Home » The Best of the Best: Disney Roller Coasters

The Best of the Best: Disney Roller Coasters

We can talk about dark rides or water rides or flight simulators until we’re blue in the face. All of them are wonderful kinds of theme park attractions, but they’re not what make people’s hearts flutter. We live in a world where one type of ride grabs more headlines, garners more passionate discussions, and frankly matters more than the rest. Yes, they’re roller coasters, and they’re the alpha and omega of theme park rides. Here are the best eight roller coasters at Disney’s American theme parks.

8. Matterhorn Bobsleds

Image: DisneyEvaluating the best roller coasters is a tricky proposition. We must establish some guidelines. Since it’s a Disney list, theming matters a lot. Roller coasters also need to deliver plenty of thrills, too. And historical significance merits some precedence, too.

History is where the Matterhorn Bobsleds stands apart from other Disney coasters. It was to a large extent the first modern roller coaster. More importantly, it was the first one at the Happiest Place on Earth, making it historically significant in a way that no other roller coaster can match. Even Space Mountain is only a logical successor; the Matterhorn Bobsleds is the originator.

The greatness of this ride starts with its theming. Walt Disney built an entire freakin’ mountain to sell the premise! Then, they added thematically fitting bobsleds to create the illusion that you’re sliding down a mountainside. Matterhorn Bobsleds is the genesis of the entire roller coaster arms race that we know and love today. It’s also still a blast to ride.

7. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Image: DisneyThis roller coaster is one of the most difficult to judge. Disney loves it so much that they’ve duplicated it at four different theme parks, and its theming is immaculate. You’re visiting an abandoned town that was wiped out by a flash flood. Rumors even suggest that it was a planned event caused by a nefarious con man with a weather machine!

The beauty of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is that you don’t need to know the detailed backstory to relish the ride. To the contrary, the theming is overt in the line queue and on the ride itself. You’ll see subtle touches that hint at the tragedy while waiting to board the rickety train. Then, you’ll witness more overt signs of flooding such as an old man taking a bath in the river. His tub detached and got swept away with the current. It’s this sort of silliness that differentiates the runaway mine cart ride.

In terms of coaster specs, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is fairly mild. It never travels faster than 36 miles per hour, and its biggest drop is only 104 feet. It’s a joy ride, not a thrill ride, and that’s the primary reason why it doesn’t rank more highly.

6. Slinky Dog Dash

Image: DisneyThe newest Walt Disney World roller coaster isn’t the best by any measurable standard. It was never intended to be. Instead, Imagineers wanted to create a family-friendly coaster that would satisfy guests with its silliness.

The premise of Slinky Dog Dash is that you’re a toy placed onboard one of Andy’s construction playsets. He’s building the Dash & Dodge Mega Coaster Kit, but he hasn’t quite finished yet. He did have one grand idea, though. He used his slinky dog as the coaster cart. You’re a toy riding a toy inside of a toy playset!

The genius of the attraction lies in its design. Imagineers somehow designed a ride that mimics the premise of a slinky. At times, you’ll feel like you’re extended to the end of your metal. Soon afterward, your ride cart will seem to contract. It’s a masterful ride experience heightened by a surprising element. In the middle of the ride, you’ll stop and then, after a brief countdown, start again. It’s a Disney first that differentiates this family roller coaster from something more simplistic like The Barnstormer.

5. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith

Image: DisneyOne of Disney’s strongest attributes is their ability to connect a concept to a coaster. With Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, their goal is to create that hard rock sensation immediately. To achieve this feeling, Disney went balls to the wall in a rare example of a true adrenaline rush.

The coaster cart, a “limousine”, explodes into action right at the start. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster famously goes from zero to 57 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds. Sure, a Tesla can do that now, but it stood apart as a drag race concept back when the ride debuted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1999.

To this day, guests must heed that prophetic wording of keeping their heads placed squarely against the headrest. Otherwise, they’ll get the wrong kind of head rush. It’s almost a concussion-inducing ride if you’re not careful, and that unbridled rock and roll devil may care attitude is what has sustained it as one of the five best Disney coasters ever.

4. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Image: DisneyI originally ranked the crown jewel of New Fantasyland in the top three. Then, I vacillated because it felt like sacrilege to place this one ahead of the next roller coaster. Don’t get me wrong. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a masterpiece. In fact, I view everything from this point forward as a near-perfect attraction.

I’ve loved this roller coaster since I first wrote about it, the week after it opened in 2014. To my mind, it embodies what a Disney ride experience should be. It’s atmospheric, even by Disney’s lofty standards. You’ll relish in the sense of escapism as you enter the cave where the Seven Dwarfs chip away at the earth. Their job is to pick gems out from the walls, although the shiny baubles are seemingly everywhere in the dark ride portions of the attractions.

The coaster portion is short but sweet. That’s why I couldn’t in good conscience rank it higher. It’s awesome, though. Imagineers constructed a rocking coaster cart, but I don’t mean like Aerosmith. The carts are all tethered together in a way that the individual vehicles can twist and turn. These pivots cause a kind of swaying sensation that seems appropriate for gem mining. You’re supposed to be in a barrel after all. Yes, the theming is divine, but the coaster movements barely last a minute. It wouldn’t be fair to rank it higher in a coaster list, exceptional though it may be.

3. Space Mountain

Image: Disney

In terms of roller coaster history, there are two Disney attractions of tremendous historical significance. We already covered the Matterhorn Bobsleds, but that’s a coaster whose fame isn’t universal. Disney fanatics and coaster historians know why it’s so special. To everyone else, it’s just a fun older ride.

Space Mountain is different. Space Mountain is seminal. Space Mountain is a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. Everyone knows what Space Mountain is. There are people living in caves. They one have vague plans to leave their current lifestyle behind one day and grab a FastPass for Space Mountain. It’s almost intrinsic to humanity to want to take a ride on Space Mountain.

Ranking the ride against modern roller coasters is tricky. It’s more than 40 years old. And it has a dirty little secret. The most famous of all coasters maxes out at…28 miles per hour. The clever use of darkness causes a disorienting effect. Because of this confusion, you can’t get a sense of how fast you’re going. Space Mountain feels faster than what it is, and this illusory sensation is brilliant. It just can’t compete with the top coasters in terms of overall ride quality.

2. The Incredicoaster

Image: Disney

Everything old is new again at Disney California Adventure. Paradise Pier has split in two, and the better half is now Pixar Pier. It’s the home of four Pixar-related neighborhoods. One of them is based on The Incredibles.

To sell the changes, Disney shut down a previously great roller coaster, California Screamin’. They repurposed it in a general sense, leaving the ride tracks and coaster cart basics intact. The new changes to bring alive the Incredicoaster were largely cosmetic. The coaster carts got a paint job, and Disney added a new area at the start of the ride. Its purpose is to set up the story.

On the Incredicoaster, Edna Mode fails in her babysitting duties of Jack-Jack Parr, the Incredibaby. The premise of the ride is that the other members of the Parr family must employ their superpowers to retrieve Jack-Jack. The catch is that he has more than 15 superpowers of his own, several of which are on display during the attraction.

The whole exercise is an excuse to jazz up California Screamin’ with tighter theming. Amazingly, this special blend of Parr family magic elevates the roller coaster dramatically. Whereas California Screamin’ was a kickass coaster, the Incredicoaster is that plus impeccable storytelling. This ride is the gold standard in plussing an existing attraction into something much better. It could rightfully stand as the best Disney roller coaster, but I happen to prefer one slightly more.

1. Expedition Everest

Image: Disney

Explaining the genius of Expedition Everest is easier than most of the other titles on this list. You go straight up through an Everest-esque mountain, eventually reaching 199.5 feet in the air. From the equivalent of the 20th floor, you know that you’re in trouble when you see broken tracks up ahead.

Moments later, just when you’ve almost caught your breath from the fear of this sight, you zoom backwards at 50 miles per hour. At some point during this journey into darkness, you come face to face with the sole inhabitant of this mountain. It’s a Yeti that doesn’t remember inviting you into their home. This beast is just about to take a swipe at you when you hit another gear and escape the cavernous interior.

Disney Imagineers aren’t prone to take victory laps, and they shouldn’t with Expedition Everest anyway. It does have a critical design flaw that can never be repaired. Beyond that quibble, however, this is as great a roller coaster as anyone has ever built. It has everything: an engaging story, terrific views, dazzling set pieces, a visual wienie, and a true villain. Plus, it’s the best Disney attraction in the world for adrenaline junkies. In short, it’s THE best Disney roller coaster in existence today.