Florida Travel

Summer bonanza for theme park fans

The 40-foot-long, 17-ton Skull Island ride vehicle navigates a rough, jungle road through unpredictable terrain.
The 40-foot-long, 17-ton Skull Island ride vehicle navigates a rough, jungle road through unpredictable terrain. Universal Orlando

Early summer has been a bonanza for theme park junkies, with three major rides opening at Florida’s parks and a fourth, Universal’s King Kong ride, in a soft opening.

It’s a rare year that sees four major rides open in Central Florida, and rarer still that they open in such quick succession. The timing, the start of the summer tourist season, was well-chosen.

Two of the new rides are based on much-loved movie characters. The other two are roller coasters, one with a curse and an easygoing personality, the other an update of a classic coaster style.

▪ Mako, a shark-themed hyper coaster, opened June 10 at SeaWorld.

▪ Cobra’s Curse, a family spin coaster, opened June 17 at Busch Gardens.

▪ Frozen Ever After, based on the animated movie Frozen, opened at Epcot June 22.

▪ Skull Island: Reign of Kong, a slow-moving ride that gets its thrills from 3-D scenes projected on giant screens, is still in technical rehearsal at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, with no opening date announced but expected soon.

“The Florida parks might be open year-round, but summer remains the big season for them all, and they want to make sure that they are driving attendance for those months,” said Robert Niles, founder and editor of the Theme Park Insider website. “As technology becomes more and more complex, theme parks are finding it more difficult to predict the exact date that custom new rides will be ready.”

He contrasted SeaWorld’s Mako — built by Bolliger & Mabillard, a manufacturer he said has a great reputation for reliability — and Universal’s Reign of Kong. Mako, he said, hit its opening date with relative ease.

“Meanwhile, Kong is a custom-built original attraction that employs trackless navigation technology that Universal is using for the first time,” Niles said. “Yes, it’s using some elements from Hollywood’s Kong encounter, but the vast majority of this ride is new and, before it was installed, relatively untested in a full-scale environment. That makes hitting a specific opening date more challenging.”

Theme park companies say guests are always looking for new rides and other features like shows and parades. If the rides’ designers have read park-goers correctly, these newest attractions represent a passion for increasingly complex and sophisticated stories, a continuing infatuation with pop culture characters, and a higher threshold for thrills.

We rode all four; follow the links to our reviews.

Two other major attractions got major makeovers. Soarin’, a hang-gliding flight simulator and movie, opened with a new show June 17. The Incredible Hulk, a launch coaster at Islands of Adventure, is getting new cars, a new queue experience, a new story and a rebuilt track. It is expected to open in late summer.

Spring also brought nightlife to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (our report coming next week) and the opening of a new section at Disney Springs.

As usual, summer brings a slew of new shows at the parks:

▪ Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire: Mickey, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck and Goofy dance on the outdoor stage at Cinderella Castle with characters from such Disney contemporary classics as Frozen, Tangled and Princess and the Frog.

▪ The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic: A musical performance inspired by the new Jungle Book movie and featuring Indian culture, performed at the outdoor Discovery River Theater in Animal Kingdom.

▪ The Tree of Life: This sculpted icon at the center of Animal Kingdom comes alive at night when animal stories are projected on its massive trunk.

▪ Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular: A Star Wars-themed fireworks show with lasers, light projections and music at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

▪ Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away: An outdoor stage show with excerpts from the Star Wars movies and vignettes featuring Star Wars characters.

▪ Lego movies: Legoland has two new animated movies, about 12  1/2 minutes each, in 3D. They are The Lego Movie 4D: A New Adventure, a sequel of sorts to 2014’s The Lego Movie; and Lego Nexo Knights: The Book of Creativity, based on a line of Lego building sets and a show on the Cartoon Network.

▪ Legoland Night Lights: A Ninjago-themed fireworks show, with special glasses that make the bursts of fireworks look like Lego bricks exploding in the sky.

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