You’ve heard that Disney parks are different. “Disney isn’t like your local amusement park,” they say. You might even have heard something about how Walt wanted it to be a place where everyone in the family could enjoy the attractions together. But what does that mean? If you’re going on vacation to Disney World, what should you expect to do?
Today we’re going to break down the common types of attractions you can find at Disney World. We’ll look at technology, vibe, and audience. Even if you’ve been to a Disney park before, you might see the lineup in a whole new way.
I’m going to get us going with one of the most distinctive features of Disney parks. And that is …
Robots Are Everywhere!
Family entertainment didn’t start with Disney: traveling carnivals, fairs, and other exciting outings stretch way back into history. Today, attractions are in many places – state fairs, carnivals, amusement parks, and more. I live in Massachusetts, and we have attractions in furniture stores! So what makes Disney’s attractions different?
Actually, some of them are not very different. But one thing that stands out across Disney World is the use of life-like robots. These are called Audio-Animatronics, and Disney was the first to develop them. Audio-Animatronics first appeared in the parks in 1963, and were featured in Disney’s four exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair. Three of these exhibits were later moved to the parks, and are still there in some form today.
Audio-Animatronics, sometimes called AAs, are a staple of Disney World attractions. AAs are not used in literally every attraction, but they’re everywhere in the sense that you are bound to encounter them. They’re in shows. They’re on rides. There’s even an in-park fast-food joint with an Audio-Animatronic performer!
Digging directly into the attractions, let’s start by dividing them into rides and not-rides.
Disney World Attractions That Aren’t Rides
One thing that’s really tricky when writing about Disney parks is remembering to use the word “attractions” all the time. That’s because half or more of the entertainment offered at Disney World is things that you see or do, not things that you ride. This is a big part of how Disney World can be welcoming to guests at all stages of life and with a wide variety of accessibility needs.
Not to repeat myself, but most of these have their roots in entertainment you can find elsewhere. Street entertainers such as jugglers, mimes, and musicians are found throughout the world. Staged performances and films are also common. And walk-through exhibits, sometimes called self-paced exhibits, come in many forms. Think about museums and zoos on one end of this spectrum, and the traditional carnival “freak show” on the other.
We can divide the not-a-rides at Disney into shows, characters, and self-paced attractions. Almost all are accessible to all guests and don’t have any health or height restrictions.
Shows are a mainstay of Disney World attractions, and most are 10-30 minutes in length. The scale ranges from can’t-miss-it stuff like the nighttime fireworks spectaculars to things you’d stop for as a passerby but wouldn’t go out of your way to see. Shows have high capacities (which means they rarely have long lines), and if they are indoors, they have air conditioning. That makes them a great option for the middle of the day when it’s hot and lines are long elsewhere.
Shows generally fall into one of three formats: stage shows, street shows, or films.
Stage shows are just what you’d think of from the name – staged shows with performers. They might be on outdoor, open-air stages, or in theaters. As an example, Beauty and the Beast in Hollywood Studios is a miniature of a Broadway show. And Festival of the Lion King in Animal Kingdom is a 30-minute trip to the circus.
Sometimes the stage is not a “stage”, but a building that is used as a backdrop for a fireworks spectacular or projection show.
You remember I said that Audio-Animatronics are kind of Disney’s thing? Well, they’ve got stage shows where all the performers are Audio-Animatronics! There are four of these (and a half, if you count the Hall of Presidents), and all but one are in the Magic Kingdom.
Detailed descriptions of all the stage shows are in Walt Disney World Show-Style Attraction Roundup.
Street entertainers use a “stage” that’s accessible to guests when it’s not being used for the show. Think of the crowd that gathers around a street performer on the sidewalk, and you’ll have the right idea.
Most street performances are held a few times a day, but some (especially parades) may only happen once. And some street entertainers appear without a set schedule—just a bit of atmospheric magic that you may happen to catch if you’re in the right place. You can get an idea of the range of entertainers here: Top 5 WDW Entertainment Options.
Films are found in each of the four Disney World parks, and are often some of the shorter shows. They can be panoramic, 3D, or “4D” – adding scent or some other element to make the movie more immersive. Most run continuously, with each performance starting at the end of the previous one. There’s a complete list in Erin’s Movie-Style Roundup.
You’ll encounter characters in one of two ways at Disney World. You can go to a Meet & Greet, or you may see characters performing as street entertainers as you stroll around. Meet & Greet attractions tend to be low capacity, so popular ones can have long lines. If these are high on your list (or your kids’ list), do a little planning for the best experience.
Did you know that Animal Kingdom is a zoo? It’s true: it has full accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. You can ride rides, and you can also do the same kind of wandering and animal watching that you’d do at your local zoo. What makes the experience special here is the theming. I’ve never been to a zoo that made me feel so much like I was visiting animals in their home environment.
The illusion breaks if you think about it too hard, but it’s crazy-amazing to me that it works so well if you don’t.
Self-paced attractions at Disney World run the gamut. There’s the aforementioned zoo. There are glorified playgrounds to run around on. There are scavenger hunts. There are fountains to play in. There are interactive exhibits like you’d find in a science museum. Anyone who tells you that you have to wait in line for everything at Disney World wasn’t paying attention.
Disney World Rides
Fairground rides date back to the 18th century, but they didn’t really take off until the late 19th century when mechanical power came on the scene. There are some basic genres: flat rides, gravity rides, and dark rides. Flat rides carry the rider “flat” around a fixed point – think bumper cars, carousels, and basic spinner rides. Gravity rides rely on some element of physics, usually gravity. Think roller coasters and pendulum rides; gravity rides tend to be the ones we think of as “thrill” rides. And dark rides move the rider through a series of show scenes: think Tunnel of Love.
These paradigms do overlap, and they’re not all-inclusive. For instance, Ferris wheels aren’t classed as a flat ride (because they’re not flat, duh!) but they do rely on movement around a fixed point. And what about the Rotor, that ride that spins so fast that you stick to the wall even when the floor drops out? It’s flat, and riders move around a fixed point … but physics is definitely providing the meat of that experience! This is something to keep in mind: attractions can be hard to pin down into a single type.
There are a few classic flat rides at Disney. The “spinners” – Dumbo is the most famous – are a typical kiddie carnival ride. Disney’s version fits adults too, which is more unusual. Mad Tea Party, the Carrousel, and Alien Swirling Saucers are others you might find at a local carnival. Most of the “Disney” in Disney World’s flat rides tends to be IP-related themes.
Dark rides are Disney’s bread and butter: you’ll find lots of them at Disney parks and few, if any, in your local amusement park. They’re not necessarily dark; Living With the Land traverses a brightly lit greenhouse. Nor are they required to be indoors, Jungle Cruise is an outdoor ride. Many of them feature animatronics, especially older rides such as it’s a small world.
Dark rides are generally slow-moving, but dark ride doesn’t always mean “non-thrill” ride. A few have small drops or jolts; just enough for Disney to put a warning that guests should “be in good health” to ride, and nothing that would make you think an infant shouldn’t get on it. Splash Mountain (currently being reimagined) is mostly a gentle dark ride but has a famous 5-story drop. And dark rides that use screens can cause motion sickness despite their slow pace.
Still, most dark rides are accessible to all guests and suitable for all ages. Guests using ECVs may need to transfer to a standard wheelchair. In a very few cases, you must be able to walk in order to board.
Dark Ride Systems
You’ll find a few ride systems reused again and again in dark rides. Many rides have an infinite loop of vehicles fixed to a continuously moving track; guests walk onto the track and then get into the vehicle. A variation on this has cars that pause for loading before setting out on the track. And yet another variation has a water-filled channel for the “track” and boats for the vehicles.
Many of the rides that use a continuous track also use the Omnimover system invented by Disney. The Omnimover controls which direction the cars are facing as they move, so the rider is always looking where the designer intended.
Disney’s newest dark rides use trackless dark ride technology. Gone is the mechanical connection; these rides use computers and positioning systems to direct the ride vehicles. That opens the way to rides where the vehicles appear to interact with each other – for instance engaging in a dance – something that’s not possible if they’re all on the same track.
Dark rides typically have high capacities ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 riders per hour, but lines can still get long when the ride is very popular.
Yes, Disney World has roller coasters. You’re not surprised, are you? Each Disney World Park has at least one coaster, and Magic Kingdom has five including its latest: TRON Lightcycle / Run.
We’ve finally made it to a category which is, without exception, thrill rides. But there are generally no loops or inversions, so coaster junkies rate Disney’s offerings as pretty tame on the thrill scale. Still, almost all are very popular, with waits of an hour or more even on medium-crowd days. Where’s all the love coming from?
Disney’s roller coasters rely on theming, and Imagineering’s ingenuity really shines. Cosmic Rewind, one of the latest, has the storytelling aspects of a dark ride and extends the Omnimover concept to an “Omnicoaster”. Oh, and you know there are Audio-Animatronics on some of the coasters too, right? Because of course there are.
Our last class of rides that has enough samples in it to make a full bucket is motion simulators. In these attractions, vehicle movement is combined with a visual to make riders feel the experience that their eyes are seeing. Some rides use 3D effects to make the connection more believable. Some are “4D rides” that add in scent, fog, or other physical elements to make the ride more immersive.
Most motion simulators do some amount of jolting around or swooping; after all part of the ride is to really feel it, right? But not all are particularly “thrill” rides in the classic sense. Soarin’s movements are extremely gentle, and there are no health or safety warnings for the ride. It might be a thrilling experience, but unless you have a fear of heights you’re unlikely to put it in the same category of adrenaline-induction as a roller coaster.
What to Take Away
If amusement park rides aren’t generally your thing, you’ll find plenty to do at Disney parks. Over half the attractions at Disney World are family entertainment that isn’t a ride experience. And one thing I haven’t mentioned is that the high level of theming in the Disney World parks makes the environment itself into an “attraction” that’s fun to just take in as you move around.
Non-ride experiences tend to be accessible to guests of all ages and abilities. They fall into three general categories: shows, character interactions, and self-paced offerings that range from playgrounds to scavenger hunts to walk-through exhibits. In this group, only Meet & Greets tend to involve any significant waits.
Of course there are a few that don’t fall cleanly into any group, but ride-based attractions can be roughly classified as:
- Flat rides, similar to what you would find at a carnival or state fair
- Dark rides, which move the rider through a series of scenes that tell a story; these are usually a gentle, all-ages option
- Roller coasters, which rely on theming instead of loops and inversions to attract Disney’s guests
- Motion simulators, which tend to be thrill rides, but aren’t always.
And throughout all categories, you’ll find Audio-Animatronics as part of the show.
Have you been to Disney World? What types of rides are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!