Florida Travel

Theme parks: get ready for a wild ride

Skull Island: Reign of Kong will open in 2016 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong will open in 2016 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal Orlando

Coming to the theme parks in 2016: A 200-foot roller coaster at SeaWorld that will be the tallest in Orlando. The reincarnation of King Kong at Universal Orlando. A ride based on Frozen at Epcot. A new light show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. A major attraction at Busch Gardens, details still under wraps.

Did we forget to mention this year?

The biggest news at the parks in 2015 is … construction walls. They’re all over, surrounding 2016’s attractions as well as the big one coming in 2017 — Avatar Land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Within the parks, the biggest attraction opening this year is Heartlake City at Legoland, due this summer. Outside the parks, the I-Drive 360 complex with the Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life Aquarium opened Monday.

The coming attractions illustrate the theme parks’ skills at packaging a variety of rides and shows that offer something for everyone, said Robb Alvey, owner of the ThemeParkReview.com website.

“If you look at Six Flags or Cedar Point, they’re targeting one person — the thrillseeker in their teens to early 20s,” Alvey said. “But take Busch Gardens. Their latest thrill ride is Falcon’s Fury, which skews to an older crowd. We’ve heard the next coaster they’re building is more family-oriented ... something between Sesame Street and Cheetah Hunt [roller coasters] that will round out the park really nicely.”

The same is true at SeaWorld, Disney, Universal and International Drive, he said. “They’re making sure they’re covering everybody. Nobody is left without something do.”

Here’s a rundown of what’s new this year as well as a look beyond.

LEGOLAND

Heartlake City, a new land based on the Lego Friends toy line, will open this summer after a groundbreaking in March. The new area, based on friends Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia and Stephanie in a toy line introduced in 2002, will have a horse-themed roller coaster called Mia’s Riding Adventure, the interactive Friends to the Rescue show, and new shops in Heartlake Mall.

Legoland Hotel will open May 15 with 152 guestrooms decorated in themes based on Lego toys: Pirates, Adventure, Kingdom or Friends. All the guestrooms will have a treasure chest and at least eight Lego models. The hotel, overlooking Lake Eloise will have a Lego-themed play area, character meet-and-greet area, and child-friendly amenities like a shorter buffet station in the restaurant. Legoland’s Model Shop is being moved into the hotel, where master model builders will hold workshops exclusively for hotel guests. Hotel guests will also have early access to the park. 

UNIVERSAL

Last year was a big one for Universal Orlando, which opened Diagon Alley, its second Harry Potter attraction, in Universal Studios, and a train connecting it to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. CityWalk, the dining and entertainment zone that stretches between the entrances to the two parks, got a makeover in 2014, with eight new eating and drinking spots.

Next year will be big too: King Kong is coming back to Universal. The story line will be unlike that of any other King Kong theme park attraction — of which he has already had his share.

Skull Island: Reign of Kong, opening in the summer of 2016 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, will take guests into the jungle with explorers who are searching for prehistoric beasts, said Mike West, executive producer with Universal Creative. They’ll walk through the jungle and the ruins of a temple, then board an expedition truck for Skull Island, encountering hazards, hostile natives, terror, and ultimately, the colossal Kong himself.

“It’s going to be a groundbreaking attraction. It’s going to be an intense attraction,” West said in an interview. “We’re going to draw guests into ... the mysterious and daunting world of King Kong. They will be playing an active role in this new generation of storytelling.”

The ride will be between Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park, where construction has been going on since last spring. The fact that it was a King Kong ride, although it was a poorly kept secret, wasn’t confirmed until Wednesday.

This will be the second King Kong attraction at Universal Orlando. The first, Kongfrontation, one of the original rides at Universal Studios, was closed in 2002 to make room for Revenge of the Mummy. There have also been two King Kong attractions at Universal Studios in Hollywood. All have been different.

The Skull Island ride “is not a story line from any movie or attraction. It’s next generation,” West said.

This time, he won’t be wreaking havoc on New York. “The fact you’re there in his home instead of him coming to your home is what sets this attraction apart,” West said.

Universal consulted with Peter Jackson, director of the 2005 remake of the 1933 movie, on how to put the adventure together, West said, “but it’s its own story and its own experience. It’s a chance for guests to see Kong in a way they have never seen before.”

Also at Universal Orlando: The company announced Thursday that it will create attractions based on Nintendo video games, but gave no other details. Nintendo games include Super Mario Bros., Zelda and Donkey Kong. Sapphire Falls, Universal’s fifth hotel, is scheduled to open in summer 2016. It will be a Caribbean-themed hotel with 1,000 rooms, a tropical lagoon and waterfall. And the resort has taken out permits to build a second water park, this one with slides down the slopes of a volcano, to be completed in 2016.

DISNEY

With the completion of the Fantasyland expansion at Magic Kingdom last year, the biggest publicly announced projects under way at Walt Disney World are an Avatar-inspired land and a light show that will extend Animal Kingdom’s hours into the night. Note that caveat, “publicly announced.” Work is in progress at Hollywood Studios too, but, well, it’s a secret.

▪ Animal Kingdom. Rivers of Light is supposed to open in 2016 on the Discovery River in front of Expedition Everest. The nighttime show will be a combination of live music, floating lanterns, water screens and animal imagery. Although construction walls hide the work from most vantage points, a sliver is visible from the bridge between DinoLand and Discovery Island.

Evidence of Avatar land is better hidden, but from the parking lot, construction cranes tower over the trees to the left of the main entrance, where Camp Minnie-Mickey used to be. The new land is scheduled to open in 2017.

Avatar land will feature Pandora’s floating mountains, plants that glow in the dark and a boat ride through its bioluminescent jungle, but its star attraction will be a ride on flying banshees like the ones that the Na'vi ride in the movie. In an interview with Variety, Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co. described climbing on the prototype vehicle.

“It felt so real, so lifelike,” Iger said. “There’s never been anything like it.” Variety said the banshee’s body will mimic a breathing beast as it moves with the 3D action on large video screens similar to the Soarin’ ride at Epcot. 

▪ Hollywood Studios. What’s going on here? Last year two major attractions closed — the American Idol Experience and the Backlot Tour. In addition, the 122-foot Sorcerer’s Hat in front of the Chinese Theatre, which houses The Great Movie Ride, has been dismantled. Disney won’t say what it’s building in those spaces, except that a Frozen sing-along will occupy the American Idol theater being renamed the Hyperion Theater this summer.

Some fan sites that track theme park projects are betting on a whole new Star Wars land. After Disney bought the franchise in 2012, Iger said that Disney parks will get more Star Wars attractions. Hollywood Studios already has the Star Tours ride and the adjacent Jedi Training Academy, and fans say it’s the logical home for any new Star Wars attractions. There’s also been talk about bringing a version of Cars Land, now at Disneyland Resort, to Orlando.

Also at Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Mania is being expanded, with new sections of track going in. Work on the ride should be finished by late 2016.

▪ Magic Kingdom. Peter Pan’s Flight, at 44 one of Walt Disney World’s oldest rides, got an interactive queue in January. Tinker Bell flies around and guests can interact with Wendy, John and Michael’s toys.

Also in Magic Kingdom: Be Our Guest restaurant, in the Beast’s Castle, is testing a prix fixe breakfast through July 18.

▪ Epcot. A ride based on the movie Frozen is going into the space in the Norway pavilion that had been occupied by Maelstrom, a boat tour of Norway’s cultural and geographic highlights. It is scheduled to open in the first half of 2016. Because the Frozen ride will open relatively quickly — less than two years after Maelstrom closed in October — theme park experts say the new ride probably will be built on the same track as Maelstrom rather than starting from scratch. Disney won’t comment.

Disney is also building a separate meet-and-greet space nearby for Frozen’s heroines, Anna and Elsa, but has not said when it will open.

Also in Epcot: Capacity of the Soarin’ ride is being expanded with the addition of a third theater that is expected to open late next year. Innoventions West, home to three exhibits sponsored by commercial businesses, is temporarily closed; no word on new exhibits. 

▪ Downtown Disney. The parks aren’t the only places with construction walls. The first phase of the transition from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs is going on this year with the opening of new shops and restaurants in the section called The Landing. Latest addition is The Boathouse, with a nautical theme and an upscale menu of steak, chops, seafood and a raw bar, plus rides in an amphibious vehicle. One parking garage has opened, and a second will open this year.

The remade shopping, dining and entertainment district will consist of four outdoor neighborhoods connected by a flowing spring and lakefront inspired by Florida’s turn-of-the-century lakeside towns. Three other sections are scheduled to open in 2016, with almost 150 shops and restaurants — double the number before the makeover.

▪ More Disney. The Richard Petty Driving Experience and the Exotic Driving Experience at Walt Disney World are scheduled to close permanently Aug. 9 to make room for an unspecified transportation improvement. However, the Exotic Driving Experience has been closed indefinitely since a fatal crash April 12, and may not reopen.

The first phase of Polynesian Village Resort Bungalows & Villas has opened on Seven Seas Lagoon, close to Polynesian Village Resort, one of Disney World’s original hotels. When finished this summer, it will have 360 studio villas and 20 over-the-water bungalows.

SEAWORLD

SeaWorld is building a 200-foot roller coaster, to open next year as the tallest coaster in Orlando. It will be the same height as SheiKra at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, SeaWorld’s sister park, but will be dwarfed by the 500-foot Skyscraper, due to open on International Drive in 2017. SeaWorld has not released any other information about the new coaster.

“Clyde and Seamore’s Sea Lion High” opened in April, replacing the previous sea lion show, which ran for 15 years.

All three SeaWorld parks are moving ahead on plans to build larger whale habitats. The first, to be built at SeaWorld San Diego, will be twice as large as the existing facility and will include a “fast water current” that allows whales to swim against moving water. Work at the San Diego park probably will begin late this year, with SeaWorld’s parks in Orlando and San Antonio following probably a year or so later.

BUSCH GARDENS

The Tampa park got a new thrill ride last September: Falcon’s Fury, a 335-foot tower that drops riders in a 60 mph free fall for a few seconds. The park also closed two attractions — Gwazi, a 16-year-old wooden roller coaster that was no longer popular, and Rhino Rally, a ride in safari trucks — and has not said how it will replace them.

For Gwazi, “We’re still looking at different options, which include everything from taking it down and building something new, to retrofitting it with steel tracks,” said Travis Claytor, park spokesman.

“With Rhino Rally, we’re looking at what’s viable in that area of the park, everything from a tour experience to an expansion of the habitats that back up to that area.”

Busch Gardens also began work on a mystery attraction that will open in 2016 but isn’t saying what the attraction will be.

The new attraction is being built in the Egypt section of the park and includes an expansion of King Tut’s Tomb, a walk-through attraction that recently closed. Serengeti Railway, which circles the back-country areas of the park, is temporarily closed while the tracks are relocated around the new attraction; it is scheduled to reopen at the end of the month.

“The pillars that we like to stand on are the thrill rides — one thing that we do better than anyone else — but the animals and the shows are amazing too,” Claytor said. “When we look at new attractions, we try to include as many of those elements as we can and we’re doing that with the 2016 attraction. There won’t be anything else like it in the world.” 

Across the street, Adventure Island — Busch Gardens’ water park — has a new thrill slide to be ridden in groups of two to four people. Colossal Curl provides a 662-foot, 42-second ride through a twisting tube that sends riders up and over a wave wall for a moment of weightlessness.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVE

New tourist attractions are transforming the stretch of International Drive south of Universal Orlando and north of the Orange County Convention Center. The Orlando Eye, a 400-foot observation wheel; Madame Tussauds, with 60 to 80 wax figures on display at a time; and Sea Life Aquarium, with walk-through aquariums and marine displays, opened Monday. The three attractions are owned by Merlin Entertainments, also the parent company of Legoland. In the same complex, a museum — Skeletons: Animals Unveiled — opened in April.

Meanwhile, plans for Skyplex, an entertainment center to be anchored by the world’s tallest roller coaster, are moving forward a few blocks away, at International Drive and Sand Lake Road. Joshua Wallack, the developer, said he has purchased the remaining land that’s needed and expects to break ground late this year. Among its features: Skyscraper, a 500-foot-plus vertical roller coaster; SkyFall, a 460-foot drop tower that Wallack says will be the world’s tallest (Falcon’s Fury at Busch Gardens is 335 feet tall); and SkyFly, a zip line that guests will ride down from the top of Skyscraper. The thrill complex should open in late 2017, he said.

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