Disney used to produce weird movies, create weird plots, craft weird food and of course create weird Disney attractions.
Truthfully most of Disney’s past is weird. Human sized talking mice, singing tiki birds, banjo-playing bears, politically correct non-sexually assaulting pirates, this stuff is just bizarre.
Today it’s all Marvel, curated streaming services and elaborately tiered dining plans, but there was a time when Disney did really weird stuff. At one point Disney even considered building a literal museum of the weird. Currently there is not much room for weird; weird freaks people out. Disney can pretend to be weird but they are no longer building the attractions that make you wonder how they got green lit to begin with.
So what are the weirdest attractions ever to appear in a Disney park? We mean those rides or shows that make you question what you just witnessed as you walk out the door. These are attractions that would get an Imagineer laughed out of the room or maybe even fired if they tried to build them today.
For the purposes of this list we are ignoring the cavalcade of oddness that appeared in Disneyland during the early days. Futuristic bathrooms and histories of aluminum are bizarre park concepts but Disney needed something to fill all that space. Therefore the Hall of Chemistry, Hall of Aluminum Fame or the Bathroom of Tomorrow do not make our list. In fact we are putting aside any corporate showcase that was more about the sponsor and less about Disney’s contributions.
Similarly we are avoiding various third party stores or restaurants. A Bra store on Main Street is weird but again it was the early days and those spaces were leased out anyway. Even the awesome store that sold elaborate monster masks does not qualify for our list, we are focusing on honest to goodness Disney created attractions.
With the ground rules out of the way lets take a look back at a time before Disney was a tightly run, finely tuned corporate mega-machine and see if we can find some truly weird stuff.
5) Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Of all the rides on our list Mr. Toads is the least likely to be built now yet is the only one still in operation today. It is a beloved classic and something we now accept as being normal.
The ride amounts to a drunken tear through a populous town executed by a privileged aristocrat resulting in a myriad of appalling crimes. Among them are attempted vehicular homicide, resisting arrest, an endless list of moving violations, criminal mischief, destruction of public and private property, under aged consumption of alcohol, misuse of controlled explosives and a litany of railway abuses. It finally ends with a horrific head on collision leading to an eternal damnation in hell. How was this ride ever built?
Even by 1950’s standards this all seems a bit nuts. Even more amazing is that in 2020 it is running relatively unchanged and packing in guests to boot. We love it. It’s irreverent, nonsensical and bears only a passing connection to the source material. It is worth repeating that it ends with a car vs. train collision resulting in the deaths of every guest with their eternity spent in hell. Literal demons and devils, flames and torment hell; have a nice day and buy some popcorn on the way out.
The only reason Mr. Toad is not higher on the list is because its weirdness is mitigated by its longevity and beloved status. It has become famous precisely because it is weird and sadly that makes it less so.
4) Meet The World
Originally conceived as part of the Japanese Pavilion at EPCOT Center this attraction instead premiered at Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. Like the American Adventure it featured elaborate audio animatronics guiding guests through some of the host countries historical milestones. Unlike the American Adventure it featured an anthropomorphic time traveling talking cartoon crane. Meet the World was tasked with cramming thousands of years of Japanese history into a 17-minute theme park show. Conveniently they skipped some parts; World War II was summed up in two words, “dark days”.
The show was presented from the crane’s perspective as she recanted Japanese history to two children. It unfolded with animatronics and dimensional sets as well as large format films. These included animation sequences, movies and multi-media segments. It was a crazy mix of everything and the kitchen sink.
Our story was told in multiple languages (largely Japanese but representatives from other countries spoke their native languages). It was staged in a rotating theater similar to the Carousel of Progress however the audience sat in the center and rotated to view the sets along the outer perimeter. It switched tones swinging from somber meetings of heads of state to silly slapstick animation to feel good scenes of children on a beach.
The attraction climaxed with the host crane, now realized as a fully operational animatronic, taking flight with her two students in a hot air balloon. The balloon floated across the entire theater as the cheery theme song (composed by the famed Sherman Brothers) reached its crescendo before disappearing into a trap door. It was all very weird.
Rarely has there been such disparate subject matter and styles joined into one bizarre attraction. Meet the World ran for 19 years until eventually making way for the current Monsters Inc. attraction.
3) Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour
Staying in Japan we have another early attraction from Tokyo Disneyland (opening in 1986). While much of the park copies its American counterparts it is interesting to note that the two Japanese exclusive attractions are also the two weirdest.
The Castle Mystery Tour was a guided walk through of Cinderella Castle focusing not on the heroine but rather a motley crew of Disney villains. An attraction housed in a fanciful fairy tale castle featuring evil miscreants is odd enough but Disney upped the weirdness by making the Black Cauldron’s Horned King (Who?) the star.
The tour started as a traditional visit to the castle but was quickly diverted by the evil magic mirror into uncharted subterranean catacombs. Here guests encountered ghosts, witches and a filmed Chernabog sequence. Next up were confrontations with Maleficent, her goons and a talking skull. Continuing on visitors encountered a truly stunning showpiece: a massive sleeping dragon.
Buried under the castle was an inaccessible shadowy cavern that could only be witnessed by hiking down several flights of dingy, uneven stairs. After traversing gloomy chambers guests confronted a glorious full scale living and breathing dragon! She was an amazing, fully realized, smoke snorting animatronic reptilian monster. The creature was greater than any similar creation that had come before her yet here she was a throw away supporting character, weird!
Weirder still was how guests escaped the now wakened beast. They did not run frantically down an escape path. They did not flee back up an undisturbed staircase. A hero did not sweep in to slay the dragon and save the day. Rather guests were politely instructed to slowly enter an elevator in a neat and orderly fashion. This is the most Japanese way to do this; thought out, businesslike and precise. Up they went but as it turns out the dragon was only the penultimate baddie for they were about to challenge the Horned King himself.
For the uninitiated the Black Cauldron is widely considered to be one of the worst Disney animated projects ever created. It was a colossal failure created during the darkest times for Disney feature animation. It bombed at the box office and is mostly forgotten today save for Disney trivia games and niche websites discussing the weirdest stuff Disney has ever done. The Horned King was the skeletal antagonist of the film and the final boss to beat on the Castle Mystery Tour.
Depicted as a slow moving animatronic the Horned King summoned his evil Soldiers of Death using the “Kiln of Satan”. He stated that all the guests would be sacrificed to the Black Cauldron, it was actually quite dramatic and scary. Slowly the minions of darkness rose to reap their souls but fortunately one guest had been chosen to wield the Sword of Light (No Star Wars rip off here). The chosen one pointed a l
ight saber sword at the Horned King dispatching him with a bolt of lightning. This lucky guest was then presented a keepsake medallion as a special reward.
The Castle Mystery Tour lasted twenty years before being replaced with a much less weird (or good) typical princess themed self-guided walk through.
Everything about this attraction was weird and it featured the weirdest walk around character of all time to boot!
2) Adventure Thru Inner Space
An attraction from the 1960’s that promises to “Expand your mind”; this is when Disney gets really weird.
Guests were shrank to a molecular scale and sent through the “Monsanto Mighty Microscope” to explore the sub-atomic world of a snowflake. The disembodied host was actually the thought waves of the only person to have made this journey previously. He sounded scared and confused, there was no true explanation as to how or why any of this was happening other than some vague talk about “science”. The entire event came off a mad nightmare.
Passengers boarded “Atommobiles” this was the first use of the Omnimover system (famously used in the Haunted Mansion). The attraction depicted inner space mainly through the use of various projections and mirror effects but also featured sets including a giant human eyeball. The result was a disorienting funhouse. It was difficult to determine where you were or what direction you were headed as the cars rotated and the entirety of the ride took place in the dark.
It was one of the most conceptual rides Disney ever created. It not only did not depict a known story it eschewed even basic settings or easily understandable environments. Instead riders floated through infinite darkness only to occasionally be pelted by abstract shapes or dramatically echoing sounds. It was not uncommon to hear stunned guests utter “Well that was weird” as they disembarked, and they were right.
Of course the Sherman Brothers also contributed the theme song “Miracles from Molecules” to the attraction, those dudes were super weird.
Before we get to number one here are some notable runner-ups:
Astuter Computer Revue
Located at EPCOT Center for the first couple of years of operation the attraction was a behind the scenes look at the state of the art computer systems running the park. These huge rooms of computers are now dwarfed by the power of your phone but it was a big deal in 1982. It gets weird when a singing and dancing holographic (Peppers Ghost effect) miniature English dandy shows up as your guide. He prances around the actual control center of the park (complete with oblivious staff working away) while singing yet another Sherman Brothers tune. Bewildered audience members stumbled out of the darkened showroom confused as to what they just witnessed.
EPCOT Daredevil Circus (Space Circus)
This is a bit of a cheat since it was a seasonal show and not really a major long-term attraction but it is so insanely weird that we felt compelled to include it. By 1987 EPCOT Center was already trying to reinvent itself. Guests were looking for a more “fun” atmosphere; they wanted less singing computer instructors and more traditional fare. Disney answered in the weirdest way possible: futuristic elephants from space. Imagine high flying circus acts complete with trapeze artists, motorcycles, the Wheel of Death, tightrope walkers and live animals (tin foiled wrapped pachyderms included) right in the middle of Future World. It was so weird that we may have simply imagined it all.
The Making of Me
Early EPCOT Center was full of weirdness as yet another now defunct Epcot attraction makes the list. The Making of Me was located in the Wonders of Life Pavilion and despite being a relative latecomer to the scene was just as weird as its predecessors. Despite disclaimers guests likely did not expect to receive a sex education delivered by improvisational comedian Martin Short but that is exactly what The Making of Me was. A Disney attraction based on intimate sexual encounters feels like it hits a 9.5 on the weirdness scale. Did we mention the animated sperm race ending with a sexy ovum wearing a target over her private parts?
The Walt Disney Story Featuring Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln: The Journey to Gettysburg
Dignity, honor, courage and bravery; all admirable traits associated with Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president. So of course his legacy was honored with a gimmicky 3-D audio simulation of a hair cut, what else would you expect? Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln had played at Disneyland starting in 1965. It was a groundbreaking attraction that held great historical importance to the company but by the late 1990’s was on the verge of extinction. Guests no longer visited and management wanted that prime Main Street location in order to sell more t-shirts and stuffed animals.
In an attempt to save the attraction, given limited resources, the Imagineers added binaural sound to every seat in the theater. Guests donned headphones taking the part of a fictional civil war soldier. Along the way to battle our hero meets civil war photographer Mathew Brady and receives a haircut prior to having his photo taken. While the stereo sound worked well and the gag of getting your haircut was as convincing as when it first debuted at Disney-MGM Studios a dozen years prior, it was weird and a forced fit. This was the very definition of “shoe-horning” something in when clearly it was out of place. Fortunately the show survived and a version (sans headphones and hair cuts) runs to this day.
ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter
Alien Encounter was a convincing brilliantly executed, experience good enough to still be in operation today. However it was just a little too weird to become mainstream. It was Disney’s first attempt to create a truly scary attraction, not a silly or fun take on the genre. Alien Encounter succeeded in scaring many guests, mostly unsuspecting children. Guests were seated within a cylindrical theater and restrained, unable to move. The lights went out, a huge alien monster was teleported into the theater and tormented audience members in various ways. Through the use of sounds and physical effects it felt like the alien was breathing on your neck, perched above you or attacking a poor victim just out of reach. Sadly it all proved too intense for guests who were not expecting such a sinister experience at the Magic Kingdom. Alien Encounter was turned into Stitch’s Great Escape, a watered down version of the attraction that attempted to be silly rather than scary. It also was weird but not in a good way and has since been closed.
There is a fine line between weird and just plain bad, and frankly this falls to the bad side. Still it makes our list because every single thing about this ride screamed “FAILURE!” and it is very weird that no one at Disney thought better of it.
One of the opening day attractions at the original Disney’s California Adventure, Superstar Limo was destined to go down in history as the worst Disney ride ever built. Guests boarded “limousines” to take a tour of Hollywood depicted by garishly painted plywood flats. All the cards were stacked against this thing from the get go. It is never wise to use current personalities playing themselves in attractions as they do not age well. In this case the “superstars” such as Joan Rivers, Regis Philbin and Cindy Crawford were already well faded. The troubles of Superstar Limo are well documented but what really made it weird was the execution. Some characters were depicted as plasticized almost ghoulishly dead eyed puppets. Most (including Disney barnacles Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Carey) were static caricatures of themselves. None of it was good. It was a hot weird mess that ceased operations within a year.
We’ve made it to number one, this is as close as Disney has ever come to creating a virtual drug fueled hallucination.
1) Magic Journeys
Magic Journey’s almost defies explanation in its pure uncut weirdness.
We are back in EPCOT Center, clearly the weirdest park Disney has ever conceived. Housed within the Imagination Pavilion (the epicenter of weirdness in the park) Magic Journeys was charged with interpreting the vague concocts of dreams and making them substantive. The objective of Magic Journey’s was to be weird because there is nothing tangible or logical about dreams, it did an admirable job with its duty.
After a pre-show set to the catchy song “Makin’ Memories” (you guessed it, penned by the Sherman Brothers) visitors collected a pair of purple (the weirdest color) glasses and headed into the main theater. What unfolded next was unlike anything that came before or since. Magic Journeys was 17 minutes of nearly dialogue free hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness captured on celluloid and projected in vivid 3-D. The experience was closer to a fever dream than to any previous park attraction.
The film had no linear plot, it succeeded in creating a trance-like state in which one scene blended into the next to form a continuous hypnotic trip. Ostensibly we were following an adolescent boy through dreams of flight, mind-altering explorations of the sub conscious and horrific encounters with nightmarish adversaries. In reality guests were sent on their own odysseys into the far corners of their minds. It was freaking weird!
Beyond the amazing 3-D visuals (kites flew from the screen so close you could touch them) was the incredible soundtrack (do I even need to bother telling you who wrote it?). The Magic Journeys song perfectly captured the gentle spell dreams cast on their creators. Magic Journeys lulled the audience into a sense of serenity only to jerk them back to consciousness by way of nightmarish and freakish visuals.
To give you an idea of just how bizarre the movie was here is how Wikipedia attempts to described it:
“The film started with children running through a meadow and looking at clouds. Someone blew on a dandelion and the seeds then flew away, turning into stars and then turned into the sun. Next the kids were seen flying a kite at the beach. The kite then turned into a bird, a fish, a school of fish, a flock of birds, bird wings, a Pegasus, a horse and then finally into a merry-go-round. While the children rode the carousel, they began reaching for a brass ring spinning next to the carousel; the carousel spins around the moon and bats fly out past the riders. The moon becomes a witch, a mask, an Olmec head, and more until turning into a cat. A boy reaches out to the cat and it turns into the Sphinx, which turns into a lion jumping through a hoop in the circus. Trapeze artists and acrobats fly through the air and several clowns amuse the children.”
Makes perfect sense right?
After being replaced by Captain Eo Magic Journeys enjoyed a run in the Magic Kingdom. Today Magic Journeys feels a bit dated, but no less weird. It was the pinnacle of Disney theme park weirdness. An honest and astoundingly accurate depiction of what is almost impossible to capture outside of ones own imagination; dreams themselves.
Magic Journeys has the distinct honor of being the weirdest attraction Disney has ever created and its best 3-D movie to boot!
Did we miss anything; can you think of something even weirder than these? And what is up with the Sherman Brothers? Those dudes are on the Mount Rushmore of weirdness for sure!
With today’s Disney so obsessed with making the parks “PC”, I’m half-expecting Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to get the axe. Or if nothing else, the ending will be changed.
Is it just me, or does the animatronic of the Crane in Meet the World not look all that much like the animated one?
And heck yeah Superstar Limo was weird. The creepy animatronics, the equally creepy puppets, the neon paint, the overall gaudiness of the whole thing… it was basically an acid trip in the form of a Disney ride.
I think you may have meant to say “recounted” instead of “recanted.”
Adventure Thru Inner Space was my favorite ride when I was a wee sprog (I was eight when it closed). I’m pretty sure it’s where I learned the word “electrons” and maybe even “molecules,” but my first-hand memories are sketchy.
The thing about weirdness is that it equates to *uniqueness*. The main problem with IP saturation is that it reduces the theme parks to offshoots of the various movie studios instead of letting them stand on their own as collections of unique experiences.
We agree 100%. The days of weird or truly unique attractions is likely behind us. However that does not mean the new IP stuff cannot be great (witness Rise of the Resistance or Shanghai Pirates). Even something like Tron, while technically based on an IP, is borderline unique… few really know or value Tron too much, they used it just as a jumping off point.
I used to think Tokyo might be where we could still get weirdness.
Sadly though considering the upcoming DisneySea expansion is all super safe IP’s.
I think the days of true weirdness are over 🙁
Sadly over the years I have noticed TDR and actual Tokyo as well getting a little less weird. The western inlfucenes are showing through more for sure. In the case of TDR you can see the Disney inlfuences more and more in their decision making… a little more homogonized. Still, Japan is inherently weird (from our perspective) and therefore you can still find plenty of great off beat and weird stuff there… I hope it never changes.
This is a great article and I was happy to see you sidestep the sponsored attractions. Also really appreciated the Honorable Mentions section. I remember seeing the computer Pepper’s ghost show when I was at WDW on my honeymoon!
The theme song to “Magic Journeys” inspired me to write a set of parody lyrics after visiting a haunted baseball stadium attraction with one of the co-founders of Parkeology. The path of the attraction led visitors through a men’s restroom in which the urinals were equipped with giant fangs, hence the parody was entitled, “Rabid Urinals.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GKIBPstE3MtkLy5obY1UUe8mhe27efcwtK9dSS-JxqQ/edit?usp=sharing
WOW! A bathroom based parody of a song that ran in a secondary attraction in the weirdest theme park ever 40 years ago… Brian I think I love you.
One suggestion… you went with the traditional “In a flash they disappear” from the original song…how did you not go with “In a FLUSH they disappear”? FLUSH my man, FLUSH!
I’m glad this post found its target audience with you.