Florida Travel

New attractions opening at theme parks this year, and the faces are familiar

Walt Disney is bringing to life the mythical world of Pandora, inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar,” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Walt Disney is bringing to life the mythical world of Pandora, inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar,” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Walt Disney Imagineering

Becoming a ninja is hard work. Inside Legoland’s new Ninjago World, opening Jan. 12, are stations where young trainees can improve their reflexes before they get to a ride based on the TV show “Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu.” Or they can go directly to the ride and start blasting animated fireballs, lightning, shockwaves and ice at villains.

Ninjago World will be the first of a variety of new theme-park attractions opening in Central Florida this year, but it won’t be the largest. That will be Volcano Bay, Universal’s 28-acre water park, opening in late spring. The most widely anticipated is Pandora: The World of Avatar, with its huge base of movie fans, scheduled to open this summer at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, in which Fallon takes visitors on a virtual 3D ride through Manhattan, is set to open this summer at Universal Studios. SeaWorld’s Kraken roller coaster will add virtual reality headsets and a new undersea story line, also supposed to be in place this summer.

Also coming this year: Legoland Beach Retreat opens April 7. SeaWorld gets a new after-dark show, Electric Ocean. Busch Gardens gets a new Broadway-style show. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon launches a new family-style raft ride. Epcot adds Festival of the Arts, running Jan. 13-Feb. 20. And Rivers of Light, the much-delayed light and music show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is on the 2017 schedule, although the park won’t say exactly when.

The attractions bring familiar faces: Jimmy Fallon, the blue-skinned Na’vi of Pandora and Ninjago warriors. Here’s a look at what’s coming, in roughly chronological order; most are set for unspecified dates during the summer.


Five years after it opened in Winter Haven, Legoland Florida is still adding new attractions, most based on Lego toys or TV shows, so the characters are already familiar to kids. Ninjago World, which opens to the public on Thursday, is a martial arts kingdom based on the Lego Ninjago line of toys and the Cartoon Network show that features the adventures of six young ninjas.

Enter the kingdom under a red arch, and guests will come first to a series of stations where they can play and improve their reflexes. They can learn the art of Spinjitzu, using platforms to spin like tornadoes; try out a horizontal climbing wall; and measure their reflexes by hitting light-up targets in order. These exercises won’t have lines or waiting, and they are totally optional.

“We think most kids will probably run straight for the ride,” said David Brady, a Legoland spokesman. Merlin Entertainments, Legoland’s parent company, is familiar with how kids react to the ride — Ninjago World already exists at Legoland parks in California, Denmark and Malaysia.

The ride is sort of a ninja version of Disney’s Toy Story Mania. From moving cars, riders will throw lightning bolts, fireballs and other weapons, but instead of pulling a trigger, they will use hand motions like karate chops to fire weapons at villains on giant video screens and run up their scores.

Last month, the Kidz Bop Kids — Billboard Magazine’s No. 1 Kids’ Artist, with whom Legoland has a partnership — recorded an original version of the Lego Ninjago theme song, “The Weekend Whip,” as well as a music video that demonstrates ninja hand moves guests can use on the ride.

Ninjago World also will have meet-and-greet opportunities with ninjas Kai and Nya and a themed retail shop.


To its enormously popular Food & Wine Festival in the fall and its spring Flower and Garden Festival, Epcot at Disney World is adding Festival of the Arts. The festival will run for six weekends — Friday through Monday, starting Jan. 13 — and will feature visual, culinary and performing arts. One highlight will be performers singing show tunes from Disney’s Broadway shows. Artworks will change each weekend. Food will be by Disney’s culinary team.


Legoland will open its second hotel, Legoland Beach Retreat, on April 7. The lodgings will consist of 83 colorful Lego-style duplexes, each with two units of family-size accommodations, in a village-like cluster of lakefront buildings. The decor will be Lego brick in bright primary colors. Its signature element will be a colorful Lego lighthouse.


Typhoon Lagoon, one of Disney World’s two water parks, will add a family-style raft ride this spring. The two-minute ride will have a whitewater adventure and will feature the legend of Captain Mary Oceaneer, a treasure-hunting heroine who was stranded at Typhoon Lagoon many years ago by a rogue storm.


Almost seven years after it was announced, Pandora: The World of Avatar is set to open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in late spring or early summer. The new land is themed after James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” — which holds the record for highest box-office gross ever — and is said to include elements from the way-behind-schedule sequels, the first of which is still almost two years away.

The 12-acre land, located on the former site of Camp Minnie-Mickey, will have floating mountains, a bioluminescent jungle and plants that respond to human touch.

Its key attraction will be Flight of Passage, a flight-simulator ride on a banshee. Fan sites and others have reported that it will be similar to Epcot’s Soarin’ but with more thrills. A second ride will be Na’vi River Journey, a family-friendly boat ride through a bioluminescent rainforest, on which riders will be greeted by a Na’vi shaman. Disney executives have compared the ride to Pirates of the Caribbean.

World of Avatar will also have its own retail and food and drink establishments: Satu’li Canteen, the land’s main dining establishment, which also will have Na’vi art and cultural items; Windtraders, a shop selling Na’vi cultural items, toys, science kits and more; and the Pongu Pongu, a drink location.


A 200-foot volcano with a roller coaster running through it will be the centerpiece of a Polynesian-themed water park opening in late spring at Universal Orlando. Universal closed its old water park, Wet ’n Wild, in December in anticipation of the opening of Volcano Bay — which Universal describes as its third theme park. The company hasn’t announced ticket prices or an opening date but is selling multipark tickets including Volcano Bay on its website for use starting June 1.

The volcano’s name is Krakatau, and the park’s marquee ride will be the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. Canoe-shaped ride vehicles will be launched uphill by linear induction motor technology and propelled through the volcano’s dark passages, waterfalls, and interior peaks and valleys. Krakatau also will have waterfalls and water slides, and at night it will be illuminated by spewing “lava.”

Other attractions include a multi-directional wave pool; two rivers, including one that winds through the volcano’s caverns; many water slides, including racing slides and slides with breakaway drops; raft rides, beaches, a toddler play area, restaurants and bars.

The TapuTapu wearable, a wristband with some of the same functions as Disney World’s MagicBands and special wands in Universal’s Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter, is supposed to minimize waiting in line. The device will hold people’s place in line for an attraction while they play elsewhere and alert them when it’s time to head to the ride. It will also activate “tap to play” special effects, such as shooting water cannons and illuminating images in the volcano’s hidden caves.


If you’ve forgotten that the Universal theme parks and the “Tonight Show” are owned by the same corporation, NBCUniversal, a new ride makes a show of synergy that will remind you. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon will open this summer at Universal Studios Florida. Fallon, host of “The Tonight Show,” will take visitors on a virtual 3D ride through Manhattan, spiced with some of the show’s popular features.

A post on the Universal parks blog describes the ride this way: It will start in the Studio 6B Club, where guests are entertained by the Ragtime Gals barbershop quartet, “Tonight Show” features from History of Rap to Lip Sync Battle, and Hashtag the Panda.

Guests will board the world’s first-ever flying theater for a race alongside Fallon, past New York City landmarks and cameos from familiar characters like Sara from “Ew,” Jimmy in “Tight Pants” and “Tonight Show” announcer Steve Higgins. Guests will see important moments from “The Tonight Show” and see real set pieces from the show.


SeaWorld will add virtual reality to Kraken, its oldest roller coaster, this summer. Riders can wear a headset that offers undersea scenery and a scary story about mythical sea creatures that lasts about 2  1/2 minutes. The track and the vehicle on the 150-foot-high coaster won’t change, but the virtual reality headset will add a new dimension.

The story starts out at a submarine base, and the coaster will dive into a deep crack in the ocean floor. Riders wearing the headset will experience a story that those not wearing headsets will miss.

“You’ll go through a wormhole back in time,” exploring a prehistoric ocean beneath the roller coaster, said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park experience and design at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.

SeaWorld expected its coaster to be Florida’s first virtual reality coaster, but last month, Fun Spot, an Orlando amusement park, made a few virtual reality headsets available on its Freedom Flyer coaster.


▪ At SeaWorld, Electric Ocean, a new end-of-day spectacle with bioluminescent lighting, will “immerse guests in a glowing sea of wonder” centered around the Bayside Pathway this summer.

▪ Also at SeaWorld, although not a traditional show, the Dolphin Nursery will become more interactive with big acrylic windows that will give children a face-to-face perspective with baby dolphins.

▪ Busch Gardens will have a new Broadway-style show this summer. No details have been made available.

▪ “Rivers of Light” — an after-dark water show with lantern boats, fountains, story tellers, spirit guides, scenes projected on screens of water, music and other special effects — was supposed to debut in April when Disney’s Animal Kingdom added late-night hours. But the show wasn’t ready and the crew continues to work on it. Disney now lists the show as a new attraction coming in 2017 but doesn’t offer a more specific date.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert