Nickelodeon Universe indoor theme park: Everything you need to know before you go
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The Nickelodeon Universe theme park, right outside of New York City, opened with great fanfare on Oct. 25, 2019. It’s the largest indoor amusement park in the Western Hemisphere. The park, in Rutherford, New Jersey, is part of a massive complex called American Dream.
When it’s fully open, the complex will include the theme park, Big SNOW, the first indoor snow park in North America; DreamWorks Water Park, the largest indoor water park in North America; an NHL-sized ice-skating rink (now open); a performing arts theater; KidZania interactive city made for children aged 1 to 14; the CMX luxury movie theater; a 300-foot observation wheel overlooking Manhattan; the New Jersey Hall of Fame; the Sea Life Aquarium; a Legoland Discovery Center; a ClimbZone; a Mirror Maze; and two 18-hole miniature golf courses, along with more than 300 shops and 100 restaurants.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, only the theme park and the ice rink are open. TPG decided to eschew the grand opening. Instead, I took my 14-year-old daughter, Clare, and two of her friends — Amira and Breah — to test out the Nickelodeon Universe theme park on Nov. 16, 2019. Here’s what happened.
Nickelodeon Universe theme park basics
The park is a stone’s throw away from the MetLife football stadium used by the New York Giants and the New York Jets in Rutherford. It’s an easy drive from the mid-Atlantic region since it’s exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike. There are 33,000 parking spaces available. But if you decide to drive, be warned: Traffic can be heavy if the Giants or Jets are playing a home game or the Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment complex is open for thoroughbred and harness horse racing.
The day we were there, it was easy to park, since we arrived at 10:30 a.m., 30 minutes after the Nickelodeon Universe theme park opened. But when we departed at around 4:30 p.m., it was harder, since people were arriving for the Division III Cortaca Jug football game between Ithaca College and the State University of New York at Cortland. Right now, parking is free with a validated ticket. But as American Dream opens more shops and restaurants, be prepared to pay $30 for a day of parking.
For those flying into New York City, you can catch a Lyft (the official rideshare of American Dream) for between $105 for a four-person car to $160 for an XL car/SUV from JFK Airport. From LaGuardia (LGA), it’s between $85 and $110; and for nearby Newark (EWR), it’s between $20 and $42.
If you want to use public transportation from New York, there’s an express bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and a shuttle from the NY Waterway ferry in Weehawken. NJ Transit buses will operate from Hoboken/Union City, Paterson/Passaic and Hackensack, and shuttle service from the Secaucus Junction train station to American Dream is available, with five NJ Transit bus route stops.
Rides, shows and characters
The park is home to many familiar Nickelodeon characters, and most of the rides are named after them. You walk inside, and aside from being far more compact a space than the usual outdoor amusement parks, the rides seem familiar and quite harmless. But don’t be fooled! These rides look deceptively simple; however, they are small but mighty.
Our first ride was SpongeBob’s Jellyfish Jam. We’ve all been on this swing ride. You sit in a seat connected to a chain, you pull down the metal seat belt bar and you go for a fast, breezy whirl.
But, not this ride. Yes, you did your fast, breezy whirl. But the top part of the ride also undulated like a wave, which added a whole new nauseating dimension to the Jellyfish Jam. I had to close my eyes to keep the nausea back. And it was much faster than the old, familiar swing rides in other amusement parks. The girls were impressed and wanted to go again. I just wanted to sit with my head between my legs, breathing heavily.
So, what did I do next? Get on a ride that looked so insane that the three teens I brought refused to go on it. This ride made the swings feel like a kiddy ride. You sit in a circle of seats, harnessed, with your feet hanging down. The ride started whirling in a circle and then it did a series of pendulum swings until we were going in circles and doing 360-degree turns up and down. I actually saw my life flash before my eyes — the same eyes I kept closed the entire ride. It would have been a blast for me if I were only 40 years younger!
I definitely needed to sit down after the ride to get my bearings. While I did that, the girls got on two more rides: Aang’s Air Gliders and a crazy bumper car ride where you drove over a slick track — plus you could make your seat do a 180-degree turn as you rode.
Next up was Jimmy Neutron’s Atom Smasher. It looked like a pretty simple ride, going in circles around a wavy track, but I was wrong — again. The ride operator pointed to a harmless-looking stick shift and said “pull this forward and backward,” and walked off. The ride was faster than I expected and that stick shift? It rolled you around 360 degrees. Yet another ride that I had to keep my eyes closed to stave off the nausea.
I needed another rest after that ride, so the girls went on the Legends of the Hidden Temple Challenge, a nine-story climbing tower.
After being harnessed and tested, it was time to climb the tower. You could take different paths, easier or harder, knowing if you made a misstep, the harness was there to protect you. The girls were not impressed. Their quote? “It doesn’t DO anything!” Tough crowd.
Other rides included:
- Skyline Scream, 10-story ride with stellar views of New York City — until that stomach-churning drop
- Dora’s Sky Railway, a train that rides along tracks above the park
- Rugrats Reptar Go-Round, a two-story merry-go-round
- A kiddie sky drop
- The kid-friendly Pup Pup & Away Ferris wheel
The last ride of the day — a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”-themed Shellraiser roller coaster — was my favorite ride. This ride, which took up most of the back wall of the park, looked innocent enough. But with seven upside-down curves and a 180-degree ride up — with a quick stop to catch another stellar view of New York City — along with a 180-degree drop into a corkscrew curve, this ride wasn’t for the faint of heart.
There was a stage where anyone could take pictures with characters. Surprise — I couldn’t talk the teenagers into taking a photo with Patrick from “Sponge Bob Square Pants” or Boots, the monkey from “Dora the Explorer.” More characters are coming, but smaller children were delighted to have their photos taken with their familiar television friends.
Who will enjoy Nickelodeon Universe theme park?
Once this park is fully operational, it will have a nice balance of rides and activities for the kids and adults. It was bright and colorful, with enough to keep everyone’s attention, minus the non-operating rides. But when it’s fully operational, visitors will have access to 35 rides, including the world’s steepest roller coaster in the Shellraiser and the tallest indoor spinning drop tower with Skyline Scream. Although it wasn’t open when we were there, you can look for Nickelodeon’s iconic Slime Stage, where kids and adults alike can be covered with neon green goo.
When to visit Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park
We arrived soon after the park’s 10 a.m. opening, and it wasn’t crowded at all. There were plenty of rides where you could get off and hop right back on. But, the crowds started to grow after 1:30 p.m., and it was more cramped when we left at 4:30 p.m. But this will probably change as more people are expected to flock to the park, in particular, and American Dream, in general.
Admission and how to save
Everyone over the age of 2 must pay to get into the park, and there are no children’s prices. You can choose between $59.99 for access to all rides and $44.99 for general access, which doesn’t allow you on some of the more exciting rides. In comparison, the Nickelodeon Universe in the Mall of America costs $36.99. I searched for discounts or coupons, but there are none to be had right now. But when the park and the American Dream complex are fully open in March, I expect to start seeing deals.
What to watch out for
Although the park opened Oct. 25, 2019, it’s still under construction. The four rides, listed above, were closed because workers were still putting the final touches on some of them. It was a shame because all four of these rides were ones that were appealing to the teens, who were disappointed.
Also not listed on the board was a kid’s bumper car ride — Shimmer & Shine Jumping Genies — that was closed. Workers were testing it out, and you could see kids getting disappointed when they were told the ride was closed.
I’m hoping there will be more food options because it was pretty minimal during our trip. There were food carts with snacks and drinks scattered around the park, and one “dining” place. What was surprising was a lack of food for the younger kids. You had a choice of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or pinwheel turkey sandwiches. There were also fruit cups, a cheese/fruit/cracker platter and yogurt parfaits that were available in a pinch.
There were also prepackaged salads, wraps and sandwiches. We ordered buffalo chicken and chicken Caesar wraps to eat. At $10 for a smallish wrap, the girls were not impressed. With drinks, lunch came to $49. I spied a kosher section, but it was covered with a shade. I asked what was available and I was pointed to several people who had no idea. I managed to snap these photos before I was shooed away.
Seating was limited in the food area, so either eat when it’s not so crowded or find another place in the park for your meal. The germaphobe in me loves that there are these hand-sanitizing stations all over the park. There was plenty of space to park strollers, and the bathroom stalls were pretty roomy. It was disappointing that the sinks to wash your hands weren’t a bit more kid-friendly, meaning you will have to pick up and hold your child so they can reach the soap and faucet. There were no paper towels, only Dyson hand dryers.
The DreamWorks Water Park is scheduled to open Nov. 27, just in time for the long Thanksgiving weekend. Attractions will include Madagascar’s Rain Forest, Shrek’s Swamp and the Kung Fu Panda Zone within North America’s largest indoor water park. You’ll have access to more than 40 water slides and 15 attractions, including SurfRiders, a lazy river, a 1.5-acre wave pool and the world’s tallest indoor body slide. There will also be 31 luxury cabanas to get away from the masses.
The holiday season kicks off with Santa’s arrival on the slopes at Big SNOW on Dec. 5, where visitors can ski and snowboard 365 days a year at North America’s only indoor real-snow park. Big SNOW is for everyone from bunny hill beginners to black diamond experts. Private lessons, coaching and kid’s camps are all available.
This park has potential. However, there were still rides not in operation, not a lot of food choices and a souvenir shop that looked like an afterthought. Right now, the park is compact enough to do everything in one day. But as more attractions open, you may find you’ll need more time — and I expect longer lines. Before shelling out between $50 and $60 per person right now, I’d give Nickelodeon Universe theme park a month or two to ensure all rides are open and the crowds have died down after the water park and Big SNOW have opened — but before the March 2020 opening of the mall.
All photos by Benét J. Wilson
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