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 consistency of its 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.
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.
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.
Like the E.T. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure takes riders on a thrilling, high-speed motorcycle ride through the Forbidden Forest, with appearances from a number of audio-animatronic creatures and familiar faces. Every inch of it looks and feels like it’s part of Potter’s world, making it a wonderful new addition to The Wizarding World. It’s a genuinely amazing journey, combining the intensity of a world-class roller coaster with the kind of theming and storytelling you’ve come to expect from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s a perfect fit for Hogsmeade, and a huge step up from Dragon Challenge, the coaster it replaced.
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.
Shove off, Hulk, and take a seat, Hagrid: The VelociCoaster is now the most intense coaster at Universal Orlando. This is a coaster for coaster fans, an extreme thrill ride that sets a couple of new state records. It’s the tallest and fastest roller coaster in all of Florida, and you’ll feel every bit of that height and speed. All told, it’s the latest in a series of great new additions to the park over the last decade. The VelociCoaster can’t match Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure for storytelling or surprises, but it does lap The Incredible Hulk as Universal’s most thrilling coaster. It also gives guests even more to do in the already well-designed Jurassic Park section of Islands of Adventure, introducing a world-class thrill ride in addition to an exciting river flume and the kids-focused Pteranodon Flyers. It’s not an attraction everybody can or will enjoy, but for those who love coasters, this one’s a must-ride.
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.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey photo by Wikipedia user Rstoplabe14.