About this time in 2017, we dropped a Disney Rides Top 20 to celebrate the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. It’s been an extremely long four years, and the landscape of Disney’s ride offerings have grown exponentially. We’re excited to bring a dramatically altered countdown of Disney’s top rides from around the world – each one pushing the limits of storytelling entertainment and testifying for the visionary craftwork of Walt Disney Imagineering.
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20. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – Magic Kingdom
Eager to address the shortcomings of their flagship park’s Fantasyland area (while also responding to the historic success of Universal’s Wizarding World), Magic Kingdom’s “New Fantasyland” project would bring several updated experiences to the original Walt Disney World park – the largest of which being Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The swinging carts from the diamond mine of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lent themselves beautifully to a roller coaster concept, and with the help of an impressive indoor show scene and satisfactory outdoor coaster segments, Magic Kingdom delivered a clever hybrid attraction. While ride duration is a bit on the shorter side (wise critics anticipated a “larger Barnstormer” rather than a “smaller Big Thunder”), Seven Dwarfs Mine Train’s only crime is that its immense popularity and lengthy queues highlight the modest track length. Nevertheless, Mine Train is picture perfect from start to finish, and even bests its Shanghai Disney carbon copy with the help of an additional show scene in the final brake run, which was reclaimed form Magic Kingdom’s retired Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
19. Na’vi River Journey – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Speaking of rides that are short on time but strong in content, our next stop is in the Valley of Mo’ara, home to Pandora – The World of Avatar and Navi River Journey. Like Seven Dwarfs before it, River Journey‘s only crime is being a D-ticket ride dealing with E-ticket expectations and E-ticket crowds. Pound for pound, the artistic fortitude of Na’vi River Journey is unsurpassed in all of Walt Disney World, and only equalled by the queue of fellow Avatar endeavor, Flight of Passage. The gentle “old mill” style ride won’t move the needles for thrillseekers, but fans of traditional dark rides can count on countless practical effects, complex lighting schemes, and a variety of audio-animatronic optical tricks. Furthermore, the staggeringly radiant Na’vi Shaman – to whom the ride belongs – remains the pinnacle of themed robotics.
18. Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! – Disney California Adventure
For a moment, let’s take The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror out of the equation. Does the Guardians re-skin of the ride feel a little forced? Perhaps. Would it feel as forced if it had been built as Guardians from the ground up? Perhaps not. There is a wealth of accomplishment that comes with successfully giving a drop tower a rich story with a defined beginning, middle, and end. Maybe some of us have Marvel Cinematic Universe fatigue. Maybe we’re tired of Chris Pratt. Maybe we just really liked The Twilight Zone. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the power of randomized show sequences on 4k screens performed by talented actors with a good script set to one of six iconic songs – all on a drop tower. Of course Tower of Terror walked so that Mission: BREAKOUT! could run, but we aren’t moved by the original’s self-obsessed rehashing of the TV show’s Season 5 title sequence furnished with vague glimmers of storytelling that conclude with a drop program instead of actually closing the narrative arc. The “Society of Explorers and Adventurers” theme for Tower of Terror in Tokyo, as well as Paris’ Tower revamp that fleshed out multiple narratives based on the Hollywood Tower story, are worthy of praise – but their success is not Orlando’s. Three-dimensional movements and TV props now feel like a gimmick: mechanically simpler versions of Tower run circles around the original, with sturdier storytelling and effects that aren’t 25 years old. For Mission: BREAKOUT in particular we find the premise and execution to be a cut above, even if we do miss the neo-Haunted Mansion feel of The Hollywood Tower.
17. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt – Tokyo Disneyland
We’re not saying that Pooh’s Hunny Hunt hasn’t aged well – on the contrary: at 21 years old, the ride is still the bread and butter of Tokyo Disneyland. We will say, however, that time and technology have somewhat passed it by: what was once easily one of Disney’s best rides now feels like a stepping stone toward larger and more dramatic applications of the groundbreaking Local Positioning System trackless ride software. The use of independently-moving vehicles is taken for all it’s worth on Hunny Hunt, whose circular “hunny” pots hover around aimlessly like Roombas through scenes that aren’t unlike the traditional-style Pooh rides at the US and Chinese parks. Still, moments like the Tigger “jumping room” and the “Heffalumps and Woozles” scene sparkle even as the magic of LPS becomes more conventional. The technology usage came full-circle in late 2020 with the opening of The Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast right next door to Pooh, which swaps out 5-passenger honey pots for 10-passenger soup dishes for what we can only assume is Rise of the Resistance but with talking furniture. (Yes, that was a joke. Sort of)
16. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars – Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland’s tepid initial reactions from both locals and tourists landed Disney in hot water with the Hong Kong government: the play-it-safe approach proved to be an overcorrection of the financial fiasco of Euro Disney, and now Hong Kong had an underwhelming Disneyland. The solution was a major expansion of three new lands featuring five new rides in total; two would be custom, embargoed E-tickets that would give the Hong Kong park globally-unique experiences. The roller coaster component of this agreement was Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, which wears 3 distinct hats: the presence of Big Thunder Mountain, the aesthetic of Grizzly River Run, and the ride system of Expedition Everest. A custom area built to highlight the coaster’s design, Grizzly Gulch offers an expansive midway showing off a majority of Big Grizzly‘s tangled layout, which is never without a train of riders in view. Like Everest, capacity for the ride is exceptional, with multiple lifts and mid-ride track switches making 5-train operation look easy. Unlike Everest, however, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars shines with the manicured polish of a new ride even after almost a decade of service, and all of the effects actually operate as intended. We’d be lying, though, if the strobe effects of Big Grizzly‘s dynamite scene didn’t offer a fond callback to our beloved “Disco Yeti.”
15. Roaring Rapids – Shanghai Disneyland
Much to the surprise of most Disney fanatics, a truly wet water ride was apparently a priority for the Shanghai project – the last such ride, 2001’s Grizzly River Run, would serve as the inspiration. Though part of the opening roster for Shanghai Disney, Roaring Rapids would spend the last few months of 2016 closed to fine tune the resort’s breakout star: a T-rex–sized crocodilian creature called “Q’aráq.” Fans of Grizzly River Run will recognize Roaring Rapids as a bigger–better–deeper version of its California counterpart but with South American flare – it even broke the record for longest river rapids ride. In addition to their encounter with the Q’aráq, rafters will endure a climb up “Roaring Mountain” (which offers a view of downtown Shanghai on clear days) and a drift down flooding riverbanks, arounds seismic vents, and over a series of waterfalls.
14. Matterhorn Bobsleds – Disneyland
Sometimes, the rides that we love are sentimental favorites. We’re not saying that certain favorites are unsubstantiated in their reverence, but occasionally indulgence clouds our judgement. We asked ourselves if Matterhorn Bobsleds was really one of the best Disney rides out there, or if it was just our unabashed love of the old Arrow ride getting in the way. When we think about the ride’s strengths, however – and how the ride has grown over the years – we are willing to go out on a limb and say that Matterhorn really is an objectively strong ride. It has great curb appeal, a charming aesthetic, a pre-show of sorts as bobsledders climb to the peak (screens disguised as translucent panes of ice? Genius), clever set pieces (of both the static and seemingly-alive variety), and truly one of the most thrilling ride experiences Disney has ever given us. And as if that weren’t enough, Matterhorn Bobsleds boasts two totally unique tracks – did you really experience Matterhorn if you didn’t ride both sides? We think not.
13. Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages – Tokyo DisneySea
When Tokyo DisneySea opened in 2001, it was an instant international success. With the Oriental Land Company fronting the bill, Imagineers ran wild: “Blue Sky” concepts that the Western parks would’ve shaved down into budget-friendly expenditures were instead given rocket boosters in Tokyo, which sent several attractions into immediate notoriety upon opening. An oft-overlooked misfire in the otherwise flawless rollout of Tokyo DisneySea was the Arabian Coast’s signature ride, Sinbad’s Seven Voyages. With a dark tone and no media tie-in, the ride missed the mark with audiences, and its high capacity and location at the back of the park amplified its poor ridership. Following DisneySea’s addition of newer rides like Tower of Terror and nearby Raging Spirits, Sinbad went under the knife for a re-Imagineering in 2006 and re-emerged as Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages. The new version of the ride kept what worked – dazzling scenes with countless animatronics that meld it’s a small world–esque cuteness with a Pirates of the Caribbean level of sophistication – and added a lightened tone, a cute animal sidekick for Sinbad (a baby tiger named Chandu), and an original song by Alan Menkin. The new Sinbad was a hit (if soaring sales of kawaii, Chandu-themed merchandise were any indication) and now stands proudly as one of Disney’s most visually and musically satisfying diversions.
12. Big Thunder Mountain – Disneyland Paris
It’s no secret that mine train coasters are a quintessential Disney experience. In our minds, these coasters are flowers from the seed of miniature railroads, which Walt Disney so loved. The original Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was a repurposing of Frontierland’s first signature attraction, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, whose immediate success made mine train coasters a necessity for a Wild West-themed areas at each resort. Though Shanghai lacks a Big Thunder, Seven Dwarfs is a mine train nonetheless, and Magic Kingdom is fortunate enough to have both – plus a souped-up one at nearby Animal Kingdom. Indeed, we’d be remiss to understate what mine train coasters mean to Disney, and nowhere is this more the case than Disneyland Paris – the only park to open with a Big Thunder Mountain, and the only Disney park to launch their mine train coaster before their Space Mountain. A lot of weight for a single coaster to carry at the World’s most anticipated new theme park, no? Not for Paris’ Big Thunder Mountain, whose location in the middle of The Rivers of the Far West was nothing if not a stroke of genius, complete with lengthy underground tunnels that connect the ride’s station to its entangled layout across the water. In addition to offering a better setting than the already-pretty-great Big Thunder coasters, its final act off the 3rd lift offers one of the most exhilarating sequences of any Disney ride, leaving riders enraptured in the brake run after erupting back to the surface from tunnel #2.
11. Avatar Flight of Passage – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
We don’t think Disney gets enough credit for giving us the Flying Theater. Disney’s California Adventure’s flubbed rollout distracted us from something they nailed right away: Soarin’ Over California. While not as thrilling as Star Tours and not as detailed as a dark ride, Soarin’ was nevertheless a tremendous success, offering stunning views of California’s natural wonders in a setting that was both exciting and suitable for all ages. What started as a workhorse ride for California Adventure turned into a phenomenon, with countless parks around the world jumping on the Flying Theater bandwagon. Always one step ahead of the competition (well, not always. Sometimes. In this case, definitely), Disney swiftly upped the ante on the Soarin‘ concept with Avatar Flight of Passage. By this point, all Soarin’ rides had been converted to the global Around the World version, but Avatar took it a step further by taking guests to a vast, elegant planet of the alien variety – on the back of a breathing, flying creature, no less. Even if motion simulators and 3D glasses aren’t for you, the breathtaking queue for Flight of Passage can’t be missed.
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