Top 10 Theme Park Lands in the US
Frontierland. Adventureland. Fantasyland. Tomorrowland. With Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, the ability to bring lands of imagination to life was born. They featured buildings and attractions from the past, future and fiction for guests to experience like never before. Since then, companies like Disney, Universal and Seaworld, as well as individual parks like Phantasialand and PortAventura, have innovated time and time again to bring theme park visitors the most advanced and well-designed themed lands.
In this list, I’ll be counting down my picks for the top 10 themed lands in the US, based on their quality of theming, dedication to the theme, attractions and overall ambiance (I’ll name the top 10 themed lands at international parks in a future post).
Disclaimer: “cloned” (copied/duplicated) lands or nearly identical lands on the forthcoming international list were omitted from this list for the sake of including as many different entries as possible.
Honorable Mention: England, Busch Gardens Williamsburg
While the Italian, French and German areas of Busch Gardens boast thrilling attractions, it’s the English area that wows visitors with immersive theming. Guests eagerly entering the park, waiting in line for the next show at the theater or making a stop at the pub give the curved street lots of life.
Lines of English flags hang between the surrounding Northern European style buildings, creating a festive feel. Some stellar additions to the land include the elaborate clocktower, double-decker bus gift shop, and, of course, the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe.
The area also shines more than any other in the park at night, when lights around the small village give guests one last impression as they exit the park. I remember grabbing some fish and chips from Squire’s Grille on my most recent trip and eating outside amid the lively street ambience, upbeat music and festive feel of the land. It may not have a large attraction, but it certainly is a great spot to eat and relax with some fish, fries and a beer.
10. France Pavilion, EPCOT
The World Showcase is too large to be considered a land on its own, and the pavilions are perhaps too small for the same title — that was until France’s expansion was revealed.
While most pavilions take the shape of a “U,” France was already one of the more elaborate countries, taking more of a “Y” shape. This allows the paths and buildings to create a more immersive experience. The Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie restaurant sits atop a small alley that blocks off any view of the rest of the park, allowing guests to enjoy a delicious meal in a quiet Parisian street. The scaled-down Eiffel tower also works well, adding visual depth to the area.
What pushed this pavilion past the others and onto the list, however, is the 2021 addition towards the back of the land. This area will feature a new restaurant, a gift shop and, most importantly, Remi’s Ratatouille Adventure. This will be a clone of the version at Walt Disney Studios in France, and could likely be the new fan favorite ride in the World Showcase. Theming wise, the expansion will add new facades to the back area, some of which will cover the new ride building while also adding visual depth behind the attraction’s entrance. The new path leading to the area will also take guests alongside the river connecting the Lagoon to Crescent lake, reminiscent of walking alongside the Seine in Paris.
9. Jurassic Park, Islands of Adventure
This dinosaur-themed area relies more on the landscaping than the actual architecture work, but that doesn’t stop it from making this list. Most of the other lands at Islands of Adventure lead guests through large streets of themed facades, but after walking through the Iconic “Jurassic Park” sign, guests become immersed in a jungle of palm trees.
Additionally, the architecture of the visitor center and small buildings scattered around the land are equally impressive. While attractions like Forbidden Journey and Hulk may be at the top of guests’ to-do lists, the visitor center is worth a stop. The building features iconic views from the movie as well as activities for children.
Jurassic Park’s attractions also bring the theme of the land to life. Jurassic Park River Adventure hosts massive animatronics, an impressive T-Rex jump scare and classic music as your boat enters through the gates.
At the time of writing, VelociCoaster is scheduled to open this summer. As far as I can tell, this beast of a ride will add even more action to the area.
8. Marvel Super Hero Island, Islands of Adventure
2D facades and props aren’t usually the most desirable for highly themed lands, but for a comic book-inspired area, it makes sense.
The wacky and colorful buildings along with the music create a sense of action and fun for guests as they walk under the screams of those on Incredible Hulk or Dr. Doom’s Free Fall. Usually, in cases like Pandora or the Wizarding World (more on those later), designers invite fiction to the real world. On Super Hero Island, the designers invite the real world to the comic books.
This is further expanded upon inside the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, where the rooms in the queue are painted to appear as they would in a comic book, and TVs on the wall play episodes from the ‘80s cartoon show.
With so many massive cutouts of fan-favorite superheroes lining the buildings, colorful facades and Incredible Hulk looming over the area, it’s impossible to walk through superhero island and not feel a sense of excitement.
7. New York, Universal Studios Orlando
To me, strolling through the traffic-free streets of New York at Universal Studios in Orlando is 10 times better than going to the real city. The brownstone buildings are transformed into streets of excitement through the use of light blue copper claddings, bright signs and lively street performances.
What makes this area so impressive is its size. Taking up a few “blocks” of the park, guests can take multiple routes through the city and discover new details and alleys each time they pass through. There’s also a myriad of great food options, as you would expect from a place inspired by the Big Apple.
Most of the attractions in the New York area are contained within show buildings with heavily themed facades. Revenge of the Mummy’s facade somewhat resembles the Brooklyn Museum and feels like an exhibit you may find in the Museum of Natural History. Jimmy Fallon: Race Through New York on the other hand, perfectly recreates much of the interior of the NBC Studios Building in Rockefeller Center.
The details of the facades, attractions, street life and food make for one of the most fun and immersive areas you’ll find at any park.
6. Asia, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
This is Joe Rhode at his best. While designing the land, Joe traveled to Nepal and lived among monks to learn more about their culture, their land and the Yeti. That research was infused into the design and was presented to us through one of the best themed areas and attractions of all time.
It’s the authenticity of the weathered buildings, artifacts and hanging flags that justify this as an incredibly well-themed land. There are also countless other sculptures and structures scattered around the area, each adding to the authentic setting. Paths embedded in trees and worn buildings transport guests from the base of the mountain to the rest of the Asian area. Here, guests will find shops, food, animal exhibits and the Kali River Rapids.
Then there’s Everest, a recreation of Earth’s highest mountain. A snow-covered mountain sounds like it has no place in Orlando. But when you’re walking down the Nepal-themed path towards this beast of an attraction, it feels so real. At 199 feet, combined with the use of forced perspective, the mountain makes guests feel they are standing in front of something truly monumental. I know some Disney fans will argue that the Matterhorn or Splash Mountain is better for nostalgic reasons, but Rhode and his team certainly left their mark on this industry by creating the king of all Disney mountains.
5. Pandora, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Next, we have another Animal Kingdom entry and Joe Rhode creation. Pandora: The World of Avatar shines through its landscaping design and impressive props. Exotic plant species linger around the paths, combined with sculpted alien plants to create a “world like no other,” as the souvenirs say. At night, the land is only further mind-blowing as purple and blue lights illuminate the area to match the nighttime scenes from the movie.
Of course, the floating mountains are staples of the land. The construction team and artists deserve a lot of credit here. They did a perfect job turning a simple steel frame into a range of floating rocks covered in plant life and flowing water.
Pandora’s centerpiece attraction, Avatar Flight of Passage, shows off the human technology seen in the films, such as the Avatar bodies in their tanks and other cool visuals inside the laboratories. I realize that the land is set to take place in the upcoming Avatar sequels, hence why the manmade buildings are abandoned, but I would have liked to see more of the human technology in contrast to the natural alien world.
Who knows — maybe by the time the third movie is released, there will be enough hype around the franchise to warrant an expansion to the land. Then I might finally see my dreams of a Dragon Assault Ship attraction come to life.
4. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland
The $1 billion expansion lives up to the hype with a massive outpost for guests to explore. Despite its newness, the weathered Tatooine-inspired buildings make for an excellent setting. The rockwork — intertwined with the buildings — add visual depth to the back of the area.
The props are top-notch as well, including the spinning droid heads, A-wing and X-wing fighters and, of course, the Millennium Falcon. The scale of the area is incredible — guests can adventure through the resistance base hidden in the canyon outside the town, as well as explore the many routes the village offers within the market area.
The Rise of the Resistance and Smuggler’s Run queues also bring scenes from the screen to life. The halls of the Star Destroyer, as well as riding through them, are incredible and will remind fans of the Death Star interior. The cockpit and lounge of the Millennium Falcon are also incredibly detailed. To any fan of the original films, taking a seat in a pilot’s chair is more special than the actual ride.
So why does such an architecturally impressive outpost land in the third spot on this list? Well, as a huge Star Wars fan, I can’t help but be let down by the lack of characters and locations that made the franchise what it was. I love when parks create something original, like what Phantasialand did with their Klugheim expansion, but I also appreciate experiences with my favorite franchises like Harry Potter. Disney decided to use the powerful Star Wars universe but also tried and create something original, which I applaud them for attempting. However, I think that if a park is designing a land or attraction around an intellectual property (IP) such as Star Wars, they have to go all-in on the lore.
I also think that some attractions that could have been enjoyed by all were instead monetized. At the Wizarding World, everyone lines up for a ride on Hagrid’s or Gringotts, but one of the lesser talked about activities is the Ollivander’s show, which is free for any guest. At Galaxy’s Edge, Savi’s Workshop and the Droid Depot are advertised as extra experiences for guests, but for many like myself, the steep price points deter some visitors. It would have been nice to see an extra room or two in the lightsaber workshop, allowing for the capacity of all guests to take part in lightsaber-building with the option to buy them.
In early concepts of the land, the outpost was set on Tatooine. Such a familiar planet would have likely included familiar faces such as Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader. I’d much rather see those characters than the ones from the new trilogy, which I, and apparently many others, were not too fond of. Galaxy’s Edge is a great land filled with cool shops and restaurants, topped off with two can’t-miss attractions. But without the characters I’ve come to love, as well as missing out on pricey experiences many guests cannot afford, it can’t top this list.
3. Cars Land, Disney California Adventure
What many consider the “Savior of California Adventure” is the lone land on this list I have not visited. But from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, this land is worth the trip to California. I love the approach Imagineers took to design Cars Land. They incorporated nearly every square inch of Radiator Springs from the screen into the park.
The star attraction also shines in terms of immersing guests, taking them on a ride through the canyon. Though I haven’t ridden it, Radiator Springs Racers seems it belongs in the upper echelon on theme park rides. I can’t wait for the day in which I can ride through the recreated race track alongside a car of competing guests. The rockwork also deserves praise, as the canyon behind the town blocks off all views of anything else around, making for a true sense of immersion.
After a day of racing, Cars Land continues to wow guests at night with its incredible lighting package, which arguably tops many of the other entries on this list after the sun sets. Guests can stroll through the land under the lights while Sh-boom plays in the background, recreating the iconic scene from the first movie. To me, it’s the moments from the movies which Cars Land creates for guests that earns a number 2 spot on this list.
2. Hogsmeade, Islands of Adventure
Opened in 2010, the Harry Potter-inspired area sent shockwaves through the industry, setting a new bar for themed lands. The instant success of the addition, as well as a large attendance increase to Islands of Adventure, is perhaps what caused Disney to create Cars Land, Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge in an effort to strike back. Just as Cars Land does, Hogsmeade does a perfect job of including all the details and scenes from the books and movies, such as the slanted chimneys and windows atop the buildings, moving paintings and talking Sorting Hat.
The recreation of Hogwarts is more than impressive. Despite sitting atop a large mountain of rockwork and not being quite the scale for guests, it is monumental and can be seen from most areas of the park. One of the main complaints about Belle’s Castle in New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom is that it relies too much on forced perspective due to its small scale, and when up close it can obviously seem like a prop. Universal spared no expense to make this castle a massive centerpiece to Hogsmeade, which was able to then include the smallest of details that are still visible to guests. The Castle is also a great backdrop for the many shows throughout the year projected onto it, such as the Christmas and Dark Arts events.
The interiors of the main shops and castle are quite possibly even more impressive than the outside. The Three Broomsticks utilizes wacky woodworking, Honeydukes is lined with light-colored candy shelves, and Ollivander’s has stacks of unorganized wand boxes. The queues of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey lead guests through multiple rooms of Hogwarts, including the Herbology Greenhouse, Gryffindor Common Room and Dumbledore’s office.
Speaking of attractions, the three main rides at Hogsmeades are better than those of any other land. Forbidden Journey utilizes a robotic arm system to move guests, making for lots of fun movements in front of both screens and physical sets. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure launches guests seven times through the Forbidden Forest, which boasts tons of props, trees and impressive set pieces.
Additionally, Flight of the Hippogriff is a great first coaster for children and also provides great views of Hagrid’s Hut.
Though it may not have the large footprint of some of the other lands on this list, the ability to capture so many large and small details from the books and movies is what makes this such a great land. I should also mention the classic soundtrack that plays throughout the land, which will give any fan of the franchise a smile. Whether or not you are a fan of the series, there’s no denying Hogsmeade and its attractions bring an unreal amount of magic and immersion into the land.
1. Diagon Alley and London, Universal Studios Orlando
The sister land of Hogsmeade earns the top spot on this list for being able to capture the same magic of its predecessor — and amplifying it. In 2014, Universal Creative brought yet another Harry Potter setting to life by emphasizing the whimsical and cartoonish elements of the Harry Potter universe, such as the crooked windows, slanted columns of Gringotts and colorful facades of the shops.
The London area, which covers the secret Wizarding alley, features large and impressive facades such as Kings Cross Station, Grimmauld Place and Leicester Square. You’ll also find the iconic purple knight bus parked out by the water. Guests then transition into Diagon Alley through the transformed brick wall just as Harry and Hagrid do in the first movie, revealing the winding street leading up to the bank. While Hogsmeade allows for some views of the surrounding areas and park, Diagon Alley completely immerses guests using large three-story facades to block off any views of the outside world, making you feel like you’re truly in books.
Two attractions opened with the expansion, each providing a completely different but fun experience. Escape from Gringotts is best described as an indoor roller coaster and dark ride hybrid. As a coaster, it features many high speed turns, a tilted drop and a launch. As a dark ride, it features spinning vehicles, large screens, and many physical sets. The queue also perfectly recreates the lobby of the Gringotts bank, before taking you through many preshow corridors.
The Hogwarts Express is revolutionary, providing guests a seamless transition between two lands (and parks) without breaking the immersion. I love the added details inside the train cars, as well as the video that plays to show the changing environments you travel through.
I also really enjoy the merchandise and dining options, as you can shop and eat just like the characters would in the movies. You can order Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron, shop for a wand from Ollivander’s, snag a souvenir from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes or collect dark artifacts from Borgin and Burkes. The merchandise also helps bring the land to life through guests, as countless wizards wearing robes of their house can be seen using their wands to activate cool tricks around each of the lands.
The layout is also well designed and fun to explore. Alongside the main winding street that leads up to the bank, there is also an entire side Alley consisting of more shops, a show, and wonderful facades. There’s also Knockturn Alley, which some guests may miss because there are no large signs pointing to it. Those who do stumble into the dark area will be presented with displays of dark magic as well as the shop responsible for holding death eater gatherings in the books.
Universal Creative did a perfect job with this land by using a lot of the same design aspects that it used to create Hogsmeade, but it also has so many fresh experiences. The Alley has a layout that inspires adventure, the shops and merchandise feature iconic details and items from the series, and the attractions further immerse you into the world. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Orlando Resort is a combination of two of the best-themed lands in the world, and I cannot wait to see what Universal Creative has in store for the Ministry of Magic section coming to Universal’s Epic Universe.
Upcoming: Avengers Campus, California Adventure
As a bonus entry to the list, the under-construction Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure will set itself far apart from Super Hero Island at Universal, as it will bring the universe of the latest Marvel movies to the West Coast. The style of the Avengers’ base looks sleek and high tech, and I’m sure the attractions will be considered some of the best at the resort.
Spiderman Webslingers will utilize similar technology found on Ninjago: the Ride at Legoland Florida, which senses hand movements to throw virtual ninja stars at targets.
The land also features a Dr. Strange show, live actors roaming the land and an unnamed Quinjet attraction coming in 2022.
So what did you think? Feel free to share any comments, feedback or your own thoughts on your favorite lands in the comments below. If there are any areas you have visited that you think should have made the list, feel free to mention them in the comments.
About the Author:
Zachary Culp is an undergraduate architecture student at the Pennsylvania State University pursuing a career in themed entertainment. He enjoys parks that provide fast and intense coasters as well as great ambiance and atmosphere. His dream is to one day take part in building rides that make advances in technology, thrills, narrative and scenery.