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We’ve been fortunate to be able to make visits to each and every Disney theme park in the world. Over the course of those visits, and for countless hours in between, we discussed and debated how we’d rank the different parks. In this post, we set out to rank the 12 Disney Theme Parks Around The World.
Basics about the Disney parks Around The World
If you’d like to cut straight to the rankings, click here. Otherwise, let’s start by getting some basic questions answered.
How many Disneylands are there Around The World?
There are six Disneylands—that is, “castle parks”—around the world—in California, Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Each Disney resort has one “Disneyland” or “castle park” and four resorts have other parks as well.
Where are All the Disneylands and Theme Parks located?
There are six Disney resorts in California, Florida, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and China with a total of twelve parks. They are:
Walt Disney World Resort (Florida) (Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Animal Kingdom)
Disneyland Resort (California) (Disneyland, California Adventure)
Tokyo Disney Resort (Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea)
Disneyland Paris (Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney Studios Park)
Hong Kong Disneyland Resort (Hong Kong Disneyland)
Shanghai Disney Resort (Shanghai Disneyland)
This post contains a ranking of the individual parks, not the resorts. Thus, there's no discussion of hotel count and quality, transportation around the resort, dining options outside the parks, or anything else beyond the individual parks.
Again, if you’d like to cut straight to the rankings, click here. If you stick with us until then, though, you’ll learn in our opening to this post how we think about theme parks and get some important background about what went into our rankings—but it's going to be a long ride.
Challenges To Ranking the Disney Parks
There are some real challenges to the task of ranking the Disney parks. First, it’s not like we went from one to another day after day. There were months between some visits and days between others.
Second, we had a limited time at each park. While we always err on the side of overstaying, there’s no doubt it takes time to truly appreciate a good theme park. We don't claim to be experts about every park.
Relatedly, we have vastly more experience at Walt Disney World and Disneyland than the other resorts. This helps some parks there that take time to really understand, while it hurts others that suffer from fatigue easily.
Finally—and what this post is really about—there is just the question of what makes a good theme park. It should go without saying that this list is subjective. But we've also tried to think it through and come up with some sort of support for our positions. Any good subjective ranking should maintain some consistency in the factors it's considering.
When you get down to the actual rankings, you'll maybe think it reads somewhat like a list we threw together like any other clickbait list (we really hope not). But that's because we didn't want to devote hundreds of words to each park, and it would be incredibly boring for people who just care about the list to have to hear us go on about the same things over and over.
Before we get to the rankings, you'll get the “behind the scenes” look into how we actually built the list. Hopefully that lends support to the final list we came up with. But if you think we got something wrong, either in our choice of factors or how we applied them, feel free to sound off in the comments!
Finally, this post is going to move freely between the plural first-person “we” and the singular “I.” That's because while much of it is what I, Ken, think, a good deal of it is stuff what we, Ken & Emily, have discussed and agreed upon.
Some “Minor” Factors In Ranking The Disney Parks
Spoiler alert: the bulk of this post is going to be entirely about how we decide which parks have the best “theme.” Before we get to that, though, we wanted to talk about some other factors that play a role in our rankings.
These factors are actually going to be quite prevalent in the rankings themselves. We’re not going to talk them to death here (like we do with theme) because they're much more straightforward, especially at Disney parks.
Attraction Lineup and Quality
Besides theme, attraction lineup is probably the most important factor in comparing theme parks. When we think about attraction lineups, we're thinking how you'd compare these parks if you just ripped out the attractions, lined them up one after another, and rode/experienced them independent of the rest of the park. Attractions play a huge role in theming, too, but we'll discuss that more later.
One of the quickest (and probably most common) ways to compare two theme parks is just to talk about the attractions. At Disney parks, this is sometimes quite boring as many share identical or nearly identical rides. In general, attraction lineups will play a large role in our rankings, with bonus points being given for high-quality, unique attractions.
Some people no doubt think attractions are the most important or only thing that matters. There’s several reasons we disagree, but we’ll quickly address two. First of all, attractions are comparatively “easy.” The technology behind most attractions is available on the open market from third-party contractors. Anyone with enough money can pay to fill a patch of land with quality attractions.
Second, we only think you need to fill a day at a theme park. That doesn’t require many attractions, especially if you’ve got quality entertainment backing up the attraction lineup. A park with 50 attractions might not be better than a park with 10 because most guests won’t experience all 50 in a day.
Operations Quality & Customer Service
This one is a new addition to the post (read on and you’ll probably gather why). If a park has a lot of good rides, but they never work, it’s not very good. If it has a lot of good restaurants, but they all always have lines—again, not good. We don’t give away many “sh*t happens” points because frankly, things go wrong more at some parks than others because they just aren’t as well-run.
At Disney parks, customer service tends to be excellent. Even veterans of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World can't agree on which destination has better cast members, but most everyone agrees they are, on average, great. There is variation amongst the Disney parks, and we'll make some note of it in the rankings.
We're the last people you want to get dining suggestions from. That's why we don't talk much about food here. Beyond that, there are a few problems comparing the dining options across the Disney parks. The big one is that the international parks serve a mixture of western and international foods. As vegetarians, we only try a limited range of these foods, and either way, we wouldn't have much of an idea whether an international dish we only had once or twice is “good.”
Also, Walt Disney World, being the “vacation kingdom” has better in-park restaurants than the other resorts simply because people who are visiting are actually looking for a nice, slow sit-down meal. Parks that thrive on single-day visitors won't cater as much to those seeking dining experiences, that's what hotels are for.
Crowds / Guests
We don’t let crowds or guest behavior impact our rankings much at all. Some people like the energy of crowds, some people like to have an empty park. While the media went wild over "bad" guest behavior in Shanghai Disney Resort, we find behavior at most every other park to be much worse.
We definitely could reconsider the significance of crowd levels. Crowd levels are a point of controversy at the American parks, and they will become even more of an issue when Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens up on both coasts. [Update: Ironically, Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland opened to low crowds, but now that has become a source of controversy within the Disney fandom.]
Keep in mind, by the way—crowds are a conscious choice that park operators make. People are way too quick to let Disney off the hook when parks get overcrowded. Yes—the parks will be their busiest on holidays. But that doesn’t mean Disney is right to allow them to become as busy as they do. We’re not saying here that they’re definitely wrong, just that there is a cost-benefit analysis as to crowd levels and guest experience.
Shows and Parades
Sorry, like dining, we're not really great at evaluating shows and parades. You'll find very limited discussion of them in our rankings. If we really put our thought into it, we definitely could rank the shows and parades, but if you shuffled around the parks they were in, our views on the parks probably wouldn't be impacted.
The Biggest Factor: The “Theme” In “Theme Park”
Any quick, to-the-point ranking post would just add a paragraph about theme to the above list and move on to the rankings. Maybe they’d even assign numbers to each factor. Yea sorry, we’re not going to do that. (But we’ll give you another chance to jump down to the actual rankings.)
While the other factors all matter and will pop up in our rankings, we want to talk most about theme. In part this is just because that's the kind of people we are. But it's also because theming is more challenging to identify and compare across parks.
This is especially true in Disney parks, where the second most important factor, attraction lineup, can be boring to evaluate due to the number of cloned rides across the parks. That's not to say the attractions themselves are boring, not at all! Rather, the lineups in each park are pretty excellent, and it's just not always fun to nitpick between excellent lineups. So, let’s talk about theme.
Theme Parks and Design Immersion
A “theme park” differs from an “amusement park” in that the former must show some commitment to a theme other than unbridled enjoyment (that is, amusement). To be a good amusement park, a place needs a good attraction lineup, but a theme park specifically needs something more (that is, theme).
Theme can be present in different ways. One way, for example, is simply to name the lands and rides something keeping with the theme and add some minimal level of on-theme design to the attractions. All theme parks, including the Disney parks, do at least this.
Tokyo DisneySea offers “ports” (instead of lands) named, for example, “Mysterious Island,” “Lost River Delta,” and “American Waterfront.” In the castle parks, Adventurelands around the world offer Jungle Cruise rides. Frontierlands are home to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Another way to bring theme into the park is in the design of the non-attraction elements, particularly the other details in the lands. Do the walkways, the stores, the open spaces, and the restaurants also fit the theme? This aspect of “theme” is most often referred to as the “immersive” quality of the park.
Disney excels at immersive design in its lands. For example, immersive design can be seen in Treasure Cove at Shanghai Disneyland, where the restaurants, shops, and walkways are designed to be reminiscent of a pirate-occupied Caribbean town.
The Disney park that we find best at immersive design is Tokyo DisneySea. Its themed ports radiate with detail, completely enveloping you once you set foot in them.
While this type of immersion—design and detail with a consistent theme—is important, there is a second type of immersion we find much more important, and that is narrative immersion.
In writing this, I had no idea that “narrative immersion” is a concept in video gaming and virtual reality—two activities which bear an obvious relationship to theme parks. Ernest Adams, in Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion, defines narrative immersion:
A player gets immersed in a narrative when he or she starts to care about the characters and wants to know how the story is going to end.
For our context, we’re going to modify it a bit. We’re going to define narrative immersion at theme parks as immersion in which the details and designs draw you into a story or otherwise succeed in teaching you something. The “theme” of theme parks is then something akin to the story being told or the lesson being taught.
Plenty of Disney rides (the majority, probably) achieve narrative immersion through traditional storytelling. Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Splash Mountain, and Mystic Manor are examples of such rides. Few rides don't even attempt at narrative immersion. Carrousels, Mad Tea Party, and Slinky Dog ZigZag Spin are rides lacking narrative immersion.
Arguably, the best type of narrative immersion occurs when a guest becomes a character in the story. While Disney is said to be taking this idea to a new level with the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands, this in-depth immersion already present in how you experience lands and attractions. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Avatar: Flight of Passage, and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster are examples of this.
Important to our definition, though, is that a traditional “story” isn't completely necessary. Some theme parks or attractions convey a lesson in a story-like manner but without a series of causally-connected events (which is what really makes a story).
One example of such an attraction is “it’s a small world.” The lesson here is the similarity and unity of all people. That lesson is conveyed in the largely physical similarities of the dolls (despite differences in certain features), the constant music/melody of the song, the consistent lyrics (despite its changing languages), and the cross-cultural use of dance as a means of expression.
Your experiences across scenes of “it’s a small world” are all connected. They aren’t causally connected, as in a typical story, but they are experientially and thematically connected. This experiential connection, whether it occurs in the face of a series of casually connected events or not, is what creates narrative immersion.
What’s important, and what distinguishes narrative immersion from detail/design immersion is that your experiences and interactions with those details and designs are a part of a unified experience with a unified message.
The Relationship Between Rides, Lands, and Parks
If a good theme park is a collection of stories, the interplay of narrative within a ride, narrative within a land, and narrative within a park is also important to understand.
Theme parks and lands might be thought more like storybooks or collections of connected stories than individual stories. Those stories are connected by a theme. But the best storybook isn't simply a collection of similarly-themed stories. The best storybook has a unified lesson, maybe even an “arc” or journey that it takes the reader on. The best theme parks collect stories (rides) into chapters (lands), and connect those chapters into one overarching idea (theme).
By way of a quick example, let’s pick on Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: Breakout! at Disney California Adventure. We’ll get into the details of identifying a theme in a bit, but for now, let’s stick to the obvious. The “theme” of Disney California Adventure is, very roughly, “California.” Mission: Breakout! is located in Hollywood Land, a land dedicated, obviously, to Hollywood.
Mission: Breakout! is a fantastic ride. We think it's one of Disney's best (and we’re not Marvel geeks at all). Not only is it highly enjoyable, but from the second you arrive at the queue, you’re buried in narrative. The story that you’re experiencing is played out throughout the queue. The narrative is what makes immersion real. Because the narrative is very much active and alive, it’s arguably even better than its predecessor ride, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
The premise of Tower of Terror is that you’re in an unused hotel. Dust has built up and the scene looks much like it would in the 1930s. By way of immersive design, the Hollywood Studios version of this building is amazing! But by way of narrative, it actually falls short of Mission: Breakout!
On Tower of Terror, for example, why am I at the hotel? Why am I going to take a maintenance service elevator? While the detail and design—the immersive qualities—of Tower of Terror are fantastic, it’s hard for me to forget, even for an instant, that I’m on a ride. (Tower of Terror experts, sound off in the comments!)
Conversely, on Mission: Breakout! the narrative, and the rider's involvement in it, is clear. We’re there for a tour and to see the latest addition to the Collector’s collection. And while we wait, we get to see some elements of the collection. We’re told of the security protocols that are in place for our visit (which are admittedly a bit cheesy and a narrative stretch). The feeling of “wow, what a place…what cool things” is exactly the feeling you’d have if you were visiting the actual collection.
But the success of Mission: Breakout! as an attraction is in stark contrast to its role in the land and park at large. Yes, the ride sits in Hollywood Land, and Guardians of the Galaxy is a Hollywood production, but is that really the hook to hang your hat on? This is especially questionable when you look at the theming of the land and the role Tower of Terror, which was a 1930s style Hollywood hotel, played.
Things can change, though. Hollywood Land very well may change from being about Hollywood as a place and culture to be more about Hollywood productions themselves. If the land continues to evolve that way (as, for example, Hollywood Studios in Florida is), then the ride may wind up right at home.
For now, there’s really very little about the park’s California theming in Mission: Breakout! The narrative makes no effort to fit the ride into the park, and in that way while the ride is a stunning achievement, the theming of the land and the park suffer for it.
Identifying The “Theme”
Some fans no doubt scoffed at the last section, thinking that as a Hollywood production, Mission: Breakout! is perfectly on-theme. While we disagree (the ride is just too far removed from the core theme of California), it does bring us to a larger question—how does one identify the theme of the park?
One place to start is the name of the park. This will rarely tell the entire story, but it will often at least tip you off as to the general direction. “Animal Kingdom,” “Hollywood Studios,” “California Adventure,” and “DisneySea” are examples of names that tip their hand a bit. “Disneyland” is unfortunately unhelpful, and perhaps even a bit of misdirection.
The second place to look is where we'll famously find the theme of Disneyland—the park’s dedication. In Disneyland’s dedication, Walt Disney explicitly told us “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…”
So in case you thought the theme of Disneyland was “Disney movies,” you were sorely (but justifiably) mistaken. The theme is “the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.”
There are other sources one would look to for theme. Creators, designers, imagineers, and executives are all fine ideas. From all of these sources, you’ll get a good idea of the theme. But there is one better place to look.
The final place to find the theme is in the park itself. Examine the park. Listen to it. Figure out what the park tells you. That’s the theme. The best theme park doesn’t even have to tell you its theme. It could be named “Walt’s Theme Park” without any dedication, and it would tell you its theme.
Personally, for example, I don’t think Animal Kingdom’s theme is “animals,” despite the name. In one word, I think it is “nature.” In several, I think it is “the relationship between humans and nature.”
That doesn’t mean the park screams its theme at you. I’m not sure I would ever have identified the “America” part of Walt’s dedication without being told it. But over time, certainly one comes to understand that it is about the interplay of exploration, science, and fantasy. The park is clearly about the past, the future, and the dreams that are responsible for both.
Theme & The Castle Parks
This brings us near to the close, but with one challenge—the challenge of evaluating the theme of the different castle parks. Disneyland, as the original castle park, is the only one with a truly unique theme. Just as all philosophy has been said to be footnotes to Plato, you might say that all the castle parks are just interpretations of Disneyland.
International castle parks are particularly challenging to evaluate. Disneyland is explicitly dedicated to the ideals, dreams, and hard facts that created America. It would be awkward for the international parks to take a shot at better execution on that theme.
Shanghai Disneyland, indeed, clearly eschews that theme altogether. That park substitutes Treasure Cove (Caribbean themed) for Frontierland (an undeniably American land). It also replaces Main Street, U.S.A. with the ill-conceived “Mickey Ave.” The park is left, sadly, without much of a theme.
If you read the dedications of the international castle parks, they reflect the problem here. Unable to claim to be about America, they’re left sort of being “about” fun/joy/imagination.
Disneyland winds up being the clear winner here, because it has and exemplifies a theme that is something more than fun and imagination. In truth, we're not sure if that impacted its position in our rankings. What we can say is that when we talk about castle parks, we're sort of forced to put bigger questions of theme to the side.
If you stuck with us until now, thanks!! Please do let us know what we got right and what we got wrong. We're far from theme park experts, even if we're something close to experts on a few Disney parks. But now, onto the part everyone cares most about...
Here's how we rank all the Disney parks, worldwide…
12. Walt Disney Studios Park
Walt Disney Studios Park is the “other” park at Disneyland Paris. At its most basic, the park is an interpretation of Hollywood Studios. While the park offers two unique, even good, rides—Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy (coming soon to Epcot) and Crush's Coaster—it really lacks its own identity.
The park’s design completely misunderstands what makes a theme park “tick.” Some of the best design elements of Hollywood Studios were taken and stuffed into Disney Studio 1, an indoor boulevard of shops and restaurants, while much of the rest of the park is left bland and uninteresting.
The addition of a French-themed area along with the Ratatouille ride is textbook abandonment of theme for the sake of shoving an attractive ride and area into a park. Toy Story Playland was not a much better idea. The park is the only true “half-day park” in the Disney portfolio.
The limited ride count—under ten (all the ride counts in this post are “depending on how you count)—isn’t doing the park any favors, but at the same time this is about standard for parks other than the castle parks. The parks lack of popularity is something to behold, as even heavy hitting duplicated like Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror rarely have substantial ways.
Disney has indicated some commitment as of late to improving this park. While it’s unlikely the park will ever be so transformed as to make the top five of this list, enough good attractions and lands could put it into the middle of the pack.
11. Hong Kong Disneyland
There is good in Hong Kong Disneyland, there just isn’t much of it. The park is small enough to be fully experienced in a day, which makes it unique among castle parks. There are standout attractions, like Mystic Manor and Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, but the park overall suffers from the same patchwork problem that plagues Walt Disney Studios Park.
I read in the fantastic book The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic that the park has a number of small lands in part because of a cultural predisposition toward numerousness over depth. If true, our feelings of negativity toward the patchwork nature may just be a cultural disconnect.
More to the point, though, Hong Kong Disneyland is the park that suffers most from being an interpretation of Disneyland. And it's the only castle park that doesn't really do anything better than Disneyland.
It’s worth mentioning here that there does seem to be a Disney parks sub-culture that thinks we’re really wrong about the park. Chiefly, they point to an otherwise undefinable “charm” in the park. I mean, it’s small, I’ll give them that.
At under 20 rides, it’s on the lower end of the castle park list by ride count. We already discussed why you can’t go just by ride count, but its hard to line Hong Kong Disneyland up against the other castle parks without placing it at or near the bottom.
In the same way that Disney has recently shown interest in improving Walt Disney Studios Park, they have plans to improve Hong Kong Disneyland. Hopefully, the addition of new lands and some changes to the castle will help this park come into its own.
10. Disney’s Hollywood Studios
It’s easy to put Hollywood Studios down here because it's in the middle of a rebuilding phase. Toy Story Land didn’t do much for us. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (aka Star Wars Land) will likely move it up a few spots.
[Update: We’ve experienced Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland. Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, opening August 29, is expected to be nearly identical. We’ve decided we won’t be updating this list until after December 5, when the second Galaxy’s Edge ride opens.]
While much of the park is designed around Hollywood as a city and the studios as an experience, the heart of the park is transitioning to be more simply about putting the guests in the films. Is this a weak theme? Maybe—after all, all theme parks are about putting guests in a story.
Regardless, Toy Story Land and Galaxy’s Edge are committed to this idea. They continue the tradition of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Movie Set Adventure, and Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
At this moment, it’s tough to say more about Hollywood Studios (and a waste to talk much more about the #10 spot). The park now “boasts” six rides, but that count will be up to nine in a few months time. Three isn’t a huge number, but a 50% increase in ride count is notable. And nine rides with a pretty high average quality will put it comfortably in competition with Epcot and Animal Kingdom as far as rides.go.
We’ll need to see how the new lands mesh and where the rest of the park goes from here. It's possible, even likely, that Hollywood Studios moves up to the seventh spot on this list in a few years.
9. Shanghai Disneyland
Shanghai Disneyland is ambitious. The park offers TRON Lightcycle Power Run, Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, and what could be under-the-radar Disney’s best attraction worldwide, Challenge Trails. Unlike the other castle parks, which mostly recycle lands and designs, Shanghai swung for the fences with a hyper-modernized Tomorrowland and an entirely new land, Treasure Cove.
Parts of Shanghai Disneyland are simply stunning. The details in many parts are stunning. Despite being lower on this list than several castle parks, this might be the international castle park we're most likely to recommend a visit to, simply because of its willingness to be different.
But Shanghai’s ambition and need to be different get it into trouble. Mickey Ave., an attempt to bring a cartoon flare to the entrance of the park, is a tacky replacement for Main Street U.S.A. The castle is the largest Disney has ever built, its absurd size fitting for a park with an absurd amount of open space (which residents of Shanghai are likely to find appealing, we admit).
With around 17 rides, Shanghai sits with Hong Kong Disneyland at the bottom of the ride count for castle parks. This is a bit surprising because with is over-the-top need to be different and gargantuan size, Shanghai Disneyland is the castle park otherwise most different from Hong Kong Disneyland. At the end of the day, this is sort of an A+ for being different, but a C on most every other count.
We’ll throw this in here. There's a lot of nonsense around the internet about the behavior of Chinese guests at Shanghai Disneyland. Frankly, we found the behavior in Shanghai Disneyland to be among the best in all Disney parks, possibly second only to Tokyo. Were there “incidents”—sure, a few—but on average I’ve been more offended in many other parks.
I spent years of feeling like I didn’t “get” Epcot. See, others seemed to get it, or at least they pretended to, and I just couldn’t figure it out. Finally, I listened more to what people were saying (including in the comments here), and it hit me—I don’t get Epcot because I didn’t experience it when it was actually a great theme park.
Theme parks are in constant tension. Should they offer the best ride possible? Should they stick entirely to their theme? What if guests don’t care for the theme?
Epcot was ahead of its time as far as theme park design. It chose an incredibly ambitious theme—let’s call it “progress”—and it threw it in your face, not really caring whether or not you wanted something with a little more whimsy.
But that was before. When the park had things like Horizons, Wonders of Life, World of Motion, and the original Imagination! pavilion. While we could argue about the old attraction portfolio vs. the modern one, there’s no doubt the theme was more coherent “back in the day.” The modern park is a little tougher to analyze.
One on hand is the World Showcase. Eleven themed lands each celebrating a different country, all standing side by side. With food, drinks, shopping, design elements, and even people from the different countries, the World Showcase is a fantastic place to be, and it is Disney design at its finest.
Then there is Future World. While it used to be a true celebration of human achievement, Future World has lost much of its luster to time. It retains some high-quality experiences, though. Soarin' remains a top Disney attraction, and while Test Track has been strongly bested by its technological descendant, Radiator Springs Racers in Disney California Adventure, it remains a hit ride. And let's never forget Living With The Land!
Like several other parks on this side of the list, a large overhaul of Epcot is upcoming. The addition of the probably off-theme Guardians of the Galaxy ride and the somewhat more properly themed Ratatouille ride will bring the ride count up to 11, putting the park well clear of the bottom of this list. Future World will also see large rehabilitation, but it’s unclear whether that would move the needle in our rankings.
Finally, I want to say that if I were just an ounce more entranced by beauty, Epcot would be near the top of this list. The number of awe-inspiring, stunning views you can find in this park easily put it in contention for most beautiful theme park in the world.
7. Disney California Adventure
California Adventure would be much further down this list if not for one big reason—Cars Land. Cars Land is one of the finest spaces Disney has created in the world. While we’ve consistently been disappointed by Toy Story Lands and we aren’t impressed with Pixar Pier, Cars Land is what a land based on a Pixar product should look like. It’s in keeping with the theme of the park, it’s immersive, and it’s just downright beautiful.
Outside of Cars Land, California Adventure has some other standouts. The ride count of 17 puts it in castle park territory, but it’s also partly lesson in “more is not always better,” as a huge chunk of the rides around Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens Park can be accomplished in about as much time as Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland will take.
Those rides aside, you still have to be impressed by much of the park’s heavy hitters. Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!, while having little to do with California, is a great ride. Pixar Pier—while not a great land—certainly looks great and boasts Toy Story Midway Mania! and the underrated (in our book) swinging cars on the Pixar Pal-A-Round.
Grizzly Peak is a second standout land (after Cars Land) from a design perspective. And World of Color is a unique Disney offering that many consider among the best nighttime shows.
Disney California Adventure will be getting a Marvel-themed land, expected in phases over the next few years. That probably won’t be enough to vault into competition with the top six, but it should at least keep it in contention against all the construction happening at the the parks beneath it on this list.
6. Tokyo Disneyland
This is really the turning point of the list, where it becomes less about finding faults and more about how Disney somehow manages to outdo itself.
I was told on twitter recently that to really appreciate Tokyo Disneyland, one needs a sense of nostalgia for Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. This is probably true, and it’s fitting for a park that some esteemed commentators have labeled “bizarro Magic Kingdom.”
It it's really hard to find fault in Tokyo Disney. It offers a lineup of about 24 attractions that largely mirrors the other castle parks, but with the added bonus of an improved Winnie the Pooh ride, Pooh's Honey Hunt, and Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek—an enhanced (and superior) version of the Disney California Adventure dark ride.
Then there are the smaller factors. The cast members in Tokyo are the best in the business (no offense to all the others, who are great as well!) The food, particularly the snacks, in Tokyo is legendary.
In these ways, Tokyo Disneyland is everything in a near-carbon-copy park that Hong Kong Disneyland isn’t. Where Hong Kong Disneyland held back on some of the most important elements of Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland took Magic Kingdom and made simple, positive changes. But that’s the only thing that holds it back on this list—the enhancements just don’t do enough to distinguish the park.
As Disney’s first international park, its unsurprising they didn’t swing for the fences with Tokyo Disneyland. The park is nowhere near the departure from norms that Shanghai Disneyland is, for example. And it may suffer from sitting next door to Tokyo DisneySea, which you should have noticed has not appeared yet on this list.
5. Disneyland Paris
If there were going to be a tie on this list, it would probably be in the fifth and sixth spots. While there are areas in which Disneyland Paris is clearly superior to Tokyo, it’s not at all clear that it is better overall.
Like Tokyo, Paris borrows heavily from the American parks’ attractions, and it has about the same number of rides (we peg it around 22, Tokyo at 24). The difference is really that Paris obviously tried to bring some new twists to the table.
Disneyland Paris was the first new Disney park either of us visited in 20 years. As such, it took some getting used to. But as we spent more time in it, we came to deeply appreciate the storytelling that goes on in the park.
The park’s castle is a standout. Remember—Tokyo kept the design of Cinderella Castle. But Sleeping Beauty Castle and Cinderella Castle wouldn’t work as well in Europe, where castles aren’t a rarity. The result is a castle that is unique and rich in design. The Dragon’s Lair under the castle is the single best use of castle space in a Disney park.
On the other hand is Discoveryland. We don’t love the aesthetic, but we don’t dislike it so much as to penalize the park for it. Jules Verne was French, and a land in Paris that pays tribute to the “godfather of steampunk” is a fine use of the space.
Disneyland Paris’s Frontierland is one of the rare Disney lands with a rich storyline itself, and you might not even notice it your first few times in the land. Adventure Isle is one of the best spaces to explore in Disney parks. Swiss Family Treehouse and the Queen of Heart's castle in Alice's Curious Labyrinth offer tremendous views.
Disneyland Paris its noted—not just by us—for its beauty. Every inch of the park oozes with beautiful detail. It also has some of the best sight-lines of all the parks, best probably only by Tokyo DisneySea.
In terms of operations and food selection, Disneyland Paris would probably be last on this list. But the things it does well are important, and it does them incredibly well.
4. Disneyland Park
What unites the top four parks on our list is that each has an ambitious theme with even more ambitious, park-wide execution. Let’s start with the elephant in the room—here at number four is Disneyland, and ahead at number three is Magic Kingdom.
If you want, just file this discussion under “you just can’t compare the most magical place on earth to the happiest place on earth.” We once had Magic Kingdom at #6. Now we’ve move it up to #3. That’s just how close these four castle parks are to us.
But we promised a ranking, and we’re going to deliver. Both of these parks have qualities that set theme apart from the other in both positive and negative ways, at the end, we give the edge to Magic Kingdom. Keep reading to learn why.
Disneyland Park is a fantastic theme park beyond its unique position in Disney history as the original, Walt-built park. The park, dedicated to the dreams, ideals, and hard facts that made America is a design masterpiece, packed with some of the best attractions Disney has to offer.
Like the three parks we place ahead of it, Disneyland executes amazingly on a challenging theme. Disneyland’s execution of that theme, though, is remarkably subtle. If you asked nine out of ten people in the park on a given day what it was dedicated to—what it’s theme is—they would probably only get as close as “imagination”—which honestly is probably more fitting these days.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a joyous imaginative place. But underneath is a story about America—about its past and its future, and about the dreams that drive the American spirit.
And once you really see that, you can’t un-see it. But part of the problem with modern Disneyland is that it’s trending toward leaving that behind. Toontown in 1993 and, most recently, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, exemplify this trend. Do these lands enhance the theme of the park—or do they just add space and attractions?
With an attraction lineup around 34 rides deep, Disneyland is a titan of a theme park unlike any other. By our count, the other castle parks range from 17 to 24—and that’s partly what helps Disneyland rank ahead of all but one of them.
What’s more, Disneyland has the best streetmosphere of the castle parks. Groups like the Straw Hatters and Pearly Band create a sense of Magic that you can’t really beat in any other park.
Perhaps the best thing that Disneyland has to offer is a lens on all the other Disney parks, especially the castle parks. So many rides find their origin and inspiration in this park. Duplicates like Pinocchio’s Daring Journey were born here. Ambitious interpretations like Shanghai’s Pirates of the Caribbean are still compared to the original. You don’t know just how perfect Space Mountain can be until you’ve ridden the Disneyland version. And let’s be real—Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is just an unbeatable dark ride.
3. Magic Kingdom
Magic Kingdom really feels like what it is—Disneyland 2.0. The castle is bigger. The park layout is much better-planned. Main Street, U.S.A. is a little fancier and little less small town.
On its face, Magic Kingdom is the castle park that stays most faithful to the original theme. Indeed, Magic Kingdom in its current state is more faithful to the original theme of Disneyland than is Disneyland itself. Disneyland has the originality points, but Magic Kingdom gets the execution points on this count.
Let’s dig deeper. Here’s what we used to say about Magic Kingdom, back when we ranked it all the way down at #6:
If Magic Kingdom has a fault, it's having to share the best attractions with three other parks. Star Tours: The Adventures Continue finds its home in Hollywood Studios, rather than Tomorrowland (where it is in other parks). DINOSAUR, Florida's technological equivalent of Disneyland highlight Indiana Jones Adventure, is placed in Animal Kingdom.
The blessing of space in Florida means that great ideas don't have to be shoved into every corner available to Magic Kingdom. Does this create a better guest experience in many ways? Of course! But do we think the individual park sits a little lower for it? Yes.
The me who wrote that had one word he liked to use behind closed doors to describe Magic Kingdom—sterile. In contrast to Disneyland, something just didn’t sit right with me for a while. That is to say, I understand how many Disneyland diehards feel. But things change.
Our experiences both in Magic Kingdom and in Disneyland over the past year have caused us to change our tune. Instead of looking at what Magic Kingdom lacks, let’s look at a key set of attractions it has:
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress
Country Bear Jamboree
Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room (also in Disneyland)
Hall of Presidents (we’ll call it the counterpart to Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln)
The presence of those first three—in Magic Kingdom and not Disneyland—along with the two with Disneyland counterparts creates a balance in Magic Kingdom that Disneyland lacks—the balance between running between 3-minute experiences and kicking back for 10 minutes for a bit of relaxation, away from the chaos of it all.
In truth, it’s a balance that’s more necessary in Florida’s climate than in California’s. But escaping the crowds, at least, is something that’s necessary in ever park.
By attraction count, Disneyland has Magic Kingdom beat. Maybe even by average attraction quality Disneyland has Magic Kingdom beat. But if I’m comparing the two and looking at piecing together the perfect day, I think Magic Kingdom has a much more enjoyable experience.
Are there biases here? Definitely. I’m exceedingly comfortable with FastPass+ and far prefer it to FASTPASS, for starters (most people disagree with me). I write primarily for vacationers, while Disneyland has a heavy tilt toward locals. And—not gonna lie—I personally prefer Country Bear Jamboree to Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
The differences here are small. I’m positive many people will shake their heads at the division I draw that put Magic Kingdom ahead of Disneyland. But when all is said and done, I think these parks are incredibly close in quality, but Magic Kingdom is a hair superior.
2. Tokyo DisneySea
We’re in disagreement on the top two spots because they’re just that close. For the sake of this list, we’re going with the actual author’s (Ken’s) opinion, which is that Tokyo DisneySea falls in the number two slot.
Tokyo DisneySea is beautiful. It is large. It is wildly entertaining. It has excellent snacks. And Tokyo DisneySea has the best attraction lineup of any Disney park, with replicated standouts like Tower of Terror (more interpretation than replication), Toy Story Mania!, and Indiana Jones Adventure.
Take out the heavy hitting attractions, and Tokyo DisneySea, still excels. At around 20 rides, this park has depth not found in any other non-castle park. It’s almost shocking to an American (or European) that a resort could have two such deep, strong attraction lineups right next to each other.
Sinbad's Storybook Voyage is entrancing. Fortress Explorations is far and away the best space for exploring in a Disney park (with S.E.A. tie-in to boot!). And Teddy Roosevelt Lounge will have a very high spot on our upcoming list of top Disney bars.
But Tokyo DisneySea is so much more than its attractions. Only Epcot, and maybe Animal Kingdom, can really match it in terms of beauty and awe-inspiration. We’re talking about a park with a land—not just one attraction, but multiple attractions and a restaurant—inside an artificial mountain!
If you stripped the parks down to their core mechanics—to attractions, entertainment, dining, and the “balanced day” I discussed above—I’d put Magic Kingdom ahead of Tokyo DisneySea (indeed, Magic Kingdom would probably be #1). If we were talking just beauty and the aesthetics of the place, Tokyo DisneySea would see stiff competition from Animal Kingdom and Epcot. But none of those parks combines these two parts like Tokyo DisneySea.
And then there’s theme. The “Sea” in DisneySea is played out in the park with the traditional “lands” being replaced with ports. These ports reflect the complex relationship between humans and the sea. Whether it’s the picturesque Arabian coast, the volcanic island of intrigue and adventure, or the bustling ports of the United States, Tokyo DisneySea reminds us of the role that the sea plays in shaping our minds and culture.
1. disney's Animal Kingdom
Putting Animal Kingdom in the number one spot is probably controversial to some and completely obvious to others. It has only recently escaped its reputation as a half-day park, with many still arguing it can’t quite fill a full day.
We can’t disagree that Animal Kingdom is, on an attraction-by-attraction basis, less demanding of your time than the other Disney parks. It does offer moments of greatness in its attractions, though. Kilimanjaro Safaris is a special attraction. Flight of Passage is often thrown around as one of the best theme park attractions of all time.
And Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, from queue to gift shop, ranks among our favorite Disney experiences. And let's not forget Tiffins and Nomad Lounge, two great non-attractions in the park.
The park also excels in the design and beauty department. It’s been pointed out in the comments that much of this beauty is natural, and perhaps the park shouldn’t get credit for that. Maybe—but much of it is created, and the park doesn’t simply showcase the natural, it integrates with it. The artificial beauty is on full display in Pandora—The World of Avatar.
But what Animal Kingdom does better than any other park, even Tokyo DisneySea, is tell a story. If you read the opening to this post, you would be reasonable to conclude that much of what was written was written with Animal Kingdom in mind.
Most of our meditations on theme are built around articulating two things: what Disneyland (and Magic Kingdom), Tokyo DisneySea, and Disney's Animal Kingdom do great and what Animal Kingdom does better than those other three.
Like Tokyo DisneySea, Animal Kingdom is truly about something. It’s about the relationship between humans and nature. And while Tokyo DisneySea does an excellent job of molding its ports to its theme and its rides to its ports, Animal Kingdom is better at fitting the individual rides to the theme.
I’ve written about this at length in my post celebrating the 20th birthday of Animal Kingdom, but the individual attractions in Animal Kingdom each tell us something about how we connect with nature. There’s really no escaping Animal Kingdom once you step foot in the park, and that’s what sets it apart from every other park on this list.
This post has been super fun to write! Hopefully in the future we'll be able to update this list. We’re always trying to get back to every park, and we’ve updated this post a few times.
But we'd also love to hear what other people think. As we tried to make clear, we're certainly not experts on theme park design. By our own admission, it's pretty clear we're missing out on some things. And our experiences might just not match yours!