There’s no place on Earth quite like Walt Disney World.
And for thousands of guests, it’s the most magical place one can go. While neighboring rival Universal Studios can certainly bust out some excellent entertainment, Disney holds the trophy for the most immersive, all-encompassing theme park experiences.
Some are old and outdated. And some, despite their perks, are rather overrated.
Yet a few Walt Disney World Attractions are clearly cut above the rest. They are incredible, timeless works of experiential art.
Here’s my take on the Top 5 Walt Disney World Attractions. What do you think? Keep in mind, this isn’t a list of favorites, but my ranking of overall quality, execution, and guest experience. (For those who require definitions, an “Attraction” is a ride, show, or performance that includes a queue and sensory experience – I do not count parades, firework shows, or “Fantasmic!” as attractions, as these can be experienced without queuing and/or by massive crowds simultaneously.)
Top 5 Walt Disney World Attractions
5a. Muppet*Vision 3D, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
I doubt anyone will pay the price of admission for a silly 3D show from 1991, featuring characters catering to an aging generation.
Yet Jim Henson’s “Muppet*Vision 3D” is a theme-park treat that soars over every other 3D show in Central Florida in laughs, experience, and spectacle.
From the very moment one enters the queue and show building, Muppet-related humor is everywhere. It’s as if Monty Python gave birth to a living puppet show and we are allowed to peek inside. Once inside, guests queue in a large room and watch the preshow video which is, in my opinion, even funnier than the main attraction. The pure chaos that is the Muppet Show is everywhere. The acts aren’t on time. The union sends a man to sing in a female trio. And the orchestra is composed of penguins.
When the doors automatically open, guests find themselves right in the Muppet Theater, including everyone’s favorite curmudgeons, Stadler and Waldorf. Combined with the Swedish Chef running the projector, animatronic penguins, and a live-action Sweetums, “Muppet*Vision 3D” is an all-encompassing theatrical experience.
So why is this outdated, arguably “skippable” attraction part of my Top 5?
It’s simply brilliant. Where so many other attractions focus too heavily on a single element (the launch in Rockin’ Rollercoaster, for example), “Muppet*Vision 3D” is perfectly balanced and delightfully hilarious.
It is the Muppet Show.
Well, the Muppet Show plus an annoying character named Waldo.
But I’m willing to forgive Waldo for one reason: Sam Eagle.
Or else you hate America.
5b. The Haunted Mansion, Magic Kingdom
After thinking about my pick for #5, I found it hard to rank Muppet*Vision 3D as a better overall attraction than the Haunted Mansion. Haunted Mansion is damned near perfect. The queue is better than ever before, the library scene priceless, and the pacing excellent. It’s an absolute must-ride.
Let’s call it a tie.
4. Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharaja Jungle Trek, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
One might have expected Animal Kingdom’s crowned jewel, “Kilimanjaro Safaris”, to appear on this list. And I was strongly tempted to put it here, given my prior experience as a cast member behind the wheel of many safari trucks.
Yet “Safaris” has been a tough nut for Disney to crack. It originally opened with a dead elephant prop, horrifying guests. It’s “show” has steadily diminished over the years, to the point that characters Warden Wilson Matua and Miss Jobson are no longer a part of the ride, only appearing in queue videos. Even the climactic “poacher’s scene” has been tamed to a flat-lining conclusion, featuring bland, beige antelope.
So while “Safaris” is a technical and zoological marvel, it is a bit of a theme park oddity. Instead, its walking trail cousins are the real heroes of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That is why “Pangani Forest Exploration Trail” and “Maharaja Jungle Trek” share spot number four on this list.
The immersion is complete as you stroll through the rainforest. In Pangani (Africa), meerkats and gorillas await in open savannas and picturesque sanctuaries. Along the Maharaja (Asia), tigers roam and pluming peacocks strut amid the ruins of an ancient Buddhist temple. And don’t forget to visit the open-air bat enclosure. Fountains trickle quietly. A child may squeal here or there, but the trails are peaceful and occasionally silent.
While a ride on “Safaris” is a must, a hike on the trails delivers the real Animal Kingdom goods. Bring water and make sure your bladder is empty, because there are no bathrooms along the way and you may just lose yourself enjoying the closest thing to “true nature” that Disney has to offer.
3. The American Adventure, Epcot
You probably don’t even know this exists.
For the uninitiated, at the very very back of Epcot is the American Pavilion in World Showcase. And hidden in the giant, self-edifying building meant to look like Independence Hall, is the greatest feat of animatronics ever constructed – yes, even better (and more interesting) than Hall of Presidents. If Walt Disney could have lived to see it, he would have wept with indescribable joy. It’s that good.
The experience begins by entering the Hall itself. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear the angelic “Voices of Liberty” while browsing the tiny museum of historic relics. Audience members proceed upstairs by riding escalators that travel beneath a sky of state flags. Before the show begins, the world of the story is honorably set: you are entering history itself.
“The American Adventure” itself is an episodic look at America’s first 200 years, told mostly through animatronic vignettes in combination with projected backgrounds and music. The show’s hosts are an American fantasy-come-true, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, walking us through history with wit and irony. While some of the technology can seem dated (Franklin ascending the stairs in Thomas Jefferson’s attic comes to mind), most of it holds up beautifully. Watch George Washington’s horse at Valley Forge, and tell me it isn’t real. Or stare as Teddy Roosevelt looks out over Yosemite and try to remember that you’re in a Florida theater.
While the show includes plenty of patriotic back-patting, “The American Adventure” isn’t afraid to look critically at the inherent hypocrisies within the American Dream. For a theme park attraction, this is a relief, as the show creatively explores the agony of our great civil war.
While the concluding montage of video clips spanning the 60’s to today includes a number of now-disgraced celebrities and athletes, “The American Adventure” is a staggering piece of theater, and by the time the curtains draw to a close, you’ll be sad that it’s over and thankful that you’ve found this treasure at Epcot.
2. The Hollywood Tower of Terror, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
There is no ride at Walt Disney World that inspires fear like this one.
You can see it from outside the park. You see it while riding the parking tram. You see it all the way down Hollywood Boulevard. And you see it from the garden, as you loop through the queue.
This isn’t by accident. Often in ride design, the thought of a ride’s sheer force is as powerful as the actual forces the ride exerts. In the case of “Tower of Terror,” fear reigns supreme for the first-time rider. You have minutes, maybe even hours, to contemplate the power that this ride possesses. And then, right when you think you’re ready to confront it, the “Tower” vanishes from sight.
The experience of “The Hollywood Tower of Terror” is beautiful authentic. Stuffed with period furniture, the “lobby” is cloaked in cobwebs and hums with the static-laced radio of the 1930’s. From there, guests enter a “library” – but based on its size and the way it suddenly plunges into darkness, many guests assume that this is it, that the drop is about to come.
But it doesn’t. Not yet.
Instead, there’s another queue room. And this is where the real terror kicks in. It’s the boiler room, the hot, stuffy, steam-soaked place where things generally feel unsafe. And then there are the elevators. The doors open and 21 souls enter. The doors shut. Some three minutes later, the doors open and the car is still there – but it’s empty.
Where the hell did they go!?
That alone is terrifying, at least for the first-timer. In every other coaster or drop ride I’ve ever seen, this experience does not exist. We watch those before us conquer the giant and it instill us with the courage that we, too, can survive. Then we some sense of control over the situation. We don’t feel alone.
Not in the “Tower.”
People get in. And from what we see, they never come out.
And we’re next.
Forget about the drop. Or the fact that the car actually moves out of the first shaft, sliding through the “Twilight Zone” into the drop shaft. Forget that the drop is randomized, in the dark, surrounded by cracks and crashes and electrical zapping.
The true triumph of “The Hollywood Tower of Terror” is its total cumulative experience, it’s ability to scare the hell out of you without even dropping you.
But don’t worry. It’ll do that, too.
And my Number 1 Attraction at Walt Disney World Is….
1. Splash Mountain, Magic Kingdom
No ride, in any theme park, tells a story like “Splash Mountain.”
Ironically, “Splash Mountain” is based on a 1946 Disney film, Song of the South, that is banned in the United States due to its controversial racial undertones.
Controversy aside, “Splash Mountain” is an uncontroversial pick for the top attraction at Walt Disney World because it is the complete package. Visible from across the park, the drop draws in the rider. The queue then sets the stage, and the log flume itself is a delightful journey through the story of Br’er Rabbit.
“Splash Mountain’s” true genius is its pacing. At roughly 10-11 minutes long, “Splash Mountain” is a generous ride. It takes it’s time. The story begins peacefully, taking you down several gentle falls, and drops you into the world of Br’er Rabbit who is hunted mercilessly by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear to the tune of “How Do You Do?” The scenes are cute, harmless, and good family fun.
Perhaps you forget about that drop. If only for a moment.
As the hunters close in on Rabbit, you drop lower and lower, descending into darker caves and zanier characters who sing “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place”. With this gradual descent, the part of you that remembers seeing that intimidating drop is getting wise to the ride’s act.
Then, as you see Br’er Rabbit in knots at the hands of the ruthless Br’er Fox, the river straightens…and there it is. A long, dark chute leading straight up. Sunlight trickles down and mingles with the water, bringing you back to reality: there’s no where to go but up.
Then, the long climb. The crest.
And the plunge.
The log never tops 40 miles-per-hour, and the drop angle is a mere 45 degrees. But in that log, it feels like you’re careening straight down into a gnarled brier patch. Similar to “The Tower of Terror,” there comes a moment of relief and celebration as you feel the sun warm you and you wipe water out of your eyes and hair and laugh because you made it through the danger.
Here, again, “Splash Mountain’s” pacing outdoes every other ride imaginable. Where every other ride dumps you off and sends you through the inevitable gift shop, “Splash” delivers a rousing sing-a-long of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” with a chorus of animals and a giant steamboat, rocking to the beat. In a ride built more recently, this would be viewed as a waste of money and time that the guest could be in the park spending money.
But somehow this scene made it past Michael Eisner and the bean-counters, and it makes “Splash Mountain” the top Walt Disney World attraction. It completes the story. It provides the ultimate catharsis required after so dangerous a journey. There’s something to be said of an effective denouement: it can’t be too long, else the audience cry from boredom. But it can’t be nonexistent, lest the audience shrug and say, ‘So what?’
“Splash Mountain” tells a whole story and delivers thrills along the way. It’s a masterpiece of experiential story-telling and a premium model for all attractions to come.