Last month I visited Universal Studios Florida for the first time. As a lifelong Disney fan, and a former Florida resident, who got to feed that obsession almost every year throughout elementary and middle school, I always viewed Universal with suspicion. Who were they to come barging into Disney World’s town with their new-fangled thrill rides and popular action blockbusters? Sure, I loved E.T. and Back to the Future as much as the next kid, but if you’re coming after Space Mountain and Mickey Mouse you’re going to need something more than just a hot movie tie-in.
Universal found that something more with a series of rides that combine motion with 3D movie screens. Universal is fittingly the home of the movie-as-theme-park ride, advancing on traditional motion simulators by doubling down on rides that don’t just simulate that motion but combine intricate track systems with massive projection screens and 3D special effects. Almost half of the attractions on this list use a variation on that basic concept, and Universal’s other Orlando park, Islands of Adventure, features more rides based on similar technology.
Last year Universal Studios opened up its best project yet—the Diagon Alley portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Diagon Alley is even better than the original Wizard World area that opened in Islands of Adventure in 2010. It’s a bit shameless to split the Harry Potter attractions between Universal’s two Orlando parks—if you want to see everything the Wizarding World offers, the best bet is to buy a Park Hopper ticket, which costs about 50% more than a single day’s admission. Even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan (I have never read any of the books and barely watched the first movie) you’ll probably love these areas if you love theme parks. The architecture and attention to detail are immaculate, and Diagon Alley, the newer of the two, is especially fantastic.
My biggest hang-up after leaving Universal Studios Florida is that I waited until 2015 to finally go. It’s only 25 years old, but it’s already bid farewell to some of its classic rides—hopefully you got to experience Kongfrontation, Jaws and Back to the Future: The Ride before they were shut down. I did not. It might not hit the same nostalgic tone for me as Disney World, and outside of the Wizarding World it can’t compare in terms of building a fantasy, but Universal Studios and its fast-paced thrill rides is a worthwhile alternative to Disney.
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.
Clearly this hinges 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.
It’s ironic that the word “ride” is in this attraction’s name, because it’s the only one on this list where you don’t ride anything. Twister…Ride it Out is a live special effects show based on the 1996 movie Twister. After a brief introduction from vintage 1996 Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, you walk through the blown out ruins of a tornado touchdown spot before lining up to watch a twister tear down a drive-in movie theater and gas station. Windows shatter, a screen showing The Shining falls apart bit by bit, a truck knocks over a gas pump and starts a fire, and then a dark tornado appears just a few feet in front of your face. The effects are nice, and this is the only attraction that legitimately scared a kid during my visit to Universal. It’s also one of the last remnants of the old movie studio theme park experience, when it was less about thrill rides than recreating a popular movie.
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 occasionally my car would stop and quickly spin in a full circle six or eight times in a row. It was totally unnecessary and 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.
Like Twister, Disaster is an old-school movie studio theme park attraction in a park full of thrill rides. The “ride” aspect to it is minimal—near the end you ride in a tram through a subway station replica during an earthquake, ostensibly to be filmed as extras for the disaster movie of the title. The best thing about Disaster is the crowd interaction and the charming sense of humor. It’s set up as a tour of B-movie director Frank Kincaid’s movie studio. Kincaid is Roger Corman with even lower budgets, and although the failed movie director might be a hack comedy premise, it works here in large part because Kincaid is played by Christopher Walken. The special effects make it look like Walken is on stage in the room with you, physically interacting with your tour guide, who really is in the room with you, and the effect works surprisingly well. From there the tour guide and a small film crew use a few crowd members to make a short disaster film, climaxing with that subway ride and a cameo from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s fun and funny and the closest Universal gets to feeling like an actual movie studio.
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.
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.
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.