Have you heard of this place called the Magic Kingdom?
I’ve been writing about Disney theme parks for Paste for over five years now. I’ve written lists of the best attractions at their theme parks on three continents, including for three of the four parks that make up Disney World. And yet somehow I’ve never written one for the most visited theme park in the world, the park that made me love theme parks in the first place, and the one that most people think is synonymous with the name Disney World. My bad!
The Magic Kingdom wasn’t Disney’s first theme park, but as the heart of the sprawling vacation destination known as Walt Disney World, it’s the most important of the 12 parks that bear the Disney name around the globe. It’s a bigger, busier version of the original Disneyland, with variations on many of the same attractions, and some original additions of its own. (Curiously, though, despite a much larger footprint, it has less total attractions than Disneyland.) It might not be as quaint or as cute as the Anaheim original, but there’s something to be said for being overwhelmed, especially when it comes to the significantly larger castle that sits at the center of the park.
As usual when I write a list like this, I’m considering the current state of the attractions at the time of publication. Rides naturally wear down over time and need periodic maintenance and upgrades to offer the kind of experiences they’re designed for. If a ride has been neglected for too long, and it’s too hard to ignore, that’ll hurt it on this list, even if it’s one of the best concepts to ever come out of Imagineering. Case in point: the first entry on this list, rocketing in at number 12.
12. Space Mountain
Space Mountain is one of the very best rides to ever exist at a Disney theme park. Unfortunately the current state of the Disney World version makes it hard to recommend. The basic concept—an indoor roller coaster in the dark, surrounded by stars and the vastness of space, as cool sci-fi music plays in the background—is an all-time winner. When it’s not maintained well, though, you wind up with what you’ll find at Magic Kingdom. The coaster feels bumpy and rickety, the stars are dim and hard to see, and these cars don’t have the on-board speakers you’ll find in Disneyland. So it’s not as smooth as the California version, and the effects and audio aren’t nearly as vivid and powerful.
And yet it still makes this list.
Again: the concept is timeless and will bewitch anybody in love with the cosmos and the idea of space travel. And for coaster fans, well, it’s far from the fastest or most extreme roller coaster out there, but the darkness makes it unpredictable, which amplifies its thrills. Even the least impressive Space Mountain is still hard to pass up, and if you’ve never ridden any of the others, you won’t realize how much this one falls short. Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain could be much better, but the park would be far worse if this coaster didn’t exist at all.
11. Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
The PeopleMover doesn’t seem like much to a lot of people. Originally it was less of a ride than an example of a potential mass transit system that Disney was working on. (It would’ve been a crucial component of the original EPCOT, which wasn’t a theme park but an actual planned city that was never built.) Many view it simply as a way to get off your feet for a few minutes during a day at the park. You won’t realize how much you’ll miss the PeopleMover until you go to a park that doesn’t have one, though. Disneyland shut its PeopleMover down in 1995, and Disney’s other castle parks never had one. That’s a shame: this is a classic piece of Disney history that ties the whole Tomorrowland concept together and helps distinguish it from the other lands in the park.
If you haven’t ridden them before, imagine a fleet of small trams on a conveyor belt that never stops moving. They whisk you throughout all of Tomorrowland, offering a glimpse of the other attractions in the area, including a nice preview of Space Mountain’s lift hill. It isn’t just a relaxing detour that rarely has a line: it’s an attraction that perfectly fits the futuristic city theme of Tomorrowland, while also reiterating that theme parks aren’t just a collection of rides but one large, intertwined experience made up of smaller, individual experiences. Oh, it also lets you look at an early prototype for that original EPCOT concept, which is fascinating for fans of Disney history.
10. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Magic Kingdom’s newest roller coaster is also the most popular ride in the park at the moment. It deserves its popularity, but it also could have been so much more. The extreme wait times are only part of why it’s not higher on this list; the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is two-thirds of an amazing ride that ends abruptly just as it should be hitting its peak.
As a coaster it’s nothing too exciting—it’s basically a family-friendly ride that’s less intense than either Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It has one novel gimmick, in that the cars sway back and forth as they speed around the track. The best part of the ride is the first of two set pieces featuring Audio-Animatronics. The train slows to a crawl as it heads inside the mine, where the Seven Dwarfs are singing “Dig-a-Dig-Dig” and messing around with some brightly colored gems. It’s a beautiful real-life recreation of a movie scene that people have been watching for over 80 years now. At the very end of the ride you pass by the cottage that Snow White and the Dwarfs live in; they’re dancing inside, although it can be hard to get a good look as the train pulls into the station. You can see an Animatronic of the Evil Queen in her witch guise standing outside the cottage door at the very end of the ride; it’s the only time you see her, which is a big change from the old Snow White dark ride, which featured the movie’s villain at almost every turn.
What’s here is fantastic, but it’s such a short ride, and one that always requires a very long wait, unless you’re able to get a Fast Pass online weeks in advance. It simply feels unfinished, showing only part of the story and suddenly ending before Snow White even meets the Witch. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is an example of the world-class work Disney Imagineers are capable of producing, but also of Disney’s unflattering stinginess when it comes to budgeting new projects. With a little bit more money and an extra 30 seconds or so of ride, this could’ve been one of the best Disney rides of all time.
9. Peter Pan’s Flight
If you like the classic Fantasyland dark rides that can be found at Disneyland, and that used to make up Magic Kingdom, you might be disappointed today. The original Snow White ride is gone, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was ripped out over 20 years ago, and the Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland rides from Disneyland were never built in the Magic Kingdom. Peter Pan’s Flight is here, though, and it’s just as magical—and popular—as the California original.
Peter Pan’s Flight is a beautiful dark ride that flies you through the full story of Disney’s Peter Pan aboard replica pirate ships. The night-time view of London spreading out beneath you remains one of the most striking visuals in any Disney ride, and the Never Land portion is just as memorable. Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland lacks much of the charm of Disneyland’s, but Peter Pan’s Flight is equally great in both parks. The only problem is the extreme lines you’re likely to encounter—this is always one of the most popular rides at the park.
8. Country Bear Jamboree
When I go to a Disney theme park, I want to see Audio-Animatronics. Country Bear Jamboree isn’t a ride, but it’s a legitimate Audio-Animatronic tour de force, with a large cast of entertaining characters and a great soundtrack of classic country songs. It’s also one of the best places to take an air conditioned break during a long, hot Florida day, but that doesn’t weigh into the rankings here. Country Bear Jamboree is a classic bit of Disney showmanship, an absurd but adorable pop cultural oddity that remains a must-watch.
7. Jungle Cruise
Newsflash: the ‘50s and ‘60s (and ‘70s, and ‘80s, and ‘90s, and ‘00s, and ‘10s…) weren’t the most enlightened decades. Some of Disney’s oldest and most classic rides will have elements that wouldn’t quite pass muster today. Heck, for almost 50 years Pirates of the Caribbean contained a beloved scene of women being auctioned off to lusty pirates. I mention this because the Jungle Cruise, a classic ride dating back to Disneyland’s very first day in 1955, has a couple of scenes that reflect outdated colonial impressions of indigenous cultures, and that sorely stick out on what is otherwise a light-hearted, kitschy trip through the jungle.
If you can look past those scenes, Jungle Cruise is a one-of-a-kind Disney original. This tour through the rivers of the world is set in the 1930s, on a boat similar to the one in The African Queen, when there was still a bit of mystery to the world. You’ll pass various humorous vignettes featuring Audio-Animatronics of both humans and animals, while your real-life guide delivers a pun-heavy presentation.
Despite various updates over the years, the Jungle Cruise experience has remained largely unchanged since the early ‘60s, when jokes were originally added to the spiel. I wouldn’t use the word “funny” to describe those jokes (although your five-year-old might disagree) but the entire package remains surprisingly charming. It’s a quaint glimpse into the past, at the kind of family-friendly entertainment that our parents might’ve enjoyed when they were young, and hopefully a ride that’ll never change too much (outside of a specific scene or two…).