Best Theme Park Attractions

  • 01 of 16

    How Many Have You Ridden?

    Expedition Everest ride
    ••• Disney

    The best theme park dark rides use a lot of razzle-dazzle to immerse guests in their alternate universes, but they never forget to effectively tell a story. Engaging your senses, enveloping you, and placing you at the center of the action, great attractions make you forget about the technology behind the illusions and transport you to magical places. 

    The best ride designers know that parks are all about shared experiences. By taking the themed journeys together, families and friends create treasured memories.

    Many, but not all, of the top theme park rides, use well-known characters as the basis for their story lines. By tapping into the cultural zeitgeist, the rides are able to jump right into the action without having to acclimate riders. Parks are also able to generate anticipation (not to mention ticket sales) among the characters' built-in fan base.

    As you might expect, Disney, with its long history and incredible portfolio of themed attractions, dominates the list of best theme park...MORE rides. But the Universal parks have a strong presence, particularly near the top of the list. And one ride that's neither at a Disney nor a Universal park makes it onto the list.

    Note that the list considers parks in North America only. There are some wonderful attractions in other parts of the world, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea. But this rundown focuses on U.S. parks. Note also that the best attractions are all story-based rides. While many incorporate thrills, that was not the primary aspect in determining the list. If you are looking for park thrills, check out my rundown of the best roller coasters.

    Let's count down the top 15 rides plus one, starting with a bonus attraction:

    Honorable Mention

    Expedition Everest

    Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World

    It is both a roller coaster and a themed dark ride. There are far better examples of both coasters and dark rides at other parks. But by combining the two, Disney has produced an attraction that transcends both ride categories. There are plenty of thrills as well as an engaging story. Both the thrills and the story feed into one another and create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Read my Expedition Everest review.

    Special note: The inclusion of Expedition Everest on the best theme park rides list is predicated on the attraction's featured character, the Yeti, being fully operational. Soon after the ride opened, the massive animated character failed to work properly and has not been restored to full functionality to date. While it's still a great attraction, it is not operating as intended and lacks the grand finale highlight that helps warrant its status as one of the best theme park rides.

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  • 02 of 16

    Number 15: Mission: SPACE

    Mission-Space.jpg
    ••• Disney

    Epcot at Walt Disney World

    Disney incorporates centrifuge technology that really pours on the positive G-forces (not unlike NASA's own astronaut training regimen) and melds it with a simulated journey to Mars. The result is a unique, giddy ride experience. Read my review of Mission: SPACE.

    Other Disney World ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 03 of 16

    Number 14: Curse of DarKastle

    Curse of DarKastle is among the best theme park rides.
    ••• The Curse of DarKastle building, in Busch Gardens' Germany section, is appropriately foreboding. The attraction is among the best theme park rides. Arthur Levine

    Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Every attraction on the best theme park rides list is based at either a Disney or Universal park. Except for this one.

    Taking more than a little liberty with the roving motion base concept developed by Universal for its Spider-Man ride (which also makes it onto the list of best attractions), Curse of DarKastle is a stunning achievement for a regional park that is only open seasonally. Read my review of Curse of DarKastle.

    Other Busch Gardens Williamsburg ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 04 of 16

    Number 13: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

    Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is among the best amusement park rides.
    ••• Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is among the best amusement park rides. Arthur Levine

    Disneyland at Disneyland Resort

    Nostalgia-fueled adults adore Disneyland's classic Submarine Voyage and were no doubt thrilled when the Mouse brought back the decommissioned ride. But this isn't your Grandpa's Disney ride. By incorporating a clever and engaging Finding Nemo overlay, the attraction has a broad appeal.

    Other Disneyland ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 05 of 16

    Number 12: Soarin' Over California

    Soarin' Over California is among the top amusement park rides.
    ••• Soarin' Over California is among the top amusement park rides. Arthur Levine

    Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort and Epcot at Walt Disney World (where it is known simply as Soarin')

    It is enormously popular -- and for good reason. Using a relatively simple concept to simulate hang gliding, the groundbreaking E-ticket ride is exhilarating. Read my review of Soarin' Over California.

    Other Disney ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 06 of 16

    Number 11: Transformers: The Ride 3D

    ••• Arthur Levine

    Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Universal Studios Singapore.

    Using a similar roving motion base ride system as Spider-Man (which can be found higher on the best theme park attractions list), Transformers sends guests into an epic battle to save the earth. It is another in-your-face, over-caffineated attraction from Universal. (Do they know how to make any other?) Read my review of Transformers: The Ride 3D.

    Other Universal ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 07 of 16

    Number 10: Star Tours - The Adventures Continue

    ••• Arthur Levine

    Disneyland at Disneyland Resort and Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World

    Half the fun -- and the wonder -- of the reprised Star Tours (which got a major makeover in 2011) is that you never know where in hyperspace the ride will take you. With multiple story lines and a random sequence generator, you'll likely never get the same ride twice. One of the first motion simulator attractions, the revamped Star Tours is now even wilder. Read my review of Star Tours - The Adventures Continue.

    Other Disney info you might enjoy:

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  • 08 of 16

    Number 9: Revenge of the Mummy

    Revenge of the Mummy is among the top amusement park rides.
    ••• Revenge of the Mummy is among the top amusement park rides. Jeremy Levine

    Universal Studios Florida at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

    Like Expedition Everest, the Mummy is both a spunky roller coaster and a great dark ride. It incorporates incredible animatronics and special effects. Like nearly all Universal attractions, it includes explosive, in-your-face action. Read my spoiler-free review of Revenge of the Mummy.

    Note that while the two Universal rides are similar, the best theme park attraction designation is based on the Florida version of Revenge of the Mummy.

    Other Universal ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 09 of 16

    Number 8: Radiator Springs Racers

    Cars Land has actual cacti.
    ••• Arthur Levine

    Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort

    Part of the (much-needed) expansion of Disney California Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers is the featured attraction at Cars Land. An instant classic, it combines incredibly detailed animated characters and impressive storytelling with a thrill-filled finale. Read my review of Radiator Springs Racers.

    Other Disney California Adventure ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 10 of 16

    Number 7: Indiana Jones Adventure

    Indiana Jones Adventure is among the top theme park rides.
    ••• Indiana Jones Adventure is among the top theme park rides. Disney

    Disneyland at Disneyland Resort

    Using Disney's innovative and thrilling Enhanced Motion Vehicles, wildly elaborate sets, and stunning effects, Indy is one of parkdom's crowning achievements. It retells the classic story with a you-are-there immediacy. Read my review of Indiana Jones Adventure.

    Other Disney ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 11 of 16

    Number 6: Haunted Mansion

    Haunted-Mansion.jpg
    ••• Disney

    Disneyland at Disneyland Resort and Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Also at the Disneyland parks in Tokyo and Paris.

    One of the last attractions to have had the input of Walt Disney, Haunted Mansion remains a beloved, classic, must-ride experience. It doesn't so much tell a story as (gently) scare and amaze guests with a hodgepodge of wonderful gags, illusions, and effects. Read my review of Haunted Mansion.

    Other Disney ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 12 of 16

    Number 5: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

    The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is among the best amusement park rides.
    ••• The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is among the best amusement park rides. Arthur Levine

    Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort, and Walt Disney Studios at Disneyland Paris.

    The Tower of Terror really pours on the thrills. But its special effects and storytelling are truly dazzling. Note that the best park attraction ranking refers to the Florida version only, which includes (the incredible) Fourth Dimension ride sequence. Read my review of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

    Other Disney ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 13 of 16

    Number 4: Pirates of the Caribbean

    Barrels_of_Adventure.jpg
    ••• Disney

    Disneyland at Disneyland Resort and Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Also at the Disneyland parks in Tokyo and Paris.

    Decades after Walt Disney helped design it (but sadly did not live to see it open), Pirates of the Caribbean remains one of the most popular and inventive theme park attractions. It inspired the film series, which in turn inspired revisions to the classic ride. The best theme park designation refers to the original California version of the ride (with its float-by of the Blue Bayou restaurant, multiple drops, and extended grotto scene). Read my review of Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Other Disney ride info you might enjoy:

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  • 14 of 16

    Number 3: Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts

    GringottsRide.jpg
    ••• Universal Orlando

    Universal Studios Florida at Universal Orlando

    One of two Potter-themed attractions to make it to the top-15 list, Escape from Gringotts combines (relatively mild) coaster thrills with incredible visuals. It places passengers inside the final film of the Harry Potter series at the pivotal moment when Voldemort is about to be defeated. But first, there is the pesky matter of a fire-breathing dragon to tame and the evil sorcery of He-Who-Shall-not-Be-Named and Bellatrix Lestrange. Read my review of Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts.

    Other Universal Orlando info you might enjoy:

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  • 15 of 16

    Number 2: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

    The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is one of the top theme park rides.
    ••• The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is one of the top theme park rides. Arthur Levine

    Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando

    This incredible -- OK, Amazing -- attraction combines a groundbreaking roving motion base simulator technology with a 3-D film experience to totally immerse riders in the world of Spidey and his archenemies. The height of park design and creativity when it debuted, Spider-Man borders on mind-altering. Read my review of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

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  • 16 of 16

    Number 1: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

    Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is my choice for the best theme park ride.
    ••• Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is my choice for the best theme park ride. Arthur Levine

    Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando

    From the queue that winds through the Hogwarts School, to the innovative robotic arm ride system, to the combination of real sets and projected media, everything about the attraction conspires to wholly immerse guests into the world of Harry Potter. It is a remarkable achievement that immediately leapt to the top of the best attractions list. Read my review of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

    Other Universal ride info you might enjoy: