Vote of the Week: When Was the 'Golden Age' for Disney Theme Parks?

October 24, 2014, 11:06 AM · 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?

Magic Kingdom in 1990
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
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.

Replies (16)

October 24, 2014 at 11:25 AM · I went for the 80's.
Magic Kingdom received epic rides and Epcot was a complete and unusual park.
The DHS and AK are not fully realized parks.
Epcot went downhill fast with every makeover and now the theme is confusing and the park is tired and old.
AK has few rides and the one their are to short. When your queue is more impressive then your ride there is something very wrong with the attraction.
The same goes for everything that is being done in MK now, to short and no wow factor unlike everything that is opening in Universal Resort Orlando.
October 24, 2014 at 11:45 AM · I picked the 90's. Epcot was an amazing park that fueled curiosity and drove children, and adults, to think different. Remembering the capsule elevators to Seabase Alpha changed the way I thought about the ocean. Living with the Land was also mesmerizing to a younger me, with the tour host. I yearn for those days.
October 24, 2014 at 11:53 AM · The 1980s, for much of what the last person wrote, but especially EPCOT Center. That was really a defining moment in theme park history. No other park like it, and unfortunately, the way it's been gutted, never will be again.
They took science, culture, and education seriously, and they respected the guests' intellect (including kids!) with their unique presentation of the subject matter.
My dad used to take me down to Disney every other year when I was a kid in the 80s - including when it first opened - and decades later, what sticks with me? EPCOT Center.
October 24, 2014 at 12:10 PM · Also had to go with the 80's -- my best memories of trips to Disney were during those early days of Epcot and Magic Kingdom when Mr. Toad was still a resident.

Don't get me wrong -- some great things have gone in since then. I love Everest, TOT and Toy Story Mania. But my favorite memories will always be from the 80s (and early 90s if I stretch it a bit...)

October 24, 2014 at 1:24 PM · It was between the '80s and the '90s for me. That span when EPCOT was rolling and Eisner was doing so much expansion (new MGM Studios, Splash, etc.) was the best time. The service levels were so high, and prices were a lot more reasonable. Plus, I was a kid, so I didn't see any bad things with it. I voted for the '80s, but I could be good with up until at least 1994.
October 24, 2014 at 2:06 PM · I selected the 1990's. It was the first time my wife and I ever went to a Disney park and we picked WDW. I can still remember how at EPCOT the rides and attractions actually taught you something. I wanted my children to experience that when we took them in 2010 but it had changed and not for the better. It seemed that it was now more important to get as much from your wallet as giving you a memorable experience. I hate to say this but I miss the old days.
October 24, 2014 at 2:35 PM · I chose the 2000's. The early aughts were my first time to visit Disney since I was a kid (1986-ish). So I was able to experience two new parks (Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) and bask in the nostalgia I had for the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Along with this, the old Fastpass system was still in effect and attendance levels were way down which kept the parks from being overcrowded. Good times...
October 24, 2014 at 2:44 PM · well they should do a gate-entry for Fantasmic with the Sorcerer Hat
October 24, 2014 at 2:45 PM · I think the answer to this question coincides with the answer to another question:
"When did you first visit a Disney park?"
In my case, the answer is the '80s.
October 24, 2014 at 3:52 PM · I voted 2000s but probably should have voted 1990s as it was the mid-2000s where I think the company really started to decline (if there was a 1995-2005 choice, I would have said that). It may be because I was younger then (born 1991), but I remember the Disneyland Resort being a lot better before the number of AP guests exploded and every ride was made to tie into a movie or cartoon (though I will admit Indiana Jones Adventure is my favorite Disney ride). Lawsuit potential has rendered many of the playground type elements defunct, making Tom Sawyer's Island and Toontown just shadows of what they once were. Although I'm generally not too interested in them anymore, I do remember the older parades being more interesting than what Disney offers now, and I do remember wandering characters versus only appearing at fixed locations. Attractions made use of animatronics and practical effects rather than 3D video screens and projection effects, which really pulled you into the experience rather than making it feel like a fancy movie or video game. Some refurbishments were a definite improvement, but Disney has also made some changes that were not beneficial and in some cases resulted in a former attraction being left to rot in public sight. 2001 did bring DCA, but I still believe that if Disney had committed to getting the park up to the original vision and had offered tickets at a reduced price until it was there the park would not have needed a complete overhaul. Finally, the parks have become so expensive it is difficult to justify a visit anymore, and what we paid for an AP 10-15 years ago won't buy a one day park hopper at 2014 prices. Some of this is definitely more subjective, but even just taking an objective look at the parks today versus the park(s) 10-15 years ago you can see that the resort has undergone a lot of change, some good and some bad.

I can't say much about other Disney parks, but I'm sure each has changed over time and will say that the mid-2000s seem to be the time when most of them began to decline significantly in one way or another (or for the new parks, their failures became evident).

October 25, 2014 at 10:33 AM · Like it's been mentioned I think it depends on your age and experience when you were younger. I was born in '82 and I have been to Disneyland three times and WDW twice. Disneyland when I was 10(1992) and then much later in '08 and last month. WDW was when I was 14(1996) and then again in '09.
I voted 90's because of WDW. Back when I went in '96 the park was amazing to me. Mostly Epcot and Downtown Disney sticks out as being much better than it was the second time I went 14 years later. Downtown Disney just did not seem as nice in general the second time, Epcot was more of what it was intended to be, MK still had alien encounter and TOT was brand new at the time.
For the reasons mentioned above I chose the 90's, but I do think Disneyland is better now than it was back then. For the obvious additions it has now.
October 25, 2014 at 1:28 PM · I think for me it has to be the 90s..everything was new and exciting or seemed like it was at least, you had a great expansion in the parks and the ideas seemed like they would never continue to be gold mines.

Other than Disneyland it was truly a great time in the Disney parks, whereas now it seems like they are trying to fix the mistakes from the 2000s and the 2010s still aren't over to define whether they're going to be good or better than the late 80s early/mid 90s..

October 25, 2014 at 9:48 PM · I find it interesting that the results of the vote so far seem to track well with the decades in which Theme Park Insider readers were teenagers.
October 26, 2014 at 3:28 PM · I lived in Jacksonville from 1991-95, my family would take advantage of "Florida resident" deals to do trips to Disney World every few months or so for a fun weekend. It really was an amazing time, so much new every time we visited: Disney-MGM with Star Tours, Muppet Vision and Tower of Terror added; EPCOT with new Spaceship Earth, Innoventions and such; Magic Kingdom looking good and Pleasure Island a fun bit. 1999 was a great trip for us with Rock n Roller Coaster, Animal Kingdom, Test Track, Buzz Lightyear, Winnie the Pooh, DisneyQuest and so much more. It just had tons of promise all over the place, a lot that didn't get built (still wish we'd seen that Disney America park) but the promise of it all making the decade so magical for so many fans and I still love it dearly.
October 27, 2014 at 10:01 AM · I would say late 80s, into early 90s. Mind, I think it is easy to be too nostalgic though - imagine what we would all be saying if things hadn't changed much since then. I think perceptions and expectations play a big role - 20-25 + years ago what Disney was offering was truely amazing, the animatronics and experiences were way ahead of their time, Unfortunately time catches up, technology has vastly advanced since then and our expectations have grown massively. Hence what may have seemed amazing 20 years ago, now probably gets a yeh it's nice but could do better. I remember first seeing the animatronics on the great movie ride in 1990 and was so wowed, now I ride it and think hmmm it's OK, but when are they going to update it!!
October 27, 2014 at 11:25 AM · Speaking only from a WDW point of view and with attempting to take childhood nostalgia out of the equation - it still has to be the 90s! Two great new parks in Animal Kingdom & Blizzard Beach, new rides and shows coming thick and fast. Epcot was in its prime and I remember Pleasure Island as a much livelier and popular place. In some ways it's similar to the decade that Universal is experiencing right now in its Orlando parks.
It's a shame Disney plateaued in the last decade and a half as there is always new rides and ride changes needed in the parks. Hopefully with Avatar, Disney Springs and Star Wars Land coming soon, it can be the start of a similar decade as the 90s from 2015-2025.

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