Theme Park Insider

The 10 most unique attractions at Walt Disney World and Disneyland

July 22, 2016, 3:53 PM · You can find roller coasters, drop and flume rides, and carnival spinners at pretty much any theme or amusement park you visit. But Disney's theme parks have distinguished themselves — and surged to lead the industry in attendance — by mixing in unique experiences, as well.

Let's take a look at some of the most "distinctly Disney" attractions offered at its theme parks in the United States. Whether they offer unique ride systems, cutting-edge technology, or different ways of storytelling, these theme park attractions include some unique element within the industry that helps make Disney "Disney."

Frozen Live at the Hyperion

Frozen Live at the Hyperion
Disney California Adventure

Lots of other theme parks do live shows. Heck, getting a summer job in a theme park musical review was a rite of passage for many of my high school show choir classmates back in the Midwest. (Uh... I guess I just admitted I was a show choir geek.) But no one does theme park musicals like Disney. Dollywood comes closest, but even Dolly Parton's theme park can't match the in-theater technology employed in "Frozen," which won our Theme Park Insider Award this year for Best New Show.

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters

Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters
Disney California Adventure

A unique trackless ride system distinguishes Luigi's — a fun little experience where you can ride in dancing Italian roadster, in the style of Pixar's Cars. Disney has employed its next-generation trackless ride system to even more impressive effect in several other attractions outside the United States, led by Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor.

Radiator Springs Racers

Radiator Springs Racers
Disney California Adventure

Radiator Springs Racers employs the same Disney ride system used on Epcot's Test Track and Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth, while showing off the company's strength in animatronic storytelling. The next-generation face-projection animatronics used here paved the way for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Frozen Ever After at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Disney demonstrates the power of interactive animation with this Tomorrowland show, where on-screen animated characters tell jokes submitted by the audience and riff off audience members. You can find similar tech employed in Disney's Turtle Talk with Crush and Stitch Encounter attractions, as well as at the end of Monsters Inc ride at Disney California Adventure.

Animation Academy

Animation Academy
Disney California Adventure

Disney was founded on animation. There's no fancy technology here — no animatronics, no ride system, no special effects. It's just a classroom, where a Disney cast member takes you through the steps of drawing one of a seemingly endless supply of Disney characters. But Animation Academy's simplicity is its strength, allowing the visitors to feel the power of animation flow from their own hand. Who knew that a classroom could become an engaging theme park attraction?

The Great Movie Ride

The Great Movie Ride
Disney's Hollywood Studios

Lots of theme parks have dark rides. But no one else puts entire theaters of people through dark rides like Disney. Like Ellen's Energy Adventure, The Great Movie Ride draws upon the energy that being in a crowd provides to help make its dark ride experience even more engaging. If there's a knock here, it's that Disney relies so heavily upon the catalogue of former partner MGM and other film studios rather than revamping the attraction with Disney's own films. But even if we're watching recreations of scenes from The Wizard of Oz and Alien, we're doing it in a way that Disney does best.

The American Adventure

The American Adventure
Epcot

Disney pioneered the animatronic show, but it just goes ahead and drops the mic with The American Adventure. Somehow, the show manages to recap 400 years of American history — including the ugliness of slavery, the Civil War, and the genocide of Native Americans — in half an hour that entertains as it informs. And Robert Moline and Randy Bright's "Golden Dream" might be one of the most goose-bump-inducing songs ever written for a theme park. This is a master class in narrative storytelling — employing film, animation, stagecraft, and music with advanced animatronic management to create a complete attraction experience.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean
Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Forget the old amusement park "tunnel of love." Disney reinvented what a dark ride could be with 1967's Pirates of the Caribbean, which built upon the technology used for 1964's It's a Small World to transport guests into a seaport battle between villagers and marauding pirates. Few non-Disney theme parks still operate water dark rides on the scale of Pirates (Efteling's Fata Morgana and Universal Studios Singapore's Madagascar ride being the most notable exceptions), but Pirates' true uniqueness lies in launching a billion-dollar-plus film franchise, reversing the typical lifecycle of films inspiring theme park rides.

Enchanted Tiki Room

Enchanted Tiki Room
Disneyland, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Disney's first Audio Animatronic show spawned imitators throughout the industry, but the original retains its uniqueness for the novelty of its installation. Here, you're not watching a show play on some distant stage — it's happening all around you. The walls, windows and center fountain all come to life, as birds sing above. The Enchanted Tiki Room defines what an immersive environment can be, creating a unique experience within the industry.

Tom Sawyer Island

Tom Sawyer Island
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Yeah, lots of theme parks have playground. But how many of them are so perfectly incorporated into what looks like a natural environment? And no one makes you ride a free-floating raft to and from the playground, either. Tom Sawyer Island was the theme park industry's first truly immersive themed land, set physically apart from the park around it, establishing a precedent for modern developments such as Universal's Diagon Alley. But TSI remains a unique play experience for the young and young at heart.

Replies (10)

July 22, 2016 at 10:24 PM · This is a good list, but I greatly prefer the pirate-themed Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. Maybe some people feel it's pirates overkill, but I found that version a lot more fun and interactive than the Orlando version.

I would add that no one does nighttime entertainment and parades like Disney. It's not even close, and archrival Universal seems to have completely given up on that category of theme park entertainment.

July 23, 2016 at 7:23 AM · I don't get why you cite both locations for Pirates when Disneyland had the most unique. Same argument for thr Tiki Room. I would argue the Magic Kingdom is not as unique as Disneyland except for a few notable differences. The Castle show, Cinderella's Royal Table, Be My Guest restaurants, and Snow White Dwarfs roller coaster.
July 23, 2016 at 2:05 PM · No Jungle Cruise? Big swing and a miss.
July 23, 2016 at 2:43 PM · Been to both Disneyland and Disney world. Both have unique rides. Both have, my favorite, Space Mountian, Disneyland's is much smoother. Magic Kingdom's is very jolting. Also, Disneyland has a better: Pirates, tiki room, the submarine ride, and the famous Materhorn. I grew up in California, now in the Midwest, we go to Disney World. As a Chef, I LOVE Epcot from all the food, and the Fireworks show is amazing, and it re-opened "Captain EO" which I was at Disneyland the day it opened. The did close it, but it was great to get to see it again and feel like a kid again. Animal kingdom is special in its own way, good food, a Safari ride, and the Rapids. I love both places, they both are amazing, and the Jungle Book (which my kids love) is there, but my heart is at Disneyland.
July 23, 2016 at 4:05 PM · I don't think this list is written by someone who has much Disney experience...
July 24, 2016 at 11:05 AM · Ellen's Energy Adventure, love it or hate it, is a pretty unique attraction.
July 24, 2016 at 1:36 PM · All kidding aside, the omission of the Jungle Cruise undermines the value of this list. It was an original Disneyland attraction and certainly one of the company namesake's proudest achievements in themed entertainment. The symbiotic relationship with the studio's True Life Adventure films makes for additional reason to regard it as signature. Finally after sixty years of operations, the Jungle Cruise has been running longer than ANY of the other attractions featured on this list.

Unfortunately, because Mr. Niles was never a skipper, Tom Sawyers Island (really?) squeaked out a spot on this ... well, on whatever this is supposed to be.

Weak sauce, sir. VERY weak sauce.

July 24, 2016 at 5:10 PM · Spaceship Earth.

An animatronic ride through the entire history of mankind. Educational, inspirational, multi-cultural, fantastical, lightly humorous, and awe inspiring. The climax is looking at the planet earth from the moon, for gosh sakes. Its both simple and amazing.

A one of a kind, with nothing quite like it anywhere - and a perfect example of what Disney was capable of. And I hope will one day prove to still be capable of doing again.

July 25, 2016 at 7:47 AM · As I always say - it's called the GREAT Movie Ride for a reason. :-)
July 26, 2016 at 9:01 AM · Our showchoir performed "Golden Dream" at Epcot in 1988. You want to talk about an unforgettable moment...still gives me chills thinking about it. :)

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