Exceptional customer service and beloved classic attractions aren't the only things that Disney Parks have become well-known (and well-loved) for. In fact, peeling away the characters and attractions completely, there's something exceptionally simple about what makes Disney's theme parks different: their commitment to cleanliness, order, and beauty.
From Disneyland to Animal Kingdom, Imagineers know how to put the park in theme park, with spectacular landscaping and dazzling environments. It's Disney's commitment to show that makes their parks so different from their competitors'. And even back when Disneyland's competitors were simple boardwalks and coaster parks, Walt knew that the park's idealized, romantic style would set it apart. That's why, when Imagineers cooked up concepts for a Haunted Mansion on the edge of New Orleans Square of decaying siding, shattered windows, tattered curtains, and overgrown gardens...
...Walt famously rejected the idea, instead offering the legendary line, "We'll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside."
But don't misunderstand: sometimes, Imagineers do have a very peculiar job: to dispense with Disney's usual order and perfection to instead make something look old, ancient, broken, ruined, or haunted. Below, we've got a list of attractions that defy Disney's usually-orderly style and actually get dirtier, older, messier, more cluttered, more lived in, and more rusted when refurbished!
1. Jungle Cruise
When Disneyland opened in 1955, the Jungle Cruise was there – arguably, as the park's original headliner! In the early days, the Jungle Cruise was staged as a self-serious tour meant to complement Disney's "True-Life Adventure" docu-series. Guests road in pristine, white boats with pastel accents, charcoal-black smokestacks, and elegant awnings of white-and-red or white-and-blue or white-and-green stripes. However, when Walt overheard a group of guests say they'd skip the Jungle Cruise since they'd already ridden it last time they visited, he leapt into action and requested his designers "plus" the ride!
Walt brought in Marc Davis (animator and later Imagineer) to add some of his signature humor and his trusted comical characters to the ride's overly serious sets. Naturally, that's when Jungle Cruise gained some of its more famously funny vignettes and switched to a knowing, comedic narration from on-board Skippers – enough to make the ride different every time, turning it into the multi-generational eternal classic we know.
But it wasn't the last change that the ride would undergo...
Perhaps the next most signficant was in 1994. That year, Disneyland's Jungle Cruise was transformed. A new, two-story Boathouse queue appeared, broadcasting classic jazz tunes throughout Adventureland and added animatronic animals to the queue. What's more, the ride's boats were totally transformed... and not in the way you'd expect.
Now, each tramp steamer is rusted, with "repairs" to their hulls, draped cargo nets, belching rusted tin smokestacks, and tattered, worn, poorly-patched canvas roofs. Why did Disneyland's ride suddenly lose its modern cleanliness and get aged back to the 1930s? Because of a famous new neighbor...
2. Indiana Jones Adventure
In 1995, the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure opened just next door, with the Jungle Cruise's new boathouse doing double duty to also serve as Indy's queue. Although not expressly explained as such, what Disney was doing with Disneyland's Adventureland is just like what they had debuted in Magic Kingdom's New Tomorrowland the year before: an early attempt at uniting each of the castle parks' literary lands with internal logic and overarching storytelling, drawn into one land-wide frame story.
For Adventureland, the story was simple: it's the late 1930s. We, the guests, are the nouveau riche of European high society, lured out to this lost river delta by sensationalized black-and-white news reports offering us an escape from our dreadfully boring lives. The main draw? The so-called "Temple of the Forbidden Eye," the newest discovery of famed archaeologist Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones. We've been promised that, by entering, we'll earn timeless youth, earthly riches, or visions of the future... if we avoid the dreaded gaze of the lost temple god, Mara...
The brilliance of the story is that when we arrive to this remote jungle outpost, we find we've been bamboozled! The "world famous" Jungle Cruise, the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and the dilapidated bazaar of the land are merely a tourist trap, lacking the elegance and exoticism we've been promised. Still, our tour through the temple is aboard "troop transports" reclaimed from the Great War, which skid through the landscape as sputtering generators try in vain to keep power running through the land. When Indiana Jones Adventure undergoes a refurbishment, mud is splattered against the ride vehicles!
3. The Haunted Mansion
Walt's famous standard of care for the Haunted Mansion came to be, even if he never lived to see the final ride that his Imagineers came up with. And true to his insistence, the stately white plantation house in Disneyland's New Orleans Square and the red-brick colonial manor in Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square are both finely kept with well-manicured lawns and carefully-cared-for exteriors.
Of course, inside the manors is something very different. Inside, the mansions are layered with dust and cobwebs, the latter of which is made of a "proprietary formula" and applied at regular intervals to keep the attraction's interior lookingly convincingly spooky. Don't worry – Cast Members have special instructions explaining what to clean, and what to leave a mess. The Haunted Mansion is undoubtedly the first Disney attraction where a layer of grime actually adds to the story, so whenever this classic goes down for a refurbishment, fans eagerly anticipate it re-opening... with more dust, cobwebs, and flickering lights than it had before!
By the way, when the Haunted Mansion was duplicated at Tokyo Disneyland, designers used the Magic Kingdom version of the exterior... but since the ride was placed in Fantasyland (befitting Japanese cultural tradition around ghosts), it was adorned with more "storybook" elements and more tell-tale signs of a haunting like – you guessed – broken windows and tattered curtains. Similarly, Disneyland Paris's spin-off – the Modern Marvel: Phantom Manor – is located in a rickety, wooden manor that looks as haunted as it is... Disney Legend and Imagineer Marc Davis commented on the Parisian ride (designed by his own protege-turned-peer, Tony Baxter) by saying "Walt would never approve of it.”
Makes us wonder what he'd think of the next ride on our list...
4. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Though the Haunted Mansion may have been the first Disney attraction designed for dirt, it wasn't the last. The spectacular Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 1994. Considered by some to be the best attraction Imagineers have ever designed, the ride tells the story of the historically haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel – a "beacon for the showbusiness elite" back in the Hollywood's heyday that was quickly abandoned when a supernatural storm in 1939 caused a wing of the hotel to flicker out of existence and evaporated an elevator with five passengers inside.
Unlike the Haunted Mansion, the Hollywood Tower Hotel itself tells us quite a bit about what happened: the looming, neo-classical hotel of twisted turrets and pointed spires is scary enough, to say nothing of its flickering neon sign and the lightning-scarred exterior with half of the hotel crumbled away into the ether. Inside the lobby, dusty remnants of the last guests' final moments inside are still there, locked in dust. The hotel's eerie library leads to a steaming boiler room, humming with effort, but caked in a layer of coal dust.
Like the Haunted Mansion, the Hollywood Tower Hotel looks a little different than other Disney rides. The more cobwebs, the more creeps the ride gives, and when the ride is refurbished, it comes out the other side looking older, spookier, and eerier than before.
5) Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!
In 2017, Disney made the surprising and arguably somewhat short-sighted decision to close the Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that had seemed a perfect fit for Disney California Adventure park, its Hollywood Land, and the billion-dollars Disney spent to get rid of the park's modern styling and create a historic California. The uniquely art-deco stylized version of the hotel (looking quite different from its Floridian sister) was... well... changed. Even fervent fans of the super hero themed ride tend to agree that the transformation time between the two was a little too short, mostly amounting to the still-art-deco, still-hotel-shaped building being painted in warning stripes with satellite dishes and massive metal tubes being bolted haphazardly to the exterior.
It neither looks like the Collector's fortress we saw in the films, nor does it make sense in the context of the park... but if you ask the Imagineer responsible, Joe Rohde (otherwise known for the masterfully-designed and thoughtfully-curated Animal Kingdom), it's all part of the fun – matching the irreverent and outrageous Guardians of the Galaxy characters.
While we'd be willing to debate that, one element of the former Hollywood Tower Hotel that remains is its cluttered interior. Imagineers literally stripped the theming from the hotel leaving the industrial steel that was holding it all up, then painted it black. They removed the 1930s memorobilia and replaced it with cages containing intergalactic creatures, cases of Marvel Cinematic Universe artifacts, and tons of "Easter eggs" for Disney Parks fans, including props from the Lost Legends: Country Bear Jamboree, Journey into Imagination, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, and more that have somehow made it into the archives of the enigmatic "Collector" character who oversees this "warehouse prison powerplant."
In fact, each time the attraction is closed for a refurbishment, it tends to re-open with new aliens and artifacts in its collection, which gives guests a reason to return. But if you really want to see Disney get it dirty, watch what happens at Halloween. Ride during the day and, as usual, you'll help Rocket break his friends out by powering down the tower's energy systems and – oops – releasing all the trapped creatures. Come back at night and things are... well... messy. The ride is changed to Guardians of the Galaxy: Monsters After Dark literally taking place "after dark" inside the tower with the monsters all loose thanks to your daytime ride. The entire experience is completely re-designed to add incredible chaos to the queue and ride, including blood-spattered Cast Member costumes you (not to mention Walt) probably never thought you'd see at a Disney Park.
6) Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run
For guests lucky enough to have stepped into Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the new, massive land at Disneyland (and soon, Disney's Hollywood Studios) has become a topic worthy of a dissertation. One thing Californian visitors can't seem to shake? It feels weird to have the massive Star Wars land against the park's much smaller, much leaner, and much simpler lands of old. The reason seems to be that Galaxy's Edge is... well... less polished.
Galaxy's Edge takes place in a remote trading village on the planet of Batuu. According to the story, Black Spire Outpost was once a bustling intergalactic port on the edge of wild space, but has long since been passed over thanks to lightspeed travel. (Sound familiar?) As a result, the land is a sort of dusty, outdated, crumbling village nestled in the shadows of the mammoth petrified tree spires that dot the planet. It feels ancient and neglected... Somewhat like if Cars Land was set before the blacktop and neon signs were fixed. In fact, Batuu feels like it could be a World Showcase pavilion – a hyper-realistic north African marketplace – if it weren't for the space ships. And it's wonderful! But it's also very different from the park's other lands, which are all diminuitive, charming, broadly pop-cultural / literary, and passed through a rosy lens of fantasy.
In any case, the aesthetic naturally follows to the land's supporting ride, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. The gaming-simulator puts guests behind the controls of the "fasted hunk of junk in the galaxy" while it's docked on Batuu undergoing repairs. Guests tour through the queue of the repair shop run by Hondo Onaka, seeing scrap parts and broken down ships all around – part of Star Wars' signature aesthetic. Even during the ride, the Falcon is beaten senseless (by you! Oops!) slamming into spires, ships, and other obstacles. If you perform poorly enough (which most guests do) you not only get yelled at by Hondo and potentially threatened by a Black Spire bounty hunter out in the land, but you also get to exit the Falcon by way of a sparking tunnel of flickering lights thanks to the damage you caused.
Some people love Smuggler's Run, while others don't seem to buy into the gaming-engine-based ride, its reliance on strangers to determine your experience (sure to be made even more difficult at Walt Disney World, which has significantly more visitors from non-English-speaking countries), and the ability to essentially "lose." Whether you like the ride's (and land's) less polished, grittier style or not, the land's anchor E-Ticket – Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance – will take place off of Batuu and largely be wrapped in the sharper, cleaner, and less "dirty" aesthetic of the First Order.
This list barely scratches the surface of attractions at Disney Parks that actually benefit from looking old, ragged, run-down, or lived-in.
Next time you step into the lived-in villages of Africa and Asia at Disney's Animal Kingdom, consider the centuries of storytelling backed into those environments that make them feel like real places; think of how nature is overtaking the former military facilities on Pandora; the gritty, dip-splattered streets of Toontown we explore on Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin; the elegant, Victorian, steampunk brass paradise of Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland; the rusted mines of Big Thunder Mountain...
While Disney is renowed for its cleanliness, order, and perfectly maintained environments, sometimes a little mess is part of those environments. Which means that not only does no one keep a park clean like Disney; no one makes a mess like Disney, either!