Home » Theme Park Showdown: Universal vs Disney Roller Coasters

Theme Park Showdown: Universal vs Disney Roller Coasters

Theme park tourists love to debate which parks and rides are the best. That’s why we recently introduced Showdown, a series that compares parks and rides to determine who’s better at what. Since the two heavyweights in the industry are Universal Studios and Disney theme parks, they’re the most fun to argue about.

We previously determined which park has the best dark rides. Now, it’s time to see who dominates in the all-important thrill ride category. In the latest Showdown, we’ll choose who has the best roller coasters between Universal and Disney.

Selecting the best roller coasters at each park

Image: DisneyThe culling of the list for best dark rides was pretty brutal. Since roller coasters are less prevalent due to cost and park styles at Disney and Universal, this step is a bit easier. Universal is cut-and-dried for the most part, while the primary Disney debate involves what should count. Here are my thoughts on both parks and their best coasters.

Discussing Universal’s finest

Image: UniversalAt the time of publication, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure isn’t open. With it off the table, picking the best coasters at Universal is pretty easy. I’m selecting the best five while acknowledging that one of these is inferior to the others. Let’s start with it.

Flight of the Hippogriff

Image: UniversalYes, I accept that Flight of the Hippogriff is called a junior coaster for a good reason. It’s a simple, quick coaster that barely lasts a minute. I’m including it because a couple of Disney coasters skew quite young, and I wanted to offer some sort of counterbalance. Realistically, this ride is the weakest on the list by quite a bit. I happen to like it as a nice indoctrination for kids into the world of coaster fanaticism, but it’s difficult to muster enthusiasm for a roller coaster with only 1,099 feet worth of track.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

Image: UniversalHow could two Harry Potter-based roller coasters be so different in quality? Escape from Gringotts is the peak of Universal Studios engineering at the moment. It’s a masterful combination of dark ride and roller coaster, somehow blending a thrilling story from the movie and a white-knuckle coaster ride. This attraction is a perfect 10 and the current people’s choice as Universal’s best. I view only one Disney coaster as its peer, meaning that it’s on the (very) short list for the best coaster at either park.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit

Image: UniversalHere is where I lose some people. The ride experiences that I’ve had as a tall man on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit are less than satisfactory. Without being too specific on a family website, I reflexively cross my legs at the unpleasant memories of things that have happened to….parts of me on this coaster. I’m not a fan. Still, as someone who appreciates the craft of roller coaster design, I marvel at the bravado of the track layout on this attraction. Universal aimed for the sky here, and their daring is a gift to adrenaline junkies.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster

Image: UniversalThe true green machine of Orlando is The Incredible Hulk Coaster. This savage piece of architecture translates Dr. Bruce Banner’s constant feeling of rage into 3,800 feet of track. You’ll shoot down the track at 67 miles per hour, and you’ll experience seven aggressive inversions. The only downside here is once again length, as it’s less than two minutes long. I’d still rank it as the third-best of Universal’s coasters, behind only Escape from Gringotts and…

Revenge of the Mummy

Image: UniversalI view this wonderfully themed coaster as the hidden gem of Universal Studios. The Mummy as an intellectual property is way down these days thanks to Tom Cruise, but there was a time when Brendan Fraser anchored one of the most popular film franchises on the planet. During the time before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this park had four great attractions based on movies, and Revenge of the Mummy was/is one of them. It’s an exciting coaster that goes backward, sells the idea that you’re on a descent into a flaming abyss, and kills off Fraser in the end. What’s not to love?

Discussing Disney’s finest

Image: DisneyThe debate with Disney is how to approach the bicoastal nature of their American parks. Ultimately, I decided to focus on Orlando for both Universal Studios and Disney under the auspice that theme park tourists should debate based on what they can do in a single vacation. For this reason, I took Incredicoaster and Matterhorn Bobsleds off the list of possible selections. Then, I threw out Primeval Whirl because it sucks (come at me, internet!) and the Barnstormer since other child-friend Disney coasters are better. That left me with…

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Image: DisneySince 1979, guests have delighted in the opportunity to board a runaway mine train and, well, run away. This coaster affords guests a chance to visit a ghost town, albeit while speeding by at high velocity. The thing about Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is that what once was an unparalleled experience in 1979 is now somewhat pedestrian. The immersive theming is what distinguishes the journey. I happen to love the ride, but it’s toward the bottom of this list.

Expedition Everest

Image: DisneyThis roller coaster is the one that I feel matches or possibly surpasses Escape from Gringotts. I see quite a few similarities between the two rides in that the theming matches the quality of the ride experience. While the Harry Potter brand is impossible to top, Expedition Everest tells a gripping story about an encounter with an apparently-not-mythical creature.

The ride design is just about my favorite ever. You slowly head up a mountain, only to recognize once you’re trapped that the tracks are broken. Your driver thrusts you back into the darkness in hopes of surviving a desperate situation. It just works and gets my vote as the best coaster on this list, even as I acknowledge that most people would favor Escape from Gringotts.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Image: Disney

The next two Disney attractions are both family-friendly and the (admittedly unfair) comparisons to Flight of the Hippogriff. The Universal ride is just a basic coaster with the Harry Potter brand slapped on it. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, on the other hand, deftly marries the dark ride with the roller coaster. For portions of the ride, you’ll sway back and forth on this uniquely designed coaster cart. The barrels swivel in unprecedented fashion. Between the entertaining coaster portions, you’ll see where the Seven Dwarfs work and play…and nap. I know that some people aren’t dazzled by this one, but I’m more than 50 rides in and still adore it.

Slinky Dog Dash

Image: DisneyThe other child-friendly Disney coaster is at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Slinky Dog Dash somehow recreates the sensation of a slinky from the perspective of a human. That is NOT easy to do. When you stretch in your coaster cart and then spring back together, you’ll marvel at the Imagineering involved. Well, you won’t because you’ll be having too much fun to think about the science of it, but I swear that it’s impressive. While Slinky Dog Dash is unmistakably entertaining, it’s too genteel to stand against some of the thrill rides listed here.  

Space Mountain

Image: DisneyIn the immortal words of The Highlander, there can be only one. In the roller coaster industry, Space Mountain is the one, the ride that triggered the country’s obsession. The continual coaster arms race is a byproduct of the public’s eternal love of Space Mountain.

I always hate to break people’s hearts when I tell them that the max speed on this ride is 28 miles per hour. Nobody believes it because the sensory deprivation at play deludes guests into thinking that they’re traveling at the speed of light. It’s a brilliant exercise in deception, but it’s also kind of a rickety, arguably outdated coaster. It’s a problem of being the single-most imitated ride ever. I favor the significance of Space Mountain over any perceived shortcomings.

Final evaluation

This one is very, very close, and I would understand anyone who felt strongly about either park. When I look at individual coasters, Expedition Everest is my favorite followed by Escape from Gringotts and then Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The totality of the five coasters at each park is more challenging to evaluate. Universal is almost playing short-handed with Flight of the Hippogriff, far and away the worst thing listed here. Since Disney has the best coaster and two of the top three while Universal has the worst, I have to give a slight edge to #TeamMickey over #TeamHarry.