Walt Disney’s dream of imagineering a magical wonderland for the public came true six decades ago, opening on July 17, 1955. So let’s spend a few minutes today talking about Disneyland’s most, and least, notable animation-specific attractions.
This highly subjective list is based on my many warm memories of the park, thanks to the annual passes my family once had, and will hopefully resonate with both old-schoolers and new adopters. Of course, it’s by no means exhaustive, so please jump in and offer us your own choices for Disneyland’s best and worst attractions based on their animated shorts and features.
And remember to keep your hands and arms inside the list at all times!
Main Street Cinema
Since this throwback to the cartoons that made Disney a household name is right next to where you officially enter the theme park named after him, it’s only fair to nudge it to the top this list, even though more accessible animation-specific attractions — like the digitally immersive Mickey and the Magical Map live show, now showing at the much ritzier Fantasyland Theater — pull in way more attendees. Main Street Cinema is a smaller but more historical movie theater that plays Disney animated shorts, including the foundational Steamboat Willie, on six different screens — minus the objectionable content, of course.
Snow White’s Scary Adventure
It is poetic that one of Disneyland’s oldest rides, based on Disney’s first feature-length film, would still be one of Fantasyland’s best attractions. This is a dark and spooky cruise mostly through the nightmarish transformations of the film, whose villainous witch alternately leaps out or sneaks up on riders, freaking out especially the little ones. This might be why the lines for the ride are never that long compared the rest of Fantasyland’s offerings. An honorable mention goes to its neighbor, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, for the same reasons.
Alice in Wonderland / Mad Tea Party
This may seem like a cheat, but it makes sense given that both rides are based on Disney’s charming but destabilized Alice in Wonderland adaptation. The Mad Party’s legendary Tea Cups, which riders can spin as they careen across the attraction, are one of Disneyland’s most dizzying, interactive, and popular rides. So too is the slow-going but off-balance Alice’s Curious Labyrinth, a track ride through recreated scenes of the film that have recently been enhanced with animation. The animatronic flowers singing “Golden Afternoon” are particularly sublime. Since both rides are right next to each other, they fuse into a single rewarding homage to one of Disney’s most psychedelic films.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Based on Disney’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, this runaway car ride careens, on a track of course, through madcap scenarios and exploding TNT, rumbling off the docks and into a train all the way to the scorching halls of Hell itself. It’s an absolute blast for all ages, except maybe younger toddlers terrified of the giant devil staring down at them at the end. Hardcore fans of the Wind and the Willows novels may even like the ride better than Disney’s uneven adaptation.
Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin
Based on the pioneering 1988 film, this unheralded wonder hidden away in a corner of Toon Town, which itself is hidden behind Fantasyland, is one of Disneyland’s best-kept secrets — when it’s working. Riders get spinning cars to commandeer as they tumble with vertigo from one disorienting exhibit of cartoon physics to another, as weasel henchmen try to kill them, basically. When they’re lucky enough to get cars with smoother controls, they can literally spin through Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s psychedelic madness as if they’re in a dream. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Speaking of psychedelic rides, this calming, drifting experience is much more peaceful than Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, even though it takes place during Pooh’s paranoid dream of honey addiction, perhaps the best part of directors John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman’s 1977 feature film of the same name. Like Roger Rabbit, it too is hidden away, albeit near Frontierland, and usually light on long lines. It features some excellent animatronic and animated effects, and is one of the most mellow rides ever to focus on floods and phantoms destroying the fabric of our very reality. As the first ride my wife and I ever took when our daughter was very young, this attraction still rarely fails to bring a tear to my eye.
The racist Song of the South may more or less be dead and buried, but it nevertheless inspired one of Disneyland’s most rollicking rides. Although Splash Mountain basically retells the story of Br’er Rabbit outsmarting the irascible Br’er Fox and the bumbling Br’er Bear, it’s really a swooping, musical log ride through a series of alternately humorous and awkward scenarios. Splash Mountain’s plummeting finale is the payoff that brings in the crowds, most of whom probably have never heard of the problematic 1946 film that inspired it. Those who know their animation may find it the strangest ride in the whole theme park.
Disneyland decided that the Swiss Family Treehouse would make a better homage to its hit-and-miss 1999 Tarzan feature, but the result is still the same: A walk-through attraction up several flights of stairs, with slightly interesting but quickly passed recreated scenes and artifacts from the film. But even that is enough to recommend it, as Disneyland could use way more attractions that attendees can climb up and on and through, if only in the name of fitness, especially for those who eat its unhealthy food options. Kids can bang on pots and scamper up ropes and stick their arms into fake tree stumps. They love it, and while their parents might not want to trek up flights of stairs, they can stand to.
Peter Pan’s Flight
My daughter’s favorite Disneyland ride when she was young, as well as a favorite of my father, this ride doesn’t really belong here among the least interesting attractions based on Disney animation. It uniquely tracks along the ceiling rather than the floor in Captain Hook’s flying ship over what looks like jolly England and Never Land. At least, until the lights accidentally turn on. I don’t want to spoil anything but let’s just say that this ride would be on the other side of this list if the lights never came on.
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
This ride should be what it aims to be: A cool game of public laser tag, based on the Toy Story franchise. It has everything: A conveyor belt moving along shuttles armed with laser guns through different stages of space battles against a giant Zorg and his hordes, some of whom are shifting for those with better aim. But unlike the durable character on which it is based, the attraction grinds to a halt quite a bit, or even sticks you with laser guns that can’t shoot or score straight. Maybe Buzz can recommend a mechanic.
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
As good as Finding Nemo was, it cannot make squeezing among too many overheated people into an airtight submarine worth it, at least as far as this attraction is currently constructed. Not when what you end up getting is basically a swim around a pool featuring a couple of undersea sculptures and not enough cartoons. When is the last time you wanted a ride to be over faster? Hanging out on the side and listening to the seagulls intermittently scream “Mine!” is more fun.