As any parent knows, children can be the worst critics and the best judges. So when it comes to judging roller coasters, my two boys, ages seven and ten, have become quite the experts. With mom as a travel writer, my lucky kids have put some of Florida’s “biggest and baddest” coasters to the test.
Here’s a list of their Top Ten Florida coasters, in no particular order. I’ve included height restrictions, which I suggest you check before getting in line. Note that this simple task has been known to avert major tantrums thrown by younger (usually shorter) would-be roller coaster riders upon arrival at the gates.
So, read—and ride—at your own risk:
#1: SheiKra, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (54-inch height requirement)
In 2005, Busch Gardens Africa introduced a one-of-a-kind experience: 200 feet up and 90 degrees straight down. That experience was just the beginning. As the nation’s first dive coaster, SheiKra raises the bar with extras like a true 90-degree drop, an Immelmann loop, and a second vertical dive into an underground tunnel.
In June 2007, as technology increased, so did the thrills. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay reintroduced SheiKra to the world with a new twist: “floorless” cars giving riders an unobstructed view of the 70 mph rush.
The name SheiKra symbolizes the power and speed of an African hawk as it twists and plunges—giving riders an adrenaline-pumping experience like no other. While my very tall ten-year-old has absolutely no problem riding this one, I must admit, I cannot bring myself to ride or watch. Call me chicken, but I leave the supervising up to dad for this one.
#2: Space Mountain, Walt Disney World, Orlando (44-inch height requirement)
An oldie, but goodie; I even ride this one for nostalgia and to prove that Mommy isn’t always a wimp. Space Mountain hasn’t changed much since I was a kid (do I have to tell you that that was about 30 years ago?). Walt Disney World calls the ride for kids and kids-at-heart “a giant leap for fun.” One step inside and you’ll see why. Riders board rocket-shaped glow-in-the-dark trains in the Space Port, enclosed within a hollow 300-foot-diameter mountain.
There are two tracks, Alpha on the left and Omega on the right. They both offer the same experience, while a projection of Earth, stars, comets, meteors, and asteroids fly past the open ceiling. The shuttles move around in complete darkness, including a steep drop of 39 degrees.
The ride has been known to shut down from time-to-time, so don’t be alarmed if you are in line and hear a maintenance call. I have been on the ride when this happens (usually the result of guests taking too long to get off of the ride, causing multiple trains to back up at the loading dock and the computer system stopping the ride).
When the lights come on, you get a free lesson in how the ride, with all the “magic,” is created! And, the short extra wait just builds the suspense.
#3: The Simpsons Ride, Universal Studios Florida, Orlando (40-inch height requirement)
This high-tech not-to-be-missed ride is fun for the whole family—as long as kids are taller than 40 inches. My favorite feature of the simulated ride is the use of television monitors strategically placed to keep kids (and kids-at-heart) occupied while waiting in line. (Don’t forget to use your hotel room key as a FastPass to skip the longer lines if you are staying at one of the Universal Orlando Resorts.) My children were so distracted watching cartoons they actually forgot to ask, “Are we there yet?”
The Simpsons Ride takes visitors, along with their favorite cartoon family, to Krustyland, the low-budget theme park created by shameless product huckster Krusty the Clown. Guests enter the ride through a carnival-like midway alongside Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. The ride makes you feel like you are flying, floating, and crashing your way through this virtual fun stop, mixing modern technology and fantasy together for its finest display.
#4: The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando (54-inch height requirement)
One stroll through Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and you cannot miss this giant green coaster. Upon entering the magical comic-book city, where super heroes (okay, very tall men in costumes) roam the streets, you will feel empowered to hop on the Incredible Hulk ride. Once you enter the world of Dr. Bruce Banner, you're launched from zero to 40 mph in two seconds flat! An angry Hulk soars through the sky on a high-speed roller-coaster rampage—and you have a front-row seat.
My boys, using their Universal Express pass, ride this over and over each time we go. As the website boasts, you’ll be sure to “Feel the Rage!”
#5: Gwazi, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (48-inch height requirement)
Gwazi is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's mammoth double wooden coaster. It is also the Southeast's largest and fastest double wooden roller coaster, boasting more than 1.25 million board feet of lumber and over 2 million bolted connections. Named after a fabled lion with a tiger's head, Gwazi races riders through almost 7,000 feet of track and is two distinct coasters intertwined: The Gwazi Tiger gives riders a slalom sensation seeming more like a bobsled than an actual wooden coaster, while the Gwazi Lion features a continuous number of spirals.
#6: Walhalla Wave, Aquatica, Orlando (42-inch height requirement; guests under 48 inches required to wear life vests)
For Mother’s Day, I received a note from my son, who said his “Favorite Moment with Mom” was listening to me scream and laugh as we rode this fast-paced six-story maze of twists, turns, and tunnels together at Aquatica, SeaWorld's water park. In New Zealand, "hooroo" means "goodbye." Prepare yourself to yell it quickly. By the time your raft is heaved over the edge, you'll speed to the bottom before you can say hello again. You share an inner tube and ride in tandem. Now that’s family bonding!
#7: Test Track, Walt Disney World’s Epcot, Orlando (40-inch height requirement)
My boys like rides that are fast and furious. This certainly met the test. The track takes visitors along its journey through the “hair-raising world of auto testing.” Test Track is one of the longest, fastest rides in Disney history! Riders buckle up to race speedily through bumpy terrain, hairpin turns, freezing cold chambers, and 50-degree banked curves at 60 mph.
Next to devouring a sushi dinner in “Japan” and getting our “passports” stamped in various countries, riding Epcot’s Test Track is the main reason we make this park a must-see on any stop to Orlando.
#8: Revenge of the Mummy, Universal Studios Florida, Orlando (48-inch height requirement)
I must admit I wish I had read the description “Indoor Roller Coaster” before I boarded. As I mentioned, I am a bit of a “scaredy-cat” when it comes to coasters. I thought it would be more of a Hollywood-type production sans roller coaster. But, this non-stop plunge into total darkness was the real deal. This ride is not for the weak.
Alongside my kids, I unexpectedly braved fireballs, scarab beetles, and an army of warrior mummies on this psychological thrill ride. The Revenge of the Mummy coaster uses a technology that launches riders from a complete standstill. The ride lasts almost three minutes and features a top speed of 45 mph. It’s a great excuse to get my boys to hold my hand. The good news is that I made it out of there… alive! I lived to tell you about it—and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
#9: Journey to Atlantis, SeaWorld, Orlando (42–inch height requirement. Note: Passengers between 42 and 48 inches must be accompanied by a supervising companion 14 years of age or older.)
This water ride, complete with special effects like simulated tremors and floods, takes riders on a journey to explore the lost city of Atlantis through a path or along waterways. Be prepared for a steep plunge and a few splashes along the way through the sunken city in an eight-passenger Greek fishing boat.
I suggest bringing a few ponchos from the dollar store to wear to protect your clothes and socks from getting wet. The good news is that if you opt out of the poncho, the Florida heat will dry up your wet clothes in no time and it’s definitely worth the ride.
#10 Dueling Dragons, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando (54-inch height requirement)
We may have saved the best for last. The nice thing about today’s technology is that you can actually check out the ride on video as you muster up your bravery.
These Dragons are the world’s first inverted, dueling roller coasters. Soar 125 feet in the air and reach speeds of 55 mph on two unique rides. The Fire Dragon and Ice Dragon narrowly pass within inches of each other on a coaster dogfight across the sky. If you can keep your eyes open, you won’t miss the fun! –Jennifer Michaels
Jennifer Michaels is the National Family Travel Examiner for Examiner.com. In addition to her freelance work for Orbitz.com and Away.com, she currently runs her own website, FamilyTravelPlanet.com, where she aims to take the hassles out of travel with kids.
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