I have too many projects underway at this blog right now. I’m ranking the presidents, I’m counting down the top 400 songs of the 1960s, and I’m closely following all developments involving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So, why not add one more? I am going to attempt to rank the attractions found at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
As those who know me are fully aware, I am something of a Disney World nut, and many of the happiest days of my childhood and adolescence were spent there. When a friend begins to plan a visit, I have been known to write 30-page memos detailing how they should tackle the parks, their lodging, and the dining options. I love the thought that goes into each themed area in the park, the intricate planning that goes in to even mundane elements like lighting the parks or what the cast members wear on each ride. I appreciate the parks’ place as cathedrals in American pop culture, where going on the most important rides takes on a purposefulness and sanctity that I can only compare to following the stations of the cross in a Catholic church. You can’t really skip “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, and neither can you quite forego Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without feeling like the Disney experience is incomplete. I can claim, however, no special expertise. There are plenty of people on the internet whose knowledge of Disney history, whose technical or engineering understanding, or whose command of attraction design and theming far eclipses my own. I’m just a historian who follows the story and development of Disney World as a hobby, and who has been to the park 9 times in his 31 years. (1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2005, 2008, 2009, and 2014, if you care to know.)
On what grounds, though, am I ranking them? Well, a theme park is there for enjoyment, so I suppose in some ways that this is a ranking of how well and how deeply I appreciated these attractions. That can mean a number of things, of course: how well the attraction tells a story, its immersion and ability to convincingly create a new world or new environment, its ability to thrill or instill wonder, nostalgia, imagination, hope, or whatever feeling the ride is trying to evoke. Naturally, this cannot be reviewed objectively, nor should one even try. Theme parks are there to entertain and appreciate; to address them in a purely clinical fashion is to miss the point. My ability to judge the rides cannot at all be separated from the warm memories surrounding them; indeed, they were made to be enjoyed with families and loved ones.
But some level of order is necessary, and I have to set some ground rules. Firstly, this is a ranking of Disney World attractions past and present. Long-shuttered favorites like Dreamflight, World of Motion, Body Wars, and the Backlot Studio Tour will all be resurrected (there I go with the blasphemy again) alongside attractions that are still open today. This includes rides, park-specific films, and perennial theatre presentations, but not parades, park entertainment, exhibits, playgrounds, or seasonal fare. Therefore, park elements like Illuminations, or Global Neighborhood, or the Penny Arcade or the Image Works are all disqualified. By my count, this makes 82 attractions that I have to rank.
Secondly, I am only ranking attractions that I have experienced myself at some point. Even in nine trips, there are still some things I’ve never quite gotten around to on account of limited time, lack of interest, rides closing before I was born, or opening after my most recent visit. So, if you are a fan of Toy Story Mania, Food Rocks, Magic Journeys, Plaza Swan Boats, the Seven Dwarves Mine Train, or (shudder) Stitch Encounter, I’m so sorry, but I never got around to them.
Thirdly, I am only ranking one version of each attraction- the version I deem as the best, its highest form. For example, there have been four distinct incarnations of Spaceship Earth since Epcot’s 1982 opening- the original, the Walter Cronkite version, the Jeremy Irons version, and the Dame Judi Dench version. In the end, though, it is basically the same ride: a slow-moving journey through the history of communications. It was a close race between Cronkite and Irons, but ultimately I will be judging it on Cronkite. Thankfully, this means I don’t have to review some disastrous revisionings of classic rides, Journey Into Your Imagination and Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.
Starting with the bottom of the barrel- the cautionary tales of how not to design a theme park attraction- and moving ever forward into the sublime, I’ll tackle the bottom twelve in this post.
82. Sounds Dangerous! (Hollywood Studios, 1999-2012): In 2005, my mom and I spent a grand total of three hours at MGM Studios during a three and a half day visit to Disney World. The other three members of our party went on Star Tours and Tower of Terror, then left. On a whim, the two of us decided to check out Sounds Dangerous, on the reasonable grounds that its host, Drew Carey, was funny enough on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.” Set in the old Monster Sound Show studio, we were appalled by what followed. Drew Carey plays an inept detective who carries along a tiny video camera to record his exploits. Along the way, the video feed goes out, the room goes completely dark, and we are reliant on the audio to piece together the action. It was a disaster: unfunny, and probably incredibly scary for children afraid of the dark. This show has so many of the hallmarks that make so many newer Disney attractions less compelling today: a bad script, an over-reliance on celebrities, a lazy concept, desperate comedy, no theme, and it is divorced from the Studios’ goal of simultaneously celebrating Hollywood while showing how it works behind the scenes. Since I disqualified Journey Into Your Imagination, it is my choice for the worst attraction ever staged at Walt Disney World.
81. Tarzan Rocks! (Animal Kingdom, 1999-2006): This show ran for seven excruciating years in a nicely designed theatre tucked away in the back corners of Animal Kingdom. As I watched Tarzan Rocks! itself, it was clear that too many cooks had spoiled the broth in this stage show based on the eponymous Disney animated film. Somebody on the design team clearly wanted this to be a straightforward theatrical presentation of the film. A second person insisted on turning this into a rock concert, fronted by a hairless Phil Collins clone introducing the film’s soundtrack with generalities like “we’d like to dedicate this song to all the families in the audience”, and the standby of all unsuccessful entertainers, “I can’t hear you,” imploring the audience to reluctantly clap louder than the show deserved. And yet a third person envisioned the show as a circus, with gravity-defying trapeze work, and in-line skaters dressed like monkeys. Any one of these elements on their own could have made for an entertaining experience. Put together, it was loud, confusing, disjointed, and agonizing. By the way, it can’t be a coincidence that the two worst attractions on my list both end in exclamation points.
80. The Making of Me (Epcot, 1989-2007): Picture, if you will, the following scene unfolding as the Reagan years were winding down, and two Disney timeservers pitch their idea to the boss:
Imagineer 1: So, we’ve got an idea for the new Wonders of Life pavilion.
Imagineer 2: It’s about health, and wellness, and life, right?
Imagineer 1: And where does life begin?
Michael Eisner: I’m listening…
Imagineer 1: So, naturally, a Disney World vacation is when most parents want to introduce their children to the sensitive subjects of puberty, conception, and birthing.
Imagineer 2: So, we’d like a green light on a sex ed film we can show in Epcot.
Imagineer 1: Starring Martin Short.
Michael Eisner: Sold! Let the Disney Decade begin!
To be completely fair, this show was about as good as an Epcot sex ed film could realistically be. There’s very little wrong with the execution; Short is surprisingly empathic and sweet, and as a film introducing impressionable children to some very adult topics, it does a lot of things right. It emphasizes the need to love your partner, and the idea that having a child should be a deliberate choice rather than a careless default. No, the problem is completely in the concept. In the same way that Disney World is not the proper forum for a Howard Zinn style deconstruction of power and race in American history, it is also perhaps not the best venue for talking about the birds and the bees.
79. The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable (Epcot, 1995-present): There are lots of Disney World fans out there on the web, and one contentious issue that is never satisfactorily resolved is the appropriateness of saturating Disney rides, especially in Worlds Fair-like Epcot, with characters from the film canon. In the last decade, we’ve seen the Caballeros move in to Mexico, Nemo & Co. commandeer The Living Seas, an animatronic Chef Remy in France, and a hostile takeover from the cast of Frozen in the Norway pavilion. Sometimes, when done smartly, this cross-pollination works, but other times it reeks of shamelessness and laziness. My problem with The Circle of Life is neither. It’s simply that the attraction does not need to be there. Conceived as a kid-friendly replacement for the well-regarded Symbiosis film at Epcot’s Land pavilion (which I never saw), there’s nothing about the film or the theatre it is shown in that couldn’t have been screened elsewhere. Maybe it could have been distributed to middle school classrooms for Earth Day (love you, Gaylord Nelson!). The environmental element is so very, very important, and we need to hear it. And maybe the Lion King characters were the best way to communicate these values. But the entire plot revolves around Timon and Pumbaa scheming to start a resort with a disastrous environmental impact, earning a reproach from grown-up Simba. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Um…the entire Disney World resort is four theme parks and nearly two dozen resort hotels or timeshares sitting on what used to be a swampland ecosystem. The mixed messaging just kills the educative value of the film. Preachiness is fine- sometimes we need to be preached at- but hypocrisy is another problem altogether.
78. Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage (Hollywood Studios, 1991-present): It’s been in the MGM or Hollywood Studios for nearly a quarter century now, but I only saw this for the first time on my most recent trip in 2014. It was underwhelming. The best Disney theatre shows provide something special- a creative or unique way of telling a story you already know by heart. Finding Nemo does that. Festival of the Lion King does as well. Beauty and the Beast’s show is simply a staged retelling of the movie, with some dancing. Constrained to 25 minutes, it just can’t do its job: crucial plot elements are left out or are mentioned awkwardly in passing (“I KNOW the rose’s final petal is about to fall,” the Beast roars at one point). And the costumes are a mess…just cumbersome full-body suits looking like fearsome, rotund versions of Cogsworth or Lumiere. They might have been the best that 1991 conventions would have allowed, but when you compare them to how, say, the Nemo show allows the actors’ expressions to be seen and incorporated into the show fluidly, they look like a floundering “Left Shark” during Katy Perry’s Superbowl halftime show. This needs an update or replacement- stat!
77. Astro-Orbiter (Magic Kingdom, 1994-present): It’s iconic, in its way: the towering model of a self-contained solar system looming over the Tomorrowland silhouette. Essentially, you spin in tight circles way high up. Not bad as a concept, but it is more nausea-inducing than fun, and the ride lasts a pitiful 90 seconds. Although, looking back to my most recent trip, its brevity may be a good thing. My wife, who was looking moribund and pale after a Tonga Toast breakfast, credited the ride, paradoxically, with restoring her health by getting some much-needed breeze on her face. I’d imagine many people who had the deep-fried concoction for breakfast could tell a different story after a trip on the Astro-Orbiter. I do like, though, the concept of waiting on the ground floor to be taken up on a special elevator to the ride platform; it makes it feel much more like a space launch.
76. Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (Magic Kingdom, 2007-present): In the mid-Naughts, Disney’s new buzzword became “interactivity.” This meant interactive queues, interactive encounters with the characters, and harnessing new technology to allow a theatre presentation to interact with guests. As I’ll discuss later, Turtle Talk with Crush nailed the concept. Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor did not. Stand-up comedy is tough to pull off in a theme park setting. You have to avoid being too “blue” because, being Disney World, children are invariably in the audience, and yet you need to entertain mom and dad as well. What follows is usually a semi-improvised litany of canned jokes, some dumb jokes audience members text to Roz, and some further jokes at the audience’s expense (one hapless guest is targeted as “that guy” so mercilessly that he gets a special sticker to wear in the park for the rest of the day.) More often than not, whoever is using the computer-animated puppets in the show or supplying the voices can’t navigate between being funny, being PG, and being quick on your feet, making this attraction an unsuccessful essay on a promising development in theme park technology.
75. American Journeys (Magic Kingdom, 1984-1994): While normally associated with Epcot Center, Tomorrowland housed a Circle-Vision 360 film for many years. Originally, this was America the Beautiful, but in the 1980s, it was revamped and updated (including some badly needed emphasis on other races and cultures to counter the original’s uncomfortably lily-white feel.) It wasn’t a disaster or anything, but the Circle-Vision format was perhaps best for fantastical or more unfamiliar settings, and focusing on one’s home country didn’t quite showcase the positives of this compelling and immersive film format. I’d tell you more, but I last experienced this film when I was 9, and it’s not like I can revisit it online, Circle-Vision films translating very poorly to Youtube. Maybe we need Circle-tube for this kind of thing.
74. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1994): I last rode this one in 1990, so a lot of this is based on camcorder footage of the ride that I purchased on Ebay when I was 17 (I was an extremely nerdy kid, what can I say?) It turned out the videos confirmed my vague memories of the ride as a six-year-old. It was an immersive concept that was atmospheric, to be sure, but also deathly dull. When you were on this ride, you couldn’t help but wish you had gone on the tea cups instead. Still, it is hard to deny that it was innovative for its time, and had neat special effects, such as the strategically timed use of bubbles to suggest ascending, descending, or indeed rolling, in the deep. But it was also weirdly out of character for Fantasyland; a ride based on a live-action film intruding on the space of animated classics.
73. Mission to Mars (Magic Kingdom, 1975-1992): Geez, vintage Tomorrowland is taking a beating in these rankings, isn’t it? Don’t worry too much, because that particular part of the Magic Kingdom also harbors some of my all-time favorites. A lot of rides from that era have a certain nostalgia value, because Disney never topped them or tried anything like them again. Mission to Mars isn’t so lucky; over a decade after it closed, Epcot deployed Mission: Space a better, faster, more inspiring simulator visit to- you guessed it- Mars. Mission: Space wasn’t perfect, as I will show in a later installment, but it did lay bare the flaws of Mission to Mars to any who had experienced both: it was dry as could be, too clinical and scientific yet failing to instill any wonder. It perhaps inaugurated the “scientific exploration gone wrong” genre that Body Wars, and almost every 90s Epcot attraction later used, but failed to convey any sense of urgency or danger. I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to make a trip to Mars uninteresting- what little kid hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut- but Disney Imagineering found a way.
72. Cinderella’s Golden Carousel (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): I don’t quite know what to say here. It’s a carousel. It’s an especially lovely one, with a vintage design and a sound system playing calliope versions of classic Disney songs. But that’s about it, guys.
71. Magic of Disney Animation (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present): I know I said I would only rank each ride based on its best incarnation, but something has to be said for the sad state this attraction is in. Back in the early 90s, this had a charming movie demonstrating how animated films are made with two men who were both in Disney attractions before: Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite. (It would be tear-jerking to see this today, between Cronkite’s death symbolizing the death of courageous journalism and Williams’ recent suicide.) There was also a space where you could see Disney animators plying their craft. No longer. Disney animation pulled up its tent-poles from Orlando long ago, leaving what should, by all rights, be Hollywood Studios’ signature experience an empty husk. You can still experience it today- apparently with a film staring Mulan’s Mushu- but it just isn’t the same. And even the original- while good- still could have been better. Again, you could see Disney films being made. It should have been a can’t-miss part of a visit to the Studios, the same way Spaceship Earth needs to happen for any Epcot visitor, but it never was. Like Mission to Mars it was a slam-dunk concept that Disney just couldn’t execute with the proper scope and vision for guests.
Tune in next time for #70-61.