The words "theme park" are so synonymous with Orlando, Florida, that many visitors are unaware of anything in the city outside the magical realm. If thrill rides and fantasy worlds are on your vacation to-do list, here are some amusement park highlights recommended by local Orlando experts.
Magic Kingdom Park
First-timers to Orlando must visit Magic Kingdom Park, one of the four theme parks in Walt Disney World Resort. Home to the iconic Cinderella Castle, classic film characters and kid-friendly rides, Magic Kingdom is perfect for families. But there's plenty of excitement, too.
What are the most thrilling rides? "I could just say 'the mountains,'" says Jeff Silsbee, director of guest services at Waldorf Astoria Orlando, referring to Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Many Magic Kingdom rides are dated, but that's their draw. As Richard Tribou, travel editor for the Orlando Sentinel, explains, "If you could ride only one ride in Orlando, it would have to be 'It's a Small World' because you have to know whether you love it or hate it." Ride it once and you'll have the song stuck in your head for eternity.
Epcot is composed of the science-y Future World and the World Showcase, which explores art and culture. At the Future World, design and race a concept vehicle at Test Track, explore The Seas with Nemo & Friends or use Ellen DeGeneres' brain as a time machine in Ellen's Energy Adventure. For a bonus thrill at the World Showcase, you can eat and drink around the world in a day at 11 represented countries.
Top ride draws at Epcot are Frozen Ever After and the newly revamped Imax global hang-gliding adventure Soarin'. "I love that experience," says Sandra Ferrarese, chief concierge at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. "Sitting there hanging, going through all those amazing places and having the feeling that you're there."
Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park
Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park focuses on our furry, feathery and leathery friends, from the ancient past to the possible future. Come face to fang with monstrous lizards on the Dinosaur tour in DinoLand U.S.A. Escape the yeti on the coaster Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. And interact with creepy crawlers in the 3-D Pixar film "It's Tough to be a Bug!" Hundreds of exotic animals also live throughout the park. Experience some of them up close on the Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Newly opened is Pandora – The World of Avatar, which recreates filmmaker James Cameron's spellbinding movie. Stroll under floating mountains, take a Na'vi River Journey through bioluminescent forests or ride a banshee on Avatar Flight of Passage. "It's breathtaking," Tribou says. "It's perhaps the best attraction Disney has ever produced."
Disney's Hollywood Studios
If there's one reason in this galaxy for visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios, it's for another galaxy far, far away. Disney's "Star Wars" attractions are a megafan experience. With 3-D simulator rides, live character interactions and a nighttime galactic spectacular, "Star Wars" is a blast for those strong with the force.
[Read: The 6 Best Places to Shop in Orlando.]
If you avoid droids, other thrills abound, including a plummet from The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a 4-D shoot'em-up on Toy Story Mania and a scream-inducing limo ride on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.
Universal Studios Florida
Universal Studios Florida has cornered the simulator and 3-D market. Relative newcomers Transformers: The Ride – 3D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem join classics like Terminator 2: 3-D and The Simpsons Ride. The latest addition to sensory overload is Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, a humor-packed high-velocity adventure that will make you dizzy.
Universal Studios' biggest draw is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. "I'm a huge 'Harry Potter' nerd," says Anna Duncan, former concierge supervisor at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes. "I have to go on the Gringotts bank ride; I have to wear my Gryffindor scarf; I have to stop for my Butterbeer ice cream." For a unique adult thrill, the Hogwarts Express, which transports park-hoppers to and from Universal's Islands of Adventure, is the only ride at Universal Orlando Resort that lets you drink a beer on board.
Universal's Islands of Adventure
Thrill ride enthusiasts know that Universal's Islands of Adventure equals adrenaline. Marvel Super Hero Island alone packs a wallop. "I think the No. 1 coaster ... is 'The Incredible Hulk,'" says Tribou of the newly redesigned ride. "It has the best launch of any coaster in all of central Florida."
Next door, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man does what the Hulk can't with one of the most advanced 3-D simulators on the planet. Not to be outdone, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey combines motion simulation with both animatronics and film for a stomach-churning dragon-evading journey.
SeaWorld Orlando, while still an aquatic animal park, packs an adrenaline rush that rivals the excitement other big parks offer. The tallest, longest, fastest coaster in Orlando, Mako reaches 73 mph down a 200-foot drop.
To simulate the flying motion of a ray, the Manta positions riders head first, parallel to the track to twist through four inversions. And floorless coaster Kraken got a makeover and reopened as Kraken Unleashed in June 2017, allowing you to don virtual reality goggles for extra gut-churning as it spins through seven inversions at 65 mph.
If you swoon easily, the park has plenty of slower rides, such as the adorable Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.
To experience more of what Orlando has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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