When I started this site two years ago, my goal was to take a smart approach to covering theme parks. There’s so much intriguing material out there about both history and what’s happening today. I love diving into the attractions and trends that shape the industry. On the other hand, it’s also just cool to throw together a fun list. Disney fans love ranking the attractions in various ways, and I’m no different. Even as I write the post, I’m questioning my picks constantly.
Disney has focused more on thrill rides in recent years, but there are still only seven roller coasters across the four Disney World parks. Epcot still has zero coasters, though the Guardians of the Galaxy will change that fact down the road. The majority remain in The Magic Kingdom, which makes sense given its larger collection of rides. An eighth coaster will join the crowd in 2018 with the Slinky Dog Dash at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. While it’s hard to say where it would rank, my suspicion is that it will slot comfortably in number six behind the top five contenders.
7. Primeval Whirl, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Pros: Takes guests away from better attractions, the spinning
Cons: Off-the-shelf spinner coaster that we see everywhere, an unpleasant ride
Best Part: Retro vibe of Dinoland is effective in the queue and lift hill especially.
One of my least favorite aspects of the latter Eisner era was off-the-shelf attractions becoming more common. It’s okay to use a familiar ride system, but the theming should go well beyond my local Six Flags. I’ve ridden Pandemonium (formerly Tony Hawk’s Big Spin) at Six Flags St. Louis, and it’s an okay ride. Even so, I wouldn’t make a special trip to experience it. Primeval Whirl is a similar coaster with a modest theme placed on top of it. I like the kitschy time-travel sets that feel like they’re out of a vintage roadside attraction, but it can only do so much.
My real issue with Primeval Whirl is the uncomfortable ride. While it’s not too scary for most families, you feel ragged afterwards. Few want to spend the rest of their day hurting. The Dinoland space has also never really clicked with me. The Animal Kingdom needs more rides, and this area helps on that front. Even so, it feels out of place because the rest of the park is so gorgeous. There are clever details and the story makes sense, but the carnival atmosphere doesn’t click. That’s way too much concrete to be part of such a lush theme park.
6. The Barnstormer, The Magic Kingdom
Pros: Good first coaster for kids, the cut-out Goofy billboard
Cons: Painful and cramped experience for adults, queue is directly in the sun
Best Part: The first drop packs a bigger punch than you might expect.
There’s nothing wrong with having a kids’ coaster at The Magic Kingdom. It helps create multiple levels of thrills (and fear) for kids as they grow up with the parks. The Barnstormer sits comfortably inside the Storybook Circus area thanks to some light re-theming to include the Great Goofini. It’s an easy sell. Nestled back within the trees, it’s a fun little jaunt that’s over before you know it. That short length makes it impossible to rank the Barnstormer any higher. There is a huge gap between the top five and the final two slots.
The other issue with The Barnstormer is its slow loading time, which can lead to painful waits in the outdoor queue. There’s a stretch with no shade that does guests no favors in the Florida sun. An influx of FastPass guests can also lead to posted wait times that underestimate the actual wait. I’ve vowed to only ride when I have a rolling FastPass in the future. My kids like it, and that’s the main reason to experience it. The cramped vehicles aren’t comfortable for full-size adults, which is a saving grace of the shorter time on this coaster.
5. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Magic Kingdom
Pros: Smooth ride, a wonderful indoor section, old-school animatronics in the cottage
Cons: Long wait, short ride time, cars don’t sway very much
Best Part: The mine scenes, with updated animatronics and pitch-perfect music
The most recent addition to Disney World’s coasters, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is an enjoyable ride for the whole family. It’s a lot smoother than its Magic Kingdom brethren, and the outdoor theming is subtle yet still clicks. In particular the drop when you exit the mine section comes together really well as you pass the waterfall. Despite the claims from Disney’s marketing before the attraction opened, the coaster vehicles don’t sway very much. That’s a minor quibble in a coaster that has enough thrills to please adults without scaring kids.
The highlight is easily the mine section, which includes striking animatronics using Disney’s recent style. I’m still a bit mixed on the screens for the faces, but they work in small doses here. The music in this scene adds a lot, particularly the “Heigh Ho!” portion as you ascend the lift hill. You’re so immersed that it’s easy to miss the fact that you’re moving upwards. The scene goes by quickly, which leads guests to want to get back in line to see it all again. The catch is that the line may stretch beyond two hours, even on moderately crowded days.
I could make the case that Seven Dwarfs Mine Train should be higher given its popularity, but the top four are too strong. The ride time is also quite brief at less than three minutes. I love the cottage scene at the end with the old animatronics, but you sometimes only have a few moments to enjoy it. This attraction was a great addition to The Magic Kingdom in 2014, and there are striking views from all over Fantasyland. I also love the excitement of hearing the vehicles zooming around the track from different places. Even so, it falls just a little short of being the type of iconic attraction that will be at the top of my list.
4. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Pros: Incredible launch, on-ride audio, inversions, fun Hollywood sets
Cons: Short ride time, slow-moving queue, loses steam as it goes along
Best Part: The entire launch, from countdown to the takeoff
I still have clear memories of seeing the track for Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster being constructed during our May 1998 trip. Disney World would have a coaster with inversions! Years passed before I finally rode this attraction, and it was worth the wait. The thrilling launch is set up so well in the queue as we see other cars soar into the night. Going 0 to 57 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds packs quite a punch, though it isn’t a rough experience.
Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is a short ride and doesn’t even last 90 seconds, yet there’s still plenty to like. The on-board audio blasts familiar Aerosmith hits while you speed through Hollywood. It’s a cheesy storyline (stretch limos!) yet fits with the theming during the ride. Having vehicles play different Aerosmith songs adds to repeatability, and it’s loads of fun. The Hollywood Studios version is miles ahead of the Paris clone, which just uses lighting effects instead of sets.
There are a few obstacles that keep this attraction from reaching the top three. The queue moves extremely slowly, and the outdoor part seems to take forever. There’s also limited theming before you enter the launch room. Finally, the inversions and speed restrict the guests that will want to experience Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Those are all minor quibbles, however. Nearly 20 years after its opening, this attraction remains one of the most exciting rides at Disney World.
3. Expedition Everest, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Pros: Gorgeous setting with forced perspective, inventive track layout, clever thrills
Cons: Disco Yeti, reverse section can make you feel woozy
Best Part: The large forward hill at the front of the mountain
We’ve reached the point in this countdown where I could make the case for all three remaining options. Each one has excellent theming, creates fun thrills, and provides a unique experience. Expedition Everest is the last classic Disney attraction not connected directly to an IP. The gigantic mountain towers over the Animal Kingdom and feels much larger thanks to forced perspective. It’s interesting to note that Everest isn’t our actual destination for this trip. We’re visiting the “Forbidden Mountain”, which stands under the shadow of Everest.
What makes Expedition Everest much more than a typical coaster is the abundance of details surrounding it. The Yeti Museum in the queue offers a wealth of small touches to explore. I’ve only spent a limited time in that space because of FastPass and single-rider lines. Those are nice benefits to avoid crowds, but they do take a little away from the experience. In his book The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at its Peak, Jason Surrell describes the extensive research that Joe Rohde and his team conducted to help make this attraction a believable location. They made scouting trips into the Himalayas and even visited Xian, China to learn of the golden monkey.
The elephant in the room when praising Expedition Everest is the “Disco Yeti”, which doesn’t move like the original animatronic. It stands nearly motionless while strobe lights help simulate movement. While it’s still effective, the Yeti pales in comparison to the original version. I’m hopeful that Disney will finally make the necessary changes now that Pandora is open. We don’t need the exact original, which placed too much stress on the gigantic animatronic. Even so, there has to be a middle ground that can present a more convincing Yeti to guests.
Despite the limited Yeti, there’s still plenty to love in this attraction. The backward portion offers quite a surprising effect that can mess with weak stomachs. The early portions set the stage well and give us time to acclimate to surroundings before the thrills. Finally, the big forward drop out of the mountain does not disappoint. Escaping the mountain (for a moment) offers a fun reminder that we’re still in a theme park, though we still must face the Yeti before the end.
2. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, The Magic Kingdom
Pros: Excellent theming, enjoyable for most guests, fits perfectly in Frontierland
Cons: Front cars are pretty slow while back is pretty rough, limited thrills
Best Part: The opening tunnel through the bat-infested darkness
The hardest coaster to rank was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which has fewer thrills than Expedition Everest or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Even so, it outshines them in terms of pure fun. In a similar way to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, it’s the type of ride that almost anyone can do. The attention to detail is so sharp throughout the attraction even as you fly past the sets. It says a lot that Disney would include so many touches that guests will barely see. We still sense their presence and feel reassured that everything fits together so well.
A young Tony Baxter spearheaded Big Thunder on both coasts, and they remain enjoyable Disney classics today. The Monument Valley backdrop makes the Disney World version feel grander, especially given its place in the corner of the park. The setting works perfectly with the rest of Frontierland and seems like it’s always been there. While neither U.S. version can compete with the incredible Paris attraction, the Florida version still has plenty of charm.
This “wildest ride in the wilderness” is actually pretty tame if you ride in front, but those cars offer a better view of each scene. The two interior lift hills (especially the last one) have plenty to offer beyond just setting up the next drop. Each small pocket of thrills also builds our anticipation as we ascend each subsequent hill. The entire attraction just works. The stunning 197-foot-high structure looms over Frontierland and is the perfect beacon for that engaging land.
1. Space Mountain, The Magic Kingdom
Pros: Indoor setting feels immersive, darkness enhances speed, cool effects
Cons: No on-board audio, seating arrangement can be painful
Best Part: The initial ride through the flashing lights to the lift hill
Riding Space Mountain for the first time was a definite rite of passage for me as an eight-year-old in 1984. I remember visiting with my dad late at night when the lines were gone and conquering fears to do it. Since that point, Space Mountain has always been a key part of each trip. My daughter is now eight, and riding it with her is a real treat. She’s a lot less afraid than I was 33 years ago. I suspect that many kids of all ages have similar stories about this attraction.
Calling Space Mountain a “wild mouse in the dark” understates its achievements. It’s one thing to put a coaster in the dark; it’s another to create an immersive experience. The ethereal music and dark setting of the queue just adds to the feeling that you’re traveling to another world. There’s no clear storyline, but our mind fills in the blanks and creates a believable environment. Space Mountain opened in Disney World in 1975 and remains the standard by which others are judged. John Hench’s stunning concept art created the mold for the gorgeous exterior. Serious talents like Marty Sklar, Claude Coats, and George McGinnis helped bring that vision to life.
Space Mountain doesn’t look new, but its interior seems apart from the ‘70s. While I miss the outer-space effects of earlier versions, the current ride still works. It’s darker than I remember, and the lack of light creates a greater sense of speed. I miss the on-ride audio of Disneyland’s version, but the dual tracks create a larger scope. Each is a different ride experience, and the experience feels epic inside the massive structure. After you board the vehicles, the initial lighted straightaway and long queue hill build the anticipation for thrills to come.
Unlike modern coasters like Everest, Space Mountain is still a rough ride. You can make the case that the last big refurb didn’t do enough to fix that issue. Even so, the more hectic experience does add thrills. You feel like anything can happen even after countless rides. I still couldn’t describe the vehicles’ path on Space Mountain. Each ride feels new, and that unpredictability adds to its charm. I couldn’t imagine visiting Disney World without riding Space Mountain.
Source: The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at Its Peak by Jason Surrell
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