Disney theme parks are a delicate balance between nostalgia and innovation. Guests want their children to experience the same classics they grew up loving, from Space Mountain to Peter Pan’s Flight; at the same time the theme park industry traditionally focuses on what’s new, with most regional theme parks touting new rides or shows every season. The magic of a Disney park is reliving the past—both your own and the idealized versions of the past created by the park—while still feeling the thrill of the future and the impossible. Throughout the last decade Disney revealed a streak of excellent new attractions at its parks, from the exhilarating Radiator Springs Racers at Disney’s California Adventure, to the groundbreaking immersion of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It might be difficult to compare these modern technological marvels to something like the Haunted Mansion, which is still amazing today after over 50 years of action, and loses none of its charm in the wake of more advanced rides (if anything, its charm grows every year); it’s not difficult to compare them to one another, though. So that’s what we’ve done: we’ve looked at every new ride that opened at one of Disney’s 12 theme parks around the world throughout the 2010s, and picked the best of the crop. If you plan on visiting any Disney theme park soon, from Florida to California, from Paris to Hong Kong, from Tokyo to Shanghai, these are the rides to prioritize.
Without further ado…
Hong Kong Disneyland
Your response to Hong Kong’s exclusive Iron Man ride will come down to how you feel about motion simulators. Are they a thrilling way to immerse yourself in an adventure you could never have in the real world, or a cheap way to bang out a ride based on a popular series of movies? Maybe they could be both? I’ve grown to appreciate Star Tours more over the years—it’s not just a box that shakes you around until you get a headache, as I’m pretty sure I once wrote on this site—and Iron Man Experience uses the same kind of ride system, only without the randomized aspect of Star Tours’ show scenes. Would I be happy if a ride like this was the centerpiece of the new Avengers Campus expansion coming to Disney’s California Adventure? Not at all. Disney should have something special up its sleeves for its first Marvel-based land in America, and from all reports it seems like they do. But that doesn’t make Iron Man Experience a failure or not worth touting for what joys it can produce. If you want to feel like you’re rocketing alongside Iron Man on a death-defying superhero spree, this is the ride for you. It’s a modernized, updated take on a Disney ride that doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore in the wake of Galaxy’s Edge, and if Disney wasn’t building that large Marvel area right next door to Disneyland, it would make all the sense in the world to put Iron Man Experience in the Star Tours building at Disneyland.
Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris
Coming Soon to Epcot
This ride, which is coming to Epcot in 2020, turns Pixar’s tribute to creativity (and, uh, rat chefs) into a high-tech dark ride. Its combination of a trackless ride system and 3D screens affords more motion than most dark rides, both actual movement and the simulation of it, which sets this apart from the uninspired carnival-style rides that dominate the Toon Studio part of the park. Set inside an inspired recreation of Gusteau’s restaurant, and using vehicles shaped like rats, Ratatouille is adorably designed, and the smooth, unpredictable motion of the cars is as exciting as that of Disneyland Tokyo’s similar ride, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. The 3D screens aren’t a great fit, though; they’re too dark and blurry, and the sensation of motion is no match for the real deal. Whereas Hunny Hunt overwhelms you, placing you right in the middle of the world of Pooh, and uniting this modern technology with classic theme park tricks, Ratatouille is content to pull you up to a series of big screens like you’re at a drive-in broken into segments. In the end it feels hollow and a little unfulfilling. Still, as a one-of-a-kind experience, this should be the first ride you target at Walt Disney Studios Park.
Disneyland; Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort
The Millennium Falcon ride at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is a series of “oh my God” moments. You’ll say it (or at least feel it, as “oh my God” usually is a feeling more than anything else) the first time you see the life-size recreation of the legendary ship parked in a clearing between buildings and spires. You’ll feel it again when you see the almost worrisomely lifelike Audio-Animatronic of Hondo Ohnaka in the ride’s preshow scene. You’ll feel it most acutely, most powerfully, when you finally board the ship itself, walking through that familiar hallway and into the iconic cargo hold from the films—the room with the holographic chessboard, where Luke tests his Force abilities against that small droid. As a big fan of a well-done walkthrough exhibit, this part of Smugglers Run amazes me so much that it almost doesn’t matter what comes after. The ride itself isn’t necessarily a letdown—if you have the right crew with you, it can become a truly exhilarating videogame that captures enough of what makes these movies so exciting. That’s especially true if you’re able to snag one of the Pilot seats. As an immersive chunk of Star Wars nostalgia, it’s a true success; as a crossover between theme park rides and videogames, it’s an interesting novelty; as a theme park ride, it’s a fine addition to Disney’s offerings, but not a classic like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort; Shanghai Disneyland
Photo by Matt Stroshane
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.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort
Photo by Matt Stroshane
There are multiple Toy Story Lands at Disney parks throughout the world, but the only one that stands out is the recent addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. Its centerpiece is Slinky Dog Dash, a roller coaster that deftly threads the needle between a family-friendly jaunt and a thrill ride that will actually thrill older riders. The drops aren’t that steep and the top speed is a reasonable 40 MPH, but features like two launches (including one halfway through the ride) and camelback humps boost the thrills. (Those are also features that aren’t included in other coasters at Disney World, making this one stand out from the rest.) As fun as it is, the best thing about it might be how cute it is—in fitting with the Toy Story Land theme, everything looks like it’s built out of toys or boxes, with the train cars patterned after Slinky Dog. And there’s a special appearance at the end from another cult favorite Toy Story character, so keep your eyes (and ears) opened as you’re pulling back into the station. Slinky Dog Dash is a great addition to Hollywood Studios that should please families and coaster fans for generations to come.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland has a couple of unique rides that are worth traveling for, and although the park opened in 2005, both of them date to the 2010s. The first one on this list is Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, a coaster that roughly fills the spot usually reserved for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It’s a fun, thrilling, and adorable coaster through a mountain modeled after the Sierra Nevadas, with a family of Audio-Animatronic bears who unintentionally mess up what should be a safe train ride. Expect launches, explosions, a lift hill fake out that sends your whole train plummeting backwards, and a squad of bears almost as lovable as the ones at the Country Bear Jamboree. And if you find yourself at Hong Kong Disneyland, as Paste contributor Steve Foxe wrote about it, “It’s absolutely worth riding both in the day and at night, to take advantage of the view and the ride’s impressive mood lighting.”
The fastest Disney roller coaster in the world is currently one of Shanghai Disneyland’s must-ride exclusives, although a version of it is coming to the Magic Kingdom in 2021. It’s not just the speed that makes Tron Lightycycle Power Run special, though: it’s pretty much everything else about it. First off, this is a motorcycle coaster, so instead of sitting, or standing up, or lying down, you’re actually crouched over a Tron Lightcycle, with your legs spread out behind you, straddling the body of the bike. It starts with a launch, which immediately jolts you with a blast of speed, and then sends you slicing through a gorgeously futuristic building with the kind of glowing lights and electronic music you’d expect from a Tron movie. It’s a breakneck feast for the senses that should amaze anybody who rides it, whether they’re familiar with the movies or not. And with it coming to the Magic Kingdom soon, it’ll be more accessible than ever for American guests.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort
The main draw of Animal Kingdom’s Avatar expansion is worth the wait. This flying simulator is somewhat similar to Soarin’, but instead of sitting in a theater with only subtle movements, you’re sitting on a motorcycle-style contraption that has a much wider range of motion. When combined with the lifelike 3D CGI of the accompanying film, it feels like you’re riding on a banshee from the movie Avatar, with dramatic swoops and death-defying dives. Of the screen-based motion simulator rides at Disney World, this is both the most advanced and the most awe-inspiring. Waits can be extremely long right now, but one of Disney’s longest and most complicated queues should keep you entertained (or at least distracted) for hours. It winds from the bioluminescent outdoors of Pandora through a mountain cave into a Resources Development Administration science lab, with each area layered with more details and more extravagant theming. And if you’re worried that you won’t enjoy it without having seen or liked the movie, don’t: I’ve never seen Avatar, and was still blown away by this ride.
Disney’s first Chinese park launched in 2016 with a complete reinvention of one of the company’s most beloved rides. The classic Pirates of the Caribbean dark ride, found at almost every other Disney “castle” park in the world, was omitted in favor of Battle for the Sunken Treasure, a technological marvel that’s more closely based on the movies. Through a combination of Audio-Animatronics, practical sets, projections, and a series of magnetic motors that can control the motion of your boat with pinpoint precision, Battle for the Sunken Treasure pulls you beneath the waves into an undersea battle with Davy Jones and the Flying Dutchman. You don’t get wet but the illusion works better than you could imagine. This is the best reason to travel to Shanghai Disneyland, and one of the best theme park rides in the world.
Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong’s riff on the Haunted Mansion is an unpredictable treat with amazing effects, a lovable new character, and a great score from Danny Elfman. Mystic Manor takes you on a haphazard spin through a house full of paranormal and supernatural antiquities, with perilous consequences. It’s one of Disney’s best unions of practical sets and projections, concluding in an unbelievable sequence where the entire room around you is seemingly blown away during a storm. The best theme park rides play on all senses while surprising you around every turn, and Mystic Manor pulls both off with class and grace. As Paste’s former comics editor Steve Foxe wrote about it, “Mystic Manor is quite possibly one of the top five Disney attractions in the world.”
Disney’s California Adventure at Disneyland Resort
Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer
This ride does the improbable: It makes me want to watch Cars again. Radiator Springs Racers is both a classic Disney dark ride and an exciting thrill ride in the vein of Epcot’s Test Track. It starts off like a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride set in the Cars world, with your car slowly taking sudden turns on tight curves on its way into Radiator Springs. Life-size recreations of Cars characters pop up and talk to you throughout, and they look amazing. They’re real-life cartoon cars with animated eyes where the windshields should be. Eventually you enter a race, and you and another car full of park-goers burst into a quick sprint over short hills that feels a lot faster than it actually is. The movie has always felt like an outlier in the Pixar catalogue, at least from a quality perspective, but this ride makes Cars feel like a legitimate Disney classic.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort
Coming soon to Disneyland
Photo by Matt Stroshane
Time will tell if Rise of the Resistance is as much of a classic as it instantly felt when it opened in Disney World last month. This sprawling, ambitious project tells a Star Wars story across multiple scenes and ride systems, blurring the line between show and preshow, and turning the concept of a theme park queue on its head by making it an integral part of the show. The trackless ride system imbues the meat of the ride with a sense of spontaneity that enhances both its excitement and narrative possibilities, and the combination of timeless practical effects and state-of-the-art digital trickery makes it feel both traditional and groundbreaking at the same time. Rise of the Resistance feels alive in a way that most theme park rides can’t replicate, and marks a modern high water mark for theme park design.
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.