It’s difficult to rank Walt Disney World’s 10 greatest rides and other attractions. Across Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios, there are literally hundred of potential picks. At their best, Disney attractions are timeless classics with multi-generational appeal. At their worst, they’re decorated, off-the-shelf amusement park fare.
A few notes about the list before we get started. Even though there’s an element of subjectivity, I’m attempting to be objective here. These are not my personal favorites (I’ll be back with that list over the weekend); they are the attractions that I think are the greatest. The ones that represent the best of Imagineering and offer the most impressive, well-crafted experience. I don’t have specific scoring criteria–it’s basically just a mix of my gut reaction and analysis. Additionally, only attractions that are currently operational are eligible.
I also want to note that I don’t think this is in any way definitive. I just thought it would be interesting to put together a list of what I consider to be Walt Disney World’s 10 best attractions. Some great ones are bound to be snubbed; even if I had a list with 30 honorable mentions, I’d be leaving off some popular attractions. And in fairness, it’s not like this top 10 actually “matters” anyway…
You’re going to ride more than 10 attractions (hopefully!) on your trip to Walt Disney World. It really makes no difference what some dude on the internet thinks is best…this list is more geared at being a fun conversation piece for Walt Disney World fans.
In each description below, I’ll make my case for the attraction being among the best, and I welcome reasoned counterpoints in the comments with those who disagree. (Emphasis on reasoned counterpoints.) With that said, here are the rankings…
10. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
I debated between including this or Country Bear Jamboree, and I’m still not sure I made the correct decision. I know this is the more crowd-pleasing choice, and I think thrill rides are deserving of representation when they’re done right, as I don’t think that’s an easy task (and it is easy for them to be done lazily, since they’re likely to be popular regardless).
Big Thunder Mountain does a lot right. It manages to establish a coherent story, much of which can be gleaned from the queue and visuals throughout the attraction. It offers family-friendly thrills with beautiful scenery to enjoy along the way. Finally, it manages to pack a lot in the way of gags and details despite the fact that guests pass them so quickly.
As far as roller coasters go, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has a ton of depth, and the main reason to re-ride it isn’t to get another thrill fix, but to see everything you missed on the first pass on the wildest ride in the wilderness. There’s a lot to Big Thunder that makes it endearing to Disney fans, and I think that makes it worthy of inclusion on this list.
9. Kilimanjaro Safaris
Often overlooked because it’s not “Imagineered” in an overt sense, Kilimanjaro Safaris makes this list for a few reasons. First, its range of animals and habitats is impressive, and gives the attraction a lot of re-rideability. Second, even if you cannot see the Imagineering work, it’s there–it’s meant to fade into the background, as if this were one sprawling landscape.
Third, even with minimal story, it’s effective at suspending disbelief and making the rider feel like they are embarking upon a two-week safari. Finally, it’s arguably the culmination of Animal Kingdom’s thesis as a park. Even if Disney would like to think Animal Kingdom is not a zoo, this is the best possible intersection of theme park and zoo “attractions.”
It’s a safari with fantastic presentation and production value, and dammit, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes “just” a well-done safari without a convoluted backstory is good enough. (People pay ~$50 to visit the San Diego Safari Park pretty much just for a weaker version of this.)
8. Spaceship Earth
Spaceship Earth scores serious points with me for being housed inside of a beautiful, engineering marvel, but that’s not the reason it makes this list. Rather, it’s the way it puts guests in a time machine to travel back and weave through the history of communication.
The attraction presents this history in an interesting way, and effectively transitions from one ‘moment’ to another to effectively tell this story. Spaceship Earth goes downhill (figuratively and literally) after these vignettes reach the information age, but it’s still an excellent attraction.
You feel as if you actually witnessed reenactments of significant moments in history, and have a greater sense of how communication has shaped so many aspects of humanity. In that regard, Spaceship Earth retains the original aim of EPCOT Center, and proves edutainment is viable in a theme park.
7. Expedition Everest
Expedition Everest is like the modern, more high-tech, and more realistic take on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Often lauded for its incredibly dense and detail-rich queue, Expedition Everest should also score points for the way this queue builds to the ride that follows. It sets up the experience in a way that’s better than Big Thunder, and arguably on par with Tower of Terror.
There’s also a sense of realism to the attraction that is fascinating. There are ways the queue and ascent up Everest make you feel like you’re actually on an expedition up the mountains of Nepal. Even as you know you’re in a theme park and are chasing an abominable snowman, you have the vague feeling that this could be real. Maybe it’s just me, but I find some of the best Disney attractions are the ones that facilitate ‘playing pretend’, even for adults.
Then there are the visuals and effects along the way. Sure, it stinks that the main Audio Animatronics is now a cross between Bumble and Disco Stu, but it’s still cool, and there are a lot of other neat effects and details along the way that make Expedition Everest come across as a roller coaster with culture.
6. Avatar Flight of Passage
Walt Disney World’s newest attraction is also likely to be the most controversial entry onto this list. Even I grappled with where, or if at all, to place Avatar Flight of Passage on this list. As you might’ve noticed, I used the words greatest and timeless above. My concern is that Flight of Passage may be lacking in these characteristics. This is not due to its use of Avatar, but rather the heavy reliance upon technology and visual effects that can become dated.
After giving it serious thought, I think Flight of Passage has enough in terms of the whole experience to make it worthy of a place on this list. The queue is fantastic–among the top 3 at Walt Disney World–and the layers of detail before you even arrive at the ride experience set the stage very well for what’s to come. Yeah, the pre-show is a complete mess, but it’s forgivable.
Then there’s the ride experience itself. It’s not compelling solely or even primarily due to the visuals. It’s a mix of an excellent ride system and sensory effects that blend together to immerse you into a film-based experience. Then there’s the film itself, which is beautiful, vivid, and well-paced. Perhaps that component won’t age well (I happen to think it will), but there’s an awe and majesty to the overall experience that, I think, will enable Flight of Passage to stand the test of time.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean
Someone is sure to object to Pirates of the Caribbean making this list with the argument, “it’s not as good as the Disneyland version!” Well, The Godfather: Part II is not as good as The Godfather, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not one of the greatest films of all-time. Same goes for Pirates of the Caribbean.
Regardless of its truncated duration, Magic Kingdom’s Pirates of the Caribbean is an all-time classic. The attraction transports guests to an era when pirates pillaged the Caribbean, putting guests in the midst of the action and misadventures.
Along the way, guests encounter gags and now-iconic depictions of caricatured pirates in a way that neither really glorifies or demonizes pirates. This has led to controversy and changes over the years, most recently today…
4. American Adventure
A lot of readers are probably going to be surprised to see this attraction on the list, and disagree with its high rank. American Adventure is an only-of-its-kind achievement that represents the best of the incredible Imagineering that went into bringing EPCOT Center to fruition, as such, it deserves a spot on the list.
Powered by an impressive “war wagon,” from the perspective of the sets alone, the American Adventure is basically the most complex Broadway-style show you’ve ever seen. Now add to that the fact that it utilizes Audio Animatronics rather than human actors to deliver its stage show of key moments in American history.
Then there’s the show itself, tactfully presenting moments from our American adventure that are poignant and engaging. American Adventure manages to do this in a way that churns through many ‘great moments’ in a logical and cohesive manner, and the culmination of this is a show that is, in the sage words of Sam the Eagle, Distinctly Patrioic. (And incredibly moving.) Alright, things get serious on Page 2, as we share the best of the best. The upper echelon, any of which could arguably claim the #1 slot in my opinion…