Disney Parks have undergone drastic changes from 1955 through today. Restaurants have swapped out several times over, there’s no place to pet goats and technology has advanced attractions well beyond what the first Disneyland guests could have ever imagined. There are rides, restaurants, and lands that have stood the test of time though, chief among them being dark rides. What makes these classic rides so timeless and which dark rides are best? Michaela and Andrew are here to hash it out, drafting five dark rides each.
Andrew: Both of us have an affinity for dark rides, Michaela. Whether it be those originals from Disneyland’s opening day or rides created in the last few years, I’m drawn to that style of storytelling and the variety of ride systems. I also have an affinity for drafting things, a passion that we might not share. But I do plan to force my love of drafting things on you, starting with this post.
Before we get to all of that, we need some ground rules:
- Five picks each, You pick first then we alternate.
- We’ll keep it simple and stick to Disneyland and Walt Disney World dark rides despite how much I’d love to ride Mystic Manor, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt or Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage at this very moment.
- No duplicates, meaning if you draft a ride that’s in both Disneyland and Disney World then I can’t draft the same ride.
- No kicks to the groin, home for dinner.
Now the big question(s) before this event of the century… What constitutes a dark ride?
Michaela: Well Andrew I think the most important aspect about a dark ride is that it’s pretty dimly lit during the attraction. They also specialize in storytelling as opposed to thrilling the rider with speed or other erratic movements (looking at you Star Tours). The focus is on the story elements, whether it be characters, sets, or soundtracks.
While I may not have the experience that you have when it comes to drafting things, I know what I want and I don’t plan on letting you near my go-to dark rides. It is very kind of you to let me begin, and in doing so I will take the best dark ride ever created.
Pick One (Michaela): The Haunted Mansion
I have a feeling you saw this one coming. The Haunted Mansion is one of the most famous dark rides of all time. It is also my favorite Disney ride next to the Matterhorn. I can’t tell you exactly when my love for this ride began, but it’s ominous presence in both Disneyland and WDW always caught my attention as a child.
The ride’s story is the best of both worlds because of its ability to merge scary and funny. It gives you the adrenaline of fear and the joy of comedy simultaneously. One thing that makes me want to ride again and again is the cast of kooky ghosts that haunt the Mansion. I could talk all day about the Ghost Host and whoever is holding that candlestick in the hallway. But, as a Disney history buff, the piece du resistance in the (Disneyland) Mansion is the Hatbox Ghost. Hopefully he will be added in Florida come WDW’s 50th anniversary in 2021.
The sets in the Haunted Mansion are so detailed that you can see new things almost every ride-through, and this triples during the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay during the holiday season. The Tim Burton movie melds so well with the Mansion’s themes that it feels more like an entirely new ride rather than a simple overlay.
What holds the entire attraction together (in my oh-so-humble opinion) is the soundtrack. The Haunted Mansion’s song ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ is to die for, and I may or may not know all of the lyrics. And, the stretching room pre-show gives the Mansion even more depth and uniqueness. A pre-show isn’t something that many dark rides have!
All in all, the Haunted Mansion is everything good about dark rides all rolled into one. I think there is only one other dark ride that matches the Mansion in quality, character and story. and I’m almost positive it will be your first pick.
Pick One (Andrew): Pirates of the Caribbean
A very strong first pick my young Padawan. Haunted Mansion is incredible, there’s no arguing that. My (evil?) intention behind you defining a dark ride paid off though, as I wasn’t sure if my first pick would be allowed. Thankfully it does and Pirates of the Caribbean is the obvious choice.
Not only is Pirates an incredible dark ride, it might be Disney’s best attraction in general. Forget the Disney World version for a second because why did they do that?? Disneyland’s Pirates is a work of art, with such an absurd amount of detail in every scene that even a ghost would blush. On first ride through it’s astonishing just how incredible Pirates looks.
I’m all for things simply looking good but all of the subsequent rides on the attraction dig you deeper into the story and Disney history. The best dark rides not only tell a story well but also have a level of zaniness to them. Both the Mansion and Pirates have this element. Pirates of the Caribbean has an insane story of seeing a pirate’s skeleton and then taking you down a waterfall, representing going back in time. From there you can see this pirate’s demise, among other things, before heading back up a waterfall to represent going back to present day. It’s an incredible achievement in storytelling, one that I don’t think will ever be topped in theme park attractions.
I know your pick was called the Haunted Mansion but my attraction might actually be haunted. The legend of George, a man who fell to his death while creating Disney World’s Pirates, has spread for many years. While this isn’t the time and place to get into ghost stories, legends like this surround Pirates and will go on forever, adding a spooky element to the ride. As if watching pirates ripped apart by their greed wasn’t enough.
While I’m not overly fond of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, I’ll point out that it made 4.5 billion dollars while the movie inspired by your pick is hopefully wiped off the face of the earth.
Let’s move on to round 2. With the two obvious picks off the board, I’m curious where you’ll go next. For the sake of our loyal readers, maybe we shouldn’t write 5 paragraphs about each pick? (I will do whatever it takes to defend my draft, including writing thousands upon thousands of words.)
Michaela: My apologies for the length, the Mansion makes me wordy. I will try to keep my explanations concise (probably won’t happen).
Pirates was the obvious choice, and definitely deserving of your first pick. My next choice is calculated, let’s hope it turns out well for me.
Pick 2 (Michaela): Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
This ride is an amazing whirlwind. It takes crazy characters and a crazy story and throws you right in the middle. There are a couple of reasons why I chose Toad. One, I’m pretty sure Andrew really likes it so I wanted to annoy him. Two, I think it’s the best dark ride in Fantasyland. The brick facade is beautiful, and inside you get hit by a train.
I happened to come across the live-action Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride movie (1996) about a year ago, and it makes the attraction even more hilarious (no I have not seen the animated stuff, I’m sorry). Mr. Toad’s is one of those attractions that was built for another generation of people, but now we get to enjoy its zaniness and the trip to hell in the 21st century.
I think Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is one of the best dark rides because it’s surprising. It doesn’t simply follow the script of a Disney movie like The Little Mermaid dark ride or Peter Pan. It’s original, witty, and often has a shorter wait time than others!
Alright, I’m through. And your next choice is??
Andrew: Stealing Mr. Toad from me? I thought I said no kicks to the groin! Very good pick but you did leave a classic that I have to take.
Pick Two (Andrew): Peter Pan’s Flight
When people think of dark rides, Peter Pan’s Flight is one of the first to come to mind. Forever a staple in Fantasyland, the attraction takes guests soaring through London and Neverland. Despite being an original Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attraction, the visuals are still stunning all these years later.
There is a book report element to the attraction but I’d argue the attraction does more than that in two ways. The first of which is the ride system. Most of Fantasyland’s dark rides take guests zooming around on a track while Peter Pan’s Flight has you soaring through the air. The implementation of taking one of the film’s most memorable scenes and making it the focal point of the ride is what makes the ride iconic.
The second way Peter Pan’s Flight differs from a book report attraction is by putting guests in the story instead of going through the story. For example, the Little Mermaid attraction has guests skipping from scene to scene almost randomly. Once up in the air in London and Neverland you have entered the world of Peter Pan. Both of those reasons have kept the attraction timeless.
Admittedly, the wait times here are long but that speaks to the attraction’s popularity. If we’re simply talking about the best dark rides then Peter Pan’s Flight has easily earned its spot at the top of the list.
I’d say we’re pretty even through two rounds. What’s your next pick?
Michaela: My next pick is easy. And while I do respect Peter Pan’s Flight as it is very popular, it doesn’t give me the shock and awe I need from a slow moving ride.
Pick 3 (Michaela) Spaceship Earth: Better known to me as ‘the giant golf ball ride’ when I was younger, Spaceship Earth has always held a special place in my heart. There are so many things to love about this ride.
First, the entire attraction is built within a gigantic sphere. It’s amazing to think that all of those sets and omnimover vehicles could fit in there! Secondly, I’m actually a very big fan of Spaceship Earth’s rather outdated interior. To me, age does not make a Disney attraction old. Rather, it showcases the history of technology and of Disney Imagineering. This ride too perfectly reflects Walt’s want for Epcot to be educational as well as entertaining.
Yes, Spaceship Earth does have its downsides. The animatronics aren’t nearly as impressive as Ms. Avatar Lady, and the downward spiral of the ride consists of weird lights and a video featuring god awful photographs of riders. But, that does not take away its charm. My personal favorite part of the ride is the very top of the sphere, with the projection of the Earth. I always leave that ride with so much optimism for human kind, and that’s not a feeling I can find very often.
Here is to hoping that the planned refurbishment of Spaceship Earth preserves its history and message while updating only where it’s needed.
And now, for my dueling partner:
Andrew: A strong pick and one that can improve over the years if they get rid of the terrible ending to the ride.
Pick 3 (Andrew): Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin
I’m going a little off script here with my third pick. Pirates is a haunting and beautiful ride, Peter Pan is a classic that takes you soaring through the air. It’s time to get a little bit weird and go with Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.
Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are related in their spooky, detailed ways. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin are similarly related under the name of “What in the world did I just ride?” Consider these plot points:
- Barrels of Dip are dumped into the street causing cars to spin out of control.
- The cab (the ride vehicle) crashes through a china shop run by a bull.
- Roger Rabbit has an electricity fight with a character named Psycho.
- Jessica Rabbit is kidnapped and put in a trunk before freeing herself and attacking weasels.
I could go on… All of this is happening while there are a ridiculous amount of references made and the car is spinning like a teacup. Inject these weird theme park rides right into my veins.
A bonus here: You can FastPass this attraction at Disneyland so there’s no waiting in line, Michaela! That said, the queue is pretty cool. We’re getting into the later rounds, I’m nervous about where you’re going next.
Michaela: A FastPass?? That’s something I should have taken advantage of the last time I was at Disneyland, Roger Rabbits honestly had the longest line we waited in. I commend your choice, it probably would have been mine if you hadn’t stolen it (jerk!).
This next choice was the hardest by far. There were many directions I could have gone, but your latest podcast episode sealed the deal. I present what Andrew thinks is one of the most underrated dark rides at Disneyland!
Pick 4 (Michaela): Alice In Wonderland
I have never actually seen either the animated or live-action movies with the same name, but I still think Alice is extremely enjoyable. It has a couple elements that made it beat out a couple of my other choices for this pick.
One, its outdoor portion. I love rides that break the status quo, and popping those caterpillar vehicles onto the roof of the ride I think is brilliant. It also gives riders a unique view of the Matterhorn, which I’m always keen on staring at. Alice In Wonderland is also home to some zany characters like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. They’re an absolute hoot, and like Roger Rabbit’s and Mr. Toad’s I always leave the ride thinking ‘what just happened?’
This ride received an extensive refurbishment in 2014, so even though it is one of the older rides in the park the animatronics are delightful and the colors in the scenes are bright and loud. This I think sets it apart from other dark rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which takes dark to a whole new level.
Andrew: Using my own words against me? A great move as that was probably where I would have gone next. I was debating between Alice and Snow White for my next pick so you made it easy.
Pick 4 (Andrew): Snow White’s Scary Adventures
Michaela already pointed out the negative here – Snow White’s Scary Adventures is very old and looks like it in some parts of the ride. There are many positives to outweigh that though.
Based on Disney’s first animated film and princess, the attraction makes an odd but very intriguing choice: Riders don’t see Snow White. Instead guests are seeing from the viewpoint of Snow White. We roll through the Seven Dwarfs cottage and everything looks bright and cheerful. Then we meet the Evil Queen and the attraction gets frightening.
Whether it’s the Queen’s Castle or the striking forest, there’s no shortage of terrifying visuals. Eventually, the Queen offers guests the poison apple before falling to her death. There aren’t many attractions where we see characters die so credit where credits due here.
The Evil Queen animatronic still looks great all of these years later. Another fun fact about the ride is that the apple the Queen offers guests is now a projection because people always used to reach out and grab the physical golden apple. Snow White’s Scary Adventures is a surprisingly scary, timeless dark ride that’s full of history.
Alright, last pick! What are you going with?
Michaela: Hmmm… this is a toughy too. I feel like my final pick should have impact, but with most of the best dark rides already chosen it’s hard to find one that fits the bill. I have chosen a ride that either people adore, or people hate.
Pick 5 (Michaela): It’s A Small World
Start the music folks! It’s one of the most classic Disney rides in the entire world! While it’s not very dark inside, it has a very similar ride system to Pirates so I’m calling it good.
This ride has Walt written all over it. It has such a hopeful, beautiful message. Some people may think the child animatronics are creepy, but I think they’re absolutely adorable.
Small World is also a fantastic way to get away from the heat. It’s a good 15 minute boat ride in giant air conditioned show buildings, the enjoyable scenes and song are simply an added bonus! I love the Christmas overlay in Disneyland, and the animal topiaries that call the Small World entrance their home.
It’s A Small World may not be as exciting as Mr. Toad’s or as entertaining as the Haunted Mansion, but that doesn’t stop it from being a Disney classic.
Andrew: I see that we’re bending the rules with our last pick. Good to know… Ladies and gentlemen, I give you an actual excerpt from this blog post to let you know there is a cheater in our midst. When I asked Michaela what constitutes a dark ride she followed with:
Michaela: Well Andrew I think the most important aspect about a dark ride is that it’s pretty dimly lit during the attraction.
Aha! From the horse’s mouth. (Am I using that phrase correctly? Is that even a phrase?) I am one of the people that adores Small World, spending a good amount of time on it in our latest trip report. In other words, good pick even if with it being controversial.
Pick 5 (Andrew):
Space Mountain Radiator Springs Racers Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
Look, I’ll toe the line but I refuse to jump over. Space Mountain is dark. Radiator Springs Racers contains a dark ride inside of the entire attraction. I’m no cheater though and settled on Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, an omnimover and an entirely dark ride.
With my other picks I leaned into the classic rides, now I’ll jump into this century with interactivity and a good amount of fun. Astro Blasters still contains some cool animatronics and figures throughout. It also has the rider be a participant instead of simply an observer, my preferred route when it comes to theme park storytelling. Saving the world from evil emperors is always a noble cause and you best believe I’m hyper-focused when trying to take down Zurg.
At this point I consider Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters underrated. The line is never that long, especially at Disneyland, and I always have fun on it no matter who I’m riding with. I should specify that I’m picking the Disneyland version of this attraction because handheld blasters > stationary blasters.
We made it! I’m pleased with my choices but, considering how much trash talking there was outside of the public eye, I think you’re pleased as well?
Michaela: I am very pleased. And I want you to know when you google dark ride the FIRST attraction that shows up is It’s A Small World. Small World is not comparable to Space Mountain or Radiator Springs Racers because Small World is just about the slowest ride in the park.
I do not think I was a cheater, we can let the readers decide that. You’re really stretching it with Buzz, I’d call you more of a cheater because of its interactivity. If Buzz is a dark ride then so is Toy Story Midway Mania, which would have been a top pick of mine. But, I understand your frustration in not being able to add Small World to your drafted list. Unfortunate for you indeed.
Overall I think it ended up being a pretty fair fight. Which, when Disney parks have such a variety of amazing dark rides, that conclusion isn’t difficult. I am glad that this draft is only virtual because I can’t imagine never riding Pirates Of The Caribbean again. I look forward to our next draft, where you will surely be schooled.
Andrew: Who cares about Google? And Buzz is different from Toy Story Mania because the latter is all screens, interactivity and nothing else. There’s no story. That’s why I didn’t pick it! 😉
Stretching of the rules aside in the last round, it was a fun and mostly fair draft. I’ll admit that you ended up with a very strong lineup. Looking forward to the next draft! Thanks to all for reading along with our ramblings and trash talking.
Where did we (mostly Michaela) go wrong? Let us know in the comments below. Thank you for reading Wandering in Disney! If you enjoy what you’re reading please subscribe to the blog and like our social media pages. You can do both of those things on the right side of this page. Have a great day!