Opened in 1990, Universal Orlando experienced a difficult rise to popularity. The direct competition between Universal Orlando and Disney World caused the park to rethink many of its earliest attractions in hopes of garnering fans from its largest, well-established rival.
With the opening of its second park in 1999, Islands of Adventure, Universal finally solidified itself as a more adult version of Disney World and utilized its powerful entertainment brands to more strongly market its attractions; Jurassic Park, E.T., Despicable Me, Jaws, Twister, King Kong, Back to the Future, The Mummy, and Gladiator to name a few.
Most importantly, the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter proved to be its most sound business decision yet. Featuring two areas, one in Universal Orlando and the other in Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World is constantly the most crowded and entertaining aspect of the entire park.
After hearing the near universal praise of the Wizarding World, I had to check it out for myself. Below is my list of Universal Orlando’s attractions ranked from best to worst.
For my ranking of the Islands of Adventure attractions from best to worst, click here.
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Unsurprisingly, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando is easily the standout of both Universal parks. The faithful recreation of Diagon Alley is accented by small details that make it truly come alive; the level of animatronics and visual effects is unprecedented.
Both sections of the Wizarding World feature interactive spells where wizards, witches, and muggles can flick a wand and unique items in the environment react—for example, signs change to funny Easter eggs from the films, water fountains redirect to spray unsuspecting tourists, animatronic beasts roar and move, or posters follow your exact movements in hilarious detail.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect in Diagon Alley is the dragon that sits atop the Gringotts bank; every 30 minutes it roars and spits fire with such dramatic effect that many people gasped in terror and then cheered. In addition, if you look closely enough, you will find Knockturn Alley; the evil version of Diagon Alley from the books and movies—this is probably the most interesting secret of all and had me in awe.
From the tiny details to monstrous effects, Diagon Alley is a tremendous success and easily the best section of both Universal parks. However, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is the standout ride in Diagon Alley and perfectly encapsulates what makes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter so magical.
Like all the best rides in Universal Orlando, the line on the way to the attraction sets up the story in wonderful detail. As you walk through Gringotts, you see the beautiful faux bank up close and the level of detail is immaculate. The best section of the line is when you arrive in the lobby and see eight goblins hard at work; they scribble with feathered quills, click typewriter keys, read the moving newspapers of the Harry Potter universe, and look up at riders as if they are interrupting their work. The animatronics are some of the best in the park and even a scrutinizing look reveals almost no flaws. The managing goblin informs you that your new account is open and that’s where the story begins.
Many of the attractions in Universal Orlando are a mix of practical on-rails rides and “4-D” elements where 3-D glasses are involved as well as heat, water, and cold to simulate effects in the fake environment. While Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is simply a remix of these elements, the illusion at play is easily the strongest due to the highest-tech 3-D elements, intensity of the ride, and cameos from the best Harry Potter characters; a simple visit to the bank quickly becomes a fight to survive. While the bank might not be as iconic as the similar Hogwarts ride, its newer elements and quickness make it the most exciting ride in the park by far.
- Men in Black: Alien Attack
Unexpectedly, the second best ride in Universal Orlando is Men in Black: Alien Attack. The nearly 20-year-old ride maintains its excitement due to its unique concept and execution. Similar to Escape from Gringotts, the line to the attraction once again provides context for the ride at hand.
In this instance, you are a trainee at the MIB and are being put through VR training for the impending alien invasion. Unlike other rides in the park, this ride incorporates a gaming element in the form of laser pistols that each rider uses to blast the alien animatronics—two cars go through the attraction simultaneously and the scores of each car are tallied at the end, adding an exciting element of competition. Also, this ride features no 4-D elements; all of the practical effects are quite strong and they are obscured by darkness to enhance the effect.
Early into the ride, the VR training is interrupted by an actual alien invasion. The ride then takes you through a dilapidated city filled with aliens and blasting them gives you points. At one point, the invasion becomes so strong that you are asked to use a “nuclear device”—the literal twists and turns mixed with practical effects and signature MIB snark make Alien Attack the second best ride in the park despite its age.
- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D
While I’m not a fan of the new Transformers movies or Michael Bay’s style over substance direction, TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3-D is a tremendous success. The line introduces you as a member of the Nonbiological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty (NEST) and reveals that the Decepticons have come to Earth to steal the AllSpark.
Despite being another mix of 4-D elements and practical on-rails elements, Michael Bay’s explosive vision works extremely well for the three-minute ride and features the second best visuals after Gringotts Escape. Say what you will about Michael Bay, but he directs action and explosions very well for the most part—add in some of the best sound effects found in the park and this is certainly not a ride to miss.
It’s also worth noting that this ride usually has a line over 100 minutes long, so plan accordingly. Clearly the series is immensely popular, but it is hard to recommend waiting that long for any ride in the park.
- Revenge of the Mummy
Finally, the first traditional ride on this list! Revenge of the Mummy is an indoor ride that depicts the Mummy universe of the early 2000s franchise starring Brendan Frasier. The context for this ride is that you are on the set of a new movie called “Revenge of the Mummy,” but the cast has actually unearthed a live mummy for filming. Of course, the curse is real and Imhotep wants your soul!
The neatest visual effects on display are the soul eating and one final drop at the end that is done expertly. In fact, the ride tricks you into thinking its over before plunging you down a huge drop.
The first time we got in line for Revenge of the Mummy, the ride broke down and we had to leave—thankfully, I had a two-day ticket and was able to cross it off the list the following day.
Note that there appear to be more ride breakdowns at both Universal parks than at Disney World, but this is due to complex mechanics more than anything else. For example, The Simpsons Ride (number 6 on my list) was broken most of the time we were at the park.
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
A traditional outdoor rollercoaster, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit has no context—it’s just a ride and its line isn’t long enough to provide any background. Featuring the second highest drop in the park, the Rockit is an above average ride in terms of intensity, but would serve well as a child’s first real roller coaster. It’s thrilling and features a straight vertical to ascend the summit—my least favorite part of any coaster.
If you need a break from the overly intricate rides at Universal Orlando, the Rip Ride Rockit is a great break from TV screens and illusions.
- The Simpsons Ride
Full disclosure, this is my biased pick for a favorite ride at the middle of the pack. As a fan of the early Simpsons seasons, walking into Springfield prior to the ride had me as excited as the kiddies visiting the Wizarding World—you can go to Moe’s, Quick-E-Mart, Lard Lad Donuts, and a Duff bar. It’s a small segment of the overall park, but it’s certainly not an afterthought.
The Simpsons Ride is an indoor traditional coaster that goes through Krustyland after its taken over by Sideshow Bob. Featuring great writing from The Simpsons creators and innovative practical twists, this ride encapsulates all of the absurdness of the series. While it might not be the most exciting ride in the park, it is one of the most inventive and allows you to spend some time with the most famous cartoon cast in history.
As mentioned earlier, this ride was down for maintenance about 90% of the two days I was in the park. While this might scare some riders away, I couldn’t miss the opportunity. If the ride continues to experience issues, expect a longer than average wait time—typically the wait is about 30 minutes, but can reach up to 60-75 minutes after a long outage.
- Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Yet another biased pick—perhaps all lists are biased, but that is beside the point. Minion Mayhem was a huge hit with the children onboard and it constantly has long wait times of 100 minutes or more. Even still, the attraction will eventually become grating to any rider that is not a fan of the minions brand of humor.
Another mix of traditional rollercoaster and 4-D simulation, Minion Mayhem begins immediately as you enter the line. Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, informs you that you will be turned into and trained as minions—the annoying (cute) yellow creatures in overalls from the movies.
Riders walk through Gru’s living room and secret lab before getting on a coaster that puts you through minion training and eventually ventures to the “bomb sector.” Essentially, this is the Gringotts Escape ride for small children and is definitely a lot of fun for a younger audience. If you have children who are fans of the series, this will certainly be their main highlights outside of the Wizarding World, but don’t expect to be thrilled once you see the massive wait times. If you can ride early or late in the day, I would certainly advise it.
- The Hogwarts Express
Disappointingly, the Hogwarts Express is a better convenience tool than ride. As you shuttle between Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure, you can look out the “window” and see various settings, creatures, and characters from the Harry Potter universe. There are virtually no thrills and the television screen windows are dull and lifeless—it seems oddly weak when compared to the other Wizarding World attractions. However, there are some great effects when the frosted glass doors depict Harry, Ron, and Hermione looking through the glass at you.
Ultimately, The Hogwarts Express is a convenient way to get from park to park, but not exciting in any way. The biggest thrill is saying that you rode on the Hogwarts Express and that feels like a missed opportunity.
- Terminator 2: 3-D and Shrek 4-D
Terminator 2: 3-D and Shrek 4-D are two “rides” that should mentioned together. Essentially they are movies that feature 4-D elements—think a 3-D movie where they spray you with water, heat, and cold. While these shows were the peak of technical prowess when they were created over 10 years ago, these motionless movies are quite dull in comparison to the newer attractions that mix on-rails and 4-D elements.
If you need a break from the sun or constant motion of the other attractions, you could do worse than these shows. Terminator 2: 3-D features Arnold Schwarzenegger and the liquid terminator from Terminator 2 while Shrek 4-D embodies the strong comedy that made the early films successful. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking, but these 4-D shows provide a nice break from the heat and motion sickness.
- E.T. Adventure
Perhaps it is unfair to lump these bottom three attractions together, but these three “kids rides” are easily the least exciting of the bunch. If you want family-friendly action, go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and you will not be disappointed.
The E.T. Adventure ride is the best of the three kids rides because it recreates the famous flying bicycle scene from the movie—each rider’s seat is a bike. The flying is nicely done if a bit slow. Although not very exciting, the E.T. ride nicely captures the imagination of the successful Spielberg film.
- Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster
There is not much to say about this traditional ride; Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster is a perfect introductory roller coaster for infants and small children. It’s quite slow and features very small drops. Full disclosure, I was unable to ride this ride because I’m too big, but I could see all the elements of the 30-40 second ride.
- Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
If you’re wondering who Kang & Kodos are, you’re not alone. The two iconic aliens from The Simpsons have the most vomit-inducing ride of both Universal parks. Aptly named the Twirl ‘n’ Hurl, this ride spins on its axis and each car (UFO) spins on yet another axis; the effect is immediately nauseating. Unsurprisingly, the line for this ride is always rather short—however, I warn you to stay away.
Near Universal Acclaim
The older of the two Universal parks, Universal Orlando park features a solid mix of exciting and family-friendly attractions with some of the most iconic entertainment brands of all time. While some of the aging rides don’t translate perfectly for a modern audience, the Diagon Alley segment of the Wizarding World is the best segment of the both Universal parks by far.
However, if you want more exciting adult rides and a less spectacular segment of the Wizarding World, the next-door Islands of Adventure park should be your ultimate destination.
For my ranked list of Islands of Adventure attractions from best to worst, click here.