Best of the decade lists are all the rage right now, but since no one really cares what I think of movies and television, I’ll instead cover new theme park rides and shows. This top 10 list ranks the best attractions that debuted in Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai in the 2010s.
The recently-ended decade was both a big one and a quiet one. Things slowed down in terms of opening new second-gates. Unlike the aughts, which saw the opening of four new theme parks (Disney’s California Adventure, Tokyo DisneySea, Walt Disney Studios Park, and Hong Kong Disneyland), only Shanghai Disneyland was the only new gate to debut. However, just as many good new theme parks were added to Disney’s lineup this decade as the one before it.
Rather, the story of the recent decade was one of expansion and, if we’re being honest, correcting a decade of stagnation and mistakes. Three of the new parks in the aughts were done on the cheap, and Disney undertook ambitious plans to fix those. (The third will get its fix in the current decade.) Domestically, Disney sought to correct a decade of post-9/11 stagnation. All in all, there was a construction boom in the company’s theme parks, with some great fruits coming from this growth…
Before we dig into the list, let’s cover a few entries that didn’t make the cut. First, a couple of roller coasters: Slinky Dog Dash and TRON Lightcycle Power Run. Both are unquestionably fun, but they are essentially just lightly dressed-up coasters without show scenes. As someone who values theme much more than thrills, I find both lacking. (Sarah vehemently disagrees and thinks TRON Lightcycle Power Run belongs in the top ten, maybe at #7 or #8.)
Over at Hong Kong Disneyland, there are two Marvel additions worthy of consideration: Ant-Man and The Wasp: Nano Battle! (the lone new attraction of the decade that we’ve yet to experience) and Iron Man Experience (which is good but not great). On the topic of Marvel, I’d give an honorable mention to Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! It’s an attraction that doesn’t belong where it is, but is better than it has any right to be. The same could be said for Frozen Ever After, another ‘lemonade out of lemons’ addition that didn’t make the cut.
On the screen-based front, there’s Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (which will be known as Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure when it opens in Epcot). This has flashes of brilliance, but is disappointing as far as big-budget rides go. The integration of screens leaves a lot to be desired, and that prevents true suspension of disbelief.
Next, a couple of shows: Mickey and the Magician at Walt Disney Studios Park and Big Band Beat at Tokyo DisneySea. We’ve decided to consider the latter ineligible since OLC has treated it as a continuation of an existing show (even though it’s totally different) in the same venue. Mickey and the Magician comes close, but its montage formula drags it down a tad as it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. (In general, entertainment is eligible for this list so long as it’s permanent and has a purpose-built venue.)
Finally, there’s Camp Discovery Challenge Trails at Shanghai Disneyland. I think this is incredible, the pinnacle of play areas, and worthy of inclusion on this list. (I’d sooner include it than TRON.) However, with this being only a top 10 list, something had to be snubbed!
10. Song of Mirage, Tokyo DisneySea
Last summer, Soaring Fantastic Flight debuted at Tokyo DisneySea to rave reviews, with guests gushing over its elaborate facade, beautiful queue, and pre-show trickery. Unfortunately, aside from a new ending scene, it was the same Soarin(g) Over the Bendy CGI that exists in Anaheim, Florida, and Shanghai. A lot of build-up for a letdown.
That same day, to absolutely zero fanfare, Song of Mirage opened back in Lost River Delta. While it was produced for a fraction of Soaring Fantastic Flight’s budget, it’s the better attraction of the two. This show is a perfect thematic fit for the port, and combines mystery, humor, and elegance to odd yet fitting effect. In some ways, it’s like a fever dream as the characters search for El Dorado, the lost city of gold, with entrancing music, hypnotic choreography, and a laugh out loud scene that I won’t spoil.
9. The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History, Magic Kingdom
This show demonstrates how something designed as atmospheric entertainment can go above and beyond, becoming an ‘appointment attraction’ worthy of a place in Magic Kingdom itineraries. It also underscores the notion that not everything needs to be a grandiose ride with high-tech wizardry–variety is key to the Disney theme park experience.
The Muppets Present was an exceptional example of edutainment done right, incorporating actual lessons from American history with the trademark quick wit of the Muppets. When it debuted, we called this the best new addition to Magic Kingdom in a decade, surpassing all of New Fantasyland. That was arguably a bit overzealous considering the comparative ambition and staying power of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (or maybe not given that this is flawless for what it is and that isn’t). Unfortunately, the Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History has been retired.
8. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Magic Kingdom
New Fantasyland was the first exciting expansion at Walt Disney World in years. It was thus disappointing when each component opened and felt like it stopped about 25% short of greatness. (Arguably, the one attraction where this is not true is the under-appreciated Enchanted Tales with Belle.)
Even as Seven Dwarfs Mine Train leaves me wanting more–primarily via show scenes and roller coaster track–it also packs a powerful punch. The main show scene is large and impressive, and the lift hill that follows is a simply effect that’s really impactful. The placement and layout of the coaster is also top notch, with mild thrills and great views of Magic Kingdom. Instead of focusing on what’s lacking, it’s worth emphasizing what was done right. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a new Magic Kingdom classic, and one that’ll be a rite of passage ride for a new generation of Disney fans.
7. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Disneyland
Aside from the snub of TRON Lightcycle Power Run, this ranking so highly will probably be the most controversial choice. I don’t care. I’ve repeatedly emphasized that I’m an attractions person and not a ride junkie, and that the build-up via well-done queues and pre-shows are just as important to me as the ride experience. (Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror is a good example of this–essentially a walk-through attraction with a mild drop at the end.)
Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run works wonders as a “wish fulfillment” attraction, giving guests the opportunity to step inside the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy and sit inside the cockpit. The queue leading there is brilliant, as is the use of Hondo Ohnaka (a compelling character I had never heard of before, but love now), and the pre-shows are amusing and fun. The ride experience itself can be a mixed bag and the mission can feel like plodding drudgery, but the Millennium Falcon aspect more than compensates for the Smugglers Run component, and elevates the full package.
6. Avatar Flight of Passage, Animal Kingdom
This can aptly be described as Soarin’ on steroids, but that still doesn’t quite do Avatar Flight of Passage justice. Guests climb aboard the back of a banshee and link to an avatar flying through Pandora for a simulator experience that is far more ‘active’ than any past attraction of its nature. You can feel your banshee breathe, the wind and spray of the ocean in your face, and smell delightful scents along the way.
Even though Avatar Flight of Passage is a screen-based attraction, you are fully immersed in the experience, and can fully suspend disbelief and embrace the action. The lengthy queue (and views it offers of Pandora as a whole) is one of Disney’s best-ever, and further elevates the experience. Unfortunately, it gets dragged down a bit by an interminably long (and annoying) series of pre-shows. That minor quibble isn’t enough to prevent this from being one of Walt Disney World’s best attractions.
5. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, Hong Kong Disneyland
This is arguably the unsung addition of the decade. While everything else in the top 5 (or top 8, for that matter) has debuted to tremendous hype and excitement, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars remains a relative unknown. Think of it as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad meets Expedition Everest with a slight dash of Country Bear Jamboree.
That last component sealed its legacy for me as one of Disney’s best coasters in the world, and the result is a great mix of thrill ride and detailed Disney attraction, with some really lovable bears. It’s truly an example of perfecting the little things, from the exterior facade (and surrounding gulch) to the queue to the track layout. Those endearing bears peppered in the ride are the icing on the cake, and what put this in the top 5. Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars is an exemplar of an Imagineered roller coaster, combining thrills with theme.
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, Shanghai Disneyland
This is the reason to visit Shanghai Disneyland. A boat ride that puts you in the middle of a battle on–and under–the pirate-infested Caribbean waters, Battle for the Sunken Treasure is a new twist on a Disney classic. Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is a mix of what Disney and Universal each do best, a culmination of what theme park designers have learned in developing screen-heavy attractions.
There are not enough superlatives for Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure. It delivers on every level and is the kind of blockbuster, epic adventure that any new theme park needs. The only thing that gives me pause is its staying power. The tech-forward nature of the ride and its dependence upon regular maintenance and upgrades could end up being an albatross for this now-great ride. Here’s hoping that Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure is upgraded over time and ages gracefully, rather than fading into obsolescence.
3. RADIATOR SPRINGS RACERS, DISNEY CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE
A lot was riding on Radiator Springs Racers. Intended to be the marquee attraction of Disney California Adventure’s multi-billion dollar overhaul, it was also the only E-Ticket added to the reinvented theme park. Had it been a disappointment, all of that place-making and the smaller scale additions wouldn’t have been enough to move the needle. DCA still would’ve failed to attract an audience.
Fortunately, Radiator Springs Racers ended up being a smash hit. It makes expert use of the stunning Cadillac Mountain Range as the cars weave around the peaks, with a leisurely drive through nature and a race through this stunning landscape that bookend a satisfying dark ride segment. The pacing here is pitch-perfect, and the ride is a pure delight from beginning to end. Radiator Springs Racers cemented the legacy of DCA 2.0, and helped positioned the park as a worthy second gate to Disneyland.
2. MYSTIC MANOR, HONG KONG DISNEYLAND
Mystic Manor put Hong Kong Disneyland on the map, and on the radar of theme park fans everyone. Its opening was essentially the coming out party for the previously much-maligned park. Mystic Manor combines great special effects with a beautiful score, memorable characters, and great gags. It’s beautiful inside and out, with a tremendous amount of re-rideability. We’d even go as far as to say this alone justifies a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland.
Until late last year, Mystic Manor was also the pinnacle achievement for the current generation of Imagineers. While it has arguably been surpassed by the unequivocal #1 pick, it’s also very different. Mystic Manor uses flashy and impressive tech–but also sleight of hand, parlor tricks, and illusions. Its vibe is totally different, feeling charming and intimate. While different in nature, Mystic Manor is something of a successor to Haunted Mansion, or at least that iconic attraction’s legacy.
1. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Every generation or so, the Imagineers do something so radically different that it redefines what a theme park attraction can be. Since 1955, I think we’ve had only a few such attractions: Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, and now, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
The way it blurs the lines between queue, pre-show, and the ride experience is the great contribution of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. The attraction’s sense of tension, use of a variety of technology, and mix of practical plus special effects also help it score high marks.
It remains to be seen whether Rise of the Resistance will go down in the history books alongside Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion–attractions that have both celebrated their 50th Anniversaries–but Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is Disney’s best since Indiana Jones Adventure. That’s quite impressive given the attractions that have opened during that span, including the entirety of Tokyo DisneySea.
What do you think of my best of the decade list? Anything I’ve snubbed that you think is deserving? Anything on the list that you think doesn’t belong? What would make the cut–and what would not–on your own list? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!