What Makes a Good Thrill Ride?

by Mike Scopa
AllEars® Feature Writer

Feature Article

This article appeared in the May 12, 2009 Issue #503 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

MikeTheme parks, carnivals, and amusement parks all have an assortment of attractions or rides, especially thrill rides.

For a long time I have thought about what goes into the making of a thrill ride and even moreso as to the components required to allow the label of "thrill ride" to be assigned to these attractions. As I gave this more and more thought I began to compile a list of these components and found them to be quite similar. In fact, there was much overlap.

I wondered if I would be able to take these qualities to see how they measure up to what many consider to be the Walt Disney World thrill rides.

How did I do this? Well, what made sense to me was to think of some attractions I considered as being thrill rides. If you ask most veteran Walt Disney World guests they would list the following as thrill attractions in each theme park:

Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Epcot: Soarin', Test Track, and Mission: Space

Hollywood Studios: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster

Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest and Dinosaur

As I looked at each of these attractions I imagined myself going through the queue, loading onto the attraction and experiencing it... all the while taking note of the main components for each one. This exercise helped me really see what went into the design of each of these attractions and how many of these attractions shared the same elements.

All thrill rides are designed to achieve the same thing -- to have riders find their hearts racing, to perhaps generate a bead of sweat on their foreheads, to draw a scream or two from the depths of their core, and most of all to see these riders leave their ride vehicles with smiles on their faces and even maybe a laugh. So when engineers or Imagineers get together to design and develop a thrill ride I am sure that they have those goals in mind. They also know that to achieve those goals they need to include one or more of those key components that would help to ensure success.

So let's look at a few of these key components and see how these Walt Disney World attractions measure up.


The need for speed -- it's there for the thrill-seekers. The faster the better. It's a component that works very well for the thrill ride genre. Does speed play a part in any of those selected Walt Disney World attractions? The answer is not just yes but "Oh, yes!"

First and foremost is Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney's Hollywood Studios. That particular attraction has a signature start or launch that tells the guests what they are in for and that is a very fast (75 second) roller coaster ride. Speed plays very much into this attraction's overall theme.

Staying in the same park let's look at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Speed does play a part in this attraction. Everyone talks about the drop on the Tower of Terror, but is it a drop when you are going faster than gravity will pull you? The elevator moves downward and upward at amazing speeds, as if someone is pushing on an accelerator. What makes this attraction work is not just the theme but the speed of the ride vehicles.

Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom offers its riders a unique experience, especially for those veteran roller coaster fans. There is one sequence in the ride in which guests are given the chance to experience a different kind of feeling. This experience would not be as memorable without the involvement of speed. It is speed that adds the thrill.

Speed also comes into play for Epcot's Test Track. In fact, I would go as far to say that speed is a necessary component in how well Test Track is received by its riders. For many riders it is the speed component they mention most when describing their Test Track experience.

Mission: Space, also in Epcot, relies on a huge centrifuge to achieve the simulated experience it offers its guests. So speed plays a big factor into the overall theme of the attraction and without it -- well, there would not be much to talk about.

For some, speed may be a chief component in the thrill-ride status of Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the Magic Kingdom, but for both the theming is the key. Big Thunder relies on gravity; speed is not a major factor for this thrill ride. Space Mountain's ride in the dark gives the impression that the ride vehicles are going faster than their reported 45 mph speed.


The fear factor plays an absolutely vital part in the thrill ride profile. Without fear where would some of the riders get their rush? Without fear, how would those racing hearts ever get revved up? So what fears are most used when developing a thrill ride?

Well, when I look at our group of thrill rides several fears come to mind. As I mention each fear I will indicate which attraction led me to list this as a thrill ride component.

Altophobia (acrophobia) or the fear of heights, is a big part of several of our Walt Disney World attractions. It is something we think about when we ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Soarin', Tower of Terror, and Expedition Everest. Think of the first time you have ridden any of these attractions -- I'm sure one of your first thoughts was, "Wow, this is high!"

One of the fears I know I struggle with is the fear of not being in control. For all of these attractions, I know that once I commit to riding that I have also relinquished control and have to deal with it.

The fear of falling goes hand-in-hand with the fear of heights and the two prime candidates for showcasing this are the Tower of Terror and Splash Mountain.

The other prime fear I see as being a huge component is the fear of darkness, which can be experienced in Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, Tower of Terror, and especially Dinosaur.


Remember early on I mentioned that all Imagineers and ride designers look to have their guests leave their ride vehicles with a smile and a laugh? Well, it's true. As I went through all of these attractions I tried to recall which of these saw more smiles and laughter than others.

I tried to rate them all and came up with my top five fun factor thrill rides. Here's how I arrived at each rating.

#1 is the Tower of Terror. I remember each time I get off that elevator hearing laughter and lots of excited talk. Each ride experience is different, and that makes a difference in the surprise factor and makes for an enjoyable and fun ride.

#2 is Expedition Everest because of its intensity and because of the Yeti factor. I see lots of smiling faces coming off that attraction. What makes this thrill ride work is also the amazing queue guests go through before they are loaded onto the attraction.

#3 is Soarin' simply because this attraction has an uncanny ability to take those guests who are afraid of heights and convince them to come back to ride the attraction again. There seems to be wonder and joy in the faces of those who experience Soarin' for the very first time.

#4 is Dinosaur because it seems that in each vehicle there usually are at least one or two people who really get frightened by the ride experience. Everyone in that vehicle sort of bonds and has a great time together.

#5 is a tie with both Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Splash Mountain. If we were going based on first-timer experience then perhaps Rock 'n' Roller Coaster would get the nod. However, it's hard to say enough good words about the fun factor for Splash Mountain, especially when you never know just how wet you will get.


I think as thrill rides move into the future they will continue to adhere to the basic components that will make them popular and they will do whatever is necessary to help their riders get their hearts racing and get that bead of sweat forming on their foreheads.

For me, theming is essential. It's also important for me to recognize what makes one thrill ride unique from all the rest. Throw in those thrill ride components and toss in some uniqueness and you have the right formula for designing a very successful thrill ride.



Mike Scopa has been a huge Disney fan for as long as he can remember. He first visited Walt Disney World in 1975 and has returned many times (how many? he's lost count!) since. Mike is a contributor to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Cara Goldsbury's Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World, and has served as keynote speaker for the 2006 and 2007 MagicMeets. He is also co-host of the WDWTODAY Podcast and writes a regular blog, The View from Scopa Towers, for AllEars.Net:

Other AllEars® articles by Mike Scopa: http://allears.net/btp/mikescopa.htm


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.