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Theme Park Showdown: Universal vs Disney

One of the strangest feuds on the internet is the battle between Universal and Disney loyalists. Based on scale, it’s a lot like fans of the Hartford Yard Goats hating the New York Yankees, but the Goats have shown a lot of promise in recent years. They hired a wizard back in 2010 and have risen fast after that. Think of them as a team full of top prospects with plenty of potential.

Universal’s problem is that they didn’t get their start until 1990. They’re effectively an expansion team compared to Disney, who founded the theme park industry in 1955. To my mind, Universal has done a tremendous job in catching up over the past decade. In 2009, they had only 23.7 million guests. By 2017, that number had more than doubled to 49.5 million. Disney’s still tripled them with 150 million annual park visits, though.

With the sides in constant competition for vacation revenue, I’m starting a new series. I’m going to compare the parks in a few key areas to see which one deserves some of your disposable income. We’ll start with the attraction type that Walt Disney invented, the dark ride. Which theme park has better dark rides? Read on to find out…

Selecting the best dark rides at each park

Image: DisneyLet’s be clear. Universal Studios simply cannot compete with Disney theme parks in terms of quantity. Disney’s 25th-best dark ride would be up for consideration for Universal's top ten. For this reason, Universal's starting at a considerable disadvantage in this conversation, one Disney will face when we compare roller coasters in a future piece.

To keep things interesting, we’ll limit this debate to the four best dark rides from each company. And we’ll let you pick! I’m using the handy dandy top 100 theme park attractions list to determine the best of Disney and Universal.

According to you, Universal’s top dark rides are Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Skull Island: Reign of Kong…and that’s it. You only voted three of Universal’s finest dark rides onto the list, and so I’m arbitrarily picking Men in Black: Alien Attack as the other selection.

Image: DisneyThe situation is MUCH different with Disney dark rides.  You believe that the best ones are Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Na’Vi River Journey, Haunted Mansion, and Splash Mountain. And you’re passionate on the subject. All four of them are in the top 11 overall theme park attractions in the world based on your voting.

You went on to select between 8 and 12 others, depending on how open we leave the category. Admittedly, some of them are multi-park duplicates, though. We’ll stick with the four that you prefer for the sake of convenience, although I maintain that Spaceship Earth was robbed.

Discussing Universal’s finest

I see a vast divide between the best two dark rides at Universal Studios and the others. In other words, I agree with your voting. I'll take them in alphabetical order as I evaluate the overall quality of this group.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Image: Universal StudiosInarguably the most significant achievement in Universal theme park design before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this attraction kept Universal Studios alive for years. Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe heightened the world’s awareness of Spider-Man, this attraction demonstrated to everyone why the Web Slinger is the epitome of the modern superhero. It’s a masterpiece, and I’ll fight anyone who claims it’s anything other than an A+ attraction.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Image: Universal StudiosOne of the ironclad laws of the theme park industry is that something better eventually comes along. At Universal, Spider-Man may have kept the lights on for years, but… Remember that thing I said earlier about Universal’s traffic doubling in less than a decade? I’m not exaggerating when I state that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a primary reason why. As the flagship attraction at The Wizarding World, it has dazzled theme park tourists for many years now. It, too, is an A+ attraction.

Men in Black: Alien Attack

Image: Universal StudiosNow we’ve reached the bottom half of the divide. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been on the Men in Black: Alien Attack bandwagon for many years now. It’s an exciting competition wherein you try to murderify more aliens than your friends. You get to talk smack before and afterward. In the middle, you’ll have a fantastic time experiencing a day in the life of the Men in Black. It was once a solid A attraction, and I’d still give it a B+ today.

Skull Island: Reign of Kong

Image: Universal StudiosBefore Skull Island: Reign of Kong opened, Universal executives worried about that shocking moment from the ride, the one that signifies that you’re in peril. I’m not quite sure why they were so concerned. It’s Kate, the NPC of the attraction, who takes the kind of beating ordinarily reserved for Wile E. Coyote. In a strange coincidence, Skull Island feels like an amalgam of two different Disney dark rides we’re about to discuss, ones that are scary and immersive. I’d give it an A-, but I don’t expect it to age well over the years.

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