Fear is something that lives inside of all of us, yet manifests itself in different ways in different people. Your tolerance level for a scare may differ significantly from my own, but deep down, no matter how tough a person may act, there are pools of fear that sit and wait for the opportune moment to come bubbling to the surface and give you that shot of adrenaline or dopamine that makes you shudder in fright before releasing an uncomfortable giggle and the satisfying feeling that you are, in fact, doing just fine.
Though Disney doesn’t venture too far down the rabbit hole of horrific fright, they are quite adept at finding the generic motifs that give many people the shivers: darkness, sudden bursts of energy, the feeling of losing control. They leave the gruesome material behind and keep things family friendly, though there are always some surprises along the way.
What follows is my list, “Top Seven Scariest Attractions in WDW History.” Now, I’m well aware that we will not all see eye-to-eye on this list, as those differences I mentioned earlier will definitely come into play, but I hope to make a decent case for each attraction in its own right. And now, here they are in no particular order…
1. The Haunted Mansion
It seems silly to start a list of scariest attractions with anything other than the grandaddy attraction that brings the spirit(s) to congregate in a single structure with an architectural approach that eagerly invites playful spirits to take up residence in the lower-Hudson Valley mansion. The Haunted Mansion wastes no time in using the common fear of claustrophobia to start its story. From there on, it’s a journey through darkened libraries, staircases, and hallways until the real fun starts after the Séance Room featuring Madame Leota and culminates with a trip through the grand ballroom, the attic, and into the backyard/cemetery area where countless ghosts appear and disappear, sing, dance, and offer spooky merriment before sending you home with your own ghost in your Doom Buggy. It’s an excellent presentation based on mood lighting, tried-and-true special effects, and just enough humor to keep little ones entertained once the first half of the attraction has been completed. Sure, it has a couple grisly moments, such as a corpse hanging from the rafters and a hatchet-wielding bride, but it’s all in good fun and never steps over the line of being inappropriate or aggressive.
2. Snow White’s Scary Adventures
Gonna go old school on this because when it comes to Disney’s scariest attractions, this is one that people still bring up as an example of perhaps Disney going a bit too far. There were a few different versions of this dark ride, and a case could be made for the original being the most confounding and fright-inducing version since Snow White didn’t appear anywhere in the ride. What a large number of guests couldn’t grasp was that the attraction was shown from the first-person perspective, meaning that each rider assumed the role of Snow White herself. All of the action was directed at the individual guest.
This was eventually changed and resulted in fewer encounters with the Evil Queen in her Witch transformation, though those moments still had the power to startle guests — the children especially, and isn’t that half the fun? Logs turned into crocodiles, lightning crashed all around, and the Witch actually attempted to drop a jewel on the guests’ vehicles. This was all updated in a 1994 refurbishment that added the title character to the ride, included more scenes with the seven dwarfs, and ended with the Witch attempting to pry a boulder loose from a cliff face. A far cry from “it’s a small world,” eh?
Forget that the track layout may be similar (or identical) to another attraction in another park on another coast, this adventure is not for the faint of heart and was the first pulse-pounding attraction to be found in Disney’s Animal Kingdom — though under its original name, Countdown to Extinction. Ride vehicles speed off into the darkness, and guests encounter various dinosaurs along the path, while attempting to locate the endangered Iguanadon while avoiding the voraciously hungry Carnotaurus. The ride can get a little rough, and the lighting turning on and off can be quite disorienting – all the better to unsettle your nerves. It’s no secret that younger people are often fascinated by dinosaurs, and this ride will definitely quench their thirsts, though it may be a bit too intense for those who prefer to be able to see where they’re going and what’s ahead. For others, DINOSAUR is a great scare-fest that rarely holds back on its intentions.
4. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
There’s no way to avoid having this on the list, as it is Disney firing on all cylinders from theming to execution throughout the attraction. This is Imagineering in its top form and arguably contains the most meticulous detailing found on any current attraction on property. From its 1930s-style architecture to its cobweb-infested lobby, the queue alone will keep your eyes busy searching out all sorts of spooky details. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a perfect example of Disney taking a normal form of transport — an elevator — and turning it on its head to jolt even the hardiest of riders, who may not normally be bothered by such a mechanism. The lack of control coupled with the random number of lifts and drops in the elevator shaft guarantee that nobody aboard the attraction can specifically predict what exactly will happen next… and isn’t that loss of control and feeling of a “free fall” the perfect recipe to chill your blood?
5. Mission: Space
Doubling down on their ability to box guests into a situation where they can’t readily escape, Disney unleashed Mission: Space, a simulator ride that takes things to the next level and will really throw the claustrophobes for a loop. Jamming four guests into a tiny space capsule with a control panel that traps them into place is a surefire way to get a reaction. (Coupled with countless warnings that this ride may be too intense for the average parkgoer.) As your spacecraft launches and heads towards Mars, there’s a moment of positive G-forces that perhaps go just a little longer than you would expect before seeming to let go of your vehicle and let you float in the darkness of space. It almost doesn’t matter what storyline they have displayed on the screen in front of you as they’re too busy getting you disoriented, if not a little nauseated, as you attempt to complete your irrelevant mission.
If you can’t handle being trapped in a small space with no means of escape, congratulations, Disney did their job. (There is a second “side” to this attraction, known as “Green Mission,” that eliminates the centrifuge that provides the G-force action, so don’t be afraid to give that a whirl if you’re not up for the bigger experience.)
6. Space Mountain
Piggy-backing off the previous lunar setting comes Space Mountain — a fairly slow roller coaster that successfully masks itself as a high-speed journey through the cosmos, made possible by yet another brilliant combination of sightlines and lighting. The ride itself tops out at 30 mph max, but has the feeling of an out-of-control spacecraft that can move in any direction and any time. You ascend small hills when you’re waiting for a drop; the twists and turns come quickly and often unseen; the loss of location forces riders into having to accept what’s happening and ride it out even though their limbic systems may be getting overloaded. Sure, there’s a nugget of a storyline for the attraction, but with whips and banks like these in the dark, does it really matter? (An honorable mention belongs here for Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, as it is basically built on the same principle of alternating light and dark throughout its course, though its launch system is in a stratosphere of its own.)
7. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter
It is possible that no other Disney attraction has raised the hackles of helicopter parents like this one. It featured multiple facets of fear, combining flashing strobes and pure darkness, shoulder harnesses that held guests firmly into place, and a new advance in binaural audio that was to sound as 3-D was to visuals. You were right in the middle of the intergalactic action in a theater with a set that loomed over the proceedings rather than being simple decorative
pieces. From a teleportation tube in the center of the room to (at one point) live actors cautiously traversing the catwalks above, the proceedings unfolded around you at a quicker pace than most Disney experiences.
The simple premise of transporting beings across the galaxy but winding up with a terrifying alien on the loose would’ve spoken volumes on its own, but after a few retoolings, Disney upped the ante significantly in hopes of meeting then-CEO Michael Eisner’s demands for a truly intense experience. This change lasted for eight years until audiences began staying away in droves; Disney went back to the drawing board, tamed the attraction significantly, and added Stitch to the recipe. The results were mixed, but it is fair to say that the Stitch version lacked the spine-tingling scares that the attraction had in the beginning when the troubles truly came from out of this world.
Honorable Mention: The Hall of Presidents
Yeah, I said it. Not because it’s an outright scary attraction, but the creepiness level of watching a stage full of current and former United States Presidents in Audio-Animatronic form blinking, breathing, and scanning the theater is downright unsettling. Go in sometime and just pick out one president to watch throughout the performance. Get a good look. Stare if you must. And remember that if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you…
Got beef with the list of the Top 7 Scariest Attractions in Walt Disney World History? Do you have your own choices? Share them below in the comments or on social media.
This topic was covered on WDW News Tonight three years ago. See what our cast thought back then: