Updated March 1, 2019
In October of 2017, I eagerly boarded a train to experience my first ever International Disney Park — Disneyland Paris. A park which I would later refer to as my ‘gateway park.’ It opened me up to a Willy-Wonka-golden-ticket-sized quest to conquer all of the Disney Theme Parks in the World. As of February 2019, in my lifetime I have visited 11 out of the 12 Disney Theme Parks worldwide — with only Hong Kong Disneyland remaining.
In fact, in the short 13 months from October of 2017 to November of 2018, I visited 10 out of the 12 Disney Theme Parks worldwide.
I only skipped two of the Disney parks during the October of 2017 — November of 2018 time period due to extensive construction. The construction of Toy Story Land, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Walt Disney World Florida) made a day-visit counterintuitive as I am often in Florida. This is especially true as my last visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios was still fairly recently in February of 2016.
In the case of Hong Kong Disneyland, their extensive castle renovation and the ongoing construction of Frozen Land and Marvel Land (particularly ‘Ant-man and The Wasp: Nano Battle!’) made an intercontinental trek appear to be more worthwhile in 2021.
My Disney Theme Park Check List:
✓ Florida: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios.
|First Visit: August 1994
✓ California: Disneyland, California Adventure | First Visit: September 2012
✓ Paris: Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney Studios Park |First Visit: October 2017
✓ Shanghai: Shanghai Disneyland |First Visit: April 2018
✓ Tokyo: Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disneyland |First Visit: April 2018
X Hong Kong: Hong Kong Disneyland
As my travels have taken me fairly recently to 11 out of 12 parks on this list, I thought it would be fun (see controversial) to compile a ranking of the parks using the following criteria of what I personally think makes a great theme park:
- Originality — Does the park’s buildings and lands have unique construction/design and are the majority of the attractions original to the park or at least wildly different from their counterparts?
- Charm — This is perhaps the most elusive and hard-to-define criteria for a theme park. Personally, I define charm by hidden surprises like the Dragon underneath Disneyland Paris’s castle or simply areas in the park where you feel transported.
- The “Full Day” Measure — Is there enough to do in the park in terms of attractions, restaurants, and shows that you are fully satisfied for the entire day?
- Spontaneity — Does the park embrace spontaneity? In other words, can someone who has purchased a ticket on the day of with no knowledge of the park or prior planning have a fun day at the theme park without paying extra for the opportunity?
-Culinary Excellence — Is there a range of quick-service and sit-down restaurants that showcase an intresting culinary presepective and imersive theming? Is there ample unique snacks to choose from?
All parks were assigned a rating between 1–10 for each category. The scores of each category were aggregated to determine a final score out of 50. Where there was a tie in the rankings, I made a decision based on which park I felt was a better experience overall.
Note: For Hong Kong Disneyland, I will, unfortunately, have to rely upon others critiques/reviews and my knowledge of Disney theme parks in determining a ranking using the above methodology.
1. Tokyo DisneySea
[ Score: 48 ]
Thought by many to be the “best theme park in the world,” Tokyo Disneyland’s little brother (Est. 2001) is perhaps at the very least the best Disney Theme Park in the world. Eschewing a castle for a fiery volcano, Tokyo DisneySea defies Disney conventions at every turn. While the original Disneyland promises guests that they will ‘leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,’ Tokyo DisneySea transports guests around the ports of the world with culinary excellence, groundbreaking new attractions, Broadway-level shows, and extremely detailed theming.
It does what the original Disneyland did back in 1955 — reinventing themed entertainment by divorcing itself from the tired blueprint of castle theme parks to create something that is truly unique for this century. It is a Disney Park like no other, and for those reasons — it belongs at the top of the list.
Why did Tokyo DisneySea get an 8 for spontaneity? The park draws large crowds so some pre-planning is necessary for several attractions. However, as you can have a blast just walking around DisneySea and eating the ample snacks in the award-winning ambiance, the 8 is really only because they have a lottery ticket system for their shows [-1]. Also, those that book Disney hotel packages have 2+ FastPass tickets and a show viewing ticket included in their package [-1]. Fortunately, the number of users of this benefit is not significant, especially in comparison to Walt Disney World. Unlike other Disney Parks that have eschewed traditional paper FastPasses, we were excited that Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea continue to use the same in-person paper system for free day-of reservations for all rides.
2. Disneyland Paris
[ Score: 41 ]
Disneyland Paris ranked above the original Disneyland in Anaheim? Sacrilege. Perhaps a few years ago, I would have thought the same and been very surprised to see Disneyland Paris (also known as “The Euro Disney disaster”) ranked above Walt’s original magic kingdom. However, things change.
Since June of 2017, the management and operations of Disneyland Paris have been taken over by the Walt Disney Company, which now owns a 97% share in the theme park. This has led to a complete and total refresh of the park with new paint, gardens, and refurbishments of classic attractions. This new restoration period has revealed what many have forgotten in the ensuing years since the early 1990’s Michael Eisner debacle, Disneyland Paris is not only objectively the most beautiful Disney Park, it is the most fully-realized version of Walt’s original Disneyland park.
In the months up to the opening (and really ever since), Disneyland in Anaheim has been plagued by the Tomorrowland problem. How do you create a version of the future that will survive the generations? Despite three versions, Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s copy have been left with Tomorrowland that are a mess of worn-out attractions themed to various IPs, an 80’s-looking overlay, and, in Disneyland, a network of abandoned People Mover tracks that lead nowhere.
Disneyland Paris’s eschews this problem entirely, instead, opting to create Discoveryland, which utilizes the shelved plans for a 1980’s Jules Verne-inspired land called Discovery Bay in Disneyland and brings them to life in a larger-than-life and almost steampunk way. However, it is not just their replacement for Tomorrowland that excels, their massive Frontierland is a welcome expansion on the Disneyland one that has been reduced to a small Wild West sideshow area with the construction of Glaxay Edge. The Fantasyland and Adventureland are likewise expanded, with beautiful greenery that serves to elevate each area. In particular, I loved the Adventure Isle section near Pirates where we once again are treated to Skull Rock Cove, a 1960 addition to Disneyland’s Fantasyland that has been lost since 1982.
After all of this, I haven’t even mentioned the dragon underneath one of Disney’s most alluring castles! Disneyland Paris is definitely worth a visit and I truly believe at this moment in time it is the best castle park in the Disney empire. Sorry, Disneyland.
Why did Disneyland Paris get a 3 for Culinary Excellence? Since purchasing the majority share in the theme park, Disney is working on bringing the food back up to their usual standards. When I went in October of 2017, the food was pretty terrible across the board. The only saving grace was that it was an okay ‘value’ with combination meals being frequently offered (i.e. entree, drink, dessert) and even the quick-service restaurants were often very beautifully designed. For instance, Colonel Hathi’s Pizza Outpost in AdventureLand was a highlight, despite the pizza being somewhat inedible.
3. Disneyland (Anaheim, CA)
[ Score: 41 ]
By virtue of being only an hour from Walt Disney Company headquarters, Disneyland is by far one of Disney’s most immaculate parks. The grounds, flowers, and even paint are flawless and attractions are constantly being refurbished and refreshed. As Walt’s original magic kingdom and the only one where he actually walked down Main St. USA, Disneyland will always have a special claim as the original Disney theme park.
However, that doesn’t mean it is beyond reproach. If you read my rationale for Disneyland Paris above, it will come at no surprise to find that Disneyland’s charm rating has lost -2 points due to the smaller Frontierland (thanks Galaxy Edge) and the Tomorrowland problem.
Also, for the so-called original theme park, their 9 out of 10 score in ‘Originality’ may be surprising for quite a few readers. That is due to the fact that Disney cannibalized the park in the ’70s and ’80s by copying authentic Disneyland attractions and plopping them in Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland. Nowadays, with the exception of a few smaller attractions, notably Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Casey Jr., and Storybook Land Canal Boats, Disneyland is not home to many unique attractions that you cannot find elsewhere. That being said, Disneyland does house the best versions of Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain stateside.
Not to worry though as Disneyland still receives high marks across the board, especially in ‘Culinary Excellence’ with restaurants such as Plaza Inn and Blue Bayou serving up helpings of delicious food and beautiful scenery.
Will the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in June/July of 2019 be enough to push this park to the top of the list? Anything is possible. Yet, I personally think an overhaul of the outdated Tomorrowland would make this park even more spectacular and likely propel it to the top of the list.
4. Shanghai Disneyland (China)
[ Score: 39 ]
Even before the park opened to the public in June of 2016 with attractions like Tron Lightcycle Power Run and a completely reimagined Pirates of the Caribbean, I knew I had to find a way to get to Shanghai Disneyland.
In terms of design, Shanghai Disneyland is perhaps Disney’s most original theme park, leaning very little on real-world locations and history, or even meticulously recreated towns or alleys we’ve seen in films: Shanghai Disneyland is full of almost completely original and fictional worlds. Shanghai Disneyland flexes creativity the Disneyland brand hasn’t really seen since inception and is the first Disney theme park to even attempt approaching something from a vantage point other than “Walt’s Americana” or “Hollywood Movies!” since Tokyo DisneySea’s in 2001. Shanghai Disneyland is a bold statement from the Walt Disney Company in reconceptualizing the original Disneyland and the “castle theme park” as a truly worldwide phenomenon, accessible to any and all.
Some differences are readily apparent — Adventureland became Adventure Isle. Space Mountain’s rightful place as the leading Tomorrowland thrill ride was replaced with a new signature attraction, TRON Lightcycle Power Run. In fact, all of Shanghai Disneyland’s sleek minimalistic Tomorrowland looked like it could belong in the next century, a stark change to the stuck in mid-century past Tomorrowland that greets us in the US parks. And yes, the characters in Shanghai Disneyland’s shows and attractions speak to guests in rapid-fire Mandrian.
Despite the strangeness, the familiarity that permeated the park reminded me of late afternoons exploring Magic Kingdom in Florida. However, that might have less to do with the design and more to do with the fact that it was easily 90 degrees and humid in Early April.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Camp Discovery Challenge Trails, the ropes course attraction, was by far the most unique attraction I have ever done in a theme park. In one turn, it quickly ended the decades’ long debate between Jungle Cruise and Expedition Everest and took its rightful place as my favorite attraction ever. At Camp Discovery, guests are strapped into safety harnesses and sent on surprisingly thrilling quests over and through all sorts of obstacles. There are rocky cliffs and boulders to tread over, dark caverns to roam, winding paths to explore and thundering waterfalls to navigate. It is out of this world.
However, this park was clearly built with expansion in mind and the wide open empty spaces that currently serve as picnic areas throughout the park, substantially decrease the ‘Charm’ factor. It also doesn’t help that the buildings on Main Street, now redubbed Mickey Ave., were squatter and more cartoonish to reflect their cartoon inhabitants.
Despite this lower charm rating, there is a lot to love about Shanghai Disneyland. It really has a perfect mix of thrill rides, family attractions, spectacular shows and interactive attractions that makes it feel like an extremely well-rounded park from opening day. This doesn’t usually happen until several years after a park has matured. Because Shanghai Disneyland had the developmental time (approx. 19 years) and money to do it right from opening day, you end up with a park that has evenly spread out crowds and enough to keep you busy for two days — which is usually unheard of for a brand new theme park.
5. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Walt Disney World, FL)
[ Score: 37 ]
In April of 1998, the Walt Disney Company created an entire theme park filled with animals from around the world. There was lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Children of all ages could come and explore the safaris of Africa, the rainforests of South America, and even witness these spectacular beasts up close on a real safari vehicle at Kilimanjaro Safaris in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Even at it’s worst (looking at you DinoLand U.S.A.), Disney’s Animal Kingdom remains one of the most immersive Disney theme parks in the world. The recent addition of Pandora — The World of Avatar and its two new E-Ticket attractions only continue its legacy of creating a really spectacular and unique theme park experience complete with live animals, Broadway-level shows, culinary adventures, and lots to explore.
Why did Disney’s Animal Kingdom get a 3 for Spotentiaty? Walt Disney World’s MyMagic+ system allows hotel guests to reserve FastPasses for the main attractions (and shows!) up to 60 days in advance. Regular theme park goers can book up to 30 days in advance, but the two Avatar rides and other Animal Kingdom attractions are often already booked out before then. This leaves regular theme park goers who do not buy their tickets thirty days in advance with extremely limited FastPass options day-of. It also requires everyone to plan their day down to the minute 30–60 days out. You’ll see this same spontaneity problem reflected in the rankings of the other Walt Disney World theme parks on this list.
6. Tokyo Disneyland
[ Score: 36 ]
If you could only choose one Tokyo Disney Resort park… you’ll be heading to Tokyo DisneySea. Built in 1982, Tokyo Disneyland has both the honor and the curse of being the first Disney park built outside of the United States.
Built just 11 years after Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the influence of the Magic Kingdom on this first ever international park is not to be underestimated. In fact, with only a few small exceptions, the lands and attractions that makeup Tokyo Disneyland are relative clones of the Magic Kingdom (and to a lesser-extent Disneyland) in the 1970-80s, even down to the same exact Cinderella’s castle that resides in Walt Disney World.
Attractions/Lands That Are Extremely Similar or Exact Copies of Those Found in Other Disney Theme Parks:
World Bazaar (basically Main Street USA): Crystal Palace restaurant (Magic Kingdom),Omnibus (Disneyland)
Fantasyland: Haunted Manison (Magic Kingdom), La Fontaine de Cendrillon (Magic Kingdom), Cinderella Castle (Magic Kingdom), Alice’s Tea Party (Magic Kingdom), Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Disneyland), Mickey’s PhilharMagic (Magic Kingdom), Peter Pan’s Flight (Magic Kingdom), Pinocchio’s Daring Journey (Disneyland), Castle Carrousel (Magic Kingdom / Disneyland), Snow White’s Adventures (Disneyland)
ToonTown (All from Disneyland): Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Chip ‘n Dale’s Treehouse, Donald’s Boat, Gadget’s Go Coaster, Mickey’s House and Meet Mickey
Minnie’s House, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin
Tomarrowland: Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters (Magic Kindom), Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom), Star Tours–The Adventures Continue (Disneyland), One Man’s Dream II: The Magic Lives On (Hollywood Studios), Stitch Encounter (Shanghai Disneyland)
Adventureland (Magic Kingdom)/ New Orleans Square (Disneyland): Jungle Cruise (Magic Kingdom), Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom), Swiss Family Treehouse (Magic Kingdom), Western River Railroad (Magic Kingdom), New Orleans Square (Disneyland),
Westernland (basically Frontierland): Big Thunder Mountain (Magic Kingdom), Country Bear Theater (Magic Kingdom), Mark Twain Riverboat (Disneyland), Tom Sawyer Island Rafts (Disneyland), Westernland Shootin’ Gallery (Disneyland/Magic Kingdom), Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes (Disneyland), Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
In terms of worthwhile attractions, Tokyo Disneyland is only really notable for the following:
- The Enchanted Tiki Room: Stitch Presents Aloha e Komo Mai!
- It’s a Small World (the best iteration as of April 2018)
- Pooh’s Hunny Hunt
- Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek
Obviously, the lack of unique and original lands and attractions explains Tokyo Disneyland’s less than stellar originality and ‘full-day’ measure scores. If you are a frequent visitor to WDW’s Magic Kingdom or even Anaheim's Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland is worth a visit for the snacks and brilliantly themed restaurants alone… and not much else.
7. Magic Kingdom (Walt Disney World, FL)
[ Score: 30]
Many will be upset to find Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the world’s most popular theme park in 2018, is sooooo far down the list.
Aside from the stellar new-ish Happily Ever After fireworks show, WDW’s Magic Kingdom hasn’t received much attention in the last couple of years. New Fantasyland (2011) is not-so-new, Tomorrowland is ironically the most dated and tired land, and the park is without a nighttime parade. In terms of rankings, the spontaneity-crippling MyMagic+ FastPass reservation system, generic culinary offerings (i.e. mostly burger, fries, and root beer floats), and lack of truly original attractions have left this larger-than-life Disneyland copy in the middle of the pack.
8. Disney’s California Adventure (Anaheim, CA)
[ Score: 29]
In 2012, Disney unveiled DCA 2.0, an overhaul that unveiled a sparkling Buena Visa Street and incredibly immersive Carsland. It was the result of a 5-year extensive renovation to establish a cohesive theme and place. Shortly thereafter, Grizzly Peak Airfield — an incredible area themed to California's National Parks — opened in 2015 with a much improved quick service restaurant.
However, the Walt Disney Company’s five-year effort to establish a cohesive theme and world-class theme park is, unfortunately, being undone. The first straw was with Guardians of the Galaxy — MISSION: Breakout! two years ago, which was placed strangely in Hollywood Land. It was followed by Pixar Pier this year and an announced Super Heros (Marvel-inspired) land in the place of “a bugs land”.
I understand Disney’s motivation here is that they would like to quickly make DCA a hot draw with the general public to reduce the crowding burden of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening across the Esplanade. However, I think these hasty moves are short-sighted, and a hodgepodge of fun individual attractions without thematic cohesion does not make a good theme park. We’ve seen this before in WDW’s Hollywood Studios and… it hasn’t ended well.
9. Hong Kong Disneyland (China)
[ Score: 29]
In the past five years, Hong Kong Disneyland has had several huge expansion projects consisting of Toy Story Land, Grizzly Gulch, and Mystic Point. These expansions have introduced us to Mystic Manor and Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, which are both attractions usually ranked within the top 10 Disney attractions in the world. Iron Man Experience has also proven to be a pleasant surprise–a far better attraction than expected, with another Marvel E-Ticket coming this April (2019).
More additions, including, a Frozen, castle, and full-fledged Marvel Land expansions are heading to Hong Kong Disneyland in 2021 and 2022. Perhaps by its 15th anniversary, Hong Kong Disneyland could be an elite Disney theme park. I only hope they improve the food and snacking before my 2021 visit as “eeeek” the TripAdvisor food reviews are awful.
10. EPCOT (Walt Disney World, FL)
[ Score: 26]
During my childhood, EPCOT was my favorite park. I even offered to paint a room so that I could ride Spaceship Earth one more time when I was around 9 years old.
However, EPCOT is far from the idyllic theme park of my childhood. Although the World Showcase and the new Frozen attraction are wonderful feats of design and engineering, the ‘Future World’ section of EPCOT is entirely stuck in the 1990’s — a mostly closed section of concrete pavilions the offer none of the immersion Disney fanatics can find in other attractions.
11. Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Walt Disney World, FL)
[ Score: 17]
Disney Hollywood Studios’ higher ranking this year is a classic case of failing upwards. The park opened Toy Story Land this year…but it also closed Great Movie Ride. One step forward, one leap backward. This rebuilding phase has been hard on the park (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway are expected to open this year). At one point in 2018, it only had three operational rides. Even with Toy Story Land open, the park only has six rides, though it does offer a wide selection of shows.
12. Walt Disney Studios Park (Paris, France)
[ Score: 16]
There are so many glaring weaknesses of Walt Disney Studios Park. In any case, Walt Disney Studios Park has–against all odds–also managed to get worse over the course of 2018 thanks to the closing of Cinemagique, one of its best attractions. On February 27 2018, CEO Bob Iger announced a Transformative 2 Billion Euro Multi-Year Expansion, opening in phases from 2021 to 2025, which will completely transform the park. The expansions will feature new Marvel, Star Wars and Frozen themed areas, all surrounding a new man-made lake.
Until then… Walt Disney Studios Park is perhaps the worst Disney park. Despite its decent copies of Disneyland’s Tower of Terror and Hollywood Studio’s Rockin’ Roller Coaster, the food and ambiance of Walt Disney Studios Park leaves much to be desired. In fact, you enter in a crude rendition of a soundstage — a poor replacement for Main Street or Buena Vista Street, For now, the two bright spots of the park are the Ratatouille attraction/ Parian-themed land (added in 2014) and Crush’s Coaster (added in 2007). If you’d like to see the park, purchase a park-hopper and spend the majority of your day in Disneyland Paris until at least 2022.
Austin is the host of Fastpass to the Past: The Theme Park History Podcast. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.