want, but I always got off that ride wanting to learn more about Norway or pay it a visit someday. I never followed up on these ambitions, and remain as ignorant about Norway as the next American, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Budget cuts during development kept the ride from having as magnificent a scope as it was intended, including a much more tempestuous storm at sea worthy of the name Maelstrom. And trouble with its sponsors kept the ride from being more than superficially refurbished in its quarter-century of life. This includes the almost hilariously dated movie Disney all but forced you to endure at the end of the ride, which presented some redoubtable Scandinavians in mullets and 80s fashions well into the twentieth-century. Maelstrom was finally shuttered in late 2014 to make room for the Frozen-ization of the Norway pavilion (shudder), and Disney fans gave it a lovely send-off, with two-hour long lines on its final day of operation.
29. Carousel of Progress (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present): In November, 1996, the day after Bill Clinton won re-election, my family began our first of a lavish five full days in the parks, staying at the Polynesian. It felt like we were, like Pangloss, living in the best of all possible worlds. We started at the Magic Kingdom, and made a beeline for Space Mountain. The wait was half an hour; long for the beginning of the day. But we waited, and we were finally in our rockets waiting for blastoff….when the ride unceremoniously shut down. We waited for 10 minutes. Nothing. My mom was convinced that we would all die on faulty vehicles, though, so she made us disembark and leave the queue. (As a historical footnote, nobody died on Space Mountain that day.) The carousel had recently reopened as part of the new Tomorrowland, with a restoration of its original 1964 format, and a loving introduction that explained why this attraction was important to Walt. The ride owns its age and much of its chauvinism comes not from the early 1900s when it takes place, but from the 1960s when it was written. The narrator’s wife is marginalized, domesticated, and overworked, and the children are only seen and heard for short vignettes until the final scene. Perhaps unintentionally, the carousel tells us as much about changing social conventions as it does about new technology. Still, it is a great concept, and a useful piece of history through a decidedly corporatist and self-promoting lens. Like #28, this attraction could use an update to its fourth quarter so that its age does not show as baldly. The scene set in the “near future” is now laughably dated with 3-D video games and voice-response ovens. It might need an update, but I’ll always remember it as the first ride on my favorite trip to Disney World.
28. The Great Movie Ride (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present): It was the original headliner when Disney-MGM Studios opened its doors, and it was a great way to encapsulate what the park was about. It was a celebration of cinema (at least the films they could obtain the rights to) but incorporated human guides into the narrative in new ways, from shootouts to reenacting Indiana Jones films. My reaction riding this for the first time as a 6-year-old was to be scared when a gun-toting gangster took control of our ride vehicle. But that is why the ride was so great– you could plausibly believe that gangsters would commandeer your ride, right? Immersive and engaging, it reminds us of why we love the movies, with lots of great touches. (I love the marquee loading area for the Great Movie Ride, for example.) It punts toward the end (essentially a clip show), but it is still an appropriately gaudy, dramatic, and historical journey, with lots of qualities from the best Disney dark ride traditions. It looks like this ride is going to be getting an update, partly due to a new alliance with Turner Classic Movies. And it is about time, too: the most recent film with its own scene is 1979’s Alien.
27. Turtle Talk with Crush (Epcot, 2004-present): Very rarely have I been so impressed with a recent Disney attraction as I have been with Turtle Talk. It was the crowning jewel of the Nemo-ization of The Living Seas and harnessed some great new technologies that allowed guests to meaningfully interact with a cartoon reptile. The use of digital puppetry (with an assist from some talented voice actors) allows Crush to answer questions, identify individual guests, and use only a loose script to get through, with plenty of opportunities for improvisation and humor. (Crush often goes over the heads of the little ones sitting in the front with some of his jokes.) Disney has really been pushing interactivity (rather than immersion) in their parks in recent years. It has been a mixed success for the most part, but this has been its most unqualified triumph.
26. Mad Tea Party (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): This very high ranking might seem a bit odd, given how lowly I rated other Fantasyland cycle-rides like the Carousel and Dumbo earlier in this project. While similarly simple in its construction and design, I can say this: I haven’t had a Disney World trip where morale wasn’t improved by a turn on the tea cups. It is the perfect mix of factors you can’t control (the size of the cup, the duration of the ride) with the one factor you can: how fast it spins. Suddenly, the tea cup passengers are divided between those who want to spin fast and those who aren’t so sure. Invariably, the spinners win any intercup debate, centrifuge takes hold, and the ride becomes undiluted mayhem replete with manic laughter. The weird thing is that you feel this bond between the other people in your tea cup, like you’ve made it through the whirlwind together. Tiredness and weariness fade, and you’ve got an adrenaline-fueled second wind to continue your jaunt throughout the Magic Kingdom. It may not be the most sophisticated ride in the Disney stable, but it has become an indispensable component of any trip to the Orlando parks.
25. El Rio del Tiempo (Epcot, 1982-2007): Like the Mad Tea Party, this is one of the guilty pleasures that is ranked significantly higher than an objective take would have it. And like Maelstrom, this is another ride that went to ruin through the introduction of already-established Disney characters to allegedly broaden its appeal. The situation of the ride matters: the best possible El Rio del Tiempo scenario is a jaunt after a margarita-soaked lunch at the San Angel Inn, within easy staggering distance of the boat ride. Once on board, it follows like the love child of the old Tomorrowland ride “If You Had Wings,” and “It’s A Small World,” using short, evocative scenes and rear projection alongside the repetitive theme song and animatronic dolls. A lot of people dismiss this ride as cheap and derivative, and in some ways they may be right, but a lot of thought actually seems to have gone into it. They took the time to research and recreate Aztec dance, Mexican art, history, and dress, and it crucially doesn’t over-narrate (nobody says, “now, let us take you to the cliffs of Acapulco!”) and lets the rider’s tequila-addled imagination do the work. Parts of the ride were borderline-offensive (Mexican hawkers following you through the ride as they sale their wares), but it was a fun visit to a Mexico that probably only exists in the American mind. I am not opposed to all updates to classic 80s Epcot, but the introduction of the Three Caballeros and the brain-dead storyline involving Donald and the flying serape has made this all but unrideable.
24. The American Adventure (Epcot, 1982-present): Oh, dear. You have a guy with a Ph.D. in history–and even worse, specializes in 1970s U.S. history–commenting on the most substantive statement the Disney parks have made on American history. Here’s what I’ll say: nobody pays almost $100 for entry to a theme park in order to hear a Howard Zinn-style deconstruction of the American narrative. I get that. It’s okay. This experience has some of the most ambitious animatronic stagecraft ever attempted, with a massive complex that moves various scenes back and forth to the center of the stage. It works best when it works subtly; I think the best scene in the show involves a group of poor folks at a general store listening to the radio during the Great Depression. The actors who perform (and the engineers who programmed) narrators Ben Franklin and Mark Twain also deserve kudos for giving them a fluidity and vibrancy that is remarkable by 1982 standards. The show works less well when it is overwhelmed in meaningless patriotic delirium. The theme song, “Golden Dream” is so overblown, so full of itself, and so overdramatic (“great bird…with your golden wings…sail on freedom’s wings…’cross the sky”) as to risk ending the show on an unintentionally humorous note. If you view it as an act of collective mythology–what we all want American to be, the way we wish it were–then the show is a delight. If you view it as actual history, and walk out talking about “how accurate” it was, for God’s sake, stop reading Ken Ham, turn off Sean Hannity, and go take a history class at your local community college immediately.
23. WEDWAY Peoplemover/Tomorrowland Transit Authority (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present): Every time I have visited the Magic Kingdom (8 out of my 9 trips), I’ve been on this ride. I don’t think I can say that of any other Magic Kingdom attraction. Originally something of a legitimate concept for public transportation, and a feature that has been used in airports since, it is now something of a shady, pleasant diversion, a tour of Tomorrowland with some great vantage points along the way. In a way, I am struck by how similar this is, in its way, to what Jungle Cruise is to Adventureland, and what the Liberty Square Riverboat is to Frontierland/Liberty Square. It is slow, it is scenic. It relies on narration for its fullest effect. And it is designed to make its section of the park more of a self-contained microcosm than simply an area decorated with a common theme boasting a lot of cool rides. TTA makes Tomorrowland feel more like a community; this was a bit more present when it was first commissioned as a redone WEDWAY Peoplemover in the mid-90s with the New Tomorrowland, but it still holds up today.
22. Jungle Cruise (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): The Jungle Cruise is quintessential Disney: creating an immersive environment far removed from the mundane elements of ordinary life through creative staging, gentle humor, and imagination. Ranking this ride is particularly problematic because your experience is going to be heavily dependent on how good your guide is: I’ve had ones with expert comic timing and great guest interaction skills, and I’ve had nervous, perilously unfunny guides, who stuck to the canned script Disney gave them. Coming at this, once again, as a historian, it isn’t without its problematic aspects. Most persistent is the bugbear of orientalism: the boat ride combines all kinds of exotic locations across the world into one, undifferentiated, infantilized, exotic other. It doesn’t even bothering to change the landscape much along the way, as the narrator blithely informs you that you are on the Irrawaddy or the Amazon. Weirdly, becoming dated and technologically obsolete has worked in Jungle Cruise’s corny favor. It is not so much a trip to darkest Africa or the perilous Mekong, but a trip back in time to the 1950s, when the animatronics were clunky, the scripts relied on bad puns, and you could just make fun of (or evoke danger from) non-western cultures because Orange County and all that.
21. Test Track (Epcot, 1999-present): The original Test Track disappointed me just a bit, you see. It all seemed…too industrial. Too unfeeling. Too corporate. Too formulaic and too safe. Essentially, you got on a test vehicle, it performed some routine tests (like with or without antilock breaks), took you through some different climate areas, and finally those 20 blissful seconds of speeding outside of the pavilion at 65 miles per hour feeling like a total badass. It was a tough slog and a headache-inducing line for those 20 seconds. I think the update, replete with a Tron-style makeover, has instilled a sense of wonder and a sense of participation that was missing before. Now, you can design your own concept car, and see how it works on the track. (It has no bearing on your actual ride experience, whether your car is a speedy sports car or a crunchy energy-saving statement of one’s progressivism, but who cares?) Finally, Test Track fulfilled its destiny, and helps us imagine a great and participatory future. Now, if only the rest of Epcot in 2015 could catch up.