Theme parks tend to play fast and loose with their theming over time, squeezing in new areas or rides over the years that may not fit whatever sort of atmosphere the original designers were trying to create. Universal’s Islands of Adventure doesn’t have to worry about that, because it was already a mishmash of random stuff to begin with. It combines a handful of areas based on popular properties—Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Marvel Comics (to the eternal consternation of Disney)—with generic adventure-themed areas called Port of Entry and the Lost Continent. If you’re a stickler for careful design and consistent theming in your theme parks, the awkward jumble of Islands of Adventure might stress you out.
As beautiful as the Hogsmeade portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Lost Continent are, the rest of Islands of Adventure is full of functional but relatively barebones design. For example, the Marvel area is just a city block lightly themed to look like the entrance of Manhattan office buildings, with giant cut-outs of ‘90s-era Marvel Comics characters haphazardly placed throughout, and little effort to disguise the ride systems for the Incredible Hulk roller coaster or the Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall drop tower. Overall the park can’t match the world-building that defined classic Disney theme parks.
It might come up a bit short on the aesthetics, but Islands of Adventure more than holds its own when it comes to rides. It’s currently the better of the two Universal Orlando parks when it comes to attractions, with fun and action for the whole family, and a nice diversity of ride styles to boot. When you’re solely looking at rides, and setting aside theming and nostalgia, Islands of Adventure is one of the two best theme parks in Orlando today. You’ll probably be able to fit the entire park into a single day (especially if you knock out the Harry Potter rides in the morning, before the crowds and lines become overwhelming), but if you’re short on time, or trying to squeeze both Universal parks into one day, here are the rides to prioritize.
Like the ET ride at Islands of Adventure’s sister park, The Cat in the Hat is a rarity for Universal Orlando. It’s an old-fashioned dark ride, the kind you’d expect at Disney’s Fantasyland. I’m normally a huge fan of this kind of ride—a well-made animatronic will always beat a 3D projection, in my book—and The Cat in the Hat is a perfectly acceptable, classically-oriented theme park ride. It doesn’t quite have the emotional power of E.T. Adventure, though, and also doesn’t really add anything to the Seuss original. This is the definition of a “book report” ride, one that simply repeats the plot of a movie (or, as in this case, an actual book) instead of creating a new experience rooted in the familiar. It’s still a fun, charming little ride, though, and the fact that it’s so low on this list is a testament to how good Island of Adventure’s other attractions are as much as it is a criticism of Cat in the Hat.
Toon Lagoon is about as idiosyncratic a theme park area as you’re likely to find. It’s not the theme itself—a land built around classic comic strips and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show makes some amount of sense—but the fact that it’s combined with a focus on water rides. (And yeah, okay, any theme park attraction based on Gasoline Alley in 2016 is kind of a head-scratcher. A glorious, amazing head-scratcher, but weird and surprising nonetheless.) Toon Lagoon is basically a miniature water park within the larger Islands of Adventure, and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls is its version of a classic log flume. It’s similar to Splash Mountain, only instead of the tales of Uncle Remus it’s based on the Canadian Mountie from Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s also taller, faster, steeper and wetter than Splash Mountain, making it a little bit more intense than you might expect from such a cartoonish ride. (Although this isn’t the wettest you’ll get at Toon Lagoon…) The drop is the draw, but the queue and show areas are almost Disney quality, making this a must-ride if you can stand getting soaked.
Dragon Challenge is neck-and-neck with Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and The Incredible Hulk for the title of the most intense thrill ride at either Universal Orlando park. It’s actually two rides in one, though, with two separate roller coaster tracks corkscrewing around each other. It’s an inverted coaster with a vertical loop on both tracks, a drop that’s either 95 feet or 115 feet depending on the track, and a top speed of 60 miles per hour. That’s not that extreme by the standards of the current on-going coaster wars, but it’ll more than do for any coaster nut looking for a thrill at Universal. There’s one big problem with the ride, though: it’s horribly misplaced in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The ride predates the Harry Potter expansion by 11 years, opening with the park itself in 1999, and beyond a name change very little retheming was done to make it fit in with its new Hogsmeade surroundings. Right off to the side of this beautifully realized, minutely detailed recreation of a magical village sits a roller coaster yanked right out of any Six Flags in America. As one of two legitimate roller coasters in Islands of Adventure, it fills an important role, but it’s a bit of an eyesore in what is otherwise the best themed area in the park.
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, with cameos from various Potter characters and magical beasts. The technology and set design comes together perfectly to capture that other-worldly, wizarding feeling.
Here’s another water ride, although one that won’t get you nearly as wet as the two in Toon Lagoon. Based on the 1993 film, this ride opened up alongside the park itself in 1999. It feels a little bit dated—the fake newscast that airs in the queue area looks so much like the ‘90s that it might as well be playing off a VHS tape—but that’s part of its charm. Fitting its movie inspiration, it’s basically a meta commentary on theme park attractions dressed up as a “shoot the chutes” water ride. It starts off as a Jungle Cruise-style boat trip through the habitats of some gentle amphibious dinosaurs (the animatronics might seem a little too robotic at the moment, but there’s still a power and grace to them) before the boat veers off course and into a research facility that’s been taken over by rogue velociraptors. It all builds up to a tense face-to-face with an angry T. rex, followed by an immediate 85 foot plunge. It’s a potent final combo, spiking the tension you feel from the oncoming drop with the surprise of an angry man-eating dinosaur. It captures the spirit of Spielberg’s original film, from the hope and childlike wonder to the dread of being devoured by prehistoric monsters.
If you read my review of Universal’s newest ride you know the drill: it’s a world-class queue and a breathtaking animatronic Kong bookending a solid motion simulator, all set inside a beautifully themed temple. It’s proof that practical effects and screens can coexist in a top notch theme park attraction, even if the stuff that happens on the screens isn’t nearly as impressive or memorable as everything that happens before and after.
This is the best roller coaster in all of Universal Orlando, and its recent refurbishment has made it better than ever. The theming is a crucial part of that, with a queue based on Bruce Banner’s lab, and audio and lighting that fit the gamma irradiated ride’s comic book tone. It also has a new score by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump that nicely complements the propulsive thrill of the ride. Between the launch, two loops, a trip through an underground tunnel, a zero-g roll and more, most people would probably find this to be the most intense ride at either Universal Orlando park. Other than the queue and the color, there’s nothing particularly representative of the Hulk about the ride, but it’s still a top-shelf coaster.
If you’ve never ridden this river rapids ride, you have no idea how wet you’ll wind up getting. This isn’t like your standard Thunder or Congo Rivers, where you spin around on some whitewater rapids for a couple of minutes, and if you’re unlucky maybe get doused by the one waterfall that the raft doesn’t actually go underneath. This ride is designed to thoroughly soak every seat on every boat, with jets, drops, hoses, waterfalls and whatever other malicious tools for watery assault its creators could think up. It even has a secondary attraction overlooking it, a boat where people can literally just shoot you with high powered water guns as you float by. The grand finale is a very slow trip through Bluto’s boat washing machine, which must be what going through a car wash in a convertible fills like. It’s not just the volume of water that makes me love this ride, though. It’s the high quality animatronics found throughout, which tell the story of Bluto trying to kidnap Olive Oyl and putting Swee’Pea at risk. E.C. Segar’s classic characters pop up throughout, including multiple major set pieces involving Bluto and Popeye’s boats and an unruly octopus. The show pieces are on the level of something Disney would build at Fantasyland, only you’re getting gallons and gallons of water dumped on you the whole time. It’s not just the longest and wettest river rapids ride I’ve ever been on—it’s the only one I can think of that’s so story-intensive. This is one of four or five rides at Universal Orlando that any fan of theme parks absolutely has to ride at least once. Just make sure you bring a change of clothes with you.
Before Escape From Gringotts opened at Universal Studios Florida in 2014, this was the state of the art of Universal’s screen-based rides. It isn’t just a motion simulator or a series of screens, but a combination of screens and animatronics with a robotic roller coaster technology known as the KUKA RoboCoaster. The transition between projections and practical effects isn’t perfect but works better than it has any right to. All together it’s kind of like a faster-paced, more thrilling and more technologically advanced version of a Fantasyland dark ride, with a scenario that flies you through Hogwarts and to a variety of locations from the Potter films, with a number of actors returning to interact with you. As great as the ride itself is, the queue might be even better, with fantastically detailed recreations of places and objects from the series. Even if you can’t fit in the relatively tight seats for the ride, make sure you still tour the castle and check out the magical portraits and other themed elements.
There are some valid criticisms of Universal’s reliance on screen-based rides, but they all melt away when a ride is done as well as The Amazing Spider-Man. Unlike earlier motion simulators, where you never really forgot you were staring at a screen, Spider-Man fully surrounds and engrosses you with its physical sets and massive projection screens. It also doesn’t just simulate motion—your vehicle is actually moving from scene to scene, combining real motion with films and various effects to make it feel like you aren’t just running on a track. The theming might be a little dated—it’s stuck in the 1990s, like all of Marvel Super Hero Island—but the ride was updated with HD digital projectors a few years ago, making the films crisper and more engrossing than before. This was a truly revolutionary ride when it opened in 1999, and it still remains the best at Islands of Adventure.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.
Dragon Challenge photo by David R. Tribble, released under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey photo by Wikipedia user Rstoplabe14.