Florida theme parks poised for blockbuster year — even before debut of Star Wars land

This story has been updated as parks have announced opening dates for new attractions.

Four years after Disney announced it would build Star Wars lands at its parks in Florida and California, fans finally will be able to set foot in the most anticipated theme park attraction since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando in 2010. Galaxy’s Edge is scheduled to open in August at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Even before the land on the Outer Rim of the Star Wars galaxy opens, 2019 will be a blockbuster year for new and revamped theme park rides. And it’s not just standalone rides that are opening — three parks will get entire new lands. In addition to Galaxy’s Edge, Legoland opened Lego Movie World and Sesame Street land opened at SeaWorld, both on March 27. Those three lands alone account for 11 new or rethemed rides.

Disney owns the second half of the year, when Galaxy’s Edge will debut in two phases, giving fans the chance to pilot the Millennium Falcon and drink blue milk.

But elsewhere, spring is the time for celebration, opening time for the new lands at SeaWorld and Legoland and a new roller coaster at Busch Gardens.

Both Universal parks will get new attractions this year too, although the company has given an opening date for only one of them, a roller coaster at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in June.

All together, six of Central Florida’s theme parks will get new rides or major attractions this year, and some of the others will get new shows.

Here’s what’s happening:


Lego Movie World opened March 27 at Legoland in the space that used to be the World of Chima and recreated the town of Bricksburg, setting for “The Lego Movie.” One of the three rides is the former Quest for Chi, rethemed as the Battle of Bricksburg, with Chi’s water cannons used to fend off invading Duplo aliens. Expect to get wet.

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On the Battle of Bricksburg boat ride, one of three rides opening March 27 in Lego Movie World at Legoland, guests fire water cannons to fend off invading Duplo Aliens. Legoland Florida

The other two rides are new. Masters of Flight is a flying theater, similar to Soarin’ at Epcot. Suspended on Emmet’s Triple Decker Flying Couch in front of a virtual screen, guests will have an adventure with characters from “The Lego Movie” and its sequel, “The Lego Movie 2,” which opened Feb. 8.

Unikitty’s Disco Drop is a child-sized drop tower, based on “The Lego Movie” character, a princess that is half kitten, half unicorn. Here’s how a Legoland press release describes the ride: “This ride swoops guests to the tiptop of Cloud Cuckoo Land, then drops, spins and bounces them back down to earth.”

Looking ahead: Construction is under way on a new five-story, 150-room Pirate Island Hotel, which will connect to the existing Legoland Hotel and is scheduled to open in spring 2020. The hotel, Legoland’s third, will have pirate-themed rooms including treasure chests and boat-shaped bunk beds.

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Pirate Island Hotel, Legoland Florida’s third hotel, will open in 2020. Legoland


Although Sesame Street is a new land, it is mostly the theming that is new. Sesame Street replaces Shamu’s Happy Harbor, which was oriented toward the same age group. The six rides are former Happy Harbor rides that have been rethemed. For example, Shamu Express, a steel-rail coaster that peaked at 30 feet high and 28 miles an hour, is now Super Grover’s Box Car Derby.

Sesame Street had its grand opening March 27 at SeaWorld Orlando. The new land replaces Shamu’s Happy Harbor. SeaWorld Orlando

Rethemed rides, in addition to Super Grover’s Box Car Derby, include Abby’s Flower Tower, a swing tower; Slimey’s Slider; Cookie Drop, a drop tower; Elmo’s Choo Choo Train; and Big Bird’s Twirl n’ Whirl.

But there is also new construction. Sesame Street — an actual street with familiar landmarks including Abby Cadabby’s garden, Mr. Hooper’s store, Big Bird’s nest and the stoop at 123 Sesame Street — includes wet and dry play areas, a daily parade and character meet-and-greets.

Other changes at SeaWorld Orlando:

“One World,” the park’s killer whale show, is transitioning to more educational presentations over the course of the year, said Suzanne Pelisson Beasley, corporate communications manager for SeaWorld’s corporate parent company. SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment announced three years ago that it was ending the breeding of orcas and changing its whale shows after years of controversy. After a whale killed a trainer at the Orlando park in 2010, the documentary “Blackfish” stirred public anger over the treatment of whales in captivity and put pressure on SeaWorld, which suffered significant drops in attendance and revenue.

SeaWorld’s newest thrill ride, Infinity Falls, a river raft ride with a 40-foot drop, opened in October. Also last year, SeaWorld ended its experiment with virtual reality on its Kraken roller coaster, citing the extra time required to clean and adjust the headsets after each ride. The coaster — 4,177 feet long, 153 feet tall, top speed of 65 mph, seven inversions — continues to run without the virtual reality plug-in.

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Aquatica’s newest water slide, KareKare Curl, is set to open April 12, 2019. Aquatica

Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park, is scheduled to open a new waterslide on April 12. Its name is KareKare Curl and the park calls it a thrill slide.

In January, Aquatica became the first water park in the world to become a Certified Autism Center. SeaWorld and Discovery followed with the same designation.


Busch Gardens, which has the largest collection of roller coasters of any single Florida park, added a new one for its 60th anniversary year: Tigris, a triple-launch steel coaster that the project manager claims will make “you lose your lunch.”

The coaster launches riders forward and backwards at high speed — up to 60 miles an hour. Along the top, after a 150-foot climb almost straight up, the track twists like a ribbon, staying almost level as the car rolls around it sideways, a coaster element called a heartline roll. The ride finishes with a large loop.

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Tigris, a triple-launch roller coaster, is scheduled to open this spring at Busch Gardens.

The three launches — including a backwards launch — and the heartline roll make it one of the park’s most thrilling coasters, said Andrew Schaffer, project manager. Those same elements might test the courage — and the stomachs — of some riders, he said.

Early in the process, when the project team was envisioning the ride, “We were trying to hit a thrill-seeking rider,” Schaffer said in an interview. “That reverse launch is going to be very exciting and the heartline roll ... it’s a very dramatic ride.”

It’s a compact ride, designed to mimic the agility of a tiger. The track is just over 800 feet long — the length of Goofy’s Barnstormer at Magic Kingdom — but the car will travel along some sections of the track three times, so the ride will cover about 1,700 feet. That’s still short for a roller coaster, about the length of Scorpion at Busch Gardens. But it’s not a family coaster: Minimum height to ride is 54 inches.

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A white Bengal Tiger sits on the top of viewing area at Busch Garden’s Jungala exhibit, near where the Tigris roller coaster will open this spring. Chris O'Meara ASSOCIATED PRESS

The coaster is located in the space in Stanleyville formerly occupied by the Tanganyika Tidal Wave water ride, which closed three years ago. It is next to Jungala, where the park has Bengal and Malayan tigers. The queue will also include educational content about tigers and efforts to save them.

Tigris opened on April 19.

Looking ahead: Busch Gardens also announced that Gwazi, a double wooden roller coaster that closed in 2015, would be revamped into a wood and steel hybrid coaster, using some restored parts from the old coaster and new thrill elements. The work is being done by Rocky Mountain Construction, a company known for transforming wooden roller coasters into hybrid coasters with a wooden foundation and a steel track.

Busch Gardens says the ride, opening in 2020, will become North America’s tallest hybrid, and the fastest, steepest hybrid coaster in the world with a maximum height of more than 200 feet. If it does top 200 feet, it would be the tallest coaster in any Florida theme park. Currently the tallest are two 200-footers — SheiKra at Busch Gardens and Mako at SeaWorld.

A new thrill ride will open in 2020 at Busch Gardnes on the site where the frame of Gwazi, a pair of dueling wooden roller coasters, still stands. Marjie Lambert Miami Herald Staff


Two new attractions are set to open, one at each of Universal’s Orlando parks.

In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure, a new roller coaster is under construction, replacing the dueling Dragon Challenge coasters that were closed in September 2017 and demolished. The coaster — “Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure” — will open June 13.

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Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a roller coaster, is set to open on June 13 in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal Orlando

The ride features the towering Rubeus Hagrid, half-human wizard, half-giant, who is both gamekeeper and groundskeeper at Hogwarts. The ride vehicle, a string of motorcycles with sidecars, is based on a motorbike Hagrid rode in one of the Harry Potter movies. Universal planted 1,200 live trees to recreate the Forbidden Forest, where riders will encounter magical creatures including Centaurs, Cornish pixies, and Fluffy, a giant three-headed dog.

Hagrid’s motorbike will run backwards and forwards through the forest at speeds up to 50 miles an hour, a little slower than the Dragon Challenge’s dueling coasters, one of which topped out at 55 mph, the other at 60 mph. It also has a lower height requirement for riders — 48 inches tall, which opens the ride to kids in the 7-8 age range. Dragon Challenge’s minimum height requirement was 54 inches.

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The Dragon Challenge roller coaster has been demolished, but a new coaster is being built in its place at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. John Raoux AP

The company also says a new attraction will open this year at Universal Studios in the space previously occupied by Terminator 2: 3D, which closed last October. Universal has said only that it will be replaced by “an all-new live action experience based on a high-energy Universal franchise” that will open in 2019.

Surfside Inn and Suites will open June 27, the first of two hotels being built on the site formerly occupied by Universal’s Wet ‘n Wild water park. The beach-themed hotel will have 750 rooms and suites and will have budget prices; a check of the website showed rooms starting at $157. Surfside Inn will be part of Universal’s Endless Summer resort. The resort’s second hotel, Dockside Inn and Suites will open in 2020 and will have 2,050 rooms and suites.

Looking ahead: After buying more than 500 acres of land near the Orange County Convention Center and getting permits for earth moving, Universal executives last year filed paperwork to trademark a couple names for theme park use, then publicly conceded their interest in building a fourth Orlando park there

Comcast, Universal’s parent company, has said nothing publicly since. But in December, someone leaked a photo from a presentation to Comcast employees that appeared to show a rendering of a theme park with Nintendo’s Mario character and the name Universal’s Fantastic Worlds — one of the names trademarked by Universal.

Another leaked document indicates the new park will house Nintendo-themed attractions. Universal and Nintendo have said publicly that they are working together on theme park lands, including one in Orlando, although they have not said when or which of Universal’s Orlando parks.

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Could Jurassic Park at Universal Orlando be getting a new roller coaster? Universal Orlando

Also, after Universal Studios Hollywood announced it would close its Jurassic Park ride and replace it with the Jurassic World Ride this year, fansites said the Jurassic Park sections of Islands of Adventure would also get a makeover, including a new roller coaster. Universal, however, has made no announcement about the attraction at its Orlando park and did not respond to questions on the rumors.


Even with so many attractions opening at other parks, it’s hard to match the hype and anticipation for Galaxy’s Edge, a 14-acre Star Wars land set to debut this fall at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Galaxy’s Edge will have only two rides, but a scale model shows a lavishly detailed, forbidding land.

Galaxy’s Edge will open Aug. 29 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and on May 31 at Disneyland in California. The opening comes ahead of schedule — Disney had initially said it would be in late fall in Orlando. But it comes with a trade-off: Rise of the Resistance, which Disney describes as “the most ambitious, immersive and advanced attraction ever imagined,” won’t open until later this year at either park, on dates not specified.

“In light of tremendous demand, Disney made the decision to open the land in phases to allow guests to sooner enjoy the one-of-a-kind experiences that make Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge so spectacular,” the company said on its blog.

A Star Wars land has been in the works more or less since 2012, when the Walt Disney Co. announced it had acquired Lucasfilm and its Star Wars franchise for $4 billion and that more Star Wars content would be incorporated into its parks (several Disney parks already had Star Tours motion simulator rides). Three years later, Disney announced it would build Star Wars lands at its parks in Florida and California.

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Millennium Falcon soars among the towers of petrified trees in a rendering of Black Spire Outpost, the village inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Aug. 29, 2019. Disney Parks

Events at Galaxy’s Edge take place during the third trilogy, following “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” The setting is new to Star Wars lore: Black Spire Outpost, the largest settlement on Batuu, a remote planet on the Outer Rim of the Star Wars galaxy. Largely forgotten by the mainstream, it has become a haven for smugglers, traders, adventurers and those trying to avoid the First Order. The settlement, which has not appeared in any Star Wars movies, is named for the petrified remains of its ancient trees.

The rides are Smugglers Run, which puts guests in the roles of smugglers and members of the flight crew aboard the Millennium Falcon, and Rise of the Resistance, where guests are taken prisoner aboard a Star Destroyer and must fight to escape. The land also has restaurants, a bar and shops with Star Wars merchandise.

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the first-ever ride themed to Mickey and Minnie Mouse, will open in fall 2019 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Minnie and Mickey’s Runaway Railway, the first Mickey Mouse themed ride at any Disney park, had been announced to open this fall in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which used to house the Great Movie Ride. It will be a family ride, based on Disney Channel’s “Mickey Mouse” cartoon shorts. However in April, Disney Parks said the opening would be delayed until spring 2020, but gave no reason for the delay.

The story is that Mickey and Minnie go on a picnic in their little red car. When they look inside a train running next to them, they see that their friend Goofy is the engineer. “You will step into the movie screen and onto Goofy’s train,” said Kevin Rafferty of Disney’s creative team. “With Goofy as your engineer, what could possibly happen?”

What could, indeed?

More of what’s happening at Disney World this year:

Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy, a show, opened March 31 at Hollywood Studios. The cocky star of “Cars” shares racing tips with help from Mater and Cruz Ramirez. He appears on a giant wrap-around screen with new animation.

The Tomorrowland Speedway, closed Jan. 2 so it could be re-routed to make room for construction of the Tron roller coaster at Magic Kingdom, is scheduled to reopen in mid-May. No projected reopening date has been announced for the Disney World Railroad, which closed in December for the same reason, but is also getting refurbished.

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Rendering of the NBA Experience, inspired by the modern architecture of new NBA arenas around the country, will feature immersive NBA video productions and numerous interactive experiences. It is scheduled to open Aug. 12. Walt Disney World Resort

The NBA Experience, a collaboration between the NBA and Disney’s creative team, will open Aug. 12 at Disney Springs. The NBA Experience will feature hands-on activities built around professional basketball, including on-court action, photo opps, trivia games, video games and more.

“IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth,” a nighttime show that has been running at Epcot since 1999, will close Sept. 30. A temporary replacement, “Epcot Forever,” combining music from Epcot with a fireworks spectacular, will debut Oct. 1. Its permanent replacement, still unnamed, will open in 2020.

A whole new transportation system called Disney Skyliner will give guests a birds-eye view of Walt Disney World Resort. Joshua Sudock Disney Parks

Skyliner, a system of aerial gondolas similar to the old Magic Kingdom Skyway that once connected Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, will open this fall. Skyliner will have a hub at the Caribbean Beach Resort and will connect that hotel and several others with Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

Disney’s Riviera Resort, part of the Disney Vacation Club, will open late this year with about 300 units ranging from studios to villas that sleep 12. Although an opening date hasn’t been announced, the Riviera is accepting guest reservations for stays beginning in December. The resort was inspired by Walt Disney’s travels to Europe and European art. It will be connected to Skyliner.

Seasonal shows and parties this year include the “MoveIt! Shake It! MousekeDance It” Street Party in front of Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom; a dance party with the Incredibles at Pixar Place, Hollywood Studios; the Hakuna Matata Time Dance Party at Discovery Island, Animal Kingdom; and the Guardians of the Galaxy – Awesome Mix Live! musical showcase at Epcot.

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Live musicians help guests let their inner animal loose on the dance floor during “Hakuna Matata Time Dance Party” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Todd Anderson Walt Disney World

Looking ahead: Three major new rides are planned to open by 2021, the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World: the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, both in Epcot; and the Tron roller coaster, in Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom. The Epcot rides are well under construction; Tron’s site is still in the earth-moving stage.

Disney has announced several other attractions in the works that don’t yet have projected opening dates: an immersive Star Wars hotel adjacent to Galaxy’s Edge; a space-themed restaurant at Epcot; and a Beauty and the Beast sing-along at Epcot.

Marjie Lambert is the Miami Herald’s local government editor. She has spent most of her 40+ years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor covering government and related news. She was the Herald’s travel editor from 2009 to 2016 and has also written eight cookbooks. She loves roller coasters.