Universal Studios Hollywood boasts some of the best theme park attractions in the world. In fact, nearly all of its major attractions are world-class. Let's count down the top ten best rides at the park.
First, a little history. When Universal Studios Hollywood first opened in the mid-1960s, it wasn't a theme park in the conventional sense. Its primary feature was its backstage studio tour, and it didn't offer any dark rides, roller coasters, or any other attractions found at places such as Disneyland. That began to change as the park added shows and elements to the tour that were designed more to entertain and enchant than demonstrate how movies were made.
The park truly began evolving in 1991 when it opened the E.T. Adventure, its first story-based attraction. Using impressive animatronics and whimsical bicycle-style ride vehicles, Universal demonstrated that it could compete with Disney and develop its own E-Ticket rides. (E.T. has since closed.) Around the same time, Universal Orlando opened, and Universal Creative, the merry band of designers whose counterparts are Walt Disney Imagineering, began turning out remarkable attractions on both coasts.
And by remarkable, we don't mean attractions that take a back to seat to to the ones that Disney creates. We mean attractions that are remarkable in their own right and even, in some cases, surpass what the Imagineers have accomplished. Universal has introduced some stunning breakthroughs in ride design, immersive environments, and theme park storytelling.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Allrighty, let's move on to the best rides and start with the top-ranked attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
It is part of the richly themed Wizarding World of Harry Potter and is located inside Hogwarts Castle (which serves as the ride’s queue and is so intricately detailed, it could be an attraction in itself).
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is an update on the groundbreaking attraction first introduced at the original Wizarding World at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. When it debuted in Hollywood, it one-upped its Florida counterpart by presenting its media in 3D. That caused some passengers to experience nausea, however, Universal has since removed the 3D imagery. Since the media is rendered in high resolution, the loss of 3D does not greatly impact the attraction.
With its old-school trams, jokey tour guides, and stops in the studio’s backlot at an Old West set and other locations that date back decades, you might think the Studio Tour would be a nostalgia-filled snoozefest. But you’d be wrong.
Nostalgia plays an important role. The trams pass the original Psycho house and a cheesy reenactment of a shark attack from Jaws, for example. But the tour offers a great balance of old and contemporary properties such as Jurassic World and the War of the Worlds remake. It also offers a mix of real Hollywood moviemaking interspersed with immersive attractions. Passengers pass real sound stages with movies and shows that are in production. They also experience an earthquake, flash flood, and more through impressive effects and theme park trickery.
The long tour (it can last 60 minutes to an hour) is thoroughly entertaining and enlightening. It dates back to the park’s opening in the mid-1960s and remains its heart and soul. Unlike other movie theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood is a real, working film studio with a storied history, and the Studio Tour offers a great way to tap into its authenticity.
Transformers: The Ride-3D
Using a groundbreaking roving motion base ride system that Universal Creative developed (for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando), Transformers: The Ride 3D takes passengers into the world of the popular Michael Bay movies through a dark ride. The action is frenetic, and the visuals are dazzling. Like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, this is one of the premier attractions in all of the park.
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
Universal’s own Minions and the other characters from the popular and funny Despicable Me movies are featured in the wonderful ride film. The high-def resolution helps make Despicable Me Minion Mayhem particularly immersive and engaging. It is simultaneously funny, heartwarming, and loaded with frenetic action.
King Kong 360 3-D
Rather than a standalone attraction, King Kong is actually one of the highlights of the Studio Tour. It is a motion simulator ride that (ingeniously) incorporates the trams. They enter an immersion tunnel and are locked down onto motion base platforms. Although the trams never actually move more than a few inches in any direction, you’ll swear that you are being tossed to and fro mercilessly as the big ape battles it out with dinosaurs. What a hoot!
Fast & Furious – Supercharged
Another element of the Studio Tour, Fast & Furious serves as its finale. Like King Kong, it is a motion simulator ride that utilizes the trams, motion platforms, and an immersion tunnel to transport passengers to an alternate reality—in this case, the underground racing world popularized by the Fast & Furious movies. Again, the trams barely budge, but guests feel as if they are flying along at 120 mph. The images are a bit distorted, and the effect isn’t quite as good as the Kong experience.
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
Because Universal Studios Hollywood had less space to work with than sister park Universal Studios Florida, the longer and more elaborate Orlando Mummy ride outshines its California counterpart. Still, Revenge of the Mummy, a hybrid dark ride/indoor roller coaster, has some cool scenes and thrilling coaster moments.
The Simpsons Ride
Housed in the same show building that used to host the gone-but-not-forgotten (at least by diehard fans) Back to the Future: The Ride, The Simpsons Ride is a motion simulator attraction. The media is projected onto a hemispherical Omnimax dome. Like the TV show, it’s very funny. You may be a bit put off by its 3D-style animation (the TV characters don't quite look like the ones we all adore) and its slightly grainy and dark imagery.
Jurassic Park — The Ride (Jurassic World Ride)
It’s a compelling dark ride / water ride that takes boatloads of passengers past animatronic dinosaurs and into a real(ish) version of Jurassic Park. It’s also a shoot-the-chutes thrill ride with a heart-in-your-throat tall, steep, and fast finale down a flume.
The 10th best ride at Universal Studios Hollywood isn’t a ride at all. It’s a show. And it’s based on an old movie that was a bomb. The Kevin Costner-starring film, WaterWorld, was one of its era’s costliest productions, and it was a critical flop that performed miserably at the box office. Oddly, the stunt show based on the failed film has been thrilling park audiences for years. It’s loaded with special effects, explosions, and other pyrotechnics.