While roller coasters and theme parks are synonymous, the same cannot be said of coasters and the gold standard of the theme park industry, Disney.
Ask a hardcore coaster enthusiast about the offerings at Disneyland, and you’re likely to hear a dismissive chuckle followed by sneering criticism that it cannot compete on the thrills offered by coaster-dominated parks like Cedar Point or Six Flags Magic Mountain. They’re not wrong, but they’re also missing the point.
At their best, Disney Imagineering aims for something above sheer thrill from having the tallest, fastest, steepest anything. Storytelling and placemaking rise above those concerns, setting Disney apart from the rest of the industry — and that’s been true since Disney opened its very first roller coaster in 1959.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to soothe my own feelings of missing the Disneyland Resort, here’s my take on all the Disneyland roller coasters, starting from the bottom.
6. Goofy’s Sky School (Disney California Adventure)
This Mack Rides Wild Mouse coaster opened with Disney California Adventure in 2001 as Mulholland Madness. It was emblematic of the substandard nature of DCA 1.0, being an off-the-shelf ride lightly themed with generic road signs.
Fast forward to the Bob Iger-led $1.1 billion redesign of DCA and in 2011, Mulholland Madness became Goofy’s Sky School. Again, it was emblematic of the larger problems in the park; it’s still an off-the-shelf ride in an area themed after an amusement park (without a doubt the laziest theme that a theme park could ever adopt), but hey, slapping a Disney character onto a trash heap should fix everything, right?
The Goofy-as-flight instructor does nothing to disguise this ride’s flaws, not that adding a few two-dimensional flats could be mistaken as effort. Every dip and turn on his ugly, fully exposed ride track will jerk you around in ways that will create aches lasting the rest of your DCA day.
In other words, this ride isn’t fun and it’s not worth your time. Like much of what’s left over from the original DCA, it feels like the antithesis of Imagineering principles that are supposed to set Disney theme parks apart.
5. Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Gadgetcoaster (Disneyland Park)
On most roller coaster lists, this kind of kiddie coaster would be dead last for any given park. What Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Gadgetcoaster (formerly Gadget’s Go Coaster) has going for it is that Goofy’s Sky School is so awful and the useful purpose served by these beginner coasters.
The ride itself, like many kiddie coasters, is very forgetful. Most of the 50-second ride time is spent entering and exiting the station and making your way up the 28-foot lift hill. A few benign twists later, passing by some water-spitting frogs, and you’re done, with little time left to have made much of an impression.
But these coasters are a necessary test for any youngster to gauge their coaster tolerance. From here, they can either graduate to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or the Matterhorn or parents can discover that any coaster will be too intense for this child.
A small bonus is the “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” theme. Even in a short ride, there’s more theming here than at Goofy’s Sky School (can you tell I despise that coaster?). For late ‘80s and ‘90s kids enjoying Disneyland with their own children, they may appreciate this remnant of their Disney Afternoon lineup — slight as it may be.
4. Matterhorn Bobsleds (Disneyland Park)
How does Disney elevate a roller coaster above being an unthemed thrill ride with very obvious infrastructure? Build a mountain to support it.
The original Disneyland coaster and the first tubular steel coaster in the world may have been lower on this list had it been left in its original state when it opened in 1959. Back then, the inside of Walt’s favorite faux Swiss mountain was largely exposed steel, with the old Skyway gondolas passing through the center.
Luckily, the Disney concept of “plussing” has greatly benefitted Matterhorn over its lifespan, making the ride just as well-themed on the inside as its exterior. The latest overhaul in 2015 added upgraded, more detailed Abominable Snowman animatronics, along with some projections and more sound effects.
I’m aware of how coaster enthusiasts mock this ride, but the level of theming elevates Matterhorn’s two twisting tracks above a historic relic (unlike, say, every rickety Arrow Development Corkscrew coaster still in operation). If you’re sold on being chased by a ferocious beast, you’ll feel thrills beyond the 27 miles-per-hour top speed. So what keeps it from rising higher in the list? Some rather uncomfortable bumps and jerky movements, including the allegedly haunted Dolly’s Dip. The series of redos have not made the tracks any smoother over the years, so be prepared for some sore buttocks and knees on this classic.
3. The Incredicoaster (Disney California Adventure)
Incredicoaster is both quite long (more than 6,000 feet and a 2 minute, 36-second ride time) and arguably the biggest thrill at the entire resort, being its only inverted coaster, a 55 miles-per-hour launch and a 108-foot drop.
So why the highest-thrill coaster at the Disneyland Resort No. 3 on this list? Namely because it doesn’t do much with its long track length. Besides the launch and loop, the coaster meanders through its layout. I suspect this is an unfortunate byproduct of theming a modern steel coaster to look like an old boardwalk woodie — much of its track structure is all for show. It works well for framing the Pixar Pier section of DCA, but it doesn’t make for an exciting ride.
As far as the ride’s recent reinvention, compared to Goofy’s Sky School, Incredicoaster’s retheming is much more substantive. After a 17-year-run as California Screamin’, the ride closed for a six-month overhaul in 2018. The end result is not exactly high-level storytelling, as the Incredibles’ chase for Jack-Jack is documented through static figures, onboard audio and one enticing cookie smell.
Like the rest of Pixar Pier, the ride suffers from the original DCA’s lame attempt at passing off old-time amusement park as a theme worthy of Disney. At least this attempt to gloss over the flaws with a quick injection of intellectual property was a tad more ambitious.
2. Space Mountain (Disneyland Park)
Like Matterhorn, Space Mountain shows how Disney-level theming can transform a tame coaster into an enthralling experience.
The first tunnels to the reveal of the outer space dome build anticipation better than any mundane lift hill. Then you’re propelled into all the typical Disney coaster twists and turns — which may seem tame if this were built like Goofy’s Sky School, but being kept in the dark with only the stars to guide you brings thrills well beyond the ride’s 35 mile per hour speed statistic.
Disney World has the original Space Mountain, but Disneyland’s version has the superior experience. This is thanks to a combination of onboard ride audio with a synchronized soundtrack, more comfortable coaster trains and the smoother ride thanks to the track being completely rebuilt before Disneyland’s 50th anniversary.
Overlays at Disneyland’s Space Mountain have become commonplace in recent years. The “Star Wars”-themed Hyperspace Mountain is top-notch, with the classic John Williams and a few projections of X-Wings and TIE Fighters thrilling even the most casual fans — and perhaps even topping the mediocre Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run when ranking Disney parks’ “Star Wars” attractions.
The Halloween-themed Ghost Galaxy overlay, however, leaves much to be desired. A “Star Wars” coaster is one thing; projecting a few ghostly images and skull shapes doesn’t match the excitement of the regular ride experience.
1. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Disneyland Park)
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad succeeds where minecart coasters found elsewhere fail because of the Disney level of detail. While climbing through the stalactite caverns of the first lift hill, you could believe that this is a real mining operation and the rugged outdoor terrain only adds to that effect.
Like Matterhorn and Space Mountain, Big Thunder favors twists and turns over big drops and the element works the best here. It doesn’t feel like just a thrill ride, but natural and real, something you just happened to happen upon in the Utah desert — and now you just have to hang on and pray you survive the wildest ride in the wilderness.
The ride came decades before anyone tried building a “story coaster” like Hagrid’s at Universal Orlando. The place-setting still amplifies the experience, from the few animatronic animals to the Rainbow Ridge buildings left over from the ride predecessor, Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. Disneyland has not provided any privileged access to Theme Park Tribune to experience these rides.
Editor’s Note: These rankings were updated on May 30, 2023.