Take a Ride on the Top 15 Best Theme Park Attractions in the US

How Many Have You Ridden?

TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D at Universal Parks
Universal Orlando Resort

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 rides. But the Universal parks have a strong presence, particularly near the top of the list.

Note that the list considers parks in the U.S. only. There are some wonderful attractions in other parts of the world, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea and the radically transformed Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Shanghai Disneyland (which is better than the original). 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 our rundown of the best roller coasters.

01 of 15

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Dumbledore's office in Harry Potter ride
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.

Location: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood

02 of 15

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Spider-Man Universal Orlando Ride
Arthur Levine

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.

Location: Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando

03 of 15

Avatar Flight of Passage

Avatar-Flight-of-Passage Disney World

Flight of Passage takes the "flying theater" concept that Disney developed for its Soarin' rides (which also make the list of best theme park attractions) to the next level. Riders not only take wing aboard a banshee to fly above Pandora, they can feel the creatures' diaphragms expand and contract as they breathe. It is an utterly convincing, transporting, and ethereal experience.

Location: Pandora the World of Avatar, Disney's Animal Kingdom

04 of 15

Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts

Universal Orlando. Used with permission.

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.

Location: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando 

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05 of 15

Pirates of the Caribbean

Barttle scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Disney. Used with permission.

Decades after Walt Disney helped design Pirates of the Caribbean (but sadly did not live to see it open), it 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. Among its many highlights, it has a great theme song. 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). The Orlando clone is a bit truncated.

Location: Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

06 of 15

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Tower of Terror ride at Disney parks.
Disney. Used with permission.

The Tower of Terror really pours on the thrills. But its special effects and storytelling are truly dazzling. The incredible Fourth Dimension ride sequence, in which the elevator cars move horizontally through a star field is mind-blowing.

Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World

07 of 15

Haunted Mansion

Haunted Mansion exterior at Disneyland.

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.

Location: Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

08 of 15

Indiana Jones Adventure

Indiana Jones Adventure Ride Disneyland

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.

Location: Disneyland 

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09 of 15

Radiator Springs Racers

Two carloads of guests race each other in Radiator Springs Racers at Cars Land.
Arthur Levine, 2012

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.

Location: Disney California Adventure

10 of 15

Revenge of the Mummy

Universal Orlando

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. 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, which is longer and better.

Location: Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood

11 of 15

Star Tours - The Adventures Continue

Star Tours Disney ride

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.

Location: Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disneyland

12 of 15

Transformers: The Ride 3D

Transformers Ride
© Arthur Levine

Using a similar roving motion base ride system as Spider-Man, 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?)

Location: Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood

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13 of 15

Soarin’ Around the World

Soarin’ Around the World at Epcot
Disney. Used with permission.

In 2016, Disney updated Soarin' over California with brighter and sharper projectors and new, high-resolution digital content. Passengers now take a simulated hang gliding journey to spots such as the Great Wall of China and Sydney Harbor.

Location: Epcot and Disney California Adventure

14 of 15

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

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.

Location: Disneyland

15 of 15

Mission: Space

Mission: SPACE
Theme Park Tourist/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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. For ride wimps, there is a non-spinning version that takes a different journey.

Location: Epcot