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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…).
Here’s another classic Disney attraction in desperate need of an update. Walt Disney himself oversaw the creation of this Audio-Animatronic look at how technology changed the typical American home throughout the 20th century, which debuted as a pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before relocating to Disneyland and then the Magic Kingdom. It’s not a ride, but a show inside a revolving theater. You sit and watch vignettes from four different time periods, starting with the 1900s and then moving ahead 20 years per scene. The fourth vignette was originally set in the ‘60s, when the attraction was built, but was updated five times between 1967 and 1993 to keep pace with recent technological developments. That final scene is now incredibly outdated, full of ‘90s fashion and a supposedly high-tech videogame that looks like something you’d play on a Sega 32X. The solution should be to add a permanent ‘80s or ‘90s vignette, and then end on a fifth scene that can be easily and cheaply updated every few years. Failing that, they should just revert it back to its original ‘60s state, and end it when the attraction was built. It’d be less about progress than a time capsule at that point, but it’s probably more practical than having to account for the ceaseless march of time.
You’re probably wondering why an entry so high on this list would start with a thorough summary of its problems. It’s only because they’re unmistakable to modern eyes. The quaintness and charm of the first three scenes smash hard against that ‘90s update, which is portrayed as the present by the narration. Even just updating that script to reflect that this final tableaux is decidedly out of date would be a nice improvement.
Here’s the thing, though: despite all that, the Carousel of Progress is still a beautiful summation of what Tomorrowland (and, later, EPCOT’s Future World) was intended to be. It’s a celebration of how technology has helped make our lives better. That might sound naive today, but at a time when tech companies try to disrupt society not to make life easier but simply to make money, it’s good to be reminded how beneficial technology can actually be, and how much it advanced our way of life in the 20th century. Also each vignette is a wonderfully designed diorama of the past, with classic Audio-Animatronics and great music from the Sherman Brothers. Disney himself supposedly considered this his all-time favorite attraction that his company ever developed, and it’s easy to see why: it was a technological marvel at the time, suffused with midcentury optimism and a “we can do anything” spirit right out of the Space Age. That’s all still here, even if the final scene is so outdated.
There are obviously some deep and legitimate problems with turning real-world human cultures into cartoons. I readily admit that. I also fall in love with the Enchanted Tiki Room more every time I visit it, purely for the unabashed, innocent schmaltz of the whole thing. If you want to feel blasted back to your grandparents’ time, just check out this show, in which a bunch of mechanical birds and wall decorations put on a show full of Borscht belt humor, bad stereotypes and cheesy songs. The first attraction to use Audio-Animatronics, it’s another timeless Disney classic, and one that will hopefully always have a home within the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. There’s also almost nothing better for giving your feet a break.
The Magic Kingdom version of Pirates is vastly inferior to the original in Disneyland. It’s a shortened version that was built in a hurry to meet demand after the park first opened in the early ‘70s, and was never actually supposed to exist in Disney World. It’s missing so much of what makes Disneyland’s so great. It doesn’t have the serene twilit opening behind the Blue Bayou restaurant, its Dead Man’s Cove is noticeably shorter, and the entire final scene in the village storehouse is gone. This is how great Pirates is, though, both in its concept and execution: despite missing all that, this diminished version still one of the best rides at the Magic Kingdom. Most of the ride’s iconic moments are here, from the fortress bombardment, to the (now changed) auction scene, to the three prisoners trying to coax the dog into giving them the key to their cell. If you don’t know what you’re missing (as I didn’t know until I was in my 30s), Magic Kingdom’s version of Pirates is amazing. And if you do, what’s here is still tremendous.
I’ve been riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for over 30 years—it was the first roller coaster I ever had the courage to ride—and yet I admire it more and more every time I ride it. It was always second to Space Mountain for me, both because I tend to like space stuff more than cowboy business, and because the darkened nature of Tomorrowland’s major ride makes it more thrilling. I would still rank a well-maintained Space Mountain above a well-maintained Big Thunder, but that gap is growing closer by the year. And it’s all because of the theme part of a theme park.
Space Mountain fits its theme perfectly, but so does Big Thunder. And Big Thunder is simply a far brighter and more active space, one that has to cram details into every corner and every part of the track. Big Thunder is a beautiful synthesis of aesthetics and practical design choices, from the way the mountains that the track weaves through seem to have been there long before the ride was built, to how there’s almost always a small detail or bit of visual storytelling to look at whenever the train isn’t roaring hard through a turn or speeding down a hill. Big Thunder turns a roller coaster into an almost likelike journey through a specific time and place, making it a masterpiece of theme park design. And as great as the Magic Kingdom version is, the one at Disneyland Paris is even better.
Splash Mountain is a vivid phantasmagoria of Audio-Animatronic animals, unforgettable songs and environmental storytelling, all based around Disney’s adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’s versions of African-American folktales. Look, anything related to Song of the South is (justifiably) a landmine today, but hopefully that doesn’t eventually lead to any drastic changes to Splash Mountain. Designed in the ‘80s, this long, elaborately detailed log flume is one of the few major new Disney rides left from that decade, and remains an almost unmatched triumph of theme park design.
You won’t ever ride Splash Mountain and wonder if Disney cut some corners during its development. It’s a long, sprawling boat ride through a Georgia wilderness populated by dozens of adorable animal Audio-Animatronics, with a massive scare at the end in the form of a fifty-foot drop. While those animals celebrate and frolic, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear scheme to capture and eat Br’er Rabbit, with the ride telling the story of their attempts. If you’re familiar with the folklore, you probably know things tend not to work out for the fox and the bear, which is all well and good—theme park rides probably shouldn’t end with adorable rabbits getting eaten. After that huge drop, you emerge upon a steamboat full of critters riotously commemorating your survival, in what might be my single favorite moment of any Disney ride today.
What makes Splash Mountain so special will sound familiar by now. It’s all in the details. This in an immaculately themed space packed full of Audio-Animatronics and detailed environments that combine to create an illusion of life. Splash Mountain commits fully to its fictional world, and Disney spared no expense to make it as effective as possible. As exciting as it is to fall down that massive drop—and it is very exciting—you might find yourself thinking about the world you journeyed through before and after more than that massive exclamation point. As theme park design has moved more and more towards screens and projections, with Audio-Animatronics seemingly resigned to being rare special features in screen-heavy rides, Splash Mountain has started to feel almost like a massive send-off for the classic era of AAs. Disney has made many rides with Audio-Animatronics since Splash Mountain first opened, but usually with only a small handful per ride; outside of Sindbad’s Storybook Voyage in Tokyo DisneySea, no Disney ride since has anywhere near the number of AA’s as Splash Mountain. They help turn this log flume into one of the greatest Disney rides ever made.
It pains me to say this, as a kid who grew up in Florida and feels a strong tie to Disney World, but Haunted Mansion is the only ride at both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom where the Florida version is better—and just barely.
Florida’s gets the nod for a couple of reasons. First off, it has an interactive queue full of whimsical games and gadgets. This is deeply controversial among some Disney fans, of course—these additions are relatively new, and every single change Disney makes will upset somebody. They have the same darkly comic sensibility of many of the gags found inside the ride, though, and anything that gets guests to interact with their surroundings instead of their phones is a good idea, in my book.
Secondly, this Haunted Mansion features every part of the original (except for the recent return of the long-lost Hatbox Ghost), and more. The stormy hallway you walk through in Anaheim, with the framed portraits that turn demonic when lightning strikes, is incorporated into the ride itself. There’s also an entirely original room that resembles an M.C. Escher print, with staircases winding in all directions, and spectral footprints that defy gravity.
The kicker, though, is that this version of the Haunted Mansion exists year-round. You will always hear the original Ghost Host, tour the original dinner party with the creepy organ music and dueling portraits, and wind up in the original graveyard as “Grim Grinning Ghosts” blasts through the room. Disneyland turns its unique spook show into a Nightmare Before Christmas tie-in for almost a full third of the year. As fun as that version is, it pales in comparison to the Disney original. (Seriously, if you only plan one visit to any Disney park in your entire life—basically, if you’re my wife’s family when she was young—do not go to Disneyland between September and January. You’ll miss out on the real Haunted Mansion experience, one of the most perfect pieces of art ever made by this company.)
Haunted Mansion is not just one of the best theme park rides ever designed, but a beloved piece of American pop culture, and even though it wasn’t the first, Magic Kingdom’s version of it is the best.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.