Whee! The coolest Disney rides

Soarin', a Disney ride, gently rocks benches of passengers suspended in front of an all-enveloping movie to simulate a hang-gliding flight across American landscapes.
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Jeff Kurtti is fed up with people trashing It’s a Small World. “People who think they are too sophisticated for this kiddie attraction are kind of sad,” says Jeff Kurtti, creative director for San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum. “The world is full of people who refuse to let go and enjoy themselves.”

Slideshow: Coolest Disney rides

The world is also full of people who grew up on Disney. Considering the broad variety of traditions in America, there are few things every kid shares no matter where they grow up. Happy Meals, maybe. Cap’n Crunch cereal, if they’re allowed. But all kids agree on Disney.

That’s with good reason. Disney made its name with rigorous entertainment standards. In the 1950s, Walt Disney spun off his idea factory, now called Walt Disney Imagineering, as a stand-alone unit dedicated to inventing stuff to amuse his customers. Some of Imagineering’s biggest successes, such as Audio-Animatronic robotic characters, have become hallmarks of the Disney brand.

“He could certainly have installed off-the-shelf roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, and go-karts,” says Kurtti, who has written more than 25 books on Disney parks and Imagineering — known for their innovation.

Just as not every room in the Louvre is worthy of your touring time, there are reasons to love — or skip — many Disney rides. But if we had to choose just 10 from the dozens of choices, from kiddie coasters to robot-packed operas, we’d have to settle on emblematic experiences.

The famous Pirates of the Caribbean float-by predates the Haunted Mansion, and it stands taller in pop culture; the kitschy 1960s ride got a Hollywood-style makeover in 2006, complete with a new captain inspired by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the ride’s namesake movie.

At Disney, a ride’s cool factor sometimes comes down to its adrenaline-pumping bells and whistles. We love Space Mountain, but at heart it’s just an okay roller coaster. Park-goers will do better to stand in line at the superfluous indoor-outdoor flume attraction Splash Mountain — opened in 1989 — where riders leave their stomachs behind on a soaking 40-foot drop.

As for It’s a Small World, if you can appreciate Walt Disney’s kiddie lovefest as the American landmark it truly is, you’ll find yourself humming its relentless ditty with a newfound appreciation. After all, some things stick with us forever simply because they’re great.