Having visited every Disney park in the world, we've gotten to ride a lot of great rides. While Disney clones a lot of rides to put them in multiple parks, each park has a few unique attractions that set it apart.
In this post, we're going to discuss some of our favorite Disney rides in the world. Unlike our ranking of all the Disney parks, we’re not going to bore you with details of how we evaluate the rides (because we don’t). For each ride, we explain a little bit about why we like it, but sometimes it just comes down to thinking it's a fun ride.
This post also isn’t a ranking. Instead, we’re identifying two rides from each park that are our favorites. We try to avoid including clones more than once, but a few “interpretations” find their way in. Each park also gets an “Honorable Mention” ride that is either another ride we love or one we recognize is great even if it doesn’t appeal to us.
We're going to go through the parks by opening year, and for each ride we'll specify the year it opened and the land it sits in. We start with Disneyland, the original castle park.
Indiana Jones Adventure (Adventureland, 1995)
Indiana Jones was a franchise six years removed from its last film when the ride opened in Disneyland in 1995. I actually rode DINOSAUR, the ride using the same vehicle system as Indy down in Disney's Animal Kingdom, before Indiana Jones Adventure. It wasn’t until I rode Indy that I understood why people hate DINOSAUR.
It isn’t that DINOSAUR is that bad, but that Indiana Jones Adventure is that good. For all the physical discomfort those ride vehicles cause, Indiana Jones Adventure offers a variety of great visuals and thrills.
The queue is detailed, the storyline is straightforward, and the ride itself is filled with effects. There's also something we like about the openness of the ride. While DINOSAUR takes you through a windy jungle path, maybe preserving a bit more mystery, the open temple layout on Indiana Jones Adventure allows you to (however briefly out of the corner of your eye) marvel as the scope of the ride.
Matterhorn Boblseds (Fantasyland, 1959)
Matterhorn captivates me for one reason—its position as a thematic ancestor of Expedition Everest. It’s actually awfully uncomfortable to ride, and its theming isn’t particularly deep, but somehow that doesn’t bother me. There was just something about seeing the abominable snowman that made me instantly love this ride.
Disney has put Matterhorn through a lot over the years as far as refurbishments, changed paint jobs, and increased animatronic usage. But the principle and design have remained the same, and that gives the coaster a distinctly "old school" feel.
Honorable Mention - Space Mountain (Tomorrowland, 1977)
Disneyland’s Space Mountain is easily the best of the five versions of the ride, with a great soundtrack and the best ride mechanics. This is mostly a result of its being heavily refurbished between 2003 and 2005, but honestly we'd take two years away from the Magic Kingdom version to get it up to this quality.
Magic Kingdom (1971)
Haunted Mansion (Liberty Square, 1971)
It might be a bit strong to say Haunted Mansion transcends everything Disney did before or since. But there are two things about the ride that we love.
First, while we constantly harp on narrative, the story of Haunted Mansion is delightfully (or deceptively) simple—"999 happy haunts" have retired to a mansion. Beyond that, there's some light development as the ghosts are summoned to appear before you, but identifying a deeper story is a real task that starts in the queue and really doesn't finish until you've passed through the ride's exit.
The lack of a more consistent narrative beyond that really adds to the effect of the ride. You're torn between basking in the chaos or trying to discern the depth of the story. Maybe ghosts don't have linear experiences anyways!
Second, the lack of an obvious narrative leaves us with exactly what you’d expect a ghost house to be—crazy and filled with the best tricks Disney Imagineering has to offer. With pretty minimal constraints, Imagineering was able to come up with some great effects. While we went with the Magic Kingdom version on this list, we will note the ride's best effect, the Hatbox Ghost, is found only in the Disneyland version.
If you're interested in learning more about Haunted Mansion, we highly recommend Jason Surrell's The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic.
Splash Mountain (Frontierland, 1992)
In a narrative sense, Splash Mountain is the anti-Haunted Mansion. Splash Mountain has one of the clearest, most linear narratives of any Disney ride. The integration of the drop into the story is undoubtedly clever, so much so that it took me years to really understand the ride.
Even before the big finish, Splash Mountain offers everything that makes a good ride—narrative, fun characters, catchy tunes, and some nice design. In the past ten years, I'm not sure I've ever once ridden the ride and cared about the drop. It's the rest of the ride that entrances me. While some rides (like Test Track) need a big finish to set them apart, Splash Mountain gets the job done before that.
Honorable Mention - Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Fantasyland, 2014)
SDMT doesn’t blow us away, but it is solid and a fixture of New Fantasyland. It’s cute, smooth, and fun. Best of all, it features a new generation of animatronics, giving Disney a chance to pack a brand new ride with a modern take on some of its classic methods.
Living With The Land (Future World, 1982)
If Disney parks have B-side tracks, Living With The Land is on Epcot’s B-Side these days. Maybe this is owing to its age (it was an opening day attraction), or maybe to its lack of thrills or modern IP. But it really deserves its due. In a park about human progress, Living With The Land reminds us that progress isn’t just about humanity, it’s about nature as well.
Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros (World Showcase, 2007)
Not quite a B-side track, though somewhat overshadowed by neighboring Frozen Ever After, Three Caballeros is spunky fun the heart of one of Epcot’s most beautiful pavilions. If we had a “skip this, do this instead” list, we’d say skip Frozen, ride Three Caballeros. (And every child in the world would revolt and we’d be finished.)
Part of Three Caballeros's greatness comes from the excellent pavilion in which it sits. Part of it comes from being at the end of drinking around the world, depending on your direction. But really, it's the presence of the Three Caballeros, an underrated aspect of Disney lore, that makes this an excellent attraction.
Honorable Mention - Spaceship Earth (Future World, 1982)
Sure, some math nerds will go on about Spaceship Earth’s shape and number of sides. But this math major thinks that the Brouwer Fixed Point Theorem is more apt to keep in mind when thinking about this ride. Spaceship Earth is both the physical focal point and conceptual center point of the park. Everything the park offers is mapped into that geodesic sphere and its ride.
Tokyo Disneyland (1983)
Camp Woodchuck (Westernland, 2016)
Camp Woodchuck is a themed area inside Westernland at Tokyo Disneyland. Besides some minimal space to explore, the only attractions are character meet and greets. It makes this list as home to the stunning “Camp Woodchuck Lodge,” which is mostly used for dining but is also a great place to escape from the crowds. We tried desperately to find adult-sized Camp Woodchuck shirts because we enjoyed the space so much, but no luck.
Pooh’s Hunny Hunt (Fantasyland, 2000)
In a park that doesn’t offer much by way of unique attractions, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is an improvement on a dark ride that we already get a kick out of. Trackless designs are the future, and Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is a good exhibition of the technology in action.
Honorable Mention - Monsters, Inc. Ride and Go Seek (Tomorrowland, 2009)
Ride and Go Seek is a different sort of dark ride than we’re used to, combining a quality ride with a touch (or more, depending on your interest level) of interactivity. We weren’t really impressed by it, but it is a unique ride at Tokyo Disneyland that many seem to love.
Disney's Hollywood Studios (1989)
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (Sunset Boulevard, 1994)
Tower of Terror exemplifies a real “be best” attitude in ride design. This isn’t just a drop ride. It isn’t just a drop ride with Twilight Zone theming. It’s a drop ride that puts you on edge as soon as you turn down Sunset Boulevard and see and hear the other screaming guests. The queue continues this, keeping you buried in the shadow and sounds of the ride until you enter the delightfully frightening hotel lobby.
Star Tours – The Adventures Continue (Echo Lake, 1989 / 2011)
Star Tours – The Adventures Continue is a rare example of an adaptable classic. New sequences are a regular occurrence these days, and the ride went through some more significant changes in converting from the original Star Tours into this ride in 2011. Like the Star Wars franchise as a whole, Star Tours aggressively stands the test of time.
Honorable Mention – Toy Story Midway Mania! (Pixar Place, 2008)
Toy Story Midway Mania! is a favorite of ours (and many others), but didn’t make the top two because it doesn’t really stand out conceptually. It’s something of a modern carnival ride, albeit a very enjoyable one.
Disneyland Paris (1992)
Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant (Fantasyland, 1992)
Our favorite castle is more than just eye candy, it’s a wonderful place to explore. With its very own subterranean dragon, an elegant telling of Sleeping Beauty, great views, and creative ornamentation throughout, the Paris castle is everything we’ve always wanted from a castle.
Pirates of the Caribbean (Adventureland, 1992)
This classic had to find its way onto the list somewhere, and Paris makes the most sense. It has the best queue, and many people consider it the best version of the ride (we don’t really feel strongly one way or the other). Like some other rides in Paris, this version of Pirates of the Caribbean has a little more spook, a little more edge, than its American counterparts.
Honorable Mention - Phantom Manor (Frontierland, 1992)
Phantom Manor is a subtle but ambitious attempt to bring sense to Haunted Mansion. While we prefer the more open narrative of the other versions, Phantom Manor is a solid integration of the ride into a larger story. Plus the building looks great!
Disney's Animal Kingdom (1998)
We've got a complete guide to the rides of Animal Kingdom for those who want to know more about this park.
Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain (Asia, 2006)
Everest is a strong candidate for our favorite Disney ride, period. From the moment you set foot in the queue—really even as soon as you set eyes on the Forbidden Mountain and begin heading toward it—the story envelops you. No expense was spared in putting together a wonderful narrative, and the ride is much better for it. This is a great thrill ride with a theme that not only is true to its source material, but which actively pays tribute to it.
It's actually something of a shame that the ride experience is as good as it is, because it overshadows the queue, which is probably the best queue Disney has to offer. Next time you're at Animal Kingdom, forego the Fastpass and single rider line, and maybe head over there early in the morning to take a walk through the queue.
Kilimanjaro Safaris (Africa, 1998)
There aren’t many truly unique experiences in theme parks these days, but Kilimanjaro Safaris is one of them. This is a ride where the experience varies from minute to minute and season to season. So much more can happen here than on any Disney ride. At first we missed the campy storyline that used to accompany the ride, but now we feel like it was the right decision. This isn’t an attraction that needs to be overdone, just let the animals do their thing.
Honorable Mention - Avatar Flight of Passage (Pandora, 2017)
In an attempt at an objective ranking of “best” Disney rides, we’d likely put Flight of Passage in the top spot. It’s a thrilling, beautiful, creative experience. I’ve written elsewhere that Flight of Passage is really the apex of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and not just because it’s a fun ride.
Disney California Adventure (2001)
Radiator Springs Racers (Cars Land, 2012)
Radiator Springs Racers proves that technologically progressive rides sometimes do better in a fantasy setting than laid in bare form in Epcot, where its technological cousin Test Track sits. We find Test Track to be mostly dull and uninspired. Radiator Springs Racers, though, is both fun and thrilling. And there’s no doubt that Cars has much better cross-generational appeal than motor-vehicle testing.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! (Hollywood Land, 2017)
In our park ranking post we talked at length about Mission: Breakout! While we think there is a lot that can rightfully be said against stuffing the ride and eyesore of a building into Disney California Adventure, we really can’t understand harsh criticism of the queue or ride itself. Sure, it borders on stupidly silly (“these hands don’t scan”), but those minor moments (that some people love anyways) don’t detract from the overall phenomenal experience.
Honorable Mention - Soarin' (Grizzly Peak Airfied, 2001)
There are a lot of good rides at Disney California Adventure. Soarin', though its ride technology is more common these days, is a special attraction.
Tokyo DisneySea (2001)
Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage (Arabian Coast, 2001)
Many rides at Tokyo DisneySea could fill these two spots. We’ve chosen two that don’t always get the attention they deserve.
Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage is an amazing dark boat ride with a tune even catchier than “it’s a small world.” The ride originally was something of a dud, eventually being retooled in 2007. We never experienced the original version, but it seems the retooling really worked. Now, Sinbad is a gorgeous ride in one of the most gorgeous lands in Disney’s most gorgeous park.
Fortress Explorations (Mediterranean Harbor, 2001)
Of all the spaces to explore in Disney parks, Fortress Explorations is the one that requires the most attention. Not only is it something of a labyrinth, but you could easily hit the “highlight”—the views from the top—without realizing how much you’ve walked past on the way. With several beautiful, ornate rooms paying tribute to centuries of exploration, Fortress Explorations is more than worthy of an hour or more of your time.
Honorable Mention – Journey to the Center of the Earth (Mysterious Island, 2001)
Journey to the Center of the Earth has much of the beauty that we love in Na’Vi River Journey (Animal Kingdom), but with a much-welcomed injection of thrill.
Walt Disney Studios Park (2002)
Crush's Coaster (Toon Studio, 2007)
Crush's Coaster is the best ride at Walt Disney Studios Park. It's a simple enough concept in which you join Crush (Finding Nemo) on a journey through the sea. The execution is good, with a mix of dark ride elements and coaster elements, all with a "twist" in your spinning coaster car.
RC Racer (Toy Story Playland, 2010)
RC Racer couldn't be simpler, but it somehow manages to be our favorite ride in the old-style Toy Story lands. Not much to say about this one, it's just a quick bit of fun.
Honorable Mention - Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (Toon Studio, 2014)
Ratatouille is a new, hit ride that is apparently doing well enough for Disney to decide to clone it in Epcot. While we understand the appeal, we just don't buy it. The trackless dark ride uses a series of large screens to transform the rider into rat size and take them on a journey through a restaurant. While the concept is solid, and many seem to enjoy the experience, we're just unimpressed by the technology behind it.
Hong Kong Disneyland (2005)
Mystic Manor (Mystic Point, 2013)
We don’t have anywhere near the same passion for Mystic Manor that many commentators have, but it’s a great ride. While it’s often grouped aside the Haunted Mansion rides, it’s really only like them in concept—showcasing some of the greatest “tricks” of Imagineering in a whimsical manner.
Mystic Manor shines in the details. The queue, and the rooms of the ride itself, contain a wealth of fascinating objects. The building is designed around a mix of designs than its owner, Lord Henry Mystic, would have encountered in his travels. Finally, the ride is an S.E.A. tie-in, which instantly earns it some credibility with
Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars (Grizzly Gulch, 2012)
Runway Mine Cars isn’t a great ride, but it is a good ride. Its closest thematic counterpart would be Big Thunder Mountain. While Runaway Mine Cars is different (kudos to Hong Kong Disneyland for being different), it isn’t really better.
Honorable Mention: Jungle Cruise (Adventureland, 2005)
Jungle Cruise needs to be mentioned on this list. The Hong Kong Disneyland version might not be the best, but we wanted to put the ride here so we could mention that in Hong Kong, there are three queues for three languages in which you can enjoy the ride—English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Many, if not most, Jungle Cruise riders don’t even understand the ride the first time they’re on it. Maybe they don’t even enjoy it the first time. But once you understand that yes—that’s the ride—and no—the cast member isn’t just having a fun day—it’s easy to sit back, laugh, and see why this simple ride has stood the test of time.
Shanghai Disneyland (2016)
Challenge Trails (Adventureland, 2016)
While there’s always something of a tingle of nerves on Tower of Terror, Challenge Trails is probably the only attraction in a Disney park that made me truly nervous as an adult. No, this isn’t the most intense ropes course you’ll find in the world, but it’s no kiddie ride, either. This is where Shanghai's willingness to be different really shines.
TRON Lightcycle Power Run (Tomorrowland, 2016)
There’s good reason TRON is coming to Magic Kingdom. It’s a different sort of coaster experience, and one that remains exciting ride after ride. Thematically, TRON’s roots can be traced to a 1982 movie, which at first doesn’t scream “Tomorrowland.”
However, while space was and remains the "final frontier," smart tech and virtual reality are a huge component of the modern view of the future. This makes TRON, a movie about the human-computer relationship, a perfect fit.
Honorable Mention – Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure (Treasure Cove, 2016)
Emily actually considers Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure to be the second-best ride in Shanghai. I agree that it’s a good ride, but I file this one under Shanghai’s ambition getting the better of it. For all the excitement and modernity of the newer version (it really is a wholly different ride), I prefer the original Pirates of the Caribbean.