Home » The Proof Disney Doesn’t Need Movie Tie Ins for Great Attractions

    The Proof Disney Doesn’t Need Movie Tie Ins for Great Attractions

    Pirates of the Caribbean

    Did you know that the Tower of Terror in Tokyo DisneySea features an African god enacting his revenge on a disrespectful hotel owner? Or that three not-so-innocent bears lurk in the gold mines of Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, waiting to play a little mischief on the next unsuspecting tourist? What about the Phantom Manor, which houses a vicious ghost that has placed an irreversible curse on a young bride?

    The Disney Parks are best-known for their ability to bring beloved animated classics to life, but some of their most innovative and captivating attractions are true Disney originals – that is, never-before-seen story-based attractions that have been concocted by Imagineers over the years. Here are six of the best, weirdest and most imaginative attractions you’ll find in a Disney Park today.

    Pirates of the Caribbean

    Pirates of the Caribbean

    Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

    Pirates of the Caribbean is one of those unforgettable classics that also happens to be one of the first truly original Disney Parks attractions. Notably, it was also one of the last that felt the direct influence of Walt Disney, who passed away just a year before the attraction was unveiled to the public in 1967.

    That’s right — the Audio Animatronic-filled Pirates of the Caribbean predates Disney’s 2003 nautical thriller, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, by 36 years. Although the attraction spawned a hugely successful five-film franchise, it was totally unfamiliar to the first passengers it ferried through its damp caverns and burning towns back in the late 1960s.

    The plot of the ride follows a crew of skeleton pirates, who are shown cavorting among their spoils, playing chess, guzzling down bottles of wine, and steering ships through massive ocean storms. As riders move from one tableau to the next, they watch the pirates rush to meet their fateful doom: first, firing on the soldiers manning the fort on Isla Tesoro, then plundering the town’s houses, livestock and unwed brides, and finally setting fire to the whole city of Puerto Dorado. Even without the context the film provides — namely, a curse that allows the pirates to lead double lives as flesh-and-blood men by day and skeletal beings by night — we get the gist of the ride: the pirates will eventually discover their pillaging, looting and debauchery has all been for naught.

    While the plot itself is unique to Disney, so too is the construction of the ride. According to Disney historian Chris Strodder, Pirates of the Caribbean incorporates over 75 human Audio-Animatronic figures and over 50 animatronic animals, including dogs, cats, pigs and chickens. No current Disney Parks attraction features more Audio-Animatronics in a single setting, and even without the engaging plot, incredibly life-like scenery and catchy music, that alone would make this an original ride well worth your time.

    The Haunted Mansion

    Haunted Mansion - Hatbox Ghost

    Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

    It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to base an attraction on the goofy 2003 box office bomb The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy and the head of Jennifer Tilly (as Madame Leota), but thankfully, this is one Disney Parks classic that blossomed all on its own.

    While the stately white mansion had been hyped since 1961, Disney’s Imagineers didn’t open its haunted chambers and corridors to the public until 1969. In that eight-year period, there was a lot of internal debate about what a Disneyfied haunted mansion should look like. Should it feature the tattered curtains and peeled-paint exteriors of common haunted houses found at state fairs and seaside boardwalks? (Walt Disney quickly nixed that idea.) Should it actually try to scare guests? Should guests be permitted to walk through the entire attraction, potentially clogging the hallways if they wanted to gawk at a particular gag or became too frightened to move on?

    In the end, the Imagineers settled on something a little more practical… and subtle. The ride would transport guests via an “enchanted” elevator, then load them onto Omnimover “doom buggies” as they moved from haunted room to haunted room. Visual gags would be plentiful, from the ghostlike ballroom dancers to the marble statues that appeared to track a guest’s movements by turning their heads. Other than a few mild “pop-up” ghosts lurking behind tombstones, there would be no true scares — nothing that children over a certain age wouldn’t be able to handle with ease.

    Although the ride erred on the side of humor, rather than horror, Disney’s Imagineers brewed a chilling backstory for the attraction in 2006. As guests move through the mansion, they’re eventually brought up to the attic and treated to the spectacle of a lonely ghost bride named Constance Hatchaway. Portraits of Constance’s five former husbands can be spotted throughout the attic, but something’s a little off about each of them — perhaps in the way that their heads continually disappear and reappear. Constance’s ghostly apparition awaits the guests as they approach the attic window, and she doesn’t seem happy to see them. The observant visitor might guess that the ghost bride has murdered her wealthy fiancés in order to steal their fortunes, and unfortunately, they’re her next victim. She wields a hatchet and chants creepy wedding vows as guests “fall” out of the window to the graveyard below, now one of the specters that haunts the property.

    Phantom Manor

    Image: David Jafra, Flickr (license)

    The “ghost bride narrative” is one that can be found throughout each of Disney’s five haunted mansions, but each park has put their own creative twist on the tale. The darkest iteration of the attraction can be found over in Disneyland Paris, where Phantom Manor has been placed within Frontierland (unlike its placement in other parks: Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, Walt Disney World’s Liberty Square, Tokyo Disneyland’s Fantasyland and Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Point). Here, a young miner’s daughter named Melanie Ravenswood plays the part of the bride, except she’s hardly the gold-digging assassin of Disneyland’s mansion. Instead, it’s an unseen phantom that lures Melanie’s groom to his death and traps Melanie within the manor for eternity of torment. Though Phantom Manor’s tricks and gags aren’t any more frightening than those found in the other four mansions, its dastardly backstory sets it apart as one of the darkest attractions in Disney Parks history to date… and one that thankfully hasn’t gotten the cinematic treatment just yet.

    Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars

    Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars

    Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

    Imagine the Three Bears moved out of their fairy tale forest abode and, rather than hosting greedy children like Goldilocks, decided to try their hand — er, paw — at prospecting in the gold mines of Gower Gulch. That’s more or less the story behind Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, where a family of bears inadvertently led California prospector Captain Cosgrove to discover sparkling riches within the mountain. The only problem? The bears can’t seem to stop getting themselves (and the tourists who come their way) into trouble.

    At first blush, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars looks like a slightly-modified version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Guests board a train and barrel through old caves and mountains that have been mysteriously abandoned or boarded up. Both attractions are original to the Disney Parks, but where Big Thunder Mountain Railroad fails to incorporate much of its spooky backstory in the ride itself, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars places riders right in the center of the action.

    Guests are invited to climb aboard the rickety mine train, where they are launched into the heart of the mountain and come face-to-face with the first bear, Rocky. Rocky just can’t resist scratching his back on a lever, which activates the track switch and sends guests hurtling past danger signs to the top of the mountain. There are no friendly opossum families or goats here, just the sound of the lift cable cracking as the train begins to rattle back down the mountainside — in reverse. Riders are then pulled into another mine, where they encounter Mother Lode and her cub Nugget. Both bears are precariously positioned amid boxes of TNT, which they set off (but are miraculously unharmed by) in a cave-rattling explosion that propels the train back to its starting point.

    This isn’t the most ingenious attraction ever devised by Disney Imagineers — you won’t find heaps of animatronics, sight gags or catchy theme songs within the canyons and caves of Big Grizzly Mountain — but it spruces up the standard steel roller coaster and remains one of only two Disney coasters to feature a backwards track section (a feat in and of itself).

    Tower of Terror

    Tower of Terror

    Image: John Carkeet, Flickr (license)

    The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is, as you’d predict, a ride inspired by episodes of the now-retired Twilight Zone. The premise? A group of hotel guests are inexplicably transported to the Twilight Zone after being zapped by a supernatural burst of lightning in the hotel elevator. (Just what awaits them in the Twilight Zone is less clear, as the story turns out to be an elaborate ruse to bounce guests up and down on the drop tower dark ride.) When Imagineers brought the tower over to Japan’s Tokyo DisneySea, however, they found that the 1930s American sci-fi storyline didn’t quite fit the feel of the park.

    Enter… well, Tower of Terror. Disney revamped the idea of a cursed hotel, this time inventing a wealthy, entitled hotel owner and architect named Harrison Hightower III to run the place. The preshow reveals Hightower’s misdeeds: namely, stealing artifacts on his travels throughout the world and displaying them among his many collections at the hotel. His latest treasure is an African idol called Shiriki Utundu, who comes to life during a fateful New Year’s Eve party in 1899. When Hightower boards the elevator to return to his suite at the end of the night, Shiriki Utundu comes to life and allegedly spirits away the selfish architect, leaving only his hat — and a destroyed elevator — behind.

    Just as riders are invited to check out the elevator that transported former hotel guests to the Twilight Zone, they are encouraged to tour the haunted elevators of Tokyo’s Hotel Hightower, with similar effects. Once aboard the elevator, guests race to the top of the building to watch Hightower’s ghost interact with the idol, then plummet to the floors below, where they are waylaid by Shiriki Utundu at every turn.

    There’s an unsettling feeling that the guests themselves are also being punished by the idol for the transgressions of the deceased hotel owner, much in the same way that riders are also punished for looking into the eyes of Mara during Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure. It’s a subtle way of immersing riders in the attraction that the original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror doesn’t quite manage to capture.

    Journey into Imagination with Figment

    Journey into Imagination with Figment

    Image: Kelly Verdeck, Flickr (license)

    And now for something far less spooky and much more, well, abstract. Journey into Imagination with Figment is the third iteration of Epcot’s lovable (and divisive) attraction featuring a mischievous purple dragon named Figment.

    Originally dreamed up by Imagineers in 1983, Journey into Imagination was intended to be a lighthearted exploration of the imagination, as well as a fun attraction guaranteed to appeal to Epcot’s younger visitors. Guests boarded their Omnimover vehicles and were led on an adventure by the enigmatic, Willy Wonka-esque Dreamfinder, who created Figment with a whimsical contraption called the Dreamcatcher. From there, the pair introduced their guests to the four areas of the imagination: art, literature, performing arts and science. It was a novel concept, if a little zany, and one that managed to capture the enterprising spirit of Walt Disney without invoking any of his well-known characters.

    Today, the attraction is still just as original as ever, though a bit watered-down from the 14-minute version that debuted in the 80s. Following a failed reboot in 1999, Imagineers decided to take the attraction in an entirely different direction for its third and final unveiling in 2002. Rather than bringing guests on a guided tour of the imagination, Imagineers grounded the ride’s abstract storyline by focusing it on more tangible elements: the five senses. They jettisoned the Omnimover system and replaced the Dreamfinder with Dr. Nigel Channing, a paranoid scientist who hosts an open house for the Imagination Institute and tries his best to thwart the curiosity of little Figment along the way.

    Guests board their ride vehicles as Dr. Channing leads them through a tour of the facility, beginning with the Sound Lab and continuing on through the Sight Lab and Smell Lab. Figment can’t help but wreak havoc, and pushes Dr. Channing’s last button after materializing as a skunk and releasing a foul stench in the Smell Lab. Every time the doctor claims that the five senses can be used to “capture your imagination,” Figment tries to prove that one’s imagination can only reach its full potential when it is set free. As the frustrated Dr. Channing bails on his own open house, Figment takes readers through a wacky tour of his own upside-down world.

    While the current version of Journey into Imagination with Figment isn’t nearly as fanciful or nostalgia-inducing as its original, it still seeks to give guests something that they won’t find in any other Disney Park or land: the chance to explore their own imagination.

    Mission: Space


    Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

    For those not keen to explore their imagination or their senses with Figment, Epcot offers another unique, thrilling experience over at Mission: Space. This isn’t the mild space-themed simulator of, say, Disney Hollywood Studios’ Star Tours, but a realistic rocket launch simulator that gives its would-be astronauts a taste of outer space — and all the G-forces that go with it.

    When Horizons shuttered for good in 1999, Disney was still on the lookout for a suitable replacement: something that could comfortably fit in its oddly-shaped building and play on progressive ideas of space travel and exploration. Failed sponsorships put the kibosh on a Space pavilion in Epcot’s Future World, and Disney not only needed its first true outer space attraction, but something worthy of an E-ticket designation.

    Finally, in 2003, Imagineers devised an attraction that would supposedly simulate the experience of training for a mission to Mars in 2036 (minus all the cool inventions that humans will have invented by then, we can assume). Within the safety of a simulated environment, guests are given specific roles to play — navigator, pilot, engineer and commander — as they help guide the spacecraft to and from Earth. Centrifuge-based motion simulators spin artificial spacecraft to create a G-force of 2.5, while the astronauts-in-training run through the appropriate protocol for a rocket launch, slingshot around the moon, entering and exiting hypersleep, descending to and lifting off from Mars, and navigating a safe return to Earth.

    Following its overhyped debut, however, it quickly became apparent that the attraction was too realistic. Despite numerous stated and posted warnings around the attraction, guests who chose to ride the simulator were subject to bouts of claustrophobia, motion sickness, nausea and chest pain, among more severe symptoms. Four years after Mission: Space opened to the public, Disney offered a milder alternative called “Green Team,” where riders could enjoy the choose-your-own-adventure elements of the attraction without the intense spinning of the “Orange Team” variation.

    Creating an original attraction isn’t always about developing an imaginary world for guests to lose themselves in. Sometimes, as in the case of Mission: Space, it requires bringing elements of the real world into sharper focus. It may be another 20-some years before NASA deploys its first manned mission to Mars, but thanks to the creativity of Disney’s Imagineers, we can enjoy a little bit of that thrill today.

    Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of Disney’s original attractions. You’ll find plenty more unique, non-story based attractions sprinkled throughout the six Disney Parks, including the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Jungle Cruise, Kali River Rapids, it’s a small world, The Hall of Presidents, Spaceship Earth, Soarin’ Around the World, Expedition Everest and Test Track, among others.

    Which Disney Parks original attraction is your favorite?