Friday Face Off – Universal Orlando Water Rides

Splash Mountain Exhilaration
Splash Mountain Exhilaration

When touring through any amusement park, but especially on a hot day, jumping into the line of a water ride can be a refreshing way to exhilarate the senses, cool down, and experience a different ride, too. For the seasoned Disney World guest, it’s easy to take a ride on Splash Mountain, Kali River Rapids, or just let the kids run and splash through the Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station. Making the transition to Universal Orlando‘s water rides brings a great variety, too. But before hopping onto one of the rides, make certain you know exactly what the ride will bring to your family. As we experienced, the Universal Orlando water rides bring quite a few surprises.

Universal Orlando created itself, I think, as either a great complement to a visit to Disney World, or a unique alternative to Disney World. This certainly extends to Universal Orlando water rides. While natural comparisons can be drawn between the two resorts and their water rides, Universal offers a completely different experience. I’ll assume that if you’re reading this article, you have some familiarity with Disney’s rides but less experience at Universal.

The most natural comparison between the two parks is probably Splash Mountain to Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. Both are very good rides, in their own right. Both capture a relatively obscure cartoon and turn them into enjoyable water rides. They both tell a story that probably doesn’t make too much sense to many riders. Even after a few re-rides, I’d guess that most riders would have difficulty really telling the entirety of the story. Both are beautiful expansions of the traditional ‘log flume’ ride. Nearly any other amusement park would swoon to have a ride with even half the capability of either of these rides.

Splash Mountain, however, is an immersive wonderland. From start to finish, and throughout the ride queue, as well, guests transport themselves into the film – that most of us have probably never seen. The animatronic characters, immersive set-up, beautiful scenery, and music that plays throughout all transport riders into the scene. Outside of one or two moments, it infallibly works. The negative moments? When Brer Rabbit hops behind the fence and is re-set, he appears visible behind the fence. The climb up the last hill seems scantily populated. A few Brer Bear animatronic characters appear a bit bent at the fabric. And Brer Frog is not in the movie (not that anyone has seen it): he’s just a creation for the ride. But outside of my criticisms, the ride is nearly perfect, with two dips into water and one long dive at the end. Although the water explodes over the drop, most riders get wet but stay fairly dry, too.

ripsaw cropped
Wearing ponchos – necessarily – and keeping our kids’ digital footprint small, too.

The set-up of Ripsaw is excellent. I love the Mount Rushmore homage outside. The outfits on the team members may also be some of my favorite of any Universal employees. On our first day at Universal, the ride was closed, but employees were still cheerily greeting people out front. And although it suffers still from the Universal ‘maze of labyrinthian queue line,’ it at least wandered by some fun stuff. There is even a YouTube video walking through the line; that video is over eight minutes long! When we visited in August, we spent time in the queue. It’s unfortunate that many people skip this section, or walk quickly by it. But the ride – everyone sees. Ripsaw Falls felt incomplete in the beginning sections of the ride. It starts by plunging you into total darkness, and small segments of the ride are quickly illuminated, then darkened again. But even in those areas, obvious stairwells, EXIT signs, and metal banisters line the peeks. The similarities are uncanny between it and Splash Mountain. They opened about ten years between, and Universal certainly used Splash Mountain as a template. The ride sits above the falls area. It entered and exited outside, and even had a false drop or two before climbing to the end of the ride. But while in Splash Mountain the characters play banjos, sing along, and ride on the water, most of the characters on Ripsaw Falls are stagnant – either standing open-mouthed while dialog plays over riders , or slight movements repeated over and over. Many of the statuesque characters sat outside of the normal layout and turn of the ride. Did anyone else also notice the multitudes of ‘don’t stand up warnings’ throughout the ride? Of course, this came well after being nearly sewn into the cockpit at the start of the ride. Splash Mountain has the traditional hallowed-out log, while Ripsaw Falls has that and a bar that latches in front of you to hold you on the ride. Perhaps it may be a bit too cautious in its set-up.

During the ride, I missed many of the jokes surrounding me, as well. I had to either turn awkwardly up, or look behind me as I rode to catch many of the jokes as they moved. But even as I passed, characters grinned giddily while announcements rang from visible speakers sitting behind Dudley. Halfway through the ride, these scenes finally seemed to come to life. What had been empty halls were filled with characters, in-jokes, and humorous statements. The crossing and then double-crossing sign was one of my favorites. Why did it take this long for the ride to finally wake up? Unfortunately, I felt that most of the ride’s feel had been clearly set at that point. The attraction continued to improve as we rode. The climb up the hill into the water curtain was fantastic – without spoiling, I wish that it hadn’t stopped halfway. I know of at least one member of our party who continued to scream like a crazed person, expecting the water to pour down. I wish that it had a greater impact, but here – and after so many harsh impacts at Universal – the set-up may have been enough. The end of the ride was clearly better on Ripsaw. We got drenched – as any good Universal ride would. The acceleration down the fall – and the quick rise and drop again – got us good. Much more exhilarating that Splash Mountain. Designed for water – and excitement. The drop – and the rise at the end were superior to Splash Mountain, but that’s the only place I thought was clearly better.

Kali River Rapids has always been a major disappointment to me. On our first trip, I stayed behind with our youngest, and after my wife and two older daughter departed, she told me it wasn’t worth it at all. I’m not certain if it tried to be too educational – in line with Animal Kingdom’s desires to be environmentally conscious. Disney World offers complimentary lockers to riders, and a hatch aboard each boat to stow more valuables below a plastic sheen. While the ride may offer a bit of a break on a hot day, it falls under Disney’s wishes to let guests ‘feel’ exhilarated, instead of really soaking them.

This isn’t the case on Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges. At all. More than certainly, this ride is the greatest water ride in Orlando. While certainly, I haven’t been on all of them, this may be the best river rapids ride ever. Our second ride, I’m unashamed to say that we wore ponchos. The couple across from us started laughing – The ride offers a pod in the center to protect your belongings from the water, and you should take advantage of it. Right from the start, the pace quickens and moves the raft quickly along the water, bouncing along to splash nearly every forward side. It slides by a great splash through a marooned boat, drenching half of the people in every boat that floats by. For most rides (I’m talking to YOU, Kali!), this would be it. The water slows down, but only to saunter around The Olive to allow other guests to squirt any guests who may have escaped dry. The path narrows, and the boat hits the side, starting the turning boat into another pipe pouring water down onto riders again. It doesn’t have a ton of water splashing out, but because the boat turns, it gets a bunch of people, again. The boat enters a cave to see an octopus, pushing riders below another waterfall. The story continues here – and it really is beautifully themed, as well. If you’re a Popeye person, you might remember the old movie with the octopus, or just some cartoons from youth, but then it’s off to the boat wash – where EVERYONE should get wet again. Bluto, above the slow rise, sprays every boat as they saunter by. I think that this was the point where that couple from across the boat that laughed at us initially had second thoughts. “When does this END!?” he screamed. Of course, we’re only about halfway done here. The ride careens off the boat wash, through sprays from the side, and more of Popeye eating his spinach, defeating Bluto, and all with sprays of water from the sides. This beauty of a ride must be experienced.

Universal has a propensity to really soak riders, and that is not what everyone wants. Each person seeks each ride differently. For my nickel, on a water ride, I generally love to get soaked. Universal’s offering, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Disney World’s Magic Carpets of Aladdin – or perhaps Dumbo – all seem the same from the outside. All are flying carousel rides suspended over water. But while Dumbo is just for decoration, Aladdin spins by a camel who spits a small stream of water onto riders. One Fish, Two Fish, alternately has a plan of spinning and riding with water flying all over the ride. From what I’ve heard, if guests follow the directions given, you can miss the water. From what I experienced with a seven-year-old pilot, you get soaked. I don’t know if she purposely ignored the directions, or if we couldn’t hear them, but I do remember begging her to go up – and her purposely flying the other direction. The last refrain, either way you’re guessing. The ride itself has multiple water elements, up, down, and all over. We hit all of them, I think. For a hot day, at a park built in Florida, the ride should get you wet. We certainly did. On Aladdin, my daughters always flew us over the water – so we never hit a drop.

I think that Universal has beautifully fit its rides around the existing Disney World ones. While I certainly prefer some of the Universal Orlando rides, they are compacted into a tiny area. The Toon Lagoon – featuring all of the water rides – is a great idea, but it also compacts all of the rides of that nature into a small spot, especially when the Jurassic Park River Adventure sits right next to the exit. In short, neither experience is perfect. Both parks have a set of expectations, and neither completely disappoints. I do wish that Universal would offer a few more rides that could offer less in the way of drenching. Or even that Disney World could offer some experiences that would really soak me. However, both offer a perfect set of opportunities for the savvy, prepared, and adventure seeking vacationer.

Let us know in the comments which ride you prefer. Splash Mountain or Ripsaw Falls? Bilge Rat Barges or Kali River Rapids?

Kevin Bastos

Kevin has taught high school since 1998, and loved Disney World since a 2009 visit with his wife and three daughters. He loves the planning stages of the vacation, and tends to focus on details (while his wife manages the big picture). He also collects comic books, and sometimes maintains a blog reading them. You can follow my twitter @kevin_m_bastos.

One thought on “Friday Face Off – Universal Orlando Water Rides

  • October 3, 2014 at 6:50 am
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    A few years ago I followed your plan and did the bilge rats, dudley, and jurassic park in a row. I was soaked in the first two and really wet after jp. I think the trio is really fantastic and worth the preparing for.

    JP as originally built was one of the best rides in the world, but it slipped because of poor upkeep. Splash is king of theme, but ioa has the best collection in one place. Even the non water rides seemed to all squirt you for fun.

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