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
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.