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, dark-ride 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 Imagineers, 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 on par with 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 as long as 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 park’s premier attractions.
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!
The Studio Tour’s finale, Fast & Furious – Supercharged, uses a similar immersion tunnel ride system, but pales in comparison to Kong. Some of its visual elements appear out of scale, and therefore fail to sell the illusion of a tram racing out of control.
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 World — The 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 World. It’s also a shoot-the-chutes thrill ride with a heart-in-your-throat tall, steep, and fast finale down a flume. Riders get soaked from the plume the boat creates in the splashdown pool.
The ninth 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.
The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash
It was originally supposed to open in 2020, but, because of the pandemic, Universal Studios closed prior to the debut of the attraction. Now set to open in 2021, The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is sure to land among the park‘s top ten best rides. Based on the popular animated film series, the dark ride will transform passengers into puppies and send them to a pet store to be adopted.
Mario Kart – Koopa’s Challenge
This attraction doesn’t make the top-10 list, because it is under construction and likely won’t open for a couple of years. However, when Mario Kart debuts at the park’s new Super Nintendo World land, it will likely vault to or near the top of the best attractions list. Based on the incredibly popular video game, Mario Kart is supposed to feature technology that allows the ride vehicles to drift–much like the action depicted in the video games. The interactive attraction will allow participants to challenge enemies with shells as they race towards the finish line with Mario and Peach.