Theme parks are in an arms race to use the latest technology to thrill their visitors.
“The rides have gotten totally immersive,” says Robert Ulrich, president of American Coaster Enthusiasts, a national organization devoted to roller coasters. “You’re blissfully unaware how much is going in on in the background.”
He shares some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Florida
Passengers straddle a stylized motorcycle or slip into a sidecar for an other-worldly Harry Potter adventure. As Hagrid narrates, the coaster roars through a thick forest, zooming by unicorns and menacing creatures. Universal calls it the world’s first “story coaster.” Ulrich says it’s worth the hype. “The storytelling makes the whole ride really unique.” universalorlando.com
Avatar Flight of Passage, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Orlando, Florida
This 3D flight simulator seats passengers atop a giant bird that moves in sync with a large-screen film. When it opened in 2017, fans described it as a seamless mixture of ride and movie, incorporating wind, rain and smells. “It feels like you’re flying on the back of an animal in an other-worldly environment,” Ulrich says. “You can even feel him breathe.” disneyworld.disney.go.com
Time Traveler, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri
Coaster fans love this year-old spinning ride, which takes passengers upside down as they rocket along a track at 50 mph. The design takes advantage of the area’s mountainous terrain, eliminating the need for a lift hill. Because the cars spin independently, every trip is different. “You’re looping upside down while you rotate,” Ulrich says. silverdollarcity.com
Indiana Jones Adventure, Disneyland, Anaheim, California
Visitors get a taste of big-screen thrills in this indoor experience, known in the industry as a dark ride. Riders sit in a jeep that plunges and climbs through several scenes. Although it opened nearly 25 years ago, it has been updated over the years. “It takes the whole idea of an Indiana Jones movie and it physically puts you in that space,” Ulrich says. disneyland.disney.go.com
Cobra’s Curse, Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida
This innovative steel roller coaster uses an elevator to lift passengers 70 feet in the air before releasing them on a trip that zooms forward, backward and even into an uncontrolled spin. The family-friendly thriller, which debuted in 2016, has an ancient Egyptian-theme and includes an exhibit with live snakes. “It’s a fun, different kind of ride experience,” Ulrich says. buschgardens.com/tampa
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Tower of Terror, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Orlando, Florida
While other Disney parks have similar drop rides, Ulrich favors the original tower, inspired by the “Twilight Zone” television show. Updated several times since opening in 1994, the attraction uses an elevator to shoot passengers up in the air before they plummet down a shaft, providing a feeling of weightlessness. “The original is still the best,” he says. disneyworld.disney.go.com
Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, Canada’s Wonderland, Ontario, Canada
This 3D interactive coaster flies through an artificial mountain that serves as the centerpiece of the park north of Toronto. Along the way, passengers have a chance to shoot a light gun at targets on an HD screen. “It’s a true interactive ride,” Ulrich says of the experience, which opened in 2014. “It’s a roller coaster that turns and spins and fills a wonderful space.” canadaswonderland.com
Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, Tokyo Disneyland, Japan
This family favorite uses a rare trackless system that takes different paths every trip. Passengers are seated in a honey pot-shaped car for a Pooh adventure, complete with a balloon ride on a blustery day. “It does things I’ve never experienced before, like hopping. You can bounce along with Tigger,” Ulrich says. Even though it’s nearly 20 years old, “it’s one of my favorite dark rides ever.” tokyodisneyresort.jp/en/index.html
Transformers: The Ride-3D, Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida
Ulrich loves how this ride, which opened in 2012, combines movement with high-definition images. At one point, the ride car is lifted by an elevator, but he says he’s never been able to figure out when it happens. “It’s so immersive. The ride vehicle and screens all work together to tell the story.” It’s also located at Universal parks in California and Singapore. universalorlando.com
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Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure, Shanghai Disneyland, China
Much different from Disney’s U.S. versions, this pirate ride, which debuted when the Shanghai park opened in 2016, uses screens and visual tricks to make passengers feel like they’re traveling beneath the sea. “It really does feel like you’re underwater,” Ulrich says. “It’s unbelievable — a reason alone to go to Shanghai.” shanghaidisneyresort.com/en
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