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The Ride Count Countdown: How Disney & Universal Parks Stack Up

Theme parks are living creatures. Sure, they grow and change and "will never be complete..." But even more, they're made of complex systems and elements all working together so effortlessly, you may not even realize they're working at all. Berms act as skin, protecting parks from the outside world; intuitive layouts are a skeleton, giving the park structure; pathways act as veins and arteries, pulsing guests instead of blood; restrooms are... Well... 

The point is, when it comes to the heart, lungs, and brain of theme parks, the analogy is simple: rides! And don't misunderstand: the best theme parks are all about balance, featuring meet-and-greets, restaurants, shows, walkthroughs, scenery, and interactive exhibits that make a day feel complete and worthwhile... But if you were about to take a first-time visitor to your favorite theme park, chances are that the rides would be your first priority and theirs...

So today – just for fun! – we want to take a look at Disney and Universal's parks to do the numbers. Exactly how many rides does each of their parks really have? For our purposes, we’ll define a ride as a specific type of attraction wherein the rider moves – so that's excluding most shows, walkthroughs, and other "attractions." During our countdown, be sure to watch for links to Lost Legends and Disaster Files – in-depth features telling the full, unabridged stories of forgotten favorites and disastrous missteps – along the way. But before we start, ask yourself: which parks do you suspect have the fewest rides? Which parks would you think have the most? What about resorts? Think you can’t be surprised by any of the statistics here? Read on…

17. Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Image: Disney

Ride Count: 4

When Michael Eisner commissioned the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, the entire park revolved around the tram-led, multi-hour Backlot Studio Tour that promised to whisk guests through the park’s actual production facilities. Only problem is that, despite Eisner’s intentions, film production never came to Florida, leaving the itty-bitty “studio” park with just two rides.

Smartly, Disney set out to plus the park with can’t-miss E-Tickets like the Lost Legend: Star Tours, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster so that even when the Studio Tour finally folded in 2014, the park still had a purpose. 

And sure, you’d expect a movie-themed park to have shows and character encounters to augment the low ride count, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios does! But seeing that bare number – 4 – helps explain why fans feel ashamed of the dated park.

What’s next? In 2014, Disney CEO Bob Iger accidentally let it slip that Disney’s Hollywood Studios would be receiving a new, third name that many expected would downplay the tired “studio” theme and kick-off a California Adventure sized rebuild. And indeed, in 2015 half the park’s footprint was walled off to make way for lands based on Star Wars and Toy Story. When they open (expected for 2019), each land will add two rides to the park’s count. On top of that, in 2017, the park's signature "thesis" dark ride that many expected to last... well... forever, closed as well. That Lost Legend: The Great Movie Ride will become a new ride based on the modern Mickey Mouse shorts series, eventually bringing the park's count to 9. So it’ll still have the fewest rides of any Disney Park, but at least it’ll have some more flashy, headlining ones!

16. Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Image: Disney

Ride Count: 9

When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, it represented a new ideology of Imagineering. The hyper-realistic park was truly wild, inviting exploration into exotic, photorealistic African villages; entire collapsed Asian ruins, and archaeological digs worth digging into. Animal Kingdom was a creative triumph, with almost 600 acres of stunning detail.

What it didn’t have was rides. The park opened with only four.

Sure, animal encounters, exotic dining, and exploration are really the bread-and-butter here, but the park Disney pushed heavily as being “Nahtazū” sure didn’t offer many rides – just the horrifying DINOSAUR and the inspiring Kilimanjaro Safaris, plus two transportation rides (a train and a quickly-closed boat ride). Since then, Kali River Rapids, Expedition Everest, and two piecemeal additions in the tepid Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama have upped the ride count to seven.

When Animal Kingdom’s newest land, Pandora – The World of Avatar opened in summer 2017, the park at last gained two new rides, both stunning. The headliner is Flight of Passage – a simulated Banshee-backed journey through the distant planet – but fans are also enamored with the Na’vi River Journey, a good old-fashioned boat ride through a bioluminescent forest to encounter the flora and fauna of Pandora.

What's next? Nothing's on the docket officially (given the recent Pandora opening) but rumors are always swirling. For now, word on the street is that Dinoland U.S.A. and its Dinosaur dark ride may make a thematic swap, becoming a South American land (a good fit alongside the park's Asia and Africa) with Indiana Jones taking over... While it's nothing but a murmur now, we like the sound of it.

15. Universal Studios Hollywood

Image: gio.april, Flickr (license)

Ride Count: 9

Universal Studios’ original park in Hollywood traces its theme park roots to the 1960s. But for the bulk of its history, the Los Angeles park has been unique among “studio” themed parks for, y’know, actually being a real studio. Universal’s Californian campus is, first and foremost, a real working movie studio that, over the years, began to add shows, demonstrations, and rides to augment the world-famous Studio Tour.

Even with additions like Jurassic Park: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride, and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, the hour-long Studio Tour remained the reason to visit. On-board trams, guests glide past real, historic and modern movie sets, may see actual live productions, and interact with increasingly-technological staged encounters with earthquakes, floods, King Kong, Jaws, and more.

The only thing that could’ve dethroned the Studio Tour as the park’s draw was the 2016 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a near-identical duplicate of the Hogsmeade Village that debuted in Florida years before. Its Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff upped the park’s ride count by 2 to a reasonable 10, and it’s worth noting that each of the 10 is a grand, big-budget spectacular with very few cop-outs.

What’s next? Fresh from the opening of Hogsmeade, the park isn’t slowing much. The Walking Dead Attraction opened in 2016 (though it’s not a ride and thus doesn’t count here) but a leveling of some of the studio facilities signals that Universal is ready to continue this studio’s transformation into a theme park proper… That said, the closing of Shrek 4D in 2017 (to become a Dreamworks multi-media theater) knocked the park's lineup down to 9. The jury's still out on whether the new Dreamworks attraction will meet our definition of a "ride."

14. Epcot

Image: Disney

Ride Count: 10

Epcot is unique among the theme parks on this list for the grand (and not-so-grand) transformative periods it’s undergone. Disney’s hopes of running an interactive, educational, immersive, permanent World’s Fair sponsored by corporations and highlighting areas of science and industry has seen its ups and downs.

In the park’s early years, lengthy, educational, Animatronic-heavy dark rides told the story of the park’s themed pavilions, but most have closed one-by-one to populate our series, Lost Legends: Body Wars, World of Motion (and then the original Test Track), Journey into Imagination, Soarin’, Maelstrom, Universe of Energy, and the father of all closed classics, Horizons. Each has closed to make way for more modern rides altogether disconnected from the park’s original purpose.

In 2017, Disney took the unusual step of addressing the lowered gravity on the park's Mission: SPACE, effectively creating two distinct attractions to our way of thinking, which nullified the ride count lost by a surprising closure...

What’s next? Today’s Epcot has earned the contempt of many fans who wish only to return to the storied and magnificent park of their youths… an unlikely event, though Bob Iger has promised that a full, foundational rebuild of the park’s Future World is imminent. At 2017's semi-annual D23 conference, at least part of the plan was revealed: a Lost Legend: Universe of Energy (one of the park's original opening day pavilions) closed to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride while Ratatouille is on the way to the France pavilion. While introduction of Frozen and now Ratatouille opened the floodgates for the once-sacreligious idea of characters in World Showcase, rumors of a Coco infusion in Mexico, a Mary Poppins ride in England, and an Inside Out swap for Imagination still rumble, but we'll see. As of right now, the park's got 10 rides with 2 new ones officially on the way.

13. Walt Disney Studios Paris

Image: David Jafra, Flickr (license)

Ride Count: 10

When Walt Disney Studios Park opened in 2002, it was meant to be the second gate that would save Disneyland Paris from financial disaster. Instead, guests encountered Disney’s most pathetic and pointless theme park ever. We chronicled the in-depth experience of the starved park in its own must-read feature, Disaster Files: Walt Disney Studios Park, but in short, the itty-bitty park contained only three rides: a clone of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, an Aladdin-themed Dumbo spinner, and a Studio Backlot Tour even more pointless than Florida’s.

A few additions since have added a handful of off-the-shelf family flat rides in a Toy Story land, the indoor Crush’s Coaster, and a version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The piece de resistance arrived in 2014 when Ratatouille: L'Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy opened in a custom-built Parisian mini-land.

Still, such piecemeal additions won’t be able to sustain the park long-term, and it needs a California-Adventure-sized build if it’s ever to carry its own weight.

What’s next? Disney announced that in March 2017, one of the park’s opening-day shows would close to become a Marvel stunt show. That makes it nearly certain that the adjacent Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster will be quickly redressed as an Avengers coaster and that the nearby Tower of Terror will get the same short-sighted Guardians of the Galaxy overlay as the ride in California did, creating a mini Marvel land. We’ll see...

12. Shanghai Disneyland

Image: Disney

Ride Count: 13

Disney’s sixth Magic-Kingdom-style park on Earth opened in 2016. What frenzied fans most eagerly studied was the park’s seeming reinvention of the expected Disney Parks standards, as Shanghai Disneyland did away with tropes like Adventureland, Frontierland, and Main Street entirely, shuffled the park’s tried-and-true layout, and dispensed with many standard rides as we explored in our In-Depth: Shanghai Disneyland walkthrough.

So even if the park features only 13 rides, it’s worth noting that each is unique, if not in concept than in execution. A stylistically-boosted Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, an epic-sized Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Sunken Treasure, and the long-rumored Soaring Over the Horizon all premiered at the park.

Then, Space Mountain was entirely replaced with TRON: Light Cycle Power Run; the enormous Storybook Castle became home to a dark ride called Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, and the Adventureland replacement (with its own S.E.A. style mythology), features a rapids ride through the towering Mount Apu Taku, including a finale encounter with a massive, menacing reptile guardian we listed in our must-read countdown of the best animatronics on Earth.

What’s next? While it may not be packed with attractions, Shanghai’s modest ride lineup is mostly made of groundbreaking and original attractions, making its lineup enviable. And given the park’s successful launch, Disney’s already moving earth on the plot set aside for a Toy Story Play Land, which is likely to add two or three new rides itself. As for the land set aside for an Expedition Everest clone? We’ll see…

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