This has been a very productive month here at the Northumbrian Countdown. To those of you have just begun your visit to this online monastery of historical and pop cultural thought, we finished the president ranking project just a couple of weeks ago, and today, another project, the ranking of Walt Disney World attractions, draws to a close. If you wish to see earlier entries, just click the #ranktherides hashtag on the bottom; it should take you there.
These final five attractions are, in my judgment, the pinnacle of Imagineering and theme park presentation. Each of these is a testament to how an attraction can do far more than amuse or entertain: it can instill wonder, it can inspire optimism, and it can give us important perspectives or insights into the human condition. Given this lofty criteria, is it any wonder that 4 of these top 5 are Epcot attractions?
5. Soarin’ (Epcot, 2004-present): Imported from Disneyland, Soarin’ debuted in The Land, suddenly turning one of the quainter pavilions known mostly for its restaurants into the home of Epcot’s most popular attraction. In doing so, this ride might be a bit incongruous: The Land has, traditionally, been a clearinghouse for the topics of agriculture, nutrition, and environmentalism, rather than physical or human geography. On the whole, though, I think it works. With a mechanical design inspired by one imagineer’s Erector set, riders feel the sensation of gently flying above a number of key Golden State monuments and natural settings. The result is an experience that is not precisely a thrill ride, but is thrilling nevertheless. It provides a sense of immersion from the IMAX-style screen, coordinated smells such as when you glide over orange groves, and probably the best soundtrack of any Disney attraction, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s breezy orchestration. A pleasant tone is also set by an excellent safety video starring a droll Patrick Warburton. The result leaves one feeling refreshed and elevated, a delightful and more wholesome change from the adrenaline rush that comes from most thrill rides that wreck havoc upon the body for the remainder of the day. As a quick postscript, at the D23 convention, it was announced that Soarin’ will soon become Soarin’ Around the World with a third theatre and footage from a wider array of vistas from across the globe. I can’t wait to see it.
4. Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present): What exactly is a space mountain anyway? The concept seems baffling if viewed literally: mountains cannot exist in the vacuum of space, they are bound to planetary geography and the shifting of tectonic plates. Instead, I think it is best to view Space Mountain as a piece of historical futurism, the stuff from which ambient 1970s planetariums and ethereal “space music” are made. If someone let Brian Eno design a roller coaster, it might look like this. The ride itself is great fun- a dark (though not as dark as it was before) jaunt on a wild-mouse style coaster that disorients the senses. For me, though–and maybe I am a bit odd here–the queue was always the real attraction, and one great disappointment of the Fastpass line is having to walk through it so quickly. Along the way, you get cool lighting with the ride’s sanitary white color scheme interacting with vibrant, pulsing blue neons that suggest that you are descending into a very different place as you descend out of visual contact with the rest of Tomorrowland. You get to see cool holograms, and now, even get to play some interesting games, while the tension for the ride begins to build up. Finally, you make it past the control booth, and you can hear the screams in the distance- along with projections of meteors, and the eerie synthesizer tones evocative of the ponderous vacuum of space. For me, it has never been a space mountain, but a space station whose existence, whose purpose, is never explained, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps. It is a hopeful vision of the future tied to 1970s aesthetics; we may never get a clean, optimistic interpretation of space travel like that again.
3. Spaceship Earth (Epcot, 1982-present): This is the highest ranking ride still in existence in a more or less recognizable form; #1 closed up shop long ago, and #2 became a travesty of its original greatness. Spaceship Earth occupies the greatest real estate in Walt Disney World- it greets you immediately as you enter Epcot, it looms over a futuristic and welcoming landscape, and you can see it virtually anywhere in the park. A ride situated thusly, a sphere boldly resting thirty feet above ground, its silver-grey isosceles triangles reflecting the Florida sun, had better be good. And boy, was it ever. As you may have noticed, the ability of attractions to immerse, inspire, and instill wonder are crucial factors in my rankings. Spaceship Earth did this every step of the way, with a great deal of gravitas, to tell the greatest story in the annals of humankind: our never-ending quest to communicate with one another. Cleverly, the ride ascends and ascends up the robust sphere, suggesting a teleological upward trajectory for mankind: an ascent from ground level to Cro-Magnon man, to Rome burning with ashen embers, to the Renaissance, and into a “bold new era” of fiber-optics where physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication. Along the way, the attention to detail is immaculate, lessons carried over from Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion; the Greeks recite Oedipus Rex, and authentic period-specific Bibles are used during the monastery scene. And then, finally, my single favorite moment in any Disney park: we see a starfield, and Earth from the distance of the moon; we see our common humanity and our mutual interdependence on one another. To this day, when I ride, I involuntarily take off my hat at the ride’s climax in a show of respect, and I might or might not wipe a tear away. It feels like a holy moment in a holy place.
One final note: Spaceship Earth has undergone four distinct incarnations: Vic Perrin (1982-86), Walter Cronkite (1986-94). Jeremy Irons (1994-2007), and Dame Judi Dench (2007-present). I think the Cronkite and Irons versions are tied for the best. I love Irons’ moody narration rather than Cronkite’s somewhat telegraphic style, but on the other hand, the “Tomorrow’s Child” finale during the Cronkite years was a better conclusion. They need to get rid of the silly Jetsons-style cartoons from the end of the present ride which doesn’t fit tonally with the ride and merely disguises the fact that there are just black drapes on the descent covering what were once functional sets.
2. Journey Into Imagination (Epcot, 1983-1998): When I was younger, and my family called Lake Buena Vista to make reservations for our trip- often several months in advance- it began a season of patience and anticipation. I would wait for the clock to run down as we hit the six month mark, the one-month mark, the one-week mark, and the single thing I most looked forward to in my youth was another round on Journey Into Imagination. It was the most stimulating and evocative aspect of an always stimulating and evocative trip to Disney World. I couldn’t wait to hear the theme song, to smell the rose petal fragrance in the entrance, and tool around the Image Works exhibits afterward. Unlike its later incarnations, the ride praised imagination by showing us what it looked like: from the fanciful machine the Dreamfinder used to capture ideas that inspire, to tableaux showing the power of the visual arts, to representations of mild horror in thriller novels. It was riddled with groundbreaking special effects and rewarded multiple viewings more than any other Disney attraction. Even today, I still find new elements in the ride I’ve never noticed before when I indulge nostalgia and view it on youtube. If Spaceship Earth is about the triumph of civilization, Journey Into Imagination is a tribute to the process of interior thought and the intangible qualities human creativity can evoke. Three qualities to list before we move onto #1 in explaining the attraction’s appeal. 1) the innovative use of a turntable for a two-minute scene which appears stationary but actually moves along with us. It sets up the ride’s narrative very brilliantly, 2) a cheerful song by the Sherman brothers, and recorded with pure 80s futuristic cheese. 3) the voice acting is really lovely, just the right balance of heartfelt and cartoonish, with Chuck McCann as the Dreamfinder, and the late Billy Barty as Figment.
For years, it was the second most popular attraction in Epcot after Spaceship Earth, but an expiring contract with Kodak, the popularity of neighboring Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and the need for some refurbishment ended up gutting the ride, and replacing it “Journey Into Your Imagination,” a sad, uninspired attraction with a minuscule budget, an absence of Figment, and, alas, almost no imagination.
1. Horizons (Epcot, 1983-1999): So, let’s rehash our top three: Spaceship Earth is about the accomplishments of human civilization and a reminder that we stand on great shoulders, while Journey Into Imagination is about the untapped potential of the human mind. Horizons completes this trifecta as a testament to hope for the future. It is, therefore, the Epcot attraction most in line with its governing philosophy, even moreso than marquee ride Spaceship Earth. While much of Epcot is corporate and technical, Horizons won me over with its warmth and its humanity, and especially, its cooperative spirit. The narration emphasizes ‘us’ and ‘we’: “we’re just around the corner from…”, “we’ve found lots of good things in our oceans,” especially in its mantra, “if we can dream it, we can do it.” That emphasis of participation is embedded into the very ride sequence itself. Years before “interactivity” became Disney Imagineering’s watchword, guests could choose which future vista they wished to see, and enjoy a jaunt in sea, space, or the desert. Horizons showed us the future, not in cold or condescending or sterile forms, but in warm, relatable, and deeply humanistic tones. We see a family (a very heteronormative family, but still…) enjoying the blessings of new technologies that allow for fulfilling job opportunities, a food supply that meets all humanity’s needs, new forms of leisure. And above all, these technologies allow the family to remain closer; a video conference call is one of the last scenes of the attraction, where disparate relatives come together to sing “Happy Birthday” to little Davey.
It was a glorious mishmash that could never be duplicated again: a number of scenes from a very different ride about how people in the past viewed the future, an IMAX presentation on new technologies, a cool ride system that had us looking forward and allowed for more detailed scenery from our angle. The ride had its budget slashed multiple times during its conception and construction, and the people who built it kept throwing new and better solutions at the problems it faced in development hell. New imagineers like Tom Fitzgerald took bold risks and gave audiences a slow, but immensely satisfying experience. Horizons elevated the mind, stimulated the spirit, and made me want to participate in a better future and help unlock humanity’s potential. Not bad for a 14-minute ride in a central Florida vacation destination.
This concludes our countdown of the greatest Walt Disney World attractions of all time. I hope this has been a useful read for Disney vacationers and the many hardcore Disney fans out there. Please remember: I only ranked attractions I personally experienced, so some inevitably fell outside the bounds of this project due to their closing before I was born or simply my lack of interest in seeing them. These include (but are not limited to): Flight to the Moon, Magic Carpet ‘Round the World, Swan Boats, Tom Sawyer Island, Triceratops Spin, Superstar Television, Mickey Mouse Revue, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Toy Story Mania, Mike Fink Keelboats, If You Had Wings, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Magic Journeys, and Legend of the Lion King. My definition of “attractions” also eliminated corporate exhibitions (Innoventions, Transcenter), playgrounds (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, Image Works), walk-throughs (Maharajah Jungle Trek), and arcades (Frontierland Shooting Gallery, Penny Arcade).
And finally, always remember: “if we can dream it, we can do it. And that’s the most exciting part.”