If you like your rides and you like your movies, then Islands of Adventure simply has to be on your itinerary when you visit Orlando. Opened in 1999 this was the centre piece of Universal Orlando’s major expansion and, in the following years, it’s developed into a haven for seekers of high octane thrills based around some of the most iconic characters in film and modern popular culture.
Now our kids are old enough, 11 and 9 on this year’s visit, the park has truly come into its own for us – allowing all to make for the best rides around free from height restrictions that younger kids are bound by (for the faster rides you generally need to be 48 inches tall to ride – which families should bear in mind when planning their visit).
Similar to Walt Disney World, Islands of Adventure is divided into different themed ‘lands’ – each land based upon icons of the movies and culture: Jurassic Park, Marvel, Dr Seuss, a Cartoon zone and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Again, similar to the model that has kept Disney at the front of family holiday experiences down the years, the lands immerse you into their specific theme through astonishingly detailed scenery and a combination of shows and rides.
To be honest, every land offers something that’ll keep you engaged but there are a few rides in the park that, if you’re seeking thrills and, well, just a really good laugh – then you really ought to get in line.
Our Islands of Adventure Favourites
Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey
Located in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmede
And the centrepiece of it all is Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey.
Located within Hogwarts the adventure begins the moment you step through the gates.
Of the ride itself, well we don’t want to spoil the surprise and the thrill of that first experience but, suffice to say, it’s simply jaw-dropping. Taking an airborne (supposed broom-ride) with Harry and his pals, you are transported through Harry’s world. Your broom is not really a broom but instead a seat in which you are strapped in for your thrilling journey – with swoops and twists and dips, encountering all manner of wonders and, of course a few minor frights along the way.
It’s a blend of simulator, ride along, animatronic and some of the most astonishingly immersive 3D that you can imagine. If you’re really prone to motion sickness then you might find it a struggle, but it’s not TOO taxing and, if we’re honest – it’s an experience that really warrants a look.
All that being said, while the queue can be long, it’s actually a pretty cool part of the whole ride – being a walk through Hogwarts and everything. And boy, have they brought it to life. Stroll through all the areas you’ve read about in the books and seen in the film: the excited cry from child and parent alike as you find yourself in Dumbledore’s office, or the Room of Requirement; at the hundreds of pictures that come to life as you walk by or the ‘Fat Lady’ who welcomes you to Gryffindor and the Sorting Hat offering his own pearls of wisdom.
Truly, whether muggle or magical, this is a ride you’ll remember for many a moon to come.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Located in Marvel Super Hero Island
IT’S FAST – REALLY FAST.
You can’t miss the Hulk Coaster. Like the character upon which it’s based, this is a big green monster of a ride, a towering, raging presence within the Islands of Adventure.
The giant green track, with loops and twists, climbs and dips, dominates the view as you make your way into the park with the shrill shrieks of the riders heard almost above all else.
There’s no gentle intro on this ride – you are propelled into action as though a bullet from a gun from teh outset, quickly heading into a series of loops and turns as you climb high and drop low (around 100ft), your view altering from blue sky to blue lake in milliseconds.
Make no mistake, this ride is going to be too much for some – it’s as aggressive as the eponymous Marvel hero himself. But for those who love the high octane, adrenaline rush that only really big rollercoasters can offer, then you have to try the Hulk – it’s a real beast.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Located in Marvel Super Hero Island
Another spectacular 3D adventure ride, this is an absolute blast for everyone.
Taking a car ride straight into a 3D movie adventure you head into the streets of New York as some of Spidey’s biggest enemies are running amok. The ride combines astonishing effects, from water spray and fire to a life-size set and gunfire, with some of the most remarkable and immersive 3D effects you will ever see – bringing you into incredibly close contact with Spiderman as the story unfolds around you.
It’s fast and moderately turbulent, your car judders and makes sharp turns throughout as you try to escape the ‘peril’ of a New York under siege; while the 3D imagery and special effects are very much in your face. Again, for those who are prone to motion sickness, some parts of the ride can churn a bit.
However, the skill and the brilliance of the ride is that you find yourself drawn in, becoming a part of the story and integral to the action in such a way that you can’t help but become engaged.
This is a wonderful, innovative and fun ride – marvel at its creation, wallow in the sheer fun of it all.
Jurassic Park River Adventure
Located in Jurassic Park
It might not be as ground-breaking, breath-taking or bone-shaking as some of the other ‘signature’ rides in Islands of Adventure, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this isn’t worth a look.
Especially if you don’t mind getting wet – and by wet I mean, potentially SOAKED.
OK, so this ride is a favourite for personal reasons; first, as a family, we just love WATER rides and second, I’m a total JURASSIC PARK nut!
I mean, who doesn’t love that film?
It starts out as a fairly gentle, meandering boat ride along a tree line river setting, the moment taken out of the mundane by the background sounds and John Williams classic score from the film and, as in the movie itself, those large wooden doors and the ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’ sign.
This of course, is the set up for your adventure as you pass by animatronic dinosaurs of varying type (and quality!). But then, as you might expect, things take a turn for the more dramatic with the news that the predators are on the loose – raptors, those venom spitting beasties that did for Nedry in the film and the ever ominous threat of an encounter with the big daddy-dino himself, the T-Rex.
The effects improve as the ride heads towards its climax and as you begin your ascent you have that familiar feeling in the stomach because, what goes up, really must come down.
And down you come – a full 85 foot plunge into the waters below.
It’s a ride suitable for most families and something we’d suggest as a fun compliment to the high octane adventure elsewhere.
Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges
Located in Toon Lagoon
Again, raft rides are a firm favourite in our household and this is as good a version as you’re likely to experience. Each raft can take up to 12 passengers, all seated in a circle around the edge of the barge.
As is the case with all the themed rides in Orlando, the magic and the fun comes from the scenery and attention to detail going hand in hand with the thrills of the ride itself.
The ride takes you through Popeye’s hair-raising quest to rescue Olive Oyl from the clutches of nemesis Bluto – your raft spinning and lurching through raging white waters, tumbling over falls and, if you’re (un)lucky, maybe beneath them.
Unlike many of the raft ride equivalents we’ve tried across the world, Bilge Rat Barge gives you plenty of bang fro your buck – I can’t think of a longer rapids ride that I’ve been on in the past.
You’ll get wet, you might get drenched! The fun is anticipating who in your raft is going to get it the worst (or best, depending on your point of view).
Another antidote to the roller-coasters and 3D rides, this is slightly more traditional fare for Islands of Adventure and a riot of a laugh for all who dare take the plunge.