The Disney Parks are known for always striving to create the best possible experience for visitors, and that means improving old rides to new levels of fun. Sometimes these upgrades work, but sometimes they don’t.
Here are six times that rides were helped by updates, and two times that updates didn’t work out.
Attraction Upgrade Hits
As the first Disney attraction based on a non-Disney property and one based on the popular Star Wars franchise, Star Tours was a smash hit with audiences of all ages, taking them on a simulated high-speed space adventure with tons of action and funny shenanigans. That said, as more realistic simulators such as Soarin’ and Mission: Space entered the picture, the initial simulation experience on Star Tours began to seem outdated. This, combined with the addition of more movies to the franchise, meant that a significant refurbishment was in order.
Fortunately, the Star Tours: The Adventure Continues successor carried on the legacy of the original while taking the adventure to newfound heights. The ride maintained the sense of humor of its predecessor, with quirky droids from the first version make reappearances with new jokes and mishaps. Yet the new version also expanded the horizons of Star Tours, bringing in characters and new places from the Star Wars universe. Moreover, the adventure was now random, with adventures to multiple worlds in the vast Star Wars universe, from Tatooine to Naboo to Kashyyyk, shuffled together for a new mix of fun each time. This upgrade in turn helped guide future Star Wars rides, making the update a clear success.
The addition of Disney characters into previously unique attractions, such as Jack Sparrow into the Pirates of the Caribbean, have been controversial to a degree among fans. However, the addition of Donald Duck, José, and Panchito Pistoles into the previously named El Rio del Tiempo boat ride on Mexico’s history overall seems to have had a positive effect on the experience. This in part comes from those characters’ previous ties to Mexico. In The Three Caballeros, which mixes animation with live action footage of Mexico, the aforenamed trio went on a whirlwind tour of Mexico, experiencing its unique culture, places, and people while also having lots of chaotic mischief along the way.
As a result, it was a natural fit to place the trio into the ride, which already has video footage of different parts of Mexico. When you see them inserted into the different scenes, like Donald diving off Acapulco’s cliffs (and banging his head each time), it’s as if they’re reprising their role in The Three Caballeros. The new version maintains the original spirit of the ride while also spicing it up and making things more engaging for the audience.
When Animal Kingdom first opened in 1998, it was meant, in part, to give guests an immersive experience up close with wild animals from around the world. One of the perennial favorite attractions at the time was Kilimanjaro Safaris, a jeep tour through an African preserve containing dozens of different native wildlife, ranging from wildebeest to okapi to warthogs to mandrills. There was just one problematic element in the adventure that disrupted the experience: a story arc involving poachers kidnapping a baby elephant. The theme of stopping poaching is important, and we appreciated that videos in the ride queue emphasized that. However, the finale’s Jungle Cruise-esque animatronics were a sharp contrast to the realism in the rest of the ride and took away from the safari immersion.
Changes to the ride eventually removed the poaching chase as well as another gimmick with a rickety bridge that starts to collapse as you cross it. Now guests can fully focus on enjoying the trek and viewing all the different animals, without being distracted by the radio announcements or having to cut the final section short to get on with the chase. Further additions such as the recent nighttime safaris featuring hyenas among other creatures continue to make Kilimanjaro Safaris one of the best rides at Animal Kingdom.
Dumbo has always been a mainstay at the Disney Parks. It’s a simple ride, but it has its own charm and is great for the whole family. Yet if you were going to take a flight with Dumbo at Disney World in the past, there would have been one annoying issue for you: the wait. There was only a single spinner for Dumbo riders, meaning that the lines quickly backed up. Worse, due to the ride’s age and location, the line queue simply ran along some rails next to the outdoor attraction. This meant that you were constantly in the Florida heat without any diversions. So while the ride was certainly fun, the wait wasn’t.
Fortunately, this all changed when the Magic Kingdom began significant renovations to Fantasyland starting in 2011. Dumbo was moved to a new Storybook Circus area, and this new placement gave more room for there to be two separate carousels, creating greater ride capacity and speeding up the line. Moreover, you don’t need to worry about being bored and hot in line the whole time. Now the line runs through an indoor Big Top that contains a circus-style play area for children to have fun until it’s their turn for the ride.
The original version of this ride, and the changes that strengthened its appeal to guests, reflect the initial challenges at California Adventure and how Disney has worked to improve the park since. Initially, tying in with California’s Adventure focus on highlighting various attractions throughout California, the ride was named Mulholland Madness after Mulholland Drive, a scenic road through the Santa Monica Mountains. Few guests appreciated the reference, and there was little to make the ride engaging. Combined with the lackluster set-up of the actual rollercoaster, visitors had little reason to ride.
As Disney realized that maybe basing the park entirely off the same state they were in wasn’t the best move, they began to retheme many of the previous attractions, giving them new identities that could better engage audiences and make them feel part of a Disney experience. In the case of Mulholland, it received a splash of silly fun when Goofy was thrown into the mix. At the now-named Goofy’s Sky School, Goofy attempts to draw on his “professional” experiences as a pilot to teach riders how to fly. Just like how part of the sky carousel appeal is flying with Dumbo, having Goofy “mentoring” you throughout the rickety ride makes the experience more entertaining. And just as this helped save a poorly received ride, the overall changes to California Adventure have renewed interest in the park by adding in more of a Disney charm to it all.
One of the most essential ingredients to a successful suspense or horror ride is the element of surprise, startling audience members just as they thought they were safe. Unfortunately, this means that if such a ride becomes too predictable for frequent visitors, the novelty starts to run dry. This was initially a problem for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney World, where the drop used to be the same every time. You would just drop once and always at the same point in the experience. So while the plunge certainly was fun, you wouldn’t feel surprised when it happened.
Since its opening, though, the Tower of Terror has become spookier through multiple upgrades. The elevator now uses randomized drops and lifts, as well as at least two drops per ride (including a fake drop to throw off riders). This way, you’ll get a unique set of thrills each time you step aboard the elevator, never knowing quite what to expect. Disney has made other additions as well, such as upgrading the on-ride cameras to shoot video footage, letting you buy videos of your frightening adventures rather than just single camera shots. With all these changes combined, the Tower of Terror is more terrifying than ever, an ideal ride for brave thrill-seekers.
Attraction Upgrade Misses
Now let’s get into a couple of times where Disney should have left things alone. The worst sort of “improvement” is when the changes not only fail to improve the ride but also, in the process, take away something intrinsic and important, possibly forever.
This was the sad fate of the original PeopleMover ride in Disneyland Anaheim’s Tomorrowland. The slow-paced but fun ride, taking guests across all of Tomorrowland, was one of the legacies of Walt Disney’s vision for a futuristic utopian city. The PeopleMover was meant to be a public transit system that was self-running, eliminating the need for cars. The Tomorrowland equivalent was scaled down in size, but it still reflected Walt’s bright vision for progress, making them the perfect guide to Tomorrowland.
Unfortunately, an attempt to make the ride more exciting and hipper was its ultimate doom. As part of the Tomorrowland 2025 project, an initially rosy plan to revamp Tomorrowland that that fell through due to budget cuts, the PeopleMover was remade into the Rocket Rods, which would shoot forward like jets for a more fast-paced experience. Unfortunately, their integration on the PeopleMover’s track, which had been designed for slower movement, was poorly implemented. The rockets would have to stop abruptly at certain points of the ride, making the ride jumpy and prone to breakdowns. Worse, the Rocket Rods wore away at the track, which had never been intended to support something like them. With the track ruined, Disneyland’s improvement led to the loss of the PeopleMover entirely.
Country Bear Jamboree
Again, this “update” refers to something that ultimately took away content from the Disney experience, this time the seasonal Country Bear Christmas Special. Each year over the winter holidays, the Country Bear Jamboree – a fun, song-filled show with animatronic, mischievous bears – was reworked into a unique show with classic holiday songs. These new acts brought more variety to the bears’ performances and made for a worthy show of its own right. Probably the best part of the show was the merry carol of Sleigh Ride, whose merry lyrics were comically juxtaposed with projected images of the bears’ sleigh ride careening out of control.
Unfortunately, that seasonal experience is no longer available. It was apparently canceled so that guests coming during the holidays could have the chance to watch the traditional version of the Country Bear Jamboree. However, that reasoning is flawed when you consider how special events like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at Walt Disney World exist for the point of creating a unique holiday experience for travelers during that time.
Changes are a necessity for keeping Disney rides engaging and entertaining for years to come, and when those upgrades add to the ride rather than detracting, Disney has hit the nail right on the head. Here’s to many more years of evolving magic!
Which change to a classic attraction have you enjoyed the most? Let us know in the comments!