In more than 60 years of Disney Parks history, the only thing to stay the same has been change. From the blacklight cut-out classics of the '50s to the epic and cinematic dark rides of the '60s; the '70s thrill rides to the "ride the movies" favorites of the '80s and '90s. Today, it's IP that powers the parks; a synergistic cross-promotion with Disney's created and acquired characters...
So when it comes to 2020 and beyond, one thing we know for sure is that any ride Disney does build today needs one thing to get the green-light: characters. In some instances, we don't have to wonder or imagine what that might be like since Disney really has overlayed or even completely transformed some of their long-standing classics with character. Think of Maelstrom... with Frozen; The Living Seas... with Finding Nemo; Space Mountain... with Star Wars; California Screamin'... with The Incredibles.
Today, we'll take a look at 10 "classic" attractions that – if built today – would definitely have characters built in. To be clear, we're not suggesting we approve of these ideas! Some actually sound alright, while others sound awful. Which of these would you actually not mind seeing? Which are frustrating enough to make your skin crawl? Let us know in the comments below!
1. Adventure Thru Inner Space... with Ant-Man
When we told the full, in-depth story of Disneyland's Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space, we couldn't help but celebrate the lesser-known classic's many milestones. Not only was it the first ride to utilize Disney's patented Omnimover ride system (later famously used on the Haunted Mansion), but it was also the anchor attraction of Walt's Space-Age-inspired New Tomorrowland. But perhaps most importantly, it was a hallmark of Imagineering's intellectual era; an almost-academic, abstract dark ride down to the size of an atom and back, born of Walt's fasination with the Atomic Age and setting the stage for the EPCOT Center classics to follow.
Ultimately, Adventure Thru Inner Space – the ride that defined Tomorrowland and Walt's interest in real science and technology – was coincidentally replaced with the ride that redefined Tomorrowland and Disney Parks: the Lost Legend: Star Tours. The Omnimover lived on, even in Tomorrowland, in a series of Buzz Lightyear dark rides that span the globe. And here's the ironic part: Hong Kong Disneyland's Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters dark ride closed in 2017... and became Ant-Man and the Wasp: Nano Battle, shrinking guests to the size of a spec of dust for a nanobot war inside of a microchip!
Unfortunately, reception to the Ant-Man ride in Hong Kong has been pretty poor. Mostly made of static, unmoving sets accentuated by projection mapping, the primary complaint against the ride is that it's stylized as an action ride, which is inherently incompatible with the slow-moving Omnimover and laser gun "targets" that... well... don't do anything.
But it does make us wonder aloud how spectacular it would be if Disney dared design a ride with all the brains of Adventure Thru Inner Space – authentically trying to teach guests about the microscopic world! – just with Ant-Man as its narrator and host...! For example, instead of the Mighty Monsanto Microscope, Omnimovers could advance into the Pym Technologies Miniaturizer for a Stark Expo-sponsored journey to the size of an atom with Ant-Man's voice leading us through the microscopic trip; a ride where nothing "goes wrong," with no laser guns needed! Might Marvel heroes be a way to interest today's guests in real STEM learning? We'd love to find out...
2. Journey into Imagination... with Inside Out
Like most of EPCOT Center's opening day pavilions, the Imagination pavilion was headlined by an epic, massively-scaled dark ride. But unlike the more industrious and concrete pavilion themes of Future World, Imagination's ride – a Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination – was a flight of fancy, with guests following the enigmatic Dreamfinder and his purple dragon Figment into realms of art, literature, performing arts, and science. A catastrophic renovation in 1999 axed the original characters, halved the ride's length, and replaced the abstract artistic plot with what some call Disney's worst ride ever – the Declassified Disaster: Journey into YOUR Imagination. A cobbled-together correction quickly replaced it, but the current ride is still far from a source of pride for Disney fans.
There's practically no way to imagine a path forward for the Imagination pavilion (supposing it remains themed to Imagination) but for Inside Out to become involved. The spectacular, hit Pixar film of 2015 was a generational classic, examining the inner workings of a young girl's mind and the anthropomorphic emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear – that pilot her perceptions through adolescence. As a matter of fact, this might be one place in the former Future World where even fans would agree that a Pixar movie makes more sense than what's already there.
That's why it was so unexpected that changes to Imagination were about the only Epcot changes not announced at 2019's D23 Expo. It's odd to imagine the completely-reborn version of the park still featuring the uninspired Journey into Imagination with Figment ride, and while a 21st century return of Dreamfinder and Figment would be astounding, that feels... unlikely. Inside Out, meanwhile, may be a real path forward.
3. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter... with Alien
There's perhaps no more controversial closed Disney attraction on earth than the Lost Legend: Alien Encounter – a theater-in-the-round style special effects show that was wrapped into the mid-century sci-fi Tomorrowland Magic Kingdom debuted in the mid-'90s. The multi-sensory attraction is sometimes called Disney's scariest ever, essentially trapping guests in their seats while an insectoid alien escapes into the crowd, drools on their neck, kills a security guard, then explodes.
But as we explored in our in-depth look at Alien Encounter, the Imagineers dreaming up a sci-fi horror ride initially hoped to use 20th Century Fox's generation-defining 1979 interstellar horror film, Alien as a basis. In fact, they hoped then-CEO Michael Eisner could convince Fox to license the film's iconic Xenomorph creature for use in Disney Parks (a real possibility given Eisner's cross-industry agreements for Star Wars and Indiana Jones).
Importantly, Imagineers believed that explicitly featuring Fox's Alien would give Disney license to make the attraction ultra-intense, since the Alien tie-in would concisely and overtly build-in parental controls. Ultimately, Eisner was talked out of using the Xenomorph before he even made the ask, convinced by George Lucas that the R-rated sci-fi body horror film was too intense for a Disney Park.
Now tasked with designing something scary – but not too scary – from scratch, designers created the attraction that debuted in 1994... and was closed soon after for a myriad of reasons, including a veritable line of parents outside of City Hall complaining about the massively dark experience that was so at odds with anything else at Magic Kingdom. The irony now is that Disney owns Alien, having purchased Fox outright for $71.3 billion. That makes the Xenomorph a character in the expanded Disney Company character collection... and a shoe-in for Alien Encounter if it were built today.
4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea... with Finding Nemo
In 1959, Disneyland debuted the Submarine Voyage as an E-Ticket expansion of the park's Tomorrowland. By time designers were ready to plug the ride into the new Magic Kingdom, subs were far from futuristic. That's why the ride was reimagined to fit within Fantasyland, instead, taking on the aesthetics (and a few key scenes) from Jules Verne's 19th century adventure novel, creating the Lost Legend: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - Submarine Voyage.
Both sets of Subs bit the dust in the '90s thanks to a particularly penny-pinching regime in the era. Disneyland's ride resurfaced thanks to the surprise success of Pixar's Finding Nemo (see our Disney•Pixarland feature for the full story there), but by then, Disney World's lagoon had already been filled in and turned into a Winnie the Pooh playground.
Even though Jules Verne's adventure stories are chocked full of characters, compelling plots, iconic settings, and recognizable moments, Disney doesn't seem to count the tales as valuable intellectual property. So even if Magic Kingdom's subs were still around, there's essentially zero chance they'd still be themed to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We'd like to think that if Magic Kingdom's sub ride had just been able to hold on a few more years, it, too, might've been approved for the Nemo overlay (which is mostly screen-based, but better than losing the unique underwater ride system altogether).
5. Country Bear Jamboree... with Toy Story
The full story of the Modern Marvel: Country Bear Jamboree and the artist-turned-Imagineer who created it is one of our favorites, culminating in the debut of the Audio Animatronic bear band in Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. In fact, the bears were so popular, the show became the first ever to originate in Florida before being duplicated back in California rather than the other way around. Today, nearly 50 years later, the Country Bear Jamboree feels like an inseparable part of the Magic Kingdom experience.
That hasn't meant that the show is safe... in fact, recent rumors signal that Disney is interested in retiring the Country Bears in favor of Sheriff Woody, Jessie, and Bullseye. If whispered rumors turn out to become reality, the fictitious 1950s kids' television show "Woody's Round-Up" could come to life at Magic Kingdom, stylized as a marionette show in the theater. No doubt such a singalong stage show would include the "Woody's Round-Up" theme song and "You've Got a Friend in Me."
While the idea would likely draw the ire of fans (for some good reasons), there are at least two inarguable points that must be made:
- "Woody's Round-Up" – in the Toy Story universe, the 1950s black and white TV show that Sheriff Woody dolls were made to promote – is an allusion to real 1950s shows (like The Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Howdy Doody) that really had shaped American pop culture. Those shows lead to a generation defined by Western films, summers playing "Cowboys & Indians," and... Walt's decision to include a "Frontierland" in Disneyland! So even though the show is fake, its backstory is kind of a clever nod to the mid-century frenzy that created Frontierland to begin with.
- While fans balk at the continuity-shattering idea of a 1950s TV show from a 1990s CGI movie in a 1860s frontier town, it's technically no more outlandish than a singing bear band spoofing modern country songs originally designed for a ski resort's restaurant dining room...
Disney probably wouldn't open a family Audio Animatronics show today anyway, but at least we can all agree that if they did, the Toy Story characters would absolutely have been a part of it from the start.
6. Mission: SPACE... with Guardians of the Galaxy
The choice to replace the Lost Legend: Universe of Energy with Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind has been one of the more controversial announcements at Epcot lately (and that's saying something). It's especially odd given that just next door is Mission: Space.
Before Mission: Space opened in 2003, it was believed that the technological marvel thrill ride simulating the real physics of a space launch would become Disney's next big franchisable attraction, quickly being duplicated in their parks across the globe. After it opened, the Epcot ride turned out to be too intense, with a sustained 2.5 Gs of force making it one of the world's most viscerally extreme experiences in any theme park. In fact, Disney has repeatedly gone to great lengths to convey the to guests just how poerful the experience is, reduced the ride's intensity, and created an alternative "mission" with much less movement.
Inducting the irreverent and ragtag Marvel superhero team into Epcot's ranks is inherently controversial for fans, but it's odd that Disney didn't choose to overlay the intergalactic heroes on the Space pavilion, where they feel like a more logical fit. After all, Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax spend much of the film in starships, blasting through outer space. Put another way, if Mission: Space were opening for the first time today, we feel confident that the Guardians crew might've been baked into the ride from the get-go.
7. Space Mountain... with Wall-e
You may recall that Space Mountain was featured on our list of 8 Classic Rides Disney Would NEVER Build Today, and we bet you can see why. Today's executives would probably be bamboozled by the proposition of a roller coaster in a dark, offering neither any substantial thrills, technological wows, marketable characters, or even a story. But of course, it's immortalized in an in-depth behind-the-ride feature – Modern Marvels: Space Mountain – precisely because it transcends that all. Equally as relevant today as it was in the Space Age it was designed for, the ride is about free-flight; the unknown; wonder and fun.
If Disney were going to build a ride of similar stats today, maybe Wall-e would be a suitable intellectual property to make it happen. We can practically picture the ride (which, by sheer numbers alone, is one of the more tame family coasters out there) filled with projections of Wall-e and Eve zipping alongside the trains, with fantastic saturated nebulas and starfields all around.
But another unusual truth is that if Tomorrowland were making its debut today, space probably wouldn't factor in much at all... "Space" feels central to Tomorrowland because of the time the land was most memorably designed (the late '60s and early '70s) but built from scratch, a Tomorrowland of today would probably find more adventure inside a computer than in outer space... which is perhaps why the Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run was built instead of Space Mountain in the future-forward Shanghai Disneyland... and why it's a little odd that TRON will be next to Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom come 2021.
8. The Enchanted Tiki Room... with Moana
Like the Country Bear Jamboree, The Enchanted Tiki Room doesn't seem like the kind of attraction that Disney would be interested in starting up today. But even if the age of animatronic shows passed by a long time ago, there's something special about this one. Maybe it's that the Enchanted Tiki Room is one of only two attractions in the world to bear the "Walt Disney's" tag in its name. If you're interested in the full story of the attraction, make the jump to our Modern Marvels: The Enchanted Tiki Room feature.
The Tiki Room is also unique because it has undergone a number of character overlays. In Tokyo, the original attraction was briefly restylized as a modern Las Vegas influenced musical revue before taking on its current form, which involves the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Stitch crashing the party. In Orlando, the attraction infamously became the subject of a Declassified Disaster: The Enchanted Tiki Room - Under New Management in the '90s, with Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King coming on board to "spice things up." With all due respect to '90s kids who grew up with the "Under New Management" version and find Walt's now-restored original to be boring, they're wrong.
In the lead-up to the 2016 film Moana, many fans began biting their nails. Not only was the gorgeous animated film set in Polynesia, but it also featured spectacular singalong musical numbers and... uh oh... a very dumb chicken. Would Disney try another modern overlay to the Tiki Room? So far, no. A slightly edited-for-time version of the 1963 original still plays in both Anaheim and Orlando. Will it forever? Time will tell. But at least we can be sure if that the attraction were built from scratch today, Moana – and Hei Hei – would be on full display.
9. Kali River Rapids... with Up
Kali River Rapids was the first attraction added to Disney's Animal Kingdom after the park's opening – the anchor of the then-new Asia continent. It was also Disney's first time building a white water rapids ride; the kind you'll find at many amusement parks that can freely spin as they smash through waves, pass alongside (or under) waterfalls, and sometimes drift into the path of onlookers firing water cannons or triggering geysers.
In Kali River Rapids (and Disney's other two uses of the ride system – Grizzly River Run at California Adventure and Roaring Rapids in Shanghai), Imagineers seemed to recognize that the frantic, distracting, and rotating ride system isn't exactly great for telling a story. Animal Kingdom's does the best of the three by at least sending the rafts through Asian ruins and into a smouldering clearing of downed trees, giving some indication of the menace of deforestation, logging, and human encroachment on habitats.
While characters were once unheard of in Animal Kingdom except when presented in in-universe, artisan, local storyteller styling, the introduction of the "Wilderness Explorers" from Pixar's Up as a cross-park badge-gathering game for kids, then (much less successfully) as the draw for Asia's "Up! A Great Bird Adventure" show, it may well be time to fold 'em and turn Kali River Rapids into a Wilderness Explorer journey down Anandapur's rivers, keeping the authentic and layered Asian details, but adding Russel and Doug in simple animatronic forms along the water as they search out Asian wildlife and study the ruins – perhaps to some comedic effect. The addition of the cartoon characters might actually be a "plus" for this 20-year-old ride that isn't really seen as a headliner, especially in a park with so few attractions.
10. Gran Fiesta Tour... with Coco
Despite Imagineers' plans and fans' dreams, Epcot's World Showcase has always been woefully short on actual rides. For most of the park's life, there were only two: the Lost Legend: Maelstrom in Norway, and the El Rio del Tiempo in Mexico. Tucked away in an unassuming corner of the dark and beautiful Mexico pavilion, the latter was an eight minute boat ride through the history of Mexico from its native people to the bustling modern Mexico City of today in a fireworks-filled finale.
The ride closed without much fanfare in January 2007 and – after a flash three-month refurbishment – was re-opened as Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, based on Disney's 1944 animated film. Very few physical changes were made to the ride's sets, instead swapping screen footage to have two of the animated trio (Panchito Pistoles, José Carioca, and Donald Duck) en route to a big concert in Mexico City. While the 2015 addition of Audio Animatronics of the trio (salvaged from the Mickey Mouse Revue) was a brilliant touch, the fact remains that the ride isn't exactly an anchor attraction...
Enter Pixar's 2017 film Coco, an emotionally gripping and spectacular film about young guitarist Miguel and his coming-of-age alongside Mexico's Día de los Muertos celebration, Latin music, and the power of family. Surely, if Epcot's Mexico pavilion were opening today, a Coco attraction would be at its heart. And in fact, at 2019's D23 conference – amid a laundry list of changes coming to the park over the next few years – a stylized model of the Mexico pavilion was present... with a guitar leaning prominently against it. While no formal announcements were made, it's almost certain that a Coco overlay to the Gran Fiesta Tour will happen...
And as further evidence of our hypothesis (that any attraction built today is sure to have a high-earning intellectual property at its core), think of the changes confirmed for World Showcase: the already-open Modern Marvel: Frozen Ever After, a Beauty and the Beast singalong in France, a Mary Poppins ride in the U.K. pavilion, and a clone of Disneyland Paris' Modern Marvel: Ratatouille – The Adventure.