Top 5 theme parks: Disney, Universal, Harry Potter and more

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There are thousands of theme parks around the world, but we’re looking at the best and most popular amusement parks in the US and beyond right now

Theme parks have never been bigger, better, or more thrilling than today, and with huge media tie-ins and amazing technology, have become destinations in themselves. Kiwi.com has picked the best five theme parks for family fun, exciting rides, and losing yourself in pure fantasy. And we can take you there right away — be sure to check out our travel deals below, to all named destinations.

Walt Disney World Resort

Mickey and Minnie Mouse topiary at Walt Disney World — traveljunction, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia CommonsWalt Disney World is the biggest theme park complex in the world — traveljunction, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a bunch of Disney theme parks and resorts around the world, from the original in California to locations in Florida, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. We’re going to look at the vast and popular Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Consisting of four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom), two water parks (Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon) as well as scores of themed hotels, golf courses, campgrounds and shopping centers, the fact it calls itself a world is pretty much correct.

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom was the first to open in 1971, and its famous Cinderella castle has become the symbol of Disney theme parks around the world ever since. It’s divided into six themed ‘lands’, each with their own theme — the Old West, colonial America, medieval times, etc. — and each has rides, shops and attractions to match.

Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Hollywood Studios is where all the recent big hitters are based. Toy Story Land, based on the popular film series with three major attractions over an 11-acre site; Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge brings a galaxy far, far away within touching distance with coasters, dark rides, simulators, and food outlets themed around the cantinas and trading outposts of the Star Wars universe.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is somewhat separated from the rest of the park in an effort to minimize disturbance to the animals, and from the very beginning, special designs and provisions were incorporated throughout the park to protect the animals’ welfare (indeed, animal welfare was something Walt Disney himself was very passionate about). Learn about wildlife conservation at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, explore Asian mountains, journey to another planet with Pandora — the World of Avatar, or millions of years into the past at DinoLand, U.S.A.

Universal Studios Florida

Entrance gate at Universal Studios in Florida — Malpass93, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsNot far from Walt Disney World, the Universal Studios complex comprises eight movie-based “zones” — Malpass93, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another of the most famous theme parks in the world, Universal Studios is home to eight zones: Production Central, New York, San Francisco, London/Diagon Alley, World Expo, Springfield, Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone and Hollywood. Each zone features rides, experiences, shops, dining and more, all connected to that zone.

Production Central is home to Transformers: The Ride 3D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, as well as parades including some of Universal’s best-loved characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, while Shrek’s Ye Olde Souvenir Shoppe can supply all of your ogre-based needs.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and more

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opened in 2014, is the newest addition to the park, and is centered around Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, a rollercoaster/dark ride, and the Hogwarts Express, on which passengers can look out of the train windows onto scenes from the movies. The zone also includes many shops that feature in the stories such as Ollivanders Wand Shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Borgin and Burkes, and Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, so if you’re looking for a skiving snackbox, a new set of dress robes, or a new wand — holly and phoenix feather, eleven inches, nice and supple, perhaps? — this is the place to be.

Other zones across the park are themed around The Fast and the Furious (San Francisco), the Simpsons (Springfield), Men in Black (World Expo), and live-action spectaculars based on the Bourne series, musicals, and Hollywood monster make-up and effects (Hollywood).

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

Giant chess pieces used in the Harry Potter film on display at the Warner Bros. studios — Ank Kumar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsThe Making of Harry Potter tour showcases sets, costumes and props from the films, such as the giant chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — Ank Kumar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another Potter-themed attraction, but this time in the UK, this amazing look into the Harry Potter movies is based at the very studios where all eight films were made.

The studio is to the north-west of London, and if you can’t apparate it’s a little tricky to get to (20 minutes from London Euston to Watford Junction, then 15 minutes by bus), but it’s totally worth it. It’s a different experience from the Universal one, focused as it is on visiting the original sets and discovering more about the amazing special effects.

The tour itself lets you see sets, props, costumes, and learn how the visuals, creature effects, and artwork were conceived and created. Sets include the Great Hall, the Forbidden Forest, Diagon Alley, and a chance to board the actual Hogwarts Express on Platform 9¾. Meet Buckbeak, Aragog, goblins and more, pore over 950 jars of Potions ingredients, and try not to vomit at the shocking pink cutesiness of Professor Umbridge’s office.

On top of all that, there’s a range of shops to visit to get souvenirs, clothes, and the like, and throughout the year there are seasonal exhibits: Magical Mischief, Mandrakes and Magical Creatures, Dark Arts, and Hogwarts in the Snow.

Europa-Park

View of Europa-Park — Joseolgon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsEuropa-Park’s different areas represent various European countries — Joseolgon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After Disneyland Paris, Europa-Park is the most-visited theme park in Europe. Located in south-west Germany near the border with France, the 95-hectare park contains 61 main attractions (including 13 roller coasters), six hotels, one campground, and a movie theater.

Its 18 areas include 15 representing different countries and regions of Europe, each with roller coasters, rides and attractions themed to that place. For example, Greece’s attractions are based around myths and legends; Switzerland includes a bobsleigh rollercoaster; England has go-kart racing and football.

The three other regions are Grimm’s Enchanted Forest, Adventureland, and Minimoys Kingdom. It’s in these areas that the park designers let their imagination really run away with them. Adventureland is a waterworld, including a white water raft ride, a boat ride around a lake, and a water playground for kids under 12. Minimoys Kingdom, based around Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Minimoys trilogy, makes everything huge: it’s a world of giant ladybugs, clomping caterpillars, and flowers as tall as skyscrapers!

Finally, there’s Grimm’s Enchanted Forest, a Disney-esque journey through the famous fairy tales: Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are all here.

Dubai Parks and Resorts

Riverland in Dubai in the evening — iStockRiverland is spectacular in itself, and it’s free to enter — iStock

The four huge zones of Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, Legoland Dubai and Legoland Water Park make up Dubai Parks and Resorts, with over 100 indoor and outdoor rides and attractions for all ages.

Each of the parks is connected by Riverland, a huge central hub of dining, shopping and leisure destinations with architecture inspired by India, France, and 1950s US. This whole section is actually free to enter, regardless of whether you’re visiting the parks or not!

Motiongate Dubai

Motiongate Dubai is the largest Hollywood-inspired theme park in the region, with rides and attractions inspired by films from studios like Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate. Ride a thrilling roller coaster inspired by the John Wick series, meet the Smurfs and Shrek, and go behind the scenes on Hollywood sets.

Bollywood Parks Dubai

Bollywood Parks brings Indian cinema to life with interactive attractions, exhilarating rides, multimedia shows and spectacular live performances, while Legoland Dubai is an incredible family adventure for kids from two to 12 years old. Over 40 rides and attractions are available here, and the Legoland Water Park is where you can splash around, play in the water and on the slides, and even build your own Lego raft to explore the waters!

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