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Universal Studios is a fine park with lots of nostalgia and some good restaurants and rides. But it was when Universal opened Islands of Adventure next door that it hit Gold. With the Jurassic Park, Spiderman, Lost Continent and Dr. Seuss sections it was already drawing crowds to match Disney. And then it won the bidding and opened Harry Potter Land and the park suddenly became a world destination. Not even in its wildest imagination did Universal expect the crush of fanatics who descended on the park to climb on a broom and follow Harry Potter on his Forbidden Journey, then crowd into the restaurant for Butter Beer and the shops for souvenirs. They needed a section popular enough to pull crowds away from Jurassic Park and Spiderman. Now they need something to pull them from Harry Potter. There are so many fans you often have to wait in line just to be let into that section of the park. Then you get in a 90 minute line for Forbidden Journey. Islands of Adventure is a photographer's fantasy. Universal has done a meticulous job of recreating various film sets so you feel immersed in them, especially Jurassic Park The Lost Continent and Hogsmeade. And make no mistake : this is an incredible ride collection. There are six world class rides here. Universal knew from the start it only had so much land, so each ride had to be a home run. It has fulfilled that goal.

Rides Magic Kingdom Hollywood Studios Animal Kingdom Epcot Typhoon Lagoon Blizzard Beach Universal Studios

Jurassic Park is a classic boat plunge carried to logical extreme. This is a very hairy ride. If this were at any other park it would be the feature thrill attraction, but here it's just one of many. You boat through Jurassic Park, encountering a Brontosaurus, Hadrosaur, Stegosaur, Dilophausaur, Fantasaur and Tyrannosaurus Rex along the way. The special effects are impressive. Someone screws up, you go the wrong way, and with dinosaurs closing in you have to escape down an 85 foot plunge, as seen at left. This is the highest boat plunge in the world and the second highest water drop, second only to Disney's Summit Plummet in Blizzard Beach. Assume you'll get completely drenched unless you wear a poncho, although sitting in the middle seats reduces the deluge somewhat. Take pride in that Stephen Spielberg, who directed and produced the movie, insists they stop the boat and let him off just before the plunge. The ride was beginning to show its age before a 2011 redo livened it back up.

The Incredible Hulk is an intense steel roller coaster voted number one in the nation the year it opened. It is unique for several reasons. Rather than a chain link pulling the train up a lift hill, an electromagnetic launch propels the train from 0-40 mph in two seconds and subjects riders to four Gs. The ride continues to acclerate until it levels out at 67 mph. It goes through numerous inversions and what was the world's largest cobra roll at 110 feet for a decade, until others surpassed it. Corkscrews, a tunnel, fog rising off the water and over banked turns make this an exciting 2:15. There are a total of seven inversions and a maximum height of 150 feet. Surprisingly after two decades, it's still a very smooth ride. It's definitely not a first time coaster ride. There's a trick thrown in at the 100 second point. You think you're done as the track levels out and the ride seems to slow down. Then, suddenly, it soars off again on a final corkscrew and roll. There are separate lines for the front seat, the rest of the coaster, and singles. We highly recommend the front seat, although the Gs are greater in the rear. This rides draws the second longest lines in the park behind only Harry Potter. It's still one of the top 10 steel coasters in the nation.
Ripsaw Falls is Universal's highly themed world class log flume. This and Splash Mountain are the two greatest log flumes in existence. Ripsaw Falls is an incredible 7: 00 long, which gives you plenty of time to ride your five person log through a forest, desert, caves, tunnels and various parts of an old sawmill. There's a narrative about Snidely kidnapping Nell and Dudley DoRight trying to find and rescue her. At various points Snidely is tying Nell to the tracks and a train is coming, Dudley is tied to a log approaching the giant sawblade, and a fuse is lit to the dynamite shack. If you can take your eyes off the scenes of this adventure, you can get some great views of the park and the surrounding area. But there's plenty of excitement to hold your attention. You have two drops in the dark even before the grand finale, a 75 ft. 40 mph careen down the hill seen at left, with lots of spectators cheering as you get soaked. You're guaranteed to get soaked, because as you pass through the dynamite shack halfway down the hill it explodes and dumps a tidal wave of water in your lap. If spending an hour drying out does not appeal to you, we suggest you bring one of those $7 ponchos they sell at both Disney and Universal. Splash Mountain at Disney is taller, steeper and faster but Ripsaw Falls lasts longer, is more entertaining and gets you wetter. Ripsaw Falls was originally more similar to Splash Mountain's drop, but in 2007 they remodelled it to make it less intense and better suited to kids. Even after you finish the drop, you're not done. You come around a circle where the people above you have put quarters in a machine for the right to fire water guns at you. This might guarantee that you get even wetter, except that the gunners are mostly 12 year olds with terrible aim.

Spiderman is an incredible ride. Any amusement park lover must ride this. It was obscenely expensive to build and pioneered much of the technology used in Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey. The narrative recruits riders as reporters for the newspaper, sent to cover a news story in a new high tech vehicle. The 12 passenger vehicles cost one million dollars each. Electro, Hydroman, Scream, Hobgoblin and Dr. Octopus are loose in the city with a Stark Industries anti-gravity cannon. Spiderman is trying to stop them and riders are supposed to photograph the events. The vehicle can fly and is in the middle of the action. You're going to be flung around, shot high in the air by the anti gravity gun and then plunged straight toward the ground until rescued by Spiderman at the last second. There are 13 large 3D screens and two huge Imax screens plus the track on which the vehicle moves. It can rotate 360 degrees and pitch, yaw and roll as needed. The vehicle is operated by motors with six degrees of freedom, meaning the vehicles have almost unlimited motion capacity. In addition to the screens, there are also massive scenes of city streets which are real sets. A 2012 update of this ride added Infitec projectors, Hi Def imaging and increased flight capacity for the vehicles. Anyone vulnerable to motion sickness, fear of heights, or dizziness should stay away. Lines can be as long as an hour. One strategy is to arrive at the park at opening and head straight for this while everyone else is rushing to Harry Potter. Then, late in the afternoon, when the lines have finally gone down in Hogsmeade, go ride Harry Potter. This is one of the great amusement park rides in the world, cutting edge technology merged with storytelling.

Dragon Challenge is the classic dueling coasters concept adapted for Harry Potter. It's basically a dual roller coaster. Both go through inversions, cobra rolls and corkscrews but the effect is heightened because their tracks wind through, along and sometimes toward each other. The two coasters are named Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail. They hit speeds of 60 and 55 mph respectively. Each one has five inversions and a ride lasting 2:30. There are three points during the ride when riders could theoretically reach out and touch riders on the other coaster, although at the time, as the picture at left shows, they're usually hanging on too tight to be thinking about that. When this ride opened it was the only dueling coaster with inversions, and it is still considered the best one. Hard core coaster enthusiasts will find this one of the best in the country. However, those whose coaster experiences has been mostly over at Disney need to understand that this coaster operates at a whole higher level. There have been a dozen incidents of people being injured or coming off with chest pains, vomiting, back pain or headaches. This is not a first coaster. You need experience with inverting steel coasters before riding this. After two more accidents in 2012 which resulted in one man losing his vision and another man being hospitalized with leg and face injuries, Universal changed its policies and now starts one of the coasters several seconds after the other.

Bilge Rat Barges is the most intensely themed amusement park white water rafting ride in the country, with Popeye and Bluto artifacts plus some pretty impressive canyon scenery, although it's all done in an artificial cartoon style. For a pure rafting ride with natural scenery and powerful rapids, Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh still has the best. But Bilge Rat Barges lasts seven minutes, the longest anywhere, and they installed enough waterfalls, water cannons, dripping pipes, geysers and other gadgets, and if all that is not enough, you go through a Barge Wash which is like a car wash and pours jets of water on you. These are 12 person rafts and the channels are a bit wider than most rafting rides. But as usual, your raft rotates continually so part of the humor is to see who gets rotated under the next waterfall. There's a tray in the middle with a flimsy pastic cover, theoretically for cameras and other valuables, but don't count on it. We advise you to leave everything including wallets with someone else on shore, or to bring a plastic or rubber bag to keep them in. We also advise wearing a poncho and changing into sandals or shower thongs, leaving your shoes and socks ashore. People claim that in the Florida heat and humidity, walking around all day soaking wet is OK, but we think it's a good way to get blisters and get other ride seats wet. This ride is hard to find. It's tucked in a back corner of Toon Town, overshadowed by Ripsaw Falls. They load the rafts pretty quickly with the rotating platform, and they run plenty of rafts, so the line here is never more than 30 minutes and is usually about five minutes. If you don't have time for the long Ripsaw Falls line and want a water ride, this is a good substitute. We've ridden all the rafting rides in the country numerous times, and this is by far the coldest water of any of them. On a hot day it's fine, even refreshing, but on a chilly morning or overcast afternoon in January, it can chill you enough to be uncomfortable. It seems absurd in Orlando, but you might want to bring a jacket, sweater or cotton hoodie. You definitely would benefit by bringing a big fluffy towel.

Storm Force Acclerator is Universal's answer to Disney's Teacups. This is a sleek, modern, faster and smoother ride, however. Futuristic music and lighting effects flash and blare overhead and all around. It's not a popular ride so lines rarely get long. For some reason, everyone thinks Disney's Teacups are cute but Accelerator belongs in a carnival. This is tucked alongside The Hulk near the front of the park so is never even seen by many visitors. But there aren't very many of these out there, either in parks or carnivals. It's mainly a European ride. So we think it's worth riding except for those rare times when the line gets long.

Pteradon Flyers is a great Jurassic Park suspended coaster with two person "cars." It is located high on the hill, so right below you is lush prehistoric vegetation with the occasional dinosaur looking up, and out over the treetops the whole Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios spreads out. This is not a fast or thrill ride. It's a beautiful, relaxing, scenic respite from the coasters and water rides. However, Universal built it as a kiddie ride. Adults cannot ride it unless accompanied by a kid. As a kids ride, it was also built as a rather short ride, which is especially annoying because the line is usually an hour long. We don't disagree with Universal on much, but we think this ride is a mistake. It should be rebuilt as a family ride, made three times as long so the lift hill takes it to the top of the hill and the bottom skims out over the lake. Disney has nothing to compare to it and it could be a huge attraction.
Flight of the Hippogriff is a neat heavily themed coaster on the hill above Hogsmeade. This is an invigorating run through the Forbidden Forest, past Hagrid's Hut, above the Pumpkin Patch and into Buckbeak's clearing. Along the way you get some great views of Hogwart's Castle and the Racing Dragons, so if you're comfortable enough on coasters to handle a camera, you should ride this for the photo ops. The track is very smooth, there are no inversions, and the trains only travel at about 28 mph, so taking photos is not difficult. The views are especially beautiful at night when the castle and stores are all lit up. Lines are not usually too long here, rarely above 30 minutes, and they're in the shade. Buy a Butterbeer and hike up the hill so you can drink it standing in line. This was originally the Flying Unicorn coaster that opened in 2000. It was rethemed for the Harry Potter section. The highest hill is only 42 ft. above the ground, but that's misleading because it's built on the side of a slope so you have plenty of room to descend. The track is amazingly convoluted within the forested hillside, twisting over and under and inside of itself. This is probably the world's only roller coaster made out of wicker. Our major complaint is the ride's too short.
Which brings us to Hogwart's Castle, Harry Potter and his Forbidden Journey. This is the most famous ride at Universal, a fireworks display of cutting edge technology, and an absolute must experience. Lines continue to be obscenely long. Buy another Butterbeer and figure on 60-90 minutes. You can shortcut this somewhat if you go through as a single, but of course you won't get to ride with friends or family. You're going to be riding a flying broomstick through the castle, in a Quiddich game, and out into the forest., dodging spiders, dragons, dementors and the Whomping Willow. You have to ride this to believe it. The basic technology is shown at right. There's a chassis riding along an indoor roller coaster track with a robotic arm holding four riders on "broomsticks." Computer technology allows the robot to move those riders in six directions while moving at high speed along the track. A series of 14 Imax screens are positioned around the building. The coaster track thrusts the "broomsticks" into and pulls them out of the "cups" of the Imax screens, which are like huge half basketballs. No one ever goes upside down, but riders are angled forward and back as they dip their broomsticks under tree branches or doorways or angle them up to clear walls or creatures. The dragon, spider, and whomping willow are animatronic creations which breath fire hot enough you feel it and drip saliva on you. There is a degree of disorientation here and anyone who has trouble with roller coasters or spinning rides should avoid this. This is Spiderman on steroids. You won't be allowed to bring loose objects on, not even in your pockets (there are lockers). If you can't fit into the "broomsticks" attendants will turn you away. If you can, grab the far left "broomstick" in your set, because that's the direction the dragon and the spider come from. Apart from the ride, the que is amazing in itself.
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