Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. Its wistful energy is what pulls so many of us back to Walt Disney World, and Disney as a company in general. We hold onto that feeling we remember from our first ride on Pirates of the Caribbean as we smell that unique aroma of water and the excitement of rushing down the initial drop in near complete darkness.
I still feel that way about Pirates, and so many other rides, more than 30 years after first visiting Disney World. As the parks continue to evolve, it’s important to reflect and think about what keeps pulling legions of Disney fans back to the parks. As I walked through the parks on my last visit, I couldn’t help but think about what rides at Walt Disney World are the most nostalgic. After a great deal of thought, I’ve isolated what I believe are the most nostalgic rides at each Walt Disney World park.
It’s important to first note that these selections were not made through a scientific process but on an opinion-based set of criteria that includes the age of the ride, the connection to culture outside of the parks, and its timelessness. This list is not about which rides are our favorites; it is about those that capture your soul and bring you back to your younger self over and over.
Magic Kingdom – It’s a Small World
It’s a Small World took passengers through this iconic ride around the globe on opening day of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. The Magic Kingdom wasn’t the first home to this catchy dark ride, nor the second, but millions of children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents have boarded the boats to explore a new realm of music, hope, and global idealism synonymous with It’s a Small World.
This simplistic boat ride is unlike any other ride in the Magic Kingdom. The dancing and playing children of the world, starting in the United Kingdom and ending with an international blending of cultures and symbolic unity, is not connected to any intellectual property, but here it is 55 years after it made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair. It takes you back to another time, another place, and leaves you with a sense of the nostalgic hope politicians talk about but can’t quite capture. Walt Disney captured it and turned it into a ride.
In addition to being Magic Kingdom’s most nostalgic-filled ride, with more than 50 million plays, It’s a Small World also holds the record for the most played song in history.
It might not be the most thrilling ride in the park, but there is something about the unique art direction, the simple audio-animatronic dolls, the music, and the overall message of international connection that brings a smile to your face. Sure, the dolls can easily creep you out if you look too hard, the song can get on your nerves after a while, and the childish gags get boring after a while, you can’t help but hop on the ride and try and find new details you’ve missed.
Honorable Mentions: Pirates of the Caribbean, Mad Tea Party, or Jungle Cruise
Epcot – Spaceship Earth
Spaceship Earth has been part of Epcot since day one in 1982, with subtle changes over its 37-year history. With four iconic narrators, including Dame Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons, who have lent their voices to the ride, there is no doubt that this dark ride has touched the imagination of multiple generations.
It is the quintessential nostalgic ride at Epcot. It continues to pull in riders year after year. The consistency of the crowds is aided by the fact that it is the first thing you walk by when entering the park, but the ride through space and time has attracted legions of fans in large part due to its nostalgic hold.
There are no sudden drops. Its animatronics are no longer extraordinary, and in some cases have remained broken for years between refurbishments. And, it is a ride that typically ages itself out of relevance as we continue advancing technologically as a society.
The scenes and moving tableaus, however, are iconic. The Roman scene, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, and the wrong way-facing newspaper boy are in many ways timeless, and they immediately take riders back to the first time they rode it. It is pure nostalgia wrapped up into a giant silver geodesic sphere.
Honorable Mentions: Living with the Land
Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!
Few parks have gone through such a significant overhaul as Disney’s Hollywood Studios has over the past few years. Between the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land, plus the removal of the Great Movie Ride, this 30-year-old park has lost a great deal of its nostalgia. It is nearly unrecognizable to those who haven’t visited in 15 or even 10 years.
This evolution has claimed countless rides and attractions, but the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, while not currently operating in this first phase of reopening, remains a powerful pull for many who visited the park in the 1990s and 2000s.
The ride opened up a couple months after Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) opened in 1989, making it one of the few attractions from that opening year to still be in the park today. The Indiana Jones franchise is part of our cultural iconography, with the films (excluding the train wreck that is Crystal Skull) etching their thrilling scenes into our consciousness. Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular lets you relive famous scenes from the films and also experience the action you watched on the big screen firsthand and in person.
It’s a powerful combination, and one that truly takes nostalgia seriously.
Honorable Mentions: Tower of Terror
Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Kilimanjaro Safaris
As the only park that’s been open less than a generation, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not exactly ripe with nostalgia. The opening day attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris, however, is as close as you can find in Animal Kingdom.
This 800 square miles of diverse ecosystems, animals, and fauna is truly one-of-a-kind, and indicative of how a Disney theme park can whisk you away from the world for a few minutes. What sets this ride apart from some of the other rides that have been at the park as long, like Dinosaur, is that it is a place for the whole family. You ride it as a family, whether you are a young couple or hopping onboard the trucks with generations in tow. And, when we’re calculating nostalgia, that goes a long way.
I remember the first time I went on Kilimanjaro Safaris, the first time I went on with my wife, and the first time I went on with my children. The look of anticipation and excitement when they glimpsed a lion, the flamboyance of flamingos, and the ostrich that walked up to our truck will live with me forever. Not every ride at Animal Kingdom has that much nostalgia built in, but I argue that Kilimanjaro Safaris is as good as it gets.
Honorable Mentions: Dinosaur
These four rides are likely different than your choices, and that’s okay! I would love to hear what you think are the most nostalgic rides and what keeps you coming back to them, and to the Disney parks, time and time again.