Disney's Best Original Rides
It’s a small, if controversial, price to pay for Walt Disney’s forward-looking legacy. His motto was “Keep moving forward,” and his original rides have often evolved as technology and storytelling modes shift. Yet the Disney parks that Walt knew haven’t changed past recognition. Both American resorts retain a few attractions that Walt supervised and enjoyed himself.
As a tribute to Snow White’s Scary Adventures, we’ve highlighted the best original Disney rides, which appeal not only to serious Mouseheads, but also to casual fans looking for a dose of old-fashioned fun.
Walt’s family-friendly rides were like his Mickey Mouse Club on TV: simply decorated and evocative of the essential emotions of childhood. The formula worked so well that many original rides were duplicated in Florida for Walt Disney World and for the three, soon to be four, international resorts.
Some remain beloved, even with the rise of newer rides by Disney Imagineers who favor video projections, complicated computer operational systems, and characters that promote the modern corporate canon. Consider favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean—a ride about drunken pillaging somehow rendered family-friendly—and It’s a Small World, whose sincere ditty has been getting stuck in the heads of generations of kids.
Bob Gurr was a longtime designer for WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) and created the vehicles for many such seminal Disney rides. Some park-goers may take these older attractions for granted, but that only speaks to their success in innovating techniques that the amusement industry has imitated ever since. “Walt knew all about the various manufacturing possibilities,” says Gurr, “and wound up inventing something new just to get the attraction he wanted.”
The best original Disney rides still deliver what Walt—and his fans—want. Take them for a spin.
Snow White’s Scary Adventures (Disneyland)
One of the few rides present on the opening day of both Disneyland (1955) and Disney World (1971), the original name of this indoor electric cart ride was Snow White and Her Adventures, and it was told from her point of view, so the heroine never appeared. In recent decades, that was remedied, and the name was made more suggestive of the dark forest and witch that await ride-goers. Walt Disney World’s version, deemed too scary for young kids, even with the changes, will be demolished for a Princess meet-and-greet area, while Disneyland’s 1955 original remains.
Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom)
The indoor boat excursion—a ride about drunken pillaging somehow rendered family-friendly—was the last ride Disney oversaw, and it opened four months after his death. “Walt was intimately involved in the storytelling, from the earliest character and scene sketches to the full-size dimensional mock-ups,” says former Disney designer Bob Gurr. The second-floor suite above the ride’s entrance on New Orleans Square in Disneyland was intended to be for the Disney family.
Storybook Land Canal Boats (Disneyland)
Harriet Burns, the first female Imagineer, told Jeff Kurtti, author of Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends, that Walt helped stock the intricate miniature dioramas seen on this outdoor boat ride in Disneyland’s Fantasyland. “He would bring little miniatures to us that he collected when he went on his trips. Beautiful little porcelain jugs and washbasins, and tiny things.”
Jungle Cruise (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom)
In Disneyland’s early days, Walt Disney was known as a nature documentarian as well as an animator, and one of his greatest brands was the True-Life Adventures nonfiction series. He personally shifted film workers from the Disney Studio to his theme park project to approximate an experience that made guests feel like they were in a movie. That concept for a ride is standard in today’s heavily branded theme park world, but in 1955 it was novel. “[Walt] knew how animals move realistically and sometimes would act out a scene in animal motion to show the designers what he wanted,” says Gurr.
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress (Magic Kingdom)
The carousel was built for the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, New York City, where the exhibit sponsor, General Electric, wanted to showcase consumer products. That made the 21-minute show, which moves audiences on a ring past short vignettes featuring audio-animatronic figures, “a living commercial,” as Gurr puts it. The result, now installed in Florida, isn’t a modern-day blockbuster, but it was reportedly one of Disney’s favorite accomplishments.
Mark Twain Riverboat (Disneyland; in Magic Kingdom as Liberty Square Riverboat)
The maiden voyage of this steam-powered paddleboat, which sails on an unseen track in a loop on the Rivers of America, came four days before Disneyland’s official opening on July 17, 1955. Walt and his wife, Lillian, threw a private party aboard the boat to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Once the park was up and running, Disney used to hang out in the fourth-level pilot’s cabin to escape the crowds.
Casey Jr. Circus Train (Disneyland)
Walt Disney adored trains so much that he ringed his park with them and had another built in his backyard in L.A.’s Holmby Hills. But this miniature version gave him as much trouble as a full-size one. The ride’s hills caused improperly balanced cars to tip backward, and it was jerry-rigged to operate for the TV cameras on opening day before being shut down for overhauls. Disney also directed the sleighs to be removed from the nearby King Arthur Carrousel (he wanted only horses on his merry-go-round) and refitted them as train carriages here.
It’s a Small World (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom)
Walt Disney was already spearheading three attractions for the 1964–65 World’s Fair when, with less than a year to go, UNICEF commissioned him to rush a fourth to completion. He had to cut corners to get it done in time. “The Imagineers cleverly created a simple show using one design for all the hundreds of animated singing dolls, along with a simple but practical boat ride system that delivered very high hourly guest capacity,” says Gurr. Out of necessity, a childhood classic was born.
Matterhorn Bobsleds (Disneyland)
Walt needed something to disguise a support pole for the Skyway gondola and to discourage guests from using an empty space for romantic activities. “[He] was in Europe during the filming of Third Man on the Mountain and was fascinated by the Matterhorn and Alpine bobsleds,” says Gurr, who handled the track layouts and the sleds. Walt asked Arrow Development, his favorite outside manufacturer, for the fastest way to fabricate it. “Arrow said bent-up pipe would be the quickest way,” says Gurr. And the world’s first tubular steel roller coaster was born.
Autopia (Disneyland; in Magic Kingdom as Tomorrowland Speedway)
Walt Disney entrusted Gurr, then a green 23-year-old, with designing and making the bodies of the miniature cars for this automobile ride. “Walt had his very own unique car, quite typical of Walt wanting something no other amusement park had,” says Gurr. Walt’s ride had special upholstery and a bumper fashioned from a 1953 Pontiac. Gurr didn’t anticipate the rigors of a Disneyland ride—on opening day, there wasn’t a guide rail, and Autopia became a free-for-all. Although they were patterned after the Ferrari and looked good, by the end of the first week, only two cars out of 40 still worked.