6 of the Best Theme Park Attractions Based on Pop Culture

Disney World

Disney World | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Theme parks have long offered some of the most immersive experiences for fans looking to come up close and personal with their favorite characters. Over the years, parks owned by Disney and Universal have emerged as the leaders in this respect and have continued to develop astounding attractions that use a number of technologies to bring guests into a story. Here are six of the best examples of theme parks stepping up and offering a unique experience that fans would be hard-pressed to top. For the record, we’re choosing to focus on attractions based on pre-existing characters and not rides that inspired films based on them (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean). Also, we’re limiting this list to attractions that are still in operation. So don’t expect to see Universal’s Back to the Future: The Ride on here either.

1. The Great Movie Ride (1989)

The Great Movie Ride

Source: Disney

One of the original attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studio, The Great Movie Ride gives guests a retrospective look at the golden age of Hollywood and modern cinema. Classic films like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are among the scenes depicted here, and the ride’s combination of live performance, animatronics, and other special effects made it one of the first theme park attractions to truly place guests inside their favorite films.

2. Star Tours (1989)

Star Tours

Source: Disney

The first Disney attraction based on a non-Disney property (of course, Disney has since purchased Lucasfilm), Star Tours took riders aboard a starship and into the thick of a thrilling battle against the Empire. Actors Paul Reubens and Anthony Daniels — who plays C-3PO in the films — made appearances on the Star Wars ride, which has since been closed at all Disney parks but replaced with a new and improved version. Moreover, Disney has announced an expansion to the park that will focus entirely on that galaxy far, far away. [Update, 2/22/16: Added Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ theme park expansion announcement (see embedded video below, courtesy of Disneyland Experience).]

3. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (1994)

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Source: Disney

More than simply a free-falling simulation, the Tower of Terror is a sublime exercise in capturing the tone and atmosphere that made 1959-1964 anthology series The Twilight Zone such standout television and a perennial favorite that was subsequently revived in 1985 and 2002. Set in the mysterious Hollywood Tower Hotel, the attraction provides riders with thrills that can’t be found elsewhere at Disney parks, and its randomized drop sequences ensure that subsequent rides offer a fresh experience each time.

[Update, 10/4/16: Per Disney Parks Blog, the Tower of Terror is being reworked as a ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’-themed ride that will open in the summer of 2017 (see video below).]

4. T2 3-D: Battle Across Time (1996)

Terminator 2 3D Battle Across Time

Source: Universal

Co-written and co-directed by series creator James Cameron, T2 3-D is set some time after the blockbuster 1991 release Terminator 2: Judgment Day and reunites all the principal actors from the film, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, and Robert Patrick. With a distinct blend of 3-D film — which reportedly cost $24 million in itself — and onstage theatrics, the attraction seamlessly integrates the two, making guests feel as if they’ve been absorbed right into the battle against the machines.

5. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (1999)

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Source: Universal

When Universal Studios Florida launched Islands of Adventure in 1999, the team behind the parks knew it needed something innovative to really stir up buzz surrounding the new park. Luckily, this attraction — which integrates motion vehicles with 3-D projection, practical sets, and other special effects — was an early favorite among guests and remains among the most popular rides there. Located within the Marvel Super Hero Island, guests witness a thrilling battle between the webslinger and a team of supervillains, placing them in one of Spidey’s comic book adventures.

6. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (2010)

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

Source: Universal

With Harry Potter now among the most successful film series of all time, it stands to reason that a theme park attraction based on J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world was inevitable. Featuring many of the films’ stars (including Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson), this adventure uses ground-breaking technology to allow guests to explore Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, encountering many locales and characters from the films along the way. Moreover, the attraction’s Islands of Adventure location is surrounded by an entire Harry Potter themed area, which extends to sister park Universal Studios Florida.

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