When Disney World opened in 1972, it was home to exactly one theme park. The Magic Kingdom was a beefed up take on the original Disneyland, with many of the same attractions and themed areas spread throughout a much larger park with a bigger castle at its center. The plan was always for Disney World to be much more than a theme park, though, and although Walt Disney’s attempt at utopian urban design never came to fruition, his company’s Florida resort grew rapidly throughout the late 20th century. In time Disney World’s collection of theme parks grew to four. EPCOT opened in 1982 as a sort of permanent World’s Fair, with rides about the history of science and technology, exhibits about exciting new tech, and a cluster of pavilions that exposed guests to the cultures of various foreign countries. Disney’s Hollywood Studios followed in 1989 under its original name, Disney-MGM Studios; it was the first entire theme park build around the idea of a backstage studio tour. Finally, Disney’s Animal Kingdom first welcomed guests in 1998, with a wildlife / safari theme that has remained largely untouched in the years since. (Disney World is also home to two water parks, which we won’t discuss today.) All four parks have seen updates and refinements over the decades, with EPCOT and Hollywood Studios undergoing tremendous change since opening in the ‘80s, but one thing has held true for them all along the way: they’re a lot of fun. Disney remains the industry standard for theme park rides, and all four parks at Disney World feature some of the best rides you’ll find anywhere in the world. Yes, some beloved classics have gone away, sometimes to be replaced by greatly inferior experiences that only make the pain of losing them even worse; Disney is still more than capable of knocking it out of the park with new attractions, though, as proven by Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which opened in Hollywood Studios in 2019 and just barely missed making this list. The parks are ever-changing, but the true classics endure, and that’s what we’re looking at today. Here’s a guide to the absolute best ride at each Disney World park—the one ride in each park that you absolutely have to experience before your trip comes to an end. And we’ll start with the original, the classic that started it all: The Magic Kingdom.
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.
This flagship ride showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of Epcot’s original mission. This trip through Epcot’s trademark geodesic sphere is a fascinating look at the history of human communication, from the dawn of language through the development of the printing press. When I first rode it shortly after Epcot opened, it ended with a glimpse of how computers could change society. A decade later it ended with vignettes of people using the internet to video conference with each other. Epcot has barely been able to keep up with technology over its 36 years, and although Spaceship Earth is still a beautifully conceived marvel of Audio-Animatronics and dark ride design, it always feels at least slightly outdated. As an overly nostalgic fan of Disney-style 20th century retrofuturism, that is a big part of Spaceship Earth’s timeless charm, though. The current version needs some work—the last fifth of the ride is essentially a slow, silent journey back to the loading dock, with an annoying computer animation playing on your vehicle’s dash screen—but the first 80% of the ride is as marvelous as it’s ever been.
Not even a groundbreaking, state-of-the-art new Star Wars ride 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.
This spiritual successor to Disneyland’s Matterhorn might be the most intense roller coaster at Walt Disney World, with the tallest peak and biggest drop, and a top speed just a hair slower than the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Hollywood Studios. It’s not just a pulse-pounding coaster that switches back and forth between forward and backward motion, but another testament to design, with an intricately detailed recreation of Mount Everest, including another temple. The queue, which takes you through a travel agency with a Yeti Museum, feels natural and lived-in. And yes, you do have a face-to-face with the Yeti itself during the ride, although unfortunately the Yeti Audio-Animatronic hasn’t worked properly since shortly after the ride opened in 2006. That’s a long-running disappointment for Disney and theme park fans, but if you don’t know the Yeti is supposed to be moving when you encounter it near the ride’s end, you probably won’t guess that it’s broken. Either way it’s a gorgeous, exciting roller coaster, and the best one at Disney World.
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.