Today, I’m continuing my countdown for the greatest Walt Disney World attractions. We covered the twelve lowest placeholders last time, an essay in poor theming, lazy conceptualization, and unrealized ambition. These ten choices aren’t quite that bad, but are palatably- and in some ways, fascinatingly- mediocre additions in the Disney World pantheon.
70. Mickey’s Birthdayland Stage Show (Magic Kingdom, 1988-1990): To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse’s animation debut, the powers that be opened up an entirely new land for the first, and only, time in the history of the Magic Kingdom. With a festival theme brimming with colorful tents, Mickey’s Birthdayland was a vibrant, kid-friendly addition to the park. One of the components to this celebration was “Minne’s Birthday Surprise”, a stage show wherein Minnie collaborates with Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, and a human who hosted the show to prepare a surprise party for the birthday mouse. Watching the footage on Youtube, I am amazed at how such a no-frills show with entry-level choreography and canned dialogue became the anchor attraction for an entire new land. In a way, it is refreshing; the show didn’t need to be anything extraordinary. It simply had to set the pace and tone for the birthday festivities. Disney imagineering aimed low, and for once, it was the smart decision. This area of the park, designed as a one-time special event, became semi-permanent as Mickey’s Starland and finally Mickey’s Toontown Fair before it was all thankfully demolished to make room for the new, improved Fantasyland.
69. Tomorrowland Speedway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): Remember how I said, in my first posting, that this ranking of the Disney World attractions was necessarily subjective and tied to my own experiences in the park? Here’s where that starts to matter. You see, the race cars in Tomorrowland were my little brother’s favorite ride when we were kids. (To put this in perspective, Matt could identify the make and model of almost any car on the road by the time he was seven, owned every Matchbox ever made, and I’m pretty sure his first word was “car.” Of course the Tomorrowland Speedway was his favorite) Anyway, we rode on the stupid race cards multiple times every visit, without fail. This might have been very pleasant, except that this ride has perhaps the most uncomfortable queue in Walt Disney World. Back in my day, large portions of it were uncovered and cramped, subjecting poor vacationers to Florida’s merciless sun without the succor of air-con or even shade. And once you were on the ride, you were similarly in the heat of the sun, riding down a track from which you could not deviate, and riding past scenery that, despite being in Disney’s flagship theme park, was nondescript and uninteresting. Countless variations of this ride exist at nearly every low-rent theme park in the country, but that didn’t matter. At no point, did you feel like you were on a race track or somewhere besides central Florida. This ride has undergone quite a few name changes, vehicle redesigns, and shortenings over the years (the modern version has a full third less track than the original). But it still stands and soldiers on as it did on the Magic Kingdom’s opening day, clogging up valuable Tomorrowland real estate, sucking in gullible motorhead children and their hapless older brothers.
68. Skyway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1999): This ride might not have been the most original- the Great Escape theme park, an hour’s drive from where I grew up, had a ride just like it- but a trip on the Skyway is a hallmark of nearly every trip to the Magic Kingdom over the years. On a busy day, it could be a nice way to get away from that crowded corridor between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, even though the colorful theme-park chic gondolas couldn’t have been more out of place with the sterile color scheme of first-generation Tomorrowland. Naively trusting park guests to responsibly sit down for five full minutes while suspended sixty feet in the air, the ride was a wrongful death lawsuit waiting to happen. And yet, it was the sad and wholly accidental death of a park custodian doing maintenance on the ride that probably triggered the closing of this nondescript fan favorite.
67. Backlot Studio Tour (Hollywood Studios, 1989-2014): Conceptually, this attraction was the glue holding the MGM-Studios theme park together for its first decade. It was chiefly through the Backlot Tour that you appreciated how you were very much in a working theme park, with television shows and movies underway. The queue for this experience set the stage nicely, allowing guests to see how realistic effects like a storm at sea might be created with the right technology and some creative framing. The tram ride itself gave us all a glimpse of what was taking place at the studios, and the bustle and intense activity mattered more than any specific imagery we were supposed to see. It all culminated in Catastrophe Canyon, a simulated flood performed with Hollywood magic- although in hindsight, I think it must also have been a dreadful waste of water. Very much like the Magic of Disney Animation (#71), Backlot Studio Tour did not age very gracefully, and was hit hard by the inexorable move away from the Disney-MGM Studios as a functioning production facility and into a more conventional theme park. The last time I rode was in 2008, and it was a depressing experience. We rode on, past non-functioning wardrobe facilities, empty soundstages, and barren backstage areas that once jumped with bustle and activity, all on a tram that was driven by the least enthusiastic cast member I’ve ever seen at any of the parks. Much like the Tomorrowland Speedway, the ride space was cannibalized to make room for newer, more commercial enterprises like the Lights! Camera! Action! show and Toy Story Mania. It’s a shame, really. This ride was once an intensive, immersive experience that almost single-handedly turned MGM-Studios from a half-day park into a full-day park.
66. Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 2013-present): Walt Disney World does not do too many slow-moving dark rides these days. So, I had high hopes that new technology, and a renewed emphasis on storytelling would make this ride, which dominates an entire section of the new Fantasyland, a resounding success. It didn’t exactly live up to those expectations. It told the story of Ariel well enough, but it missed a lot of what makes Fantasyland rides so distinctive: their lack of narrative, their ability to invoke feeling rather than making sense as a complete story, given that a short ride misses the intricacies of plot. In other words, why recreate the movie you already own at home? The ride needs to explore something different. Snow White’s ride is supposed to be about fear and fright, Peter Pan’s is supposed to evoke the sensation of flying, Mr. Toad with mayhem. Under the Sea didn’t have any of these qualities. Despite a really cool (although unnecessary long) queue that established a grotto theme, and a ride that used the blessing of space really well, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was a color-by-numbers recreation of The Little Mermaid.
65. Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): It is only 90 seconds long, takes you perhaps only twelve feet in the air, and is quite possibly the slowest-loading, least efficient ride in any Disney theme park. In fact, the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World calls its touring plan of the Magic Kingdom focused on getting little kids to as many rides as possible the “Dumbo-in-a-Day-or-Die” plan because of the sheer logistical nightmare once caused by visiting this ride. And yet, it is a big hit with small children over multiple generations, and is often remembered as their favorite ride during their trip back home. So why has this attraction become so iconic? One of its ride vehicles resides in the Smithsonian, for pity’s sake. The writer over at the Progressland blog makes a compelling case for why Dumbo matters. In the early 50s, Walt Disney received scores of letters from children asking if they could visit the place where Mickey Mouse and the movie characters lived. Disneyland allowed that to happen for the first time. It “has intrinsic meaning because it allows the park guest to fulfill a desire based on previous emotional context”, and Dumbo- a simple ride where elephants spin around an axis- allows entry into that world. And so, it has soldiered on since opening day, despite its simplicity, or more probably because of it. I need to add that Disney did the right thing by this ride with the Fantasyland expansion, creating in effect two Dumbo rides, with a carnival area where kids can play around before their beeper lets them know that it’s their time to ride, instead of waiting inexorably in line. That’s a blessed, merciful improvement- with consistent theming no less- to this hearty warhorse in the Disney stable.
64. Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Magic Kingdom, 1999-present): I think this simple ride- the only other Fantasyland dark ride built since the 70s- is actually better than Under the Sea by a whisker. In fact, “Dark ride” hardly describes it at all, since the decision was made to present it in a bright, colorful palate, full of strong lighting. It fits the Pooh mythology well, in the form of small vignettes and short scenes, rather than trying to attempt a unified story, which it surely couldn’t do. Even the ride’s trackless system is a testament to this free-wheeling, and slightly anarchic, mission statement- and the hallucinatory “Heffelumps and Woozles” scene was nicely executed. Many adventures indeed.
63. Monster Sound Show (Hollywood Studios, 1989-1997): For almost a decade, this show, presented in a 270-person theatre, was a good example of what the MGM-Studios tried to do in its early years. While on the one hand, the park was committed to entertaining, it was also meant to show how movies and television were produced, in a way, a much more hands-on, experiential, and frankly, Epcot-y mission. In this case, the focus was on sound effects. A short black-and-white film was shown, starring Chevy Chase and- in his second appearance on this list- Martin Short, with studio-made sound effects. Then, the film’s audio was deconstructed, as four audience members were chosen to operate the sound effect equipment to produce sounds of rain, bangs, clangs, and creeks as Chase’s character traversed a booby-trapped haunted house. What followed was often comical, with sound effects mistimed or accidentally left out. With a great deal of audience interactivity, it wasn’t terribly thrilling but it did succeed in showing us that creating sound in film wasn’t as easy as it appeared.
62. It’s Tough to be a Bug (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present): This is the first, and the lowest-ranked, of the five 3-D films that factor into this list. I find it very interesting indeed that the characters from A Bug’s Life, which hadn’t even been released until the year Animal Kingdom opened, were used in the park’s keynote attraction. MGM Studios is designed to draw you to the Chinese Theatre to visit the Great Movie Ride, a retrospective that is crucial for the park’s self-understanding of why movies matter. Epcot’s design team put a twenty-story geodesic dome just beyond the entrance in the form of Spaceship Earth, setting the tone for the entire park; the ride inside conveys a sense of how far we’ve come in the past and a corporate-friendly tomorrow for Future World, and a sense of humanity becoming more connected that resonates with the World Showcase. In contrast, Animal Kingdom made its Tree of Life, a tourist-magnet that is just as visually impressive, if not more so, as these other monuments and made the attraction inside…a 3-D movie about bugs? Seriously? Talk about not living up to expectations. The film is inoffensive- short, silly, and a bit unfocused. You’ll learn a bit about bugs, but not much, it is just an avenue for small-scale special effects. The sundry bugs come and go so quickly that it can’t sustain even a simple narrative or story. My reservations amount to this: the Tree of Life is, conceptually, the most valuable real estate in the Animal Kingdom park. Disney could have decided against putting any attraction at all inside, to give the tree a kind of sanctity or dignity. But if you do put something inside the tree, it better be something really special, something that immediately communicates to crowds that will surely make a ..um…beeline for it what the Animal Kingdom is about and why its message matters.
61. Walt Disney World Railroad (1971-present): This railroad ride very nearly rivals Dumbo the Flying Elephant as a Magic Kingdom icon. It is usually the first attraction guests will see upon entering the Magic Kingdom, even if it is almost never the first one they will experience. As a method of getting around the park, it is usually more efficient to simply walk to your destination. But it is a lovingly made train ride, and a good way to relax when you are in the park or get toddlers to chill out for a little while. If I’m going to nit-pick and overanalyze, here’s this: a Victorian-style train ride makes sense in Main Street USA, it makes sense to have it plow through Adventureland, and it makes sense to stop in a Wild West outpost like Frontierland. After that, however, the train’s purpose becomes a bit muddled. Why is there a railroad in heretofore-medieval-themed Fantasyland? And more anachronistically, why is this in Tomorrowland which boasts better and more futuristic forms of transportation? In all likelihood, though, I’m over-thinking this. I appreciate the railroad’s ability to instill some calm into an often hectic park teeming with sometimes-violent stroller moms. It even plays a role in the charming opening ceremony held when the Magic Kingdom opens each morning.