JULY 2018 UPDATE:
This list was originally written in February 2018. Since then Slinky Dog Dash, a new roller coaster, has opened up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and so I’ve updated this piece accordingly to factor in that new attraction. If you’re wondering where the new ride ranks, keep on reading.
Disney World doesn’t have an age limit. Some of its most famous rides might be perfect for all ages—like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and it’s a small world—but the four theme parks that make up Disney’s Florida resort have more than their fair share of thrill rides for older guests, too.
Of course that includes roller coasters, the most popular kind of ride for teens and adults. Coasters have been a major part of Walt Disney World Resort in Florida ever since the original Space Mountain opened up in the Magic Kingdom back in 1975. As the resort has grown, adding more theme parks, two water parks, and a number of hotels en route to becoming one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, so has its line-up of roller coasters. Today there are eight different coasters of various styles and intensity levels throughout Disney World, with the newest one, the family friendly Slinky Dog Dash, opening at Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios just a few weeks ago. (There’s also a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed coaster coming to Epcot, but that’s a few years away still.)
Which of these eight coasters are most worth your time? Which ones are great for all ages, and which ones should the little kids steer clear of? We break down all eight, ranking them from least to most significant on a variety of factors, including theming, ride layout, and excitement.
8. Primeval Whirl
Location: Animal Kingdom
Theming and design are as crucial to a Disney attraction as the ride experience itself, and Primeval Whirl, a wild mouse-style coaster in Animal Kingdom’s DinoLand U.S.A., makes sure all three are roughly on the same level. Yep, all three are equally bad in this misbegotten carnival ride, which exists solely as a stopgap to keep Animal Kingdom guests busy between Fast Passes. That might sound harsh, but for my money this isn’t just the least impressive roller coaster at Disney World, but perhaps the least necessary ride, period. With its constant spinning action it’s too intense for small children (who wouldn’t be able to ride it, anyway, since you have to be four feet to get on board), but the theming and thrills are so minimal that it’s hard to see how adults would get much out of it. Primeval Whirl (and the rest of the Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama mini-area in DinoLand) is unforgettable but for the wrong reasons: it’s an ugly, lazy mess within what is otherwise the most beautiful and immaculately themed Disney park in Orlando.
7. The Great Goofini’s Barnstormer
Location: Magic Kingdom
Coasters are scary when you’re a kid. They’re scary when you’re an adult, too. That’s why we like ‘em. But when you’re a kid you think you literally might die on one of these absurdly designed death trains, especially if you’ve never actually ridden one before. It takes the right kind of roller coaster to ease a child into them, and The Great Goofini’s Barnstormer, found in the Storybook Circus area of Magic Kingdom, is a great example. This junior coaster goes just high and fast enough to capture the essence of a coaster (with a top height of 30 feet and speed of about 25 miles per hour), but without any of the more extreme tricks that can zap an innocent passenger’s mind. It’s a short, relatively gentle introduction to this kind of thrill ride, ideal for younger children and first-timers, but inessential for anybody else.
6. Space Mountain
Location: Magic Kingdom
Okay, coming in so low is not an indictment of the concept of Space Mountain. If you’re of a certain age this will always loom large as the ultimate Disney thrill ride, the peak example of a coaster that’s also an all-encompassing experience. It might be a relatively tame coaster, all things considered, but when you place it indoors, project stars as far as the eyes can see, and blast music that sounds like a combo of a ‘50s sci-fi movie and a ‘90s rave, it becomes one of the most exciting things you could ever do in a theme park. When Space Mountain is at its best, it is easily one of the three or four best rides Disney has ever made, and would be near or at the top of this list. The Disneyland version is basically a perfect ride right now, running smoothly and in great shape with an on-board audio system blasting that music right into your ears, and it can’t help but make the Magic Kingdom’s rundown version feel disappointing.
Unfortunately the Magic Kingdom version needs a good amount of work. It’s a bumpier, more painful ride than it needs to be, and it still doesn’t have the on-board speakers that revolutionized the Anaheim version. At least the projections, which were almost invisible last year, have been improved—when I last rode it earlier this summer, the stars were out in full effect. With a few other refurbishments the Magic Kingdom original could easily return to greatness alongside the Disneyland version, bumping Space Mountain up at least a few spots on this list.
5. Slinky Dog Dash
Location: Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The newest ride on this list opened in Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the end of June. (And yes, that is me riding it in the video above. Nice to meet you!) Coming in at number five on a list of eight might not seem that impressive, but it’s more a testament to how many great coasters you can now find at Disney World; Slinky Dog Dash is a riotous blast fit for all but the youngest children.
Although it’s a family friendly coaster, Slinky Dog Dash is a little bit more intense than I expected. It’s not quite a true children’s roller coaster, like the Barnstormer, because you’ll feel some genuine G-force while riding it. It also has two launches, at the start and about halfway through, which gives it an extra jolt of excitement. The first half of the queue is lightly themed and exposed to the elements, which is a curious choice, but eventually it turns into a beautifully decorated diorama of familiar characters and oversized toy boxes. And a final musical cameo as you pull into the station guarantees you’ll wrap your ride up in charming fashion.
There’s nothing to complain about with Slinky Dog Dash, other than the first half of the queue and the extreme wait times you’ll find right now. It does share the somewhat lackadaisical approach to theming found throughout Toy Story Land—the story is Andy is building a Hot Wheels-style track in his backyard but using Slinky Dog instead of a car, which means, other than the vehicle, it basically just looks like any exposed, open-air roller coaster you can find at any amusement park. The vehicle itself is adorable, though, and the ride is more than fun enough to please most people who’ll be filing through the Hollywood Studios turnstiles. It’s a more thrilling roller coaster than the next one on this list, but it comes in one spot lower than it because of those theming issues.
4. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Location: Magic Kingdom
Since it opened in Fantasyland in 2014, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train has been the hardest Fast Pass to get in the Magic Kingdom, with the stand-by line regularly approaching two hours throughout the day. Is it worth the wait? Well, let’s talk about the ride itself, first.
The entire Mine Train complex is beautifully designed, from the mountain the ride blasts through, to the queue that looks like it was pulled right out of the movie. The ride is more family friendly than Thunder Mountain or Space Mountain, with less strenuous turns, although the biggest drop matches Thunder Mountain at 39 feet, and its top speed of 34 miles per hour is faster than Space Mountain and only one mile per hour off Thunder Mountain’s pace. It’s closer to those two rides than to the kids-only Barnstormer, but it’s still a family friendly experience, and definitely not something children need to be too afraid of. If you can handle Thunder Mountain or Space Mountain, the Mine Train will be a breeze. It also has a tilting technology that makes the cars in the train rock to the left and right as the coaster’s in motion; it’s an unusual feeling at first but it isn’t significant enough to have much of an additional impact on either your enjoyment of the ride or whatever kind of motion sickness you might experience on coasters. The highlight is a slow crawl through the middle of the mine, where state-of-the-art Seven Dwarfs audio-animatronics (with expressive CGI faces projected upon them) are used to create one of the most beautiful dark ride scenes in the park. A second scene at the very end of the ride lets you watch Snow White dance with the dwarfs in their cottage as the Evil Queen waits outside in her Wicked Witch guise.
The content of the ride is really good. At its best, inside the mine, it’s some of the best work you’ll find at any theme park right now. The problem is that it feels unfinished. The official ride time is apparently just under three minutes, but it feels shorter than that when you’re riding it. It’s also oddly laid out for a coaster—it doesn’t start with a big, defining drop, or build up to a special climax. You’ll swoop right and left a few times, hang out with the Dwarfs, experience a little bit more throttling and then pull back into the station. It feels like there should be another scene like the one inside the mine, something that further expands on the movie’s story. So it’s a fun but weirdly unsatisfying ride, and that lack of satisfaction is greatly magnified by the length of the wait. If you can’t get a Fast Pass, or find a manageable wait time either at rope drop or during Extra Magic Hours, you might want to pass on this for the time being.
3. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
If all you care about are thrills, this will probably be your favorite roller coaster at Disney World. It launches you forward at the start, hitting almost 60 MPH in under three seconds and immediately rocketing you into the first of three inversions. If you panic about loops in roller coasters, you don’t necessarily have to worry here—it’s so dark in the ride that you won’t know those inversions are coming, and thus won’t be able to stress about them too greatly. It isn’t really family friendly (and you have to be at least four feet tall to ride it) but it’s still not nearly as intense or punishing as what can be found at other amusement parks. And if you like Aerosmith, well, you’ll have them blasting in your ears the whole time. (At least most of the songs are from the ‘70s or ‘80s, although if you wind up in the car that only plays “Nine Lives” you probably deserve some kind of refund.)
As a ride, it’s a blast. It doesn’t make sense in a Disney park, though. How does Aerosmith, in any way, fit the Disney image? The ride opened in 1999, a year after Aerosmith had a huge hit with “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” from the live action Disney movie Armageddon. That’s a connection right there, but the ride never really brings it up, and the song isn’t on the soundtrack. (Which is good—that’s a terrible song and would be a really bad fit for a roller coaster.) Aerosmith’s a band whose drug use is almost as legendary as its music, and whose songs are riddled with sexual innuendo. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that—this is rock ‘n’ roll, after all—but it doesn’t really fit at Disney World. It was just announced that the version of this ride at Walt Disney Studios Park in France is going to be converted to something starring Iron Man and the Avengers later this year; they can’t use those specific Marvel characters at Disney World, but it seems like only a matter of time before Aerosmith is replaced with something that Disney actually owns, be it a classic Disney property or one of the companies that Bob Iger has bought over the last decade. Until then, this will remain one of the most entertaining but also baffling thrill rides at Disney World.
2. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Location: Magic Kingdom
Before Disney World had a kid’s coaster, and before the more kid-friendly Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Slinky Dog Dash opened up, this was the gateway coaster of choice for the Disney-loving youth of America. Unlike Space Mountain, so cold and unknowable in the distance recesses of the cosmos (and its show building), Thunder Mountain was something any kid could wrap their head around. You can see the whole ride right there, and the Old West cowboy movie aesthetic has a comfortable mid-century warmth to it. It’s not that intense at all, and would rank as one of the less thrilling coasters at most Six Flags parks, but the design work and world-building turn this into one of the most beautifully realized roller coasters in the world. Starting with a lift hill that slowly pulls your train through an homage to the colorful Rainbow Caverns of the old Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland ride at Disneyland, Thunder Mountain promptly blasts you through an abandoned old mining camp, into a mine that collapses during an impromptu earthquake, through the fossilized remains of a T-rex, and then back into the station, past the few scattered buildings that remain in this old ghost town. Between the gorgeously designed rock work of the mountain itself, which is based on Monument Valley, and the sequence of set pieces that make up the ride, this is a great example of what theme parks should strive to accomplish. It’s not just a ride, it’s a wholly unified experience.
1. Expedition Everest—Legend of the Forbidden Mountain
Location: Animal Kingdom
Let’s get the big controversy out of the way at the start, here: yes, the main centerpiece of Expedition Everest has been broken since shortly after the ride opened in 2006. Near the end of the ride there’s a giant audio-animatronic yeti that’s supposed to reach down at you as your train surges past. It hasn’t been operational in over a decade, supposedly due to the stress that motion was putting on other parts of the ride structure. As cool as a yeti that moves must be, it’s the kind of detail that you wouldn’t even know you’re missing if you hadn’t already read or been told about it.
Whether the yeti moves or not, this is still the best roller coaster at Disney World. It takes everything Disney’s Imagineers excel at—creating a transfixing and transformative space through art and design techniques that range from the old-fashioned to the state of the art—and combines it with a legitimately intense coaster with a couple of major surprises. The queue is a dusty, lived-in base camp, with pieces of climbing equipment and old radios laying about, with a small yeti museum foreshadowing the encoutner ahead. Only the second tallest and second fastest coaster at Disney World (after Aerosmith), it nonetheless is the most thrilling due to its layout. The open-air lift hill to the top of the snowcaps of Mt. Everest fills you with that combination of fear and excitement that you don’t really feel in enclosed coasters like Aerosmith or Space Mountain. An abrupt stop where the track is out at the top of the mountain might at first seem like an accident waiting to happen, but then the entire train plunges backwards into darkness and through the center of the mountain, where you first encounter the yeti. A final straight-ahead plunge beneath the beast brings you back outside, where you gradually coast back down to safety. Between the tight turns, the strong but not overwhelming G forces, the two changes in direction, and the massive (if immobile) yeti, Expedition Everest is the best roller coaster at Disney World.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and also writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.