About this time in 2017, we dropped a Disney Rides Top 20 to celebrate the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. Five years and two revisions later, we’re back with the 3rd Edition of our Global Disney Top 20. We’re proud to bring an increasingly comprehensive countdown of Disney’s top rides from around the world – each one pushing the limits of storytelling entertainment and illustrating for the visionary artwork of Walt Disney Imagineering.
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20. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Roughly three generations into Disney’s revolutionary LPS (local positioning system) trackless ride genre, we were given the first so-called “2.5 D” ride. What is 2.5 D? We’re still not sure, but in the case of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, it meant bringing scenes to life by using projection mapping on literally everything – no 3D glasses necessary. Runaway Railway’s frenzied story moves at a breakneck pace and its over-saturated sets are an assault on the eyes – which makes it a hit with the Disney Junior set – but repeat rides will grow on you, and with the ride’s immense capacity they’re easy to rack up. We’re curious to see what changes will go into Disneyland Anaheim’s installation in Toontown, but by then Runaway Railway will probably have surrendered its place in this Top 20 to the haughtily anticipated Avengers Assemble: Flight Force when it opens this August at Walt Disney Studios in Paris.
19. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars – Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland’s tepid early reactions landed Disney in hot water with the Hong Kong government: the play-it-safe approach was an overcorrection of the precariously over-budget Euro Disney, and now Hong Kong had an underwhelming Disneyland. The solution was a major “Phase 2” expansion: three new lands featuring five new rides in total; two would be custom, embargoed E-tickets that would give Hong Kong permanently unique Disney experiences. The roller coaster component of this agreement was Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, a ride that combines 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 features an elaborate midway inerwoven with much of Big Grizzly‘s trench-sunken layout. 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.
18. Na’vi River Journey – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Our next stop is the Valley of Mo’ara, home to Pandora – The World of Avatar and Navi River Journey. Though not the largest of dark rides, 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 numerous practical effects, complex lighting schemes, and a variety of audio-animatronic. The brilliant Na’vi Shaman at the ride’s conclusion remains the pinnacle of themed robotics.
17. 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 ground up? Probably not. It’s an accomplishment to give a drop tower a rich story with a defined beginning, middle, and end. Maybe we have Marvel Cinematic Universe fatigue. Maybe we’re tired of Chris Pratt. Maybe we just really liked The Twilight Zone. Nevertheless, you can’t deny the effectiveness of numerous randomized 4K action scenes and 6 catchy onboard songs possibilities.
16. The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror – Walt Disney Studios
Of course Tower of Terror walked so that Mission: BREAKOUT! could run, but we aren’t moved by Orlando Tower’s exhaustive rehash of the TV show’s Season 5 title sequence furnished with vague storytelling that concludes with a cursory drop program. Here’s where Paris’ Tower of Terror comes into focus – those who yearned for Anaheim’s Tower to receive a high-profile remodel but keep its Twilight Zone theme will find that Walt Disney Studios did just that. The transcendent European fascination with Hollywood runs deep enough that a total retheme of the Paris Tower probably wasn’t that tempting – especially considering it’s the centerpiece of the Hollywood-themed park. Instead, the ride was given all of Mission: Breakout’s infrastructural upgrades, and the original story of the “five people (who) stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare” was retained an expanded on. Best of all, which of the 3 elevator shafts you ride will determine how your trip to the Twilight Zone will go.
15. Matterhorn Bobsleds – Disneyland
Sometimes, the rides that we love the most are sentimental favorites. We’re not saying that certain favorites are unsubstantiated, but occasionally we indulge in our guilty pleasures. We asked ourselves if Matterhorn Bobsleds was really one of the best Disney rides out there, or if it was just our unchecked love for the Fairy Godparent of modern coasters. When we think about the ride’s strengths, however – and how the ride has grown over the years – we will go out on a limb and say that Matterhorn is objectively strong. It has great curb appeal, a charming aesthetic, a des facto preshow as bobsledders climb to the peak (screens disguised as translucent panes of ice? Genius), clever set pieces, and is, surprisingly, one of the most rambunctious coaster attractions around. And as if that weren’t enough, Matterhorn Bobsleds boasts two totally unique tracks.
14. Avatar Flight of Passage – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Disney doesn’t get 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 a typical motion simulator and not as complex as a dark ride, Soarin’ was a titanic 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. Disney would then up the ante on the Soarin‘ concept with Avatar Flight of Passage: a ride that takes 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.
13. 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 seeds of miniature railroads, which Walt Disney so loved. The original Big Thunder Mountain Railroad repurposed Frontierland’s first signature attraction, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland – its success made mine train coasters a necessity for Wild West-themed amusement park areas the World over. Considering they make up about 1/3 of the company’s coasters, we’d be remiss to understate what mine train or mine train-esque rides mean to Disney, and nowhere is this more apparent than Disneyland Paris – the only park to open with a Big Thunder Mountain, and the only 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 is nothing short of dramatic, as are its lengthy underwater tunnels. In addition to offering a better setting than just about any Disney coaster, its final act offers one of the most exhilarating sequences of any Disney ride, leaving riders enraptured in the brake run after the train erupts back to the surface from underwater tunnel #2.
12. Mystic Manor – Hong Kong Disneyland
For many purists, Mystic Manor is a thing of dreams: a unique story, no intellectual property tie-in, a perfect balance of advanced and classic effects, and a great soundtrack. While the trackless LPS ride lacks massive, field-of-vision-filling scenes, its intimate jaunt through parlors and down corridors makes for a distinguished and un-hurried experience. Though a well-deserved embargoed asset for Hong Kong Disney, it seems a shame to see a ride as clone-able as Mystic Manor installed only once – alas, Ratatouille and Runaway Railway will have to suffice.
11. 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. However, 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 the launch of DisneySea’s Phase 2 additions, Tower of Terror and Raging Spirits, Sinbad went out of commission for a re-Imagineering and emerged as Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages. The new version of the ride kept what worked – vast 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 lighter tone, an animal sidekick for Sinbad (a baby tiger named Chandu), and an original song by Alan Menkin. The new Sinbad was a success and now stands proudly among Disney’s greatest dark rides.
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