Summer vacation often meant theme parks for many of us (and still does), but a rollercoaster and a few waterslides are nothing compared to starships, 3D video games, and giant animatronic dinosaurs that lunge at you as you plunge to a watery doom.
So maybe that last one was an exaggeration, since you do get to leave Jurassic World with your head still on, but if you’ve ever wanted to walk with prehistoric beasts or blast off to a galaxy far, far away, there are theme parks that have taken the whole idea of a theme park and made it a sort of parallel universe where you can exist in places that you thought the closest you'd ever get to was an IMAX theater or a pair of 3D glasses.
Strap yourself in for a thrill ride at one of these fantastically geeky theme parks that take whatever you used to do on a weekend to the next level.
Disney Pandora: The World of Avatar
Somewhere in the wild depths of Disney's Animal Kingdom is a glowing alien moon. Disney Imagineers brought Pandora to Earth when they wanted to out-magic the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but it's since mutated into its own trippy wonderland. Picture a bioluminescent rainforest as you drift through in the N'avi River Journey floating through caves and treescapes flourishing with everything that grows (and glows) in the dark and listening to the haunting voice of the Shaman of Songs. Explore the Valley of Mo'ara, whose floating mountains light up with a rainbow of color at night, and even interact with tour guides from Alpha Centauri Expeditions or scientists from the Pandora Conversion Initiative. You can even go through the N'avi rite of passage and ride a Banshee — they haven’t been able to wrangle one yet, but the simulation is pretty unreal.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
If you're a hardcore Potterhead, you've probably had at least 85 butterbeers at Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley by now, but the special effects wizards at Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida are waving their wands to make this upcoming holiday season beyond imagining. They’ll be taking lumos to a whole new level by putting Hogsmeade under an SFX spell (a digital projection mapping extravaganza) that will make the whole place appear as if it's twinkling with thousands of strings of fairy lights. The digital projection effects that will wow guests at the parks' invite-only grand opening will also make scenes from the movies materialize. Everything will be aglow in holiday magic this November, including shops, musical shows and even the Hogwarts Express. And of course, you'll be able to warm up with a glass of — what else? — hot butterbeer.
While science hasn't managed to restore the DNA of dinosaurs (yet), the eerily realistic reptiles on these recreations of Isla Nublar at Universal Hollywood and Universal Orlando may have you thinking otherwise. At least the animatronics pretty much guarantee you'll come out alive. Hollywood's Jurassic Park the Ride throws you into the face of prehistoric monsters like a grinning T-Rex before a narrow escape plunges you down 84 feet into a foaming splash of water. The Jurassic Park River Adventure in Orlando makes a detour into the restricted area of Jurassic Park — you know, where all the things with teeth are. If you want to fly in the clutches of a Pteranodon, the only way to get there is a ticket to Universal Osaka. All the parks are so realistic you'll be constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure nothing got a whiff of your blood.
Marvel Zone at IMG Worlds of Adventure
Just when you thought Marvel superheroes couldn't get any larger than life after leaping out from between the pages of comics or blowing up the big screen, they just did. This place is literally like stepping into a live-action comic book. You will have to put on your cape and fly to Dubai (the epicenter of everything extravagant), but this is no Six Flags — IMG isn't just a theme park with hero-themed rides but a living, breathing Marvel universe. You'll be thoroughly convinced of that after a spin on the Spider-Man's Doc Ock's Revenge coaster, fly in a Quinjet in Avengers: Battle of Ultron and boost your powers in Thor's Thunder Spin and the 3D experience that is Hulk Epsilon Base D. There are even giant spiderwebs clinging to the streetlamps as if your friendly neighborhood you-know-who just swung by.
This altverse in China with multiple worlds from WOW that may or may not be legal is basically Blizzcon on steroids. However shady that sounds, the place is still unapologetically epic. If you think you're seeing Silvermoon City, you probably are (remember the legality of this place is still in question), and don’t tell me that giant panda isn’t from Mists of Pandaria. Universe of Starship is Starcraft. Just forget that the entrance looks a little too much like the Universal Studios symbol. Potential lawsuits aside, you do have to admit that the Splash of Monster Blood water ride that whooshes past huge stone guardians reminiscent of something more out of Tolkien's universe than Blizzard's is pretty awesome. So are the drinks that look like potions of unknown origin. If you can't read Chinese, you probably won’t know what’s in them anyway.
Universal Super Nintendo World
Do you play so much Mario Kart that you might as well exist in the game? Universal Studios Japan understands. This is why they dreamed up a park that encompasses several life-size versions of the Nintendo video games you grew up with and aren't ashamed to admit you're still leveling up on. There will even be games that can be downloaded and played only in the park, kind of like a super-exclusive version of Pokemon Go. Attractions will still be programmed into this one until 2020, but there will be a dancing Mario and some sort of Donkey Kong Ride, and you'll know your princess is in no other castle when you see Peachy's Castle. Even better is that both Universal Studios parks closer to home have plans for bringing the digital world to 3D reality.
Disney Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
You won't have to go far, far away or even past Earth's atmosphere to fly the Millennium Falcon or experience a battle between the First Order and the Resistance when Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge lands in Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2018. You'll be surrounded by creatures you'd only expect to encounter at the Mos Eisley Cantina, and you can actually have a drink at said cantina after an adventure on the Death Star Destroyer hangar. Oh, and who else but Rex from Star Tours will be the DJ? Park your starship here if you go to Disney for no other reason — I mean, you get to sit behind the controls like Han Solo. No word on whether your sidekick will be a Wookiee.
The Overlook Hotel at Universal
Maybe I've been on Disney's Tower of Terror too many times for it to shock me anymore, which is why horror fans need Universal's thrill ride adaptation of Stephen King's haunted hotel, which will open its gaping doors for Halloween Horror Nights this year. This is no Holiday Inn. It will be a mazelike experience that might just make you lose your mind. If the monstrosities in the book and movie are any indication, you're probably going to be seeing swinging hatchets, the bloated purple hand of a corpse hanging out of the bathtub and those creepy ghost twins down the hallway beckoning you to come play with them. That is, if you don't spiral into insanity before then. Extra points if Jack Torrance's irreversibly frozen face meets you on the way out. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!
If you've ever wanted to be spirited away to the otherworldly imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, everything from Howl's chicken-legged castle to the enchanted forest from My Neighbor Totoro will be coming to life in 2020 when a the Ghibli theme park of your wildest fantasies opens in Aichi Prefecture's EXPO Park. Look closer at the plan and you'll also see a very familiar spa building and dirigible along with a certain dragon you know you've always wanted to carry you above the clouds. You will need a passport — because Japan — but if this is anything like the Studio Ghibli museum, expect the long-armed robots of Lapuda and a huge furry Totoro among the trees. I can only imagine what other wonders will await, but maybe a floating island is asking too much. I'm just hoping transportation will be in the form of a Catbus.
Warner Bros. Metropolis and Gotham City
When a Marvel theme park exists, a DC one must follow in its wake. Warner Bros. has joined forces with Abu Dahbi's Miral to bring Batman's Gotham and Superman's Metropolis to its immense theme park planned for 2018. Just like in the comics and movies, there will be no shortage of shadowy back alleys in Gotham and a skyline of monolithic skyscrapers in Metropolis. The lurid red letters of the Ace o' Clubs glow streetside and the Hall of Justice shines at the recreated city's core. Whether you will actually know where Gotham's radioactive green Riddler ride will take you (or what it will do to you) is questionable, but it should be. There's also a wildly creepy neon Joker whose grin hides something I can't even begin to guess at. Only your undertaker knows for sure.