Now that Shanghai Disneyland is open, Disney has 12 worldwide theme parks: Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland, and the aforementioned Shanghai park. This list takes a look at the strength of each park as of December 2017, which should be a helpful resource for those of you preparing for your Fantasy Theme Park Drafts.
While it’s unlikely these parks will ever throw down with one another, pro-wrestling style, I think there’s little denying Disneyland could deliver a sick People’s Elbow to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Joking aside, my point is to acknowledge that this is all a pointless exercise and for entertainment only. I find it fun to compare the different parks, but your mileage may vary.
Each of the worldwide Disney resorts has a Castle Park, but not all of these parks are of the same quality, and their second gates (and beyond) are all fairly different. Hence these rankings. Save for Shanghai Disneyland, we visited each of these parks in 2017. Several of them had significant new additions or changes to merit a re-ranking. In other cases, we’re revising this list to correct some of our “bad takes” from last year…
The list is my attempt at objectivity in ranking the parks, trying as best as possible to eliminate personal biases and pesky things like nostalgia. Like the BCS and other power rankings, no one is bound to agree with these, despite them being very scientific and infallible. (You’re welcome to disagree and be wrong, though. 😉 )
With that said, here are my 2017 Disney Parks Power Rankings…
12. Walt Disney Studios Park
We’ll start with an apology. Last year, we ranked Disney’s Hollywood Studios as tied for 11th place with Walt Disney Studios Park. As weak as DHS is right now, it’s got nothing on the glaring weaknesses of Walt Disney Studios Park. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking when I made this list last year. Perhaps I had just finished a rousing experience on Armageddon – Les Effets Speciaux and was high on adrenaline? Nah, can’t be it.
In any case, Walt Disney Studios Park has–against all odds–also managed to get worse over the course of the last year thanks to the closing of its best attraction, Cinemagique. And even with some loosely-defined plans to inject Marvel into the park in the coming years, Walt Disney Studios Park remains a rudderless ship, and one that needs several areas of the park rebuilt from the ground up.
We’re talking something more than a Disney California Adventure 2.0 makeover to its front entrance and a few lands, not just light placemaking, Tower of Terror becoming Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission Breakout, and a new stage show. For Walt Disney Studios Park to be a park befitting of the Disney name, it needs a multi-billion dollar investment and it needs it yesterday.
11. Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Disney Hollywood Studios’ higher ranking this year is a classic case of failing upwards. The park did open Grand Avenue this year…but it also closed Great Movie Ride. One step forward, one leap backwards. In fairness, the closure does position the park for a better future, but in the here and now, it leaves DHS with only four rides. Four.
In its present state of closed attractions and construction walls for Star Wars Land & Toy Story Land–and with scant temporary entertainment as a substitute–Disney’s Hollywood Studios has very little to offer. It’s a park that will be stronger in a couple of years. It does not take a mathematician to tell you that a couple of years is not today.
It’s the thematic elements, particularly on Sunset & Hollywood Boulevards and Echo Lake, that give Disney’s Hollywood Studios a needed boost. Those areas are gems, with Tower of Terror arguably being the pinnacle of modern Imagineering. That alone is not enough to buoy the park to a higher position, it still needs about 7-8 new rides. (It’s getting 5.)
10. Disney California Adventure
Over five years since Disney pulled back the curtain on DCA 2.0, not a whole lot has happened to continue the positive momentum. To the contrary, the placemaking and effort to establish a cohesive theme are being undone. First with Guardians of the Galaxy – MISSION: Breakout! this year, followed by Pixar Pier next year.
We understand Disney’s motivation here, wanting to quickly inject new life into Disney California Adventure to make it a hot draw with the general public to reduce the crowding burden of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening across the Esplanade. However, we view these moves as short-sighted, and a hodgepodge of fun individual attractions without thematic cohesion does not a good theme park make.
9. Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland has languished for the last few years since its huge expansion consisting of Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch, and Mystic Point. That expansion included Mystic Manor and Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, which are two of the top 10 or 15 attractions in the world. Iron Man Experience has also proven to be a pleasant surprise–a far better attraction than we expected, even if it’s not the Marvel E-Ticket the park needed (that’s coming in a few years).
Smaller, less splashy additions have been made over the last few years, but Hong Kong Disneyland still has a long way to go in terms of being a unique park that offers compelling draws. The upside to this is that HKDL has announced a huge Frozen, Marvel, and castle expansion (yes, they’re expanding the castle). While there’s the potential for this to strip Hong Kong Disneyland of its quaint charm and intimacy, it really needs these additions–and an identity of its own. If all goes well, Hong Kong Disneyland could be an elite Disney theme park by its 15th anniversary.
8. Shanghai Disneyland
Disney’s newest theme park falls in the middle of the pack, which is unlikely to please anyone. Some fans have proclaimed its superiority to all other parks (including former head of Imagineering Marty Sklar, who stated “Shanghai is the best park we’ve ever done.”) while critics have derided it as franchise-driven and tacky. We disagree with both polarized stances, finding it to be the best opening day park relative to debuts in the post Euro Disney era of half-day parks, but still pretty far behind the decades-established castle parks.
There is no denying that Shanghai Disneyland is an ambitious park, even if you might contend that some of its ambition is misguided at times. In our estimation, Shanghai both scores and loses points for its significant deviations from the traditional castle park formula. We think some of these changes work really well, while others fall a bit flat. Among its “home runs” are Treasure Cove (especially its revolutionary Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure attraction), Camp Discovery, and Peter Pan’s Flight. We also give it points for Enchanted Storybook Castle, which is more impressive in person than its divisive design looks in concept art and photos.
While the park should be lauded for so quickly embracing seasonal entertainment (Halloween, Christmas, etc.) and also its eagerness to expand, we are not going to celebrate the Summer 2018 addition of Toy Story Land.
7. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
A strong argument can be made that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the best theme park in Florida. When you emphasize the theme in theme park, we’d rank it #1 of Walt Disney World’s parks. That’s high praise, and likely not a view shared by many given that the park’s attendance is dwarfed by Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
The problem for us, and one not resolved by the lovely Pandora: World of Avatar, is that there’s a lot of style, but still not enough substance. Sure, the park is beautiful and the purest example of unblemished (or close to it) theme at Walt Disney World. And we’ve already written about how most people overlook some of the park’s biggest gems. (See also, “I Was Wrong About Disney’s Animal Kingdom” from a few years ago.)
While the zoological exhibits and walk-throughs are wonderful, Animal Kingdom could use more on the ‘traditional attraction’ end of the spectrum. Expedition Everest was a start and Pandora furthered this, but that’s still only 3 high profile rides since the park opened. Animal Kingdom could still use a family-friendly dark ride (or two…or three). Sadly, those don’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon with so much work occurring elsewhere. Perhaps minor shortcomings to some, but enough to allow us to slip Epcot and Magic Kingdom ahead of Animal Kingdom.
I have a soft spot for Epcot. No, it’s not the EPCOT Center of my youth, a park that was far superior and more ambitious to what exists today. Setting aside my personal biases and nostalgia is a tall order when it comes to Epcot, but I think I’ve done that by ranking it #6 instead of #2.
This is because Epcot still has plenty of bright spots despite having its original mission statement and vision largely decimated. When viewed as a whole, Epcot has a lot to offer. World Showcase is still gorgeous and offers some of Disney’s best ambiance, anywhere. Spaceship Earth remains an awe-inspiring icon and pretty good attraction. Some Future World pavilions remain solid.
Too often we conflate trajectory for here-and-now overall quality (Universal post-Potter is one such example) in theme parks. While Epcot’s trajectory may not instill confidence, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a good park.
5. Magic Kingdom
Again, nostalgia comes into play. My opinion of Magic Kingdom will most likely always be colored by nostalgia for my youth. Even as I now live within driving distance of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom remains my “home” castle park. Sitting here evaluating the park online, I can look at it with a critical eye, but in person all of that melts away as I feel like a kid again when walking down Main Street.
Aside from the stellar new Happily Ever After, Magic Kingdom hasn’t received much attention in the last couple of years. New Fantasyland is not-so-new, Tomorrowland is ironically the most dated and tired land, and the park is without a nighttime parade. Still, Magic Kingdom has solid entertainment, and the most headliner and classic attractions of any park at Walt Disney World. It’s also home to plenty of fan-favorites like Country Bear Jamboree, Hall of Presidents, Carousel of Progress, and the Peoplemover.
Magic Kingdom also has a certain beauty, grandiosity, and sentimentality. This sense of escape and suspension of disbelief makes it really appealing. Go from Adventureland to Frontierland to Fantasyland, and you remain immersed in each of these environments. It’s a special feeling that evokes a certain sense of imagination and childlike whimsy, no matter your age. As the crown jewel park at Disney’s largest and most popular resort complex in the world, Magic Kingdom deserves better, and it’s finally receiving some overdue attention in the next few years that should poise it well for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.
4. Disneyland Paris
I’ll be honest: the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland Paris Celebration was a bit of a letdown. The parade is so-so, the projection show is weaker than its predecessor, and the stage shows are a mixed bag. However, it’s still a rousing success because of the lead-up to the 25th Anniversary.
This saw the completion of Project Sparkle, a revitalization effort to get the park back on track in time for its 25th Anniversary in April 2017. After visiting last year and this year, we have to say that this plan was exactly what Disneyland Paris needed. Areas of Disneyland Paris look pristine, which is a word we would’ve never used to describe pretty much anything there in the past.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement (mostly on the operational front, where Disneyland Paris is a disaster and needs a top-down house cleaning of management), but Disneyland Paris looks better than we’ve ever seen it. This new maintenance coupled with the always-exceptional design work at Disneyland Paris make it one of the top parks in the world. This is particularly true for those who favor parks as themed spaces, rather than collections of attractions. On the ride front, Disneyland Paris is still a step or two behind the other castle parks, but it compensates for this with so many amazing spaces and intricate details. Oh, and it has the best Disney castle in the world.
I am not one of those people who believe there’s a certain “magic” to Disneyland because it’s the only part Walt walked, but it does have a certain charm and intimacy that every other park (save for Hong Kong Disneyland–which will probably be the only park with that intimacy once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens) lacks. Equally as important, it has an incredible slate of attractions, ranging from intimate Fantasyland dark rides like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Alice in Wonderland to blockbuster E-Tickets like Indiana Jones Adventure and Hyperspace Mountain.
Last year, we commented that Disneyland could reclaim its mantle as the #2 park with the debut of Fantasmic 2.0 and return of the Rivers of America. While we were very pleased with how both turned out, Disneyland lost some of its luster for us this year by virtue of it becoming a hellscape of crowding. It may not seem fair to punish Disneyland for this, but these parks don’t operate in a vacuum. Moreover, there are plenty of operational decisions that could be made to alleviate crowding. Until those things occur, Disneyland is our #3.
2. Tokyo Disneyland
In a battle for #2, Tokyo Disneyland retains its position thanks to executing on all of the fundamentals and minor place-making ahead of its much-needed Beauty and the Beast expansion (and Tomorrowland contraction). The attraction roster (and design, for that matter) reads like a greatest hits of the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, plus two headliners of its own in Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Monsters Inc. Ride and Go Seek.
Tokyo Disneyland’s design is a bit of a mess in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland (in fairness, the same could be said about any Tomorrowland), but that’s in the process of being fixed ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Moreover, the wonderful kinetic energy of Westernland, Critter Country, and Adventureland compensate for the missteps in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland.
Then there’s the entertainment, which is amazing. With Happiness is Here (Disney’s best day parade), Dreamlights (Disney’s best night parade), and a wealth of seasonal offerings, Tokyo Disneyland has an all-star roster. (It’ll be interesting to see how the former is replaced for Tokyo Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary in 2018.) Beyond that, maintenance, attention to detail, show quality, dining, and Cast Members are all unsurpassed in in Tokyo Disneyland.
1. Tokyo DisneySea
The undisputed, indisputable king. Anyone who ranks another park ahead of Tokyo DisneySea either hasn’t been to Tokyo DisneySea, is leaning heavily on nostalgia, or just plain hates awesomeness.
Tokyo DisneySea loses a couple of points by virtue of retiring A Table is Waiting and replacing StormRider with Finding Nemo: SeaRider, but that’s like a receiver dropping Brady’s screen pass when the Patriots are up 44-10. I have already dedicated an entire article to the Top 10 Reasons Tokyo DisneySea is Disney’s Best Park, so I’ll just defer to that. Tokyo DisneySea is still Disney’s best theme park in the world, and it’s not even a remotely close call.
Hope you enjoyed this 2017 edition of the Disney Parks Power Rankings. Fair warning: we probably will skip updating this in 2018 due to a lack of significant changes coming to the various parks. Yes, two Toy Story Lands and Pixar Pier are opening, but…my point exactly. Keep in mind that this list is all in good fun. Like sports fans, most Disney fans have strong allegiances towards their home park and take offense when they feel it’s slighted. Remember that this is one random dude’s opinion on the internet. At the end of the day, it doesn’t impact your enjoyment of your “favorite” park if I rank it at number 8, nor does my opinion matter (at all) in the grand scheme of things.
How would you rank the Disney Parks you’ve visited? It doesn’t matter how many parks you’ve been to, I’m still interested in knowing! Do you think I mis-ranked any parks, or made any poor choices? If you have any other questions or comments, please leave them below.