With several new rides and revamped “lands” opening and two entertainment areas being refurbished, 2014 is a big year for Florida’s theme parks. Universal Orlando will open a new Harry Potter attraction this summer, while Disney World will finish the last element of its Fantasyland expansion and Busch Gardens will launch its new thrill ride this spring.
Already there has been plenty of action. The new Festival of Fantasy Parade, a tribute to Fantasyland’s stories and characters, made its debut at Magic Kingdom in March with Belle and the Beast dancing, Ariel waving from her clamshell and Maleficent, the 25-foot-tall steampunk dragon from Sleeping Beauty, breathing fire.
Also, the first wing of Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal Orlando’s fourth on-site hotel and its most moderately priced, opened last week. The retro-themed hotel, which will have 1,800 rooms and suites when it is completed this summer, will feature a bowling alley, lazy river and Jack LaLanne Fitness Center.
And there was a ceremonial ground-breaking for an Avatar-inspired land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, although serious construction hasn’t yet begun. The world of Pandora, expected to open in 2017, will have flying banshees, floating mountains and interactive plants that glow at night.
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But there’s more coming in the immediate future.
Falcon’s Fury, a 335- foot drop tower on which riders will plunge face-down at speeds up to 60 mph, has its official opening May 1 at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The ride is in the former Timbuktu, which is being remodeled as the land of Pantopia, with new shops and eateries.
Around the same time — an official start date hasn’t been announced yet — Disney will open the last piece of the Fantasyland expansion: the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster. The coaster will feature ore cars mounted in cradle-like pivots that will swing from side to side. The ride apparently will be completed by the end of the month, when a media preview is scheduled.
At Aquatica, SeaWorldOrlando’s water park, a new slide called Ihu’s Breakaway Falls will open May 9. Riders will step into one of three clear “breakaway boxes” nearly 80 feet above the water, then one by one, in random order, the floor under each box will drop away, sending riders along an almost vertical drop for nearly 40 feet. A fourth route is an open slide.
At Legoland, the renovated toddler area previously called Duplo Village is scheduled to reopen in late May as the farm-themed Duplo Valley with a new train ride, an indoor play area in a barn and a new splash-and-water-play area.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited attraction is Diagon Alley, the new Harry Potter area at Universal Studios, where a thrill ride based on Gringotts banks is under construction. Diagon Alley, a special wizards’ area in London, will also have Ollivanders wand shop and other shops and restaurants from the books and movies. The Hogwarts Express will take riders between King’s Cross Station at Universal Studios and Hogsmeade, the original Harry Potter area at sister park Islands of Adventure, and will require a two-park ticket. Diagon Alley will open this summer; a specific date has not been announced.
Outside the parks, both Disney and Universal are upgrading their entertainment areas. Universal’s CityWalk is getting eight new restaurants, some of which have already opened. Downtown Disney is being landscaped anew to emphasize the waterfront, with a lake and a spring flowing through four outdoor neighborhoods. New businesses will replace clubs on Pleasure Island that were closed more than five years ago. The makeover will open in phases, with the final section to be completed in 2016.