It is hard to believe that we have made it this far, but we’ve arrived at the top 20, or to put it differently, the top 25% of attractions in Walt Disney World, the very cream of the crop. These are all can’t-miss (or “you should’ve seen it when it was there”) mainstays that offer some of the very best experiences in Walt Disney World.
20. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom, 1980-present): Under most circumstances, a train-themed roller coaster ride is not terribly original. Most parks have a variation on this classic archetype. As is customary, though, Disney takes that archetype, tinkers with it, and turns it into something amazing. The ride itself is mild and only thrilling in the least terrifying (or most joyful) of ways. Instead, one focuses on the ride’s momentum, and its clever detail in recreating a frontier mining town in very real danger of going underwater. It is what I wish more roller coasters were like: fewer inversions and less adrenaline, but a cohesive experience that one cherishes. Big Thunder was the first true roller coaster I ever experienced (my 1990 trip when I was 6) and I couldn’t get enough of it. The line was a solid 40 minutes, but my brother and I kept requesting that we go on it over and over. It was night, and the whole experience was one of my favorite Disney memories.
19. Kilimanjaro Safari (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present): While It’s Tough to be a Bug and its Tree of Life theatre might be the Animal Kingdom’s visual focal point, nobody has seriously doubted that Kilimanjaro Safari was its signature attraction on opening day. The result is a breathtaking facsimile of an African safari, astonishing really, given that Florida is in an altogether different climactic zone. I’ve experienced the ride’s tropical Southeast Asian equivalent, the Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari, and Disney’s interpretation of the experience is just as good, if not better. Using clever design conceits (such as air-conditioned rocks to lure antisocial animals into the spotlight), human narration by certified experts (see #14), one of the park’s signature immersive queues, and as blogger Safari Mike aptly puts it, the ride is “repeatable”. In fact, it is probably the most repeatable in the Disney canon. Animals being what they are, you’ll never get the same experience twice. A Disney theme park is all about believably creating the right kind of experience. It’s not enough to be a pleasant ride through Tomorrowland, it has to be a functional transportation system of the future. It’s not enough to be a boat ride, it has to be a Jungle Cruise. It’s not enough to be a roller coaster with Aerosmith music, it has to be a stretch limo careening through downtown L.A. Our visit to the fictive Harambe Wildlife Refuge nails that element down cold. When I exit and go back to the Animal Kingdom, my system actually takes some time to readjust; it feels like it has been days since I was last in the park although I never left.
18. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1998): By technological standards, this was one low-rent attraction. Its ride system was standard carnival fare, and it was based on a largely forgettable 40s Disney film that most kids have never seen. Even the characters in the ride were inanimate cardboard cutouts, as if Disney was too cheap to build animatronics. For all of this, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was a counterintuitive success and an essay in low-tech theme park trickery. It was all in the misdirection. As your vehicle careened across the different rooms, you had no idea if you were going to crash through a wall or pivot in a different angle. The ending of this ride, though, was truly insane: a descent into hell, where the redoubtable Mr. Toad would be punished for all eternity for…his careless driving, I guess? The ride had many advocates over the years, myself included, and even inspired a fervid but ultimately unsuccessful internet campaign to save Mr. Toad. I will always remember riding this one with my dad, who was an expert at scaring the bejesus out of me. This ride gave him plenty of opportunities.
17. Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom, 2006-present): Behold, evolutionary Big Thunder. Everest takes the very best qualities of Frontierland’s railway coaster and goes even further with them. As crazy as it may seem, Expedition Everest ranks this high partly because it has the best queue in Disney World, bar none. The winding turnstiles take one back to the days of Edmund Hillary, and show how history and rumor and legend all interplay with one another; it is impossible to tell what is a genuine Himalayan artifact and what is simply Imagineering messing with us. And of course, the ride itself is a hoot. It is more intense than Big Thunder (including a scary backwards section) but retains most of its family friendly qualities. (I say “most” because there is still a considerable difference between the two. My mom, for example, could handle Big Thunder if necessary but probably couldn’t sit comfortably through Everest.) A rare unqualified triumph for 21st century Imagineering, I can even forgive the perennially dysfunctional yeti animatronic. In some ways, it’s scarier to just see the shadow.
16. Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom, 1973-present): Any hardcore Disney bloggers are going to be pissed at me for ranking POTC this low. The ride is sacrosanct among Disney aficionados, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute their frequent claim that Pirates revolutionized theme park entertainment into something more engaging, imaginative, and immersive. Rather than thrills or Fantasyland visits with familiar characters, Pirates offered a new environment, in its own, created, historical-mythical world. You were watching the pirates, but you were also, in a way, one of them. Of course, POTC wrote the book on detail in a theme park attraction. No expense was spared to create lifelike visages, and comical vignettes that show a bowdlerized view of Gulf Coast pillage. Well…speaking of bowdlerized…I am probably in the minority, but I also think Disney made the right choice in changing the tone of this ride in the 90s from rapine to gluttony. Buccaneers who once chased buxom lasses now pursued chicken legs. The original ride’s humorous, light-hearted take on sexual trafficking and nonconsensual coitus wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited by the designers but was a thoughtless design choice that made one more uneasy the more one thought about it; rape, or even the hint of rape, isn’t entertaining. With these changes, Pirates is just right: it is fun, fascinating, and imposing all at once.
15. Finding Nemo: the Musical (Animal Kingdom, 2007-present): Sitting at #15, this attraction is both the most highly rated in the Animal Kingdom on this countdown, as well as the highest-ranking live action show. Some time a decade ago, Disney looked at its recent successes in the theatre, considered what made the Pixar films tick, thought long and hard how the two might translate to the theme parks, and carried it out. The songs might not be strong, but are good, functional narrative pieces. Everything else, though, excels beyond any theme park stage show I have ever seen. The costumes show an astonishing creativity, from a bicycle-riding Mister Ray to a staggering Crush that requires multiple costumed stagehands to operate. And the actors have to pull off amazing feats of multi-tasking, often acting, singing, dancing, and manipulating puppets all at once. Ask any Avenue Q cast member; it’s not easy. I am not a theatre geek (although I did play Mr. Darling in Peter Pan back in high school)- but I know enough to recognize talent. And the cast for this show is clearly a cut above most other Disney productions, which have–at best–cruise line cabaret show caliber talent. When you add drastic set changes, unwieldy and oversized props, and the need to have competent understudies with a very specific set of skills, and the unsophisticated artistic palette of most Disney guests, the fact that Disney pulled it all off is nothing less than a miracle of modern theatre. Finding Nemo: the Musical might be the most underrated attraction on my list, often playing to a half-crowded amphitheater incongruously located in Dinoland, USA.
14. Listen To/Living With the Land (Epcot, 1982-present): Whichever version you prefer, this slow-moving, highly educational boat ride has always been the most quintessential Epcot attraction. It shows effectively where humanity has been, where it might be going, and why its topic matters. Best of all, it is a practical enterprise: the plants and fish you see on the tour will be used throughout theme park restaurants, and the entire pavilion is a touchstone of contact between experts and the wider public. While much of Epcot is (or was) openly humanist, this dwells more on the complex relationship between humanity and its environment, even beginning with a deep, uncontrollable thunderstorm that hints at our ultimate subordination to the natural world, no matter what new technologies we create. It needs an update, like much of Epcot. Hydroponics are cool, but are sooooo 1992, and a better discussion on organic farming, sustainable agriculture, and how changes in technology might alleviate hunger across the world (paging my boy, McGovern), could add some vibrant new dimensions. In my opinion, Living with the Land was dealt a severe handicap several years ago when its tour guides were sacked in favor of canned narration. Bad move, Disney! The guides gave warmth and a human touch to the experience; the last thing you want on a ride about something as dynamic as nature is a sterile and automated feel. It is, along with Journey into Imagination and Spaceship Earth, one of only three attractions that I have visited each of my nine visits to Disney World in one or other of its incarnations.
13. It’s A Small World (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): It’s A Small World has become something of a joke over the years. Its relentlessly cheery theme song has been equated to a brain-eating amoeba, the Unofficial Guide has suggested handing out softballs to guests as they board, even Disney’s own “The Lion King” takes a shot at it. I couldn’t disagree more with the ridicule that has come its way. Consider for a moment the context in which it was made. In 1964, Walt Disney, in some ways the ultimate Cold Warrior, agreed to do a slow-moving boat ride that asserted a common humanity at a time when much of the world was engaged in war, insurrection, freedom struggles, or anti-colonial efforts. There is a boldness and an urgency to its message that belies its sweetness. Many of those efforts remain intact in the Orlando version. While its knowledge of the various cultures portrayed isn’t very deep, and occasionally devolves into stereotype and exoticizing, there is nothing cruel or mean-spirited about it. The UK gets just as much time, attention, care and thought as Zulu Africa. For all of the disdain thrown in Small World’s direction, it is maybe the most visually engaging and uplifting ride in Disney’s stable.
12. Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): And now we go from something very universal to something peculiarly American. In the end, any ranking of the rides will have to come to personal preference, so I need to make some confessions. I loved the presidents when I was a kid. In many ways, I still do; I’m even ranking them on this blog. With a bit of encouragement from my grandparents, I memorized the presidents when I was five, and would sometimes whisper the names during the roll call at the end of Hall of Presidents. One element that always stuck with me is the cast member’s instructions to silence our phone and refrain from photography to preserve “the dignity of this presentation.” I always appreciated how an attraction like this could realistically demand, and receive, audience respect. It’s rare indeed that recent presidents with a fair share of enemies (Nixon, Bush 43, and Obama being three of them) get booed or heckled when their name is announced. (I have sometimes gone in intending to cheer for obscure old Millard Fillmore just to mess with people, and something in me pulls back every time.) The show isn’t perfect, of course. Even with Eric Foner’s expert advisement, there are some weird narrative choices, including genocide mastermind-in-chief Andrew Jackson being praised as being the first “president of the people.” Troubling indeed; couldn’t they have focused on Theodore Roosevelt reinvigorating the presidency, or JFK’s inspirational New Frontier? Even Reagan would have been a better emphasis. Still, if you love history, there is nothing quite like seeing the entire pantheon of chief executives all huddled together in period-specific garb.
11. Star Tours: The Adventure Continues (2011-present): If Hollywood Studios is supposed to be a love letter to cinema, this ride is a thrilling encapsulation of that sentiment. The original Star Tours was great; who didn’t want to relive the trench battle in the Death Star? It was an iconic moment, and a fun ride. On its own, it would have been in my top 20 handily. But the recent refurbishment pushes this old favorite into new territory. Its upgrades include a new 3-D presentation and more importantly, an element of unpredictability. Technology has evolved in such a way that you can get different segments on different experiences, and your simulator and the animatronics inside will adjust accordingly. You might end up on Kashyyk (the Wookie homeworld), or you might end up in a firefight with Boba Fett. It also made the ride much more referential of the films. Whereas before, you had a new character, rookie pilot Rex, with only cameos from C-3PO and R2-D2. Now, you might run into Leia or Yoda or Vader, depending on which version of the ride your simulator runs with. It reminds us all why Star Wars is such an enduring franchise; I look forward to seeing how and when Hollywood Studios expands its Star Wars offerings into an entire section of the park.
And there we are! Tune in next time when we cover rides #10 thru #6 on the countdown.