Walt Disney World in Orlando was my favorite place to go when I was a kid. I mean, obviously—I was a kid in America in the late 20th century. Where else would I want to go? Biloxi? Even within the world of amusement parks, and even within the subset of amusement parks run by Disney, Disney World was the absolute best when I was a kid, without question. I grew up in Florida and we’d go there almost every year. I didn’t want to hear about Disneyland, all the way on the other side of the country—obviously the place an hour or two from my house was the best Disney park. It also had more parks to visit than Disneyland and a larger castle, and that matters in America, where bigger is better. Disney World was it.
And then I finally went to Disneyland in my mid-thirties and immediately fell in love with it.
Disneyland is more charming than Disney World. Instead of a massive, remote complex in the middle of a reclaimed Florida swamp, Disneyland is this quaint little park that’s basically tucked away in the middle of a normal, unassuming American town full of strip malls and fast food joints. Its small size makes it feel like a toy box come to life, and its proximity to the everyday world somehow makes its fantasies more vibrant and powerful. I’ve been to Disneyland twice now, and it’s some of the purest, most shameless joy I’ve felt while rapidly closing in on middle age. I want to have a kid just so I could take her or him there. Here are the 10 attractions that most made me feel like an excited kid again.
Yes, Joel Chandler Harris’s work is problematic, to say the least. There’s a good reason Song of the South essentially ceased to exist in America in the mid ‘80s. Celebrating a log flume ride based upon Disney’s animated adaptations of Harris’s interpretation of African-American folklore is in no way celebrating or defending those interpretations or their adaptations. It’s merely pointing out that falling 50 feet in a fake log and getting soaked after listening to a catchy song is a fun thing to do on a hot summer afternoon.
Temple of the Forbidden Eye captures the spirit of an Indiana Jones movie, even if you’re just tooling around in a huge, souped-up Jeep the whole time. Unlike Star Tours, where you just sit in a box and get shaken up a bit until you’re sick, Forbidden Eye herky-jerks you through an appropriately ancient looking and dangerous feeling fake temple to pilfer the most precious religious objects of a long lost civilization. It has that Disney commitment to selling the illusion, with a wait line that curls through fake caves and abandoned temple halls, before an old-timey newsreel sets up the story. It has a tendency to break down, but if it’s running while you’re at Disneyland, make sure you give it a shot. It’s the first of a few rides on this list that don’t exist in Orlando.
Thunder Mountain is the best rollercoaster in the world if you’re an eight-year-old frightened to death of rollercoasters. It’s the perfect intermediary between a kid’s coaster like Gadget’s Go Coaster at Mickey’s Toontown and the scarier and more complex coasters you’d ride at other amusement parks. It’s a fun, fast, basic rollercoaster with exciting twists and dips and a great theme ripped straight from old Hollywood westerns.
Disney does “dark rides” better than any other amusement park. A Disney dark ride is generally a slow-paced trip through tableaux that recreate a beloved Disney film or a particular theme or motif. Think the Fantasyland rides based on classic Disney movies, or the ghosts and pirates of the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Peter Pan’s Flight might have the single most beautiful image of any Disney attraction, as your galleon flies over the dimly lit streets of London at night. It’s a timeless Disney ride.
A lot of people hate this ride. A lot of people are wrong. It’s a grand musical experiment, translating a single repetitive melody into the dominant instrumentation of a number of cultures. That simplicity and repetition and cultural exploration almost mark this as an unwitting, commercial cohort to the minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. In Disneyland it’s housed in a gorgeous clockwork pavilion that far surpasses the Orlando version of the ride. It’s the best piece of architecture at either Disneyland or Orlando’s Magic Kingdom.
Here’s another ride they don’t have in Orlando, one that I never rode until I was a couple of decades into adulthood. All I knew about the Matterhorn as a kid was that some people died on it. Obviously that scared the heck out of me. The ride itself isn’t remotely scary, though. It’s a very basic rollercoaster where you just circle around a mountain at high speeds. It has an Alpine bobsled theme, and feels more rickety and old-fashioned than the other coasters at Disneyland. It’s another Disney attraction where the aesthetic and design is crucial to making the ride more exciting and special than it otherwise would be.
The Haunted Mansion is an absolute classic that sets a standard that all other haunted houses have failed to meet. Frightening as a kid, gleeful as an adult, it’s like a Tim Burton movie come to life (but, you know, one of the good ones.) The Disneyland version has a few differences from the one I grew up with in Orlando, and I think I prefer the Disney World version to this one. Still, the original is a joyously macabre ride through a gothic nightmare.
You might think this is a little high. You are wrong. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is the weirdest, most idiosyncratic ride at any Disney park. At the end you die and go to hell, with a chorus of devils mocking you in a heated room. Mr. Toad doesn’t die in The Wind in the Willows. Satan never spreads his wings in the book or the animated movie. And yet at the end of this ride your car hits a train head on and you go to hell. I loved that when I was a kid. Even without that perverse ending, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would be one of my favorites because of how it turns the standard dark ride experience into a fast-paced, vertigo-inducing thrill ride. This might be the single most important reason that I now prefer Disneyland over Disney World—they ripped the Wild Ride out of the Magic Kingdom in 1998.
I could do without robot Johnny Depp popping up throughout this ride now. Pirates of the Caribbean has been one of Disney’s top attractions since it first opened in 1967, decades before the movies, and it doesn’t need to reference them to retain its magic. The ride today is mostly the same as what you remember from childhood, a slow boat ride through a beautiful and comical recreation of Hollywood-style pirate scenes, only Disney has now tried to imprint the barest outline of a story involving Jack Sparrow. It’s easy to ignore it if you need to, and the classic scenes you remember from the ride are still here. Pirates of the Caribbean blew the dark ride concept up to an epic scale, and remains a triumph of fantasy-building.
There’s no question. Space Mountain is the best amusement park attraction in the world. This exciting blast through a starlit void combines two things that will always be amazing to kids of all ages: rollercoasters and outer space. Thankfully Disney hasn’t updated the overall aesthetic of Space Mountain that much since it was introduced in the 1970s. What was futuristic when I was young is now retrofuturistic in a fun and campy way. Between the Star Wars via NASA imagery and the Moroder-with-a-theremin feel of the soundtrack, Space Mountain is like a time machine back to 1982, especially when it lets you out in an arcade full of old videogames. (Guess who got the high score in Robotron last time he was there?) Part of why old people like me still love Disney is nostalgia, and that nostalgia doesn’t get more exciting or more powerful than with Space Mountain.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and is not embarrassed to admit that he loves Disney’s amusement parks.