Several years back a friend of mine visited Disneyland for the first time. His girlfriend wanted to go; he didn’t. My friend is over 40, sharply literate, and not easily given to whimsy; he likes his punk rock fast and arty, his movies slow and thoughtful, and his corporations engulfed in flames.
Shortly before he struck out for Anaheim, I gave him the advice I give everyone who doesn’t want to visit Disneyland but is compelled to go for reasons beyond their control: Look at the details and the artistry, and to try and divorce Disney now from Disney then. Walt Disney didn’t build a theme park to compete with other theme parks, or to sell more monogrammed Cars 2 crapola; he built it because he wanted a place he could enjoy as much as his two preteen daughters. I told my friend to visit that Disneyland, the one Uncle Walt built without consulting a single focus group.
And he did. My friend loved Disneyland. He wasn’t wild about the crowds and the double-decker strollers, but he loved the architecture, the lay of the “lands, “ and nearly every single attraction he tried. One kind of attraction, however, engaged him above and beyond all the others.
“At some point, I decided that any one of the dark rides would be worthwhile,” he said, “and I was right.”
Disneyland’s dark rides are the gold threads in the Park’s tapestry. Other Disneyland attractions may enjoy more prominence, more pride of place (even my friend lavished fervent praise on the E-ticket attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, et al)—but without the dark rides of Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown and Critter Country, none of Disneyland’s marquee attractions would exist. They’re what Walt Disney started with: A trio of Fantasyland dark rides (Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), plus a steam railroad, a riverboat and miscellaneous spinners, train and boat rides. Imagination-wise, those dark rides did most of the heavy lifting in Disneyand’s early years: They are sealed worlds within Disneyland’s sealed world, and nothing of the outside world penetrates those painted scrims lit by backlight. You can’t even bring your own ego with you. You are a spirit, floating free through the storybook, enveloped in whimsy and wonder and fear.
One thing I couldn’t give my friend before his trip was a top-to-bottom rating of Disneyland’s dark rides, but I can give you one of those. For the sake of this list, I am defining “dark ride” as a two-to-three minute attraction based on one of Disney’s animated films, excluding those attractions that are too epic in scale to be called a simple dark ride (it’s a small world), more midway game than dark ride (Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters), or not located in Disneyland at all (Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sully to the Rescue). These are the attractions that caused an old, crusty punk to regress back into a teenage theater geek, and he’s far from being the only one.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
If the purpose of a Fantasyland dark ride is to put you inside the animated film upon which it’s based, this three-and-a-half minute dark ride is Disneyland’s most faithfully realized. It truly is the real-life analogue of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland: the trip down the rabbit hole, the garden of singing flowers, and the marching playing cards are all represented here, and they make about as much sense as they did in the 1951 film. Love or hate the animated Alice, there’s no denying that it was a series of colorful and lunatic episodes without the heart Disney’s animators gave Snow White or Pinocchio. Oh, sure, the film has one of Disney’s plucky heroines at its center, but it’s not really about Alice: She stumbles into situations and scenarios without fully understanding or wanting to understand what’s happening to her, and she seemingly hasn’t learned anything by the end of the film. She has no character arc, just an inexplicable lost-time episode—and the ride reflects that, with your caterpillar-shaped ride vehicle bursting through a succession of seemingly disjointed set pieces, each one more fascinating and claustrophobic and terrifying than the one before it. In other words, this Alice a flawless translation from two dimensions to three. Alice, the dark ride, is everything it needs to be: a shot of candied hallucinogen, vividly colorful and manic.
PETER PAN’S FLIGHT
Though shorter than the Alice attraction by more than a minute and fifteen seconds, the dark ride based on Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan routinely draws much longer lines; it’s not unheard of to wait longer than an hour for these two minutes and twenty seconds in Neverland. Themepunks and Disnerds cite a number of reasons for this: the enduring appeals of the film and its characters, a lower hourly capacity than other Fantasyland attractions, blah blah blah. The real reason for the monster success of Peter Pan Flight is that its ride vehicles are suspended from the ceiling, and this novelty—which is pretty goddamned unique, really—has yet to lose its allure in nearly six decades of near-continuous operation. I don’t precisely recall what Peter Pan was like before all the Fantasyland dark rides were refreshed in 1983, but I do know that the pirate ship ride vehicles have always hung from the ceiling, and they have always taken their sweet time soaring over moonlit London and starlit Neverland; the “You Can Fly” portion of the ride accounts for nearly half its running time. Frankly, I could spend hours drifting over those “streets” and through those fiber-optics stars, but minutes is all you get, and perhaps that’s the real secret of Peter Pan’s hour-long queue: It is the only one of Fantasyland’s dark rides whose excitement is still building even as it ends. That’s a stunt worthy of Hitchcock.
SNOW WHITE’S SCARY ADVENTURES
Two of the best effects in Snow White’s Scary Adventures occur even before you hop into one of the dark ride’s mine car vehicles. If you look at the window in the tower of the attraction’s castle façade long enough, you’ll see the Evil Queen part the curtains to glare at you. Touch the golden apple at the queue entrance and you’ll hear her cackling. There are other special effects in this effects-heavy dark ride that are just as surprising—the Evil Queen’s transformation into the Old Hag is clever and scary as hell—but none of them are quite as potent as getting the stink-eye and being laughed at. Don’t listen to your parents: The Evil Queen is real, babies. She’s the true star of this aptly named two-minute dark ride, despite the ingénue’s name on the marquee; she is the Terminator wearing the leathery hide of Amy Winehouse. (Too soon?) And when the Old Hag “dies” at the end of the ride (some business with lightning; it’s all very ambiguous), it’s as unconvincing as Olivia Wilde’s death at the end of that cowboy/alien mashup. Run outside and look at the tower; the Queen lives on, unbroken, just as Wilde lives on in her own “House.” Please make the scary women stop. Actually, don’t. Not ever.
MR. TOAD’S WILD RIDE
As I said of the Peter Pan dark ride, I don’t remember exactly what Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was like before it was gutted and rebuilt in 1983, but I do recall one thing with absolute certainty: it was better. The two-minute dark ride, loosely based on a 1949 animated short film that I guarantee most of you haven’t seen since childhood (if at all), is indeed a wild ride—you literally crash through it, banging through one set of painted flats after the next, never really getting a sense of what you’re looking at. I suppose a joyride is a joyride, but I’m old-fashioned: I like to know a little bit about the people and animals I’m running down with my car. What color are their entrails? How mellifluous are their screams? Mostly, I’m bothered that one of the ride’s best set pieces—the pitch-black “train tunnel”—is over so quickly that you never really get a chance to be scared. Then again, the next set piece is Hell … yes, that Hell. It’s red and steamy and demon-riddled and kind of wonderful, and it makes up for every last thing that came before it.
ROGER RABBIT’S CAR TOON SPIN
Everything Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride does wrong, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin very nearly does right. The winding indoor queue is atmospheric and packed with story details. The ride vehicles can be spun 360 degrees, helpful if you’ve missed a detail or simply want to ride backwards. The effects, the animated show figures, and the set design—every last bit of it is impeccably done. So why is it that this three-and-a-half minute dark ride seems so alienated from the witty 1988 film on which it’s based? Of all Disneyland’s dark rides, this one feels the least Disneylike to me; it replicates the frenetic pacing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s action sequences, but lacks the film’s emotion and sentimentality. It’s a pretty bloodless exercise, and while it’s easily to look at Car Toon Spin (and from nearly any angle, thanks to that usable steering wheel), it’s tough to make yourself feel one way or another about it. Dizziness is not an emotion.
PINOCCHIO’S DARING JOURNEY
Considering the richly detailed and breathtakingly gorgeous world painted into Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio, the Disneyland dark ride based on the film is surprisingly slight. The three-minute Pinocchio’s Daring Journey is a pleasant enough diversion; the Pleasure Island portion of the ride is suitably lurid, and Geppetto’s workshop is so cozy that you could swear you feel the heat from the “fireplace.” But there are no special effects really worth the mention (the “Pepper’s Ghost” effect that allows the Blue Fairy to vanish is used to far superior effect in the Haunted Mansion, which preceded Daring Journey by longer than a decade), and the story is even more difficult to follow than even the nearly plotless Alice dark ride, and it pivots largely on Jiminy Cricket yelling directions at you: “Don’t go in there! Look out! This way!” It’s like the time just after you got your driver’s license, when you thought it’d be fun to drive your parents to Applebee’s. How wrong you were.
THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
I must confess that I’m coming at this three-minute dark ride from a disadvantage. The character of Winnie-the-Pooh never made much of an impact on me—not in A.A. Milne’s charming books, not in Disney’s 1966 featurette Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree (released almost a year to the day before I was born), and not in Disneyland, where Pooh merchandise sold gangbusters even before 2003, when Disney finally saw fit to give the tubby ursine his own dark ride. Still, I suspect I’d find The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh underwhelming even if I had drank the honey. There isn’t much to recommend the ride: the character animation is limited; the effects are modest and copied largely from Disneyland’s other dark rides; and the sets are pleasant but forgettable. I understand how it might appeal to very young children, being moderately paced, sunshine-bright and not the least bit scary, but little kids grow up, and there’s nothing here for older children, teens or parents. Two things in the ride’s favor: the wait to get on is rarely longer than five minutes, and as the Disnerds and Passholes are fond of saying, the air conditioning is nice and cold.