Perhaps the only thing that some Disney fans love more than the parks themselves are their memories of the way the parks used to be.
Nostalgia fuels big business at the Disney theme parks, from sales of throwback T-shirts to various collectibles from long-closed attractions. Even more than the merchandise sales, though, Disney cultivates nostalgia as a way to entice people to book future visits to its theme parks. How better to relive a golden memory from your past than by coming back and visiting again?
Remember the old hub at the Magic Kingdom?
But too much idealizing of the past creates a risk that people will decide that today's parks aren't as good as what they remember. When nostalgia stops motivating people to visit and begins discouraging them instead, well, that's a problem for any destination. Disney loves for its fans to buy retro Epcot T-shirts and Horizons posters. But Disney doesn't want potential visitors to stay home because all they hear online is "the parks just aren't as good as they used to be."
So let's test that statement. Are Disney's theme parks the best they've ever been, right now? Or is there some decade in the past when they were better? If so, when was that? It's one thing to have this warm, fuzzy ideal of a better past — but it's something else to assign that ideal to a specific date.
We will start with the 1970s, when Disney went from having a single theme park to begin building a chain. The '70s saw the opening of Walt Disney World and the introduction of iconic new rides such as Space Mountain ad Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The 1980s brought the opening of Epcot Center, Tokyo Disneyland and the Disney-MGM Studios, as well as the New Fantasyland expansion in Disneyland and the debut of Splash Mountain.
Disney World's Frontierland in 1990.
In the 1990s, Disneyland Paris opened, as well as Disney's Animal Kingdom. Fantasmic! debuted, and Disney expanded the Studios park in Florida, adding Sunset Boulevard and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, as well as multiple hotels. In the 2000s, Disney added four theme parks: Tokyo DisneySea, California Adventure, the Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Disneyland celebrated its 50th birthday and Disney World kept building hotels.
In this decade, Disneyland rebuilt much of California Adventure, adding Cars Land, while Hong Kong built Grizzly Mountain and Mystic Manor. Disney World introduced its New Fantasyland and by the end of the decade, Animal Kingdom will have added Avatar while Downtown Disney becomes Disney Springs.
And yet, each decade had negatives, too. The biggest development in theme parks in the 2010s hasn't been anything Disney has built — it's been the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, which is taking market share from Disney in Orlando. Three of the parks Disney built in the 2000s were the weakest theme park developments in the company's history, requiring multi-billion dollar investments to fix in the 2010s. The 1990s saw a dramatic decline in quality at Disneyland, with the nadir being the accidental killing of a park guest on the Sailing Ship Columbia dock. For much of the early 1980s, Disney's future as a company was in doubt, with corporate raiders ready to buy and carve up the business. And those of us who were around in the 1970s remember that Disney was hardly the premier theme park brand in the country then. Believe it or not, the Six Flags brand was as, if not more, respected among theme park fans back then.
So there's much to debate here. Let's start that debate with a vote:
Tell us in the comments which era you consider the best for Disney's theme parks, and why.