There's no question that Disney Parks are the golden standard for most themed entertainment design around the world. You can chalk that up to the ambitious, radical, industry-forming precedents set and re-set by Walt Disney and his team; the incredible budget today's Walt Disney Company is willing to fork out for its Parks division; the ongoing collective brilliance of Imagineering to keep Disney Parks cutting-edge... Put simply, no one does it like Disney.
But today, we wanted to look outside of Disney Parks with a very simple goal in mind: we set out to begin a list (one that, of course, could be hundreds of entries long) of attractions we think Walt Disney would get a kick out of. Though no one can reasonably overtake Disney, it sure seems like Walt would step off of these nine attractions feeling inspired and smiling...
1. Calico Mine Ride
Location: Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park, California)
Video: "Fire in the hole!"
Just ten minutes north of Disneyland stands Knott’s Berry Farm, a historic theme park founded by another Walt – Walter Knott. Despite the proximity of their parks, Disney and Knott had a positive relationship. For example, Walt was known to swing by Knott’s park in the early days, taking careful measurements of park pathways and inquiring about things like the price of food.
As a matter of fact, this is the only ride on our list that we know Walt Disney liked; he visited the park in 1960 for the opening of the Calico Mine Ride. The beloved attraction carries guests in ore carts through the winding tunnels of a gold mine, viewing underground lakes, heavenly caverns of hypnotic stalactites, bubbling geysers, and the ride’s fabled central scene: a 65-foot-tall, 90-foot wide cavern seen from three levels along the ride’s course.
The ride looks better than ever after an extensive, nostalgic refurbishment in 2014, replacing simple mechanical miners with full Audio-Animatronics and fine-tuning lighting, sound, and animation as never before.
Calico Mine Ride also inspired Walt in a pretty significant way… He was reportedly astounded by the way designer Bud Hulburt hid the ride’s queue from guests by twisting it among “natural” features, tucked away behind rock walls, train tracks, and waterfalls. He’s quoted as saying, “My God, that’s a sneaky thing! Here there’s two hundred people in line back here, and I didn’t know there was anybody!” – likely the origin of Disneyland’s elaborate hidden queues thereafter…
Location: Efteling (North Brabant, Netherland)
Rumors have circulated for decades that when Walt Disney sought inspiration for his new park in Anaheim, he visited Efteling in the Netherlands – opened in 1952. While all camps deny Walt’s visit to the park, Efteling seems like just the sort of place he would’ve enjoyed. The unbelievably beautiful park is wholly dedicated to the myths, folklores, fables, and fairytales of Europe, evolving from a nature park with a “Fairytale Forest” into one of the world’s most spectacular parks in its own right.
Droomvlucht – or Dreamflight – isn’t the park’s most wildly scaled ride (that would probably be the Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-scaled Fata Morgana), its most artistic (maybe their Spookslot haunted house) or its most thrilling (perhaps the well-themed Baron 1898 dive coaster), but it’s probably the one that would’ve delighted Walt the most. The suspended dark ride levitates guests through the Castle Realm, the Wondrous Forest, the Fairy Garden, Heavenly Strongholds and the Squelch Forest, passing miniature scenes, dioramas, characters, and more.
Even if Walt didn’t personally visit Efteling, what is true is that Disney consulted with the park before the opening of Disneyland Paris – an essential ingredient in their continuing quest to get the Parisian park just right for European audiences. When Disneyland Paris was complete, Disney gifted Efteling a small statue as a thank you.
3. Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Location: Universal’s Islands of Adventure (Orlando, Florida)
Video: "The most dangerous night of my life... and yours!"
Disneyland was – at its core – Walt's answer to pop culture in the era. Back in the 1950s, people loved Westerns and the grand exploits of the American frontier; they were captivated with emerging information about the dark jungles of Africa; they were buzzing with excitement about the Space Age and the promise of nuclear energy... That's why Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland exist...
And in some alternate universe were Disneyland were built in the '60s rather than the '50s, we might imagine that a Heroland would exist as well! Because just as Americans in the '50s played Cowboys and Indians, children in the '60s and '70s were engrossed by Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, and other Stan Lee Marvel classics. Though fans revolt at the thought of Marvel being "shoehorned" into Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and other sacred "castle" parks, the truth is that it fits there well among the park's literary lands... at least, in its comic book form...
Forget for a moment that Universal Orlando's Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man just so happens to be one of the greatest modern dark rides on the planet, and that it features the kind of ambitious, forward-thinking, industry-changing innovation that Walt's own creations were always known for...
In the simplest terms, we think Walt would get a kick out of the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man because it expertly does what he and his designers have done for decades: it totally immerses riders into a world they've always wanted to be a part of. And if Walt could be alive to see the ride (and to see the $4 billion acquisition of Marvel), he'd likely be pretty jealous that the Spider-Man ride would be the magnum opus of Disney's biggest competitors just up the road...
4. The Flying Trunk
Location: Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Video: "Once upon a time..."
If there's any park on Earth with a story as fascinating as Disneyland's, it must be Denmark's Tivoli Gardens. It's founder, Georg Carstensen, gained the park's land simply by telling Denmark's King Christian VIII, "when the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics." The park opened in 1843 – more than one hundred years before Disneyland – at which time Georg eloquently said, "Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished." Sound familiar?
Though he may not have visited Efteling, Walt did visit Tivoli and it's often cited as a formative ingredient in the making of Disneyland. The park is beautiful, still renowned for its lantern-lit gardens, Orient-stylized architecture, iconic entry arch, and the historic H.C. Andersen Castle, named for Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author and poet who wrote The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more.
Those stories are among the 32 fairytale scenes brought to life aboard The Flying Trunk, an elevated Omnimover attraction wherein guests are seated in... well... flying trunks. The ride carries guests through charming scenes stylized as if in a pop-up book, recounting Andersen's beloved stories and narrated by the author throughout. The magnificent family ride (revitalized in 2010) is just the sort of charming dark ride that proably would've inspired Walt with its simplicity and heart.
5. Hershey’s Chocolate Tour
Location: Hersheypark (Hershey, Pennsylvania)
Video: "You can taste the love!"
Located just outside of Hersheypark is Hershey's Chocolate World, a visitors center complex loaded with chocolate-themed attractions and shops, all open to the public! There's no ticket or admission fee required to get into Chocolate World, nor to step aboard the Hershey's Chocolate Tour attraction. The nine-minute dark ride (featuring a ride system developed by Arrow Dynamics, but similar in operation to an Omnimover) provides a tour through a stylized chocolate factory. Along the way, riders are serenaded by Audio Animatronics cows that tell the story of how cocoa, milk, and sugar create Hershey's signature chocolate.
Though the Hershey's Chocolate Tour predates EPCOT Center by nearly a decade, the attraction might as well stand among its classic industry-focused Omnimovers in an imaginary chocolate-themed pavilion. It stands to reason that Walt would be fascinated by this industrious look into the making of chocolate, and it's a delightful dark ride open to the public even today.
Location: Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia)
Video: "Brave the Black Forest"
The only outright roller coaster on our list, Verbolten accomplishes something otherwise reserved mostly for Disney and Universal: it uses a roller coaster to tell a compelling story. Located in the Oktoberfest land at the Europe-themed Busch Gardens in Virginia, Verbolten begins in Gerta and Gunter’s Tours and Rentals, a festive business run by the eponymous sister-brother duo.
In the ride’s queue, guests get the sense that something is up with Gunter, who appears to have an odd obsession with Germany’s Black Forest – “strictly verboten” on our tour – and a pass through his makeshift shed-turned-laboratory behind the tour center signals that past tourists have found their itineraries unknowingly set to bring them too close to the legendary stone wall outside of town that keeps the Black Forest at bay.
Naturally, the roller coaster picks up with riders being sucked through a hole in the wall and catapulted into the darkness of the Black Forest, dodging vines, branches, and more en route to the ride’s secret and unexpected maneuver. Suffice it to say that Verbolten offers three unique ride variations, either trapping riders among a pack of wolves, stranding them in a lightning storm, or drawing them in via a deceptive spirit of the Forest. An explosive finale launches riders to their only means of escape: a broken down covered bridge on the edge of the forest, diving toward the Rhine River below and following in the literal footsteps of the park’s Lost Legend: Big Bad Wolf.
Even if it doesn’t have the budget of Disney’s best, Verbolten is a perfect example of Walt Disney’s formula living on… It dresses a family roller coaster in story, detail, and mystery, creating a one-of-a-kind attraction you have to see to believe.
Location: Phantasialand (Brühl, Germany)
Germany's premier theme park is Phantasialand, a truly astounding park packed with thrills and theme smashed together in a way U.S. regional parks would kill for. The park's themed lands include Berlin (with the astounding Hotel Tartüff 3-story walkthrough fun-house and the impressive Maus Au Chocolat, re-using Toy Story Mania's ride system but arming guests with pastry piping bags set loose in a mouse-infested restaurant) and Africa (featuring the park's signature thrill ride, the Mamba roller coaster that dives and twists through the immersive scenery).
One of the park's most impressive lands, though, has to be its Mexico area. That portion of the park (also home to the insane Talocan top spin) hosts Chiapas, certainly one of the best flume rides on Earth. The ride is sprawling and beautiful, whisking guests through russet-red South American canyons pouring with waterfalls and into ancient temples... one of which even contains a disco ball dance party with lasers. Okay, it sounds wild.
But Chiapas is consistently praised, and is one of the few rides on Earth outside of Disney Parks to have a literal mountain range built for it, with thousands of plants growing along the course. And like any of Disney's best, it even features its own official score, recorded by the Budapest Film Music Orchestra.
8. Monster Mansion
Location: Six Flags Over Georgia (Austell, Georgia)
Opened: 1981 / 2009
Video: "Stay outta the Marsh!"
Opened in 1981 and extensively, lovingly refurbished in 2009, Monster Mansion stands on this list representing the beloved, classic, family dark rides that populate regional theme parks across the U.S (and the many that have been lost to time). In the case of the Six Flags Over Georgia favorite, riders board 6-passenger boats and float into a good ole' fashioned antebellum plantation populated entirely by monsters. The 2009 refurbishment brought on the Goddard Group (original creators of the ride, since ballooning into international theme park industry veterans) to create 107 from-scratch mechanical monsters, replace every speaker and light fixture in the ride, and freshen up its effects.
The end result is a festive journey into the flooded manor, and an ill-advised trip into the dreaded dark Marsh outside of town. Colorful, creative, and classic, we like to think that Walt would approve of Monster Mansion (and the dozens of similarly-scaled dark rides at seasonal parks) because of how it connects to locals. Literal generations of riders have experienced Monster Mansion, and by recieving the "TLC" that these rides need from time to time, Six Flags has shown a commitment to keeping things fresh that Walt doubtlessly would've loved.
Location: Efteling (North Brabant, Netherland)
Video: "Illumina fantastica!"
We're back to the Dutch fairytale forest of Efteling for our final entry on this list... Symbolica. If the ride's facade recalls images of Disney's own Modern Marvel: Mystic Manor, that would undoubtedly be correct. Symbolica, too, is a trackless dark ride; one that, in places, exceeds even Disney's standards. The attraction is set up as a visit with King Pardulfus gone awry when court jester Pardoes (the park's longtime mascot, finally given his own attraction) interrupts the tour, literally splits a grand staircase down the middle, and sends queuing guests into the secret passage there.
Here's where the strength of the trackless ride comes in: guests select which tour of the castle they'd like: the Hero Tour, the Music Tour, or the Treasure Tour. And while the vehicles stick together for much of the time, each tour accesses unique experiences along the way. The tour includes stops in the grand Observatorium, a visit to the Panorama Salon overlooking the kingdom, a moment in the kitchen's champagne stocks, and (probably most impressively) the unbelievable Botanicum greenhouse which transforms into... well... you've got to see it to believe it.
Admittedly, Symbolica is weighed down by a few awkward moments when guests are meant to turn their attention to screens in each vehicle to play inconsequential mini-games. But altogether, the ride's brave, unusual, and almost-abstract fantastical spirit make it something Disney fans the world over should be eager to see in person... and we think Walt would be, too.