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.

1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

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

2. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

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

3. Avatar Flight of Passage

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

4. Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts

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

5. Pirates of the Caribbean

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

6. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

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

7. Haunted Mansion

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

8. Indiana Jones Adventure

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

9. Radiator Springs Racers

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. Revenge of the Mummy

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


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