Home » The Best Non-Disney Theme Park Rides in North America

The Best Non-Disney Theme Park Rides in North America

The Walt Disney Company dominates the theme park industry. Everyone knows this, and the attendance stats aren’t close. When you pay too much attention to Disney, however, you run the risk of missing out on some terrific theme parks and attractions.

I recently evaluated the best restaurants at the most popular non-Disney theme parks in North America. This article will address a touchier subject. Which ride is the best at each of these parks? Odds are really, really good that you’re going to disagree a lot, and that’s okay! Think of this as a conversation starter.

8. Cedar Point

While the title is hotly contested, Cedar Point is the self-professed roller coaster capital of the world. They’re the current record-holder for having the most rides of any park in the world. They have the second-most roller coasters, too. As such, choosing the best ride here is extremely difficult.

I shortlisted half a dozen rides including three I eventually ruled out. Those are Magnum XL-200 (one of the best 20th century rides), Maverick, and Raptor. Eventually, I accepted that Raptor is a personal favorite rather than a universally beloved ride. Similarly, Maverick is fantastic for what it is, but it cannot compete with the best three rides at Cedar Point.

To me, the big three are Top Thrill Dragster, Steel Vengeance, and Millennium Force. Out of those, Steel Vengeance is the newest ride, having re-opened in 2018 as a modified version of Mean Streak. In the process, it broke several world records for a hybrid coaster. Top Thrill Dragster is like losing your virginity. It’s a total blur that happens way too fast, but you’re so glad that you did it and cannot wait to do it again. I just can’t pick a ride that lasts only 30 seconds, though. Instead, I – like any sane person – favor Millennium Force, the ride that triggered the roller coaster arms race of the 21st century.

7. Canada’s Wonderland

Cedar Fair owns this park in addition to Cedar Point, giving it two of the top three parks in terms of roller coasters onside. Canada’s Wonderland is home to 16 of them, one behind Cedar Point and three behind the title holder, Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Despite having 70 rides onsite, this park doesn’t require a lot of hemming and hawing to lock in on the best of the best. The discussion comes down to two attractions, Behemoth and Leviathan. Despite their placement at the same park, the two have been in competition since Leviathan’s arrival. Before its appearance, Behemoth stood apart as the tallest and fastest roller coaster in Canada. Then, its younger sibling beat it in both categories. While Behemoth remains phenomenal, I’ll take the new and improved coaster in this instance, unlike at Cedar Point.

6. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Central Florida locals know a secret that they don’t often share with tourists. The roller coaster capital of the state isn’t Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort. To the contrary, Busch Gardens Tampa has six major roller coasters, which is two more than the entirety of Universal and four more than any single Disney gate. It’s quietly the place to go if you’re an adrenaline junkie…and I apologize to Floridians for spoiling the secret.

Which ride is the best? I’ve culled the list down to three contenders. SheiKra was the first dive coaster in North America, and it features a terrifying 90-degree drop to boot. Cheetah Hunt is a launched steel roller coaster with a somewhat misleading name. It tops out at 60 miles per hour but feels much faster. Still, when you put Cheetah in the name, you better have superhero-level speed. Finally, Cobra’s Curse is a spinning roller coaster with a pre-ride elevator lift. It’s…odd. Out of the three, I favor SheiKra, which is the attraction most likely to cause people to scream until their lungs feel like they’re about to explode. 

5. SeaWorld Orlando

While the entire world seems to have turned on SeaWorld in the wake of the Blackfish scandal, park operators have quietly done a tremendous job in adding breathtaking attractions. They’ve also improved existing ones using futuristic tech. Guests who visit here and come with an open mind will discover a full day’s worth of entertainment.

Once again, three rides jump off the page at this park. The shortlist is Kraken Unleashed, Mako, and Manta. Kraken Unleashed is the oldest of the three, originally opening in 2000 as Kraken. It’s since been refreshed with an optional but invigorating virtual reality element.

Mako is a straightforward hypercoaster that SeaWorld boasts is the fastest, longest, and tallest in Orlando. Manta has the cleverest design of the three. Using the flying steel roller coaster premise, it simulates the experience of life as a Manta, complete with swaying twists and turns. Out of the three, I favor Mako for its novelty, but I still choose Kraken Unleashed as the best due to the brilliance of the virtual reality. It’s like a special look into the not-too-distant future of theme park attractions.

4. Knott’s Berry Farm

This park is the easiest place to pick a winner, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Just as the chicken stands apart in the Best Restaurant discussion, one ride is so much better than the rest that it almost feels out of place.

I’m speaking of Xcelerator, the fussy 82 miles per hour speed demon that’s much like a Gremlin. Never get it wet, as it reacts poorly to water. Despite the frequent downtime and the mysterious closures for repairs, Xcelerator has only one serious challenger over the past few years. That ride, HangTime, features a mind-blowing 96-degree drop, but it’s not up as good as Xcelerator in any appreciable way. Going from zero to 82 miles per hour in 2.3 seconds is hard to beat.

3. Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal Studios adds a layer of complexity due to its duplication of popular rides around the world. You’ll find several of the same contenders at each of the three remaining parks. So, one quick rule addition is that I’m going to pick something different each time.

For Universal Studios Hollywood, I’m not going to discuss a shortlist since the choices will become clear in the next two sections. Instead, I’ll skip to the end and say that my favorite ride here is Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. I’m a huge fan of the Despicable Me film franchise, and this attraction perfectly encapsulates the madcap hijinks of those stories. Even the line queue is decidedly better than most Universal rides; it’s more in keeping with the waits at Disney attractions.

2. Universal’s Islands of Adventure

A decade ago, Islands of Adventure seemed like a haphazard mismatch of conflicting themed lands. Today, it’s got so many great rides that culling the list is a challenge. Skull Island: Reign of Kong is a different kind of adrenaline rush attraction, one that incorporates King Kong extremely well. The Incredible Hulk Coaster isn’t subtle, but it’s hard to ignore the pure power of the thing.

With the Harry Potter rides, I’m not quite sure what to do with the Hogwarts Express, which is a viable selection at both gates. Thanks to the theming, it’s one of the best attractions in Orlando, even as a train between parks. Similarly, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey isn’t the best Potter attraction these days, but it remains a special place since it was first.

When looking at the overall options, however, I have to vote for the ride that was great even at a time when Islands of Adventure wasn’t. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is such a great motion simulation dark ride that Universal has built about a dozen more of them with the same underlying structure. It’s theme park royalty.

1. Universal Studios Florida

There are (The Simpsons Ride) several terrific (The Simpsons Ride) rides at Universal Studios Florida (especially The Simpsons Ride). I’ve already spoiled what I’m picking, and I can feel your outrage from across the internet. Let me explain the why of it.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts impeccably combines the best parts of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey with a roller coaster’s thrilling elements. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have existed, and I would have chosen Men in Black: Alien Attack almost by default, even though that’s a tremendous attraction with an addictive gaming element. I’m not a fan of Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the Man Gets Hit in Groin with Football equivalent of a roller coaster. My man parts were sore for days after the last time I rode that monstrosity.

Universal Studios Florida has another two older attractions based on movies that I really love. Those are Revenge of The Mummy: The Ride and E.T. Adventure (don’t judge!). So, the pre-Potter discussion would have come down to three film rides. Today, it’s a pair of attractions based on two of the most beloved intellectual properties on the planet, Harry Potter and The Simpsons. Since I just made a Simpsons reference in the previous paragraph, you know where I stand on the subject.

I want to be clear that I think Escape from Gringotts is a masterpiece. It just lacks that one missing element that differentiates The Simpsons Ride. And that element is Sideshow Bob spending several minutes trying to kill me. To 99.99 percent of the population, Universal Studios Orlando is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter plus some other stuff. I’m that person who thinks of it as Springfield come to life, and The Simpsons Ride is my happy place.