A lot can happen in three years, even in the world of theme parks. In 2015 I wrote about the best attractions at Universal Studios Florida; since then the park has closed two of the attractions that made the cut, and opened up two major new rides based on the Fast and the Furious movies and on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Obviously Paste wants our serious, sober theme park journalism to be as up-to-date and useful as possible, so this clearly could not stand. I take this job very seriously, so I recently hopped a plane down to Orlando, shacked up at the Loew’s Sapphire Falls Resort (which also didn’t exist in 2015), and spent a day checking out all the new stuff at the park, along with the old favorites. (And the hotel pool. And the hotel bar. And the hotel pool bar. It’s a very hard job.) After a serious round of self-debate, during which I had a breakdown followed by an epiphany followed by a breakthrough, the new list appeared suddenly before me, like Constantine’s cross, lighting my way to the only accurate ranking of the ten best rides at this theme park. And now I share that information with you.
Note: For this list I’m only considering attractions found in the Universal Studios Florida park. We have a separate list for Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which you can read here.
10. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
I’ll be honest: I am not a fan of Fallon’s show. When I first rode Race Through New York, I had a hard time enjoying it because of the constant attempts at humor. I went on it a second time, though, and once I knew what to expect, I was able to focus on the ride experience itself. As a big box that shakes you up and makes you feel like you’re whizzing around one of the greatest cities on Earth, Race Through New York is a fun and exciting jolt of frenetic action. It may not be a work of art, in a theme park sense, but it’s a fine way to fill out your day at Universal Studios.
Race Through New York is a reminder of the value of theming in a theme park. This is an experience that hinges on design and architecture more than the ride itself, from the exterior, which seamlessly fits an iconic part of Manhattan’s skyline into Universal’s New York area, to the two pre-show waiting areas, which look and feel like they were imported straight from the real 30 Rock. The motion simulator itself is a fine mid-level attraction
9. Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Clearly this depends greatly on your affinity for the Despicable Me movies—or your ability to tolerate them. Universal has a lot of motion simulation rides, those attractions where you sit in a car or room that shakes or tilts while you watch a 3D movie on a large screen. Minion Mayhem is one of the smoothest motion simulators I’ve ever been on, and the movie seemed to be on the same level of quality as the real ones. This edges out the similar Shrek 4D, and not just because Minion Mayhem doesn’t have Shrek in it (although that is a huge plus): the technology is more refined than in the older Shrek attraction, and probably less likely to aggravate those prone to motion sickness.
8. Men in Black: Alien Attack
I love dark rides. It feels like they’re slowly disappearing, as thrill rides grow increasingly dominant and motion simulators are used more and more to recreate popular movies. I love the actual dark ride aspect of Alien Attack, from the recreation of New York City (complete with Will Smith circa 1998 giving us a pep talk from the huge TV screen in Times Square), to the animatronic aliens that appear everywhere throughout. Like Disney’s Buzz Lightyear AstroBlasters, Alien Attack is a target shooting game—every seat has a gun, and you get points for shooting those aliens. The marksmanship aspect makes the ride a little more hectic than it would otherwise be. My only problem with Alien Attack is that when another rider shoots my car’s target it stops and quickly spins in a full circle six or eight times in a row. It’s the only time I felt any motion sickness at Universal.
7. Transformers: The Ride 3D
This ride perfectly captures the style-over-substance incomprehensibility of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. It’s another ride dependent on movie screens, but this time your vehicle is almost constantly moving, suddenly speeding up or slowing down, rushing backwards and making tight spins or turns. The story involves Transformers punching each other a lot (yes, including Megatron and Optimus Prime) and loud sounds and buildings falling apart. It’s an overwhelming, rapid-fire spectacle, especially since the movie scenes are all in 3D. It proves something that you’ve probably already assumed: those Transformers movies work better as a theme park ride.
6. Hogwarts Express—King’s Cross Station
NOTE: You’ll need a Park-to-Park Pass to ride the Hogwarts Express.
I hate to admit it, but I skipped the Hogwarts Express the first time I visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter because I assumed it was just a standard train for people who didn’t feel like walking between the two Harry Potter areas. Almost every theme park has a train, and almost all of those trains exist primarily to give your hard-working feet a break. Over time I realized how foolish I was, and went out of my way to ride this thing on my last trip. Guess what: it’s fantastic. I’m not even a Potter fan, but the work Universal has done bringing the books and movies to life surpasses even Disney’s recent projects when it comes to creating a themed environment, and the Hogwarts Express is a vital part of the illusion. It uses screens and projections inside a themed train car to show the trip from London to Hogsmeade or back again, with cameos from various Potter characters and magical beasts. The technology and set design comes together perfectly to capture that other-worldly, wizarding feeling.