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The 10 Best Rides at Disneyland

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The 10 Best Rides at Disneyland

It’s been three years since I first wrote about the best Disneyland rides for Paste, and although a lot has changed at Disney’s original park since then, the line-up of rides and attractions pretty much remains the same as it did in 2014. The park lost its petting zoo and reshaped the footprint of the Rivers of America (which is actually a far more drastic alteration than it might sound), all to free up space for the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion, but you can still ride the same rides you would’ve found before that construction.

Paste’s rankings have still changed, though. When I first wrote this I had been to Disneyland exactly twice, after decades of only visiting the Florida parks. I’ve been fortunate enough to return to Disneyland multiple times since then, and my appreciation for certain rides has grown. For example, I severely underrated Splash Mountain in that first list, to an embarrassing extent. Other rides have been refurbished or enhanced (a process Disney calls “plussing”), changing the dynamics of a list like this. And some attractions just feel less impressive than they once did. Theme park design is an art, and like all art criticism there’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Here’s how Disney’s original park stands up now, in the fall of 2017, two years before the massive new Star Wars area opens up.

10. Peter Pan’s Flight

Three years ago I wrote that Peter Pan’s Flight “might have the single most beautiful image of any Disney attraction, as your galleon flies over the dimly lit streets of London at night.” That still stands—that moment captures the emotion and grandeur of the beloved film. A refurbishment in 2015 added new projections and other high-tech effects that blend in nicely with this 60-year-old classic. This is still one of the best dark rides at a park full of fantastic dark rides.


9. Matterhorn Bobsleds

This alpine-themed coaster has also gone through a refurbishment since my original list in 2014, and not necessarily one that enhanced the ride. The new Abominable Snowman animatronic is a fearsome delight, but the now-gone crystal grotto brought a moment of shimmering beauty that the ride now lacks. It’s still a must-do for thrill fans, especially if it’s your first time at Disneyland, the only Disney park that boasts this ride.


8. Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye

Temple of the Forbidden Eye captures the spirit of an Indiana Jones movie, even if you’re just tooling around in a huge, souped-up Jeep the whole time. Unlike the Star Wars-themed Star Tours, where you just sit in a box and get shaken up a bit until you’re sick, Forbidden Eye herky-jerks you through an appropriately ancient looking and dangerous feeling fake temple to pilfer the most precious religious objects of a long lost civilization. It has that Disney commitment to selling the illusion, with a wait line that curls through fake caves and abandoned temple halls, before an old-timey newsreel sets up the story. It has a tendency to break down, but if it’s running while you’re at Disneyland, make sure you give it a shot. It’s another ride that doesn’t exist in Orlando.


7. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Thunder Mountain is the best rollercoaster in the world if you’re an eight-year-old frightened to death of rollercoasters. It’s the perfect intermediary between a kid’s coaster like Gadget’s Go Coaster at Mickey’s Toontown and the scarier and more complex coasters you’d ride at other amusement parks. It’s a fun, fast, basic rollercoaster with exciting twists and dips and a great theme ripped straight from old Hollywood westerns. The attention to detail throughout, from the queue, to the set design of the ride’s showpieces, to the frontier town you coast into at the ride’s end, creates one of the best-realized environments of any Disneyland ride.


6. It’s a Small World

A lot of people hate this ride. A lot of people are wrong. It’s a grand musical experiment, translating a single repetitive melody into the dominant instrumentation of a number of cultures. That simplicity and repetition and cultural exploration almost mark this as an unwitting, commercial cohort to the minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. In Disneyland it’s housed in a gorgeous clockwork pavilion that far surpasses the Orlando version of the ride. It’s the best piece of architecture at either Disneyland or Orlando’s Magic Kingdom.


5. Space Mountain

If you read the old list, you’ll notice this used to be number one. Space Mountain is still amazing. Almost no theme park ride is more viscerally exciting than the first thirty or so seconds of this coaster, and the Disneyland version is by far the best in America. And, thankfully, that original, classic Space Mountain returned earlier this year. For most of the last two years, though, it was overlaid with a mediocre Star Wars theme called Hyperspace Mountain that drastically lessened the impact of what otherwise might be the greatest theme park attraction of all time. The original is back now, but with Disney’s love of brand promotion and ride overlays Hyperspace Mountain is always a threat to return. The original is still one of the two or three best rides at Disneyland; the Star Wars version would struggle to crack the top ten.


4. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

My longtime personal favorite, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is the weirdest, most idiosyncratic ride at any Disney park. At the end you die and go to hell, with a chorus of devils mocking you in a heated room. Mr. Toad doesn’t die in The Wind in the Willows. Satan never spreads his wings in the book or the animated movie. And yet at the end of this ride your car hits a train head on and you go to hell. I loved that when I was a kid. Even without that perverse ending, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would be one of my favorites because of how it turns the standard dark ride experience into a fast-paced, vertigo-inducing thrill ride. This might be the single most important reason that I now prefer Disneyland over Disney World—they ripped the Wild Ride out of the Magic Kingdom in 1998.


3. Haunted Mansion

The Haunted Mansion is an absolute classic that sets a standard that all other haunted houses have failed to meet. Frightening as a kid, gleeful as an adult, it’s like a Tim Burton movie come to life (but, you know, one of the good ones.) And that Burton analogy becomes even truer during the too-long Nightmare Before Christmas overlay, which runs annually from September into January. From a design perspective, everything about the original ride is impeccable. The antebellum Southern mansion stands out from its surroundings, immediately capturing your attention. The pre-ride introduction from the cast member hints at the ride’s tone, which is firmly established during the iconic speech of the Ghost Host during the ride’s “stretching room” segment. And once you exit that room and board the ommnimover “Doom Buggies,” you’ll find a joyously macabre ride through a gothic nightmare.


2. Pirates of the Caribbean

I could do without robot Johnny Depp popping up throughout this ride now. Pirates of the Caribbean has been one of Disney’s top attractions since it first opened in 1967, decades before the movies, and it doesn’t need to reference them to retain its magic. The ride today is mostly the same as what you remember from childhood, a slow boat ride through a beautiful and comical recreation of Hollywood-style pirate scenes, only Disney has now tried to imprint the barest outline of a story involving Jack Sparrow. It’s easy to ignore it if you need to, and the classic scenes you remember from the ride are still here. Pirates of the Caribbean blew the dark ride concept up to an epic scale, and remains a triumph of fantasy-building.


1. Splash Mountain

When you go to Disneyland, make sure you don’t go with somebody who refuses to ride water rides. You probably won’t get that wet on Splash Mountain, anyway. The reason this jumped from the bottom to the top since my last list is because I started actually riding the thing more often. I was familiar with the Disney World version, and did a spin on the Disneyland one on my first trip, but it wasn’t a regular stop for me until my last few visits. Splash Mountain might have questionable source material, and the Joel Chandler Harris characters it features perpetuate regrettable stereotypes, but the ride remains a masterpiece of theme park design. It’s a lengthy dark ride full of wonderful animatronics and music, broken up by a genuinely thrilling fifty foot plummet. And that isn’t even the end of the ride, but the prelude to perhaps its best moment, when a riverboat full of adorable animals celebrate your survival. Splash Mountain isn’t that old, comparatively—it opened in the late 1980s, making it decades younger than Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and most other animatronic-heavy rides at Disneyland. It’s a style of design that Disney has largely moved away from, as it prioritizes more immediately recognizable and lucrative intellectual property and focuses on the screen-based experiences that have helped Universal Studios thrive. That’s a shame, though, as Splash Mountain proves how powerful physical sets and practical effects can be. Disneyland’s version also gets bonus points for one specific scene that happens during the incline before the last big drop; unlike the Orlando and Tokyo versions, Disneyland’s features a creepy, heart-touching vignette of anxious mothers, a rabbit and opossum, singing a sad song of warning to their shivering babes. Splash Mountain wraps everything that makes a theme park ride great into one long, charming, thrilling package.


Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections and regularly writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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