This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at the Six Best Attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort. We invited distinguished theme park experts from all over the world to come together and decide – once and for all – what the six best attractions are at the Universal Orlando Resort. Unfortunately, they were all busy. So instead we would like to introduce to you an all star, blue ribbon panel, made up of Universal experts. These include members of some of the greatest Universal websites (including Orlando United and Orlando Informer), the best Universal podcasts (including Parkscope and the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast), the most amazing Uni photogs (including Mike Sperduto and Brandon Glover), high ranking officials of the Theme Park Illuminati (such as Len Testa and Jim Hill), fan favorite park icons (including Scarlett Litton and Mark Diba), and the man who literally wrote the book on Universal, Seth Kubersky. We used a total of 25 individuals, in honor of Universal’s upcoming 25th Anniversary.
The Criteria: Each of the 25 experts voted on what they consider to be the six best attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort. These attractions could be any ride or show currently in Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida. Special event shows – such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure or the Blues Brothers Christmas Show – were not eligible. Each attraction listed would be awarded ONE point, except for the attraction that the voter ranked in his #1 spot – that received TWO points. The votes were then sent to a top secret location in Florida and counted no less than 22 times (we’ve had some problems in the past. Sorry, Mr. Gore). The results are in, and we now proudly present….
The DEFINITIVE GUIDE to the SIX BEST ATTRACTIONS at the UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT.
# 6 – MEN IN BLACK: Alien Attack (14 Points)
Jim Hill, JimHillMedia.com – Steven Spielberg was supposedly the guy who came up with Universal Studios Florida’s original catch phrase (“Ride the Movies”). But MEN IN BLACK: Alien Attack was the first theme park attraction that really did allow guests to ride a movie. To immerse theme park visitors in this hyper-detailed environment that then tried to replicate the specific look & feel of a particular motion picture. So much of what Universal Creative has since been celebrated for when it comes to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it first did with the April 2000 opening of this 70,000 square foot attraction. From the exterior to this enormous show building (which replicates the observation towers of the New York State Pavilion that played such an important part in the finale of the original Men in Black movie) to the insane level of detail found in this attraction’s queue (e.g., being able to listen in on the “worm guys” as they take their coffee break) to how interactive the actual “Alien Attack” ride is all by itself… The sheer ambition of MIB:AA is still kind of mind-blowing. And then when you factor in that upwards of 2200 Guests are able to experience this USF attraction every hour … Well, is it any wonder that the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) decided to give Universal Creative an Outstanding Achievement award in 2001 for all the great work that it did on this interactive, genuinely immersive attraction?
Seth Kubersky (TouringPlans and the Unofficial Guide to Universal) – Forget Buzz and Midway Mania, MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack is the best shooting gallery dark ride in Orlando. It’s got a preshow that pokes fun at the classic 1964 World’s Fair, and a queue with animatronic aliens straight out of the films. It’s got nearly infinite re-rideability, thanks to lengthy twin tracks past huge dimensional sets, multiple endings, and guns that don’t give you carpal tunnel cramps. It’s got a snarky sense of humor and a single rider rider line that’s always short. But most importantly, it’s got Will Smith wiping your memory with a seizure-inducing strobe. Wait, what was I talking about?
# 5 – Transformers: The Ride-3D (15 Points)
Briman, OrlandoUnited – Transformers may not feature great sets as its predecessor The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, but it packs enough energy to give adrenaline junkies their fix. With in-your-face action, robot fighting, and plenty of fun to boot, Transformers is a must-do for any theme park fan.
Dani Dennison-Perez, ThisFloridaLife.com – Transformers the Ride is yet another crown jewel in Universal Orlando’s stunning collection of technologically impressive attractions. Many people compare it to The Amazing Spider-Man attraction, though this comparison often leads to discontent of enthusiastic theme park fans who subscribe to the philosophy that UOR has too many “screen” rides. While many crave a more dimensional experience with physical props and sets, one of the awesome aspects of Transformers the Ride is that riders actually travel through multiple levels or heights inside the ride’s multistory building. Additionally, there are multiple effects in the show scenes and ride vehicles themselves that can sometimes make the exhilarating ride a little too real. Whether you are a fan of the Transformers movies, the toys that started it all, or entering the ride with no knowledge of either, it is difficult to resist cheering excitedly as you reach the finale of the ride and exit EVAC as N.E.S.T’s newest hero.
DID YOU KNOW: There is a reference to the Transformers Generation 1 version Bumblbee near the offload area of the ride, and the Supply Vault gift store offers a Transformers action figure exclusive to Universal Studios.
# 4 – Revenge of the Mummy (16 Points)
Trygve Nelson, Orlando United – Revenge of the Mummy combines thrills and practical effects in a way no other ride on property can. It uses the stereotypical Universal fire, water, and steam effects, but presents each in a very unique way. The second half of the ride is a balls-to-the-walls coaster section that matches the thrill level of any ride on property, and it does it all in the dark.
DID YOU KNOW: Revenge of the Mummy replaced opening day attraction Kongfrontation, and has several nods to King Kong throughout the attraction, including a statue of ol’ banana breath himself inside the throne room.
# 3 – Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (20 Points)
Joe Matt, Parkscope – Gringotts is my favorite UOR attraction because it combines a simple plot, amazing sets, and great effects into a stunning experience. Unlike Forbidden Journey, Transformers, or Spider-Man, Gringotts doesn’t fall into the “a cameo by this character” trope. The experience starts in a visually stunning hall with many goblin AAs before descending into the depths of Gringotts in a fake but convincing elevator. Your trip to the vaults quickly gets hijacked as you get swung around through three story caverns, past waterfalls, rescued from Voldemort’s torture, and escape with help from Harry and friends. After all, it’s the safest place on earth, right?
Megan Stump, #PotterWatch, Spent 30 days in front of Diagon Alley awaiting its opening in the Summer of 2014– Escape from Gringotts is a Potterhead’s dream. From the moment you enter into the queue and walk into the lobby of the bank, you are thrown into the story of Harry Potter. You walk past larger than life chandeliers, goblins that look down on the “muggles,” a vault full of gold, and then into Bill Weasley’s office. Meeting Bill and heading down to the vaults in the elevator are two of the coolest pre-shows I’ve seen. The ride itself is a great combination of storytelling and a thrill ride. When Bellatrix shows up and curses you away, that initial drop is a rush every time (especially if you sit in the back 2 rows!). From there it whisks you through the vaults meeting up with the trio, trolls and Voldemort himself! Many people compare EFG to a mashup of Spider-Man and Mummy, and while it does have some of those ride elements, it really is its own attraction. Let’s be real – it’s just FUN! As a Potterhead I love the fact it puts me into the world of Harry and doesn’t make me as sick as Forbidden Journey!
DID YOU KNOW: The total length of the Escape From Gringotts queue, including the End Of Days extended queue at its fullest, approaches 2.5 miles.
# 2 – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (27 Points)
Hate To Fly, Orlando United – What do you get when you add cutting edge media, life like animatronics, a breakthrough ride system, pinpoint accurate robotics, and the boy who lived together? You get one of the best rides on the planet. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey changed the way we look at rides and how we experience them. Everything within this attraction is nothing short of amazing. The grand facade, the elaborate queue, and – heck – even the Sorting Hat safety spiel perfectly demonstrate the level of detail and technology you’ll find on this amazing adventure. Forbidden Journey is the complete experience and a must-ride attraction for anyone visiting central Florida.
Lee Mallaby, Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast – A true modern marvel, Forbidden Journey takes the best of old school rides and the latest technology and seemlessly combines them to create an attraction that is simply amazing. From the animatronic Dragon and Whomping Willow, to the stunning Kuka robot arm ride vehicles, this attraction leaves you breathless.
The entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade is the precursor to this ride, the whole area was built to showcase, in my opinion, the world’s greatest attraction. The queue line is simply stunning and has set a precedent that many other theme parks can only dream of matching. From the moment you strap in to your “enchanted bench” you will be exhilarated, scared, and left breathless by the attraction that has set the bar by which all other dark rides will be judged, which leaves this ride a modern classic.
Tracey Mallaby, Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast – Okay, so my reason for picking The Forbidden Journey is simple. As a huge fan of the Harry Potter universe, more books that movies, I feel like I am stepping into my own imagination. Entering the gates of Hogwarts is breathtaking, the scale of the castle is awesome, and the queue line is astonishingly detailed – there is so much to see and be entertained by. The ride itself is a fun caper… flying with Harry…escaping dementors… evading a Dragon… dodging the whomping willow – all exceeding my wildest dreams. The immersiveness of this ride is great, and the technology involved has your head and stomach confused, all in good fun. The reason it didn’t make #1 is because there is no competitive edge to it and no variety: you get the same ride every time – unless it breaks down, of course.
DID YOU KNOW: The queue and exit of Forbidden Journey are filled with items straight from the Potter movies, including a bottle of Skele-Gro (which Harry Potter used in Chamber of Secrets after Prof. Lockhart’s disastrous attempt to heal Harry’s arm,) and a copy of Dark Arts Defense: Basics for Beginners (which Dolores Umbridge forced the students to use in Order of the Phoenix, much to Hermoine’s chagrin.) The attraction was also the very first time fans of the Harry Potter books or films got to actually see the four founders of Hogwarts (Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw and Helga Hufflepuff) as the four have a discussion via talking paintings. You will also see the objects which He Who Shall Not Be Named used as horcruxes (including Hufflepuff’s cup and Ravenclaw’s diadem.)
# 1 – The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (34 Points)
Nick Exley, Parkscope – Spider-Man, Spider-Man, doing what other attractions CAN’T! The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man opened in 1999 and immediately rewrote the book on what was possible with theme park rides. I still remember the early advertisements for Universal Studios Escape (which Universal Orlando Resort was briefly called in the late 1990s) featuring Spider-Man and Doc Ock. The instant praise plus the A+ advertisements got me pumped to experience this new breed of thrill at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. When it actually came time to experience the attraction, I was not disappointed. Spider-Man didn’t just push the envelope of what is possible in a themed attraction: it destroyed the envelope in a blaze of glory! The re-mastered film and improved pacing that came in a 2012 upgrade only improved the experience. From close encounters to amazing practical effects, the ride does what many have tried but few have accomplished, truly making you a part of an experience. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man still holds its head high as the only true Potter-swatter in Orlando!
Len Testa, The Unofficial Guide, WDW Today, and has a Space Mountain-themed kitchen – The high-definition film and projector upgrades that went in to this attraction in 2012 improved the look of what was already the best ride in Orlando. Spider-Man combines a truck-like ride vehicle with fairly detailed sets and amazing video effects. I still can’t believe the ride vehicles don’t leave the ground. I give Spider-Man the #1 spot because the 3-D effects work better for people with glasses (like me), and the effects are less likely to induce motion sickness.
Derek Burgan, Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast and 2X runDisney medal winner – While enough can’t be said about the amazing ride experience of Spider-Man, I would like to point out one of the things I enjoy most about this attraction: The Queue. The standby line is terrific as guests walk through the Daily Bugle and see tons of great gags, while the Express Pass queue also has story elements that you will only see in that line. Combine that with a pressed penny machine, a Photo Connect experience, and tributes to members of Universal Creative? Outside of Hogwarts Castle for Forbidden Journey, this is as good as a theme park queue can get.
DID YOU KNOW: Most guests can spot the four Stan Lee cameos throughout the ride, but there are also nods to Universal Creative (such as Mark Woodbury and Thierry Coup), fellow Marvel superhero Iron Man, and the Clone Saga (one the most well known – and most hated – storylines in Spider-Man history.)
HONORABLE MENTION: The Incredible Hulk (12 Points)
Brandon Glover, The Park Blogger podcast – For me the Incredible Hulk coaster has long been one of my favorite coasters in Central Florida. It was the first ride I experienced in Islands of Adventure, as well as the first steel coaster I had ever ridden. Nothing could prepare me for the intense launch into the zero-G roll, which continues to be one of the most thrilling experiences in an Orlando theme park. With the cobra roll, multiple corkscrews, and the misting tunnel, Hulk has a great mix of coaster elements that appeal to the thrill seeking coaster fan such as myself. To experience it in my favorite manner, ride at night and wait for the front row. That’s when Hulk is at its best in my opinion – even if things don’t work this time…
RUNNERS UP: Horror Make-Up Show (9), E.T. (6), Hogwarts Express (5), Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees/Tales of Beedle the Bard (5), Jurassic Park River Adventure (4), Blues Brothers (4),Terminator 2: 3D (3), Disaster (2), Cinematic Spectacular (2), Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (2), Ollivanders (2), Poseidon’s Fury (2), The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride (2), Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges (2),The Simpsons Ride (1), Dragon Challenge (2), Cat in the Hat (1), Animal Actors on Location (1), and Twister…Ride It Out (1)
You know what, we’re going to give a write up for TWISTER…Ride It Out for coming in last place. Why? For the same reason Universal built Transformers: The Ride 3D in less than a year… BECAUSE WE CAN!
DOUBLE SECRET HONORABLE MENTION: TWISTER…Ride It Out! (1 Point)
Len Testa, has a Space Mountain-themed kitchen – Okay, not the most sophisticated ride, although it does get bonus points for actually creating a real freaking vortex inside a theme park show building. No, what makes Twister a must-see every time I’m in the park is Bill Paxton’s completely dead-inside delivery of his lines. If Morrissey (please God, please make this happen) ever narrates a theme park ride, he will struggle to reach Bill’s career-defining level of ennui in Twister.
Paxton’s explanation of a tornado’s fury has all the drama of someone reading a cereal box while drugged. But because he’s talking about the danger of a massive tornado, it’s the most compelling piece of underacting in any theme park attraction, and part of me secretly believes that Paxton did it on purpose as an ironic commentary on man’s inability to affect nature. Bravo, Mr. Paxton. Bravo.
VOTERS: Parkscope.net (Joe Matt, Mike, Sean, Nick Exley,) OrlandoUnited.com (BriMan, Drew, Hate to Fly, Trygve Nelson,) Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast (Lee Mallaby, the lovely and talented Tracey Mallaby, Gregory Ryan, Hunter Fagan, Darren Schmidt, the sweet and charming Nina Thompson,) Taylor Strickland (Orlando Informer), the First Lady of theme park blogging Dani Dennison-Perez (This Florida Life,) Craig Williams (The DIS,) The Weasley Twin’s fantasy woman Megan Stump, Len Testa, Jim Hill, Seth Kubersky, Mark Diba, the beautiful bride to be Scarlett Litton, Brian Bennett, Mike Sperduto and Brandon Glover. (Yes, we know that’s actually 26, but the number 25 certainly sounded better, didn’t it? WE TOLD YOU FLORIDIANS WEREN’T GOOD AT COUNTING!)
So there you have it: The Six Best Attractions at the Universal Orlando Resort. See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast.
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Special thanks to crack staff photographer Brandon Glover, photo wunderkind Mike Sperduto, Disney Photo Icon Tom Bricker, and Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Be sure to also check out Brandon on The Park Blogger podcast with co-hosts Aengus Mackenzie and Brian Carey. I would also like each and every one of the talented men and women who agreed to take part in this in-depth study. I respect and am in awe of much of their work and am honored they took the time to help us out.
All apologies to Kermit J. Frog for the intro.