With this post, we can begin to explore the attractions in our upper half of the rankings. And with it, we can begin, tentatively, to discuss what makes attractions great, memorable, or in some way a core component to a good Walt Disney World visit during their time of operation. Each of these ten rides innovated the theme park experience in some way, and filled out the parks with enjoyable attractions of minor scale, or else they were attempted headliners that were fun, but didn’t quite live up to their potential. I ran the numbers on my provisional rankings’ top 40, and they ran thusly: 15 for Magic Kingdom, 16 for Epcot, 4 for Hollywood Studios, and 5 for Animal Kingdom. It sounds about right, given the lack of attractions for Animal Kingdom, the excellence of 80s and 90s Epcot, and Hollywood Studios’ perennial under-performance.
40. Universe of Energy/Ellen’s Energy Adventure (Epcot, 1982-present): When I was young, I thought the Universe of Energy was a terrible bore, a plodding treatment of an uninteresting topic. Through the miracle of youtube, I can see how wrong that I was: the kinetic mosaic was a brilliant, dynamic pre-show, the ride vehicles moved by the pavilion’s own solar energy were years ahead of their time, and the large-scale dinosaurs constituted a step forward in the development of animatronics. I honestly couldn’t tell you which was better–the original or the mid-90s update, Ellen’s Energy Adventure with DeGeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I like them both. By an astonishing act of foresight, Disney picked two celebrity hosts (well, three, counting Trebek) who are still relevant, and if anything, bigger than they were in 1996. The result was perhaps less intellectual, but much more fun, making Universe of Energy accessible to audiences beyond seniors and engineers. Nye, especially, has a genius for explaining complicated scientific concepts in entertaining ways that the public can understand. But they need to update this soon: with Exxon-Mobil no longer in sponsoring, Disney is free to present to a more sustainable vision of energy beyond petroleum (which has made great strides since 1996 anyway.)
I don’t know where else to put this, but maybe my single most pleasant memory from Disney World is lying on a knoll on the west side of Future World after visiting Ellen’s Energy Adventure with my dad and my brother during the 1996 trip. My mom had gone off to a restroom, and we were enjoying a nice warm and breezy night en route to the Wonders of Life pavilion. It felt like the best night ever, and there were still countless other awesome dark rides we could see in Epcot that night: Horizons, Spaceship Earth, Imagination, Living With the Land. That feeling is the one thing I most miss from 90s Disney World. Today, most of Future World closes at 7 pm (there was nothing more magical than Future World at night), and what rides are open usually require a fastpass or committing a large block of time in line.
39. Festival of the Lion King (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present): Animal Kingdom opened within a year of Julie Taymor’s prodigious reimagining of the film for Broadway, so it was almost inevitable that the park would attempt to recreate it in some way. The result, however, is much more of an immersive family experience than an archetypical Broadway production, but lots of the Afro-centric elements of folk art remained. The performance involved a great deal of audience interaction, all of the requisite songs, lots of colorful floats with animatronics, and a strong circus theme that unites the performance. It hits all the right notes: it is fun, it is a bit arty, it entertains kids and adults, and most importantly, it does this without infantilizing or exoticizing Africa. How impressed was I? Well, it is the only attraction in my top 40 that I only saw once.
38. Dinosaur/Countdown to Extinction (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present): Let’s face it: Countdown to Extinction was a kickass name; it’s a shame that they changed it to help promote a now-forgotten Disney computer-animated film. This was (and remains) the anchor attraction for the entire Dinoland USA area of Animal Kingdom, and used EMV technology to simulate a frantic journey through the last days of the Cretaceous era. It includes some impressive environments and great next-generation animatronics that improve upon the Universe of Energy dinosaurs. My only real problem is the script: large parts of this just involve the mad scientist trying to retrieve the Iguanadon simply announcing what dinosaur you are passing by after a close encounter with near-death and blithely informing you it is “not our dino” and moving on. Still, it is an indispensable part of a trip to Animal Kingdom.
37. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (Magic Kingdom, 1998-present): One of the most fun, if least edifying, rides in the Magic Kingdom stable. It was the first sign of the metamorphosis of Tomorrowland from a steampunky Edwardian vision of Tomorrowland to a showcase for futuristic rides based on existing Disney properties. I’m still piecing together how I feel about that, but the ride works because it is addictive and competitive. I talked earlier about how some rides aren’t easy to revisit; you experience them once, and you don’t need to go again any time soon. If you ride Buzz Lightyear once, you remember your score, you realize your mistakes, and you want to get back in line immediately. It’s a milestone in theme park technology, and even though I miss its predecessor Dreamflight, I still enjoy a good spin.
36. Liberty Square Riverboat (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): A day in a theme park should never be a mere litany of rides. It is a collection of experiences. The sturdy perennial riverboat ride is one of my favorites from the Magic Kingdom because it invites you to make your own adventure, whether you sit indoors or outdoors, talk with your family, talk with strangers, or observe the vistas of Tom Sawyer Island. When I am on Thunder Mountain, I think “I am on a roller coaster.” When I am aboard the Liberty Belle, I think “I’ve arrived on the frontier.” It is one of the least complex and least unique of Disney rides (if you wanted to, there are probably dozens of places along the Mississippi or Missouri where you can ride an old-fashioned riverboat), but one of its most affective within its Frontierland and Liberty Square setting.
35. Kitchen Kabaret (Epcot, 1982-1994): Every Epcot attraction, I think, had an ancestor in the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland. World of Motion had roots in the stagecraft of Pirates of the Caribbean, Horizons was conceptualized as a sequel to Carousel of Progress, El Rio de Tiempo echoed It’s A Small World. Kitchen Kabaret was designed in the same vein as Country Bear Jamboree, a quick-paced revue, but with a more educational topic than the Ozark-bound bruins: the four food groups. (Yikes…that’s very 1980s, isn’t it?) `It conveyed a message of balanced eating and good nutrition very nicely, and it had a lot of cool touches for those inclined to pay attention: the Cereal Sisters were a nice homage to the Andrews Sisters, the Stars of the Milky Way had a nod to Mae West and other 30s sex symbols, and I especially liked the Hamm and Eggz Vaudeville duo.
34. Body Wars (Epcot, 1989-2007): When the Wonders of Life opened its doors, along with Body Wars, its marquee attraction, Epcot had to deal with something new: having a thrill ride. Body Wars was hot, with lines lasting over an hour, and often winding outside of the Metlife-sponsored pavilion. Using some early computer-generated technology, it was a fun romp through the human body to rescue a miniaturized scientist swept up in the bloodstream. Parts of this ride were absurd, even for Disney standards: they need to go to the brain for an emergency “electrical charge” for example, but Leonard Nimoy directed a fun and frantic introduction to human physiology. I haven’t met anyone who thinks its cousin Star Tours wasn’t better, but its pioneering use of simulator technology for entertainment, and its introduction of some mild thrills to a cerebral theme park makes it an important milestone, and a fondly remembered part of any Epcot visit during the 90s.
33. O Canada (Epcot, 1982-present): Let me be clear: I am ranking the original version of this attraction that premiered on opening day, 1982: my pick as the best circle-vision film shown in a Disney park. There were numerous arresting and breathtaking scenes: a circle of Mounties riding through all nine screens, breathtaking natural scenery, a ride down a bobsled chute, and most especially, a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal. (The last is, I think, the most profound treatment of religion in a Disney attraction.) The enduring criticism of this film was that it posed a very limited image of Canada restricted to “wilderness and lumberjacks.” But that was the point, and what’s more, it worked– it gave me an awe and reverence for Canada’s natural beauty. Unfortunately, the 2007 reshoot of this film was disastrous. It was hosted by Martin Short, a lazy choice given his established history in Disney attractions, and his narration is full of forced humor, and is poorly written and badly delivered. But it wasn’t just wholly Short’s fault. Some Canadian urban booster league clearly hijacked the production, because the narrative insists on taking us to every major city in Canada (I don’t need to see Calgary in Circle-vision, thank you very much), cuts out most of the outdoors scenes that made the original so good, and incessantly lobs jokes at Short’s expense. It was one of the worst updates in the history of the Disney parks, but I’ll never forget the rustic charm and beautiful cinematography of the original.
32. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios, 1999-present): This particular ride does not fit especially well with the theme of movies that MGM/Hollywood Studios is premised upon, but it is so much fun, and such an uncharacteristically wild ride that I make a point of visiting when I am in the park. Aerosmith was a great choice to host this attraction– solid rock credentials, and multi-generational appeal. It is by far the most extreme roller coaster on Disney property (although somewhat tame compared to other coasters in the Orlando area), and the only one that flips its guests upside-down. While some of the props used to construct the night-time LA highway system are silly and superficially constructed, I’ll give it a pass: the ride is far too fast to really take note of any of that. What really makes the experience is the take-off: from 0 to 55 pm in just a few seconds. It is the single most thrilling attraction in the WDW pantheon.
31. World of Motion (Epcot, 1982-1996): Early 1980s Epcot turned the animatronic-filled dark ride into a form of high art, and World of Motion was a solid essay in that craft. Its “journey through history” at times overlapped with Spaceship Earth a bit, but the World of Motion struck a more colloquial and jocular tone. It was also one of the more overtly corporate entries in Future World and General Motors flaunted its sponsorship: every form of transportation before the advent of the automobile has some kind of humorous flaw that each scene exploits: bicycles capsize into mud, stagecoaches fall prey to bandits, sea voyages end in a close encounter with a monster. It balanced the mildly humorous with the cool and innovative: the last 3 or 4 minutes included some great tunnel special effects that made you feel like you were moving through futuristic vistas. This tended to be a favorite of senior citizens and younger guests (like my little brother) who were obsessed with cars.