Why Disney's The Little Mermaid Ride Is Charming

Review of Disney World and Disneyland Ride

The Little Mermaid ride at Disney parks
Disney. Used with permission.

A sweet and chirpy attraction based on a classic animated film, The Little Mermaid brings a timeless tale and charming ride to Disney parks. Little kids (and nostalgic adults who grew up when the movie was first released) will adore it, and everyone will enjoy its whimsy while they marvel at its advanced animated characters.

  • Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 2
    The one dark scene in Ursula's lair (which is dark in both the literal and figurative senses) is slightly menacing and may scare young children.
  • Attraction type: Gentle dark ride
  • Location: Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure
  • Also located at Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World
  • Height requirement: Any height

Be Part of This World

Amid all of the park hype and inflated expectations, it might help to state what The Little Mermaid ride is not. Unlike Toy Story Mania and other whiz-bang, high-tech attractions, it isn't an interactive shoot-em-up ride. It also doesn't include 3D glasses, 4D effects, motion-base platforms, Harry Potter-like robotic-arm vehicles, high-speed thrills, percussive explosions, or any of the other ride trick-outs that designers have incorporated into many modern-day, high-profile attractions. It is, however, an old-school, sweet-natured dark ride, the kind that Disney pioneered and perfected with attractions such as "it's a small world" and Peter Pan's Flight.

Here's something else Mermaid is not: It isn't an E-ticket ride.

Despite its rumored $100 million price tag (the Mouse always keeps its actual park budgets close to its yellow-bowtied vest), which would make it among the more costly park attractions, Mermaid is a relatively modest ride. At the Disney California Adventure grand opening event, one of the Imagineers who helped develop Mermaid characterized it as a D+-ticket ride.

That sounds about right to me.

That's not to say that Mermaid doesn't incorporate some impressive technology to help tell its story. In fact, its animatronic figures represent a next-gen evolution of attraction design wizardry. The highly fluid likenesses of characters such as Ariel and the sea witch Ursula, with their multiple points of articulation, are a far cry from the crude animation of the tiki birds, Disney's first foray into animatronics.

But the technology isn't astonishing, and the overall attraction doesn't impart a sizeable wow factor. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The sunny and enchanting Mermaid nicely complements the Disney parks' high-wow rides such as Soarin Around the World' and Splash Mountain.

The Speed-Dating Version of “The Little Mermaid”

In the California version of the attraction, the queue is fairly uneventful. At Florida's Magic Kingdom however, Prince Erik's castle provides a more dramatic setting, and the line includes fun, interactive video screens that invite guests to help animated crabs sort Ariel's "what-nots."

The ride itself is nearly identical in both parks. Passengers board brightly colored half-shell vehicles that are part of an Omnimover track, Disney's perpetually-moving, assembly line-like conveyance system (used in the Haunted Mansion and other attractions) that is ideal for directing riders to each scene's intended focal point.

(Not so ideal: Whenever a passenger has difficulty boarding the ride and his vehicle is stopped, the entire line grinds to a halt.) The first scene begins on the shore as Scuttle the seagull (voiced in the original film by the late, great Buddy Hackett) sets the stage. The vehicles then face backwards and tilt down as riders descend—you guessed it—under the sea.

The scenes that follow play like a highlight reel from the movie. Think of it as the speed-dating version of The Little Mermaid. (Hurry up and kiss the girl already!) Indelibly imprinted in our collective conscience, the movie's popular songs frame each tableau. In Ariel's grotto, the red-haired gal expresses her earthly longings while singing "Part of Your World."

Speaking of hair, Ethan Reed, senior show animator at Walt Disney Imagineering says that his work on the Ariel character included two years developing ways to make her hair wave and flow in the underwater setting.

"It's a big part of her character," he notes. "We had to get it right."

The next scene, set to the rollicking tune of "Under the Sea," is jam-packed with 128 all-singing, all-dancing figures. The celebratory tone and expansive set reminded me of it's a small world. The party is led by the diminutive crab, Sebastian. Reed says that the Imagineers wanted to animate the crustacean's eyes and came up with a rear projection system for the tiny creature. Sebastian actually has two miniature projectors implanted in his head.

Ursula Bops and Wiggles

Sporting an up 'do, Ariel bops along to "Under the Sea" and demonstrates some impressive movements. "This Ariel figure has about 35 different functions [as opposed to the rudimentary beak snaps displayed by the original tiki birds], and I had a range of motions I could program when I animated her," says Reed. "We were able to access a wider palette of actions and incorporate more subtle expressions."

The most impressive figure is the bloated sea witch, Ursula. Adapting a "squash and stretch" technique introduced by Disney animators in the 1930s to dimensional animatronics, the 7-foot character bobs and wiggles in her lair as she croons her signature song, "Poor Unfortunate Souls." The mood turns sinister here, with black light momentarily making the otherwise cheerful dark ride truly dark.

In the last couple of scenes, Ariel gets her man, and everyone celebrates the happily-ever-after finale. With a reasonably generous running time of 5 minutes and 30 seconds, Mermaid nevertheless feels rushed, and the ending seems especially tagged-on. The attraction is essential a book report regurgitation of the movie. The transitions between scenes—particularly the last scene—also don't seem to have a natural flow.

But there's no denying Mermaid's upbeat songs and cheerful vibe. It joins the ranks of Disney dark rides and gives voice to a now-classic and beloved animated film.