Coolest Disney Rides
Jeff Kurtti is fed up with people trashing It’s a Small World. “People who think they are too sophisticated for this kiddie attraction are kind of sad,” says Jeff Kurtti, content consultant for San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum. “The world is full of people who refuse to let go and enjoy themselves.”
The world is also full of people who grew up on Disney. Considering the broad variety of traditions in America, there are few things every kid shares no matter where they grow up. Happy Meals, maybe. Cap’n Crunch cereal, if they’re allowed. But all kids agree on Disney.
That’s with good reason. Disney made its name with rigorous entertainment standards. In the 1950s, Walt Disney spun off his idea factory, now called Walt Disney Imagineering, as a stand-alone unit dedicated to inventing stuff to amuse his customers. Some of Imagineering’s biggest successes, such as Audio-Animatronic robotic characters, have become hallmarks of the Disney brand.
“He could certainly have installed off-the-shelf roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, and go-karts,” says Kurtti, who has written more than 25 books on Disney parks and Imagineering—known for their innovation.
Just as not every room in the Louvre is worthy of your touring time, there are reasons to love—or skip—many Disney rides. But if we had to choose just 10 from the dozens of choices, from kiddie coasters to robot-packed operas, we’d have to settle on emblematic experiences.
The famous Pirates of the Caribbean float-by predates the Haunted Mansion, and it stands taller in pop culture; the kitschy 1960s ride got a Hollywood-style makeover in 2006, complete with a new captain inspired by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the ride’s namesake movie.
At Disney, a ride’s cool factor sometimes comes down to its adrenaline-pumping bells and whistles. We love Space Mountain, but at heart it’s just an okay roller coaster. Park-goers will do better to stand in line at the superfluous indoor-outdoor flume attraction Splash Mountain—opened in 1989—where riders leave their stomachs behind on a soaking 40-foot drop.
As for It’s a Small World, if you can appreciate Walt Disney’s kiddie lovefest as the American landmark it truly is, you’ll find yourself humming its relentless ditty with a newfound appreciation. After all, some things stick with us forever simply because they’re great.
Soarin’ (Epcot and Disney’s California Adventure)
Disney tracks which attractions people re-ride the most, and the current titan of the four Orlando parks is this breeze-in-your-hair crowd-pleaser in which gently rocking benches of passengers are suspended in front of an all-enveloping movie to simulate a hang-gliding flight across American landscapes. Like many simple ideas, its elegance works, and like many of Disney’s family-friendly rides, its description sounds scarier than the soothingly mild result. In Anaheim, it’s called Soarin’ Over California, but the imagery, and the strategically blown-in scents of pine and orange groves, are the same.
Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom and Disneyland)
There’s no question this 11-minute log flume epic is one of Disney’s crowning creations, but observers still ask why it’s based on 1946’s Song of the South, a movie Adam Clayton Powell called “an insult to minorities” and is still so objectionable it isn’t for sale in America. It twists indoors and out, winds past superfluously elaborate singing critters, and climaxes in a soaking drop (one of seven) that, at 40 miles per hour, is faster even than the supposedly scary Space Mountain. The Orlando version is the better one because, unlike Disneyland’s, its logs allow couples to sit beside each other.
Kilimanjaro Safaris (Disney's Animal Kingdom)
Disney is known for exerting fierce control over its shows, but in 1998, it risked building an entire park around animals, which are notoriously recalcitrant performers. Cleverly, Disney turned a problem into a virtue by inventing a fake African safari plot, ensuring that sneaking glimpses of animals being themselves would be the show. This 32-passenger, 20-minute round-trip Jeep excursion threads through stage-managed veld stocked with lion, cheetah, elephants, and other safari all-stars. There's a silly plot overlay with poachers, but there are no bars or visible fences. Instead, animals are separated by hidden berms and invisible obstacles—and no two rides are the same.
Indiana Jones Adventure (Disneyland)
Perhaps the apogee of Disney’s indoor-ride technology, this 1995 snake-tacular sends motion-simulator vehicles down a rumbly track, crisscrossing each other in a misty cavern, between air-cannon darts, over lava, past roiling swarms of beetles, and under that famous 16-foot rolling boulder. The turbulent romp uses the same “enhanced motion vehicles” (EMV) and basic track layout as the maligned Dinosaur in Animal Kingdom, but with better-lit sets and a more familiar theme. No Disney ride is as complicated.
Mission: SPACE (Epcot)
Opened in 2003 at a reported cost of $100 million, Mission: SPACE employs a novel ride system. To simulate the sensation of lift-off in a rocket, your ride capsule spins on an unseen arm, pinning you with centrifugal force. That ingenuity, and a “post-show” games area that could occupy a family for an hour on its own, easily qualifies it as one of the most unique attractions in any theme park. Few people would call this their favorite Disney ride, but it earns respect on its design merit.
Jungle Cruise (Disneyland, Magic Kingdom)
First opened in 1955, this ride was created to promote Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures nature documentaries. The technical wizardry that enabled robotic elephants to bathe in the water stunned a crowd that had never seen color TV, let alone wild rhino. Its backwoods charm still impresses, even with its corny narration by a live guide. The boats navigate the route using a hidden paddle that’s guided by a below-the-surface channel and hidden with nontoxic water coloring.
Toy Story Mania! (Disney’s Hollywood Studios andDisney’s California Adventure)
A graft of a Wii and a carnival ride, it wheels riders in front of a series of 3-D midway-style video games that star characters from the Toy Story films (Bo Peep’s egg toss, Little Green Men ring toss). The computer animation is smooth, and the cannons fire with an easily tugged cord. It’s a lot easier on the eyes and the fingers than the confusing targets and trigger cramps in Disney’s laser-based ride games based on Buzz Lightyear. The line’s usually long because this one scores high on the re-ride meter. Kids are always trying to best their own scores—or their parents’.
Spaceship Earth (Epcot)
Walt wanted EPCOT Center (now Epcot) to be his final legacy, and when his colleagues finally built it, 16 years after his 1966 death, they populated his vision of America’s progress with stiff-jointed Audio-Animatronic figures that made rides like Pirates of the Caribbean such seminal attractions. Spaceship Earth, housed within the geodesic dome that serves as Epcot’s icon, has survived with its hokey 1982 idealism mostly intact, and it’s a treasured glimpse at Walt’s fading dream. “It’s also an S.O.B. to operate and maintain,” says Kurtti. “But there it is, still popular, still inspiring, almost 30 years later.”
It’s a Small World (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom)
Created for the World’s Fair of 1964 to promote UNICEF, this 10-minute float through doll-populated versions of world cultures is now de rigueur for the toddler set. True, the pure-hearted song is much-maligned, but those scoffers may regain respect when they learn the ditty was cleverly composed so its repeating verse and chorus would never clash. And it could have been noisier: originally, Walt wanted all the children to sing their own national anthems. Go to Disneyland’s, which is the World’s Fair original, although some Disney characters were added in 2009.
Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom)
It was always an unlikely topic for family-friendly Disney: panoramas of pillaging, inebriation, and the enslavement of voluptuous women. But now the comical “Pirates,” with its life-size sailing ship and rosy-cheeked roguery, has been made fresh again; in 2006 a likeness of Johnny Depp’s mascara-smeared Captain Jack Sparrow was comfortably installed in an experience that had once been quintessentially ‘60s Disney. “The production design, lighting, effects, and costuming are epic Hollywood,” says Kurtti.