At last, we have cracked the top ten in my all-time ranking of Walt Disney World attractions. Every one of these last ten is on some level a masterpiece of Imagineering. Each is thrilling, immersive, engaging, and a feast for the senses. And I would have admonished you had you visited WDW while any of these rides were in operation and did not go on them. We start with…
10. Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom, 1992-present): I am not sure that this ride could be made today. It is, after all, based on Song of the South, a rather problematic film that idealizes plantation life (as opposed to slavery itself; the film keeps it ambiguous as to whether Uncle Remus and company are living in an antebellum state of bondage or a post-Civil War sharecropping system. But either way, everything is not satisfactual in Dixie.) Disney wants us to forget that the film was ever made, and if it weren’t for a read-along cassette of the Br’er Rabbit story that the company published in the 1980s, I wouldn’t have been familiar with it at all. Given the young audience’s distance from the story, there is a lot of exposition that needs to happen. What follows is a ride that hits all of its bases with expert precision. The animatronics were clearly a new, more fluid update to the first-generation Epcot rides, and the stagecraft brilliantly used poses and positioning to establish the characters in a three-dimension way and like the best Disney rides, rewarded the observant guest. It creates a backwoods environment of anthropomorphic animals that slowly builds suspense as riders know the big drop is coming. The track teases us with smaller flumes along the way, delivers with an intense drop, and sends us off with a grand finale using some of the biggest animatronic tableaux ever devised. What could have been a simple flume ride became a quintessential Disney experience.
9. Delta Dreamflight/Take Flight (Magic Kingdom, 1989-1998): There were not many Disney attractions that wore their corporate sponsorship so heavily as Delta Dreamflight. The airline’s involvement heavily hawked the product that they were selling, but I think, to great effect. Dreamflight is the direct descendent of If You Had Wings/If You Could Fly (in fact, a ride that explored the possibilities of aviation had been part of Tomorrowland since nearly opening day), but improves on it immensely. If You Had Wings was built on the cheap, relying on music and back-lit projections to tell its story, in a way that anticipated the cost-cutting time-filler El Rio del Tiempo. Dreamflight, in contrast, really made the wonder of flying, and the possibilities of where you could go in an airplane, stand out. It was captivating in a number of different ways- a queue once described as “Xanadu-ish” in its 80s translucent neon decor. Some elements were really great fun, particularly the disorienting effect of spinning thanks to what I believe was a rotating strobe light of some kind and a fun tunnel-projection, similar to what was used in World of Motion, through a futuristic city. With a cartoonish first half (with cardboard cut-outs in lieu of animatronics), the ride never took itself entirely seriously, but in terms of impressing nine-year-old me, this has to rank near the top. It was the quintessential slow-moving dark ride that took you to amazing places.
8. Impressions de France (Epcot, 1982-present): I’ll bet you weren’t expecting a World Showcase film to crack the top ten, were you? While I am skeptical toward films in Disney parks that could, in principal, be shown anywhere, Impressions de France is a perfect marriage of film-making and film-setting. It helps that the French pavilion is by nearly any measure, one of the most beautifully and lovingly constructed in the World Showcase; someone needs to put a historic preservation marker outside the beautiful Belle Epoque theatre that houses this film. The movie works largely because you already feel like you are in France by the time you step into the screening room. Once inside, you get a nice, wide-screened (but not quite circle-vision) film that lets you rest your feet; appropriate to the leisurely pace of Impressions de France. What follows is a decidedly selective but evocative view of France. Of course, the expected vistas of the Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel Tower are there. But it is augmented by contemplative boat rides down rivers, panoramic treatments of mountaintops, and lengthy stops at small towns for an extended scene of a wedding reception. That is what surprised me the most: how rustic its vision of France turned out to be, how it avoids the temptation to focus on elegant high culture to explore intimate corners of provincial life. The redoubtable Foxfurr writes, “The film has a poetic, musical flow which transcends time and a willingness to stop for a quiet moment which the other Disney films often fail to do.” Exactly! It’s a masterfully done film, reminiscent of the time when the World Showcase was the most grown-up part of the most grown-up park, and Imagineering trusted the audience to maintain their attention and patience in order to see something beautiful develop, rather than watch something thrilling or amusing transpire. Another reason why I think so highly of this film? It’s the only Epcot attraction from opening day, 1982, that remains almost entirely intact and untouched.
7. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Hollywood Studios, 1994-present): What does it mean when we say that an attraction is “thrilling?” Part of it is pure sensation, but most of it is the build-up, the anticipation, the setting. That is what makes the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror the highest ranked MGM/Hollywood Studios attraction on this list. The freefall itself is one of the most striking sensations most guests will experience in Disney World; a moment of pure fear, even for those who have ridden it multiple times. But that is what makes Disney rides so much more experiential than their counterparts elsewhere. Disney took the time to build a makeshift 1930s film noir hotel, stock it with antique books and telephone equipment, and build a boiler room where guests can feel their anticipation build. Even better, Disney made a conscientious effort to make the ride stick to the park’s theme by digitally resurrecting Rod Serling for a Twilight Zone introduction, when a lazier approach might have still resulted in a popular ride. It is also one of the few attractions to really improve with age: new technology allows for a more randomized experience, with varying numbers and depths of drops.
6. Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): It is appropriate that the Tower of Terror is edged on this list by one of its principal inspirations in the Disney pantheon. But while Tower of Terror leads up to a climactic plummet, Haunted Mansion offers no such culminating release. Instead, its rewards are in its rich visual culture, its elaborate detail, and its special effects which still mezmerize nearly 45 years after its construction. For years, Haunted Mansion had been a mainstay of almost every trip I took to Disney World. But it wasn’t until my last trip in January of last year that I realized that it wasn’t just a good attraction, it was a great one. What I missed was how immersive this ride was; how it actually engulfed you into its little macabre microcosm, with surly cast members opening the door for you, a frightening pre-show that definitely removed you from daylight-Disney. As with Tower of Terror, this could have been a hastily constructed thrill house with random shit popping up and frightening you, along the lines of Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Instead, it intrigues and suggests- holograms of candles float. A hand reaches out of a coffin, but you can’t see the entire body. There’s a ghostly bride in a wedding dress, but nobody is quite sure why. It offers the rider the chance to make the ride as scary or as whimsical as they wish to interpret it.
Well, it looks like we are almost finished and your time machine vehicle is rotating backwards for your return to earth. Tune in next time for the conclusion of my ranking of Walt Disney World attractions.