Home » The 5 Best Improvements at Disney Parks in the Past Decade

The 5 Best Improvements at Disney Parks in the Past Decade

The Walt Disney Company opened its first theme park in 1955. In the more than 60 years that have followed, it’s learned an important lesson about the entertainment industry that they created with Disneyland. A lack of innovation guarantees that unhappy vacationers stop visiting. It was a lesson Walt Disney himself already accepted as gospel by 1960. Several of the original Disneyland attractions quickly felt dated, and he tasked his Imagineers with the work of keeping them fresh. As employees in many industries know, it’s the maintenance phase that’s the toughest.

One of the integral parts of Disney theme parks is enhancing classic attractions via new additions. That philosophy isn’t reserved for Disney rides, though. The company is willing to craft entire themed lands and even new gates to maintain the popularity of their parks. Even though they’re a functional monopoly as the alpha of the theme park industry, Disney pressures itself from within to focus on constant improvements. Some of the ones they’ve added over the years are truly breathtaking, and the impending debuts of Star Wars Land and Avatar Land should continue that tradition. As we await the introductions of these new enhancements, let’s take this opportunity to look back at the past several years of upgrades. Here are Disney’s five best upgrades, additions, and expansions in the past decade. 

1. Test Track – Epcot

Epcot absorbs a lot of criticism for its lack of quality rides. Out of the ones it does have, Mission: Space lacks an ardent fan base, and Soarin’ isn’t about adrenaline. Test Track as originally conceived placed riders in an unusual position. They became crash test dummies of a sort, witnessing firsthand how car manufacturers evaluate vehicle prototypes.

Sponsored by GM, Version 1.0 was technically a dark ride yet it was oddly bright. You can watch this video to see what I mean. The premise that GM authorized caused theme park tourists to feel as if they were in an abandoned government facility. It was a muddied hodgepodge lacking Disney’s usual style of tight storytelling.  Still, it was the fastest ride at Walt Disney World, which meant that it was the best pure thrill available at any of the parks. All it needed was a bit more attention to detail.

The current Test Track Version 2.0 is much darker in tone, and it features Tron-ish design elements. The actual ride portion now feels much more granular in nature. It’s also quite a bit more fun than the original, even though it employs some of the same features as the initial version. The true joy of V2.0 stems from the design phase, though. Guests now have the ability to build their own cars thanks to a brilliant sim card system.  

The result of this innovation is that riders can now build whatever Frankenstein’s monster version of a car suits them. Personally, I tend toward unholy abominations, but the popular choice is building a better Batmobile. Either way, this personalized connection to what was historically a generic ride cart engages users on a new level. Everyone receives a score during each section of Test Track, with the competition creating a palpable excitement for all involved. Your neighbors aren’t simply random theme park tourists. They’re opponents with whom you’re matching wits in a high tech race. It’s an elegant evolution in ride design.

2. Cars Land – Disney California Adventure

Image: Disney

The Disney California Adventure expansion to Disneyland stands as one of the most divisive topics in all of Disney fandom. Independent of where you stand on the subject, however, the attendance numbers were troubling earlier in the 2000s. In 2008 and 2009, phase two of Disneyland failed to earn as many as six million visitors. During the 2011 season, approximately 6.3 million tourists went through the turnstiles at Disney California Adventure. Fast forward to 2015, and the park’s attendance soared to 9.4 million.

Cars Land doesn’t get all the credit for a 50 percent spike in popularity at Disney California Adventure, but it does deserve a lot. A huge chunk of the $1.1 billion The Walt Disney Company invested in the expansion of its second California gate went directly to the construction of Cars Land. The costliest part of that capital outlay went toward the mountainous backdrop that sets the tone for the serene little town known as Radiator Springs and its accompanying attraction, Radiator Springs Racers.

Based on the schematics of Test Track, Radiator Springs Racers places the rider in the passenger seat of one of the anthropomorphic vehicles from the Cars franchise. You won’t get to drive one of these six-person coaster carts, of course, since the vehicles have a mind of their own. Instead, you get to enjoy the view as you navigate the timeless Radiator Springs community that’s a throwback to the halcyon days of yore. The town is an odd combination of neon lights and seemingly incongruous vestiges of classic Americana.

Radiator Springs Racers is unquestionably the E-Ticket attraction at Cars Land. It’s not the only strong selling point of the expansion, though. Cars Land also includes what was first known as Luigi’s Flying Tires, one of the most daring rides in recent Disney history. It initially attempted to re-introduce a ride mechanism not seen at a Disney theme park since the 1960s. It employed the same air hockey type of technology used for the infamous Disneyland attraction, Flying Saucers. Alas, it didn’t work any better the second time than the first, which is why the themed land now includes Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters.

Luigi’s clearly not married to any one type of ride. Still, kids flocks to his ride while children of all ages constantly hang around Radiator Springs Racers, which explains why it’s one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland. The Cars Land expansion almost single-handedly redeemed the entirety of Disney California Adventure, which verifies it’s one of the most successful Disney park enhancements ever.

3. New Fantasyland – Magic Kingdom

Discussing the latest iteration of Fantasyland could iterate down two divergent paths. I could discuss only the updates to this themed land as a full piece, as more than enough additions and enhancements occur to justify it. Alternately, I could simply list everything at once, presuming that the changes speak for themselves. I’ve chosen the latter since anyone who has visited Fantasyland since 2012 understands how dramatically it’s changed, and for the better.

The Fantasyland of today at Magic Kingdom now includes Be Our Guest, the best restaurant at Magic Kingdom. Its constant sellouts years after its opening reflect its sustained popularity. Theme park tourists embrace this rare opportunity to dine as an invited guest of the Beast. That’s arguably not even the best part of the non-attraction options. Hanging out at Gaston’s Tavern and the surrounding area affords guests the opportunity to meet the biggest ham in the entire Disney universe. And each of these encounters has a chance to go viral. Gaston is the unofficial breakout star of the Fantasyland update.

Still, the attractions are what sell the brand for Disney’s Parks and Resorts division. And Fantasyland is teeming with new, phenomenal ones. Parents can participate in a play with their kids thanks to the ingenious Enchanted Tales with Belle. Fans of The Little Mermaid can feel like they’re a part of the story in Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid. And everyone can celebrate Walt Disney’s first animated film through the magic of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, my choice for the best new Disney attraction of the 2000s. Disney park planners faced a daunting task in rebuilding one of the original themed lands at the world’s most popular amusement park. To their credit, Fantasyland is a triumph of the imagination as well as the truest representations of Disney themes at any park to date.

4. Goofy’s Sky School – Disney’s California Adventure

Image: Disney

One of the most heralded attractions at the debut of Disney California Adventure was Mulholland Madness, which sounds vaguely like a David Lynch movie festival. In actuality, it was a terrible attraction meant to drive home the theme of the park. Mulholland Drive (the road, not the movie) is one of the most famous streets in the state, and this ride vaguely paid tribute to it. The cars used in the attraction were also distinctly Californian. The problems with this strategy were twofold. The first is that the ride itself was disappointing. The second was that guests visiting Disneyland couldn’t care less about California as a whole, simply the idyllic slice of it known as the Happiest Place on Earth.

Disney park planners rightfully chose to reboot this nonsense in 2010. It wasn’t technically part of the Cars Land expansion but instead a simultaneous rebranding at nearby Paradise Pier. While the ride itself couldn’t change much due to the limited space and the pre-existing roller coaster tracks, Disney could introduce the one enhancement certain to spike the popularity of the attraction. They added a bit of Goofy magic to the proceedings.

Loosely based on a famous 1940 animated short known as Goofy’s Glider, the new version of Mulholland Madness became an entirely different experience. Now known as Goofy’s Sky School, it tells a tighter, more engaging story. In its current, updated form, Goofy now shows guests the proper way to fly a plane…and there’s absolutely nothing that could possibly go wrong in that scenario. The ride is still stilted and awkward, but it’s the latest example of how a simple splash of Disney theming can fundamentally alter the overall enjoyment of a ride. Goofy’s Sky School is a quick way to put a smile on someone’s face, a stark contrast to the dull and pointless original version of the attraction. Disneyland is predicated on theming, and in this instance, it’s the difference between a terrible ride and a crowd pleaser.

5. Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy – Walt Disney Studios Park

Image: Disney

The struggles of Disneyland Paris are well documented by now. In desperate need of an attraction that could sell park tickets, Disney invested a whopping $270 million to build a Ratatouille ride. Intended to celebrate the 2007 movie as well as provide a consistent flow of traffic to the adjoining Bistrot Chez Rémy, this particular addition has succeeded in the face of almost impossible odds.

The appeal of Ratatouille as a ride is that it casts guests in the role of Remy as the tiny rat navigates the streets of Paris. Eventually, he enters Chef Gusteau, the restaurant where he builds a sterling fine dining reputation for a human “chef” named Linguini. It’s basically the concept of Honey I Shrunk the Kids writ small but grand.

The chief selling point of Ratatouille the ride beyond its lovable characters is the trackless motion technology. Every coaster cart stumbles along an uneven path, adding a level of chaos to each ride-through. Ratatouille proved so popular so quickly that it flipped the wait times of several nearby attractions at Walt Disney Studios Park, acting as a magnetic force to attract Disney fans. The popularity of this Pixar attraction and its halo effect on the surrounding area indirectly led the company to renovate Disney’s Hollywood Studios with Pixar characters, too. Its lingering legacy in this regard reinforces its tremendous success as a victorious addition to the Disney theme park lineup.