It’s the oldest debate among any group of theme-park fans – what rides are the best? Being a geek who wears a few professional hats on the matter, it’s something I’ve wondered about my favorite resort – Universal Orlando – and it’s come to a point that I want some answers for myself and for you, dear readers. In order to obtain them, I’ve come up with some criteria that must be met.
The first order of business is to narrow the scope to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, since water parks are in a league of their own, and Universal only has Volcano Bay. I’ll cap this accounting at the six best attractions, thus granting each park a top three and allowing this to be a genuine best-of list in the grand scheme. The determining factors within the investigation will be each ride’s thrill factor, how innovative it is, how well the theme ties everything together, and its storytelling quality. Each component plays an important part in the experience’s value, so there isn’t any true hierarchy at play here – just the facts to help achieve our results.
Now that we’ve established our basis, let’s dig in, shall we?
Universal Studios Florida
3. Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley‘s major attraction presents its case well and meets the expectations set by its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This is evidenced by the leering audio-animatronic goblins and the elegant chandelier in the queue’s main hall or the elevator that makes it feel like you’ve actually traveled miles into the caverns underneath Gringotts Bank.
After meeting with Bill Weasley via the magic of Pepper’s Ghost, we’re transported between the cinematic events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. To its credit, no other ride on property has such a direct connection to the source material, and you can’t get more cohesive than that!
There’s some pretty innovative technology at play, as well. Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts is a hybrid of an indoor roller coaster and a 4D simulator that morphs between the two, giving us a very cool experience. Since there’s another ride that has a better execution of similar ambitions, I do have to knock ten points off Gringotts for its shortcomings, but it does deserve to be towards the top of anyone’s priorities.
2. Transformers: The Ride – 3D
Since we’ve already covered it in-depth, I won’t get too far into Transformers: The Ride – 3D‘s details here. But, concerning its queue and theme, I have to say Universal does a great job of settling us into the story via the NEST headquarters we’re winding through, including its various monitors. In place of tying directly to the movies, Transformers utilizes the recent films’ character designs and vocal cast (which includes alumni from the original cartoon series), and doing this provides a better connection to the overall brand in regards to both past and present concepts.
In substitution of the traditional projection simulator, Universal engages the entire room in bringing the epic brawl between the Autobots and the Decepticons to life – guests feel the revving of EVAC’s wheels as he’s trying to escape Devestator’s powerful vacuum, or the intense heat of one of Megatron’s missiles before EVAC deflects it.
Sadly, there are some imperfections. The astute will notice that Transformers: The Ride borrows its tools and storytelling process from its wall-crawling predecessor, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, over in Islands of Adventure. There’s also a hard focal shift from narrative to action once we’re on the ride. While this is understandable, doing so after putting all that care into building the story makes that effort an afterthought and ultimately holds this ride back from being better than it is.
On the other hand, it does superbly integrate these special effects as part of the story and manages to win our hearts as number two on the list.
1. Revenge of the Mummy
It doesn’t require a desperately-needed cup of coffee for anyone to realize why this ride won the gold medal of our Universal Studios Florida best-of list. As this is another one we’ve covered in some detail, I’ll simply say that Revenge of the Mummy‘s theme as a backstage look into the fictional sequel to the 1999 film The Mummy was an excellent choice. Since this concept features Brendan Fraser and Imhotep himself, it ties directly to their chapter of the franchise and allows this version to differentiate itself from its worldwide counterparts while simultaneously paying homage to Universal’s history of letting guests “ride the movies” and go behind the scenes of their favorite films.
Even though I wouldn’t call this indoor coaster ground-breaking, I would call it phenomenal. It delivers intense thrills through its outstanding use of props and special effects – and it’s undeniable that the encounter with Imhotep’s army of undead soldiers in the beginning, the black-light scenes we whiz by at the attraction’s climax, or the ceiling of fire at the fake ending are among the many reasons for Mummy’s strong fan base, and that this attraction is a must-do in every way.
This has also earned Revenge of the Mummy the status as a renowned, award-winning ride within the industry – in fact, one organization had to retire its Indoor Coaster category entirely and award Mummy a legendary status due to how often it won! It’s no wonder why the experience mercilessly takes our souls and the number-one spot as the best ride at the theme park.
Islands of Adventure
3. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was a trendsetter when it debuted with Islands of Adventure back in 1999, and the attention to detail remains rewarding to this day. Everything is exceptionally thought out, from the arrogant portrait of J. Jonah Jameson to the off-colored background items found throughout the Daily Bugle’s offices that hold us within the comic book issue of Spider-Man that we seem to have entered. The only things missing are voiceover boxes narrating the scenes we walk through.
Spider-Man’s storytelling is possibly one of the best I’ve come across. Three separate queue videos provide an introduction, set up the conflict, and explain how the riders are involved with what’s happening. The queue is even in on the narration, as there’s a reason why we’re guided through that oddly barren newsroom. This superb level of dedication is consistently maintained throughout the entire experience, as the script is true to each of the characters we encounter up until the attraction’s exit.
As the predecessor to Transformers: The Ride – 3D, Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man employs some similar techniques. The Scoop vehicle vibrates when Electro shocks it from the screen; the pumpkin bombs Hobgoblin throws literally explode in the scenery; and, at one point, the room makes it seem as if you’re elevated above New York City before simulating a 400-foot drop that Spider-Man saves you from at the last minute.
What lands this in the third-place spot is a reason that’s nearly the opposite of Transformers: the incredible special effects seem a bit more of a rag-tag display meant to impress us rather than assisting with the narration. It’s only a slight fault, though, and Spidey is still my personal favorite ride and worthy enough to be on our list for your consideration.
2. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
Before the premiere of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade‘s latest addition, it’d been a while since Universal produced anything besides simulator attractions. The demand was overflowing, and it was as if there wouldn’t be a response – until there was, and it exceeded the general expectations (and, even, tossed in a few things we didn’t anticipate!).
Talking of its traits without getting lost in the particulars, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is considered a “story-coaster,” as Professor Rubeus Hagrid holds a constant presence within this attraction. It does an incredible job of balancing its narrative and serving us a healthy dose of titillating fun. In lieu of never actually goes upside down, it features a vertical ascent, backwards travel, and a sudden drop that gets me every time. Is its name a mouthful to say? Certainly. But I believe this half-giant managed to satiate the demand nicely.
So, why did I put this ride in second place and not first? Well, the innovation isn’t quite enough. Yes, there’s plenty at play within this ride that defines it as “exceptionally done,” and it’s well worth the wait – it’s just not groundbreaking enough to cut the ribbon of first place on our best-of list.
1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
The Wizarding World‘s debut attraction is tough to beat. The entire concept was original to Universal, and the feats taken were highly ambitious; to this day, the techniques set a high bar for the industry to follow. Guests can still be found taking pictures of the breathtaking view of Hogwarts Castle seemingly off in the distance, and each of the rooms throughout the queue possess a fine amount of exquisite detail. The castle even doubles as the backdrop for an entire night show!
The ride itself doesn’t slack in this endeavor, either. The busbar system that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey employs is one-of-a-kind within Universal Orlando, and its combination of simulation and prop-use brought Harry’s world to life in such a way that it holds numerous awards and was noted as one of the industry’s most advanced attractions (this make perfect sense, as the creative director behind Forbidden Journey was the same individual who headed both The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Revenge of the Mummy). It’s also fair to note that it’s stood the test of time since its opening with only minor updates, which reinforces why we gave this ride the top honors at Islands of Adventure.
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