Home » These Amazing Disney Attractions Were Totally ’80s, and Totally Awesome

These Amazing Disney Attractions Were Totally ’80s, and Totally Awesome

After a relatively thin decade for innovation, the 1970s, The Walt Disney Company reached new heights with the birth of Epcot. A few years later, MGM and Disney teamed up on another park that we now know as Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Yes, the competition was fierce during this time. Here are the best nine Disney attractions of the 1980s.

9. World of Motion

Image: DisneyI’ll start with an honest acknowledgment. Not all Disney decades are created equally. Only two attractions from the 1970s would merit consideration on this list. Other than Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, that decade suffered from a dearth of creativity. Most of the exciting advances weren’t theme park rides.

The 1980s are entirely different. The top six attractions from this decade rival those of any other 10-year period. Ranking them is an almost impossible process, as personal preference plays a significant factor.

Keeping this in mind, I see a clear separation at the top of the list. World of Motion stands out in my memory due to its massive ride carts and upward scrolling movements. Another attraction on this list shares the same behavior, but its motion occurs in the dark. During the earliest days of Epcot, a ride that allowed me to view the other pavilions from World of Motion blew my mind.

In a way, this ride existed as a way for its sponsor, General Motors, to recreate some of the premises of the Ford Magic Skyway at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Even so, this history of transportation is, well, childish and brow-beating in hindsight. The vehicular movements notwithstanding, its innovations were more impressive in the 1960s than the 1980s.

8. Body Wars

Image: DisneyThe style of this attraction built off the brilliant design of another ride that we’ll discuss in a moment. Body Wars anchored the former Wonders of Life pavilion as a motion simulator that mimicked Fantastic Voyage’s premise.

Guests boarded a vehicle that shrunk them down in size, allowing them to view the human body from the inside. Along the way, the rider aided in a rescue mission for a brave doctor who had gotten trapped inside…someone. Body Wars starred actors you know, Elizabeth Shue and Tim Matheson, and told an interesting if familiar story. It was quite good for the era, and it’d rank much higher on this list if it’d been the first attraction to employ its ride design. I have to dock it since it mirrored another ride that had debuted almost three years before it.

7. Universe of Energy

Image: DisneyEllen’s Energy Adventure played its final round of Jeopardy! in 2017. It wasn’t the first attraction at the Universe of Energy, though. On Epcot’s opening date of October 1st, 1982, Universe of Energy hosted a similar albeit lesser version of the same concept.

The pavilion’s host, ExxonMobil, wanted an attraction that educated guests about the nature of fossil fuels and other forms of energy. Imagineers really stepped up with their design on this attraction, which married a movie with a dark ride.

Just like with Ellen’s Energy Adventure, guests would watch the equivalent of a corporate documentary about energy. Then, they’d enter a theater and see another film. The surprise would come minutes later when the chairs in the theater started moving, transporting guests into the past, a place filled with giant dinosaurs. It was a diorama in motion, with several close encounters of the Jurassic kind.

While Ellen DeGeneres, Jamie Lee Curtis, Alex Trebek, and Bill Nye injected a much-needed burst of humor into the later version, the original Universe of Energy struggled to find an audience. It was just too dry for most Epcot guests. Still, the combination of two different types of theme park attractions revolutionized the industry and has had ripple effects to this day. To an extent, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! borrows the premise.

6.  Maelstrom

Image: DisneyWhen Maelstrom gets shut out of the top five, you know that the 1980s featured several remarkable attractions. While I love Frozen Ever After, I’m an evangelist about Maelstrom, the former pride of the Norway pavilion. It cleverly embraced Norse mythology in a palatable way for children and adults alike.

Maelstrom also featured a unique ride mechanic for the era. At one point, guests on the boat ride suddenly changed positions, causing the vessel to go backward. It also included a brief moment of sunlight, an unprecedented addition to an indoor dark ride.

I would definitely describe this attraction as more than just a standard Disney boat ride. Due to the level of competition during the 1980s, I cannot place it ahead of anything else on this list, though.

5. Journey into Imagination

Image: DisneyThose of you who weren’t around for the 1980s are tilting your heads quizzically right now. The Imagination! pavilion attraction that you know has a similar name, Journey into Imagination with Figment. The current version is less than the original in every way, though.

Back in 1983, Imagineers introduced Epcot visitors to Dreamfinder, an inventor who immediately created a dragon named Figment. The ride was delightful in every way, combining music and clever writing to tell an engaging story. And the attraction itself was innovative as well.

Journey into Imagination improved on some of the ideas of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. A turntable under the ride carts transported guests from scene to scene. It was efficient and impressive.

For some reason, Disney “upgraded” it in time for the turn of the millennium. Journey into Imagination has been an abomination ever since then, which breaks the hearts of all of us who love the classics at Epcot.

4. Star Tours

Image: DisneyAccording to legend, George Lucas developed a relationship with Disney’s Imagineers during the production of Captain EO. At some point, he hinted that he’d love a Star Wars ride at a theme park. Soon afterward, they pitched him on the premise for a previously abandoned ride concept, a theme park adaptation of Black Hole. Disney highlighted the potential of Star Tours, a humorous failed vacation in a galaxy far, far away. The rest is theme park history.

The Imagineering team invented an entirely new kind of ride mechanic for Star Tours. They purchased $2 million worth of military flight simulators and retrofitted them for a theme park attraction. Then, Disney filmed a short story in the Star Wars universe, one where an inexperienced pilot named RX-24 aka Rex took tourists on the scariest vacation of their lives.

The original Star Tours represented more than just a sublime ride design. It also perfectly mimicked the ton of Star Wars, a film trilogy predicated on the premise that incompetent droids somehow help to save the day in the end. It’s a masterpiece of theming in addition to being the first great motion simulator attraction.

3. The Great Movie Ride

Image: DisneyWhile Star Tours championed one film (well, three films), the anchor attraction at Disney-MGM Studios highlighted dozens of them. From day one, this ride differentiated itself for movie lovers as something special.

During the earliest days of Hollywood Studios, the park suffered from a paucity of attractions. From a certain perspective, The Great Movie Ride stood apart as the only true ride. And it held the mantle until the end of its run in 2017. Many of us miss it to this day and hold out hope that it will return in some form.

What was so special about The Great Movie Ride? Guests rode in a vehicle similar to the one in Universe of Energy. It seemed like a movie theater section of chairs right up until it started moving. Then, these chairs transported guests through the history of Hollywood, showing memorable set pieces and art from classic movies. A narrator would describe what made each of them so unforgettable.

Without any extras, that ride would have qualified as great. However, Imagineers weren’t content with that idea. Instead, they added live acting elements.

At one point, guests would come into contact with a classic movie villain. This person would hijack the ride and provide entirely different commentary about the wonders they would behold. These wisecracks were a perfect combination of awed and fearful.

Finally, a surprising turn of events would lead to the triumphant return of the original narrator. It added a level of freshness to the attraction that cast members sustained for decades. The Great Movie Ride won with theming.

2. Spaceship Earth

Image: DisneyI should acknowledge that Spaceship Earth is my favorite Disney theme park attraction ever. However, I don’t have it ranked as number one for an important reason.

I didn’t factor ride buildings into the conversation for best attraction. Otherwise, the Imagination! pavilion ride would have scored higher, too. I’m merely judging Spaceship Earth based on the quality of the attraction itself. And that’s still pretty great.

Even during its earliest days, Spaceship Earth’s ride mechanic stood out as a technological marvel. Guests would board quasi-futuristic vehicles that carried guests up into the gigantic building, just like World of Motion. During the course of the ride, people would witness various crucial moments in civilization.

While everyone learned about history, they were distracted away from the majestic accomplishment of Spaceship Earth. Your ride path takes you along the interior of a massive circle, an impossible feat that only an Imagineer could achieve. Along the way, you’re treated to a Disney-worthy story filled with ingenious thematic details like a medieval monk taking a nap on the job.

Spaceship Earth is so phenomenal that it’s an Imagineering triumph even when we don’t factor in the building’s exterior!

1. Splash Mountain

Image: DisneyDespite all of the wonders at Epcot, the best attraction Imagineers created during the 1980s is one that debuted at Disneyland in July of 1989. Splash Mountain is one of the seminal mountain rides at Disney theme parks, and it’s also the greatest log flume attraction ever built. Simply stated, it’s perfect.

Splash Mountain recounts the story of Song of the South, a problematically dated Disney movie from 1946. Whereas the social commentary in that film is regrettable, the attraction is an effervescent exercise in happiness. The various set pieces are lush and detailed, and the music soundtrack will have you singing along throughout the journey.

Then, there’s the signature moment at the end of the attraction. It’s the time when you plunge several stories straight down, causing your log flume to splash water high into the air.

Usually, most of this splashed water lands on you. It’s one of the most euphoric things possible at a theme park. Somehow, Disney elongates the pleasure by adding a ripping rendition of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah at the end.

From start to finish, Splash Mountain is a master class in ride design. Even during a highly competitive decade, it’s the best of the 1980s.