A year ago I could not have predicted that, in the span of 2021, I would have visited every Disney theme park in the western hemisphere. Any yet, just last week, I got back from Paris, where I took a day and a half to visit Disneyland Paris, which was probably the most surreal part of the entire trip — more than anything pandemic-related.
I grew up with the Florida parks, and have only recently included Anaheim in my regular vacation visits. When I got vaccinated this spring, I planned a corresponding Disney World trip to celebrate, and when I found out how criminally inexpensive the parks in France are, I thought: I can see them all in one year, can’t I?
Of course, with the state of the world, I wasn’t at all able to include the east Asian parks: Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, Shanghai Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Therefore this ranking list is incomplete, but I still wanted to write it, if only to gather the thoughts that bounce in a person’s brain after visiting a different version of the same idea in three immensely different locations.
8. Walt Disney Studios Park, Disneyland Paris
Opened in 2002 as a result of the Disney company needing to act swiftly to maintain part of the extensive property they controlled from building Euro Disneyland in the early 1990s, Walt Disney Studios park seems, at first, to be a clone of Hollywood Studios’s early days as Disney-MGM Studios: a working backlot, a place to learn about the process of filmmaking. There had been plans for a studio park since the opening of Euro Disneyland in 1992, but when that park performed poorly (more on that later), they were shelved, until ground was broken in 2000 to built a truncated version of the original concept. Originally, the park had nine attractions, of which only three were rides; Disney historians can note the similarity to its predecessor, Disney-MGM Studios, which only had one ride when it opened, however, MGM Studios was a working film studio, whereas Walt Disney Studios is a shelled impersonation of one.
Walt Disney Studios has now expanded to eight attractions and four shows, though it still feels threadbare and truncated, at best. The entrance to the park includes three massive soundstage buildings that host fast food and merchandise stores rather than entertainment venues, the main courtyard is a wide, empty expanse of concrete with posters for attractions that would not look out of place at an AMC theater. It was hard to rate aspects of this park simply because there is so little there to begin with; especially now that much of the park is under construction for upcoming lands dedicated to Frozen, Star Wars, and Marvel, which will inject the park with more excitement, but possibly not more charm.
7. Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World
The original “studio park,” a place that has gone through a lifetime of new names — first Disney-MGM Studios, then Disney Studios, Hollywood Studios, and finally Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World’s smallest park is also, unfortunately, its weakest. As I’ve discussed before, DHS is in the long midst of an identity crisis stemming from the initial weakness of its early concept: the park was meant to be a working studio, or at least function like one, that lived exclusively within certain eras of Hollywood filmmaking. Once it began to veer from that narrow concept, it frayed.
The result is a place that lacks an aesthetic cohesion and feels almost haphazardly built, many of the attractions are where they are because (it seems) space needed to be filled; the Animation Courtyard that once housed the Florida branch of the animation studio now hosts a Star Wars meet and greet, a Disney Channel children’s show, and nothing else; there are two other places where Star Wars can be encountered in the ride Star Tours and the new, spectacular Star Wars, Galaxy’s Edge, which feels more clumsy than immersive. True, the park hosts some of the best Disney attractions in the world, including the original Tower of Terror and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, as well as the best 3D movie in any park (MuppetVision 3D). And though it’s far from the emotional void of its Paris counterpart, it still leaves more to be desired than it fulfills.
6. Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Resort
Of the parks on the lower side of this list, DCA is probably my personal favorite, even as it didn’t rank higher than it did. Aesthetically, this park has dramatically improved in the last ten years. For one, it’s an incredible place to visit at night, from the brighter-than-life neon of Cars Land to the midway bulbs of Pixar Pier to the quiet calm of the Grizzly Peak forest. And, though we’re not going outside the parks for this list, the novelty of the Grand Californian Hotel and its private entrance is, itself, gorgeous. Disney California Adventure also hosts some truly lovely seasonal offerings, including celebrations of California’s AAPI and Latine communities.
But aesthetics can only get you so far; and though this park does boast some of the best rides in California, its smaller rides are sparse and unimpressive, its food mostly the same. It also lacks the “hub and spoke” model of most Disney parks, making it a time-consuming park to navigate. Not to mention the addition of Avengers Campus, a concrete bombast that makes a better advertisement for the US Military than it does as a place of fantastic escapism, and DCA loses some of the charm I love about it, and I realize that I enjoy it as a place to take a quick break from Disneyland or as a companion to its hotel, and not as its own destination.
5. Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World
The flagship park for Walt Disney World — at least the version of it that was rewritten after Walt Disney’s death — Magic Kingdom was built as a souped-up recreation of Disneyland. Bigger, more spread out, and with a different array of lands (most specifically, the omission of New Orleans Square and the inclusion of Liberty Square), Magic Kingdom might seem like an improvement on the original, at first.
Where, then, does it lack? Although Magic Kingdom might have some superior rides to the other castle parks (it has, per my estimation, the best Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, and It’s a Small World), it’s in the rest of the atmosphere where Magic Kingdom’s seams start to show. Of the four parks in Florida, it far and away has the least impressive food offerings, and though most nerds will wax poetic about the Dapper Dans (which also exist in Disneyland), the Magic Kingdom misses the shows and streetsmosphere that aid in immersion and whimsy. Finally, and most damning, it isn’t a relaxing park: there are few places to linger, to sit and people-watch or wait for parades, to watch the boats move along the Rivers of America. Magic Kingdom is an exhausting place to be that begs for lounges and pleasure and provides only fast pacing and brief respite.
4. Disneyland Park, Disneyland Paris
I will start with this, first and foremost: this is the only park that got a perfect 10 for aesthetics. Disneyland Paris is, in every possible way, drop-dead gorgeous, made so by the American fear of French taste, full of fairytale fantasy and constantly gorgeous sight lines. Even on the cloudy, rainy days that I spent there I was agog with the amount of craftsmanship and detail that the park contains. Unlike the grueling pace of the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris hums and never whines; its lands each contain walk-through dioramas and side streets to get lost in, each so immersive that you forget that, in the middle of a Western fort, you’re only a few hundred yards from a hedge maze presided over by a giant portrait of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.
If only, of course, there was more to do here. Many of the rides are copied from Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, and those that are unique to the park don’t do enough to make the place an absolute destination, especially as it is so close to one of the most beautiful places in Europe.
When I was discussing this list with a friend after visiting Disneyland Paris, she noted that it made sense that it would be in the center of the list: it has everything that the poor parks lack — a truly gorgeous, navigable, immersive environment — and it lacks what the great parks have — incredible attractions, entertainment, and food. It’s the combination of those two categories that will show up strongly in the top three parks.
3. Epcot, Walt Disney World
Of the metrics I picked to rank these parks, the most loosely-defined was “novelty.” Simply speaking: does this park exist in a way that is completely unique to the genre? And, truly, there is nothing else like Epcot, at least not since the heyday of World’s Fairs and Expositions. Epcot has the most interesting development history of any park, and though it’s in an identity shift similar to Hollywood Studios, it is starting from a much more solid foundation.
Some might disagree with this high status — after all, one half of Epcot, fka Future World, has seemed to be in flux for decades. Plagued by an early dependency on sponsorships that fell aside, Future World might seem to be pale and uninteresting compared to the sweeping vistas of any of the Kingdom parks. But then again, the novelty of it is managed so much better than the concrete nothingness of, say, Walt Disney Studios, or the lovely, erratic jumble of California Adventure. Epcot has, in Future World (recently rechristened World Celebration, World Discovery, and World Nature), the gorgeous icon of Spaceship Earth, thrill rides like Test Track and Mission: Space, and one of the largest aquariums in the world. It has the relaxing oasis of the Land pavilion and the scenic pyramids and upward-flowing waterfalls of the Imagination pavilion. Despite its current state of construction, the front half of Epcot remains a unique and important place in the history and future of all the parks.
And then, of course, there’s the back half, the theme park for adults that is World Showcase: eleven unique pavilions sprawling around a picturesque lagoon. Each one a different country, offering not roller coasters and carnival food but quiet side streets and fantastic cuisine. So much of theme parks rely on thrills and spectacle, yet World Showcase is a master class in serenity and humanity, where you can step through the back entrance and let yourself be a little lost.
2. Disneyland Park, Disneyland Resort
Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.
A baker’s dozen words hang on the plaque at the entrance to Disneyland, the original theme park and Walt Disney’s greatest achievement. Built as a rebuke to the huckster carnivals and cheap amusement parks that dotted the country, Disneyland was conceived as a place that would represent the best of what Walt Disney thought America could be: a place of adventure, frontier, futurism, and fantasy. Much has changed over the years — often for the better — but the elements that made Disneyland a watershed moment in entertainment still remain: the hub-and-spoke model that’s easy to navigate, the berm separating the bustling real world from the park, an emphasis of guest experience and immersion. Newer parks may have excelled in grandeur and invention, but none have surpassed Disneyland’s cohesion; it’s a small, concentrated place where every element works in harmony, from the oldest rides to the newest Star Wars spectacular.
Every great thing in Disney parks around the world comes from this original park. Castles, mountains, boat rides, themed lands, pirates, Dole Whip, animatronics, waterways. Visiting Disneyland after other parks is like traveling to the Colosseum in Rome: sure, it’s older, it doesn’t have the bombast of the stadiums of today, but it is perfect and essential.
1 . Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World
The word lush, I think, was created for Animal Kingdom. What Epcot was for knowledge, what Disneyland is for fantasy, Animal Kingdom is for adventure; an Adventureland blown up to massive scale.
Every moment of the park is designed perfectly, every attraction spectacular. Animal Kingdom is the pinnacle of what theming and immersion can create, but it doesn’t fall into the pristine unreality of Disneyland Paris: instead, the park feels used and lived in, a place with its own history and personality. Like other kingdoms, there are lands here, but each one seems to exist within the thin veil between humanity and nature; whether in a temple overrun by tigers or the edge of a safari, in a human settlement on an alien planet or a paleontologist’s dig for ancient monsters. Animal Kingdom’s message is about our proximity to the wild and our responsibility as its caregivers, it’s a place rooted in reality that also manages to be almost completely synthetic. It is a place to be in awe of nature and of human creativity, it is the sort of dream come true that only Disney Imagineering could create.
So yes, Animal Kingdom is the finest of all the Disney parks in the west; not because it has the best rides (though it probably does) and the best food (it’s a close second to Epcot). In the 23 years since it’s opened, no other park or land has come close.