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During our year of traveling the world, we were fortunate to be able to make visits to each and every Disney theme park (and Disney’s Hawaiian resort, Aulani). 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 attempt to do just that.
Basics about the Disney parks
Let’s start by getting some basic questions answered.
How many Disney parks are there in the world?
There are twelve Disney parks in the world across six different resorts. Walt Disney World also has two water parks—Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach—but we’re not counting those in this post.
Where are the Disney 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 of 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.
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 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
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.
There's also the added challenge of comparing parks across resorts that have between one and four parks. For example, how much should Magic Kingdom really be penalized compared to Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris for not having Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, a ride that is instead placed in Hollywood Studios?
In general, attraction lineups will play a large role in our rankings, with bonus points being given for high-quality, unique attractions. When it comes to handling the problem posed by the number of parks, we stick to looking at each park individually. That is, Magic Kingdom does lose points for not having Star Tours.
Again, 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.
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.
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 theme park or 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.
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. 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. As we said above, we think the
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, lets 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 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, the ride 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 man 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 (arguably the most 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 and Crush's Coaster—it really lacks its own identity. Some of the best design elements of Hollywood Studios were taken and stuffed into Disney Studio 1, an indoor boulevard of shops and restaurants.
The addition of the French 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.
Disney has indicated some commitment as of late to improving this park, but we’re skeptical, especially given its past efforts to do so. It’s possible—even likely—that the new attractions and lands will be a hit, but the park is likely to remain a hodgepodge.
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 cultural.
More to the point, though, Hong Kong Disneyland is the park that suffers most from being an interpretation of Disneyland. It's the only castle park that doesn't really do anything better than Disneyland.
And 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 is unlikely to move the park up on our list. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge could bump it up a few spots, though.
While we're often among the critics of IP-grabs like Toy Story Land and Galaxy's Edge, there's no denying that they are quite at home in Hollywood Studios. 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.
Toy Story Land and Galaxy's Edge are committed to this idea. They continue the tradition of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (despite its aforementioned flaws), 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. 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 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.
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.
While it’s probably the park we’ve visited most, Epcot might be the park we’re least qualified to talk about. The park has declined from its glory years, which preceded us having a true understanding of Disney parks. To put it simply, we enjoy it—love it, even—but we don’t really get it.
One on hand is the World Showcase. Eleven themed lands each celebrating a different country. 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 Journey Into Imagination With Figment and Living With The Land.
Again, we just don't have a deep, working understanding of Epcot. And with a large amount of work seeming to be ahead for the park, it would seem that Disney has determined we're not alone. But hey, if you want to explain why Epcot is the best Disney park (surely one of you does), please go ahead in the comments.
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 excited about 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. Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!, while having little to do with California, is a great ride. Carthay Circle Lounge and Cove Bar don’t rank among our top Disney bars, but they’re nice for an escape from the crowd. And World of Color is a unique Disney offering that many consider among the best nighttime shows.
The attraction lineup is impressive and the theming is above average, but it's Cars Land that really takes this park to a higher level for us.
6. 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.
The creation of “New Fantasyland” between 2010 and 2014 gave the park a boost, creating space, bringing in some more modern design, and adding a modern roller coaster in Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Magic Kingdom is also home to two of the most famous Disney restaurants, Be Our Guest and Cinderella’s Royal Table.
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.
If you feel like #6 is a bit low for Magic Kingdom, let us try to put your mind at ease. 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. Magic Kingdom is a very high benchmark for a great park, and the parks we put above it are excellent to the point that there's no shame in sitting just behind them.
5. Tokyo Disneyland
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.”
The thing about Tokyo Disneyland, though, is it's really hard to find fault in it. It offers a lineup of 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 a unique experience in Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek.
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 but significant changes.
4. Disneyland Paris
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, with rich, unique design and a dragon. The Dragon’s Lair under the castle is the single best use of castle space in a Disney park.
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.
Every inch of this park oozes with beautiful detail. 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.
3. Disneyland Park
What unites the top three parks on our list is that each has an ambitious theme with even more ambitious, park-wide execution.
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 two 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.
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.
Perhaps the best thing that Disneyland has to offer is a lens on all the other Disney parks, especially the castle parks. You can’t understand Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom unless you’ve experienced Matterhorn at Disneyland. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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 knowing that Animal Kingdom took the top space. Most of the meditations on theme are build around articulating two things: what Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, and Disney's Animal Kingdom do great and what Animal Kingdom does better than those other two.
Like Tokyo DisneySea, Animal Kingdom is truly about something. It’s about the relationship between man 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 currently have plans to visit eight of the twelve in the next year, so there will be plenty of opportunity for re-evaluation.
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!