Greatest Disney Attraction…Ever?

I’m not the first to raise the question “what’s the greatest Disney attraction ever?” It’s no wonder it gets asked so often, because it’s hard to answer: what’s meant by “greatest?” Most popular? Most groundbreaking? Most influential? Is it even possible to pick a “greatest” attraction objectively? I’ve foolishly decided to try anyway.

In an attempt to sort this all out, I decided to create several lists, each rating the best Disney attractions in a different category. By doing some sort of unscientific average of the attractions on the lists, it seemed possible, at least in theory, that a greatest attraction could be selected.

But what should the categories be? I came up with a lot of ideas, including “most entertaining,” “most thrilling,” “most unusual,” even “most copied.” A lot of these ideas had problems, however. “Most entertaining?” Too subjective. “Most thrilling?” Again, pretty subjective, and there are a lot of great attractions that wouldn’t be considered thrilling. By removing duplicates and picking out only the most salient categories, I was able to condense the list down to the following four:

  • Most Influential Within Disney
  • Most Influential on the Industry/Outside World
  • Most Groundbreaking
  • Most Famous/Infamous

By evaluating attractions on these scales, it’s my hypothesis—and hopefully you’ll agree, even just a little—that it’s possible to come up with one, single winner. After I pick that winner, I’ll throw out any pretense of objectivity and name my personal “best” list.

In order to make my lists as fair as possible, I’m going to generally defer on including attractions I haven’t been on. (The only case where I’ve included an attraction I haven’t been on is Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future, because it was demolished many decades ago.) Unfortunately, that means I’m not going to include any attractions built at Tokyo Disneyland since I visited in 1995, disqualifying all of the great DisneySea attractions and Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, even though I’m sure some of them deserve mention. C’est la vie. Hopefully I can correct this soon in an upcoming visit.

So, without further delay, here we go!

Most Influential Within Disney

Some attractions go over so well with the public that Disney builds them over and over again. Others may not appear in so many manifestations, but they clearly lead Disney into new directions. Here’s a list of the attractions that have seemed most influential within Disney over the years.

1. Pirates of the Caribbean

I’ll mention Pirates a lot more later in this column, so I’ll keep it short here: since its premiere in 1967, Pirates defined what Disney attractions are supposed to be like. We see copies of it in every Disney location (Florida residents angrily demanded its installation when they realized it wasn’t in their Disney World park at opening day), and we see echoes of it in The Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones Adventure, and the Tower of Terror. Arguably, Disney has never matched it. Additionally, one of the most significant trends at Disney in the past twenty years is the highly-themed queuing area, and I believe it was Disney World’s Pirates that pioneered that concept.

2. Adventure Thru Inner Space

This extinct Disneyland attraction deserves mention not for its content, but because of its introduction of “Omnimover” ride vehicles, variants of which have become a standard on Disney attractions. The Haunted Mansion, If You Had Wings, and almost every Epcot attraction use some descendant of this system. Going beyond simply moving guests through the attraction, the steady-moving, rotating vehicles enabled Disney to build its attractions as if they were movies, directing the riders to look at exactly what the attraction’s designer wanted them to see. Looking at the direction the theme park industry is heading in today, it’s arguable that Disney’s ride vehicle innovations—and this was among the first—are more significant than even their achievements in Audio-Animatronics.

3. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

Disney’s success in creating a mostly convincing Abraham Lincoln led to the creation of Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, Epcot’s American Adventure, and even an entire theme park, Disney’s America, which never materialized. The trend created by Mr. Lincoln is on the wane—Disney parks now seems less interested in realistic portrayals of both humans and American history—but it’s clearly one of the most important technologies and attractions that the company developed.

4. The Enchanted Tiki Room

The Tiki Room rates as influential for at least two reasons: 1) it’s the first public use of Audio-Animatronics, which of course became pervasive throughout many of Disney’s biggest attractions, and 2) the Disney “musical revue”-style show, although clearly on the decline now, made possible classics like Country Bear Jamboree as well as less memorable renditions like Kitchen Kabaret and Food Rocks!

5. Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future

Walt Disney was fascinated with how we’d live in the future, and Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future —located where the King Triton fountain is now, in front of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland—is the predecessor to all of Disney’s futuristic visions: the Carousel of Progress and Progressland, Space Mountain’s Home of Future Living, Horizons, and even Epcot (Disney’s utopian city, not the theme park that exists today.)

6. Star Tours

Star Tours begat Body Wars, which begat Indiana Jones, which begat Dinosaur. They all began with this George Lucas-inspired attraction. Not only was it cloned at every Disney location, it was evolved to produce Stormrider at DisneySea and Soarin’ Over California at California Adventure.

7. Magic Journeys

The Magic Journeys 3-D film that debuted at Epcot’s Journey Into Imagination pavilion proved two things: 1) that 3-D movie technology had advanced quite a ways from its 1950s origins, and 2) people loved the effect. Its success paved the way for an incredible number of Disney attractions that built on its foundation: Captain EO, Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, MuppetVision 3-D, and It’s Tough To Be A Bug.

8. The Matterhorn

If the public hadn’t warmed up to this one, it’s unlikely we’d have seen Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, or any other Disney thrill rides in the timeframe we did.

9. Dumbo

Dumbo’s great, but part of me wishes this attraction weren’t so influential. Do we need so many clones of it floating around the parks?

Most Influential on the Industry/Outside World

The concept of theming an amusement park to look like something other than an amusement park is Disney’s biggest influence on the outside world, and a significant percentage of modern commercial architecture (restaurants, malls, and hotels, just to name a few) feels this. But Disney’s attractions themselves have had a significant impact both inside and outside the amusement industry. Here are some of the attractions that have most influenced the “real” world.

1. Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean not only defined a new genre of amusement park attraction, it defined Disneyland, and defined what everyone saw the future of entertainment to be. Steven Spielberg claimed that his movie The Goonies was based on Pirates, but I name it here only because it’s the most direct rip-off of the attraction. Virtually every modern blockbuster movie owes something to Pirates, so pervasive is its influence on our culture. Every new attraction, even today, wants to be like it.

2. The Matterhorn

Although there are very few coasters like it, as the first tubular steel roller coaster, The Matterhorn became a prototype for at least 80% of the coasters built since the 1970s.

3. The Haunted Mansion

No one visits a haunted house—or even thinks about the concept of a haunted house—without first thinking of Disney’s implementation.

4. The Monorail

Would anyone even know what a “monorail” is without Disney? Walt Disney made this one word synonymous with the future of transportation, and even though very few exist outside of Disney’s worlds, it’s a testament to the sticking power of the vision that everyone knows instantly what you’re talking about when you say the word.

5. Star Tours

Star Tours spawned a whole new industry after it made its appearance at Disneyland in 1987. But despite the big splash it made, this genre of ride has nearly burnt itself out: just about everything interesting that can be done with the classic ‘movie projected on the front of the simulator’-type ride has been done. Thankfully, it’s morphed into new and considerably more interesting forms. Most significantly, Indiana Jones and Universal’s Spider-Man spring from this attraction’s motion simulators.

6. Disneyland Railroad

Does any amusement park built between the years of 1955 and 1980 not have a train? Trains at amusement parks existed before Disneyland, but Disneyland made it a requirement.

7. Captain EO

Magic Journeys may have inspired it, but Captain EO was the success that made the theme park industry take notice. Paramount parks have recently dabbled in 3-D, but it’s Universal Studios that’s really taken the ball and run with it. Their Terminator 3-D attraction raised the bar, but their Spider-Man attraction combined 3-D film with the ride vehicles from Indiana Jones and created something unbelievable.

8. Country Bear Jamboree

Country Bear Jamboree not only spawned rip-off attractions at numerous amusement parks, it also directly inspired two fast food chains—Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza Place—and, in Summer 2002, a movie.

9. The Indiana Jones Adventure

Indy hasn’t been around long, but it clearly set a new standard when it premiered in 1995. Without it, Universal’s Spider-Man just wouldn’t have been the same, and I suspect that the entire next generation of attractions on the drawing boards owe it a considerable debt.

Most Groundbreaking

No company has advanced the state-of-the-art in the amusement industry more than Disney has. Here are a few of their most astonishing creations:

1. Pirates of the Caribbean

It may owe its biggest debt to the elaborate “Tunnel of Love” attractions at Coney Island earlier in the century, but it’s safe to say that there was nothing quite like it when it premiered in 1967. There still isn’t. Never had someone tried to create a virtual world and achieved this level of success.

2. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

As Disney’s bid to get his Audio-Animatronic figures taken seriously, his Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show at the 1964 World’s Fair Illinois pavilion made a memorable impact, and showed that it was possible to do a lot more with the technology than animate tiki birds.

3. The Matterhorn

I’ve already said enough about The Matterhorn, but its tubular steel structure redefined how to build roller coasters.

4. The Indiana Jones Adventure

Thematically, it owes everything to the movies it’s based upon (which in turn owe a debt to Pirates of the Caribbean ), but technologically, it’s probably Disney’s most innovative ride ever.

5. Universe of Energy

The most elaborate grade-school science lecture ever. The unbelievably huge movie screen displaying the world’s largest piece of animation, the theater that magically turns into a ride, the dinosaurs…it’s fantastic. Of the attractions on display on Epcot’s opening day, Universe of Energy was the only one that I found truly awe-inspiring: the only one that was unlike anything seen before in the Magic Kingdom.

6. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

I’m not sure that anyone thought that building an attraction this elaborate around a freefall ride was possible, but Disney did it. In addition to the unbelievable ride vehicles, the ride features landmark special effects and a beautiful queueing area and pre-show that are truly unnerving.

7. The Haunted Mansion

The “birthday party” scene is probably the most striking and perplexing effect to ever appear in a theme park attraction. Is there any layperson that doesn’t think that “holograms” are the technology behind this?

8. Test Track

No ride vehicles that I’m aware of ever had to do what Test Track ‘s needed to do: cruise around at a leisurely pace, then go from zero to sixty miles an hour in an instant. It took years to make them work correctly, but the results were worth it.

Most Famous/Infamous

Think about walking up to a stranger and asking them to name a Disney attraction. What would they say? Ironically, Disney is as well known for the attractions people hate as it is for the ones people love. Here are some of the favorite—as well as the most “misunderstood”—attractions, the ones that the American public knows the best:

1. Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates is most frequently mentioned as everyone’s favorite attraction, the one thing that can’t be missed during a visit to a Disney park.

2. Space Mountain

The name Space Mountain has almost become synonymous with the term “roller coaster,” and that’s quite an achievement since Space Mountain ‘s first appearance in 1975 made it a late entry into the world of thrill rides.

3. It’s A Small World

A lot of people would rather eat glass than visit this attraction, but it evidently has even more admirers than haters since it appears in every Disney park.

4. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Everyone knows about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and although it’s fun, the reason for its incredible name recognition eludes me. The movie it’s based on—The Adventures of Icabod and Mr. Toad—is not well-known, so that doesn’t explain it. The book it’s based on—The Wind In The Willows —doesn’t provide a clue since most people don’t even know that Mr. Toad is in that book. And although the ride is popular, it doesn’t generate the lines that Peter Pan’s Flight does. So where does this attraction’s name recognition come from? If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

5. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

The Tea Party’s teacups have long since become synonymous with the nausea-inducing amusement park ride.

6. Jungle Cruise

A quintessential Disney experience.

7. The Hall of Presidents

Many of our country’s children—and adults—got a refresher course in American history via The Hall of Presidents. A lot of people love the patriotic message, while others avoid it like bitter medicine they think might be good for them, but would just as soon miss.

8. The Enchanted Tiki Room

The country’s fascination with the South Seas in the late ’50s/early ’60s created this attraction, and in it we have that movement’s last vestige. Say “tiki,” and this attraction is what a lot of people will think of.

9. Country Bear Jamboree

Even more than The Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree was the must-see attraction when Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

And The Winner Is…

Let’s review the nominees:

Most Influential Within Disney

  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Adventures Thru Inner Space
  • Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln
  • The Enchanted Tiki Room
  • Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future

Most Influential On The Industry/Outside World

  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • The Matterhorn
  • The Haunted Mansion
  • The Monorail
  • Star Tours

Most Groundbreaking

  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln
  • The Matterhorn
  • The Indiana Jones Adventure
  • Universe of Energy

Most Famous/Infamous

  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Space Mountain
  • It’s A Small World
  • Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
  • The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Only one attraction appears on all of these lists, and of course it’s Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s revolutionary, it’s unique, it’s spectacular, it’s part of American culture…it’s the best. It succeeds despite the fact that I don’t think most people who ride it can really give a coherent explanation of what they’ve just seen. What does the bayou have to do with underground caverns? What do the caverns have to do with a Caribbean town under siege by pirates? What does any of this have to do with grog-swilling skeletons or a haunted harpsichord that plays itself? Disney fans have come up with their own explanations for all of this, but it’s a tribute to the power of the attraction that even though it’s a challenge to make sense of it all, nobody cares. There’s a feeling that somebody knows what’s going on, and you feel lucky just to be able to see it all take place.

Pirates succeeds for exactly the reason I mention later in this article about the Swiss Family Treehouse: people want to climb out and live in its world. People love being enveloped by the virtual seaside town that Disney created. There’s a balcony just over your left-hand shoulder as you approach the auction scene. Seeing that balcony—even though there’s nothing moving there, and it’s poorly lit—is more evocative for me than all of the animatronic figures put together. Looking past the balcony into the house’s candle-lit interior, it’s hard not to wonder: who lives there? Where are they? Why…? You get the idea. I think everyone has a particular detail that’s his or her favorite, and that’s why this attraction is loved.

My Personal “Best” List

After presenting the previous lists with at least an attempt at impartiality, I’ll conclude with my list—the list of my favorite attractions at the Disney parks.

1. It’s A Small World

Disney’s most maligned attraction is my favorite; it’s like falling inside a beautiful children’s book. I like every park’s version, but I’ll give Disney World’s the lowest marks for not implementing an exterior boarding area and the beautiful facade that characterizes every other installation.

2. Tom Sawyer Island

I’ll give this a top spot because Tom Sawyer Island, for me, defines what makes a Disney park unique. Completely segregated from the rest of the park, this is an attraction that has no lines, is completely self-exploratory, and makes me feel as happy as anything else that I do when I visit one of the Magic Kingdoms. Honorable mention goes to Disneyland Paris’s Adventure Island. It doesn’t manage to capture the same spirit as the Tom Sawyer Islands in the U.S., but it is tremendous. Its huge Skull Rock and spectacular caves make it a completely remarkable experience. But the fact that you don’t need a boat to reach it (you can simply cross a bridge) diminishes the experience.

3. The Haunted Mansion

I’ll give the award here to Disney World’s spectacular rendition of this attraction. The beautiful “House of Usher” exterior, the longer ride with its portrait hall, ghostly piano player, and library…it’s the best, despite the fact that the narration inexplicably disappears after passing through the conservatory until you leave Madame Leota’s seance. My least favorite version of the ride—Disneyland Paris’s version—has a horrible operatic score. And you would have thought that strengthening the storyline would have made the attraction better. Not so—give me back the disconnected vignettes of the U.S. installations any day!

4. Space Mountain

With the exception of Tokyo Disneyland’s copy, the other three parks rendition of this attraction are wildly different. Disney World’s is the original, and its lengthy, eerie queue and dramatic ascent up the first hill make it special. Disneyland’s second-generation implementation, opening just a couple of years later, has a single track, but perhaps a more thrilling, “bobsled”-like ride. Disneyland Paris’s is the most spectacular both on the exterior and the interior, with its Jules Verne-inspired design, three loops, and accelerated launch.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean

Each Pirates, save Tokyo Disneyland’s almost direct clone of Disneyland’s, has something unique to offer. Disneyland’s is the original, and is perhaps the longest. Disney World’s has the unbelievable queuing area through an enormous Spanish fort. I’ll give the nod to Disneyland Paris, however, for taking the best of both attractions and combining them together. It’s got its own Blue Bayou restaurant, an incredible queue, better set layout, and a more logical story ordering that warns guests of the pirates’ ultimate fate at the end of the ride rather than the beginning.

6. Roger Rabbit’s Car-Toon Spin

The ultimate Fantasyland-style dark ride, even though it’s not in Fantasyland. “Inspired” is the best way to describe this attraction. I rode it for the first time just hours after my initial experience on Indiana Jones, and despite how much Indy impressed me, this attraction captured my imagination even more than the big budget attraction did. Whoever developed this attraction clearly loved it.

7. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Perfection. Perfect queuing area and pre-show. Mind-blowing effects that are still mystifying to me. Ride vehicles that somehow move horizontally as well as vertically. Only one in the world—at least at the moment—so Disney-MGM Studios of course has the best implementation.

8. The Indiana Jones Adventure

It’s hard to come up with enough superlatives for this ride. The ride vehicles are brilliant. The queuing area is the most spectacular that’s ever been created. It’s completely innovative: when it was launched, no other attraction was anything like it. The only complaints I could possibly come up with are 1) the ride is perhaps one scene too short; 2) the “rat” scene isn’t nearly as effective as it should be; 3) I’d like to see more “practical” set elements rather than painted-on ones (the tunnel with the poisonous darts whizzing past you comes to mind.) As much as I’d like those problems fixed, they’re really nitpicks. (And at least some of them are fixed over at Tokyo DisneySea!) You can’t get much better than this.

9. Swiss Family Treehouse

Disney’s best attractions make me want to jump out of the queue and live in them. The Swiss Family Treehouse is a prime example; I used to love fantasizing about climbing into one of the little bedrooms—some of them, amazingly, with running water—and spending a summer there.

10. Jungle Cruise

I’m sure it’s not anything like a real cruise in the jungle, but it’s just exactly how I’d like one to be. This attraction forms the cornerstone of what Adventureland is. The Paris Adventureland that lacks this ride certainly feels like it’s missing something.

11. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Great theming, and always a lot of fun. Each park’s version is slightly different, but all are equally enjoyable.

12. Pinocchio

Of all the Fantasyland dark rides, to me, this one has the most going for it. It’s based on Pinocchio, I think the best of the Disney films, so it has good source material. The recreation of my favorite scene in the movie—the visual walkthrough of Gepetto’s cottage, displaying his handmade cuckoo clocks—is recreated almost perfectly. Unusual for the standard Fantasyland ride, it even has some nice special effects: when Monstro the whale jumps out at you, it really is stunning. And the appearance effect of the Blue Fairy is a step beyond what you see in most of these rides (even though the effect rarely seems to be working.) Yes, Peter Pan’s Flight is great, but given the amount of real estate devoted to flyovers of London and Neverland, that attraction finishes before it even gets rolling. Not that I’d want to change Peter Pan, but Pinocchio ‘s ride has a beginning, middle, and end—a real story.

13. Country Bear Jamboree /Enchanted Tiki Room

Nostalgia reasons make these two of my favorite attractions to see at the Disney parks. Country Bear Jamboree has what I still would consider some of the best Audio-Animatronic figures found in any Disney show.

14. Disneyland Railroad Trip Through the Primeval World

A perfect way to relax from the tension of a typical day at Disneyland. It’s hard to believe that Disney World’s designers didn’t see fit to include the trip through the Primeval World in its railroad. Even more mystifying: why do these dinosaurs look more convincing than any built since?

15. California Screamin’

I think this is my favorite roller coaster in the world, and that’s saying something. Most coasters are great at the beginning but lose steam at the end. This one doesn’t. Disneyland Paris’s Space Mountain beats it hands-down for theming, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roller coaster that’s this much fun.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.
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