Who can tell a story better than Disney? It’s not a rhetorical question. The correct answer is nobody. Nowhere is this more evident than in the immersive storytelling brilliantly put on display at so many fine attractions throughout Walt Disney World. Yes, I know, we can (and do) have many wonderful rides without an official pre-show. Although, I’ve always felt that, if done well, a pre-show can be an integral part of properly switching our minds away from the queue lines and into the story all while enhancing the following ride sequences. Let’s take a look at the very best examples of this. Oh, and obviously… SPOILER ALERT!
1. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is the best attraction at Walt Disney World. I will gladly fight anyone who disagrees. Every aspect of this experience, from start to finish, is flawless. This is particularly true in the pre-show’s ability to transport us away from the Florida heat and into a different dimension with expert precision.
After navigating our way through the abandoned dust land of a lobby, we make our way into the hotel’s ominous library. The doors shut, seemingly leaving us with no way out. With a flash of lightning and a dim of the lights, our eyes are forced to gaze at the vintage television set in front of us as we quickly learn that we are the stars in tonight’s episode of The Twilight Zone. The video is short and sweet, giving us all the information we need for our journey while maintaining a solid balance of anticipation and fun. The Rod Serling impersonation is spot on. The storyline is completely unique to the attraction, making it relatable even to those who may not be familiar with The Twilight Zone series. It is beautifully foreboding without ever taking itself too seriously, which is something the Disney parks have been able to do so well, time and time again. No matter how many times I’ve seen it (and trust me, it’s in the hundreds) I’m always captivated by this intro as if it were my first time as a rider.
By the time that secret door opens to let us out of the library and on our way to the service elevator, we have collectively surrendered our disbelief, ditched the real world, and are ready to permanently check into the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Pure perfection.
On a slightly unrelated note: Can we please get that Tower of Terror bar that was rumored to be in development a few years ago? We’re ready for it.
2. Haunted Mansion – Magic Kingdom
Here we have another lesson in the art of perfection. Sure, the general standby line gives us a fun trip through the ground’s graveyard while offering up a generous amount of spooky foreshadowing of things to come. It isn’t until we are fully inside the show building, when the doors shut and the pre-show begins, that I feel like I’ve officially entered this classic tale and my eventual fate as a visitor of the mansion. As our eyes transition from the brightness of the outside and into the overwhelming darkness, we are met with the chilling sound of a ghostly organ gorgeously complemented by the absolute triumph of a vocal performance provided by Paul Frees as our ghost host.
After we watch the haunting portrait of Master Gracey slowly turn decrepit, we are escorted into one of the most classic scenes in Disney attraction history; the stretching room. The apparent no way out fills us with dread. The daunting narration crawls into our eardrums with fright. The walls stretch at a snail’s pace slowly revealing to us the sinister fate of our friends in the paintings. The morbid skeleton hanging by a noose, accompanied by a shrill scream, send shivers down our spines. These are all purposeful theatrics used to tug at our emotions and ignite our senses, confidently setting us up for what lies ahead. Once we have escaped the stretching room and make the short walk to our doom buggies, we are in the mood and ready to ride. I will never get tired of this bold and timeless show opener.
3. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
This one might come as a shock to some of you, but I genuinely feel that this pre-show complements the overall ride experience far better than the other contenders that may have made my top 3. Sure, a few other attractions might be substantially more impressive visually (I’m looking at you, Rise of the Resistance). What we have here is a straightforward opener that sets the tone and sends us directly into the story with a childlike playfulness that melds so well into the narrative.
Gone are the motion sickness warnings and instructions on how to enter the ride vehicle. Here, we get right into things as the beautifully nostalgic Mickey & Minnie cartoon begins. We get all of our information through the lens of a silly cartoon and deceitfully catchy song before Goofy arrives just in time to catapult the storyline forward and fill the plot with exhilaration. With a humorous cartoon gag and an eruption of smoke, the screen busts wide open, leaving a giant hole for us to walk through and literally enter the cartoon. All riders, from big to small, are filled with elation as we walk through the screen and towards our train to join Goofy and the rest of the gang. Honestly, is there a better way for us to leave the physical parameters of Mann’s Chinese Theatre and enter our ride vehicles? This simply works.
In Memoriam: Test Track – EPCOT (1999 – 2012)
Test Track. You are missed. I know you still exist, kind of, but it’s just not the same since you started seeing other people. I especially miss your pre-show. It was just plain fun. You enhanced all of the following ride sequences with your cheeky performances, educational explanation of automotive tests, and unexpected surprise selection made by your charming hosts. By the time we buckled our seatbelts and hit that test course, you had us fully prepped and anxiously looking forward to your epic conclusion. You also taught us a thing or two, which fit nicely within the EPCOT theme. Rest in peace, old friend.