By MIKE SCHNEIDER
If this is a golden age for theme parks, then nowhere are new thrills more abundant than in Orlando where the major theme-park resorts have been in an arms race, opening new attractions every year recently, with even bigger blockbusters slated for next year.
Theme park aficionados will have to wait until 2019 for the openings of a Star Wars land at Walt Disney World, a new Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando Resort and a Sesame Street-themed land at SeaWorld Orlando.
But theme-park experts say this year’s crop of lands and rides – including Toy Story Land at Disney and a new “Fast & Furious” attraction at Universal – are nothing to sneeze at and are worthy steppingstones toward what’s to come.
“The product they have coming on is very strong,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm. “It is a very strong continuation, leading up to the biggest things that they will ever do.”
Recent new attractions are bringing more people through turnstiles in Orlando, whose market has a third of North America’s theme park attendance. Orlando tourism officials announced recently that a record 72 million visitors came to the theme park mecca in 2017. Disney reported a 13 percent increase in parks revenue in its most recent quarter. Revenue at Universal’s parks grew by 14 percent in the first quarter.
Even Orlando-based SeaWorld, which had been bleeding visitors since the release of the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” reported an almost 15 percent attendance jump in the first quarter of 2018, helped in part by a pivot away from orca shows.
But the Florida theme parks risk becoming victims of their success if new attractions pull in so many visitors that parks are forced to close because of overcrowding, said Jim Hill, who runs a website and podcast tracking theme parks.
“This is an arms race in the theme-park realm,” Hill said. “We are 10 moves into a chess game.”
Here’s a look at new Florida attractions that will entice visitors to keep coming through those turnstiles.
WALT DISNEY WORLD
The opening of Toy Story Land in late June is part of a reimagining of Disney’s Hollywood Studios park, whose overhauling will culminate next year with the opening of the park’s much-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
The bright-colored Toy Story Land capitalizes on the popularity of the Pixar-made animated film trilogy that chronicles the adventures of a boy’s collection of anthropomorphic toys. The kid-friendly land offers a Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster and a spin ride featuring aliens from an arcade-crane game from the first movie. It also has a fast-dining area named for the movie series’ cowboy protagonist, Woody, and marching performers dressed as green toy soldiers.
Pixar-film characters are also populating the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland where characters from “The Incredibles” movies will spend their summer hanging out in an Incredible Tomorrowland Expo.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT
Universal’s biggest addition this year is a simulator ride based on the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise. The Fast & Furious - Supercharged ride inserts guests into the middle of a frenzied highway chase involving crashing helicopters, gunfire and overturned trucks. Stars from the movies, including Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez and Ludacris pop up on screens to propel the narrative that riders are on a party bus to a post-race bash and are being chased by bad guys.
An identical ride opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in 2015. Hill said the ride’s opening this spring in Florida “is really kind of moving a pawn around the table.”
“You can’t fault Universal for doing it,” Hill said. “The franchise has made a lot of money for the company.”
A new raft ride is opening at SeaWorld Orlando, as the company pivots away from animal shows and doubles down on rides. The Infinity Falls ride has a 40-foot waterfall drop and bills itself as the tallest river rapid ride.
And did someone say free beer? SeaWorld Orlando says it will offer adult patrons two free brews at its Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen Patio this summer, harkening back to its roots, when it once was owned by Anheuser-Busch.
SeaWorld Orlando’s sister waterpark Aquatica has opened the Ray Rush raft ride. The ride starts with the raft being propelled by water jets into a tunnel leading to a half-pipe-like area where the raft sways up and down before launching down another tunnel.
LEGOLAND FLORIDA RESORT
Legoland is opening a new roller coaster that uses virtual reality. Guests who wear the headset will feel like Lego characters are racing beside them on the Great Lego Race VR Coaster alongside a mountain, an exploding volcano and a breached dam. Riders must be at least 6 years old.
The water park across the street from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has a new free-fall waterslide. The water slide offers two options, one for the brave-hearted and another for those with butterflies in their stomach.
In the brave-hearted option, visitors step into a glass booth where within seconds the floor slides open, sending them into a 70-foot plunge that deposits them down a 425-foot sliding tunnel. The butterflies-in-the-stomach option is a more traditional water slide.