In a few weeks Californians will be able to do something they haven’t done in 13 months: visit Disneyland.
After over a year of silence due to the pandemic, the “Happiest Place on Earth” finally reopens at the end of April. Disney’s original theme park—and the only one Walt himself lived to see—closed in March 2020, alongside pretty much the rest of society, and remained shuttered nine months longer than its Florida counterpart, Disney World. With Covid cases declining in California, the state has given the greenlight to amusement and theme parks, ending what has been Disneyland’s only extended closure since opening in 1955. A number of Covid protocols will be in place, of course—with mandatory masks, enforced social distancing, reduced park capacity, and a state-imposed guideline that only residents of California can visit the park for now. Those lucky Californians will get to return to what might be the most charming theme park in America—and definitely the most important.
With over 50 attractions, including over 30 rides, guests will have a lot to choose from when they return to Disneyland. So let’s help ‘em out. Here are Paste’s picks for the 10 best rides at Disneyland—the ones you should line up for first and prioritize above all the rest.
The most recent addition to Disneyland is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opened in 2019. One of its two rides was delayed until January 2020, though; Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opened less than two months before the park closed, so relatively few people have actually gotten to experience it. As someone who’s gotten to ride the Disney World version of Rise of the Resistance many times now, I feel pretty safe saying that people are going to love it out at Disneyland. This is the first time I’ve updated this list since that ride opened at Disneyland, and, um, spoilers, but it comes in pretty high in this list’s new order.
Rise of the Resistance is a masterpiece. The rest of Galaxy’s Edge is really cool, but overall, it still can’t beat out the classics. There’s a reason rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion have become pop culture fixtures, and that’s because they have a beauty, magic and charm that remains timeless decades after their creation.
When I first wrote this I had been to Disneyland exactly twice, after decades of only visiting the Florida parks. I’ve been fortunate enough to return to Disneyland multiple times since then, and my appreciation for certain rides has grown. For example, I severely underrated Splash Mountain in that first list, to an embarrassing extent. Other rides have been refurbished or enhanced (a process Disney calls “plussing”), changing the dynamics of a list like this. And some attractions just feel less impressive than they once did. Theme park design is an art, and like all art criticism there’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Here’s how Disney’s original park stands up now, in the spring of 2021, on the verge of reopening for the first time in over a year.
This alpine-themed coaster has also gone through a refurbishment since my original list in 2014, and not necessarily one that enhanced the ride. The new Abominable Snowman animatronic is a fearsome delight, but the now-gone crystal grotto brought a moment of shimmering beauty that the ride now lacks. It’s still a must-do for thrill fans, especially if it’s your first time at Disneyland, the only Disney park that boasts this ride.
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 the Star Wars-themed 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 another ride that doesn’t exist in Orlando. When it’s running properly, it’s one of the greatest attractions ever made by Imagineering.
Thunder Mountain is the best roller coaster in the world if you’re an eight-year-old frightened to death of roller coasters. It’s the perfect intermediary between a kid’s coaster and the scarier and more complex coasters you’d ride at other amusement parks. It’s a fun, fast, basic roller coaster with exciting twists and dips and a great theme ripped straight from old Hollywood westerns. The attention to detail throughout, from the queue, to the set design of the ride’s showpieces, to the frontier town you coast into at the ride’s end, creates one of the best-realized environments of any Disneyland ride.
A lot of people hate this ride. A lot of people hate a lot of great things. It’s a Small World is 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.
Space Mountain might not be as intense or thrilling as modern roller coasters, but its overall impact is more amazing and powerful than your standard unthemed coaster. Almost no theme park ride is more viscerally exciting than the first 30 or so seconds of this coaster, and the Disneyland version is by far the best in America—when it’s actually Space Mountain, and not the Star Wars tie-in known as Hypserspace Mountain. That Star Wars theme, which has had a few lengthy stints at Disneyland, drastically lessens the impact of what otherwise might be the greatest themed coaster of all time. It also gets a goofy horror-themed overlay called Ghost Galaxy for about two months a year around the time of Halloween. The original returned right after Galaxy’s Edge opened, but with Disney’s love of brand promotion and ride overlays Hyperspace Mountain is always a threat to return. Space Mountain is still one of the three or four best rides at Disneyland; Ghost Galaxy and the Star Wars version would struggle to crack the top ten.
My longtime personal favorite, 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.
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.) And that Burton analogy becomes even truer during the too-long Nightmare Before Christmas overlay, which runs annually from September into January. From a design perspective, everything about the original ride is impeccable. The antebellum Southern mansion stands out from its surroundings, immediately capturing your attention. The pre-ride introduction from the cast member hints at the ride’s tone, which is firmly established during the iconic speech of the Ghost Host during the ride’s “stretching room” segment. And once you exit that room and board the Ommnimover “Doom Buggies,” you’ll find a joyously macabre ride through a Gothic nightmare. As fun as the Nightmare version is, it absolutely does not compare to the original; if you only go to Disneyland once in your life, make sure it’s between February and August so you can see the real Haunted Mansion.
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 most of the classic scenes you remember from the ride are still here; they changed the auction scene in 2018 to remove the whole human trafficking aspect, but it’s easy to understand why they’d do that today. Pirates of the Caribbean blew the dark ride concept up to an epic scale, and remains a triumph of fantasy-building.
When you go to Disneyland, make sure you don’t go with somebody who refuses to ride water rides. You probably won’t get that wet on Splash Mountain, anyway. The reason this jumped from the bottom to the top since my original list is because I started actually riding the thing more often. I was familiar with the Disney World version, and did a spin on the Disneyland one on my first trip, but it wasn’t a regular stop for me until my last few visits. Splash Mountain comes from problematic source material, of course, with its basis on the animated sections of Song of the South; also the Joel Chandler Harris characters it features perpetuate regrettable stereotypes, as you’d expect from a 19th century white southerner’s interpretation of African folklore. The ride remains a masterpiece of theme park design, though. It’s a lengthy dark ride full of wonderful animatronics and music, broken up by a genuinely thrilling 50 foot plummet. And that isn’t even the end of the ride, but the prelude to perhaps its best moment, when a riverboat full of adorable animals celebrate your survival. Splash Mountain isn’t that old, comparatively—it opened in the late 1980s, making it decades younger than Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and most other animatronic-heavy rides at Disneyland. It’s a style of design that Disney has largely moved away from, as it prioritizes more immediately recognizable and lucrative intellectual property and focuses on the screen-based experiences that have helped Universal Studios thrive. That’s a shame, though, as Splash Mountain proves how powerful physical sets and practical effects can be. Disneyland’s version also gets bonus points for one specific scene that happens right before the incline towards the last big drop; unlike the Orlando and Tokyo versions, Disneyland’s features a creepy, heart-touching vignette of anxious mothers, a rabbit and opossum, singing a sad song of warning to their shivering babes. Splash Mountain wraps everything that makes a theme park ride great into one long, charming, thrilling package.
Yes, this version of Splash Mountain will be going way soon, which is the right decision. Hopefully the new version, rethemed to The Princess and the Frog, will be as charming as this one. Either way, you’ve still got time to experience the original before it goes away for good.
Yeah, I’m not afraid to say it: Disneyland’s newest ride is also its best. It remains to be seen if Rise of the Resistance will have the enduring, timeless popularity of Pirates or Haunted Mansion, but for now it’s the single best example of classic Disney show design and theme park storytelling coming together with modern technology to create something that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. It’s one of those attractions where the preshow is just as crucial as the ride itself, not just from a story perspective, but because of how it overwhelms you with its size, its scope, and the unrivalled opportunities for immersion and awe provided by theme parks. Rise of the Resistance is a legitimate experience, an 18-minute adventure that makes you feel like you’re dropping in on a subplot from one of the new Star Wars movies. If you’ve been to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland before and thought it felt unfinished, well, that’s because it basically was: it was waiting for Rise of the Resistance to open, and reaffirm Disney’s unrivaled excellence at creating theme park rides.
Also check out our guide to the best attractions at the Magic Kingdom.
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.