Home » This Modern Marvel is Disney’s Best Ride EVER… And You’ve Probably Never Ridden It!

This Modern Marvel is Disney’s Best Ride EVER… And You’ve Probably Never Ridden It!

Escape. That’s the point, isn’t it? It’s why Walt Disney built a protective berm around Disneyland over sixty years ago, and why we flock to the parks today. We want to escape our ordinary lives, become heroes, and be carried away into cinematic worlds designed (very intentionally) by filmmakers. The best theme parks bring us to unthinkable places and unimaginable times, presenting unbelievable sights that change us, spark us, and inspire us to learn more.

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we’re determined to celebrate those rides that carry us away… (Even the ones that closed forever – which is why our renowned Lost Legends series has told the in-depth stories behind rides like Journey into Imagination, TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, Kitchen KabaretAdventure Thru Inner Space, Maelstrom, and so many more.)

But not all classics are closed! That’s why our brand new Modern Marvels series has already whisked us away into the ancient tombs of Revenge of the Mummy, to the unthinkable wonders within Mystic Manor, and into the streets of our favorite comic book with The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. But today, we induct another unimaginable wonder into our Modern Marvels series… a ride that many argue is the greatest modern E-Ticket ever; the absolute pinnacle of what Disney Imagineering can create; a “bucket list” thrill ride located at a must-visit Mecca for all Disney Parks fans.

Image: Disney

We can only be talking about Journey to the Center of the Earth… a contender for the best ride Disney has ever created. Today, we’ll dig deep to unearth the origins of this science-fantasy adventure, explore Disney’s long-running relationship with the works of Jules Verne, take a virtual ride, and see one of the world’s best Audio-Animatronics figures ever, concealed deep within this subterranean mystery ride. Does this Journey give up to the international hype? We’ll find out…

Great minds

If we want to understand what may be the most adventurous Disney Parks ride on Earth, we certainly need to begin with the origin of the adventure.

And when it comes to exploration, discovery, and romance, there’s no author more prolific, revered, or deeply tied to the genre than Jules Verne. The French novelist, poet, and playwright produced a library of works spanning the 19th century, but many of his best known titles belong to a 54-novel series called the Voyages Extraordinaires.

Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon represent just a few of the more-than-four-dozen novels Verne produced for the series, and each is renowned not only for its perfectly-paced storytelling and detail, but for the actual information provided in each. Verne’s novels were coined “encyclopedic novels” for the wealth of information they contain, giving readers the distinct feeling that they’re actually learning about biology, geology, astronomy, botany, archaeology, and oceanography by reading.

(Verne, for his part, always brushed off the popular notion that he’d invented science fiction as a genre. He also denied any claims that he had a prophetic understanding of technology, though it’s true that – absent much available data at the time – his predictions would be proven surprisingly accurate in the 20th century; for example, it’s arguable that his trajectories and measurements in From the Earth to the Moon really could get a projectile fairly close to Earth’s only natural satellite…)

In any case, the exhaustive and extensive research Verne did before sending his protagonists to the deepest oceans or the farthest reaches of space created in the Voyages Extraordinaires an exhilarating, spell-binding series fill with adventure, romance, science, and exploration. Countless adaptations of his works have been seen in film, television, radio, story, and song…

But a few of his series’ standard entries have also sparked Disney Imagineers… For decades, the work of Jules Verne has inspired attractions, and each was a step toward Disney’s most incredible ride ever…. Surprisingly, Disneyland’s connection to Jules Verne goes back to July 17th 1955 – opening day!

1955 – 20,000 Leagues: The Exhibition

Image: Disney

In 1954, Walt Disney Productions unveiled a blockbuster-hit film – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The first film Walt himself produced, the stunning cinematic wonder (which still holds up today) was, of course, an adaptation of Verne’s novel following the undersea exploits of the notorious Captain Nemo (played by James Mason) and his iconic vessel, the Nautilus. Coastal reefs, warships, cannibals, and an equally renowned attack by a giant squid served as memorable moments from the film, all tracing Nemo’s journey to his hidden lagoon base in the mysterious island of Vulcania.

Images: Disney

As “luck” would have it, the very next year as Disneyland prepped for opening, Walt determined that the park’s Tomorrowland wasn’t quite up to snuff (understandable given the park was 366 days from groundbreaking to opening). So, he had the sets from the hit 20,000 Leagues film shipped to Anaheim and installed as a walkthrough attraction in Tomorrowland. (Oddly, that means 20,000 Leagues was one of the few intellectual properties present in the park on opening day, alongside Peter Pan, Snow White, and Mr. Toad!)

Image: Disney

The 20,000 Leagues exhibit stuck around until 1966, even co-existing with Walt’s pride and joy, the Submarine Voyage that opened in Tomorrowland’s lagoon in 1959. Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage – fittingly for Tomorrowland – was a scientific expedition into the unknown in industrial gray subs, with riders taking on the role of research scientists exploring submersible technology (which, in 1959 at least, was as much the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines as space travel).

1971 – 20,000 Leagues: Submarine Voyage

Location: Magic Kingdom
Status: Sunk

While designers got to work developing plans for the Magic Kingdom theme park to be the anchor of the new “Disney World” project in Florida, they began the careful process of selecting what should be duplicated from Disneyland to its new, larger, master-planned sister park. The E-Ticket Submarine Voyage would make the jump to Florida, of course, but times had changed. Even by the late 1960s, submarines were hardly in the headlines of “tomorrow.” So while the ride was a must-have, placing it in Tomorrowland would’ve been unthinkable.

Image: Disney

So, the project was handled to Disney Legend Claude Coats and his mentor – a new, young, fresh-out-of-school Imagineer named Tony Baxter. Brilliantly, the two redressed the Submarine ride from a scientific journey to a fantasy one, adding a few key scenes (like a run-in with a giant squid) and redesigned subs (to mimic the look of Harper Goff’s iconic Nautilus) and voila – a Fantasyland hit!

Magic Kingdom’s sub ride would go on to inspire a generation of Disney Parks fans, making its eventual demolition all the more unbearable. The ride closed in 1994 even with no plans to replace it. Its closure (or more accurately, abandonment) is regarded by many as one of the darkest moments in Disney World’s history. We chronicled the ride’s in-depth history, ride-through, and fate in its own in-depth must-read, Lost Legends: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

1976 – Discovery Bay

Location: Disneyland
Status: Never built

Taking all he’d learned in his research on Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues, Baxter returned to California after Magic Kingdom’s opening with a new project: to reinvigorate the park’s Frontierland (given that stories of the Old West and cowboys and Indians had largely faded from pop culture by the 1970s). His solution was a brand new land that continued the Frontierland story by answering the question, “What did those miners do with the gold they discovered in Big Thunder Mountain back in the 1860s?”

Image: Disney

The answer? They continued west and founded a steampunk port city of glass spires, golden towers, geysers, zephyrs, time machines, hot air balloons, lighthouses, inventors, thinkers, philosophers, and dreamers. Here in Discovery Bay, Nemo’s Nautilus would be docked in the Rivers of America (containing a simulator called Nemo’s Adventure, which would end up being the inspiration for another Lost Legend: Star Tours) – the highlight of a seaside port of explorers.

Image: Disney

Unfortunately, the land’s anchoring E-Ticket was going to be based Disney’s 1974, Jules-Verne-inspired film The Island at the Top of the World, which crashed and burned at the box office, scaring executives away from Discovery Bay entirely. We took an unforgettable walk through the never-built land in a standalone feature, Possibilityland: Discovery Bay.

1995 – Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune

Location: Disneyland Paris
Status: Replaced

While Tony Baxter may never have gotten Discovery Bay off the ground, he did get a chance to revisit the concept nearly two decades later when he was named the creative director for Disneyland Paris… not a simple task, given that the French press had launched an all-out assault against the very “American” Disney brand infiltrating their country… That left Baxter with the difficult job of adding as much “European” as possible to the Disneyland concept. That’s why so many of Disneyland Paris’ rides – even classics! – look so much different from ours.

Image: Disney

One of his most radical ideas? Baxter knew that the sleek, white, NASA-inspired, Space Age Tomorrowland would be of no interest to Europeans, so it was replaced entirely with a new concept called Discoveryland; a gleaming, golden seaside port that represents the future, but as it was envisioned by the past – a tomorrow that H.G. Wells, Leonardo da Vinci, or Jules Verne might’ve imagined.

Its headlining E-Ticket was a thrill. Half-submerged into a bubbling lagoon alongside the parked Nautilus stood the gleaming, brass, Victorian-steampunk Space Mountain. But unlike the more scientific exploits in American Space Mountains, Paris’ was a truly fantastic journey to the moon modeled after Verne’s novel, From the Earth to the Moon.

Image: Disney

Of course, it, too, was stripped of its fantastic theming and completely redesigned as Star Wars Hyperspace Mountain: Rebel Mission, as chronicled in the outstanding Lost Legend: Space Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune feature that’s one of our favorites.

1996 – Journey to the Center of the Earth

Location: The Disney-MGM Studios
Status: Never built

According to the fascinating account of revered Disney historian Jim Hill, by the mid-1990s Disney-MGM Studios in Walt Disney World was growing stale. The miniscule movie park was only just beginning to grow past its unfortunate “half day park” label (thanks to the 1994 opening of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror), but one element of the park that was suffering badly was its would-be hit: the Backlot Studio Tour.

The tram-led tour through the park’s real production facilities was becoming less and less spectacular as fewer and fewer productions used the Florida studio. Imagineers were working on ideas for supercharging the Studio Tour with more staged encounters and special effects demonstrations (like Catastophe Canyon) when rumblings of a Journey to the Center of the Earth film in production caught their eyes.

Image: Disney, via Jim Hill Media

Imagineers – including Scott Sinclair – rallied behind the concept of a film themed to the Jules Verne novel and crafted an idea for a new stop on the Backlot Tram Tour. The studio trams would’ve entered into a studio soundstage that quickly gave way to a frigid subterranean chamber of icy stalagtites and endless caverns.

Around the corner, the tram would’ve driven through a fiery, sweltering underground chamber where roiling pits of glowing magma would support the sinking ruins of an ancient Atlantean city… a beautiful, hypnotic sight until guests passed under an odd, rock-like arch of undulating flattened plates… Driving against the glowing, molten surface of the Earth’s core, the trams would’ve stalled out just as a forty foot tall subterranean worm would surface from beneath the magma, hissing and recoiling as if to strike!

Image: Disney, via Jim Hill Media

Of course, this trip to the planet’s core didn’t come to pass. Michael Eisner wasn’t pleased with the script optioned for the Journey to the Center of the Earth movie, so Disney never made it. That also meant that the tie-in Backlot Tram Tour scene was dead in the water… another failed Extraordinary Voyage.


20,000 Leagues at Magic Kingdom? Sunk.

Discovery Bay? Cancelled.

Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune? Grounded.

The Backlot Tram Tour’s detour to the Center of the Earth? Canned.

Time and time again for the last sixty years, Imagineers watched as their attempts to include the stylized, literary, extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne fell to the wrecking ball… or worse, to a more profitable intellectual property. Today, it feels as if no Disney Parks project will be greenlit unless it’s backed by a blockbuster movie… and today, that means superheroes, Star Wars, princesses, or Pixar.

Image: Disney

There appears to be just one exception… one resort that’s shielded from the whims of the Walt Disney Company and determined to bring original stories to life… And that’s exactly where Jules Verne’s greatest novel came to life in what may be Disney’s best ride ever. Read on…


Image: Disney / Oriental Land Company

The Tokyo Disney Resort is an anomaly.

First and foremost, it’s neither owned nor operated by The Walt Disney Company. Instead, the Japanese resort (the first international resort bearing the Disney name) is wholly owned and operated by the Oriental Land Company (OLC), a Urayasu-based leisure and tourism corporation. OLC pays Disney to use character likenesses and royalties, somewhat like a franchisee! In return, Disney acts as a consultant and contracts out Disney Imagineers to design, develop, and install attractions.

As curious as the collaborative relationship may sound, it’s the key to Tokyo Disney’s runaway success… That’s because OLC is the perfect “middle man” to connect the Disney brand to the Japanese people. For example, when Tokyo Disneyland was being designed in the early 1980s, OLC made it clear that they did not want Imagineers to integrate Japanese culture, customs, and stories into the park.

Image: Disney

They didn’t want a Japanese-influenced Tomorrowland, or a Fantasyland of Japanese fables… Rather, they wanted the Magic Kingdom exactly as it existed in Florida, with all of the “Western” influences and stories in tact.

Although the idea might’ve boggled Disney executives and creatives, OLC was exactly right. Tokyo Disneyland is practically a clone of Magic Kingdom (with some big-budget diversions in the decades since opening) with all the “Americana” of a Main Street USA, the Space Race futurism of Tomorrowland, and even the cowboys and Indians of Frontierland. And the Japanese have overwhelmingly adopted the Disney brand as their own, regularly queuing hours to meet obscure characters, literally selling out gift shops each evening, and wearing Disney merchandise whether nine months or ninety-nine years old.

Not Orlando! Image: Disney

And – since OLC operates Tokyo Disney Resort with complete financial independence – the resort tends to feature no-holds-barred, no-costs-cut attractions, like the LPS-guided Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and the spectacular Monsters Inc.: Ride and Go Seek. OLC pulls out all the stops, funding the full-fledged, built-out versions of rides that American Disney fans can only dream of.

But they really pulled out all the stops in 2001…

Tokyo DisneySea

Image: Disney

What can be said of Tokyo Disney Resort’s second theme park that hasn’t already? Tokyo DisneySea is a shining pinnacle of what Imagineering can create when the reigns are released. The same year that The Walt Disney Company debuted the underbuilt, underfunded, creatively-starved subject of our in-depth Disaster File: Disney’s California Adventure, the Oriental Land Company revealed Tokyo DisneySea, a built-out, big-budget theme park that’s become the golden standard of themed entertainment design.

The nautically influenced park was built on reclaimed land on Tokyo Bay, giving the distinct impression that the park is sincerely set on the edge of an endless ocean.

Arabian Coast. Image: Disney

Its seven themed “ports” are so detailed, so complex, so massive in scale, and so well-designed, Tokyo DisneySea earns the distinction of being the kind of park you could spend a full day in, ride nothing, and still feel satisfied – the sought-after concept of “the park as the E-Ticket.” With the scope of Disneyland Paris, the scale of Magic Kingdom, the realism of World Showcase, and the budget of Shanghai Disneyland, DisneySea has become a veritable icon of themed entertainment; a Mecca for Disney Parks fans, topping their bucket lists and becoming a “must see.”

Lost River Delta. Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

And even amid a custom-designed and big-budget Indiana Jones Adventure, the one-of-a-kind, Twilight Zone-free Modern Marvel: Tower of Terror, the unforgettable fan-favorite Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages, and a copy of Soarin’ absorbed into the in-universe story of S.E.A., it’s one particular adventure that rises above DisneySea’s many icons.


In the late 1990s, as Imagineers doubled down on their designs for Tokyo DisneySea and a Jules Verne themed land as the park’s centerpiece, the idea of a Journey to the Center of the Earth ride bubbled up again. They say good ideas never die at Disney, and we can be glad for that…

Imagineer Tom “Thor” Thordarson was given a blank slate, essentially told that DisneySea was going to house a ride themed to the Jules Verne story and asked to give executives “his take” on the concept. He was handed the Scott Sinclair plans crafted for the Disney-MGM Studios Backlot Tram Tour and told to use or scrap any parts of it in his plan.

Image: Disney

But rather than a passive behind-the-scenes encounter, DisneySea’s starring E-Ticket adventure would be an immersive, thrilling, wild descent into the planet’s core. And as usual, Disney Imagineers did their research. Tom Thorardson and his peers visited caverns and caves across the country to get a better understanding of what a journey to the center of the Earth would really be like. “But I had to make all this bigger than life,” he reported to our friends at Disney and More. “I had to learn from real nature, but then project a sci-fi logic to the rest.”

Meanwhile, they needed a cutting edge ride technology to bring these phenomonal scenes to life.

Ultimately, designers decided to involve what was – at the time – Disney’s most cutting edge ride system. 1995’s Indiana Jones Adventure had pioneered a “slot-car” style dark ride, but as the New Millennium neared, the concept was being refined and re-upped thanks to two ambitious (or maybe, overly ambitious) projects… Disney’s slot-car ride system was being taken to the extreme at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

First, the much-maligned subject of our in-depth Disaster File: The Rocket Rods showed Disney exactly what not to do with the technology, tragically derailing a disastrous “New Tomorrowland” and ultimately closing forever with no replacement to this day.

Image: Disney

While the next installation was very, very delayed, at least it worked. That Lost Legend: TEST TRACK, proved that the slot car system could be an E-Ticket, climbing, descending, turning, and racing through dark ride scenes toward a 0 – 65 mile per hour finale. 

Now, the third generation of the ride system would be put to work on Disney’s most ambitious modern dark ride since Indiana Jones Adventure itself. And it all begins in the most spectacular themed land that Imagineers have ever brought to life…

Mysterious Island

Image: Disney

Standing 189 feet over Tokyo DisneySea is the park’s icon: Mount Prometheus. The darkened, geothermal peak is sincerely gargantuan… As imposing as the Tree of Life and as all-consuming as Cars Land’s Cadillac Range, Prometheus is a towering icon visible from every square foot of the land. It should come as no surprise that Prometheus ranked high on our list of the Seven “Natural Wonders” of the Theme Park World.

But this is no passive central figure. Prometheus is very much alive. Steaming, rumbling, hissing, and growling, the mountain is a continuous threat, and an unavoidable reminder of the power of our earth and seas. But what’s so amazing about this soaring volcano isn’t just its size; it’s what’s inside.

Nestled into the collapsed caldera of the volcano – accessible only via subterranean tunnels lit by excavation lights – is an entire seaside fortress. This hidden Seabase concealed entirely within the volcano’s sunken caldera ring is the fabled Mysterious Island – headquarters of Captain Nemo himself. It’s an almost-alien world of Victorian retrofuturism, exploration, and science.

Image: Disney

Suspended entirely on oxidized catwalks around the caldera’s rim, this concealed world is underscored by a continuous, distant, mysterious tone that ebbs and flows with the steaming geothermal water below. Geysers erupt against recently cooled lava flows and bubbling torrents burst forward just below the dizzying catwalks.

A spiraling copper pathway leads down to the gurgling water below, past the docked Nautilus and to the park’s stunning family dark ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though DisneySea’s version of the ride is a world away from the beloved fan favorite Magic Kingdom once hosted, the Japanese ride is no less impressive. As a matter of fact, located at any other park, it would be a headlining E-Ticket in its own right. But here, it’s merely an aside to the park’s crowning jewel…

The perfect fusion of Disney storytelling, technology, literature, and adventure… the ride that sends Disney Parks fans scurrying for plane tickets to Tokyo… It’s time to Journey to the Center of the Earth. The expedition begins on the next page…

To the depths

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Appropriately, our voyage to the planet’s core begins behind the smouldering, rumbling, cooled lava flowsof Mount Prometheus’ cone. Massive chambers are carved into the volcano’s caldera, lit only by overhead excavation lamps and the occasional breaks of sunlight through ancient volcanic vents (and the massive hole created by the diamond-tipped drill boring into the mountain’s shield). The tunnels are scoured and scored by centuries of seismic forces, cracking and crumbling. And yet, ahead in the darkness, an otherworldly red shines against the cavern walls.

It’s the rides marquee – one of Disney’s finest. JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is lit only by the slowly-flowing magma that drips continuously behind it, bathing the chamber in the undulating hues of orange and red as hissing steam escapes from within.

Image: Cory Doctorow, Flickr (license)

The queue passes through a volcanic chamber before switchbacks weave to and fro, seemingly built around upheavals of earth around the cavern. They’re hissing and steaming with gold and red – an indication of just how active Mount Prometheus really is.

As the line continues snaking forward, eventually we happen upon an unusual laboratory… evidently, we’ve stepped into Nemo’s Lair, sincerely minutes after he’s left.

Image: Derek Springer, Flickr (license)

Passing through his scientific equipment, we’re standing in one of the most beguilingly detailed queues that Disney has ever built, stocked with enough trinkets, artifacts, and details – all amid the cavernous interior of the volcano! – to make Indiana Jones Adventure jealous. Those with an eye for detail will note recent journal entries, sketches, and notes left behind detailing mysterious eggs discovered en route to a yet-unexplored level of the mantle. Nemo seems to hypothesize that the fossilized eggs appear to belong to an unidentified arthropod… a new species?

But that’s neither here nor there… any journey to the center of the Earth requires a descent. So next, we’re batch with other guests and stood outside of a peculiar invention – a Terravator. (Yes, think of this as the earthen cousin of EPCOT Center’s Hydrolators from The Living Seas.) Once inside, the doors glide closed as the distant, subtly mysterious ride score present throughout the queue fades. 

Image: Cory Doctorow, Flickr (license)

As sounds and lights whiz past, the elevator rumbles and gently glides farther and farther into the Earth. A show unto itself, the magnificent descent is a truly outstanding example of how light, sound, and motion can combine to astounding effect. And don’t misunderstand – this elevator really does move!

Image: Derek Springer, Flickr (license)

When the single set of doors opens, we find ourselves in a smouldering, claustrophobic cavern deep into the planet’s crust. Massive overhead ducts carry fresh air from the world above, powered by enormous, humming bellows and steaming boilers. The path descends down from the Terravators and around the gigantic equipment supplying this deep-earth outpost and the tense spring-pillars primed to support this would-be burial chamber in case of an earthquake.

Image: Disney

It’s here – with a head start about half-a-mile into the Earth’s outer layers – that we’ll join with our vehicle… it’s an earth-moving excavation cart seating six in three rows. Clearly related to the Nautilus, the darkened, brass vehicles are lined with a metallic spine and headed with an angled shovel for shifting rocks from our path. We’ll need it, since our journey today will take us to a distant outpost.

As the vehicle crawls out of the loading dock, the adventure truly begins.

The wonders of the deep

Afte the steaming, belching, industrial darkness of Nemo’s Mysterious Island, it may be surprising that – leaving the man-made world behind – our first view of the earth’s innards is among its most serene.

Image: Disney

Just as the ride’s gentle, distant, ethereal score kicks in, the cart turns the corner from the loading dock and enters into an endless cavern of glittering crystals. The glowing prisms are swirled as if by some great internal magnetic force, endlessly vortexed into the distance via forced perspective. The cart climbs effortlessly along the swirling path through the cavern as we look in awe at the surroundings. Here, inside of the deadly volcano formed by Earth’s most violent processes, beauty survives.

Image: Disney

The journey continues onward, into a dark chamber where the sounds of life surround us… glowing insects seem to swirl around, as if disturbed for the first time in millennia by our approach. They flow along the walls of darkness as if in schools, buzzing and humming.

In the distance, their origin emerges:

Image: Disney

We find ourselves crusing through a subterranean forest. Here – miles from the sun’s light – animals and plants have developed bioluminescence, as glowing creatures surround. While they may appear alien, these animatronics were designed to be distinctly possible – adapted to the low light and low oxygen of a deep-earth habitat. (Again, the work of Tom Thordarson and his team. Tom told Disney and More, “I researched real glowing fungi and mushroom species. I created a world where light came from the natural bioluminescent mosses and plants and the water was full of phosphorus plankton.”)

As the vehicle hums past the moss-plucking skenks and curious leaping insectoid creatures, it passes under massive, unimaginable fungi and towering plants that sway like coral. This otherworldly forest feels somehow friendly, not unlike the glowing alien forests of PANDORA’s Navi River Cruise at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But here, these creatures are all more surprising in that they don’t live lightyears away… just a few miles below.

Image: Disney

After weaving through the forest, though, a green light signals our arrival at the observation outpost. The mossy jungle gives way to a chamber of red rock, evidently cleared away via a massive drill, with spiraling paths bored into the walls. Only, ahead, flickering, swaying excavation lights signal a recent tremor… and as we feel the brakes slam against iron rails, the path ahead is lit by a red warning lamp: our path forward has caved in. Losing control, the cart races headlong to the left, into an uncharted lava vent…

Things are heating up… You won’t believe the explosive finale to Disney’s best ride ever. We’ll wrap up our Journey on the last page…

Our path forward has been cut off. Miles below the surface, claustrophobia is setting in…

With brakes sparking, the cart regains control just as a new view appears before us.

Now, the rocks around us appear to have changed. The smooth, gentle swirls and sweet mossy rocks have given way to more jagged features… razor-sharp stalactites loom perilously overhead as noxious steam and gasses hiss from craggily openings… The music – once idyllic – shifts to something more… anxious. Suspended from the harsh rocks are strange, glowing orbs… They’re an otherworldly green, glowing from behind the molten sediment they’re encased in, dripping in some unusual, thick goo.

As the music swirls and we race forward through the steam, we slow to marvel at an unimaginable sight: an endless, gargantuan chamber so vast, it carries its own weather pattern.

Image: Disney

The misty subterranean sea appears to stretch on into infinity, its cavernous “ceiling” too far to concieve, supported by jagged, harsh rocky pillars that look as if they could crumble at any second. Clouds suspended in the distant haze flicker with bolts of lightning. As we breathlessly look off into the eternal sea, a bolt of lightning strikes inches from the car, leaving all on board jumping out of their skin.

The car accelerates away and we find ourselves at last in a climactic position: deep within the gnarled, endless, molten walls of the planet’s core. It’s hot, and these otherworldly rocks glow with an immense heat. A shrill, hissing roar echoes from somewhere within these endless tunnels… escaping gas? It must be… And yet, those dripping, molten eggs… they must belong to something…

Suddenly, to the left, movement catches our eyes… it’s the silhouette of a hideous, spider-like leg slamming against a wall, trying to break through to us… 

As the sound of flickering heat and roiling flames surround, the car dips and dives along the uneven, newly-cooled pathways of the cavern, which grow narrower and narrower. Steam bursts from twisted cracks in the walls, spraying from vents desperately trying to release pressure… An underground gas plumes and ignites, sending flames tearing through the glowing red walls that surround. The cart aligns with a steep incline, mustering all its strength to forge up the hill toward the glowing volcanic core.

Another hissing screech… But this time, it’s closer. 

As fire plumes again, we see, on our right, something so incredible, it’s practically indescribable. It’s towering and incandescent, perfectly camologued against the lava tube’s molten, liquid walls… it’s some sort of arthropod… an ancient, prehistoric crustracean forged by deep earth pressure and immense heat… the spider-like creature is at once beautiful and horrible, no doubt capable of swimming and crawling through lava tubes much faster than you and I… or our vehicle.

And at once, it’s clear what we’ve discovered… the mother of those eggs whose nest we disturbed. And make no mistake: the amazing, oversized Lava Monster is so beloved by Disney Parks fans, it singlehandedly topped our must-read Countdown of the Best Animatronics on Earth. Yes, this subterranean arachnid earned the highest marks in our global-spanning list for its size, power, and (if you can believe it) subtlety…

Image: Disney

Because the gargantuan creature – half-submerged in boiling, steaming lava – turns to us. When it spots us, her glowing, hypnotic eyes narrow… horrific, alien-like fangs gnash and the massive creature rears back, throwing her head wildly and filling the height of the chamber as it shrieks and roars. Steam begins pouring out of the lava tube, encasing the subterranean monster as she roars before lunging forward at us.

As steam and fog fill the chamber, our cart seems to understand just how dire the situation is. With hissing, trembling, and rumbling all around us, the car accelerates, racing headlong into the darkness to escape the lava monster. From 0 – 60, we escape mere feet ahead of the eruption, fog and light chasing just inches behind. The upward acceleration races into a breakneck turn as we spiral continuously higher and higher, faster and faster…

Image: Disney

Then, ahead: light. Without so much as a breath, the vehicle races upward and toward a craggily opening into the blinding sun. Surely it’ll slow… but it can’t. Instead, we literally burst out of the side of Mount Prometheus in a flurry of smoke, floating helplessly in a moment of sincere roller-coaster-style airtime before slamming back to Earth, racing through the outer rim of Mysterious Island’s caldera.

Its power expelled, the cart gradually slows as it completes its perimeter run of the caldera, finally crossing an oxidized bridge and providing unbeatable views of the Mountain we just conquered, still bellowing forth fire and smoke from the eruption we caused. 

As the vehicle returns to a a surface-level unloading dock, we exit and race down the stairs back to Mysterious Island (which, clandestinely, gives away one of the ride’s best kept secrets… your Terravator really did move… it took you up to the ride’s loading dock on the land’s second story… But shh…). On the way out, we can’t help but to pass by a plaque that offers a sage piece of advice.

Image: Joel, Flickr (license)

We always end our in-depth ride features with the best on-ride video we can find to bring the experience to life for you. As always, we turn to our friends at SoCal Attractions 360, who made the trek to Tokyo to record what may be the best low-light video available. Their point-of-view shoot reveals more than the human eye can see on its own. Take a Journey to the Center of the Earth with this must-watch video:


With our Modern Marvels series, we’ve set out to chronicle the in-depth experiences of the world’s best rides. From Mystic Manor to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, the beloved Indiana Jones Adventure and the one-of-a-kind Verbolten… Still, it may be that none of these world-renowned rides can hold a candle to Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Image: Disney

So when will Journey to the Center of the Earth find its way to a Disney Park near you? Unless you already live in Japan, chances are slim.

Years ago when PANDORA – The World of Avatar was still nothing but a vague concept, we created a just-for-fun list of seven other concepts for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and proudly listed Mysterious Island among them. Not only does the land celebrate natural wonders and man’s eternal hunger for exploration, but its two iconic rides – 20,000 Leagues and Journey – just happen to be expeditions into the unknown with iconic (if imaginary) animal interactions as their highlights…

Image: John Carkeet, Flickr (license) 

The truth is, Journey to the Center of the Earth was custom-built, creatively charged wonder… but it was also a big-budget risk. Only the Oriental Land Company’s no-holds-barred financing could’ve seen it through to opening. After all, Journey is one of countless incredible attractions at DisneySea – rides like the Twilight-Zone free Tower of Terror and the definitive Indiana Jones Adventure – potential subjects for future Modern Marvel entries… (Let us know in the comments if you’d be interested in learning more about DisneySea’s one of-a-kind versions of Internet classics.)

Meanwhile, fans of U.S. Disney Parks believe that, evidently, they’re unlikely to ever again see another modern, intellectual-property-free E-Ticket… that’s fair, given that the powers in charge of Disney’s operations in Anaheim and Orlando seem determined to only green-light projects tied to proven box office successes… and rightly so! After spending billions to acquire Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, wouldn’t Disney be downright daft to ignore the pop culture phenomena that have joined their canon?

Image: Disney

And yet, Journey to the Center of the Earth isn’t based on a hit movie or a current franchise. It doesn’t feature a beloved character or a familiar setting. It doesn’t cross-promote a Disney film, and it cannot be duplicated at every Disney resort around the globe to save on research and development. Maybe that’s exactly what makes it one of the greatest rides in the world. Exclusive, elusive, and unbelievable, it may forever be regarded as Disney’s height. Journey to the Center of the Earth reminds us just what Disney Imagineers are capable of – where they’re able to take us – when untethered from the box office. And that is a much-needed reminder.

The incredible story of Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn’t exist in isolation… in fact, it’s just one of dozens of entries in our In-Depth Collections Library, home to the detailed stories behind disastrous failures, closed classics, and modern masterpiece attractions. Make the jump there to set course for your next astounding journey.

Now, we want to hear your thoughts. Is Journey to the Center of the Earth on your bucket list? Is this worldwide wonder enough to catapult DisneySea into the rank of Disney’s greatest theme park ever? Were you surprised by Disney’s decades-long race to earn Jules Verne and his fantastic adventure novels a place in the parks?