Friday, March 18, 2022

The "Best" Ride in Each Walt Disney World Park


My recent post about the new DVC expansion at the Polynesian was largely negative, so I'm hoping to cleanse the pallet a bit and talk about more positivity and fun. I'm going to attempt a topic today that I've been avoiding, one that sounds so simple yet is so fraught with complications - what are the best rides at Walt Disney World?  And specifically, what is the best ride at each park?  

Why is this a complicated topic?  Mostly because the word "best" leaves plenty of room for opinion and subjectivity, hence the quotes around the word.  I could easily (or maybe not so easily) list you my favorite rides from each park, something that is completely subjective, but that wouldn't be much of a help to anyone reading this.  Conversely, you might have a particular place in your heart for, say, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, but I don't think that you (or I) would consider that the best ride in Magic Kingdom.  

So what makes something the "best" in this case?  I've thought about this a lot (which shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me) and I've come up with three basic criteria.  One is a fairly subjective one - how does it feel and/or fit in with the park around it?  Does it belong?  Does it elevate the park or area that it's in?  Two is how it advances the technology of what a ride is.  This will naturally weigh towards more recent rides, because the technology gets better and better all the time.  And three is the basic "wow" factor.  Does it leave you impressed each time you ride it?  Is it still hard to believe that Imagineering created this masterpiece?  Do you want to ride it over and over?

There's no exact formula here with scores or numbers assigned (though I certainly considered it) but instead, I'm hoping to blend the best of what I like personally with what the general guest likes, as well as balancing the old and new.  Some of these are easier than others so let's take a look park by park.

Hollywood Studios:

I'll start with what I consider an easy one here.  Hollywood Studios is generally a very frustrating park right now, with a top heavy attraction lineup and not a lot of stuff to fill out the day.  At least some of the shows are returning, though we're still patiently (?) waiting for a return date for Fantasmic.  A lot of resources have been put into Hollywood Studios in recent years, first with the development of Toy Story Land and then most recently, Star Wars Galaxy's Edge.

With those resources come new and exciting rides, and Hollywood Studios fits that bill.  Toy Story Land has three attractions of varying quality.  I'm partial to Toy Story Mania, though Slinky Dog Dash is the newest (and still one of the most popular) additions to that part of the park.  While I like Slinky, it's a relatively short coaster.  I'm hoping I don't get a lot of backlash for this, but it would be hard for a coaster to be the best ride at any of these parks.  You can find coasters anywhere, and even if Disney's theming is better than most, they're still coasters.  Side note - if I was doing this for Universal, a case could be made for Hagrid's Motorbike Adventure because of the technology and theming that went into it, but I'm not so that's mostly irrelevant here.  

I often call Hollywood Studios the "Star Wars park" since they've leaned heavily into that franchise, especially with Galaxy's Edge open.  Star Tours is a classic ride, and Millennium Falcon Smuggler's Run takes that concept and updates it.  The newest ride in the park is Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, an updated take on the classic dark ride.  I happen to love this one, and it feels like a classic even if it's newer technology.

Speaking of classics, there aren't that many of these at Hollywood Studios.  The Great Movie Ride might have been the choice here years ago, but it has since been replaced by Runaway Railway. Rock N Roller Coaster Featuring Aerosmith has been around for a while but I've already ruled out coasters.  Tower of Terror is probably the most iconic ride in the park right now, as it's even featured as the "symbol" of the park on most merchandise.  I might lean towards this one as the best in the park if it weren't for one other recent addition.

I left out the big one in Galaxy's Edge, the ride that Imagineering poured everything into, and that's Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.  It fits the land perfectly as the flagship attraction.  The technology is groundbreaking, as it features multiple ride systems in one. And the wow factor and repeatability are off the charts.  It's more of an experience than just a ride and is absolutely worth the time and/or money you need to invest in order to ride it.  It's going to be years before a ride in another (American) Disney park tops this one.

Winner: Rise of the Resistance

Animal Kingdom:

Animal Kingdom has the opposite problem of Hollywood Studios right now - there just aren't that many attractions throughout the park.  Expedition Everest is the height (pun intended?) of themed coasters and blends right into the park. Dinosaur is a fun but bumpy ride that anchors its own land.  There are various stage shows and things as well, but none that would qualify as an objective best.

That leaves three candidates.  First is Kilimanjaro Safari, which is the real life version of Disney's classic Jungle Cruise.  This is a wonderful experience and is made better by the fact that if you ride it at different times of day, your experience with the animals will be very different.  Of course, there are also times where you don't see much of anything (since those animals can be fickle).  It's absolutely worth the investment, but not the best ride in the park.

Then we come to the newest addition to this park, Pandora: The World of Avatar.  There are two attractions here.  The sidekick attraction is Na'vi River Journey, which is a new take on the old dark boat ride.  It's really a visual stunner and features a Na'vi shaman audio animatronic that is breathtaking (if it's working properly).  I love that this ride has you on a serene boat journey through a land that is totally fictional yet feels real.  Still, this is often the second longest wait time at the park and I'm not sure it warrants that honor.

The other ride in Pandora is our (again unquestioned) winner here - Avatar Flight of Passage.  The queue is a wonder to walk through (slowly, as you'll probably be waiting a while), the preshow adds to the story and the ride itself is an absolute blast.  I often call it Soarin' (which we'll get to) on steroids.  It's "only" a simulator, but is so incredibly immersive that you often don't remember you're looking at a screen.  I don't want to spoil it if you haven't done it, but you truly experience it with all of your senses (minus taste, I suppose).  We did it three times in one day last year, and it never gets old.  

Winner: Flight of Passage


Things start to get a little tougher when we get to these next parks.  Epcot has a wide range of attractions, though not a vast number.  Most of the Future World (or whatever they call it now) attractions are not showstoppers but are a lot of fun to do. This includes Spaceship Earth, the ride housed in the iconic geodesic dome at the front of the park.  I considered this one for best ride, but it is a little dated and was supposed to go down for a complete overhaul before the Covid-related closure. I still love it, but I'm putting my subjective opinion aside.

Mostly, the rides that are the best at each park are the ones that are the most popular and therefore have the longest lines.  There are about four of these that qualify at Epcot.  One is Soarin' Around The World, a simulator based ride where you ... well, it's in the name.  If I was making a list of favorite rides, this would be my winner at Epcot - I just love it.  But there are some technological issues here and it could probably use an update somewhere along the line.

Next would be Frozen Ever After, a dark ride in the Norway pavilion that took the place of the old Maelstrom.  The ride system is the same, but the story has been updated to the Disney megahit Frozen.  This is also a great ride but doesn't stand out as much to me as some others.  The most recent addition to the park is Remy's Ratatouille Adventure.  This is similar to Runaway Railway in style and is the most popular current attraction in the park. But it is essentially a port of the same ride from Disneyland Paris, and therefore doesn't have the same wow factor as some of these newer rides that have been developed in the intervening years.

The only ride left then would be Test Track.  This one is plagued by downtime issues but when it's up and running, it is an Epcot staple.  I'm not sure how it fits into the park (one of my criteria) but Epcot has been the themeless park for many years now, so I'm not going to worry about it too much.  The preshow where you can design your own car is a fun diversion while you wait.  And the ride itself is basically a coaster that's not a coaster, full of fun and thrills.  Case in point - my daughter hates coasters but loves Test Track.  This one isn't a slam dunk, but as of now, this gets the checkered flag, so to speak.

Winner: Test Track

Magic Kingdom:

The original and classic Disney World park is also the hardest to decide the best ride.  This is partly for two reasons - one, there are more rides here (by far) than at any other park, and there's less stratification of headliner status compared to "lesser" rides.  And two, it's the park with the largest sense of nostalgia - if you went to Epcot or Hollywood Studios as a kid, chances are those parks look very different now, but Magic Kingdom still has a lot of the staples that you remember and associate with the Disney name.

So how do we tackle this?  First, I'll rule out all of the show attractions that, while classic, probably don't fit the bill as "best".  I did write a whole piece on those though, if that's what you're into.  Then we have the coasters or similar rides.  Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, for example, is the newest "big" ride in the park, and still the most popular one.  I think it's the best coaster on property but there are better options here.  In fact, the classic Disney mountain range could all lay claim to the title - Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain, the last of which was strongly considered here.  Your mileage may vary.

But Magic Kingdom is really the king of the dark ride.  There are plenty of great ones in Fantasyland, though as much as I love it's a small world, I'm not sure I'd call it the best.  There's also a Walt creation in Jungle Cruise but your experience there largely depends on the skipper.  The PeopleMover is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the park, but it's missing some of that wow factor.

What does that leave us?  There are two classics that come to mind and it's nearly impossible to choose just one.  First is Pirates of the Caribbean.  I don't think I have to explain much about this one, but considering its age, it holds up remarkably well as an experience.  I still find something new to look at each time.  

And similarly, there is the Haunted Mansion.  This is another older ride that showcases the best of Imagineering.  If forced to choose (and I guess that's what I did to myself by choosing this topic), this is the winner.  The cast members, the stretching room preshow, the rotating technology of the doom buggy and the amount of things to look at throughout the ride are really what Disney is all about.  If I think about Disney, this is often the ride that comes to mind.  Pirates, too in this case.

Winner (just barely): Haunted Mansion

Did I leave out a ride you love?  Do you think I'm just full of it?  Let me know!

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