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The 14 best themed roller coasters of the decade

No longer just huge steel or wooden structures, the coasters of today provide a story alongside the white-knuckle thrills. Check out our rundown of 14 of the decade’s best themed roller coasters.

Busch-Gardens-Verbolten_ best themed roller coasters

Roller Coasters may be the king of the theme park midway. However, they are really just behemoth structures built from steel and wood. Big or small, pretty much every coaster has this in common.

By Lance HartScreamscape

The decade’s best themed roller coasters

But what if one could hide the structure? Or even hide the track?  Instead of hurtling through the sky, what if your coaster looked like a bobsled careening down the side of a snow-capped mountain in an attempt to escape an angry snowman? What if the entire ride was enclosed in a building to make the riders feel like they were flying through outer space?

There are your basic coasters that make no attempt to be more than they are. These are sometimes built right over the top of an old parking lot so that riders can see the blacktop and painted lines below. Then there are the best themed roller coasters. It is amazing what a difference the addition of a little scenery, landscaping and a semi-coherent storyline can make.

In honour of all those roller coasters that dared to become something much more, I present to you the 14 best themed roller coasters of the decade.

14) Black Diamond – Knoebels (Pennsylvania, USA) – 2011

First on our list of the best themed roller coasters is Black Diamond. This coaster had an extensive history long before it came to Knoebels. It started out as the Golden Nugget at Dinosaur Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey way back in 1960. Created by Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters (better known today as PTC) it ran around a structure on an indoor/outdoor layout before the entire park was closed in 1998.

It sat for a number of years before the ride was purchased and saved by Knoebels. It reopened in 2011 with a new all indoor structure and theme as a hybrid coaster and ghost-train dark ride experience.

13) Verbolten – Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Virginia, USA) – 2012

In 2009 Busch Gardens Williamsburg made the decision to retire their popular Big Bad Wolf coaster. This was an Arrow suspended model. It made a wild run through the woods and rolling landscape, and even through a small European village setting. This was brilliantly was used to hide some of the coaster’s support structure.

In remembrance of that coaster, they hired Zierer to custom make a new themed coaster experience. This would retrace some of the former ride’s route but add in a themed show building in mid-ride. This included a free-fall drop track for this new multi-launched sports-car themed wild drive through cursed woods.

verbolten busch gardens themed roller coasters

What makes Verbolten secure in our list of the best themed roller coasters is that there are several different possible themed elements that can play out just before the drop-track. This gives riders a reason to ride it several times during a visit to experience them all.

12) Space Fantasy – Universal Studios Japan (Osaka, Japan) – 2010

In 2009 Universal Studios Japan closed their E.T. Adventure dark ride attraction. They did this to repurpose the soundstage into a new themed spinning coaster attraction concept. This would be unique to Universal Studios Japan and not copied at any other Universal theme park.

Mack Rides was brought on to provide the Spinning Coaster system. It would take riders through outer space aided by numerous special effects and an on-board audio system.

This attraction has also been temporarily repurposed as an “XR” experience over the past several years during the park’s Universal Cool Japan-themed events where the addition of VR headgear on the riders allows for a virtual “retheme” of the experience to take place and a new story to be told.

These new themes have included Anime style adventures with Lupin The Third and Evangelion, a trip into the Final Fantasy video game world and into a crazy pop culture experience with Japanese model/singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

In fact, these XR experiences have proven to be so popular that when the Space Fantasy theme of the ride temporarily closed in 2016, a series of back to back XR overlays delayed the return of Space Fantasy until July 2019.

11) Baron 1898 – Efteling (North Brabant, The Netherlands) – 2015

Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M) was selected by Efteling to use the company’s Dive Machine roller coaster system, but add a highly themed lift hill structure and structure leading up to the vertical first drop. Efteling has woven a custom story about poor workers being sent into a cave by the Baron to mine gold protected by supernatural spirits that will cause a life-long curse on anyone who touches it.

Baron 1898 efteling best themed roller coasters
Baron 1898

The ride experience includes a themed queue and pre-show experience, including the appearance of floating ghostly apparitions… a theme that is continued as your board the coaster trains and advances and pauses into a themed room for a show scene before moving up the lift hill.

10) Dragon Gliders – Motiongate (Dubai, UAE) – 2017

Creating an experience that has more in common with a dark ride than a true roller coaster, Motiongate used a Mack Rides Inverted Powered Coaster as the ride system. This allows cars to rotate to view scenes, animatronics and projected media on screens. Cars also have an onboard audio system.

Dragon Gliders allowed for Motiongate to successfully bring the world of Dreamworks Animation’s “How To Train Your Dragon” animated film series to life.

9) Slinky Dog Dash – Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Florida, USA) – 2018

When Walt Disney World decided to create a new Toy Story-themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park, they decided they needed to make it bigger than the similarly themed lands already built at a few of their international parks.

slinky dog dash best themed roller coasters toy story land disney.
Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
(Matt Stroshane, photographer)

A custom launched coaster from Mack Rides themed around the Slinky Dog character from the animated films was chosen. Falling in with the theme of the land, riders are surrounded in a landscape full of oversized toys scattered about the backyard.

8) Arthur – Europa Park (Rust, Germany) – 2014

Number 10 on our list of the best themed roller coasters would not exist without the creation of the Arthur ride at Europa Park. It was on this ride that the prototype Mack Rides Inverted Powered Coaster ride system was first put to use.

Featuring both indoor and outdoor track segments, riders enter a themed building structure to be immersed into the world from the Arthur and the Invisibles (Minimoys) film series. They then enter a ride queue and climb aboard the inverted coaster trains for a wild adventure.

7) The Swarm – Thorpe Park (England, UK) – 2012

As the world’s second B&M “Wing Coaster” design, Thorpe Park decided to take what would normally be an unthemed coaster ride to another level. They did this by theming the ride experience around that of an alien invasion.

swarm wing coaster thorpe park best themed roller coasters
Swarm, Thorpe Park by Daniel Lewis

Riders are taken for an extreme coaster ride while passing through the landscape of an apocalypse. They pass through the wreckage of a crashed jet airliner and a submerged fire engine, as well as a damaged helicopter. They even ride through a billboard along the way.

6) Big Grizzly Mountain – Hong Kong Disneyland (Hong Kong, China) – 2012

As part of a multi-year expansion plan to increase the number of themed attractions at the new park, Hong Kong Disneyland envisioned building a new Disney-style ‘mountain’ themed roller coaster attraction.

While not wanting to build a copy of the classic Big Thunder Mountain style attraction already in use in the US, France and Japan, Hong Kong hired Vekoma to build an all-new adventure creation with a Western theme.

Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars themed coasters blooloop
Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars

While passing over a highly themed landscape, riders experience a regular forward style roller coaster experience. This leads into a lift-hill roll-back, a wild backwards track section and an explosive magnetic launch forward once again before coming back to the station.

5) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – Magic Kingdom (Florida, USA) – 2014

For the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train,  Disney worked with Vekoma once again to create a custom new coaster train system. This has not been tried before and it that would see riders seated in mine-ore cars and able to swing from side-to-side as the lateral g-forces increase.

seven dwarfs mine train by vekoma best themed roller coasters blooloop
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Matt Stroshane, photographer)

Designed to fit into Fantasyland, the ride was themed around the Seven Dwarfs characters. It uses both indoor and outdoor track sections. These take riders into the Dwarfs’ gem mine. They pass by amazing new animatronic figures that feature incredible facial projections from the inside.

While a bit on the short side, the popular new ride was quickly cloned to be included as an opening day attraction at Shanghai Disneyland in 2016.

4) Tron Lightcycle Power Run – Shanghai Disneyland (Shanghai, China) – 2016

Tron Lightcycle Power Run Shanghai Disneyland best themed roller coasters

When Disney planned the various lands at the new Shanghai theme park, it wanted to make a statement. It wanted to build a number of new attraction concepts and visions that it had never done before.

As such, the anchor attraction of Tomorrowland was not another copy of Space Mountain. Instead, Disney worked with Vekoma to bring the electronic video-game world of TRON and TRON Legacy to life. They did this by building the world’s first Lightcycle themed roller coaster experience, which makes our list of the best themed roller coasters.

The ride features a rapid launch system into an outdoor track segment, under a large canopy structure. It then flies back into the giant show building for the remainder of the themed coaster adventure. Riders will appear to be duelling with other Lightcycles on the Game Grid.

This new ride has proven popular in China. So much so that a copy is now under construction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park. This will open in 2021 as part of a 50th Anniversary celebration.

3) Taron – Phantasialand (Brühl, Germany) – 2016

When Phantasialand wanted to build a multi-launch coaster experience from Intamin, it wasn’t enough to just build the coaster itself. Phantasialand built an entirely new themed world for Taron. The new coaster (and a second smaller family coaster) inhabit a kingdom called Klugheim.

Phantasialand taron best themed roller coasters
Taron at Phantasialand – one of the best themed roller coasters of the decade

The themed environment is inspired by ancient Norse culture. It has sharp looking canyon walls and numerous village buildings and pathways in all directions. It is safe to say that you’ve never seen anything quite like this while riding on a roller coaster at 72+mph.

2) Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – Universal Studios Florida (Florida, USA) – 2014

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is the anchor attraction of Universal Orlando’s second Wizarding World of Harry Potter-themed land. A giant building encloses the entire attraction and themed queue experience. This is themed on the outside as the Gringotts Bank from the film series.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts best themed roller coasters

Riders enter the bank. They then pass through the lobby past an assortment of Goblin figures sitting at the bank teller windows. Next, they proceed deeper into the complex in order to access the private vaults.

Along the way, guests experience a pre-show experience to set the story before boarding a themed elevator for a ride down to the lower levels before boarding the vault train for a ride experience like no other.

Intamin is said to have provided the custom coaster hardware. It features trains able to rotate to view ride scenery, some of which use 3D projection screens. Add in some unique “trick” track sections, show stops and a dramatic high-speed launch and guests leave the experience feeling as if they took part in their very own adventure in the Wizarding World.

1) Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – Islands of Adventure (Florida, USA) – 2019

The last ride on this list of the best themed roller coasters, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is the newest. It recently opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. To fit in this new coaster Universal removed the popular Dueling Dragons / Dragon Challenge coasters (Dueling B&M Inverted Coaster) but kept the popular and highly themed pre-ride queue building that travels through a large castle structure.

hagrid coaster vehicle by Intamin best themed roller coasters

Intamin was tapped once again to bring its technical magic to this new attraction. The vehicles look like a perfect recreation of Hagrid’s flying motorcycle and sidecar. After passing through an extensively themed queue, riders climb into their own motorcycles for a multi-launch coaster experience like no other.

The majority of the ride experience is outside. However, the theming is perhaps richer than anything I have ever seen before. Riders pass at high speeds by several castle ruins, wizard huts, animatronic figures and trees!

This lush forest word uses over 1,200 real trees. Another highlight is a memorable encounter with a particular Devil’s Snare that you won’t soon forget. Add in the fact that Hagrid features an astounding seven launches during the course of the layout – more than any other coaster on the planet – plus a hidden drop-track.

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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