8 Fantastic Hidden Gems of Walt Disney World
When you visit Walt Disney World, you want to ride all of the most classic attractions at the park. Since vacation time always feels so short, you can’t possibly do everything, even when you’re staying for a week or more. The Disney campus has too many wonderful distractions, and a few of them dominate park discussions since they’re classics. Others are worth your time, though. Here are eight hidden gems at Walt Disney World.
Country Bear Jamboree
One of the cardinal mistakes at Walt Disney World is to ignore older attractions. Your instinct might be to prioritize the famous and newest rides. Please open your mind before you arrive at the park. Space at Disney theme parks is tight. Disney executives wouldn’t keep flagging attractions in operation.
For example, you may roll your eyes at the thought of a corny bear show starring a bunch of aging Audio-Animatronics (AAs). You’re wrong. Country Bear Jamboree remains a delightful musical show with a twisted sense of humor.
The songs played here are quite real, even though they seem fake due to their sometimes mean-spirited lyrics. You’ll laugh yourself silly as a trio of lady bears lament, “All the guys that turn me on turn me down.” This presentation is timeless, lighthearted entertainment.
Mention DinoLand U.S.A. to any Disney fan visiting during the late 1990s, and you’ll get an earful. Then-CEO Michael Eisner famously cut every corner possible in constructing this themed land to keep Disney’s Animal Kingdom under budget. The main attraction here is even the product of a terrible business decision.
Eisner picked DINOSAUR as an attraction as a tie-in to an upcoming theatrical release at the time. Dinosaur the movie had no staying power and is generally considered both a box office and critical disappointment. The ride is an entirely different story. DINOSAUR is a thrilling time travel exploration of the age of the, well, you know.
The dinosaur AAs are phenomenally realistic, and the tension is incredible as you start to worry that you might not escape. In the days before Pandora – The World of Avatar, I viewed DINOSAUR as one of the best three attractions at Animal Kingdom. It’s that good.
Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros
My default way of describing this ride to friends is this pitch: It’s a Small World with Donald Duck. This attraction is inside the Mexico Pavilion, somewhat hidden behind the shops and the adjoining restaurant. You may miss it unless you’re seeking it out…and you should do that.
Gran Fiesta Tour is unmistakably based on It’s a Small World, but I happen to like the Mexican iteration better. You take a boat through a series of sets, marveling at the AAs and dolls along the way. Interspersed throughout the journey are scenes of Donald Duck and his fellow Caballeros engaging in shenanigans.
These sequences are projected on screens that you’ll watch along the way…and it’s Donald Duck at his clumsy, unfortunate best. Your kids will treasure the slapstick cartoonish nature of the other little boat ride.
The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure
Other movies receive more of the credit, but The Little Mermaid saved Disney animation at the end of the 1980s. The company had suffered through several poor decisions, including the ill-fated production of The Black Cauldron. Then, animators turned to a classic tale from Hans Christian Andersen, and the rest was history.
Snow White and Cinderella are more famous Disney Princesses, while Belle and Elsa are more popular ones. Ariel is the mermaid who saved Disney as we know it, though. And she has a ride tucked at the back of New Fantasyland that’s easy not to see.
Ariel’s Undersea Adventure gets somewhat lost in the shuffle of the one/two punch of Be Our Guest and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which is unfortunate since it’s so good. This dark ride is classic Imagineering, with gorgeous colors, adorable critters of the sea, and a couple of showcase moments involving the terrifying Ursula. Oh, and the music is phenomenal. I’d put The Little Mermaid soundtrack up against the best Disney music of the past half-century.
Speaking of Ariel, she’s one of the stars of Mickey’s PhilHarmagic. This Magic Kingdom show is one of the greatest things at Walt Disney World in my opinion. You’ll sit down in front of the largest purpose-built 3-D movie screen ever developed. Disney references the experience as 4-D because you’ll do more than watch the story. At various points, water will mist on you, fragrances will waft around you, and a couple of other surprises happen, too. In other words, it’s an interactive movie.
The story is a grafting together of several Disney animated classics. Donald Duck is the character who ties it all together. He goes through a series of misadventures that see him explore the jungle, swim under the sea, and soar through the air. He’ll even recreate some sequences from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Mickey’s PhilHarmagic features several of your favorite Disney animated scenes and songs. While the show is only 12 minutes, it somehow taps into everything that you love about Disney. And the gag at the end delights children of all ages.
The Seas with Nemo & Friends
You’ll notice a theme with this list. I’m a huge fan of Disney animation and have a soft spot for any attraction that’s indoors. The Florida heat can get to me at times, and I am grateful that so many Disney dark rides provide a respite. There’s something appealing about the disconnect between the scorching sun outside and underwater dark rides in particular.
The Seas with Nemo & Friends isn’t technically a retelling of Finding Nemo. It’s kind of a sequel. Nemo has swum away from his school. His father, overprotective Marlin, persuades Dory to go on a search once again. The story mixes Nemo’s perspective alongside that of the people searching for him. The specifics almost don’t matter, though.
The happiness here stems from boarding a Clamobile and heading underwater to inhabit the world of Nemo and friends for a time. The high point is a magical voyage through the East Australian Current. It’s surprisingly trippy for a Disney ride. By the way, pay attention to the starfish at the end of the ride. His complaints vary, and all of them are amusing.
Toy Story Mania!
Look, I’m competitive. I love my family and friends, but there are times when I feel the need to crush them. It stops them from getting too uppity. So, I adore the three Disney attractions that have a gaming element. Test Track and Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin are both wildly entertaining, even though I suck at the latter one. My favorite is Toy Story Mania!, though.
On this ride, you’ll play a series of carnival-based games. You’ll “throw” darts to pop balloons, you’ll toss rings onto rockets, and you’ll shatter plates. The mechanic here is a cord that you repeatedly pull to interact with objects. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get so wrapped up in the game that the ride will feel like it’s over in a New York minute.
PS: Those of you who haven’t visited Walt Disney World in a while may wonder how I could describe this one as a hidden gem. Well, Toy Story Land is open now at Hollywood Studios. Imagineers moved the entrance of Toy Story Mania! to this section.
Currently, it’s the third most popular attraction in its own themed land. Plus, it’s in the same FastPass tier as the others. So, it gets the least amount of love out of the Toy Story-based attractions. It’s become a hidden gem!
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress
What I love best about Disney theme parks is how multi-generational they are. A grandmother of today once was a daughter taken to Disneyland by her parents. And when she passes that experience down to her granddaughter, she has the confidence that this child can share the memory with their grandchild in a few decades.
Peter Pan’s Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and Space Mountain aren’t going anywhere. They’re integral to the shared park experience between family members old and young.
Another attraction doesn’t get the credit that it deserves. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Imagineers at WED Enterprises shocked the world with a series of pavilions. All of them dazzled onlookers and cemented Walt Disney’s legacy as a real-life Willy Wonka.
Carousel of Progress is one of those attractions. It also leans into the multi-generational nature of Disney. When you “ride” this show, you’ll remain seated throughout the presentation. It’s your chair that will move, transferring you to four different sets, each of which demonstrates a slice of real life Americana from a set era.
You’ll start at the turn of the 20th century and advance through the here and now. It’s a relaxing, comfortable show that will make you feel closer to those who came before you while making you feel better about the future of your loved ones. It’s pure Disney in the best possible way.