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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Springfield portion of Universal Studios is my favorite, with life-sized recreations of Moe’s Tavern and Kwik-E-Mart, along with a Krusty Burger, Duff Gardens, Lard Lad Donuts and other locations from The Simpsons. The ride is a relatively basic motion simulator—you sit in a car that rises a few feet off the ground and then rocks or tilts to simulate motion as you watch a 3D movie. The jokes are solid enough—like the movie, it could pass for a late ‘90’s episode, after the classic era but still better than what airs on Sundays today. The experience of flying through Springfield is fantastic, though, even if you’re being dragged around by a giant mutated Maggie. The architecture recreates the look of the show, and the ride captures the spirit, which makes it one of the best experiences at Universal.
I almost couldn’t ride this one. Watching the cars spin around the track in the middle of a loop made me positive that I would get sick. And I don’t normally get sick on roller coasters. Still, this is a job, and thankfully Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit isn’t as painful or frightening as it looks. It’s still intense, though, starting you off on a 180-degree track that shoots straight up from the ground, before immediately hitting that loop. Yes, the cars spin halfway through the loop. Yes, it is awesome. I strongly believe that roller coasters are better with a soundtrack, and Rip Ride Rockit goes one better by letting you pick one of 30 songs from a handful of genres to pump into the speakers in your headrest. (And that’s not to mention the secret playlist…) Every theme park should have at least one world-class roller coaster, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit more than fits the bill for Universal.
This is the only original Universal Studios ride that’s still open. You can tell it’s older if only because there are no movie screens involved. This is a classic dark ride, like something you’d find in Fantasyland at a Disney park. Anybody who saw E.T. at the right age should grow wistful when the bike-shaped vehicles take off into the sky, flying over a town recreated in miniature like Disney’s Peter Pan ride, while casting shadows on the full moon. The final part of the ride takes place on E.T.’s home planet, and it’s like It’s a Small World if every child looked kind of like Alf. You give your name to a ride attendant before you board, and at the end E.T. says your name in a heavy Speak & Spell accent. I don’t know if kids today watch E.T.—I’ll totally judge their parents if they don’t—but it’s hard not to love this classic ride if you know the movie.
As complex and exciting as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is, it can’t compare to the simple thrill of barreling through complete darkness in a roller coaster. Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride reminds me of Space Mountain, only instead of space you’re flying through an underground tomb. The presentation is more complex than Disney’s classic—you’ll stop occasionally, as the mummy from the Brendan Fraser movies threatens you, or so you can feel the heat from the sheet of flame engulfing the roof above you. Occasionally screens will make it look like the mummy is jumping out at you as you shoot down the unseen track. Somehow removing our ability to see where we’re going makes a roller coaster even more exciting, and Revenge of the Mummy is the best ride at Universal Studios that isn’t heavily dependent on a movie screen. From the elaborate world-building of the queue area to the wonderful integration of theme and ride, it’s a Disney-level experience. And if you hate Brendan Fraser, you might even think it’s the best theme park ride ever—it’s the only one where Brendan Fraser dies at the end.
I’ve never read a Harry Potter book. I slept my way through the first movie and never tried to watch any of the rest. I know a bit about that world simply by being a person alive in the Western World in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but I am by no measure a Harry Potter fan. So when I tell you that the Diagon Alley portion of Universal Studios might be the most impressive theme park attraction I’ve ever visited, that should mean something. Universal did an amazing job of making Diagon Alley feel like its own unique, fully formed world, from the architecture to the pavement to the type of stores and restaurants on display. At the center of Diagon Alley is a large building with a dragon nestled on its roof. Inside that building is Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, perhaps the most amazing experience I’ve ever had at a theme park. Earlier I referred to Disney-level world-building; Gringotts outclasses anything I’ve ever seen at a Disney park. From the animatronic banktellers to the animated newspaper headlines, you’ll always have something fascinating to look at while waiting in line. And once the ride starts, you’ll wonder if children today could ever possibly be impressed by the rides we grew up riding. Gringotts is similar to The Transformers ride in that it’s a mixture of a moving vehicle and 3D film. The vehicle’s motions are far more elaborate, though, and eventually the two-car train splits into individual units that can rotate a full 360 degrees. The story involves an attack on the Gringotts bank, with your car stuck in a battle between Harry and his friends and the forces of Voldemort. The visual effects are superior to the other, similar rides at Universal, and the total experience is about as revelatory as a theme park attraction can get today.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.