My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Roller Coasters

by Chris Barry, staff writer
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Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.

One of my best friends and I have had a pretty unusual, yet beloved tradition. Both of us were born and raised in Queens, a borough of New York City. A short ride away from our home neighborhood of Bayside is our neighboring borough: the world-famous Brooklyn. And nestled on Brooklyn’s coastline just a stone’s throw away from the Atlantic Ocean is a little slice of amusement park history: the famous Coney Island amusement park, Luna Park. Towering over Luna Park is none other than the greatest roller coaster in the world: the Cyclone.

Now, this friend of mine and I always loved riding the Cyclone. As we started to get older and life took us in our different directions, we would frequently call each other up and say, “Let’s go hit the Cyclone up for a ride and catch up!” The strange little tradition that was born from these visits took place when we reached the Cyclones’ peak. Right before we plummeted over that gut-wrenching drop, if one of us had some major news to tell, we would take that opportunity to shout it out to the other. For example, “Guess what? Diane and I are engaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaged!” or how about, “Dear God, we’re having twinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnns!” It just became something that we did and the anticipation would certainly build up as we clicked and clacked our way up the lift hill. Sometimes it was nothing. Sometimes it was earth-shattering news. The point was, for us, it was never really a moment until it was THAT moment screaming down the big drop in Coney Island.

So, roller coasters and I go way back and are an important part of my memories growing up in New York. From the Cyclone to the Dragon Coaster at Rye Playland—and from the Atom Smasher in Rockaway Beach to Rolling Thunder at Great Adventure—I’ve always loved roller coasters. I may not be a member of ACE, American Coaster Enthusiasts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important to me. I don’t think I’ve ever passed up an opportunity to scream my brains out on a coaster track. Roller coasters have come a long way since the Cyclone opened in 1927. I don’t love the loops, but I’ll tolerate them when I have to. I much prefer the classic “out and back” type of coasters. Huge drops are great. Big speed is great. Corkscrews are great. It doesn’t really matter to me. In my mind, it's all great.

So as a major coaster fan can I satisfy my coaster sweet tooth when I’m at my beloved Walt Disney World? Most definitely would be my unrequited response. They may not have the biggest, fastest or craziest roller coasters out there, and technically, as I write this, there are really only five coasters on Disney property. Sorry, but I’m not counting Goofy’s Barnstormer in the Magic Kingdom as a full-blown coaster. And until the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is finished and opened, there are just five to speak of. That’s just perfect for a guy that writes a Top 5 column, don’t you think?

Like everything else in Walt Disney World, the Disney roller coasters are truly something special. Each of them is different and each one offers something thrilling for the rabid coaster fan as well as the coaster curious and coaster cautious. It wasn’t easy to rate them. But that’s the whole point of this column, so let’s take a look at my Top 5 Walt Disney World Roller Coasters.

5 – Primeval Whirl – Disney’s Animal Kingdom


Heading up the Primeval Whirl lift hill. Photo by J.Jeff Kober.

Essentially a wild mouse coaster with a twist, Primeval Whirl enters at the bottom of my list. As part of the much maligned Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama section of Dinoland U.S.A in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Primeval Whirl has certainly given me some laughs and some thrills. It is a short ride, only about 90 seconds once you make it past the lift hill. There’s a lot to look at as you whiz around the tracks. The big difference, of course, is the spinning cars. This does create a constantly changing ride experience since you don’t really know when your car is going to spin around or for that matter when it’s going to stop spinning around. A word to the wise: If you ride this alone, as I have on occasion, the spinning can seriously toss you around in your car. It’s a better bet to have another body next to you to sandwich you in. Primeval Whirl is definitely fun, but it’s not Disney’s best.

4 – Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith – Disney’s Hollywood Studios


Proof that a serious roller coaster can have a place in the Disney theme parks. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

You might be surprised to see this coaster favorite so low on my list. After all, it’s got a lot going for it as far as modern coasters go. The initial launch rocketing you from 0-60 miles per hour in a blistering 2.8 seconds is pretty intense. There are three inversions and this all takes place in the dark with cranking Aerosmith tunes in your ear via the ride car’s speaker system. It’s a total blast, for sure. But as I said above, I don’t love the whole looping coaster thing. If you like that more than I do, than I would imagine this impressive thrill coaster would be higher on your list.

The next two spots on the list were the toughest to fill; Choosing between two Disney classics wasn’t so easy, but I had to decide, so here goes:

3 – Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – Magic Kingdom


Big Thunder Mountain as seen from Fort Langhorn. Photo by Chris Barry.

Towering over Frontierland, Big Thunder Mountain is always one of my favorite sights in the Magic Kingdom. The rockwork, the trains whizzing by, in and out of tunnels, and its place right alongside the Rivers of America all make for fantastic eye candy as you’re enjoying your day in this corner of the park, and especially when you’re spending time on Tom Sawyer’s Island. The ride itself never disappoints. It’s fun, but not too crazy when compared to other coasters. I love the first lift hill through the bat filled cavern culminating under the waterfall. It’s a classic of true Disney creativity. You really feel like you’re whizzing around a western mining town and through beautiful mountainscape as opposed to riding a roller coaster. It’s old school, but to quote “Ollie” from the Disney/Pixar film The Incredibles, there’s, “no school like the old school.”

2 – Space Mountain – Magic Kingdom


Space Mountain looming over Tomorrowland. Photo by Julie China.

Choosing between Big Thunder and Space Mountain for these two spots was incredibly difficult. As much as I adore the Wild West coaster in Frontierland, there’s just something so amazing about Space Mountain that, for me, edges out Big Thunder. Maybe it’s the architecturally striking presence that Space Mountain has in Tomorrowland. It has what’s been called a timeless futuristic look that never seems to grow old and I never tire of gazing at. I was at the prime age of nine when Star Wars was released in 1977, so the whole space theme resonates with me and my childhood. I almost feel like I’m walking through the Death Star halls as I walk through the Space Mountain queue. The lighting creates the perfect atmosphere. It does what a great Disney attraction is supposed to do. It transports you. To paraphrase Star Wars, “That’s not a ride…that’s a space station!”

The ride is amazing. It’s hectic. It’s frantic. It’s pitch black, except of course for the fantastic strobe tunnel you enter as you get “relaunched” back into space and the star field floating above. It’s a Disney masterpiece and I love everything about it.

1 – Expedition Everest – Disney’s Animal Kingdom


The crown of Disney's Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

We return to Animal Kingdom for my number one spot. Expedition Everest pulls out all the stops for me as far as a roller coaster goes. The view of the “mountain” from across the park sucks you right in. Considering the fact that it’s not really an actual mountain range, it is actually majestic looking. As you approach the mountain the setting begins to unfold and you are clearly, as I mentioned above, transported to another place. The sheer volume of props and items in the ride’s queue just reinforce that notion. You’ve left Florida and you’re in the Himalayas. The ride itself is ingenious. As you begin the classic roller coaster ascent, you’re waiting for the big drop. Instead you reach the dead end and see torn apart tracks and then you begin your surprise plummet backwards. This coaster has everything. It’s got speed. It’s got drops and spiraling turns. It’s got incredible Disney attention to detail all throughout, and of course let’s not forget the tremendous Yeti. I’ve experienced him lunging at me in the early days and I’ve seen him bathed in strobe lights to give him the appearance of movement and either way, it’s an impressive figure. Expedition Everest is the whole package; a thrilling ride wrapped in classic Disney Imagineering creativity and that’s why it’s got the number one spot on my list.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought to construct this list. Granted there were only five coasters to choose from, so I didn’t have to leave any things out like I normally do. Still, choosing between the top three was especially difficult. I’m absolutely crazy about Space Mountain and never thought that I’d have a more favorite Disney roller coaster. Watching Everest get constructed was a tease of what was to come and when it finally opened, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

If you want more intense straightforward roller coasters then Disney is not your place. Head to someplace like Busch Gardens or Cedar Point or even Universal down the road. But to me, everything that I want in a roller coaster and everything I want in a Disney attraction all come together in my top three here. You can’t beat them and as I write this I’m less than a month away from experiencing them all again and I can’t wait.

Did I get this list right? What would you change? Click on the link below and let me hear your thoughts about your favorite Walt Disney World roller coaster and I’ll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.

Comments

  1. By mkelm44

    I'd have to resequence these a little...

    #5 Primevil Whirl- Going to just agree with you on this. Short and a bit carnivaly for my tastes.
    #4 Big Thunder Railroad- I find it goes a little too fast to enjoy all the scenery but not fast enough so that it's a real thrill.
    #3 Expedition Everest- Some of this may be that I've only ridden it twice, but to me it's a bit of a one trick pony... if you exclude the Yeti from the ride, it falls hard.
    #2 Rock N Roll Coaster- This is the closest thing Disney has to a true thrill coaster. The music gets you pumped up (I admit to being a bit of a classic rock/80's metal fan) and the inversions really give you an adrenaline rush.
    #1 Space Mountain- This narrowly beats out Aerosmith because it is the most Disneyesque. Not in a fantasy way, but in a controlled environment, thought out ride. I will give it a bit of the criticism I give Everest- it depends on the pitch black darkness as it's thrill, but since it is prevalent throughout the whole ride rather than at a single point, it's less of an issue. This one suprises you so many times, it's definitely the king of the mountains.

    Bottom line is that if you're looking for Coasters you better go to Sea World- but if you're looking for t hought out thrills, Disney is the better place to be.

  2. By ralfrick

    The last 2 summers I've been able to have lunch in Santa Cruz every week or two, so The Giant Dipper and myself have a similar relationship to you and the Cyclone. I expected RnRC to be higher, but won't argue that it isn't. I'm cool with loops, but also love air time, which is mostly absent here. It's hard to overlook Disco Yeti, though. Doing SR, the kid with me was telling the 2 behind us (mom and sis?) to watch for the yeti, and their reaction after the ride was "What Yeti? We didn't see any Yeti!".

  3. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by ralfrick View Post
    "What Yeti? We didn't see any Yeti!".

    We had a similar priceless moment with my Dad after walking off Everest. I asked what he thought of the giant Yeti. Same response, "There was a giant Yeti?" This was back when he actually moved too! Apparently, his eyes were closed just about the entire ride.

    Thanks for reading and for your thoughts.

    Chris

  4. By cbarry

    I love the term, "thought out thrills." I think Disney should use that!

  5. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by mkelm44 View Post
    I'd have to resequence these a little...

    #5 Primevil Whirl- Going to just agree with you on this. Short and a bit carnivaly for my tastes.
    #4 Big Thunder Railroad- I find it goes a little too fast to enjoy all the scenery but not fast enough so that it's a real thrill.
    #3 Expedition Everest- Some of this may be that I've only ridden it twice, but to me it's a bit of a one trick pony... if you exclude the Yeti from the ride, it falls hard.
    #2 Rock N Roll Coaster- This is the closest thing Disney has to a true thrill coaster. The music gets you pumped up (I admit to being a bit of a classic rock/80's metal fan) and the inversions really give you an adrenaline rush.
    #1 Space Mountain- This narrowly beats out Aerosmith because it is the most Disneyesque. Not in a fantasy way, but in a controlled environment, thought out ride. I will give it a bit of the criticism I give Everest- it depends on the pitch black darkness as it's thrill, but since it is prevalent throughout the whole ride rather than at a single point, it's less of an issue. This one suprises you so many times, it's definitely the king of the mountains.

    Bottom line is that if you're looking for Coasters you better go to Sea World- but if you're looking for t hought out thrills, Disney is the better place to be.


    Good comments. I do love the surprises on Space Mountain. Doesn't matter how many times you've been there, they still get you. By the way, I love the term, " thought out thrills." It sounds like a new Disney ad slogan!

    Thanks for responding,

    Chris

  6. By DisneyGator

    Rockin'RC at #4? I rode it once on my first trip/honeymoon in 2002, and it was all we could think about riding again while planning the next trip. That's a #1 to me, with Everest a very very close second. As for Space Mountain, if you were talking about the D-Land version, that might move it up the charts. But the WDW version seems slower and a lot more jerky. And my kids would definitely say Thunder moves past Space as well.

  7. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    Rockin'RC at #4? I rode it once on my first trip/honeymoon in 2002, and it was all we could think about riding again while planning the next trip. That's a #1 to me, with Everest a very very close second. As for Space Mountain, if you were talking about the D-Land version, that might move it up the charts. But the WDW version seems slower and a lot more jerky. And my kids would definitely say Thunder moves past Space as well.

    To each his own Gator. I knew some people would be surprised by Rock n Roller # 4, but I like a different coaster than a lot of other people out there. Sadly, I have no comparison on the Disneyland version of Space Mountain, because I STILL haven't been here. I'm working on it.

    Thanks for the response and for reading Gator.

    Chris

  8. By HelloBowlesHall

    Not a fan of Primeval Whirl at all - it just beats you up and is not thrilling at all. Everytime I exit it, I tell myself never again. I'll take Goofy's Barnstormer over that any day, which is the only other WDW roller coaster-ish ride I can think of to finish off a top 5. If this were bi-coastal there would be more to choose from...

  9. By davidgra

    Our family would rate Primeval Whirl as #1. It's the only roller coaster everyone wants to ride every time, mainly because it's the most "physical" of the coasters. What it lacks in theming, it makes up for in thrills.

    If we were to rate coasters based on how often we actually ride them (and how many of us ride together), it would go like this:

    #5: Expedition Everest
    #4: Rock 'n' Roller Coaster
    #3: Space Mountain
    #2: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
    #1: Primeval Whirl

    Of all the Disney coasters, though, Space Mountain at Disneyland wins the award for best overall coaster.

  10. By danyoung

    Your list and mine are almost exactly the same. The difference is that I'd put Space Mountain down a peg, solely because it's gotten so rough over the past 5 years or so that it now just beats the crap out of me. Everest is by far my favorite coaster anywhere, and I usually do 3 or 4 rides in a row!

  11. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by cbarry View Post
    We had a similar priceless moment with my Dad after walking off Everest. I asked what he thought of the giant Yeti. Same response, "There was a giant Yeti?" This was back when he actually moved too! Apparently, his eyes were closed just about the entire ride.

    Thanks for reading and for your thoughts.

    Chris

    +1 for the Yeti situation. I'm by no means a veteran, but went both last year and this year during SW Weekends in May. Last year I hadn't known about the large animatronic Yeti that has been broken for some time. This year (having found many references on-line) I looked out for it and saw maybe a glimpse as the light pulsed.

    I mentioned this to a friend of mine who was making what was his third trip slightly after I was there. He had never done Everest before (it wasn't built yet on his first trip and his kids were all too little his 2nd trip). After he got back and we compared some notes, he mentioned that the Yeti was only in silhouette. So obviously, he didn't see the one at the end, since he was referring to the scene right when you sit still for a few moments before you go forwards again.

    As to the original order, I might also put Big Thunder a notch above Space(admitting that I haven't actually been on Primeval Whirl). I'm not sure if it's just because it's relatively newly renovated, but BTM at MK seemed much smoother than I remember the DL version (I believe BTM was under renovation at MK when I went in May 2012). I agree with Dan that Space (at least recently - my limited frame of reference) slams you around more.

    (I had been on the DL version of BTM) probably a few times in late 2011 to early 2012 when I happened to be in the area and had free days. Maybe once the DL version is finished with the update in a few months it will be smoother as well.)

  12. By sjhanksaz

    Is Primeval Whirl like Goofy's Sky School at Disneyland?

  13. By danyoung

    Sorta. It's a wild mouse type ride, but with the addition of spinning of the cars as they go round the track. It's kinda like a wild mouse and a tilt-a-whirl.

  14. By sjhanksaz

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Sorta. It's a wild mouse type ride, but with the addition of spinning of the cars as they go round the track. It's kinda like a wild mouse and a tilt-a-whirl.

    Can you ride without spinning them?

  15. By Drince88

    Quote Originally Posted by sjhanksaz View Post
    Can you ride without spinning them?

    No. You basically have no control over the spin. You can see it from outside the queue if you really need to see how much movement there is. I do NOT recommend it right after a big meal. You'll notice it has a fairly tall height requirement, which gives you an idea that the forces can be significant. (And I call it Primeval Hurl at times, jokingly.)

  16. By DwarfPlanet

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Your list and mine are almost exactly the same. The difference is that I'd put Space Mountain down a peg, solely because it's gotten so rough over the past 5 years or so that it now just beats the crap out of me. Everest is by far my favorite coaster anywhere, and I usually do 3 or 4 rides in a row!

    I was thinking the same thing as Dan even after the refurbishment Space Mountain just beats the crap out of you. Now if it was the Disneyland Space Mountain I would put it number one.

    My list:
    Tied #4 & 5 Primeval Whirl and Space Mountain
    #3 Big Thunder Mountain
    Tied #1 & 2 Aerosmith and Everest

  17. By sjhanksaz

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    I was thinking the same thing as Dan even after the refurbishment Space Mountain just beats the crap out of you. Now if it was the Disneyland Space Mountain I would put it number one.

    My list:
    Tied #4 & 5 Primeval Whirl and Space Mountain
    #3 Big Thunder Mountain
    Tied #1 & 2 Aerosmith and Everest

    The updated space mountain at Disneyland is an A+ ride. Did the one at Walt Disney World not get updated too?

  18. By Drince88

    Quote Originally Posted by sjhanksaz View Post
    The updated space mountain at Disneyland is an A+ ride. Did the one at Walt Disney World not get updated too?

    I don't think They replaced the entire track and supports at WDW. Plus, I'm not sure of the construction of DL Space, but WDW space is tubular, like DL's Matterhorn.

  19. By sjhanksaz

    Quote Originally Posted by Drince88 View Post
    I don't think They replaced the entire track and supports at WDW. Plus, I'm not sure of the construction of DL Space, but WDW space is tubular, like DL's Matterhorn.

    A couple of years ago Disneyland's space mountain track was gutted. They re worked the whole coaster. The new one runs a different layout. It is so smooth it is great. You really feel like you are zooming through space. A real improvement over what it used to be.

    I wish Matterhorn could have a similar redo

  20. By Drince88

    I agree, the first time I rode DL's space after the redo, it was soooooo smoooooth! WDW's version just beats me up! It is RARE that I don't have bruises after I ride it.

  21. By indyjones

    I wonder if it's an East Coast / West Coast thing, but I really dislike Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom. In fact we used to not even go it before they recently redid it.
    Space Mountain at Disneyland is just such a better ride. That said

    5 - Privmevil Whirl
    4 - Space Mountain
    3 - Thunder Mountain
    Tied for 1/2 - Rock n Roller Coaster and Expedition Everest.

    Now if you are talking a "nighttime experience" then Everest edges out Rock n Roller Coaster.

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