If you haven’t been to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the last decade or two, you might not even recognize the place. When it opened in 1989 under the name Disney-MGM Studios, the park focused on how movies were made. Its two major attractions on opening day were a studio backlot tour that took guests behind the scenes of a newly built studio that never really got to make all that much, and a beautiful dark ride about the history of movies that was perhaps a little too long and slow to become a real hit with the audience. Both the Great Movie Ride and the backlot tour had solid runs, but neither made it to the park’s 30th anniversary in 2019, and several other attractions about the magic of moviemaking had also come and gone by the late ‘10s.
Just as the park’s name changed to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008, the park’s focus eventually shifted from showing people how movies are made, to making people feel like they were in their favorite movies. Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and both aim to put guests at the center of their own story. (It works a lot better with Galaxy’s Edge.) Meanwhile Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which opened in the old location of the Great Movie Ride in 2020, pulls riders into the world of cartoons, literally ushering them through a movie screen. It’s not a consistent theme throughout the park, and the quality and presentation vary even among the areas that do strive for this theme, but at least it’s more of a clear direction than Hollywood Studios has had in a couple of decades. And, crucially, all this recent development has brought several much-needed new attractions to a park that barely offered half a day’s worth of activities for much of its history.
As Disney World celebrates its 50th anniversary, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is perhaps the healthiest it’s ever been. Classics like The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith continue to thrill guests, the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular serves as one last thread to the park’s history, and the new additions of the last five years have rounded it all out into a park that guests of all ages can enjoy. Here are our favorite attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios today—a list that doesn’t even include two of the best themed restaurants at all of Disney World, or the fantastic (and totally free) Skyliner gondolas, which have a station right outside the park.
One of the few remaining attractions from the park’s first year, this stunt show is also the last vestige of its original “behind the scenes” theme. Live stunt shows might seem a little old-fashioned in an era where most of what we see on the big screen is done with computers, but that’s a big part of its charm. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular doesn’t just play on our warm memories of the Indiana Jones movies, but with its practical effects and elaborate set pieces it reconnects us with how movies used to be made, and with the park that Hollywood Studios used to be. It also gets you off your feet and out of the sun for a half-hour, which is absolutely crucial during any theme park visit, especially in the summer.
The only ride to open alongside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, this motion simulator is like a souped-up version of Star Tours. Instead of an anonymous shipping vessel, though, you take control of a little ship called the Millennium Falcon. The highlight comes before the ride, as you get to hang out in a recreation of the ship’s iconic cargo hold while waiting for your turn in the cockpit. Once you’re behind the wheels it feels as much like a videogame as a ride, with guests performing one of three different roles—pilot, gunner, and engineer. One pilot will get to push the ship into light speed, which is a pretty amazing experience, but if you aren’t in the pilot’s seat it’s not the most exciting ride. The design is flawless, though, putting guests inside probably the most famous movie spaceship of all time.
In what has to be a coincidence, since 1998 Disney World has opened new Toy Story attractions exactly every 10 years. The first was Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin at the Magic Kingdom in ‘98. That was followed by the similar but higher tech Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios in 2008, and then in 2018 they built an entire Toy Story land around Mania. (It’s name? Toy Story Land, obviously.) That’s how massively popular Toy Story is; despite not even existing for the first half of Disney World’s life, it now has more rides based on it than any other single Disney property. Toy Story Mania isn’t the best Toy Story ride, but it probably captures the tone and spirit of the movies more than any other. Like Space Ranger Spin, it’s a dark ride built around shooting targets, only this time the action happens on screens and in the style of old carnival midway games, which makes it feel more like a videogame than a shooting gallery. It essentially updates Space Ranger Spin with new tech and the full range of Toy Story characters; it’s understandably huge with kids, and for older guests it’s a fun, if slight, way to kill a few minutes at the park.
Despite tech upgrades and story tweaks, the Star Tours you can ride today is fundamentally the same one that opened in late 1989. It doesn’t have the interactivity of Smugglers’ Run, or a fastidious recreation of a beloved movie spaceship, but it’s a better ride because it’s more focused on story. Smugglers’ Run has a story, sure, but it mostly sets up the underwhelming game at the heart of the ride. Star Tours is more about the experience than interactivity; you can sit back and try to relax as the motion simulating room banks and tilts you through an adventure that mixes together a variety of settings and locations from the movies. With each ride consisting of four segments, and 21 total segments for it to choose from, there are literally hundreds of possibilities, meaning the current Star Tours will probably be different every time you ride it. I still feel like motion simulators are inherently limited—even the excellent Flight of Passage ride at Animal Kingdom lacks the wonder you’ll feel with animatronics—but Star Tours does it better than almost any other ride.
This family friendly roller coaster is the centerpiece of Toy Story Land, which was a much-needed addition to the park when it opened in 2018. Guests ride in a giant Slinky Dog as it coasts through a fairly easy-going track, with two launches and one false stop along the way, and a series of bunny hills that will keep you bouncing in your seat. You’ll see a few Toy Story characters around the track, and it ends with a cute little gag where an animatronic of the penguin Wheezy karaokes “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” As a coaster, it’s not really worth the often extreme wait times it attracts, but it’s a good one to target first thing in the morning or if you feel like splurging on a Lightning Lane reservation. It might have supplanted Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom as the best first-time grown-up coaster for young children graduating from kiddie coasters.
It was weird in 1999 when Disney opened a roller coaster themed to the famously drug- and sex-addled band Aerosmith. It’s even weirder that it still exists today, almost 25 years later, and over 20 years since Aerosmith last had a top 100 hit. I’m pretty sure when Joe Perry and Steven Tyler were at the height (or depth?) of their Toxic Twin infamy they never would’ve believed they’d be the stars of a Disney ride. Despite how odd the whole thing is, it’s still a fantastic roller coaster, and one of the best and most intense at Disney World. It boasts a launch, three inversions, and hits up to 5Gs, so it outranks Expedition Everest as the most thrillpowered coaster at Disney World. And the whole time it’s blasting classic Aerosmith in your ear; if you ever wanted to ride a coaster with a 60-year-old woman loudly singing along to “Dude Looks Like a Lady” in the seat behind you, here’s your chance. It even stars a young Ken Marino (with no lines) in the preshow, to draw in the all-important demo of The State fans. The theme still stands out as such an oddity, though, and speculation about Disney retheming the ride to another band or even something entirely outside the realm of music has run rampant for years. That was the fate of the world’s only other version of the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster; the Paris ride is ditching the Aerosmith theme and getting converted into an Iron Man coaster.
The Muppet*Vision 3D film has a special place in the hearts of Muppet fans. It’s the last Muppet project Jim Henson worked on, and his last time voicing Kermit the Frog. It has all the charm and humor you’d expect from the Muppets, playfully riffing on the movie’s 3D gimmick while also getting the most out of it. It isn’t content with staying on screen, though, with a handful of Muppets (Bean, Statler and Waldorf, the Swedish Chef, and the penguin orchestra) appearing in the theater as audio-animatronics, and a cast member in a Sweetums suit walking down the aisle at one point. Muppet*Vision 3D would be a must-do every trip for the same reason most shows at Disney World are—it’ll get you out of the heat and off your feet for a good 15 minutes or so—but it’s also a genuinely hilarious film and a crucial piece of Muppets history. And it has a Gonzo-starring preshow that might be even funnier than the film itself.
The first ride to ever star Mickey and Minnie Mouse consists of a series of scenes where pretty much everything goes wrong, with our train falling prey to tornadoes, waterfalls, urban construction, and even an unexpected dance lesson from Daisy Duck. This is all rendered with the almost blindingly bright cartoon pop from the recent Mickey shorts, with a combination of practical sets, projections and audio-animatronics bringing that art-style into the real world. These aren’t screens, which is a bad word among some theme park fans; these are custom-built sets with vibrant images projected upon them, creating an amazing and otherworldly sensation of actually being surrounded by a cartoon. And the ride vehicles are trackless, like those in Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and international Disney rides like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Mystic Manor; that means they slide and twirl around each room in unpredictable ways, with the cars of your train pulling apart and coming back together when needed. Depending on which car you sit in, you can wind up with very different points of view, so this is a ride that will reward repeat trips. It controversially replaced the beloved Great Movie Ride, the former central attraction of the whole park, inside the recreation of Mann’s Chinese Theater, and yes, I dearly miss that one-of-a-kind trip through the movies. Don’t hold that against Runaway Railway, though; this is a charming, creative, truly impressive ride that lives up to Mickey and Minnie’s impeccable reputations.
This was a hard call for me. Rise of the Resistance is groundbreaking and amazing and the most ambitious new Disney ride in a few decades. I can’t put it higher than number two, though. Rise brings together almost everything Disney attractions are known for. It’s a masterclass in environmental storytelling and themed design that combines audio-animatronics with celebrity cameos and real-life actors; uses multiple vehicles, scenes, and ride systems to enhance the realism and keep guests engaged and surprised; and captures the thrills and excitement of the most popular film series of all time in an adventure that lasts for almost 20 minutes. It’s not a perfect ride but I don’t trust anybody who isn’t impressed by its ambition and entertained by its action. And the Star Destroyer hangar reveal is as jaw dropping as anything at the parks, even after I’ve seen it four or five times now. The biggest knock against it is that it’s not the most reliable ride; it goes out of service far more often than Disney would like it to, which isn’t surprising, considering the complexity of its interconnected web of ride systems. And despite all that I still can’t put it at number one, because that would be a disservice to Disney Imagineering at its finest.
Yeah, not even Star Wars can beat the Tower of Terror. You can find rides called the Tower of Terror at Disney parks around the world, but there’s only one true Tower of Terror, and that’s the original at Hollywood Studios. I’m not being pedantic or obtuse here; they might have the same name and the same theme, but they aren’t really the same ride. The original Tower of Terror doesn’t just lift you up and drop you down an elevator shaft for a few minutes. Your freight elevator starts in one shaft before unexpectedly moving forward into a hallway where the Twilight Zone opening credits are recreated in real life in front of your eyes. You then lock into a second shaft, where all the lifting and falling happens. That dark ride segment isn’t very long, but it’s crucial to establishing the unsettling tone of the ride, increasing the tension before the inevitable drop while also making you feel not just fear but confusion as well. It all takes place within an immaculately themed abandoned hotel ripped right out of a horror film. It’s one of the most beautiful spaces Disney has ever built, and it houses one of its absolute best rides. Unfortunately Disney later developed a smaller, cheaper version of the ride with a single shaft and no dark ride segment, and that’s what they built in California, France, and Japan, only without the Twilight Zone name or theming in Tokyo. They’re still great rides, and Tokyo’s original theme makes it interesting enough to stand on its own, but it’s hard to ride the other Towers of Terror without feeling like they’re missing something important. (And the version at Disney’s California Adventure has even been missing the name “the Tower of Terror” after undergoing a Guardians of the Galaxy rebrand in 2017.) Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror shows you how powerful a theme park attraction can be when every element of its design is working together to create a transformative experience. In other words, every inch of it looks amazing, everything contributes to its atmosphere and story, and it’s also a total blast to ride. It’s about as perfect as theme park attractions get, and you can only ride it at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.