My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Dark Rides

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

I’m entering the two-month countdown window until our next Walt Disney World vacation and as you can imagine I’m bursting with anticipation! I certainly don’t want the summer to end. I haven’t been to the beach nearly enough yet. However, there’s a part of me that knows that when this summer does eventually come to a close I’ll be counting the days until we’re sitting on the balcony of our Yacht Club room planning out our first morning in the happiest place on Earth! We always try to start our trips off at the Magic Kingdom so I pretty much know where we’re headed right away on that first day…straight back to Fantasyland. I’ve often said that Fantasyland is the true heart of Walt Disney World—so what better place is there to start?

When I think of some of my all time favorite Disney attractions, a big chunk of them reside in this section of the Magic Kingdom. Don’t get me wrong; I’m definitely one for the thrills. Nothing makes me happier than blasting off into the galaxy on Space Mountain, plummeting down from the top of the Tower of Terror or screaming backwards through Everest. But I think one of the things that set Disney apart from the rest of the pack is their perfection of the classic dark ride. Boarding a ride vehicle and being led through a series of rooms with the intent of transporting you to another time or place is something that Disney really does best. So, with a trip on the horizon I thought I’d take a look at my Top 5 Walt Disney World Dark Rides.

First let’s set some ground rules. Remember, this is my criteria established strictly for the purpose of this column. Some of you may disagree, but I thought I should clarify what I feel is a dark ride and what (for the purpose of this article) are not dark rides. That said, I’m not counting anything that’s on a boat as a dark ride. That leaves out Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, “it’s a small world”, Maelstrom, Gran Fiesta Tour, and Living With the Land. In my eyes, that’s another list altogether. To me, a dark ride consists of a vehicle either on a track or on wheels that takes you through multiple rooms featuring scenery, animatronics, special effects, music, narration, video screens, etc. The now defunct, and in this house very much lamented, Snow White’s Scary Adventures from the Fantasyland of yesteryear is a good representation of the classic Disney dark ride.

I’ve seen Space Mountain labeled as a dark ride. Not on this list. It’s an indoor roller coaster no matter how you slice it. Test Track is sometimes listed as a dark ride and I can see why, but the climatic race around the track in the outdoors reclassifies this fantastic ride as something else. Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is sort of a dark ride on steroids, but still, I definitely kept it in contention for this countdown. Figment is a dark ride. The Great Movie Ride is a dark ride. Ellen’s Energy Adventure, although one segment of it sort of fits, is not. Hopefully you get what I’m trying to say and will accept my terms so, that being the case, let’s get on with the list.

5 – Dinosaur - Disney's Animal Kingdom


The sign for Dinosaur explodes into the night. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

How could one of the most thrilling rides at Walt Disney World be last on my countdown you may ask? True, Dinosaur is a pretty awesome attraction with a truly unique ride vehicle and incredibly realistic looking animatronic dinosaurs. It’s also just…pretty darn chaotic. While I always find it a total blast, I feel the thrills overtake the whole notion of the ride “transporting” you elsewhere. (Ironic considering the ride purportedly “transports” you to another time.) I’m so busy being jostled and jolted that I don’t really feel like I’m someplace else. It is darn good fun though and that’s how it earned it’s place at number five.

4 – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - Magic Kingdom


The storybook caption reads: "Painting with dribbles that run down the wall is like doodling noodles that wiggle and crawl." Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

This is almost always the first ride we go on when we land in the Magic Kingdom. It’s the first attraction that all three of my kids first experienced on their very first trip to Walt Disney World and thus occupies a special place in our collective Disney memories. I still never tire of visiting Pooh and friends. Actually, I wish the whole visit to the Hundred Acre Wood lasted longer. The addition of the interactive queue definitely enhanced the whole experience quite a bit, especially Eeyore’s little stick house, the gophers, and the wall of honey. My favorite room of all is the “rain room.” If you grew up with Pooh or read the books and watched the movies with your children, this is most certainly the place to be, perhaps the happiest dark ride on earth!

3 – Spaceship Earth - Epcot


Epcot's Spaceship Earth. Photo by Chris Barry.

The dramatic symbol of Epcot also contains one of the all time coolest and most unique dark rides. Spaceship Earth is chock full of details around every bend. It’s also an amazing use of the geodesic sphere’s interior and always impresses me no matter how many times I’ve been though it. How did they get that Chevy Vega up there anyway? Spaceship Earth is a true Disney original and should never be missed. We ride it several times on each trip.

2 – Haunted Mansion - Magic Kingdom


The Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom. Photo by Chris Barry.

In many ways this is the ultimate Disney dark ride. The Haunted Mansion’s got it all. There are lots of rooms. The ride vehicle is very cool. It’s full of fantastic special effects. You’re surrounded by classic animatronic figures and lots of them. The song stays with you forever. It’s nice and long and the details are everywhere you look. I still find new things to look at, especially in the cemetery. In my opinion, it’s the gold standard. Every dark ride should be measured up against this one.

1 – Peter Pan’s Flight - Magic Kingdom


Peter Pan's Flight at the Magic Kingdom. Photo by Samantha Barry.

So if Haunted Mansion is the gold standard, why is Peter Pan my number one dark ride? Simply stated, Peter Pan’s Flight perfectly fulfills exactly what I like to believe were Walt Disney’s intentions when he started creating these rides for Disneyland. As soon as I get near the queue and hear the music, I begin to transform into a little kid again. It makes me feel young. It makes me believe that a pirate ship can fly over London, that there really are places like Neverland and that good can triumph over evil in the end. It accomplishes all of this in a mere matter of moments with simplicity and integrity. There’s nothing fancy here but it doesn’t need to be fancy. It just tells its timeless story. It’s classic. It’s beautifully done and it hits all the right marks for me each and every time I board that ship. And that’s why it heads up my list. Peter Pan’s Flight never fails to make me feel like I’ve escaped the real world for just a little bit. I can only theorize that these were Walt’s intentions, but I’d be willing to bet I’m pretty close to the mark on this one.

Walt Disney didn’t invent the dark ride. There were dark rides at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the great granddaddy of World’s Fairs the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Call me biased, but I think Walt and his Imagineers obviously took the whole concept to another level and perfected it. Even today, in this world of “everything has to be interactive” attractions, the Imagineering crew can still turn out a classic dark ride better than anyone else. Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid is a prime example and it was tough to keep off this list. From what I hear the recent additions to the California Adventure version have improved this dark ride even more.

At the heart, it’s still a very simple concept; let’s take you on a ride through a living story using music, animatronics, special effects and, of course, a certain amount of magic. Let’s shut out the rest of the world and go on a journey to another time or place, real or imaginary. That’s what people do on Disney dark rides every day all over the world.

These are my favorites. What are yours? As always, click on the link below; let me hear your thoughts and I’ll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    Peter Pan's Flight has always been my favorite dark ride. Nothing since it opened in 1971 has ever superseded it in my heart. I'm not a big Pooh fan but I do enjoy the attraction. I wish the MK's Fantasyland had more dark rides. AT DL I'm in dark ride heaven with Peter Pan, Snow White, Pinocchio, Mr Toad and Alice in Wonderland all there a few feet apart waiting for me! I found the MK's Little Mermaid attraction to be so underwhelming. What a disappointment, imo. I haven't ridden DCA's Little Mermaid since the refurb...

  2. By Goodnplenty

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    AT DL I'm in dark ride heaven with Peter Pan, Snow White, Pinocchio, Mr Toad and Alice in Wonderland all there a few feet apart waiting for me! .

    Beautifully said!

    Chris, I enjoyed your way of categorizing the dark rides. And it really has me thinking. My DH and I love dark rides. But I have to say that Radiator Springs Racer in DCA is an amazing dark ride. It's not the thrill of the fast outdoor race, but it's the amazing feeling of really being in Radiator Springs with the real talking cars that I look forward to. Your view of the Cars is at their eye level, you're not looking down thru the windows like you would on an ordinary car. And that gives you the feeling of actually talking with them, even though the town is right outside and you've been walking there all day.
    I completely agree that a dark ride should make you feel that you are somewhere else doing magical things. It's not about the best AA's, etc. It's that feeling that you are transported somewhere else.

    GnP

  3. By Riverdragon

    Excuse me for saying it, but I don't think any top five Disney World dark ride list is complete without Pirates of the Caribbean. I like all of the rides on your list, but I do not see all of them as top five. Especially not Dinosaur. I like it, but I can't help but compare it to it's sister ride, Indiana Jones in Disneyland and it comes up far short by comparison. How did POTC not make your list? I am baffled. :-)

  4. By DisneyGator

    I guess my idea of a dark ride and your idea aren't quite the same. To me, a dark ride is one that stay primarily inside, tells a story with great detail, and is slow. The whole water thing doesn't bother me - that's just the track or mode of transport. For me, Dinosaur is in the dark, but it's a thrill ride and not a dark ride. Whereas Pirates is a dark ride because it's slow and tells a detailed story. I would even throw in Universe of Energy, although I would classify it as a "lame" ride rather than dark. Even Splash Mt, which is in the dark and mostly slow, classifies as a thrill ride because of a few great drops. That's why it, as well as Tower of Terror, are my favorites because it tells a story in the dark and moves slow for most parts, but has a roller coaster thrill. But I guess that's where the argument lies. The rides you picked on your parameters are right on, though.

  5. By DwarfPlanet

    In the four trips that I have made to AK I have ridden Dinosaur twice. IMHO it doesn't even deserve an honorable mention. Dinosaur has so much potential if they would just slow it down a tad. But it is so chaotic that your not even sure what the scene was that you just drove through.

    I read your criteria of what a dark ride means to you but I am curious why only tracked or wheeled vehicles, leaving out boat rides? I can only think of two boat rides that would fulfill the rest of your criteria at the moment, Pirates and Small World. So I do have to argue with you there and place Pirates on my list.

    Actually I would have to make Pirates and Haunted Mansion both share the number one spot for myself.

  6. By Tinker44

    Never been to WDW (I'm a DLR girl)... but your description of Peter Pan's Flight and why it is in the #1 spot really resonates for me. The DL version is ALWAYS our very first ride... no exceptions. It is also our LAST ride (and yes, I start bawling even in the queue). To me, its simple perfection is how our family truly wants to begin and end our adventure! We are heading back in 18 short weeks and we will be joined by my SIL and her family. The last time they went, they skipped most (maybe all?) of the Fantasyland darkrides (my nephew was frightened, I think). But he and I have talked and I have told him about our tradition and that if he wants to, he can ride in the pirate ship with my son and I and experience pure magic. The shy smile he gave me makes me think that once again, Peter Pan's Flight will be the key to another amazing adventure!!

  7. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    Peter Pan's Flight has always been my favorite dark ride. Nothing since it opened in 1971 has ever superseded it in my heart. I'm not a big Pooh fan but I do enjoy the attraction. I wish the MK's Fantasyland had more dark rides. AT DL I'm in dark ride heaven with Peter Pan, Snow White, Pinocchio, Mr Toad and Alice in Wonderland all there a few feet apart waiting for me! I found the MK's Little Mermaid attraction to be so underwhelming. What a disappointment, imo. I haven't ridden DCA's Little Mermaid since the refurb...

    Someday, when I finally make my pilgrimage to Disneyland I too will be in dark ride heaven!

  8. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Goodnplenty View Post
    Beautifully said!

    Chris, I enjoyed your way of categorizing the dark rides. And it really has me thinking. My DH and I love dark rides. But I have to say that Radiator Springs Racer in DCA is an amazing dark ride. It's not the thrill of the fast outdoor race, but it's the amazing feeling of really being in Radiator Springs with the real talking cars that I look forward to. Your view of the Cars is at their eye level, you're not looking down thru the windows like you would on an ordinary car. And that gives you the feeling of actually talking with them, even though the town is right outside and you've been walking there all day.
    I completely agree that a dark ride should make you feel that you are somewhere else doing magical things. It's not about the best AA's, etc. It's that feeling that you are transported somewhere else.

    GnP

    I wish they would build Carsland in Hollywood Studios. I'd like to be transported to Radiator Springs.

  9. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Riverdragon View Post
    Excuse me for saying it,d but I don't think any top five Disney World dark ride list is complete without Pirates of the Caribbean. I like all of the rides on your list, but I do not see all of them as top five. Especially not Dinosaur. I like it, but I can't help but compare it to it's sister ride, Indiana Jones in Disneyland and it comes up far short by comparison. How did POTC not make your list? I am baffled. :-)

    I just made a call...to leave the boat dark rides off of this list. I think they warrant their own list in their own category.

  10. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    I guess my idea of a dark ride and your idea aren't quite the same. To me, a dark ride is one that stay primarily inside, tells a story with great detail, and is slow. The whole water thing doesn't bother me - that's just the track or mode of transport. For me, Dinosaur is in the dark, but it's a thrill ride and not a dark ride. Whereas Pirates is a dark ride because it's slow and tells a detailed story. I would even throw in Universe of Energy, although I would classify it as a "lame" ride rather than dark. Even Splash Mt, which is in the dark and mostly slow, classifies as a thrill ride because of a few great drops. That's why it, as well as Tower of Terror, are my favorites because it tells a story in the dark and moves slow for most parts, but has a roller coaster thrill. But I guess that's where the argument lies. The rides you picked on your parameters are right on, though.

    Hey Gator,

    I think we agree on our definition of a dark ride. The water thing doesn't bother me at all. I think the boat rides qualify as their own kind of dark ride. It gives me another Top 5 article possibility. The boat rides are all big time favorites for me.

  11. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    In the four trips that I have made to AK I have ridden Dinosaur twice. IMHO it doesn't even deserve an honorable mention. Dinosaur has so much potential if they would just slow it down a tad. But it is so chaotic that your not even sure what the scene was that you just drove through.

    I read your criteria of what a dark ride means to you but I am curious why only tracked or wheeled vehicles, leaving out boat rides? I can only think of two boat rides that would fulfill the rest of your criteria at the moment, Pirates and Small World. So I do have to argue with you there and place Pirates on my list.

    Actually I would have to make Pirates and Haunted Mansion both share the number one spot for myself.

    I don't ride Dinosaur on every trip. I'm really the only one in my family that enjoys it! But, when I do ride it...it's a total blast!

    Believe me, it was tough to leave Pirates off of this list, its one of my total favorites, but I wanted to draw a line in the sane and say that boat rides on this side and wheel/ track rides on the other. But, really I love both sides of that line.

  12. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Tinker44 View Post
    Never been to WDW (I'm a DLR girl)... but your description of Peter Pan's Flight and why it is in the #1 spot really resonates for me. The DL version is ALWAYS our very first ride... no exceptions. It is also our LAST ride (and yes, I start bawling even in the queue). To me, its simple perfection is how our family truly wants to begin and end our adventure! We are heading back in 18 short weeks and we will be joined by my SIL and her family. The last time they went, they skipped most (maybe all?) of the Fantasyland darkrides (my nephew was frightened, I think). But he and I have talked and I have told him about our tradition and that if he wants to, he can ride in the pirate ship with my son and I and experience pure magic. The shy smile he gave me makes me think that once again, Peter Pan's Flight will be the key to another amazing adventure!!

    Simple perfection...nicely put Tink!

  13. By safmouse

    Dinosaur takes the term "Dark Ride" a little too literally. It's so dark, I can't see any scenery, only dimly lit dinosaurs here and there. I suspect they didn't put in a lot of scenery for that reason. Too bad they couldn't combine the ride somehow with Primeval World at Universe of Energy.

    My #1 Dark Ride pick is World of Imagination. I know it no longer exists but I don't care!

  14. By DisDreams

    In a sense, Tower of Terror is a dark ride (that doesn't involve a boat/water). IMHO, It is one of the most immersive attractions in any park; from the entrance/grounds around the Hotel, the hotel lobby, boiler room and finally the fantasy effects in hallways. Up until the time one reaches the drop towers, I imagine the ride could have had additional scenes (turning the elevator car to view into individual hotel rooms) and more twists and turns in the hallways. And talk about dark, at one point, it is one of a few dark rides that gets pitch black/can't-see-hand-in-front-of-face dark...

  15. By carolinakid

    Has Pirates of the Caribbean gone down any notches in people's list of faves with the movie/Depp additions? It sure has in mine. Incredibly for me it's no longer a must-do every visit....

  16. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by DisDreams View Post
    In a sense, Tower of Terror is a dark ride (that doesn't involve a boat/water). IMHO, It is one of the most immersive attractions in any park; from the entrance/grounds around the Hotel, the hotel lobby, boiler room and finally the fantasy effects in hallways. Up until the time one reaches the drop towers, I imagine the ride could have had additional scenes (turning the elevator car to view into individual hotel rooms) and more twists and turns in the hallways. And talk about dark, at one point, it is one of a few dark rides that gets pitch black/can't-see-hand-in-front-of-face dark...

    I thought of the Tower when I was writing, but at its genesis is the free fall type of ride you can find in most amusement parks, so I left it out. Obviously the Imagineers went far and above any free fall ride, and yes I agree it is totally immersive.

  17. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by carolinakid View Post
    Has Pirates of the Caribbean gone down any notches in people's list of faves with the movie/Depp additions? It sure has in mine. Incredibly for me it's no longer a must-do every visit....

    Not for me. It's still way high on my list.

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