Battle of the Theme Parks

With its new Harry Potter ride, Universal Studios is trying to supplant the granddaddy of California parks.


Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Photo by Ruth Hartnip (CC)

From Great America and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to Magic Mountain and Knotts Berry Farm, California’s amusement parks are known for their hair-raising thrill rides.

Yet for most of its history, one park has largely steered clear of the high-velocity roller coasters and loop-to-loop craziness: With such attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and the Indiana Jones Adventure, Disneyland has instead long sought to perfect the art of storytelling in its rides.

But with its new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey attraction, Universal Studios in Los Angeles is apparently trying to supplant the Happiest Place on Earth.

How does Universal now measure up to the granddaddy of California theme parks? The short answer: The Harry Potter ride out-Disneys Disneyland, but the rest of Universal Studios still falls short. Here’s a comparison of the top three themed rides at both parks:


Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

TinoM (CC)

This attraction’s wow factor jumps off the charts the moment it comes into view as you stroll into the storybook town of Hogsmeade with its life-size castle designed to look like Hogwarts—with the ride inside. It’s visually stunning and, overall, it’s now California’s best-themed ride. It also borrows heavily from Disney attractions—much as Disneyland borrowed from Oakland’s own Children’s Fairyland. For example, the ride’s line snakes through a Hogwarts museum, complete with “talking” 3D paintings featuring Dumbledore and other characters. The ride itself is a combination flight simulator/fast-paced adventure that flies through an action-packed story, highlighted by a Quidditch game. Oh, yeah: The ride also dumps you into a Harry Potter merchandise store, à la Disneyland’s Star Tours.


Indiana Jones Adventure


Until Universal’s Harry Potter attraction opened, this was arguably the best themed ride around. Launched in 1995, it was among the first thrill rides in which the story actually starts while you’re waiting in line—in this case, inside the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, complete with a black-and-white film designed to evoke the 1930s. There’s little doubt that this attraction, which is based on the Steven Spielberg films, inspired Universal’s Harry Potter—except that the Indiana Jones ride is old school: no computerized flight-simulator effects, just plenty of thrills and animatronics.


Splash Mountain

Opened in 1989, Splash Mountain is California’s best story-based water-flume ride. Consistently one of the most popular rides with the longest lines at Disneyland, Splash Mountain features animatronic characters and songs from the 1946 live-action/animation Disney film Song of the South. It’s also a traditional water ride with a big, high-speed drop at the end that usually gets you soaking wet.


Pirates of the Caribbean

Opened in 1967, this was the last attraction in whose design Walt Disney participated and it might be America’s first great storytelling ride. It’s a classic, a sprawling water ride based on a pirate story set in the 1800s and featuring animatronics, a giant ship, cannons, treasure, and the most popular ride song of all time: “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).” The attraction is so beloved that Disney later made several movies based on it—and then went back and incorporated Johnny Depp’s character into it.


Jurassic Park: The Ride

Loren Javier (CC)

Until Harry Potter opened, this was Universal’s best themed ride. Based on the Jurassic Park films, this is also an old-school water-flume ride, only it features a story of giant animatronic dinosaurs overrunning a remote Pacific Island (no computerized graphics; it opened in 1996). You might get soaked on this ride, which is a very good thing on a hot Southern California day.


Despicable Me

Based on the animated movies of the same title, this is a 3D flight-simulator-style ride in which you remain seated the whole time while a giant movie screen makes it feel as if you’re flying—much like Disney’s Star Tours. Kids might like this ride, but there’s no real plot to the story told here. It’s Universal’s third-best themed ride, but it wouldn’t crack Disney’s top 10.


Good to Know

Disneyland, 1313  Disneyland Drive, Anaheim,  714-781-4565,

Universal Studios, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 800-864-8377,


Published online on May 23, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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