My Ranking of the Top 20 Disney & Universal Theme Park Rides (UPDATE)

Edited: June 3, 2017, 12:21 PM

I actually posted this here a few years ago following my one and still only visit to the Tokyo Disney parks, and my first visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. A few things have changed since then, so here we go again!

I like lists, what can I say? That should put me in good company here, right? Plus, I have been fortunate in the number of Disney and Universal parks I've visited. The only ones I haven't been to are the two Paris Disney parks, despite having been to Paris, and the two Universal parks outside America (Japan and Singapore). In addition, I have been fairly recently to all these parks. Memorial Day weekend 2017 for Disney World (when Pandora: World of Avatar opened!). This past January for the California Disney parks. April 2017 for Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland. April of 2014 for the two Tokyo Disney parks, and in November 2014 I tagged along to Tampa on my girlfriend's business trip specifically so I could drive over to Orlando and hit both Universal parks again.

One thing I have done that perhaps not many others have is ride Expedition Everest in 2007 when the Yeti was fully functional. If he still was, that's a Top 10 ride. In fact, that Disney trip in 2007 is what got me back to an appreciation for all this stuff as an adult. I went along sort of begrudgingly, and ended up loving the experience. My #1 ride at that time, across all four Florida Disney parks and both Universal parks, was Expedition Everest (with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man a close second). That is how crucial the yeti is to the ride...he's the climax, the pinnacle of the whole thing. He was incredible. I rode the thing six times. I've ridden it at least five times since then and my disappointment can't be put into words...

Anyway, moving on...these are just my opinions and some rides can't be included (Ratatouille, Phantom Manor, and any of the other Paris rides) simply because I haven't experienced them. Many don't make the cut intentionally because I just don't think they're Top 20 quality right now, and perhaps never were. Some examples: Star Tours: The Adventures Continue (it's sort of boring to me, and I don't care for its random episodic nature), The Simpsons Ride, Soarin', Space Mountain (they are all a lot of fun but not really themed enough for me even with the Hyperspace Mountain overlay), E.T. Adventure (loved it as a kid!), the Matterhorn, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Toy Story Mania (a gallery of video screens that would feel about the same on a Playstation), Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Frozen Ever After, etc.

The April 2017 trip was my second visit to Hong Kong Disneyland and I was able to ride the brand new “The Iron Man Experience” a few times, which is the first Marvel ride ever at any Disney park. It was far better than I had expected based on my lack of love for Star Tours. It's a terrific addition to the park and actually has a pretty cool storyline: you feel like you are just a visitor at the Stark Expo invited to take one of Tony Stark's latest inventions, the Iron Wing, on a flight over Hong Kong to visit the world's largest arc reactor at Stark Tower. Of course Hydra has other plans, and 3D action sequences ensue.

The production values are top notch, and I love the fact that you actually fly the Iron Wing out of Hong Kong Disneyland and into the city before returning. It makes the ride feel very unique to one place, and makes it nearly impossible (sans a completely new ride video) to replicate the ride at another park. I also love that the queue feels like a museum, complete with the company history starting with Howard Stark, and a tech showcase that features explanations for many of the things you see in the ride, like glass that can repair itself. As much as I enjoyed Iron Man though, it's ultimately a “stationary” simulator ride. Not worthy of cracking the Top 20. UPDATE (6/3/2017): Oh the irony here...a different simulator ride became one of my favorite rides about month later!

Another new ride that won't get highlighted in the rankings is Na'vi River Journey. I got pretty hyped up about this one due to rumors that it would use the same ride system as Pirates of the Caribbean in Shanghai. Poppycock. If it's the same ride system then they did NOTHING with it, the ride is quite well done for what it is, but it's a typical Disney boat ride through scenery. It's a lovely experience, a fine companion piece to Flight of Passage, and I can't complain because I had a Fast Pass for my first ride and just a 25 minute wait for my second since it was six minutes before the park closed at 1 AM (hooray for Extra Magic Hours!). However, I couldn't find a single Top 20 ride I would sub this in for, which is similar to how I feel about Frozen Ever After. It does have the most realistic animatronic in theme park history up to this point in time (the range of motion and how natural the Shaman of Songs moves is extraordinary!), but overall give me Davy Jones in Shanghai, the Yeti circa 2007, or the Lava Monster at DisneySea.

Also, while I'm generally not big on the old Fantasyland dark rides, the Shanghai Disneyland version of Peter Pan is quite good and clearly the best of the four I've ridden (all except Paris!). I also love the updates to Alice in Wonderland at Disneyland, they make that ride really special again, but not quite special enough for the Top 20.

While this list may seem to favor newer rides overall, this isn't because I don't love the classics. I just try to go with what really resonates with me right now, and when it's an older ride (like Haunted Mansion) I put it in a high position on the list. Two of my Top 10 favorite movies of all time were made in the 1920's, so even if you don't agree with the placement of the older rides here, at least understand that I'm not one of those “newer is always better” types.

Unfortunately, I do have to start the list with the ULTIMATE shameful cop out... A three way tie. Pathetic, I know, but I truly can't decide between these three...


1. (tie) JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (Tokyo DisneySea), MYSTIC MANOR (Hong Kong Disneyland), &
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: BATTLE FOR THE SUNKEN TREASURE (Shanghai Disneyland)

I LOVE these three rides so much. Journey has that unforgettably thrilling climax, wonderful “dark ride” segments, that super awesome audio-animatronic Lava Monster, a lovely queue (with the Terravator!), and it happens to take place within the greatest centerpiece of any Disney park (Mount Prometheus) in one of Disney's finest themed lands (the Jules Verne-inspired Mysterious Island) in its very best theme park. It's gorgeous and brilliant, with the only possible drawback being its length. At around 3 minutes, it's the shortest of my three co-favorites.

In some ways, Mystic Manor is the most perfect ride I've ever seen. While completely devoid of “thrills”, per se, it has, hands down, the most baffling and well integrated special effects of any ride I've experienced. I have no idea how some of it was pulled off, the animatronics and screens mesh so flawlessly. The only room with obvious screens is that in which the climax takes place, at which point you're so wrapped up in the experience that it really doesn't matter. It makes a lot of Universal stuff and other Disney stuff look bad in that respect. For example, in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, those awful random screens where Hermione's head appears. Not convincing at all. Ditto for the overly bright screens in Revenge of the Mummy, when the screens are completely blatant the illusion is broken. Even the latest rides (Gringott's, Transformers, and to some degree its own #1 ride competition, Shanghai's Pirates) are bigger offenders in this respect than Mystic Manor.

If you can't tell, I really love this ride! Awesome original story, setting, queue (filled with little details for those who look), AA's, music, special effects...it's got everything including a solid length (five and a half minutes). I also love the whole Mystic Point area, it's small (like everything else at Hong Kong Disneyland) but punches above its weight, especially with the awesome Explorer's Club restaurant. If you pay attention after eating, you can find several notes on the wall from Lord Henry Mystic himself.

Then we have Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure which is certainly the longest ride of these three, clocking in at nearly 8 minutes. This thing blows my mind. Let's start with the fact that despite being a boat ride on water, the vehicle can move around to face each setpiece (at times you even go backward), and can simulate movement like rising or falling. That alone sets it apart from any other Pirates ride, all of which move along a straight path powered by water.

Still, the ride begins calmly enough...we see the Talking Skull, we ride slowly past Barbossa's Bounty with people dining outside (Shanghai's answer to Disneyland's Blue Bayou), we see several scenes of pirate skeletons... I happened to be riding this with my mother (a veteran of the Florida version), and she snarkily leaned over at this point and said, “The pirates in ours move around.” The timing could not have been more perfect, it was almost as if Disney was going for exactly that level of indifference from their regulars a minute and a half in. Moments later my mother was reduced to giggling like a schoolgirl (I'm dead serious), and by the end she exclaimed, “That is the best ride I've ever seen.” It really is incredible when the final skeleton, that of Jack Sparrow, comes to life in a tremendous visual effect. Sparrow then explains, in Mandarin, that he's sending us into the depths to steal Davy Jones' treasure. And off we go!

The majority of the ride takes place “underwater”, an effect achieved through an ingenious blend of large physical sets, absolutely massive screens, excellent sound effects, and an exciting musical score. It certainly feels like the biggest ride ever made, I intentionally looked straight up at times...WAY up mind you, and what I saw there was...more water. Behind the physical sets the screens are always there, to the left, right, and far above. There is nothing to break the illusion, no black ceilings and stage lights here folks. Instead you get animated ocean and even sharks in the distance or the underside of boats on the surface. We see the Flying Dutchman ship and even sail into it after meeting the animatronic hammerhead shark character from the Pirates movies. The Davy Jones animatronic inside is a big highlight, as he chastises us and calls for war after we rudely interrupt his organ playing.

There is a climax back on the surface with two massive ships battling as our tiny boat travels between them (the ships are physical creations surrounded by more gigantic screens to give the feel of a large scale battle extending beyond). We finish by going through Captain Jack's sinking ship, witnessing a swordfight, and then falling backward in the ride's climactic (yet tame) drop. It's fantastic. I rode it eight times and would have been happy to go for a ninth, tenth, and beyond. I recommend one of the last few rows, and I think if I had to pick, I would go for the right side. I feel like you get a better grasp of everything from the back, plus up front the illusion isn't quite as seamless since you can make out where the screens meet the real water. Overall though, all I can say is wow. Sooo many little details in this ride. Bravo.


4. HARRY POTTER AND THE FORBIDDEN JOURNEY (any version)

I know I just got done bashing the Hermione “head screens”, but heck, this ride is just so awesome and innovative. There's nothing else like it on earth. As we walk through the gates of the Wizarding World at Universal's Islands of Adventure, we feel like visitors in Harry Potter's story. To describe all the detailed, special touches in this area would require a full article by itself, but let's just say we make our way through Hogsmeade (stopping, perhaps, for a sip of delicious Butterbeer) before arriving at Hogwarts.

We are all Muggles, meaning we possess no magical abilities, but headmaster Dumbledore is allowing us to tour Hogwarts for the first time. We do so in one of the finest, most elaborate queues in theme park history. We see various statues and relics from the books/movies, as we venture through the greenhouse, Dumbledore's office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, etc. All of these locations look just as they did in the films, down to the last detail, and we even get to see the talking paintings carry on conversations. Dumbledore greets us in a pretty convincing visual effect, and explains that we will be hearing a lecture on the history of Hogwarts. Harry, Hermione, and Ron have other plans, persuading us that watching the day's Quidditch match would be a lot more fun. As we continue, a splendid looking animatronic version of the Sorting Hat gives us a few safety tips. Then we arrive at the Room of Requirement, sit on an enchanted bench (the ride vehicle), and Hermione sends us up to the Observatory via the Floo Network. Your feet leave the ground and they don't return until the end.

It's a magical adventure, and a lot of that is due to the ride system: a combination of KUKA robotic arms on a moving track, physical sets, animatronics, water and heat effects, and dome screens that move along the track with us. For example, when we are in the Observatory we are “floating” in a real set, then the bench transitions into a dome screen which simulates flight alongside Harry and Ron. Once we enter the Covered Bridge/Forbidden Forest we are again in a real set with an animatronic dragon, creepy spiders, and the massive Whomping Willow. I can think of no other ride where the animatronics seem to be so close to the rider. To put it mildly, this attraction is a masterwork of slick production value and technical wizardry. My only complaint is that not all seats on the bench are created equal. If you sit on the far left side, the transitions between the real sets and domed screens are not as seamless as they are if you are seated on the far right. Also, the final Floo Network segment near the end is a bit poorly done. Overall though, this ride is a must, and one of the best ever designed.


5. FLIGHT OF PASSAGE (Disney's Animal Kingdom)

Well folks, here it is. The theme park ride that is done the LEAST justice by an on-ride video. Of course no ride is done full justice, or even close, by on-ride videos. Trust me when I say that Flight of Passage is the new poster child though. This is NOT just another average simulator, this is the greatest simulator ride on the face of the planet by many miles!

I may never bother to wait longer than ten minutes to ride Soarin' or Star Tours or the new Iron Man I just spoke well of ever again. Seriously. I'm not even a big fan of these types of rides, I tend to prefer a mix of sets, animatronics, screens if needed, etc. Flight of Passage though...well it's one of the greatest rides of all time. Period. You will lose yourself in this adventure.

Feeling like a genuine extension of Pandora, the queue is superb. We basically climb up the side of a mountain, with beautiful scenery and waterfalls along the way, eventually reaching caverns where cave dwellers once painted ancient Banshees on the wall. Then we discover an old base within the mountain, belonging to a villainous mining corporation called RDA. Further along we see the jungle taking over the old base (the setting is many years after the events of the film), and ultimately we find ourselves in the Pandora Conservation Initiative facility. Details abound throughout this fantastic queue (wait until you see the Na'vi Avatar!) which is up there with the best of all time, and easily the best since Gringott's over at Universal.

The visuals in Flight of Passage are incredibly sharp and photorealistic. The screen is absolutely gigantic, it has to be larger than Soarin' because in Soarin' there are bad seats where you can see beyond the edges. I sat in the furthest seat to the left on one of my two rides (ok fine, it was Seat 15, Seat 16 was empty, in the furthest room to the left), and it was still a great experience. I prefer a more central position like my first ride, but there isn't a "bad seat" per se. The ride vehicle is like a bike, a bit like Tron in Shanghai, except your legs aren't literally behind you and you aren't leaning as far forward. But you straddle it and there is a brace that locks down over your legs and back. You also wear glasses that provide a subtle 3D effect (one should not expect gimmicky "in your face" 3D here).

After getting situated you link to your Avatar on the back of a Banshee and off you go! I don't know what flying on the back of a dragon feels like, but...it would probably feel a bit like this ride! You feel the wind in your face, the mist from waterfalls, you smell the forest and the dirt, all while banking and diving through incredible scenery among fantastic creatures. You can even feel the Banshee breathing beneath you! I can't begin to explain how awesome this ride is, it has revived my confidence in what a simulator ride can be.

A little anecdote: the reaction to this ride was overwhelmingly positive on its Memorial Day opening weekend and I think it will actually drive interest in the film again (soon to be a franchise, so that helps!). Incredible move by both James Cameron and Disney making this deal. I have too many examples to go into, but people waited HOURS for this thing (both my rides were at night during Extra Magic Hours, and I think maybe an hour and a half wait max?), and I heard so many people raving about it to others. One guy said he and his son waited 2.5 hours and it was worth every minute. It's an astonishing ride and really the best domestic Disney ride as far as I'm concerned. The only U.S. based theme park ride I would take over it would be Forbidden Journey.


6. HAUNTED MANSION (Magic Kingdom version)

One of the most detailed and creative rides ever made, featuring special effects that continue to amaze, especially after the 2007 refurbishment. The Tokyo Disneyland version is VERY close here, and is in a better state of repair than any other Haunted Mansion I've seen. The only thing putting the Florida version at the top is the refurbishment which California and Japan didn't get (though California does now sport the Hatbox ghost)! The special effects look seamless, brilliant, and better than ever. This does not seem like a ride that came out in 1971, it feels pretty fresh and modern somehow. That's not to say it's a thrill ride so no one should go into it with those expectations, but the artistry and craftsmanship are second to none in the industry. In 2011 the outdoor graveyard queue was improved too, adding interactive elements like a leaking tomb that gets visitors wet and a crypt decorated with various instruments that, when touched, play “Grim Grinning Ghosts” with their own unique sound. For the most part though, it's still the same classic ride where guests to the creepy mansion board “Doom Buggies” (rotating chairs) that slowly move along a track through many parts of the house, including an attic, a ballroom, and a graveyard where many ghouls and ghosts do their thing. Hopefully in the next year or two I can experience Phantom Manor in Paris!


7. THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF SPIDER-MAN (Universal's Islands of Adventure)

Still the best ride of its type, in my opinion. Budgeted at about $100 million back in 1999, this attraction opened to great acclaim with Universal's Islands of Adventure park. At an untold additional expense, it underwent a complete overhaul from February-March 2012 in order to match the tech in Transformers: The Ride. Spider-Man got all new computer animation mastered in 4K high-definition (thank goodness because it was already looking dated back in 2007), Infitec digital projectors, dichroic 3D glasses (much better than the old polarized lenses!), improved lighting and scenery detail in the physical sets, 16-channel audio instead of the original 8-channel, new music, etc. At eighteen years of age this thing feels like a brand new ride again. Another jewel in the Universal crown.

The queue is still as good as it ever was, as guests walk into the Daily Bugle and wander through recently abandoned offices. Along the way we see various tributes to the Bugle, publisher J. Jonah Jameson and his overinflated ego, and the “Scoop” (our ride vehicle). As a fun bonus, Universal Express Plus Pass users get to walk through Peter Parker's office and dark room, with developing photographs of several villains. We also learn via computer screens, TV newscasts (showing animated clips produced exclusively for this ride's storyline), newspaper articles, etc. that the Sinister Syndicate is currently laying waste to the city with a stolen anti-gravity cannon. They have made off with the Statue of Liberty, and destroyed buildings, bridges, and so forth. The members of the group include Dr. Octopus, their leader, as well as Electro, Scream, Hobgoblin, and Hydro-Man. We take on the role of J. Jonah Jameson's last remaining hope to get out there and document the story.

The ride itself is a thrilling combination of real sets, practical effects (involving props, water, heat, real fire, etc.), incredible lighting, 3D-screens, immersive sound, and roving motion base vehicles (sooo much better than Star Tours, Iron Man, the Simpsons, and any other 3D simulator where you remain more or less stationary). The transitions between the real sets and the 3D sequences are seamless, especially after the refurb, and the effect is stunning. When Spider-Man jumps down onto the hood of the Scoop we feel his weight on the vehicle, we see his finger in our faces when he says, “This could be the most dangerous night of my life, and yours!” The use of 3D throughout the ride ranks among the best I've ever seen. When Dr. Octopus tries to engulf us in fire, we feel the heat. In one of my favorite sequences, Hobgoblin throws a flaming jack-o'-lantern at us that Spider-Man stops with his web right in front of our faces. Moments later, Hobgoblin tosses another pumpkin bomb which explodes through the wall above us in a real pyrotechnic effect as the Scoop screeches away in reverse. Great stuff!


8. REVENGE OF THE MUMMY (Universal Studios Orlando)

I can not stress enough that this high ranking is ONLY for the Mummy ride in Orlando, not that joke version in Los Angeles. This version has it all: a dark ride portion with real fire effects, an animatronic Imhotep (though I could swear he seems a lot less awesome than he did back in 2007...less complex model perhaps?), a very cool launch into a Rockin' Roller Coaster style ride with great airtime, then a faux ending that culminates in another terrific real fire effect, and a final roller coaster portion. Since it replaced Kongfrontation, which had a good number of pyrotechnics, the designers were able to incorporate all that fire into this ride. The room where the ceiling is engulfed in flames is pretty awesome (and incredibly hot near the end of the day), but none of those great fire effects are used in the already shorter, slower, and straight-up inferior Hollywood version of this attraction which replaced E.T. Adventure. If I'm being picky they need to make the screens mesh better in a future refurbishment (the scarab beetle scene is especially ridiculous), and they should do something to make the static undead warriors move a little in the treasure room. Overall though, it's a heck of a ride. My group rode this about eight times in 2012 alone, and I rode it three more times in November 2014.


9. INDIANA JONES ADVENTURE (Tie: Disneyland version and Tokyo DisneySea version)

The recent updates to the Disneyland version are just awesome, no doubt, but the Tokyo version always had some unique effects of its own (the wicked looking cyclone in the main chamber, the simulated fireball that flies right at you near the end). Plus Tokyo has the better queue in my opinion. There is also a better chance of all the effects working properly in Tokyo due to their superior maintenance (the Disneyland version actually broke down when I tried to ride it a second time in January 2017). Anyway, no matter where you ride this one, it's top notch!


10. TOWER OF TERROR (Disney's Hollywood Studios version for ride experience, Tokyo DisneySea version for story and setting)

I've always loved Tower of Terror in all its incarnations. The Tokyo version is probably my overall favorite (I love the way it ties in with Mystic Manor over in Hong Kong Disneyland!), thanks to the awesome building itself, the unique story, elaborate queue, and world class special effects (including the famous disappearing Shiriki Utundu idol). However, the ride portion gets the edge in Florida where the drop sequence is random, a bit more intense, and the elevator moves out of the elevator shaft and through the “fourth dimension”. Haven't experienced the new version in California yet, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!


11. POOH'S HUNNY HUNT (Tokyo Disneyland)

A delightful trackless ride (the forebear of Mystic Manor and Ratatouille) that really makes the other Disney Winnie the Pooh rides feel like...Poo Rides. The Disneyland version is the worst of all with its cardboard-looking scenery, but the other versions, while passable, aren't a whole lot better. Even Shanghai Disneyland with their enormous $5.5 billion resort budget cut corners and threw in a cheaper Winnie the Pooh ride (similar to the Magic Kingdom and Hong Kong versions). Honestly, Pooh's Hunny Hunt was probably most responsible over the last decade for those, “Why does Disney invest so much more in foreign parks than domestic?” debates. It was hard to argue at the time, given the $30 million Disney spent on Pooh at Disneyland vs. the $130 million they spent in Tokyo (then again, Disney doesn't pick up the entire tab at the foreign parks).

At any rate, Pooh's Hunny Hunt is an absolute joy; it's incredibly playful and imaginative. Depending on which honey pot you get into, you will see little variations along the way. The climax of the ride is particularly praise worthy as many honey pots filled with riders “dance” with each other, including one piloted by Heffalumps and Woozles!


12. SPLASH MOUNTAIN (Tokyo Disneyland version)

Still wonderful all these years later. Why does Tokyo's version win? Again it comes down to upkeep. Everything still looks new, but the same can not be said for the others. Sure, they all get the job done and you might as well consider them all in this spot on my rankings. I just give Tokyo the edge here.


13. SINBAD'S STORYBOOK VOYAGE (Tokyo DisneySea)

Pretty much a “greatest ride of its type” experience for me. I think it tops the Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland versions of Pirates of the Caribbean, any version of It's a Small World, and I honestly went back and forth deciding between this and Splash Mountain. Ultimately I gave the (slight) edge to Splash Mountain because it has the “thrill ride” portion, a brilliant setting, a superior queue, and a combination of indoor and outdoor setpieces. However, the AA's in Storybook Voyage are numerous and incredibly expressive, probably the best overall collection of animatronics anywhere in the world. The Alan Menken score is wonderful too, good luck getting it out of your head. It's a long, relaxing, and rewarding journey that shares more in common with It's a Small World than the others I've compared it to, and in that showdown, it DESTROYS the competition.


14. RADIATOR SPRINGS RACERS (Disney's California Adventure)

Here it is, the ride that emphatically put an end to the debate I spoke of earlier. You know, the one about Disney making bigger investments in its foreign parks vs the domestic ones. That argument basically goes out the window the moment you walk into Cars Land and see every bit of the $200 million Disney put into this experience! The ride features incredible mountain scenery, beautiful indoor settings, some of the best AA's the world has ever seen (aided by the rear projection effects seen later in Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Frozen Ever After), and a racing portion to boot! It's a great ride indeed, one I would ride multiple times ANYTIME. I'm not ranking it here because it's not a wonderful experience, it's just...not as wonderful as those above it. Personally, I think Journey to the Center of the Earth provides an overall greater experience using the same ride system.


15. HARRY POTTER AND THE ESCAPE FROM GRINGOTT'S (Universal Studios Orlando)

First of all, Diagon Alley is the only themed area I've seen anywhere that stands toe to toe with the level of theming at Tokyo DisneySea. It's unreal, topping even Hogsmeade next door. Walking into Gringott's Bank the magic continues. The queue is tremendous, the AA's are jaw dropping, the pre-show sets up the story well, and the elevator taking you down to the vault reminded me of Journey to the Center of the Earth. To be honest, the storytelling is seamless when you consider the progression through Diagon Alley, into the bank, down into the vaults, culminating in a ride that fits perfectly into the context of this story (it's not a “best of Harry Potter” highlights ride like Forbidden Journey).

Unfortunately the ride itself just isn't Top 10 quality for me. I rode it three times in November 2014 and while I did appreciate it more during the second and third ride, it's just not as mindblowing as Forbidden Journey. It's like a far, far too tame version of The Mummy (it barely needed to be designed as a roller coaster), with screen after screen of 3D effects. There are some physical sets, but how incredible can stone walls, steel tracks, and a waterfall be? I overheard no fewer than three people on the day I was there making negative comments about it. “I didn't like the new Harry Potter ride, the other one was much better.” The closest to my own impression following my FIRST ride came from a man in the row in front of me when he said, “That's it?” While I am still ranking this high because everything EXCEPT the ride itself is close to flawess, and I came to appreciate it more as the day wore on, all things considered I feel that the ride sort of lets down all the genius leading up to it. That was not the case, in my opinion, with Hogsmeade, Hogwarts, and the Forbidden Journey.

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Edited: June 3, 2017, 12:02 PM

(CONTINUED)

16. EXPEDITION EVEREST (Disney's Animal Kingdom)


Maybe it's here just for the nostalgia of what it once was... It's still kind of fun to ride I guess, but it's so much more normal...perhaps even AVERAGE without the yeti. I'll always be grateful that it revived my love of theme parks back when the yeti was roarin' and lungin' properly. To give credit where it's due, this was once a ride that was soooo much more than the sum of its parts. The lovely Asia area of Animal Kingdom, loaded with special touches of its own, feeds right into this attraction, subtly revealing bits of storyline as you walk.

We see the mountain rising in the distance, and the forced perspective illusion is convincing. Once we arrive at the little village of Serka Zong and the “Himalayan Escapes Tours & Expeditions” building, we walk in and see that the owner is currently away, his cluttered desk abandoned. We connect the dots here in one of the most brilliant queues of all time; this used to be one of the buildings of the Royal Anandapur Tea Company, which transported tea leaves from up in the mountains via steam train. Now this area has been repurposed as a hub for tourists to explore Everest, taking the very same old tea trains up into the mountains. Among the countless incredible details in this queue, we walk through a shrine and museum dedicated to the Yeti, a creature of legend said to reside in the peaks above. We find out about a group that used these trains back in 1982, never to return. The story builds perfectly, readying us for a journey up the mountain. It was a story with the perfect climax, it was the very thing that made me rush out to the gift shop to buy a book about Animal Kingdom so I could read about the design of Expedition Everest.

I'm talking about the Yeti himself. A gigantic audio-animatronic, maybe the best large scale animatronic in the history of Disney Imagineering (it's only legit competition is the Lava Monster at Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth). This beast was 22 feet tall, weighing in at about ten tons, and he roared and swiped at the train as it whizzed by. This was everything the experience had been building up to, from the moment the park guest sets foot in Asia and begins to stroll toward the big mountain in the distance. Due to structural issues, the yeti hasn't moved in nearly a decade. He just sits there with a light flashing on him, and honestly, the two times I rode this thing in 2013 I could barely even see him. I think I saw his motionless hand once. It's an absolute travesty, and it's one massive reason that, here in the U.S. at least, I prefer Universal to Disney. Yes, I feel that strongly about it. The loss of the Yeti is akin to watching a nearly perfect movie fall apart completely in the final act. Here's hoping the opening of Pandora – World of Avatar gives Disney time to finally fix this thing.


17. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (Disneyland version)

We all know the Disneyland version beats the Magic Kingdom version. Easy call. Anyway, Pirates is a true classic. What more needs to be said? I've heard the Paris version is the best of these older Pirates rides, but can't comment there.


18. TRON LIGHTCYCLE POWER RUN (Shanghai Disneyland)

I watched videos of this ride before my trip to Shanghai, and I thought it looked fun, but not Top 20 quality. I was convinced it was too short and didn't have enough theming for my taste..basically another roller coaster with a speedy launch and some lit-up portions in the dark. Didn't we see this back in 1999 when Rockin' Roller Coaster opened in Florida? Then a little something happened called actually riding the ride. Not once, but five times in my three days at Shanghai Disneyland. I had completely underestimated everything about it. The effects and lighting are fantastic (including the wall in the queue that suddenly disappears to reveal the launch of the coaster), the Daft Punk musical score gets you totally pumped up just to get on the thing, and most importantly, the WAY you ride is so incredibly unique it can only be understood through actual experience. I can't express how truly feeling like you are on a lightcycle from TRON changes just about everything, the design of the ride vehicle is absolutely essential.

TRON basically takes the place of Space Mountain in the other castle parks, and it is certainly better than all of them (again excepting the one in Paris which I can't judge). In fact, some Australian teenagers we met insisted TRON was the best roller coaster they had ever been on. It has the highest top speed of any Disney roller coaster, and the experience is so complete overall that the relatively short length of it isn't the deal breaker I thought it would be. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the ride looks completely fabulous from the outside once night falls over Shanghai.


19. TRANSFORMERS (any of them)

It's a fun ride, it's just not in the same league as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the attraction it was practically cloned from. It uses the same roving motion-base vehicles with a combination of 3D screens and physical sets. It's bigger, with larger screens than Spidey, and it feels faster too. On the other hand, the queue is boring by comparison, there are fewer physical sets and props throughout the ride, no real fire (a small thing but it made for a BIG moment in Spider-man), and the screens seem a little more obvious to me. Not to mention the climax of the ride is a direct copy of Spider-man with its free fall toward the street and last minute rescue. So yeah, while the ride is still quite good it feels a bit “been there, done that”. I guess I expected more in the 12.5 years between Spider-man and this ride.


20. MEN IN BLACK: ALIEN ATTACK (Universal Studios Orlando)

The best ride of its type, in this case a “shooter” ride. The only thing I don't like about this great ride is that it's not in a place where maintenance goes in and refreshes it every year, as far as I can tell. It would be even better if all the guns were working properly and all the targets were functioning reliably so as to count properly in your point tally. I actually prefer the “gameplay” portion of the new Buzz Lightyear: Planet Rescue in Shanghai Disneyland (which incidentally is the best Buzz Lightyear ride out of the five I've experienced in the world) because of the overall polish and the great gun feedback every time you hit a target. Still, Planet Rescue wouldn't be a very good ride without the shooter elements, while Men in Black is an enjoyable experience even if you never pick up the gun. Lots of fun AA's and little secrets here, not to mention the ability to make other ride vehicles “spin” by shooting their exhaust ports.


Honorable Mentions:


MONSTERS INC. RIDE AND GO SEEK! (Tokyo Disneyland)

Another shooter (with flashlights instead of guns) but this one doesn't keep score. You hit the targets to see little bits of business and gags with various monsters. The same Imagineers who did Mystic Manor were responsible for this one, so you know it's good! Some of the best AA's in a ride of this type, it makes the Disney's California Adventure Monsters Inc. ride look downright terrible by comparison!


BIG THUNDER MOUNTAIN RAILROAD (Disneyland version)

Disneyland wins for one reason. The updated special effects in the final tunnel. It really, really adds to the experience! If they brought those effects to every park (they added it in Disneyland Paris but I haven't ridden that one), then they would all be pretty close. This is another case where I've heard the best version is in Paris though.

June 4, 2017, 3:11 PM

>Looks for Mission SPACE

>Doesn't see it on your list

get out

June 5, 2017, 3:22 PM

Nicely considered piece, and well argued. Thanks for posting!

June 5, 2017, 6:06 PM

Great reading! These are the kind of nuanced evaluations of themed attractions that I wish we could find online more often. Thank you!

June 24, 2017, 6:45 AM

Thanks for the kind words Robert and Tim! Though I feel the absence of the Paris parks looms large on a list like this. Hope to fix that soon enough!

Jaiden - Sorry, not a big fan. :-p

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