New Additions & Venerable Classics in Orlando: the Best of the Theme-Park Capital

Photo courtesy of Visit Kissimmee, Florida
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando
By A.D. Thompson, Orlando Local Expert

If you're going to drop your hard-earned cash at a theme park, being an informed consumer is imperative. The Disney complex alone, including the childhood fantasy land of the Magic Kingdom, exotic nations (not to mention fascinating live residents) of Animal Kingdom, sparkling liquid allure of Typhoon Lagoon, big-screen excitement of Hollywood Studios and the futuristic, multicultural playground of EPCOT, houses more parks than you can count on one hand. Add in Universal, SeaWorld and the myriad independently operated attractions vying for your leisure dollars and you've got some big decisions to make. Are you after the biggest roller coaster bang for your buck at a Disney venue? On the lookout for the best shows and interactive rides?  Maybe you’re searching for a dreamlike water park to help your family beat Orlando's formidable heat or feed the animals? Maybe you'd like to combine all three and opt for zip-lining over the alligator marsh at Gatorland? Well, whether you want to soar like Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure or just drink the Butterbeer, our Top 10 Theme Park rundown is a great place to begin your research. And if neither time nor money are any object? Easy: stay for two weeks and hit every single one.

10. Disney's Hollywood Studios™
Photo courtesy of Disney/David Roark

Combining signature thrill rides and movie magic, Disney's Hollywood Studios is the only place where you can enjoy tot-friendly Muppetvision in 3D, then plummet 13 stories on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! Experiences here, particularly for well versed fans of the big and small screen, are surreal. Fill your Star Wars quota to overload with all the new franchise-inspired attractions, including new experiences on Star Tours (one of the kingdom's most thrilling rides!) and fill your princess quota with shows based on "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," ride the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith and cap it off with phenomenal fireworks!

9. Aquatica
Photo courtesy of SeaWorld Aquatica

This park has its share of thrills in the form of rapids and half-pipes and bullet-fast water chutes but what makes it truly special is its wildlife (in particular, its stars: the Commerson's dolphins) and the serene and playful ways in which visitors can observe it. Walkabout Waters and Kata's Kookaburra Cover are ideal for the littlest in your party while thrill seekers might opt for Omaka Rocka or the Dolphin Plunge, Aquatica's most popular ride. And when you're ready to relax, hit the "beach." You can even splurge on one of the park's premium private cabanas.

8. SeaWorld Orlando
Photo courtesy of SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld is where education meets entertainment. Marvel in the tech advances and sensory immersion (it feels almost literal) as you follow the life journey of a sea turtle in the mercifully air-conditioned TurtleTrek. And for more of the latter, plus charming tuxedo'd penguins, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins is both state-of-the-art and an unbeatably "chill" escape from the Orlando heat. Rides here are no slouch either, Mako, Kraken and Manta are tops for roller coaster enthusiasts game for loops and drops and the folks who come for the animals have a roster from which to choose, whether barking sea lions, lumbering walruses or toothy sharks.

7. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon
Photo courtesy of Diana Zalucky/Disney

Laid-back and all-ages friendly (with a few killer slides and rides to satisfy the thrill-seekers in your crew) Typhoon Lagoon offers up the cool waters the Orlando heat makes you crave all while enveloping visitors in the Disney magic they've come to expect. In the case of this park, a tropical island village motif sets the mood. Highlights here include Shark Reef, offering visitors the chance to swim freely with leopard and bonnethead sharks, among other beautiful ocean creatures, in a safe, controlled environment and the Surf Pool - one of the world's largest -0 which cycles between small and large swells so that riders of all skill levels get a chance to hang ten.

6. Universal Studios Florida®
Photo courtesy of 2014 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved.

With Diagon Alley delighting the Potter people, Springfield USA luring Simpson fans worldwide and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride still high on visitors' lists, Universal Studios Florida gives its sister park more than a run for its money. Honestly, which you prefer will likely depend on a smidge preference for one ride or section over another. Additionally, coaster aficionados will rejoice in both the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and the indoor marvel of Revenge of the Mummy, which plunges riders into darkness as they race through dazzling, special effects-driven perils from the film that inspired it: scurrying carnivorous scarabs, an army of warrior mummies and an almost too-real fireball.

5. EPCOT ®
Photo courtesy of Disney/Garth Vaughan

EPCOT is now ubiquitous with both Disney and Orlando, but it's actually an acronym, standing for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and its Future World section is an ever-evolving testament to that very idea, showcasing advancements in technology from energy to space travel. World showcase features slices of life from a host of different nations, miniature cultural immersions via food, music, art, architecture and more. That said, don't think the kids will miss out on their favorite Disney characters. Anna-and-Elsa fans will delight in Norway's Frozen Ever After ride and The gang from "Finding Nemo" is on hand at The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion, which boasts one of the largest manmade ocean environments in the world (people actually snorkel and scuba dive in it) and various character greetings in the World Showcase will satisfy all character cravings. EPCOT is where education and entertainment come together for a one-two, theme park punch.

4. Disney's Animal Kingdom® Theme Park
Photo courtesy of Disney/Steven Diaz

Chase after the yeti on the peaks of the Himalayas, shoot the Kali Rapids on a lush and beautiful Indian river, go back in time to find dinosaurs on a prehistoric, dark-ride journey and delight in a colorful, fun musical presentation of "Finding Nemo" at this wondrous part of the Disney realm. Its newest section, Pandora, leaves the planet altogether, taking guests on a journey to lush and primordial Pandora. It's a magnificent trip, but all the new doesn't take a thing away from things like the Kilamanjaro Safari, where live animals roam free or the resplendent Tree of Life Nightime Awakenings show.

3. Gatorland
Photo courtesy of Visit Kissimmee, Florida

It bills itself as "Orlando's best half-day attraction" and we tend to agree. In a city that often puts people at odds with their budget (time and/or money) with so many amazing parks to visit, Gatorland does the day's schedule for you: half spent exploring a park devoted to Florida's most famous native inhabitants, half spent by the resort pool with a cold beverage. Of course, if you want more gator – have at it. Catch Gatorland's animals and handler shows in the afternoon, hit the splash pad with the kids, then try its newest attraction: the Screamin' Gator Zipline, where adventurers soar at speeds approaching 30 m.p.h. over live alligators and crocodiles. There's a nighttime run, as well. Other fun add-ons include the Gator Night Shine and various into-the-swamp jaunts for up-close alligator action. Even with supplemental activities, Gatorland still ranks as a comparative theme-park bargain.

2. Magic Kingdom® Park
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando

Welcome to where it all began. Magic Kingdom may be the first of Walt Disney World's theme parks, but it's no less relevant. Recent years have seen doubling of New Fantasyland with the debut of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and other noteworthy additions. In the meantime, Cinderella's castle still beckons, the groundbreaking indoor thrills of Space Mountain remain solid, "it's a small world" still delights children (and the parents and grandparents who remember their first visit decades ago) - musical ear worm notwithstanding. Upgrades, of course, have happened everywhere, from the Hall of Presidents to Pirates of the Caribbean, where the plunge is as stomach-dropping as ever, but the addition of Captain Jack Sparrow satisfies fans of those eponymous blockbuster films. As always, everyone's favorite characters, from Donald and Goofy to princesses past and present, are on-hand for photo-ops and magically memorable moments.

1. Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure®
Photo courtesy of 2014 Universal Orlando Resort. All rights reserved.

From the towering sight of Hogwarts Castle as you explore the Wizarding World's Hogsmeade to the colorful fun of Seuss Landing (ideal for the littlest one in your party) and the old-school flume-ride fun of Jurassic Park to the innovative thrills of Spiderman to the exciting meld of 3D technology and animatronics in Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Islands of Adventure is a king among the heavy-hitting theme-park contenders this city has to offer. Debating which ride, or even which section of the park, tops them all is best slated for some after-park drinks at nearby Universal CityWalk after thoughtful research in the field.