Home » 20 Incredible Disney Attractions That Changed Theme Park Rides Forever

20 Incredible Disney Attractions That Changed Theme Park Rides Forever

Star Tours

Walt Disney had grand ambitions for Disneyland. He wanted to do much more than simply entertain – instead, he wanted to educate guests and influence the future development of the world itself. The early years of the park were marked by frantic expansion and rapid innovation, with Disney’s Imagineers inventing new ride systems and special effects at a furious pace. Things have calmed down significantly since then, and some fans have accused Disney of resting on its laurels by focusing on attractions inspired by its selection of animated movies rather than continuing to push the boundaries. But there are still examples from recent years of attractions that broke new ground. Let’s take a look at 20 of the most revolutionary Disney attractions ever built, focusing on what made them special and the impact that they’ve had on future developments both within and outside the theme park industry.

20. Star Tours / Star Tours: The Adventures Continue

Star Tours

Image: Carterhawk, Wikipedia

When Michael Eisner took over at Disney CEO in 1984, he immediately recognized that the company’s animation division was performing poorly. He set in motion plans to turn it around – plans that resulted in classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. But in the meantime, he knew that Disney would have to base new rides at its theme parks on original storylines or licensed-in third-party properties. Eisner spearheaded deals with Michael Jackson (for 3-D movie Captain EO) and George Lucas (the creator of Star Wars). Captain EO was an important attraction in itself, with its combination of 3-D and in-theater effects. But Star Tours was a different beast altogether.

Star Tours poster

Lucas’ own Industrial Light & Magic produced the movie footage, which was then carefully synchronized with the motions of the simulators. The total cost ballooneed to a then-astronomical $32 million – but it had been worth it. Simulator rides had existed before, but none had been this convincing. Star Tours proved to be an enduring hit, remaining in place at Disneyland for more than two decades and spawning clones at Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. Rides such as SeaWorld Orlando’s Wild Arctic owe a lot to Disney’s creation.  The Adventures Continue

Coruscant features among Star Tours: The Adventures Continue’s varied plotlines.
Image © Disney/Lucasfilm

Eventually, in 2010, Disney shuttered the rides at Disneyland, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Tokyo Disneyland. All three underwent a major makeover, re-emerging as Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. Continuing the pioneering spirit of the original creators, the Imagineers this time reworked the ride so that it features multiple storylines, each spliced together from individual scenes. The result? An attraction with more “re-rideability” than most others.

19. Universe of Energy

Universe of Energy

Image: ManoaChild, Wikipedia

The original Universe of Energy pavilion at EPCOT Center featured a roof that was covered in 80,000 photovoltaic solar cells. These partially powered the ride vehicles for the attraction within, which transported guests by following guide wires rather than a traditional track. On their way, guests viewed various film sequences about energy production, as well as a diorama featuring audio-animatronic dinosaurs. The chief innovation? This was effectively multiple experiences in one. Guests began by being seated in a theater, which then rotated to face a screen showing a four-minute hand-animated film on the formation of fossil fuels. Then, the entire seating area rotated once again, this time breaking up into six multi-passenger vehicles. After passing through the dinosaur diaroama, they then reassembled into their original theater formation for two more films. Universe of Energy wasn’t just special because of the unique ride system. It showed how multiple types of attraction could be combined into one educutional but fun experience – something that was reflected in later “edutainment” attractions such as Earthquake: The Big One at Universal Studios Florida.


In 1996, the attraction was replaced by Ellen’s Energy Adventure, an updated version starring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye “The Science Guy”.

18. Fantasmic!

Fantasmic Disney has long used fireworks displays and parades to keep guests in its park late into the night. But with the introduction of Fantasmic! at Disneyland in 1992, the company took the concept of evening entertainment at theme parks to a whole new level. Designed to reinvigorate the space in front of the Rivers America, Fantasmic! was a collaboration between Disney’s animation studios and its Imagineers. Massive modifications were required to Tom Sawyer Island and the Rivers of America, with equipment being installed underwater to enable the show’s range of elaborate effects.


And what effects they are, including towering water screens, pyrotechnics and powerful fountains. Dozens of Disney characters join in the action, both on the water screens and in live-action stunts. Fantasmic Dragon Fantasmic! spawned clones at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Tokyo DisneySea, and has continued to be “plussed”, with the addition of an enormous, fire-breathing dragon in 2010 being just on example. It has also influenced future Disney spectacles, such as World of Color at Disney California Adventure and Disney Dreamsat Disneyland Paris, as well as shows from rivals such as Universal Studios Florida’s Universal 360 – A Cinesphere Spectacular.

17. Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room

Enchanted Tiki Room poster

In 1963, guests wandering through Adventureland at Disneyland caused enormous traffic jams as they stopped to watch an incredible talking bird. The bird, Juan, was beckoning them inside an all-new attraction: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. The attraction was the first to feature the new Audio-Animatronics technology, which had been developed in-house by Disney’s Imagineers. Originally designed as a restaurant in which guests would be serenaded by singing birds, it was reworked into a full-blown show featuring a cast of more than 150 talking, singing and dancing birds, flowers, tiki dummers and tiki totem poles. Enchanted Tiki Room

In may seem quaint by today’s standards, but it’s difficult to understate the impact of the Enchanted Tiki Room. Almost every theme park dark ride now features some form of animatronics, with Disney’s still leading the way. It was a long journey from the tiny birds of the Tiki Room to the 39-feet-tall King Kong animatronics in Kongfrontationat Universal Studios Florida – but one couldn’t have happened without the other.

16. Toy Story Midway Mania

Toy Story Midway Mania Opened at both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure in 2008 (followed by a third installation at Tokyo DisneySea in 2012), Toy Story Midway Mania has proven to be hugely popular. Too popular, really – the queues for the ride frequently reach more than 3 hours, and FastPass reservations run out early in the day. Toy Story Midway Mania It’s easy to see why. Toy Story Midway Mania pushes the boundaries of theme park technology, using complex computer systems to sychronise on-screen, 3-D action with the actions of guests themselves in their cars. Those guests are equipped with a simple pull-string “gun”, which throws various projectiles depending on which of a variety of mini-games they are playing. Perhaps the most significant innovation is the software-based nature of the games. This allows the various games to be swapped out in future, as has already occured on one occasion.

15. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress

Carousel of Progress

Back in 1958, Disney’s Imagineers drew up plans for a new Disneyland area, dubbed Edison Square. It pitched these in a 1958 proposal to General Electric. The entire area would celebrate the discovery of electricity, and the main attraction, Harnessing the Lightning, would be a show presented in four distinct parts in an equal number of separate theaters.The host for each segment would be Mr. Wilbur K. Watt, billed as “an incredible electro-mechanical man…It is almost as though Mr. Watt were alive, for his movements are synchronized and life-like as he describes the play.” At the time, Disney didn’t actually have the technology to create this stunning, human-like character. But come the 1964 World’s Fair, it had – and it employed it to create Father, the lead character in the Carousel of Progress. This was the main attraction in General Electric’s pavilion at the fair, and was an evolution of the proposed Harnessing the Lightning show. Carousel of Progress

Image: A. T. Service, Wikipedia

It featured a circular center stage, divided into six scenes. This was surrounded by six 240-seat sections of theatre seats. After loading in the first scene, guests remained in their seats as the theatre revolved around the stage, enabling them to watch four scenes set in different time periods. The final scene was used as an unloading area. Again, the storyline revolved around how the development of electricity and related technologies had enhanced the lives of ordinary families. After the World’s Fair ended, the ride was shipped to Disneyland, before later being moved to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, where it remains to this day. The influence of the talking figures within can be seen in dozens of later Disney rides, as well as those from rival operators.

14. Soarin’ Over California

Soarin' Over California Located in the rusted aviatian hanger of Condor Flats, this high tech attraction at Disney California Adventure places guests on a hang-gliding adventure over the incredible sights (and smells) of California, from mountains and seas to orange groves, and finally to Disneyland Park. The real step forward in Soarin’ Over California was the creation of the incredible hang-glider-style ride system, which lifts guests up into the air and does a great job of convincing them that they are really flying over California. This is achieved by lifting the seats into the air using a cantilever system, leaving guests’ legs dangling freely. Some 37 tons are lifted in this way during each ride cycle. Soarin' There’s room for future evolution of the Soarin’ system – particularly improving the on-screen footage, which currently features jarring cuts. However, the ride has also spawned a clone at Epcot, and lower-budget copies such as Europe in the Air at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. An updated version of Soarin’ is on its way to Shanghai Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and Epcot, featuring footage of landmarks all over the world. We’re also intrigued to see how Disney evolves its flying experience with the introduction of a new ride as part of Pandora – The World of Avatar, due to open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2017.

13. Pooh’s Hunny Hunt

Pooh's Hunny Hunt Pooh’s Hunny Hunt is a groundbreaking “trackless” dark ride at Tokyo Disneyland, and not to be confused with the more basic Winnie the Pooh-themed attractions at other Disney parks. Costing more than $130 million to create, the ride dispenses with the traditional OmniMover system used by rides such as the Haunted Mansion. Instead, it uses a unique local positioning system (LPS), enabling computers to control the movement of each individual car. The cars can appear to have a mind of their own as they zip in and out of various iconic scenes from Pooh stories. As the wheels are hidden, they seem to glide seamlessly from one area to another, and the system was so successful that it was reused for the Aquatopia ride at neighbouring Tokyo DisneySea.


Other companies had implemented trackless ride systems before, including as part of Disney’s own Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Disney’s patented system, though, uses an array of sensors, instead of a wire embedded in the floor. This allows the vehicles to be steered down a random path, rather than along a pre-defined fixed route. Trackless rides are all the rage these days. Disney has followed-up with Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland and the soon-to-open Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy at Walt Disney Studios, Paris. Elsewhere, SeaWorld Orlando employed similar technology to create Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.

12. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Tower of Terror

Back in the early 1990s, Disney-MGM Studios was facing criticism from the press and some visitors. The park had debuted in 1989 to huge crowds, but only offered a handful of attractions. This was by design – Disney CEO Michael Eisner had deliberately opted to make it a “half-day park”, keeping the cost low but still encouraging Walt Disney World guests to stay for an extra day. By 1991, rival Universal Studios Florida was firing on all cylinders after its disastrous debut a year earlier. Attendance at the park would eventually surpass that at Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney put into place rapid expansion plans. This included the addition of a Muppets-themed area and several smaller attractions. The vast majority of Disney’s budget, however, would be spent on a thrill ride to match those over at Universal’s park.

While it is primarily a drop tower ride, the Tower of Terror actually employs more than one type of vehicle in order to enable riders to leave the elevator shaft and pass through the Fifth Dimension. Guests sit in Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), which rise up to the corridor scene in a Vertical Vehicle Conveyance (VVC). When they reach the Fifth Dimension corridor, the AGVs come into their own. Rather than riding on a track, the AGVs are guided by wires under the floor. When they reach the far end of the corridor, they lock into another vertical motion cab, which handles the actual drop sequence. Perhaps the real innovation here, though, is the incredible ride building that hosts the Tower of Terror. Standing at 199-feet-tall, the Hollywood Tower Hotel looks for all the world like a realhotel. Disney has always lead the way on theming, but the Tower of Terror raised the game.

11. Circarama / Circle-Vision 360

Circle-Vision 360 In 1955, Disney introduced a new, innovative type of movie, which he eventually dubbed Circle-Vision 360. The first screen was installed in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and opened in 1955. The first movie, A Tour of the West, offered visitors a documentary tour of the western United States, surrounding them completely with a 360-degree image. Walt wanted to place viewers directly into the thick of the on-screen action, but he didn’t want to rely on the flimsy, uncomfortable glasses employed by the 3-D movies that were flooding cinemas during the 1950s. Instead, he wanted to completely surround them with the movies, so that they could look in front of them, to the side and even behind them to get a different viewpoint.


The answer was a system developed in-house, primarily by Disney legend Ub Iwerks – a man who had earlier pioneered 3-D films in the 1930s using a makeshift camera set up in the back of Studebaker vehicle. Iwerks devised a system that employed 11 different screens arrayed in a circle. There was a small gap between each screen, allowing an equal number of projectors to project the images. The system was initially named Circarama. Walt Disney hoped to introduce a chain of Circle-Vision 360 theaters across the US, but died before he got the chance. However, Circle-Vision movies were shown at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and the American National Exhibition in Moscow the following year. The travelogue-style movies that Walt envisioned are a perfect fit with Epcot’s World Showcase. Reflections of China and O Canada! continue to be presented in the format, playing to millions of guests every year.

10. Test Track

Test Track

Image © Disney

First opened in 1999, Test Track takes guests through a simulated set of tests on a new car. It sees guests seated in mock cars as they traverse a set of low-speed indoor tests before racing at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour around an outdoor section. Previously sponsored by Chevrolet’s parent company General Motors, it underwent a lengthy refurbishment in 2012 as a result of a new commercial deal between Disney and GM.

Creating Test Track, with its vehicles that can accelerate and decelerate rapidly, was a nightmare. The ride’s debut was delayed by nearly two years – but it proved to be worth the wait. It remains one of the most highly-rated attractions at Epcot by Theme Park Tourist readers. Despite the problems experienced with the Test Track system, Disney has since used it to create two other rides that are frequently cited as being amongst the best in the world. These are Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea (which uses “steam-powered” mine vehicles to carry guests on a trip to the Earth’s core) and Radiator Springs Racers, the headline attraction of Cars Land at Disney California Adventure.

9. Adventure Thru Inner Space

Adventure Thru Inner Space poster

At the 1964 World’s Fair, a number of rides employed systems that saw an endless loop of vehicles travel around a circuit. This ensured high capacity, but there was one major problem: guests were usually facing the back of the seat in front of them. What would be better would be a system that allowed the cars to rotate as required, as well as travelling up-and-down hills. Imagineers Bob Gurr and John Hench designed such a system, the Omnimover, which was first employed by Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland. Adventure Thru Inner Space

A mini-Omnimover, used to show “shrunken” guests on Adventure Thru Inner Space.

The “Atommobile” vehicles carried guests pass giant snowflakes, Mickey Mouse-shaped molecules and the inside of an oxygen atom. Gradually, riders would start to return to normal size, witnessing swirling water molecules as the “snow” seen earlier melted. The Omnimover system has since been used by dozens of Disney rides, from the Haunted Mansion to Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid.

8. Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye

Indiana Jones Adventure

Image © Disney

Continuing its foray into rides based on non-Disney properties, Disney opened the ground-breaking Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland in 1995. Using jeep-style vehicles affixed to a motion simulator base, the attraction carries guests into the darkness of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, an ancient lost Bengalese temple that has become the new vacation hotspot for would-be adventurers in 1935. Riding in jeeps holding sixteen passengers, guests on the Indiana Jones Adventure come face-to-face with skeletons, lava, giant snakes, rats, a giant rolling boulder, and the disfigured god himself via a number of special effects and the motion-base EMV (enhanced motion vehicle) that simulates rough terrain, quick turns, and quick acceleration. EMV patent The jeeps are fixed by three hydraulic rams to the frame of the chassis, allowing the shell to move independently. The rapid movements are used to convince guests that they are travelling faster, and over bumpier terrain, than they really are. It proved to be such a successful trick that Disney cloned the layout for Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull at Tokyo DisneySea and Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. At the time the attraction opened, Universal Orlando was dreaming up ride concepts for its second theme park, Islands of Adventure. Originally, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Manwas due to be a simple dark ride. After seeing Disney’s efforts, Universal decided to up the ante, developing an even more advanced motion simulator/dark ride system that has since been adopted by a number of other attractions.

7. Haunted Mansion

Haunted Mansion

Image © Disney

Initially conceived as a walkthrough attraction, the Haunted Mansion was ultimately built at Disneyland using the Omnimover system pioneered by Adventure Thru Inner Space. This was combined with a host of other Disney inventions, such as audio-animatronic characters, as well old-school tricks like the Pepper’s Ghost effect used in the ballroom scene. In many ways, then, the Haunted Mansion can’t really be considered to be ground-breaking. After all, “ghost train” rides had already been around for decades. But that’s missing the point. The genius of the Haunted Mansion was the way that the Imagineers brought all of these elements together into a stunningly-detailed ride that has entertained visitors to several Disney parks for generations. Haunted Mansion

The Magic Kingdom’s version of the Haunted Mansion.
Image © Disney

The fingerprints of the Haunted Mansion can be seen on attractions all over the world, from Disney’s newer creations such as Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland to likes of Duel: The Haunted House Strikes Back!at Alton Towers in the UK.

6. Matterhorn Bobsleds

Matterhorn Bobsleds Walt Disney

Image © Disney

1959 was an incredible year for Disneyland. It saw the debut of no fewer than three major rides: the Submarine Voyage, the Monorail and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Disney is not often associated with innovation in roller coasters, but the latter ride was the world’s first tubular steel roller coaster.

Matterhorn Bobsleds

Image © Disney

Disney had a long-standing relationship with Arrow Development, which was involved in the manufacture of a number of early Disneyland rides. The company’s Imagineers had noted the growing popularity of “wild mouse”-style roller coasters, and inspired by a break in the Swiss Alps, Walt Disney decided to use one to take guests on a journey around the iconic Matterhorn.


An enormous fibreglass replica of the Matterhorn was constructed, with duel coaster tracks being installed by Arrow. The tubular steel design enabled the ride to race around tight bends with ease, as well as racing through a signature splashdown element. It’s not difficult to see the influence that the Matterhorn has had. Disney alone has built a number of rides based around faux mountains, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Expedition Everest and the soon-to-open Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

5. It’s a Small World

It's a Small World

Image © Disney

Walt Disney had already agreed to design and construct three attractions for the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair when the Pepsi-Cola Company came knocking at his door. The firm was sponsoring the UNICEF pavilion, and wanted something special to anchor it. Despite his Imagineers’ already-enormous workload, Walt agreed to take on the challenge. The resulting ride, It’s a Small World, was a smash-hit. It was later moved to Disneyland, and clones have been built at the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. It's a Small World (2)

Image © Disney

The thing that most guests associate with It’s a Small World is the painfully cutesy soundtrack that accompanies its simulated voyage around a world populated by dancing, singing dolls. But the real innovation was the creation of the ride’s high-capacity ride system, which allows it process thousands of guests every hour. The system has been copied by dozens of rides all over the world, but perhaps most notably at Disneyland itself, where Pirates of the Caribbean was switched from a walkthrough to a boat ride after the success of It’s a Small World.

4. Monorail


Image © Disney

Walt Disney had seen a monorail system in action during a trip to Europe in 1958, and immediately put his Imagineers to work on a version of the German Alweg-style monorail on his return. He had chosen the Alweg system because it employed a unique straddle-beam track, a slender design that would allow the beam to blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape. He was also impressed by the combination of electric propulsion and rubber wheels on the beam, which enabled near-silent operation. Disney commissioned Alweg to design a beamway around Tomorrowland, but asked one of his own Imagineers, Bob Gurr, to redesign the trains to make them look more futuristic and attractive. When the ride opened on June 14, 1959, it was the first daily operating monorail system in the Western Hemisphere.

Monorail (2)

Image © Disney

The ride offered a scenic overview of Tomorrowland – but Walt hoped that it would do much more than that. He was convinced that it could solve the growing transit problems in the world’s cities, and invited numerous city transporation groups to ride it. He also extended Disneyland’s version with a link to the Disneyland Hotel in 1961, turning it into a true transportation system. Ultimately, city authorities moved more slowly than Walt Disney. As they procrastinated over the installation of mass transit systems such as the monorail, cars increasingly became the de-facto method of transporation in many US cities. Years after Walt’s death, Las Vegas did install a monorail system of its own – even employing some of Disney’s old trains. Walt Disney World also has an extensive monorail system, just as Walt had hoped.

3. Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln

Great Moments with Mr Lincoln

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr

Arguably Disney’s biggest contribution to theme park technology was the invention of audio-animatronics, which enable realistic “human” and other characters to bring scenes to life. The Imagineers had already made significant progress in this area by 1963, when Walt Disney decided to create an animated version of Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion at the 1964/65 New York’s World’s Fair.

Great Moments with Mr Lincoln

Image © Disney

Despite early malfunctions, the result wowed the crowds and a version was subsequently installed at Disneyland as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Remarkably, it is still there. These days, almost all Disney dark rides make use of audio-animatronics, as do rides from dozens of rival theme park operators. The Hall of Presidents at Disney’s Magic Kingdom takes the premise of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln a step further, featuring audio-animatronic versions of everyUS president to date.

2. Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean

Image © Disney

A pirate-themed walkthrough attraction had been under consideration for some years at Disneyland during the 1960s, with construction beginning on a building in New Orleans Square to host it. Before his death, Walt Disney made a key decision: the ride would no longer be a walkthrough, but would now reuse a boat system, to allow for a much broader array of scenes and a high capacity. The success of It’s a Small World played no small part in this decision. The original concept would have seen the pirates created in wax. However, the invention by Disney of audio-animatronics allowed them to be brought to life in scenes that went well beyond anything yet seen in a theme park attraction. There are dozens of rides that are inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean, including clones at other Disney parks and inferior copycats such as Pirate Adventure at Drayton Manor in the UK.

The ride, of course, also inspired a series of blockbuster movies. The success of these has seen the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom versions updated to feature characters from the films, but the Disneyland Paris version remains true to the original.

1. PeopleMover

Walt Disney longed for an overhead transportation system that could offer people a rapid overview of an area in a city. In 1964, he set Imagineer Bob Gurr to work on creating one. The result was the WEDWay, also known as the “PeopleMover”. Walt hoped that it would be adopted by cities all over the world. The chief innovation of the WEDWay was that the vehicles never stopped moving. Instead, guests boarded via a circular moving walkway, which dramatically improved the loading speed when compared to a linear walkway. This was coupled with a set of small trains that were pushed along by rotating tires that were embedded in the track every nine feet, each with its own electric motor. The cars themselves did not have motors, and the breakdown of any of the spinning tires would not cause the entire system to break down. 

Walt hoped to bring representatives from cities and shopping malls to see the first WEDWay system once it opened as part of Disneyland’s New Tomorrowland makeover in 1967. However, he died before he had the chance. Without Walt as a cheerleader, the system never caught on. However, it is still in use at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas. It was also updated in the 1970s for the Walt Disney World version, which employs linear induction motors to propel its vehicles.