Alexander: When you run the biggest theme park chain in the world, your biggest successes become household names. I would bet money that the number of households in the U.S. that have heard of Space Mountain outweigh the number that haven’t, and Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the most globally-recognized intellectual properties (thank you, Johnny Depp).
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But what about the other side of the coin? Two years ago, we put together a list of the 20 Top Disney Attractions Worldwide, chronicling the industry juggernaut’s most beloved, dazzling, and notable attractions – but what about the rides that even the biggest Disney fans overlook? What impressive diversions do we take for granted? Which classics sit in the shadows of bigger classics? What oddballs haven’t yet had their day in the sun?
This list came about because, after hitting each of the 12 Disney theme parks in 2018, we realized there’s a sizable population of rides out there that are buzz-worthier than their reputations suggest – whether it be lack of exposure, a troubled track record, or some other obstacle blocking it from the limelight. When you think of a brand as domineering as Disney, it’s easy to forget that the backbones of their parks are comprised of more than a few quiet triumphs.
Spaceship Earth – EPCOT
This felt like as good a place as any to start – I can’t think of a better example of an overlooked Disney ride than one whose show building is way more famous than the ride itself. Across America and around the World, if you showed someone a picture of Spaceship Earth from the outside, you’d be met with an impressive number of people recognizing it to be Walt Disney World. Ask them what’s inside the ubiquitous geodesic sphere and you can expect mostly shrugs, confused stares, and responses along the lines of “I thought it was just decorative. There’s something in there?”
Spaceship Earth has experienced a great deal of transformations over its relatively short lifespan – perhaps a steady stream of changes has kept the ride away from sentimental status with WDW enthusiasts (and when it comes to Disney, nothing speaks louder than sentiment). Why else would such an impressive attraction be such an uncommon topic when discussing the World’s 6th most visited theme park? All we can say is that, subjectively, this Pirates-esque history of communication/technology is still the star of Future World (for now), and with a 2 year remodel on the horizon, the future for Spaceship Earth looks bright.
Aquatopia – Tokyo DisneySea
Pretty much everything at Tokyo DisneySea is a knockout. The golden child of Disney’s 12 parks, DisneySea seems to be everything that every imagineer hoped it would be (it’s amazing what can be accomplished with a $3B+ budget), and the park’s decidedly less-flashy offerings are no exception. To love DisneySea is to love the park’s unparalleled atmosphere, exuberant energy, and dark-thriller Holy Trinity (Journey to the Center of the Earth, Indiana Jones Adventure, Tower of Terror), but one could say DisneySea’s best quality is its variety of “surprise” rides – ones that prove to be highlights despite underestimation.
Perhaps the best example is Aquatopia, a strange and wonderful application of Disney’s Local Positioning System vehicles, which scuttle around in about 6 inches of water. Sound weird? It is. But this is funky experience is greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts incarnate – hovering about in charming little watercraft (why haven’t they put faces on them and turned it into a Cars cross-brand yet?) as they explore the various elements of Port Discovery is more rewarding than it has any right to be. Don’t ask “why?” – just enjoy.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! – Disney California Adventure
The only real crime Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! committed was that it replaced a cult classic. Despite a lifespan of >15 years at Disney California Adventure, the global fascination with The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror was enough elicit bonafide hysteria from Disney fans when a Guardians retheme was announced. Even with the superior Orlando version safe from alterations, the loss of Anaheim’s Tower was met with a level of bitterness not seen in California since Peoplemover closed in 1995. Guardians of the Galaxy‘s superb application of 4K projections, varied thematic/musical/dropping sequences, a solid queue/pre-show, and an impressive Halloween overlay is barely enough to extinguish to frustrations of more open-minded Tower of Terror fans – but only if they happen to like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Roaring Rapids – Shanghai Disneyland
If the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s not because you missed it on your last visit to WDW – Roaring Rapids is one of the youngest (in terms of overall operating days) rides at Disney’s youngest resort, Shanghai Disney. Despite opening with Shanghai Disney in June of 2016, the ride closed shortly thereafter and didn’t reopen until early 2017 (supposedly it was “not operating up to Disney’s standards”). When Roaring returned, much of the initial fanfare around the resort had subsided, and the established hierarchy of Tron, Pirates, and Soarin’ made it an easy one to overlook (reopening during the coldest month of the year didn’t help, either). Nevertheless, Shanghai Disneyland’s regulars are warming up to the park’s resident wet ride, and visitors from overseas will be fondly reminded of Roaring Rapids’ fraternal American twin, Grizzly River Run.
it’s a small world – Tokyo Disneyland
In Worldwide Walt Disney Attractions Top 20, I confessed that it’s a small world is perhaps my favorite Disney ride. While the ride’s technological achievements (and my undying love for it, particularly Anaheim’s holiday overlay) justified an honorable mention in Top 20, I omitted it the ride from the list in an act of personal restraint due to its polarizing nature.
Most people either love or hate small world. With its legions of devout fans and choruses of groaning, Disney-worn dads and teenagers, there’s nary a ride that elicits a more diverse reception. Lovers of small world find great satisfaction in discovering the unique characteristics of each installation, but for nay-sayers, to ride one small world is to ride them all. While there’s some truth to the latter statement (even small world experts struggle to pinpoint the finer variances between rides), a 2018 remodel of Tokyo’s small world makes it the one with a little something extra: an elaborate indoor queue full of brand-new scenes, numerous animatronics, and that same Mary Blair charm that lured you to the ride in the first place. As a bonus, Tokyo’s remodeled ride features many of the Disney characters found in Anaheim and Hong Kong’s small world, plus new inclusions from films like Frozen and Brave.
Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin – Disneyland
Nobody predicted the massive success of summer 1988 blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the Touchstone Pictures-released mixed-media crime drama/comedy was the inspiration behind major expansions for Tokyo Disney and Disneyland in 1993, anchored by Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin – a dark ride with a twist. The unique “teacup”-style vehicles and Mr. Toad-on-steroids visuals made Car Toon Spin an unexpected hit that echoed the success of its namesake film – alas, the film’s success was also its downfall.
The numerous IP licenses that made Roger Rabbit possible skyrocketed in price in the wake of the film’s success, rendering a sequel cost prohibitive, and Disney’s film making attention was already focused on The Little Mermaid, who’s monumental success came with much lower price tag. Disney’s animation renaissance quickly pushed Roger Rabbit into obscurity, and by the 2000s, there was seldom a trace of the goofy detective outside Toontown city limits. Nevertheless, the film and the ride have aged well (the same can’t be said for Toontown as a whole), and with Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway rumored to be the star of a much-needed relaunch for Anaheim’s Toontown, Car Toon Spin could stand to gain a major ridership resurgence.
Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster – Walt Disney Studios
As much as both of Disney’s film studio-themed parks struggle to impress, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is credited with keeping both parks from dipping into irrelevant status as the imagineers clamor to “fix” the parks. Similarly, Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster serves as Walt Disney World’s sole bid into the thrill coaster market (a retaliation against Universal’s Islands of Adventure), helping give Disney’s Hollywood Studios purpose beyond a failed “ride the movies” trope.
Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith at Paris’ Walt Disney Studios, however, hasn’t quite found the same reverence. The 3rd of 3 looping coasters for the resort (and the 2nd of 2 Vekoma indoor launched loopers), the French Rock ‘N’ was built to demonstrate a commitment to building thrilling rides (a move which saved the resort from financial ruin with the opening of Space Mountain De la Terre à la Lune in 1995). While Orlando’s installation raised eyebrows and delighted fans, Paris’ was just another chip on the bet of thrill rides being the answer to the resort’s shortcomings. Subsequent major remodels of Space Mountain have prematurely aged the stagnant Rock ‘N’ (which also lacks the storytelling element of the Orlando ride), but the “live concert experience” recreated by a menagerie of synchronized lights still makes for one of Disney’s better indoor coaster experiences.
Dinosaur – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
If Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster was WDW’s effective strike against Universal’s The Incredible Hulk, Dinosaur is Disney’s attempt at holding a candle to Jurassic Park River Adventure. With a focus on animals present, past, and fantastic (see: cancelled dragons and unicorns area that wound up at Islands of Adventure), Animal Kingdom had a tall order to fill with Countdown to Extinction (later, Dinosaur after the 2000 Disney CG Land Before Time rip-off that nobody remembers). Using a carbon copy of Disneyland’s immensely successful Indiana Jones Adventure, Animal Kingdom bestowed a gift of cheesy presentation and flimsy storytelling that’s as fun to gawk at as it is to ride. Still, a $100M-ish ride shouldn’t be fetching such meager ridership (5min waits are Dinosaur’s specialty), so I think we can expect a major reimagining of this thrilling cheesefest at some point in the next 5 years.
Iron Man Experience – Hong Kong Disneyland
While compiling our Worldwide Walt Disney Attractions Top 20, there was one E-ticket left in the entire chain of 12 Disney Parks that I hadn’t experienced: Hong Kong Disneyland’s Iron Man Experience. While the decision was made early on to omit screen-centric rides like Soarin and Star Tours from the list in favor of tracked rides, there are few tracked rides in the Disney lexicon more deserving of a place on this list than Iron Man.
Using a 5-vehicle fleet of Star Tours-style simulators designed by Tony Stark, guests visiting the Hong Kong chapter of Stark Industries are drafted into an explosive showdown that unfolds throughout the country’s unique environs (for anyone one wondering why it hasn’t been cloned, the attraction’s Hong Kong–centric story is the answer). Perhaps now the signature attraction of Disney’s most underrated resort, Iron Man Experience will forever be a driving motivation to visit Hong Kong Disney – you’ll never Experience it anywhere else.
Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage – Tokyo DisneySea
Of the 10 rides feautured on this list, Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage is the one we most regret not featuring in our Disney Top 20. When I rode in 2017, I didn’t think it was necessarily up with Disney’s best (most entries on this list I still believe aren’t *quite* on that level), but my rides on Sinbad’s in Sept 2018 were eye opening – I didn’t know how much the ride mattered to me until I returned with Sean to Tokyo DisneySea and re-discovered its majesty. The more we rode, the more passionate we felt about the story, music, and characters, and by the end of our 3 days at Tokyo Disney Resort, we’d clocked 7 total rides – 3 more than our next-most-ridden ride at the resort, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage is a slow burn. The audio animatronics are impressive and plentiful (if a little overwhelming) and the music is charming (much more so upon revisiting), but the theme is a head scratcher for many Disney fans. “Is this a movie?” They often ask. “I must’ve missed this one.” Truth is, the ride was a much different beast before its 2007 remodel (with it came a much more cheerful energy, the amazing Alan Menkin-composesd “Compass of You Heart” theme music, and Sinbad’s tiger cub cohort, Chandu, who is the clear star of the ride). Ten years after being “fixed,” the ride still doesn’t have the following we think it deserves; what fans it has still don’t often fill the boats on this Pirates-level people-eater, but that’s quite alright with us – we beseech you to find us something more satisfying than repeat walk-on rides on perhaps the best ride at Disney’s best park.
We hope you enjoyed our ode to some of Disney’s unsung heroes. We hope that your next day at a Disney park includes a ride on one of these gems. Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts on these and other underrated Disney rides in the comments below.