Some encouraging feedback from a good friend and talented colleague made me want to take up this series again, ranking the Disney World attractions that I’ve experienced in my nine visits to Lake Buena Vista. (And this includes attractions that are now defunct or replaced.) As we move to the top of this countdown, we’re passing from the “probably avoid this” to “see it if you can, but don’t get worked up if you miss it.” So, let’s explore…
60. Snow White’s Scary Adventures (Magic Kingdom, 1971-2012): A Fantasyland staple for decades, this archetypal dark ride was finally shuttered for the Fantasyland expansion a few years ago. It puzzled guests to a great extent: the witch would pop up out of nowhere and scare the bejesus out of you, Snow White seemed AWOL, and the dwarves, prior to a mid-90s update, were hardly anywhere to be seen. An old copy of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World related a story of an extended family’s ride ending in shrieking toddlers and a befuddled Grandpa asking “where the hell was Snow White?” When writing a paper on the Disney parks for an Economics class in college, I came across an article, which I’ve since lost, which explained the logic behind the bedlam. It turns out, the rider is supposed to be Snow White herself– you were seeing things through her eyes, you weren’t a film viewer watching the story unfold from afar (a la Peter Pan’s Flight), but experiencing firsthand her paranoia and her sense of having nowhere to turn for help. This is an interesting psychological concept, to be sure, but perhaps a bit heady for most tourists!
59. Kali River Rapids (Animal Kingdom, 1999-present): The Animal Kingdom is a great, big park with themed areas that pay tribute to the serengetti and the Himalayas. By all rights, the obligatory raft ride in this park should be one of the greatest attractions of this genre in the country, with lots of cool animatronics, meticulous attention to detail, and small touches of the sort that elevate Thunder Mountain from a ho-hum roller coaster into a visual feast. Apparently, there’s a storyline about loggers and deforestation, but it lacks punch and cohesion. And given the space the park had to work with, the ride could have been much longer. Worse, there is an extraordinary chance that you will be soaked– like, soaked to the point where you feel uncomfortable going on other rides. This ride has hampered lots of daily agendas, as guests spend half an hour in front of a bathroom dryer de-soaking themselves, or feel obliged to go back to their hotel for a change of clothes. If you are spared much direct water contact, it can be a pleasant experience, but this ride would be more impactful if there was less splash, and more drama.
58. Enchanted Tiki Birds (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1997; 2011-present): This might surprise you, but I did not visit the Tiki Birds until my ninth and most recent trip to WDW in 2014. I had always intended to, but between having parents who hated it since the 70s, and hearing shockingly bad reviews of its longtime replacement with Iago and Zazu, it just never materialized. Here are my long-awaited impressions: it was out of date (four male birds hosting the show while being little more than color-coded ethnic stereotypes? Jesus Christ, why not just make the Irish tiki bird drunk for the show?). It wasn’t very entertaining. It wasn’t very clever or well-written. But it was relaxing and surprisingly mellow. For all of this, I thought it was a great lesson in the history of themed attractions, as the first show where audio-animatronics carried the weight of the presentation. There are only a handful of attractions in history that fundamentally changed what a theme park was and could do–and this is one of them. It hearkened back to the days when tiki bars and champagne music were highly valued forms of entertainment. The attraction is old and in no way attuned to modern audiences–and I’d be furious with Disney if they ever replaced it (again.)
57. Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present): Look at every single promotional film Disney made for its Orlando parks in the early 90s. Re-watch the Muppets Go to Walt Disney World special. Revisit every single ABC family sitcom special where the cast of Full House/Rosanne/Step By Step/Family Matters/Sabrina heads down to Florida and mayhem ensues. (Hooray for corporate mergers!) I guarantee you that in every single one of these, the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular is involved in some way. Usually one of the heroes (Cody from Step by Step, Kermit in the Muppet special) is corralled into replacing Indy. Disney promoted the hell out of it, and to be fair, there are some cool stunts and some fun audience-participation elements to the show. It gets marked down, though, because I cannot think of many attractions that lose so much when you visit them for a second time. Unbelievably, for a live-action show with lots of possibilities for audience-extras to make funny mistakes, there is no reason to see this stunt show more than once. None at all.
56. Flights of Wonder (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present): “Flights of Wonder” is easily replicable, and most respectable zoos and bird parks have something similar on offer, where trained specialists show off the cool tricks that birds can do, while educating guests and purporting a message of environmentalism. When I visited Animal Kingdom in 2009 on my own, I tried this show out, not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised at the show’s accessibility, its audience engagement, and its commitment to treating its birds well.
55. Captain EO (Epcot, 1986-1996, 2010-present): It was the first significant 3-D movie that Disney created, and might still be the most expensive film ever made, if judged by cost-per-minute and adjusting for inflation. Foxfurr over at “Passport to Dreams Old and New” did a great dissection of this 3-D movie: the writing is unclear, the plot is absurd even for fantasy/sci-fi, and there are plenty of mistakes that made it into the film, including background dancers mugging at the camera. And the film collapses of its own weight, as Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Capolla were unable to impose a cohesive and compelling vision upon it, even though all three were close to their artistic peaks. For all these flaws, it is still a glorious hot mess, and maybe one of the most 80s things to have come out of the 80s. Nothing can prevent a Bad-era Michael Jackson space opera in 3-D from being a great deal of fun. Nothing.
54. Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): When I was young, this was my least favorite attraction in Disney World by a country mile. It took some time and seasoning and maturity to appreciate how lovingly crafted this tree is, with its imaginative and ingenious contrivances, and its attention to detail and impressiveness. I also appreciate the subtle nods to Johann Wyss’s intent to make the book a form of Christian moral instruction; Disney understandably tries to make their parks welcoming to guests of all religious backgrounds, but in this case, keeping the Regency-era morality and the Robinsons’ sense of faith and providence intact on the plaques that one reads during a walk-through was the right choice to set the appropriate tone. This attraction also inspired the name of my favorite book on the subject of Disney World- Stephen Vjellman’s Vinyl Leaves. One question it never answers is, “why is a family from landlocked Switzerland so skilled at salvaging jetsam from their ship?”
53. The Timekeeper (Magic Kingdom, 1994-2006): The mid-1990s saw Tomorrowland reimagined from every angle, and the somewhat sterile white-toned Googie architecture was transformed into a turn-of-the-century Jules Verne vision with some elements of what would later be called steampunk. It was a deliberately backwards-looking view of the future, very much like the first third of Horizons. The Timekeeper replaced America the Beautiful as the 360-degree film, and probably best set the tone for this new Tomorrowland. It was a fun time-travel adventure, but it stood out for its solid voice cast and its fine soundtrack by Bruce Broughton. Robin Williams, for once not miscast in a Disney attraction, was a great Timekeeper, and Rhea Pearlman as 9-Eyes, a robot from whose perspective we see the action, was an inspired choice. So far, it is the only 360-film shown in a Disney park to contain a storyline, rather than the customary footage of scenery. I’m still not convinced that rapid-fire humor and 360-degree films are a good combination, but it was a respectable experiment.
52. Mickey’s Philharmagic (Magic Kingdom, 2003-present): The theatre in the Magic Kingdom has undergone many changes over the years, housing the Mickey Mouse Revue, Epcot reject Magic Journeys, and the Legend of the Lion King show. It’s current resident is a 3-D film using the power of music to send Donald on a voyage through various Disney films. There is some creative work between Disney animation and imagineering- historically, two antagonistic forces. It’s not a bad film at all, and probably the best thing hosted at this site- but it is too manic for me; Donald is the recipient of a lot of cartoon violence, and the viewer doesn’t get a chance to really relish any one film setting before the narrative briskly moves on. It seems like the film was just designed to make sugared-up 5-year-olds even more ungovernable. Given Fantasyland’s current make-up, with a new roller coaster, lots of exciting rides, and an insanely crowded and popular restaurant, I can’t help but wish that the film housed here was a bit more chill and relaxing, to contrast and to insulate from the bustle outside.
51. The Seas with Nemo and Friends (Epcot, 2007-present): In the early 2000s, Disney completely redesigned the old Living Seas pavilion, which I must confess I rarely visited. It was a staid, beige-colored ploy to co-opt Sea World visitors, although it was an incredible feat of engineering and a thoughtful essay on how humanity would engage the earth’s last truly unexplored frontier. The newer incarnation of Epcot’s oceanic pavilion embodies the way Epcot has changed in recent years, particularly by introducing elements from Disney’s film canon into the park (such as the Three Caballeros in Mexico or the Tron-tastic version of Test Track.) The present version of the ride follows the story of Finding Nemo, using some cool new technologies to project the characters into the tanks alongside real-life ocean creatures. Truthfully, I think this is the better approach. Living Seas was one of the few places in Epcot I couldn’t plug into as a kid, and a Nemo-themed introduction to the oceans is just the ticket to invite and welcome the park’s youngest guests into learning more about marine life.
Stay tuned until next time, when we will approach the halfway mark.