Some comments on the various attractions at Walt Disney World, in the approximate order we saw them.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
We visited Hollywood Studios for two half-days. We missed Muppet Courtyard entirely, and only briefly saw Pixar Place.
- For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration: This is just watching the Frozen sing-a-long DVD in a theater, with some interstitial narration by a pair of actors. This should not be your first Walt Disney World attraction. Evie did really light up when they dropped bubble “snow” on us at the climax though.
- Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: This is pretty good. I enjoyed the dark ride portion a lot more than the drop tower part, but that’s just me. I broadly enjoy roller coasters, but with most thrill rides, I find that everything happens too quickly for me to take it in. I was hoping for something a little longer, but the pre-show is fantastic.
- Fantasmic!: Really nice show, though there were bits where I had trouble making out what was meant to be going on. I am most impressed by the climactic bit where the evil queen calls on the powers of Hades, god of the underworld; Maleficent, dark faerie; Jaffar, evil sorcerer; Ursula, the sea-hag; Chernabog, the demon; and Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame de Paris.
- Star Tours: Best 3D ride we saw the whole time. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been this impressed by 3D. A whole lot of fun. I’d have done this twice if we’d had time.
- The Great Movie Ride: A good, well-paced dark ride with a lot of neat stuff to see. I worried that the kids would get restless because it’s unusually long for a ride, but the over-the-top live performances kept Dylan engaged.
- Toy Story Midway Mania: I enjoyed the visual elements, but I’m not hugely interested by shooting galleries, and the 3D didn’t work very well for me. Dylan enjoyed it, but kept getting frustrated with the shooting.
- Star Wars Launch Bay: We hit this right before closing. I wish we’d had time to look around more. Dylan liked meeting BB-8, but panicked upon meeting Chewbacca. Evie was happy to see everyone.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
This was probably the hardest day, with a lot of crossing back and forth across the whole of the park due to having overcommitted. Dylan wished we could’ve spent more time looking at the animals, and spent the second half of the day wanting to go back to the hotel. It’s very beautiful, probably my second-favorite park to just-look-around, which makes it a shame we didn’t have time to. Pandora is beautiful, and I’m glad we circled back at the end to see it at night, even though we were all pretty tired and stressed out by this point.
- Expedition Everest: One of the roller coasters I’ve enjoyed most. I don’t just mean at Disney. It’s a fairly short coaster with only moderate thrills, but it’s very inventive and visually striking, lots of fun. The pre-ride area is also really good.
- Na’vi River Journey: Our first dark ride, and it’s beautiful. I was a little worried because the first three quarters of it rely on animation using integrated screens behind static props, and I thought this might be how all the dark rides were these days. There’s one legit animatronic at the end of the ride, though, and it’s clearly where the budget went. I’ve never seen anything like it; truly amazing. Evie loved this. Dylan was disappointed that we weren’t on a real boat (It’s a boat-shaped rail car driving through shallow water). I guess once he had been disabused of the idea, he got over it, because he didn’t complain about any of the other fake boats in the dark rides.
- Kali River Rapids: It’s a good solid river rapids ride. I don’t like getting wet myself, but I could appreciate it. This is pretty much what broke Dylan for the day: he enjoyed it so much that he wanted to go again, and without a FastPass, this meant standing in line for an hour and a half. Which means that Dylan got to learn about standing in line for ninety minutes for a five minute ride. About seventy minutes in, he discovered that he didn’t actually enjoy the ride enough to justify the wait. He was not much fun for a big chunk of the rest of the day. Evie and I waited nearby, and she enjoyed the water features.
- Dinosaur: For unclear reasons, Dylan flipped out and wouldn’t go on this one, so I went alone. Leah came back after dinner and took a turn herself. The ride broke down for half an hour so I got stuck in the pre-show theater watching Claire Huxtable and Hodges from CSI in the introductory movie on a loop. The ride itself was pretty cool — you’re not going to find me speaking ill of a dark ride in general — but it’s very dark and moves very fast, so it’s hard to process what you’re seeing before it’s gone. The set design of the queuing area was my favorite part.
This was another tough day. They were basically all tough days until Thursday, when we took half a day off because Dylan was so flustered Wednesday night that “Stop acting up or we won’t go to the park tomorrow,” did not work as a deterrent. Epcot was my favorite part to just-look-around, and we came back for half a day right before we left, and did a circuit of all the countries. Still pretty harried, because we only had a few hours and we wanted to complete our ritual (Get Dylan’s Duffy Bear stamped, spend a few minutes coloring it, throw a penny in the fountain, get a souvinier squished penny) at every stop. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more to Future World.
- Soarin’ Round the World: The kids loved this; it’s my oldest niece’s favorite ride, I think. I liked it but didn’t love it.
- Frozen Ever After: Absolutely magnificent dark ride, with a really good waiting area. I’m just a bit sad I never got to see the ride’s previous incarnation, Maelstrom, but the animatronics in this, much like in the Na’vi River Journey, were amazing. Even moreso because they match perfectly with the CG cartoonish style of the film. This has got to be Disney’s biggest success at making a ride literally look like one of their animated films brought to life.
- The Seas With Nemo and Friends: This is an interesting one; the dark ride is primarily done through CG animation rather than animatronics, which is disappointing, except that there’s a gimmick where the animated characters are projected into a physical aquarium tank alongside real fish, so it’s a hybrid between a traditional dark ride and an aquarium tour. I dig aquariums, so this was cool.
Space Ship Earth: This was one of the rides I was most looking forward to, but I ended up more sort of “appreciating” it than actually enjoying it. It’s a very set-heavy ride, and you don’t really get a chance to look at things as much as I’d have liked. I was surprised how much Dylan liked it, though the face-detection glitched and it only took a picture of the top of his head.
- Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros: Dylan and I hit this up while everyone else failed to do Test Track due to an encroaching storm. This was another one I was really looking forward to. I was worried at first, because, again, there’s a lot of video screens in the first part of the ride. But the majority of it is an old fashioned dark ride and is just wonderful. A particular bright spot is the finale, featuring animatronics that date back to the opening of the Magic Kingdom in the ’70s (Donald in particular has a charming physicality to him from being a fifty-year-old puppet). I’m told that there’s also an original 1956 Disneyland animatronic in the ride too, though I didn’t spot it.
- O Canada!: I wanted to see this because it’s a recent refit (Wikipedia says 2007, but it’s been updated since then, because Martin Short namechecks Frozen). If you have an infinite amount of time to spend at Epcot, it’s nice. We didn’t, so I regret having spent so long on it. This is also technically the last discrete, named attraction that we did during our trip (we spent the rest of our time wandering the World Showcase).
I shouldn’t have, on paper, but I found Magic Kingdom the least interesting park to walk around and take in. We barely spent any time at all in Frontierland, Adventureland, or Main Street USA, though, so that might influence my experience. But for rides, this is the park. Frozen Ever After was great. Gran Fiesta Tour was great. Na’vi River Journey was great. But all of my favorite rides were at Magic Kingdom.
- Peter Pan’s Flight: My favorite ride of the whole trip. Old school animatronics, blacklight effects, and big, swooping vistas. Dylan and I went back for a second ride, and I’d have happily done a third. Leah had a hard time seeing, due to her position in the ship and Evie-wrangling.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh: My second-favorite ride of the whole trip. Winnie-the-Pooh is a particular favorite of mine, and the ride captures the “Strolling through a storybook” feel of the movies. Dylan, Evie and I went back for a second ride while Leah and the others did Splash Mountain.
- It’s a Small World: Well, you pretty much have to, don’t you? It’s everything I want in a dark ride, full of things to look at and slow enough that you can. I didn’t find it cloying or too saccharine like I hear a lot of people do. My only negative is that the specific visual style of the animatronics isn’t really my cup of tea. Speaking of:
- Mad Tea Party: It’s a spinning cup ride. Okay. The kids loved it. I’m sad that there is not currently an Alice dark ride.
- Mickey’s PhilharMagic: A cute 4D movie. Dylan really liked this a lot. I thought the story was good, but the CG animation wasn’t up to Disney standards (and I have a particular dislike of using CG for their classic characters. I did not mind being gently splashed a bit. The 3D worked pretty well, but not as well as Star Tours. Evie slept through the whole thing.
- Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress: This is real cute. There’s something very charming about how the final scene appears to be simultaneously set in the ’80s, ’90s, and ambiguous-near-future. Wish it were feasible to add new chapters. Due to its provenance, it feels uneven, with the first three acts waltzing through the 20th century a generation at a time, then jumping to “Today” for the finale. I’d love to see the worlds of the ’60s and ’80s portrayed. Even better if they showed them in their Zeerust “What we imagine the coming decade is going to be like” glory.
- Pirates of the Carribbean: Good, solid dark ride. I was worried that the post-film-series changes would be intrusive, but they’re not; the new Captain Jack Sparrow animatronics are stylistically consistent with the older ones and sufficiently unobtrusive that they’re almost more like an easter egg for the sharp-eyed. The one thing that really surprised me is that it wasn’t more fantastical in nature. I always assumed that the spooky skeleton pirates from the first movie were based on something from the ride, but the ride is all about your ordinary non-zombie pirates; the closest thing is a tableau of some skeletonized non-animated remains.
- Walt Disney Railroad: It’s a train. It was nice. There’s a few places where you can see details of some of the other attractions that aren’t visible from the ride proper, and that’s cool.
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train: The only parts I really liked were the dark ride elements, of which there aren’t enough. I’d have preferred the original Snow White ride, which apparently was scary. Dylan kept saying he only liked it a “smidge”, but wanted to go a second time. I feel like I preferred the Snow White ride at Enchanted Forest, but there is so much chance of my memory cheating on this that I’m not 100% sure there actually was a Snow White dark ride at the Enchanted Forest.
- Haunted Mansion: So close to perfect. The thing that keeps this from being one of my favorites is that it’s a little too dark; after being outside under the angry, murderous gaze of the burning orange ball of hydrogen (I mean the sun, not Donald Trump), my vision wasn’t good enough to catch all the detail. Obviously the ambiance relies on the ride being dark, but you could bring the lights up maybe about 5-10% and it’d be a lot more satisfying.
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: A pleasant, moderate roller-coaster. The only ride Leah and I went on alone.
- Jungle Cruise: A good way to bring things down at the end of a long day. Holds up really well at night, though I imagine the colors would be more striking during the day. The animatronic animals are charmingly fake.
- Space Mountain: Just didn’t have time. And being an eyeglass-wearer, indoor coasters lose a lot of their effectiveness for me, since I’m pretty much completely blind for them.
- Swiss Family Treehouse: Was closed for the day at the one point where we were in the right part of the park and not in a hurry to make our next FastPass
- The Hall of Presidents: Closed while Imagineers tried to find a line of dialogue to give the current President of the Electoral College of the United States that wouldn’t traumatize children, while they work out whether they’ll need to rush-order a Mike Pence, and while they try to figure out what to do with the Hillary Clinton robot they’ve had in storage since 2008.
- Country Bear Jamboree: Everyone else thought I was crazy for wanting to see this.
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin: Dylan did this while Leah and I did Haunted Mansion.
- Living With the Land: Was closed for repairs
- Journey into Imagination with Figment: I did not push for this, having heard that Figment was no Eric Idle.
- Ellen’s Energy Adventure: Leah would have liked to see this one, but Epcot was one of our very-busy days and we didn’t even really get to that corner of the park.
- Mission: Space: Don’t even recall walking by.
- Innoventions: We just forgot about it. Shame.
- Avatar Flight of Passage: It is apparently impossible to ride this unless you are willing to spend the entire day queuing for it.
- Indiana Jones Stunt Show Spectacular: The one time we might have been able to see it, there was a sudden downpour.
- Rock n Roller Coaster: See Mountain, Space.
- Voyage of the Little Mermaid: Narrowly missed the last showing.