“March Madness” brackets based on non-baseball topics have been all the rage on social media for the past few weeks. While most have centered around picking the best songs in a musician’s discography, some have ventured into other fandoms. As a massive theme park aficionado, one that caught my eye in particular was a bracket for Walt Disney World attractions. In this post I’m going to detail every one of my choices that led me to choosing my favorite ride. First, here’s a blank easy-to-read version of the bracket I put together in case you want to play along (open the bracket images in a new tab if they’re too small to read or to download it):
At the end of each round I’ll give an updated version of this bracket. Ready? Let’s get started with a trip to Magic Kingdom…
(And I swear that after the first round these segments will get shorter. There’s a lot to say!)
ROUND OF 32
It’s a Small World vs. The Haunted Mansion
While pitting two of Walt Disney’s groundbreaking rides against each other in the first round of this bracket may be a heartbreaker for some, this choice is pretty easy for me.
The Haunted Mansion is a masterful Omnimover dark ride that perfectly blends frights and delights. Walt was insistent on his park having a haunted house but wouldn’t stand for some bog-standard carnival attraction. What he and Imagineering dreamed into existence undeniable succeeded at fulfilling that vision. The introductory expanding room and following journey through the mansion proper is chillingly creepy, but expectations are subverted once you reach the graveyard where you encounter jubilant singing busts and an array of charming strange apparitions. And you just can’t deny the brilliance of the hitchhiking ghosts that close out the ride.
Meanwhile, It’s a Small World is an attraction I love for its concept and historical significance (being one of Walt Disney’s 1964 New York World’s Fair attractions). A celebration of the world’s cultures is a necessary fixture in a park like Magic Kingdom that draws the spectrum of international tourists. The ride achieves this well with its detailed sets of accurate multi-cultural animatronic children joining together for the goal of world peace. Unfortunately, the attraction’s notorious song that plays throughout the ride makes It’s a Small World headache-inducing. Hearing the endless loop of high-pitched childrens voices singing “it’s a small world after all” for 14 minutes straight is enough to drive even the most steadfast soul to criminal insanity. While I do admire the way the track shifts to incorporate different culture’s musical motifs as you pass them by, it’s not enough to save this ride from being the most trying attraction at Magic Kingdom.
If you can’t tell already, The Haunted Mansion takes this match-up with ease. Even if you take It’s a Small World’s titular track out of the equation it would still come up short in comparison to the house of happy haunts. Add the song in and It’s a Small World itself becomes Disney World’s scariest attraction.
Space Mountain vs. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Now we come to a choice between Magic Kingdom’s two classic coasters. To be honest, coasters aren’t always my favorite ride type so my enjoyment of them comes down entirely to theming. Thus, the winner of this choice is the one that realizes its concept more effectively.
Big Thunder’s visage of a tall rock formation jutting out of the desert is one of the most striking in all of Magic Kingdom. It’s the ultimate example of a “Disney weenie”, drawing you in from afar with its silhouette and sealing your attention the moment you see screaming passengers whizz by on a runaway mine train. The ride itself is thrilling without overwhelming the senses, a coaster that is approachable in velocity even if it’s (perhaps fittingly) not the smoothest ride. The track layout isn’t particularly remarkable on its own but it’s elevated by superb mining expedition theming.
I can’t say I feel the same about Big Thunder’s competition. I’m going to be completely real here: I’m pretty lukewarm on Space Mountain. This coaster in the dark is essentially a wild mouse track and its trick of obfuscation loses impact once you come to this understanding. Much like Big Thunder, Space Mountain thrills are based on its theming rather than the prowess of the coaster at the center of it (which is essentially an upgraded version of a carnival attraction). After a few rides you start hoping for something more than simple darkness occasionally cut through by a sparing few planetary projections. It doesn’t help that I don’t find the single-file seated ride vehicles to be very comfortable. All of this amounts to a ride experience that I’ll gladly trek along on with others but otherwise wouldn’t go out of my way for, especially if lines are long.
What Space Mountain does have going for it is one of the best post-shows you’ll find in Disney World. Exiting the ride brings you past a series of small sets depicting intergalactic touring destinations. One in particular harkens back to Epcot’s ex-crown jewel Horizons, a reference my inner theme-park geek can’t say no to. However, Space Mountain fails to capture my imagination outside of this great finale and as such I give the nod to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Pirates of the Caribbean vs. Splash Mountain
Oof. Having to choose between Walt’s final contribution to the parks and the best marriage of dark & thrill rides ever created is the first heartbreaker of this bracket. If we were talking the best version of both rides at any park then this would be impossibly tight competition, but considering that Disney World has the best Splash Mountain and one of the weakest Pirates of the Caribbean makes the greatest log flume in existence the clear winner.
Not that I want to discount Magic Kingdom’s version of Pirates. It’s still an effective immersion into a world of swashbucklers and their foolish perils (even if I feel that the addition of Jack Sparrow throughout the ride’s scenes cheapens it slightly). The problem is that this is only half of the Pirates ride you’ll find at California’s Disneyland. Disney had to shove this version of the attraction into the limited space available in Adventureland after park-goers complained about its absence when Magic Kingdom first opened. Thus, the park’s spiritual successor Western River Expedition was put on the ropes and we got an iteration of Pirates that, while still very good, was a shadow of its big sibling. (Western River Expedition’s theming would later go on to be reworked by legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter into Big Thunder Mountain Railroad).
Meanwhile, Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain reigns supreme with more animatronics, effects, and drops than iterations at other parks. As I explain in an analysis of the ride that I wrote, this jaunt through the Briar Patch is a masterwork of reversals and theme park storytelling. Clocking in at a staggering 11 minutes, Splash Mountain has ample time to world-build as it ratchets up anticipation for the big drop with fake-outs and progressively unwelcoming locales. Plus, the dangerously catchy soundtrack lingers in your mind for days and that counts for a lot!
If Magic Kingdom had the full Pirates experience then this would be a more competitive slot, but ultimately Splash Mountain floats ahead.
Seven Dwarves Mine Train vs. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Seven Dwarves Mine Train takes this category with ease because I haven’t ridden The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and am completely uninterested in doing so aside from its innovative ride system. Meanwhile, Seven Dwarves Mine Train plays an important role as Magic Kingdom’s gateway coaster for young riders. With impressive animatronics, no extreme drops and the smoothest coaster ride you’ll find at Disney World, Seven Dwarves Mine Train is approachable while also not being a waste of time for older riders. It’s winning against easy competition but this attraction is not to be looked down upon.
It’s a bit puzzling that Winnie the Pooh was chosen for this bracket over opening-day attractions like Jungle Cruise or Peter Pan’s Flight. Ah well, I guess I won’t get to espouse my love of the oft-inapprorpriate improvisational wisecracking of Jungle Cruise skippers this time around.
Magic Kingdom Addendum: Other great attractions
Given that this bracket only allows for eight attractions per park, the expanse of Magic Kingdom’s offerings aren’t fully represented here. I already mentioned Jungle Cruise and Peter Pan’s Flight but other to-dos at the park include the hilariously inappropriate Country Bear Jamboree and the audience-humiliating Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. The nighttime fireworks show is something to behold as well (I was there for the opening night of the new show Happily Ever After which was cool!). If I’m being honest though, Magic Kingdom isn’t my favorite park at Disney World and from everything I hear, Disneyland has it better in all categories except Splash Mountain, Tomorrowland and castle size. There aren’t great non-reservation dining options and crowds can get unmanageable. I’d by no means skip the park as there’s plenty I do love; it’s just lacking in some areas.
Frozen Ever After vs. Gran Fiesta Tour
I have a deep deep disdain for Frozen Ever After. This ride is an open wound on the cultural celebration that Epcot’s World Showcase is supposed to stand for, shoving an IP into the space where the Norwegian mythology-based Maelstrom once stood. Essentially, the Norway pavilion has been transformed into a glorified Frozen hub. Norwegian culture is now simply a backdrop to sell people plushes of that dumb snowman. It’s not like the ride is any good either, being a mere re-skin of Maelstrom that feels poorly optimized for the track layout it was tacked onto. The only nice thing I can say about Frozen Ever After is that it draws crowds away from other sections of the park.
Meanwhile, Gran Fiesta Tour is an imperfect but easily under-appreciated attraction. This boat ride transports you to a photorealistic Mexican village populated by It’s a Small World-style doll animatronics (without the music). Juxtaposing this are the Three Caballeros who play out their goofy antics across video screens scattered throughout the ride. This element cute but a bit unimpressive, failing to play to the ride’s strengths. Yet Disney rides rarely get more tranquil than the opening stretch where you float past the pavilion’s striking pyramid and restaurant. In a world without Maelstrom, Gran Fiesta Tour is a solid example of what a World Showcase ride should be and wins on the basis of not being Frozen Ever After.
Gran Fiesta Tour may come out a winner here but we all know what the true best ride at the Mexico Pavilion is…
Spaceship Earth vs. Living With the Land
Spaceship Earth and Epcot are synonymous. This opening day Omnimover attraction situated in the park’s iconic centerpiece sphere takes guests through the history and future of communication. It’s one of the remaining bastions that stays true to the original mission statement of Epcot’s Future World: a vision of a potential future. That vision is of course inherently flawed as the future is a nebulous concept in a constant state of flux and most of the pavilions in Future World are either closed or a shadow of their former self these days, thus making Spaceship Earth’s role in the park more critical than ever. Does it feel a bit antiquated? Perhaps, but for a theme park nut like myself that’s part of the charm! I’ve got a lot of love for Spaceship Earth, even if I was feeling a little off-kilter from a mango mojito I had drank at the Mexico Pavilion minutes prior to riding last time I visited the park. 😜
Living With the Land wouldn’t have many fair matchups in the Epcot section of this bracket but that’s not for a lack of quality. Another rare opening day attraction in the park, this ride explains agriculture technologies to riders before bringing them through a greenhouse where vegetables actually used on Disney the property are farmed. I won’t lie to you and say it’s the most thrilling experience but it upholds the previously mentioned Epcot mission statement, riding through the greenhouse is fairly cool and it’s a relaxing escape from the heat and crowds. As an aside, it’s also the home (literally home) to one of my favorite Disney World creepypastas.
Spaceship Earth is an easy winner here but definitely give Living With the Land a shot when you next visit the park. There’s rarely any line so you can walk right on.
Test Track vs. Soarin’ Around the World
This is another category that would be a crime to many. Test Track and Soarin’ Around the World are the two highest tech, most popular attractions in Future World. However, the choice is not as tough for me, and if I made any enemies with my Space Mountain take then I’m sure to make more here.
Let’s tackle Test Track: this is an attraction that I by no means dislike but it’s a lot more shallow than the facade it puts up lets on. The segment of the queue where you create your own car on a touch screen is for sure a fun way to keep guests engaged during its often exceedingly long lines. However, the put-on during the ride that it’s testing your creations feels disingenuous with the “test results” being context-less numbers displayed at the end of each test. Frankly, I take the car creation as a chance to make the stupidest looking car possible.
Outside of this, the testing portion of the ride has some cool neon visuals and moments like swerving away from an oncoming truck are effective, but the “simulation” itself leaves something to be desired. The finale where you shoot down an outdoor speedway is basically “go fast on a thing” which is a fairly vanilla thrill. There’s definitely a real sense of momentum but ultimately it doesn’t phase me much. The post-show has branded photo ops and some cool things for kids like remote-control cars but, again, it’s not for me. It probably sounds like I hate Test Track and while I find the ride underwhelming it definitely meets the baseline requirements to be a fine use of time given short-to-medium lines. I just don’t buy the big hype. While I haven’t ridden them, the Cars-themed Radiator Springs Racers at California Adventure and Journey to the Center of the Earth at DisneySea sound like much more interesting uses of this ride technology.
Meanwhile, Soarin’ Around the World is a true jaw-dropper. This stationary simulator feels like you’re floating through wondrous locations around the world from the tree-covered mountains of Germany to The Great Wall of China to Monument Valley. What really sells the journey are the Smellitzers that produce the scents of each locale. It’s as immersive as it gets so long as you’re willing to suspend your disbelief a bit (but this is true of theme parks in general… be a kid for a day). It’s a simple concept that not only works but transcends and has to be experienced to be believed. Also, those with weak stomachs shouldn’t worry as Soarin’ doesn’t take the same physical tole that other simulators can.
If it’s not already clear, Soarin’ Around the World takes this one. I’ll go on Test Track if the lines are manageable or I have a Fast Pass, but I absolutely won’t miss out on Soarin’.
Mission: Space vs. The Seas with Nemo & Friends
I haven’t ridden Mission: Space as I’m scared it’ll make me sick and throw off the rest of my day. I’ve heard good things about its simulation of rocketing into space and I dig it conceptually but I’m unsure how I’d fare physically. That said, The Seas with Nemo & Friends is a snoozer that’s good for little more than a mid-afternoon nap. While I also haven’t experienced Turtle Talk with Crush, every video I’ve seen makes it out to be the far superior Nemo attraction. Mission: Space wins here on concept alone and hopefully next time I’m at Epcot I feel up to braving it.
Epcot Addendum: World Showcase
As a closing note, the main reason to go to modern Epcot is the World Showcase. The eleven cultural pavilions are incredibly impressive My favorite on a pure immersion level is the Morocco pavilion which feels like you’re walking through the streets of a city. It has all sorts of side-passages and was built authentically by natives sent by the Moroccan government (the Morocco pavilion is the only one actually sponsored by its country). The Japan pavilion also has a “Kawaii” exhibit with some fun anime stuff and I heard a Perfume song in there on my last visit which brought a tear to my eye (read more about my love for them here!). World Showcase is the real winner at Epcot.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror vs. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
Hollywood Studios only has three thrill rides until Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens next year. Two of those rides face off in the first round of this bracket but unfortunately for the Aerosmith roller coaster, few rides compare to Tower of Terror.
As a kid, I always heard the older members of my family talking about Tower of Terror as the pinnacle of frights in the Disney World complex. I was conditioned to shudder at the mere mention of it. The first time I rode it when I got older, the anticipation was high. The queue through the cobweb-laden foyer and dark basement were nearly paralyzing. By the time I was on the ride vehicle I was shaking. But nothing prepared me for what was to come at the top of the faux hotel as the elevator slid across the Twilight Zone-themed hall. You know what’s coming but there’s no turning back. And then, the drop. The thrill’s impact is a great release, but the real craft of Tower of Terror is the buildup leading to it. True to its name, this is the most terrifying ride in the Disney World complex this side of It’s a Small World, the yin to The Haunted Mansion’s yang. The fear never goes away and yet you keep returning for more. It stands amongst the greatest rides in existence.
Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is a worthy thrill ride in its own way. This high-octane dark coaster is the second fastest at Disney World after Test Track. The problem is that its theming leaves a lot to be desired to me as someone not fond of Aerosmith. It’s cheesy and visually outdated. This speed trip is something I’ll do given the sparseness of Hollywood Studios’ current offerings (and the single rider line is usually short), but the adrenaline comes with a strong serving of groan. Given that Aerosmith are far less relevant than when this ride opened in 1999, I expect it to be re-themed within a few years of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening. Yet even then it would stand no chance when paired against the scream-fest masterpiece that is Tower of Terror.
Here’s a fun fact about Tower of Terror: the backside is dressed like Moroccan architecture as it can be seen in the skyline of the Morocco pavilion at Epcot!
Walt Disney Presents vs. Star Wars Launch Bay
Given the dearth of offerings at Hollywood Studios prior to the Toy Story and Star Wars lands opening, it’s only fitting that it has a “nothing” walk-through attraction category as found here. Star Wars Launch Bay amounts to a few props, character photo ops and a theater where you can watch Star Wars clips. Whatever. Walt Disney Presents gives you a history of the man himself and the creation of Disney World. There are some cool models of the various parks and other relevant items on display. It also has a theater where you used to be able to watch a film about Walt but that’s been predictably replaced with trailers for upcoming Disney films, because of course.
Anyway, Walt Disney Presents serves a necessary purpose at Disney World and has some items of interest to theme park enthusiasts so it wins. Hopefully Star Wars Launch Bay is replaced with something of actual worth once Galaxy’s Edge opens.
Star Tours – The Adventure Continues vs. Toy Story Midway Mania
This is easily the toughest category yet. Star Tours and Toy Story Midway Mania are both top-caliber attractions, so much so that they’re anchoring entire new lands coming this and next year. Both are equally deserving of a win here.
A sequel to the original single-video Star Tours, “The Adventure Continues” utilizes a wide variety of randomized segments for the simulator to fly through, thus leading to 288 potential combinations. Basically, Star Tours is different every time you ride it. The enclosed simulation, though potentially nauseating for those with weak constitutions (read: very often me), is incredibly convincing and the “what will happen next?” factor makes each ride as exciting as the last. There’s also a specific place in my heart for the snarky droid scanning luggage in the queue. I’d go as far as to call it the best droid in any Star Wars thing!
Toy Story Midway Mania is the lone non-thrill ride still standing at Hollywood Studios. This interactive attraction has you playing a virtual shooting gallery game, racking up points as you try to outscore the person seated next to you. Unlike some modern rides that use screens as a crutch, Midway Mania is elevated by them. The virtual carnival attractions burst with personality in ways that could only be achieved digitally and it makes the games much easier to play. The caveat for Midway Mania is that you really need to ride it with a friend or family member to get the most out of its wildly competitive nature. Warning: grudges will be formed here.
As much as I love both of these rides, I’m giving the nod to Toy Story Midway Mania for its uniqueness. For my money, there’s no better interactive “game ride” out there. Meanwhile, as great and classic as Star Tours is, it’s increasingly becoming normalized in an industry flushed with simulators. Though, if we’re going off of queue game alone then Star Tours’ luggage droid is my #1.
Muppet*Vision 3D vs. Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
We’ve officially run out of rides at Hollywood Studios! Now onto the shows…
Muppet*Vision 3D has a special place in the Muppets franchise as one of the final projects Jim Henson worked on. In fact, he sadly didn’t live to see the project completed. Luckily, it’s a presentation worthy of that gravitas. The 15-minute 3D film is definitely a product of its early 1990s with all the stereoscopic pop-out effects and “4D” spritzers that were novel for the time but not so much now. Still, the charming antics and Muppet animatronics keep Muppet*Vision 3D relevant for modern audiences and a worthy ode to the greatest puppeteer to ever do it. Even if it’s starting to show its age, there’s absolutely a place in Hollywood Studios for this (especially since it’s the most kid-friendly attraction at the park until new additions come in via Toy Story Land).
While it’s not the Indiana Jones attraction I covet for Disney World to acquire (the Disneyland ride is one I want to ride real bad), Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is a spectacle in its own right. This audience participation show– an increasingly rare breed at theme parks– is genuinely breathtaking… the heat waves off of the explosions are that strong! Watching the stunt actors pull off seemingly death-defying feats in front of your eyes truly brings the movies to life. Given that The Great Movie Ride has been ousted from the park, Indiana Jones is the closest you get to Hollywood Studios’ original mission statement to show guests how the movies are made, and it’s one of the most impressive shows at the Disney World complex to boot.
Despite having been present in the park for longer than Muppet*Vision 3D, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular holds up better thanks to its live-action nature. Whereas 3D effects are dime-a-dozen these days, watching actors perform stunts is never not impressive.
Hollywood Studios Addendum: The Great Movie Ride
Okay, time to talk about The Great Movie Ride for a moment. The once-centerpiece of Hollywood Studios– both literally and thematically– got yanked out of the park unceremoniously last year in preparation for a forthcoming Mickey ride. If there’s one ride that Disney could remove from Hollywood Studios that would anger me more than any other, it was this one. Inside its recreation of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, The Great Movie Ride was a celebration of film like no other, complete with detailed physical sets, live actors that infiltrate your boat, and a climactic finale that chronicled film throughout the ages. It connected with my inner film buff to the point where I’ve broken down in tears on the ride. And now it’s gone. I’ll never get to experience that joy again and Hollywood Studios barely stands for anything without it. It’s cool that Mickey is getting his first-ever ride but that it had to be at the expense of The Great Movie Ride is deeply shameful. It’s an honorary winner here.
Also, shout-out to Fantasmic. Every park has a night show now but none can top this celebration of Disney’s heroes and villains.
Dinosaur vs. Na’vi River Journey
My last trip to Disney World was two weeks before Pandora: The World of Avatar opened and as such the only experience of Na’vi River Journey I have is ride-through videos. Yet I’m going to give it the nod here over Dinosaur because it’s far more compelling to me than Indiana Jones Adventure-lite.
Dinosaur took the exact ride system and track layout of California’s Indy ride and applied a prehistoric theme to it… one also tied into a 2000 film that was both a critical flop and has been entirely forgotten to the point where I doubt many people realize it’s based on a film at all. The Enhanced Motion Vehicle ride system wherein the cars simulate realistic movement over rough terrain is impressive but it’s in service of a ride that’s wholly underwhelming. Even a Bill Nye-aided queue show isn’t enough to save this one. The best part about it is that lines are short so it’s a quick way to get some cheap thrills.
On the other hand, Na’vi River Journey is the type of ride we don’t get enough of: a transportation to a magical place with no stakes or plot, just the calming embrace of strange nature. Situated under Pandora’s floating mountains, this journey past highly detailed flora and fauna isn’t burdened down by complexities. The indigenous wildlife are seen through well-hidden multi-layered screens throughout the ride. The “grand finale” consists of a Na’vi shaman that is the most sophisticated animatronic Disney has produced to date, and from videos it looks downright gorgeous.
That I prefer this ride I’ve watched videos of to a ride I’ve ridden multiple times across different visits speaks volumes to how mediocre I find Dinosaur and how intriguing I find Na’vi River Journey. The latter wins.
It’s Tough to Be a Bug vs. Avatar Flight of Passage
This choice plays out similarly to the one above. It’s Tough to Be a Bug is a 4D film based an a mostly-forgotten film that feels well past its expiration date. The iconic effect of bugs skittering beneath your feet is about the most value you’re going to get from this show. 3D films are dime a dozen at your local movie theater. It’s time for something new to take up residency under the park’s centerpiece Tree of Life.
While I haven’t been on Avatar Flight of Passage, everything I’ve seen about it has seemed staggering. Its queue through a military lab from the franchise looks to rival the best queues in the industry and the multi-sensory simulation of flying on the back of a Banshee has received widespread acclaim. Compared to Na’vi River Journey, this is less a ride I can make much of a statement about given its nature but I’ll push Avatar Flight of Passage onto the next round just because it’s up against an attraction I figure it’s better than.
What do the Avatar rides, Dinosaur and It’s Tough to Be a Bug have in common? They’re all based on totally irrelevant films! Quite the trend Animal Kingdom has going… (I really do love this park and Pandora looks great, though).
Expedition Everest vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris
If Star Tours vs. Toy Story Midway Mania was a tough pick, this one is downright criminal. Picking between my favorite coaster in the Disney World complex and an attraction that defines Animal Kingdom is the cruelest hand the bracket could have dealt in round one.
Expedition Everest is a masterful coaster, one that balances its theming and thrills perfectly. First of all, it’s the tallest mountain at any Disney Park, peaking at 199.5 feet (just shy of 200 feet so they don’t need to install an airplane beacon atop it). Given this, the lift hill to Everest’s peak is expectedly frightening as you get high enough to see other Disney parks way off in the distance. Then, the catch: the Yeti has torn up the track! You’re sent spiraling backwards down the mountain with the beast in pursuit. The only downside to the ride is that they still haven’t gotten the Yeti animatronic at the end working ever since it was shut down soon after the attraction opened.
All of this is why it’s rough that the coaster had to go up against Kilimanjaro Safaris so early. This transportation into the African savanna is as convincing as it gets. For the 20-some-odd minute ride’s duration, you forget that you’re in a theme park as your jeep travels through animals in perfect recreations of their natural habitats. There are no gates and natural barriers keeping dangerous animals away from the cars are all-but-invisible. It also has a penchant for the unpredictable, whether it’s seeing fun interactions between the animals or having a giraffe walk in front of your vehicle, halting your journey momentarily. This is no mere zoo but rather the apex of Animal Kingdom’s goal to place guests into the wilderness. Frankly, it’s tough to describe how great Kilimanjaro Safaris is unless you’ve experienced it for yourself.
While Expedition Everest never stops thrilling, Kilimanjaro Safaris is the most re-ridable attraction in the parks. Depending on the time of day you go you may be seeing an entirely different set of animals. You simply can’t account for what the living creatures will do whereas a coaster remains the same every time. There are merits to both and Everest is the pinnacle of themed coaster design but I just can’t deny Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Kali River Rapids vs. Primeval Whirl
Phew, we’ve finally reached the last choice of the round of 32! Sadly, we’re ending on a bit of a whimper as this matchup consists of a type of ride that I don’t much care for vs. a very bad not good ride.
It’s quite possibly been over a decade since I last rode Kali River Rapids. The spinning of rafting rides is a surefire way to make me nauseous and I have no desire to get soaked in the middle of my day at the park. That said, it’s a ride that’s thematically fitting and does what it sets out to do serviceably. But personally, I’m good without it.
Primeval Whirl typifies everything wrong with the half-baked DinoLand U.S.A., particularly the puzzling midway section that hosts this barely-themed carnival attraction. The entire area is a waste of space and DinoLand should frankly be bulldozed for a more interesting land (the dreamer in me will always hope for Beastly Kingdom). As for Primeval Whirl, it’s a wild mouse coaster like Space Mountain except bad. Rides don’t get more pedestrian than this. The one time I ever rode it, all I could think was “why is this in a theme park?” You may as well have put the restrooms on this list over Primeval Whirl. Congrats on the freebie, Kali River Rapids.
Animal Kingdom Addendum: It’s about more than the rides
While theme parks being about much, much more than the rides is true for every park, I feel that boiling Animal Kingdom down to its attractions is to overlook why the park works so well. Many people consider Animal Kingdom a half-day park due to its limited number of rides, at least prior to Pandora’s opening. Yet it’s the animals, architecture and walk-throughs that make the park (sans DinoLand U.S.A.) so special. No other Orlando park– be it Disney or Universal– so fully immerses you in its theming from front to back. You move through the wilderness of each country’s section seamlessly, needing to consult your map to wade through its wilderness. The best rides at the park are the ones that feel integrated into its nature. Rushing through this unique, ambitious park in a few hours does it a great disservice. Of course, at the moment you’re going to spend half your day getting onto the Pandora rides anyway.
Alright, let’s get caught up on where things stand before moving onto the next round:
ROUND OF 16
The Haunted Mansion vs. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Big Thunder is an example of how theming can transform an otherwise unimpressive ride into a stand-out. The mining town, animals and cavernous faux-rock formations make this attraction a classic it is despite its no-better-than-good track layout. The Haunted Mansion is the whole package, however. Every moment of the experience from the queue to the pre-show to the ride itself is exactly what it needs to be. The creepy old crypt moves onto round 3.
Splash Mountain vs. Seven Dwarves Mine Train
There’s no denying that Seven Dwarves Mine Train is an important addition to Magic Kingdom but ultimately it’s a well-dressed gateway coaster. It stands no chance against a behemoth at the pinnacle of ride design like Splash Mountain.
Gran Fiesta Tour vs. Spaceship Earth
I stand by my sentiment that Gran Fiesta Tour is better than its reputation suggests but Spaceship Earth is the Epcot ride, the park’s truest classic. I’m hoping the rumors that Gran Fiesta Tour is getting a Coco re-theming come true so that more guests give it a shot as at present the ride is a ghost town.
Soarin’ Around the World vs. Mission: Space
Given that I haven’t been on Mission: Space, Soarin’ wins by default. Not that it wouldn’t win anyway…
Tower of Terror vs. Walt Disney Presents
The apex of thrillers vs. a walk-through museum. Yeah…
(Walt Disney Presents is fine, though.)
Toy Story Midway Mania vs. Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular
While Indy’s stunt show is always a fun watch, it’ll never have quite the same wow-factor after your first time. On the other side of the coin is Toy Story Midway Mania which only gets better as you get more skillful at its shooting gallery gameplay. That longevity wins it this match-up although it’s a weird victory since these two attractions are difficult to compare.
Na’vi River Journey vs. Avatar Flight of Passage
I was able to justify giving the win to these rides I’m yet to experience because of what I’ve seen online vs. the underwhelming attractions they were up against. However, without a first-hand perspective I can’t make a fair judgement between them so I’m abstaining from picking a winner.
Kilimanjaro Safaris vs. Kali River Rapids
Given my high praise for Kilimanjaro Safaris and since Kali River Rapids isn’t a type of ride I enjoy, the jeep expedition eases its way onto round 3.
Once again, the standing bracket:
Now we’re down to the all-star crew. Time for some tough choices…
ROUND OF 8
The Haunted Mansion vs. Splash Mountain
A strong case could be made for either of these rides. The Haunted Mansion is a Walt-imagined classic that set the gold standard for dark rides. Splash Mountain is the greatest log flume ever built, not for its drop but everything that comes before and after (plus, it doubles as a great dark ride). The Haunted Mansion has this classic tune…
…and Splash Mountain has these…
As much as I love the creepy creeps with eerie eyes, I need my laughing place. The Haunted Mansion is forever a masterpiece but Splash Mountain redefines what a dark ride can be. Splash Mountain takes this hard-fought matchup, claiming its spot as my favorite ride at Magic Kingdom.
Spaceship Earth vs. Soarin’ Around the World
I’ve raved about Spaceship Earth being the most Epcot ride but I’d be hard-pressed to choose it over Soarin’. It’s an attraction that enthusiasts get way more out of than your average modern guest. I’ll happily admit that it’s an antique. Soarin’ is a modern marvel, though. That feeling of flying through stunning locales around the world overcomes any stigma of it being a screen-based ride. Soarin’ is the best that Epcot has to offer this side of the cumulative World Showcase.
Tower of Terror vs. Toy Story Midway Mania
Not that it goes unloved but Toy Story Midway Mania is usually placed near the bottom of the Hollywood Studios ride hierarchy. The truth is that it sits amongst the best attractions at the park. Second best to be precise because Tower of Terror is a force to be reckoned with. Rod Serling’s voice seeping into your ears as the machine you’re strapped into glides towards the drop is a fright that never fails. It’s a testament to Imagineering’s brilliance that they were able to take a simple carnival ride concept and build a narrative around it that reinvented what a drop ride could be. It’s a complete anomaly in theme parks: you won’t find anything like it anywhere but on Disney property. While you could say the same for Toy Story Midway Mania, it can’t compare to Tower of Terror’s might.
However, The Great Movie Ride would be taking this spot if it were still around. Yes, I’m bitter.
(Abstain) vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris
This one obviously needs no explanation. As much as I expect to enjoy the Pandora rides, there’s little doubt in my mind that they’d be losing this matchup to Kilimanjaro Safaris anyway. It’s the best ride at Animal Kingdom.
Bracket update time:
A quick note about the final 4 before we begin. The original version of the bracket had Magic Kingdom against Epcot and Hollywood Studios against Animal Kingdom but I’ve changed this as it makes the matchups more logical: thrill vs. thrill, experience vs. experience.
MAGIC KINGDOM vs. HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
Splash Mountain vs. Tower of Terror
Here they are: Disney World’s two best thrill rides. Both are impressive for their own reasons that I’ve already talked about at length, but add to it: the way that Splash Mountain integrates different singing voices into its animatronics as you pass by them gives the rider a constant sense of place within its world, and Tower of Terror’s randomized drop sequences give the thrills an air of unpredictability to catch repeat riders off-guard.
My choice here comes down to which ride is heftier and carries more gravitas. Tower of Terror gives you a quick primer on its story as it leads you to your fate and once you’re done plunging down it’s straight to the gift shop, no pomp and circumstance. Meanwhile, not only does Splash Mountain have its long, winding build-up but the dark ride extends after the big drop, including the ride’s most iconic scene. Just as it brings you into it world, so too does it lead you out of it with a fitting conclusion to the story. Basically: Tower of Terror’s story is in service of the drop whereas Splash Mountain’s drop is in service of its story. Splash Mountain is the fuller experience which buys it a ticket to the finals.
EPCOT vs. ANIMAL KINGDOM
Soarin’ Around the World vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris
Soarin’ brings you on a virtual tour of a savannah on its trip around the world but you know what’s even better? Going to the savannah yourself! Screens allow rides to take guests to places physical sets never could and when used well I’m not as opposed to them as some are (the problem is more the overabundance of screen-based rides). But you just can’t beat sharing a physical space with something.
Another note on these two are the off-ride experiences. Kilimanjaro Safaris’ queue brings you through the jungle in a sense but is ultimately bare-bones. Luckily its situation within the already heavily-themed park means an elaborate queue naturalistically exists. Meanwhile, Soarin’ is pretty lacking in presentation. The queue is a hallway and the ride room is very mechanical, just gargantuan ride machines in front of an equally large screen.
Add all this up plus the fact that the savannah trek is just the better experience in my book and this is a pretty easy take for Kilimanjaro Safaris, no disrespect to Soarin’ of course.
For the penultimate time, the bracket:
THIRD PLACE: EPCOT vs. HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
Soarin’ Around the World vs. Tower of Terror
Epcot is about World Showcase. I spoke about this earlier and it comes full circle here because as un-skippable as Soarin’ is, it can’t match the top rides at other parks. As such, it stands no chance against my third place attraction Tower of Terror, one of Imagineering’s greatest accomplishments. You’ve read my takes, you know why it’s good. No more needs to be said.
FINALS: MAGIC KINGDOM vs. ANIMAL KINGDOM
Splash Mountain vs. Kilimanjaro Safaris
Both of these rides deserve a win here. Splash Mountain is a complete mastery of a ride in the traditional sense of the word (as well as the best version of the ride across Disney’s parks) whereas Kilimanjaro Safaris is the definition of an immersive experience. For my money they’re the best two attractions at the Disney World parks.
A lot of my logic points me to picking the safari here as it’s timeless; never will it feel antiquated. However, the traditionalist within me wants Splash Mountain to take this because it’s the culmination of the craft. As I wrote about in my analysis of the ride, it exemplifies what makes rides not just thrills but a viable narrative medium. My heart tells me that Splash Mountain is the best ride at Disney World.
And we’re done! Here’s the final bracket:
If you gotten this far then you have no idea how much I appreciate your time. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it (even if the process was grueling). It’s my longest post here by nearly 3,000 words (coming out at a cool 7.4k). However, the effort was worth it to share my deep passion for theme parks with others.
If I’ve at all peaked your interest in the topic, I recommend checking out these theme park YouTube channels: Rob Plays, Defunctland, Yesterworld Entertainment, Park Ride History, and Rocco Botte’s Creepy Old Crypts podcast. Rob covers the gamut of topics on Disney history, trivia and more. Defunctland, Yesterworld and Park Ride History recount theme park attractions that have shut down (with the latter two channels occasionally covering changes to standing rides). Creepy Old Crypts features Rocco & Kevin of Mega64 fame having off-the-cuff discussions on different theme park topics while standing in the parks themselves. These are all amongst my favorite YouTube channels.
Thanks again for reading and I’d love to hear your own thoughts in the comments. If you’re knowledgeable enough to do it, I’d especially love seeing your own answers to the bracket!