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Don't let the details overwhelm the big picture when rating theme park rides

Written by
Published: April 27, 2011 at 11:10 AM

Whenever I'm trying to think of what to write about a new theme park ride or show, Disneyland's Splash Mountain keeps me humble.

Disneyland's Splash Mountain

Why is that? Well, let me start by explaining how I see my role as a theme park critic: It's to help you better understand whether you might like a new ride or show, mostly by describing it in a way that places the new attraction within the context of ones you already know. How is it like, or unlike, other attractions?

Answering that question typically requires me to break down and look at individual elements within a new ride or show: What does the launch feel like on this roller coaster? Where have we heard songs or seen characters like these before? That sort of thing.

But I have to be careful when I do that. Sometimes, when you focus too closely on individual elements within a new attraction, you can lose sight of the wonder of the whole thing.

Consider Splash Mountain.

Here's what the 1989 Robert could have written about Disneyland's flume ride, when it debuted that year:

"Disney's Imagineers have told the company's magazine that the newly-renamed "Critter Country" represents the home of all the critters in the bayou south of New Orleans. Have you ever traveled south of New Orleans? The highest point down there would be the open cooler lid on the deck of your boat. Forget about finding any "mountain" down there.

"Setting aside the incongruity of the ride's thematic placement for a moment, one can't overlook the fact that this ride is, at heart, a rip-off. Nearly a turn-by-turn clone of Knott's Berry Farm's Log Ride, Southern Californians have been riding this flume since 1968. Sure, Disney's added music and animatronics, but many of those characters are refugees from Disneyland's closed by not-much-missed America Sings show, which was as out of place in Tomorrowland as Splash "Mountain" is next to New Orleans Square.

"You'll find most of the characters and music in the grand finale just before you exit the ride. Typically, the highlight of any flume is the drop, and Splash Mountain's impressed, with extra jets of water aimed at riders after the take the plunge. But instead of riding the adrenaline of that moment directly into the rousing musical finale, Splash Mountain forces riders to endure a long, slow drift back from the splashdown zone, all the way the length of the mountain to the unload area first.

"That's because Disney, understandably, wanted the mountain's drop to face the Rivers of America. But the show building for the finale needed to be hidden behind the mountain, to keep it from disrupting the area's skyline. That separation demanded the slow float from river's edge to the backside of the attraction, interrupting what should have been an awe-inspiring one-two punch that could have elevated this ride above the Knott's original which inspired it."

Which, of course, would have made me look like an idiot because Splash Mountain is one of the greatest theme park attractions anywhere, and one of my personal favorites. (You currently have it ranked number four overall in the world among themed rides.)

Splash Mountain provides the classic example of an attraction that's much more than the sum of its parts and inspiration. Yes, it started with a copy of another park's ride, but many theme park attractions have, too. Yes, it include parts from another attraction, but that's hardly uncommon, either. While the whole "south of New Orleans" thematic placement made no sense (and I've not seen Disney reference that in years), the physical placement of Splash Mountain on the Rivers of America opposite Big Thunder Mountain frames Tom Sawyer's Island perfectly, bringing design harmony to Disneyland's west side.

And frankly, when I'm riding with friends or family I don't notice the float back to the show building after the drop. We're too busy comparing how wet we got on the splashdown.

Don't mistake my post today as an indictment of all theme park criticism. Splash Mountain's flaws are real, which is why I don't rate it a 10 on Theme Park Insider. But they're minuscule compared with all the fun the ride provides. That's why I rate Splash Mountain a 9, which is a pretty darned fine theme park attraction.

I try to remember that whenever I start picking apart the details of any theme park attraction, or anything else, for that matter. Don't ever forget the big picture.

Readers' Opinions

From Brian Emery on April 27, 2011 at 11:31 AM
I wonder if I Google this article hard enough, that I might be able to find this…
Just Kidding…..
I enjoyed the read…
Thx..
From Victoria Jurkowski on April 27, 2011 at 2:16 PM
thats a really good point. i find that when describing rides to people i tend to focus on what i don't like, but overall i love the ride and recommend it which sends confusing messages of course.

my two cents on splash though is that the slow drift back allows the guests to compare how wet they got and settle back down after the excitement so they dont miss the finale in their fervor.

From Scott Ward on April 27, 2011 at 7:30 PM
One flaw with "Splash Mountain" is the vantage point for non-riding members of your party to take photos/videos of the riding members. The photos are great, but you can't see your party just prior to the big splash down. Had problems getting cell phone reception to notify my party that we were only a few "logs" away.

This is a common problem with theme park rides, especially ones for younger children. Some rides have terrible vantage points for taking photos. Next to riding, my favorite thing to do is to take photos of my children on the rides!

From steve lee on April 27, 2011 at 8:42 PM
Pretty sure that's because they want you to buy the pictures they take, Scott.
From Joshua Counsil on April 28, 2011 at 3:50 AM
Good points, Robert. On the other hand, I don't like giving praise to something that was designed and built hurriedly and without care, i.e., a manager's ride. This isn't the case with Splash Mountain, but there are many mediocre attractions that garner high ratings. As customers, we have the right to be critical of something mediocre.
From Rob P on April 28, 2011 at 5:08 AM
Now then Robert. That slow drifting back to disembark at the end. I reckon it works well too and not just from a clever design point by the Imagineers. Everybody knows that, after any adrenaline rush or exercise, the warm down is vitally important.So I think it's great that you get the chance for the accelerated heart rate that most ( not all ) of us experience on that 55 foot drop gets a chance to level out before we rush off to another ride.

I don't know anyone that doesn't just love Splash Mountain and your insight into it's design in relation to it's neighbouring attractions is wonderfully revealing.I'd never given much thought to the way the layout of Splash Mtn complements Thunder Mtn and the Rivers so well.

This is why I like TPI , and it's contributors, so much. It opens windows of interesting information like this to us all.

From Anon Mouse on April 28, 2011 at 10:57 AM
I could have compared Splash Mountain with Knott's flume ride, but that boat was left a long time ago. I can't believe you originally thought Splash Mountain should have been shorter so the rider will only think of the drop instead of the show. There's nothing wrong with having a long build-up and a long finale. That was what Splash Mountain gave us.
From Scott B on April 28, 2011 at 2:03 PM
@Rob P, YES! I always thought the same thing about the post drop moment on Splash Mountain. I agree, that it is a nice calming moment after the adrenaline rush of the drop. My wife, who is terrified of the drop and yet will go on the ride everytime, thinks of it as a celebration of having "survived" the ride. I think going down the drop and then disembarking would be incredinle anti-climatic.

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