Thank you for sticking with me as we slowly work our way to the pinnacle of our countdown of the greatest Disney World attractions. If you are just joining us, remember that I am only ranking attractions I have been on, and this is my own very subjective list, one weighted heavily toward my love of 80s Epcot dark rides. With this post, we reach and exceed our halfway point through this journey. So, take small children by the hand and step onto the moving platform. Por favor mantenganse allejado de las puertas…
50. Wonders/Reflections of China (1982-present): The China pavilion was a last-minute addition to Epcot, when the People’s Republic, beyond all hope or expectation, signed off on taking part in the World Showcase, less than a decade after Nixon’s historic trip. Accordingly, Wonders of China was the first glimpse into the Celestial Kingdom for many Americans who either weren’t able to visit, or whose interest in Asia was not yet sparked. The film-making team, working quickly under constant surveillance and sometimes having to use footage by Deng’s team rather than Imagineering’s, still delivered big time. The result is a very watchable, very compelling, but rarely brilliant, foray that sketches China’s major cities and most beautiful scenery, without delving into inconvenient questions of human rights. It could be disjointed, but the use of the jovial character of Li Bai, the 9th century poet, was a clever device to welcome the viewer and transition between otherwise unconnected scenes. It was re-cut about a decade ago; while some updating was necessary (China has become much more developed since 1982, after all), it also cut the film from 19 minutes to 12.5, which is a real shame.
49. Peter Pan’s Flight (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): Still levitating above the skies of London 44 years after the park opened, Peter Pan’s Flight keeps going strong, and it is the first Disney World attraction that I can distinctly and clearly remember riding. In fact, long lines are perennial here, owing partly to its popularity and partly to its low capacity; it was one of the very first rides in the park to be retrofitted with Fastpass. Nowadays, you have to use one of your precious passes on a 3-minute kiddie ride, or make it one of your first priorities of the day. The ride works because of a remarkably simple conceit- that you fly above the scenes rather than ride past them. As a simple way to fulfill a flying fantasy without riding anything scary or subjecting yourself to the central Florida sun, it remains a Magic Kingdom mainstay.
48. Alien Encounter (Magic Kingdom, 1995-2003): It sounds crazy, but this was once one of the park’s signature attractions and the marquee accomplishment of the New Tomorrowland. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World even based their touring plans in the mid-90s around starting the day with either a Space Mountain/Alien Encounter or Splash Mountain/Thunder Mountain one-two punch. All of this came with a much darker tone than had been seen before in a Disney park. The pre-show includes a robot who tortures a harmless-looking creature in a teleportation demonstration, and the show itself takes place in the dark as holograms and sound effects make you think that an alien has busted loose and is wantonly eating members of the audience. And this all happens as you are pinned down in a harness and can’t escape. It was thrilling, and it was funny in parts, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the tone was out of place for a Disney park. Ask anybody who has experienced this, and I’ll bet they distinctly remember lots of children- and many who were older- crying through the duration of this ride without an opportunity to leave or be comforted. Clearly, Eisner thought the parks needed to appeal more directly to teenagers, but surely there must have been a better way. It looks better in hindsight, though, having been replaced by the turgid Stitch’s Great Escape, a strong contender for the worst attraction in the history of Disney World.
47. Primeval Whirl (Animal Kingdom, 2002-present): When Animal Kingdom opened, it had a signifiant problem: there wasn’t much to do, especially for smaller kids and teens. And so, a controversial choice was made- to open up a park-within-a-park themed after roadside America…with dinosaurs! This included Primeval Whirl, a “wild mouse” style roller-coaster. However, this one also had a lot of spinning as your vehicle went on its track, lending an unpredictable element to this ride. I remember the first time I rode in 2005, with my brother and his girlfriend. I distinctly recall there being way too much room for just three of us, and slamming into each other on some of the turns, more forcefully than it seemed Imagineering intended. On one hairpin turn, I thought “I feel distinctly unsafe on this,” the first time I felt this way on a Disney ride. Somehow, it made me appreciate Primeval Whirl even more!
46. Cranium Command (Epcot, 1989-2007): This was perhaps Epcot Center’s hidden gem, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Wonders of Life pavilion, and pleasing audiences without very much pomp or fanfare, overshadowed by its neighbor, Body Wars. It is a fun way to teach how the brain orders the body’s various functions and impulses in our everyday life, as rookie brain-pilot Buzzy is assigned the most challenging brain of all: a pre-teen boy. Imagineering made some smart choices with the casting: the Hans and Franz guys from SNL as the left and right ventricles of the heart (to pump…you…up!), George Wendt as the stomach, and Bobcat Goldthwait as the adrenal gland. It was a riot to watch, and its themes of self-control and making smart choices (that the brain is ultimately in command), were important ones.
45. Country Bear Jamboree (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): Like the Tiki birds, I do not remember experiencing this attraction prior to my most recent visit in 2014. In a lot of ways, this show is a counterpart to the Tropical Serenade– an audio-animatronic-driven show featuring an ensemble cast (in this case, a bunch of down-home bruins from Appalachia.) When this show was conceived, television was awash in shows that in turns commemorated and ridiculed more backwoodsy people. Think back to the Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Green Acres, and Hee-Haw; this show is very much in the same vein. In short, this attraction was made by sophisticated men in Burbank and consumed initially by Florida panhandlers who may not have realized that the joke was on people like them. It’s still a funny show that succeeds because it gives the bears as much personality as it can with often just 40 seconds or so of a song in which to work before it moves on to the next vignette. But that’s just enough to establish tone-deaf Big Al, or coquettish Teddi Berra.
44. Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (Epcot, 1994-2010): By the mid-90s, the “futuristic experimentation gone horribly wrong” trope was being overused egregiously (see Body Wars, Alien Encounter, Dinosaur, etc.) But this was one of its most amusing manifestations. In 1994, the “Honey, I Shrunk” franchise was still a fairly hot item (Disney’s highest-grossing live-action film, in fact), and this film replaced Captain E-O just when Michael Jackson was becoming more of a liability than a draw. This began the long and ongoing process of introducing established franchises into the originally sacrosanct Epcot Center. It pioneered the use of “4-D” technology, harnessing spraying water, a moving theatre, and even sweepers under your chair to simulate mice scurrying about you. It was a riot, but it should have ended its run about a decade earlier. By the 21st century, nobody remembered the Rick Moranis films all that fondly, and it seemed like a dated contribution to the park, as its crowds slowly dwindled. Worse, it began a refurbishment of the Imagination pavilion to match the “Imagination Institute” contrivance used to give Moranis’s character his Inventor of the Year award at the beginning of the film, which ultimately removed much of the charm from this section of the park and contributed to the downfall of Journey Into Imagination. It was a fun movie, but a harbinger of a lot of trends that harmed Epcot Center in the long run before finally giving up its ghost in 2010 to be replaced by….Captain E-O! I feel like a bastard for saying this, but Michael Jackson’s death couldn’t have come at a more precipitous time…
43. Mission: Space (Epcot, 2003-present): Here is where pretenses to objectivity fail us. I love Horizons, one of the great fixtures of 80s and 90s Epcot and a convicting, optimistic vision for the future. So, it is difficult to be fair to the attraction that came to replace it; it always has the air of a usurper to me. There’s no denying that there is a lot of ambitious technology behind this ride, and that a simulated journey to space is a no-brainer for Epcot Center. But that’s about all I can say on its behalf! The computer graphics are a bit weak. It offers each rider a role on the flight like ‘engineer’ and ‘navigator’, but all it involves is pressing a button, and even if you screw that up, it has no effect on your ride experience. And the preshow featuring Gary Sinise (great choice, by the way) seems more intent on covering Disney’s ass and avoiding lawsuits rather than setting the tone for the experience. Maybe the worst offender is this: it is insufficiently ambitious. By this I mean– the ride is openly a simulation of space; Sinise guides you through “mission training” not an actual space voyage. Given Epcot’s historic broadness and boldness, this seems kind of…I don’t know…half-hearted. Ultimately, this ride is just below the halfway mark in our ranking. And since they plowed down an Epcot classic, spent an unimaginable sum of money, and weathered some expensive lawsuits, creating an ‘average’ experience from all this bother and all this potential is a marked failure.
42. American Idol Experience (Hollywood Studios, 2009-2014): One of the nicest surprises of my 2014 visit to Hollywood Studios was the American Idol Experience. What made it so intriguing was the audition process. We went on a quiet day (1o-minute stand-by lines for Star Tours, for example), but my wife got to audition for one of the day’s performances, and was seen immediately by one of the “talent scouts.” What really impressed me was how the team handled their jobs– they have to listen to dozens of different aspirants every day, and find ways to gently tell the overwhelming majority that they won’t make it to the next level of auditions, let alone the live performance itself. They were really good and very graceful in a rather difficult and thankless task. The show itself was great fun, with a panel of judges that usually includes a gregarious black guy (a la Randy) and a jaded Englishman (a la Simon). The stakes are real- each show’s winner faces off for a showdown at closing time, and the winner gets a ticket to the front of the line at the actual auditions for the show. I think that the show tends to put too much emphasis on finding a certain kind of voice: belters and divas for the ladies, and Eddie Vedder soundalikes for the gentlemen, but that’s okay. In my opinion, it was a great return to the old MGM Studios’ form: audience participation in how the magic of movies and television takes place.
41. Muppet-Vision 3-D: (Hollywood Studios, 1991-present): When Jim Henson sold The Muppets to the Disney Corporation just before he died, lots of fans were nervous and unsure about the soundness of this transaction. This lovely 3-D picture is perhaps the best legacy of this partnership, and it is, interestingly, the lone relic of an ambitious but ultimately aborted Muppet-land area of the park. Allegedly, a “Great Muppet Movie Ride” would have seen the Muppets lampooning scenes from legendary films- just a few hundred feet away from the real “Great Movie Ride”! This film has everything you would want from a Muppet show like this: explosions, absurdity, the blurred lines between behind-the-scenes and in-the-spotlight that defined the Muppet Show, and most importantly, heckling from Statler and Waldorf. It has some lingering flaws of its time; computer imagery was in its infancy so “Waldo the Spirit of 3-D” looks unspeakably dated and his behavior in the film exceeds Jar-Jar levels of obnoxiousness. And the film pushes Bean Bunny on the audience at a time when Henson Enterprises was aggressively marketing him as ‘the next big Muppet.’ Beyond any of these drawbacks, it was one of the last projects that Jim Henson did before his untimely death; indeed, most of his last few months were spent living it up at the Grand Floridian and supervising the installation. For that reason alone, Muppet-Vision has a historical significance that complements its proven ability to entertain for what is approaching a solid quarter-century. In my opinion, it is the clear winner for the best 3-D film in the Disney parks canon.