Having visited every theme park in Florida as a reporter, I am often asked how people can afford to go anymore, now that admission has topped $100 at most places. And it’s only a few sawbucks less than that at even the small attractions.
I actually defend the prices. It costs at least that much to see a Broadway show or a top concert. And this is a full day of entertainment, exemplified by the new attractions you’ll find in this year’s theme park guide.
But I also say one-day tickets are for suckers. It’s always better to consider a two- or three-day ticket or annual pass if you think you will go more than once. Then, the per-day costs goes down to $40 or less.
Still, going to a theme park is by no means cheap. In the early 1990s, it cost a family of four about $4,000 to fly to Orlando, stay in a hotel and vacation at Disney World. That same experience is about $7,000 today, said theme park expert Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm.
“If you look at the price of sporting events, concerts and movies, we are still on pace as a value, hour by hour, as the most reasonably priced experience,” Speigel said. “And theme parks are about the last place left that the family can go to as a unit.”
And bargains are available for Florida residents. From now until the end of June, Florida residents can get a three-day ticket to Walt Disney World for just $159.
Many of the parks have buy-one-get-one deals or discounted admissions, so be sure to check our info box with each park to get details on current bargains.
With more than 116 million visitors in 2017 (another record), Florida remains the top travel destination in the world. We have some of the world’s prettiest beaches and waterways, but also five of the 10 most visited theme parks. Record sales have inspired the industry to spend millions on ever more exciting attractions, so that makes the admission price even more valuable.
Read on for our guide to what’s new in Florida’s theme parks this summer.
Toy Story Land debuts at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The biggest new attraction at Walt Disney World this summer is aimed at the young fans of the Toy Story movies, but it’s their parents who are getting excited. Toy Story Land is set to open at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on June 30.
While far more exciting lands are on the horizon, such as the Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster and Tron Lightcycle, all coming in 2019 and beyond, this is the biggest new toy in Disney’s theme park arsenal this year.
Millennial parents who now have young kids grew up with these films and are roughly the same age as Andy, the boy with the anthropomorphic toys. The first movie came out in 1995 and the fourth is set for a 2019 release.
“Disney’s ideal target for Toy Story Land is parents who fell in love with Toy Story when it first hit theaters and are now nostalgic for their childhood,” said Robert Niles, founder and editor of the industry website Theme Park Insider. “They now have kids that they’d like to introduce to these characters.”
Set across 11 acres, Toy Story Land is designed to give visitors the sensation of shrinking to the size of a toy as they explore Andy’s backyard, surrounded by giant building blocks, game board pieces and a restaurant called Woody’s Lunch Box. Even the lampposts will be shaped like Tinkertoys.
The Slinky Dog Dash family coaster, on the cover, will put riders on the back of Slink as he twists his coils around curves and hills and drops across Toy Story Land. And Alien Swirling Saucers is a spin ride designed to look like a toy from Pizza Planet. Aliens fly around in their toy saucers while “the claw” appears overhead.
Sarge and the Green Army Man Drum Corps will march several times a day, inviting visitors to follow them to an interactive boot camp, where they’ll “toy” with guests using giant Pixar balls, oversized crayons and a game of Sarge Says.
The Toy Story Mania ride, opened in 2008, gets a colorful toy carnival game box entrance. It was recently updated with a third track to cut down on the long waits.
ADMISSION AND HOURS: In anticipation of the Toy Story Land opening, Hollywood Studios will stay open longer, from 8 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily starting July 1 for a limited time. Admission starts at $102. 351 Studio Drive, Lake Buena Vista. (407) 939-5277. disneyworld.com.
More Disney World park updates
It was a big deal back in 2012 when the world’s most visited theme park broke with Uncle Walt’s mandate and offered beer and wine for dinner only at Be Our Guest, the Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant. In response to customer requests, especially international tourists and millennials, the park began loosening the rules and now every sit-down restaurant serves alcohol.
Other new Magic Kingdom features:
• The Pirates of the Caribbean ride auction scene has been updated to a more politically correct scene, turning the red-haired wench from a bride for sale into a full-fledged pirate.
• Tomorrowland will feature appearances by Disney Pixar superheroes for the summer through Sept. 3, such as Mr. Incredible, Frozone and Edna Mode, costume designer for the Supers.
• You can now see Donald Trump in the Hall of Presidents. The animatronic version of President Trump drew mixed reviews, some saying he looked more like Jon Voight, when it officially reopened Dec. 19, 2017.
Thanks to last year’s blockbuster opening of Pandora — The World of Avatar, Animal Kingdom attendance soared 15 percent to become Disney’s second most attended park in 2017. The soaring Flight of Passage ride still draws long lines, so plan accordingly.
In the meantime, check out two new shows:
• A new bird show featuring Russell and Dug from Disney Pixar’s Up, above, replaced the now-closed Flights of Wonder in the Caravan Theater in Animal Kingdom. Up! A Great Bird Adventure premiered on Earth Day, coinciding with the park’s 20th anniversary celebration. More than 15 species of birds make appearances, including toucans, parrots, macaws and an African fish eagle with a magnificent 7-foot wingspan.
• Celebrating his recent discovery that ducks are descendants of dinosaurs, Donald’s Dino-Bash takes over Dinoland U.S.A. Scrooge McDuck, Launchpad McQuack and other Disney characters will meet guests and put on a nightly dance party where everyone can shake their tail feathers.
Though the highly anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster is still under construction at Epcot, the park gets some superhero action with Star-Lord and Gamora at the Awesome Mix Live! concert series. The Guardians will rock alongside an alien band to the hits of Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 at American Gardens Theatre for five showings daily June 9 through Aug. 19. Guests can currently meet Star-Lord at Hollywood Studios, but this is Gamora’s first in-park appearance.
ADMISSION: Disney World parks start at $102. (407) 939-5277. disneyworld.com.
The rebranded space formerly called Downtown Disney has some new restaurants. And Disney is experimenting with late-night offerings that, unlike at the old Pleasure Island, is no longer divided from the rest of the attraction. After 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, several clubs have age restrictions and dress codes to separate the family-friendly pack.
The new Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire virtual reality experience ($29.95) has opened at the Void in the Marketplace section of Disney Springs. Multiple players enter for the 30-minute experience. They put on virtual reality goggles and go on a mission created by Lucasfilm. Along with the galactic visuals, there are vibrations beneath your feet, strong smells and temperature effects. Players must be at least 10 years old and at least 48 inches tall. thevoid.com.
On the dining scene, new restaurants include:
• The Edison, below, with a Prohibition-era theme and steampunk vibe, a tasty menu and hot jazz for late-night customers.
• Maria & Enzo’s is located in a former aircraft terminal with a giant globe in the ceiling and large windows that look out onto the springs. The menu is dominated by cocktails as well as small plates, salads, sandwiches and pastas.
• Pizza Ponte, a quick service spot, serves pizza by the slice as well as sandwiches, salads and desserts.
• Terralina Crafted Italian is a new concept from James Beard award winner and Top Chef Master Tony Mantuano.
• Wine Bar George is the only Master Sommelier-led wine bar in Florida, brought to Disney Springs by former California Grill manager and Master Sommelier George Miliotes.
ADMISSION: Disney Springs is free admission. 1486 Buena Vista Drive, Orlando. (407) 939-6244. disneysprings.com.
Universal Orlando: Fast and Furious, VooDoo Doughnut and more
Coaster fans ding Universal for having too many screen-based attractions. So what did the park do? Add another one. Fast & Furious Supercharged, above, is based on the super-sized movie franchise.
The ride, which opened May 2 at Universal Studios, inserts guests into a frenzied highway chase involving crashing helicopters, gunfire and overturned trucks. Stars from the movies, including Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez and Ludacris, pop up. The story puts riders on a party bus after a race, being chased by bad guys.
If you see a long line at CityWalk, Universal’s shopping and entertainment district just outside the parks, chances are it leads to the newly opened Voodoo Doughnut, below.
The Portland-based doughnut shop with a cult following made its East Coast debut in Orlando on May 1. Besides the crazy concoctions (bacon-maple, toppings of Cocoa Puffs and other goodies), art adorns the soaring space from duct tape murals to black velvet paintings to custom stained glass.
The opening date hasn’t been announced yet, but the lagoon at Universal Studios is getting a new nighttime show that the park has said “will include new animation featuring characters from favorite Universal attractions, a new story line, new music, lighting and special effects.” It will take the old show, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, “to an entirely new level.” Don’t be surprised if that includes projection mapping on surrounding buildings, fireworks and pyrotechnics.
ADMISSION DEAL: Through June 28, Florida residents can buy a one-day ticket and get the second one free. Admission starts at $115 for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure and $80 for Volcano Bay. 6000 Universal Blvd. (407) 363-8000. universalorlando.com.
Busch Gardens & Adventure Island: Free beer, Summer Nights and a scary new slide
Busch Gardens has brought back extended hours, nighttime parties and the perk of free beer (at least for the summer). Plus, its water park Adventure Island has a frightening new ride, above.
Though it doesn’t include a fireworks show like years past, Summer Nights has returned with nighttime entertainment. A new foodie feature and party zone called the Backyard BBQ at the Bird Gardens has live music and Americana food twists such as a chicken waffle sandwich with blackberry pepper jelly. The park also brought back the Fiesta party zone in Cheetah Hunt Plaza and a Vibin’ Village of international and domestic beer selections and food in the Stanleyville area. The party zones open at 5 p.m. every night through Aug. 5.
Did we mention free beer? The park revived its retired tradition of giving out two free 7-ounce beers, now through Aug. 5 for visitors at the Garden Gate Cafe. The freebies rotate from a list that includes Founders All Day IPA, M.I.A 305, Miller Lite, Shock Top and Yuengling.
The stunt helped the park highlight its new Brew Club set in the Serengeti Overlook Pub next to the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster. The club, decorated in warm woods with beer steins lining the walls in lockers, is $79 to join. Members get a reserved beer stein and $5 refills from more than 20 on-tap brews year-round. At the end of the year, club members get to keep the stein, with a new one issued each year.
Busch Gardens has gone without a new attraction since Cobra’s Curse, above, in 2016, as parent company SeaWorld has struggled financially. There are rumors of a new attraction in 2019 for the park’s 60th anniversary, and SeaWorld’s new CEO has promised to add new rides or attractions in every park as the company pivots away from animal shows.
Meanwhile, Adventure Island added Vanish Point, a drop slide in which riders step into capsules on a 70-foot tower and wait for the floor to fall out. The ground-level queue for the attraction is a shady area that sends riders to the left for Colossal Curl and to the right for Vanish Point. The entrance includes a live feed of riders’ expressions as the floor opens up 70 feet above the line.
Busch Gardens: Admission starts at $89. Through Sunday, get a one-day ticket for $45 and a Fun Card for $59 (online only). Through July 4, military veterans and up to three guests get free admission. 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. (813) 884-4386. buschgardens.com.
Adventure Island: Admission starts at $49.99. Through Sunday, get a one-day ticket for $29 and a Fun Card for $59 (online only). 10001 McKinley Drive, Tampa. (813) 884-4386. adventureisland.com.
More Tampa Bay area attractions
ZOOTAMPA AT LOWRY PARK
One of the biggest makeovers in Tampa Bay is at the zoo, which changed its name to ZooTampa at Lowry Park and has an attraction opening June 9 called Roaring Springs, above. It’s a faux old Florida town with a new ride that will allow passengers to catch treetop glimpses of the surrounding park before splashing down three stories.
The family ride isn’t the only change. Check out the decidedly adult beverage and food options, from fish tacos to frozen rum drinks, below, as the kids play at the new playground next to the Roaring Springs ride.
It’s all part of the zoo’s efforts to step up its food game, said Andrew Mather, director of food and retail. A new hot dog stand in the main section of the zoo by the carousel has real Chicago-style and Coney Island hot dogs. And the Garden Grill has locally fresh food sources and Angus beef on the grill.
Some new gatherings at the zoo include the monthly Toddler Tuesdays for members only when wee ones get story time, a craft and an animal mingle on the second Tuesday of the month. There are also Yoga in the Wild classes set across a variety of animal habitats.
ADMISSION: $34.95, $25.95 ages 3-11, 2 and younger free. The Zooper Pass gives you unlimited admission for the rest of the year for the cost of one-day admission. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. (813) 935-8552. lowryparkzoo.org.
The kid-friendly aquarium in downtown Tampa showcases aquatic animals and ecosystems of Florida and the world.
The Splash Pad outdoor children’s play area was under renovation at the beginning of last summer, but it is back in business, giving toddlers a way to beat the heat in the aquarium’s outdoor plaza. Also new is the Four Ducks 4-D theater. This summer the multisensory film is a 13-minute version of Storks. The voice talent from Andy Samberg, Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell is enhanced by colorful 3-D and special effects. The aquarium runs the films from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
From June 8-10, the aquarium will celebrate World Oceans Weekend with special activities and presentations. And the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week returns July 22. The aquarium plans to show off its six species of sharks with shark-themed activities.
ADMISSION: $28.95, $26.95 seniors, $23.95 ages 3-11, 2 and younger free. Prices are generally about $4 cheaper if you buy tickets online. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 273-4000. flaquarium.org.
MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY
The hands-on science museum will be heading to downtown Tampa in a few years, and it moved all its exhibits to one floor of its previously expansive three-story space and chopped the admission price in half.
It still has five themed play areas, a ropes course and the Saunders Planetarium. Play areas include a chance to lie on a real bed of nails and move a giant pendulum using nothing but magnets. The summer traveling exhibit Be the Astronaut is there through Sept. 4. With an upcharge of $8, visitors can take the joystick in the pilot seat to plan and execute space missions to places like the moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond. It uses simulations derived from NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
ADMISSION: $12.95, $10.95 seniors, $7.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free. 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. (813) 987-6000. mosi.org.
GLAZIER CHILDREN’S MUSEUM
Most museums discourage touching the art, but the Glazer Children’s Museum’s newest interactive installation, Light Cloud, created by Ivan Depeña, insists that you put your hands all over it. Visitors can play with the art by touching various sensors that change the light and sound inside the cloud. The first Tuesday of every month is Free Tuesdays with free admission from noon to 7 p.m. Check out the newly refreshed Publix exhibit that sneaks in lessons on math, nutrition and planning in a kid-sized grocery store.
ADMISSION: $15, $12.50 military/seniors, $10 children age 1-12, younger than 1 free. 110 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. (813) 443-3861. glazermuseum.org.
GREAT EXPLORATIONS CHILDREN’S MUSEUM
The children’s museum has a big fan in baseball star Evan Longoria, a parent of young kids. In October, the hands-on children’s museum opened Longo’s Cove, a 26-foot-tall climber exhibit, above, sponsored by Evan and Jaime Longoria.
The three-dimensional jungle gym is practically a work of art as children scurry upward from pad to pad to get to a bird’s-eye view of the entire museum at the top. There are more changes coming as the museum introduced a $2 million capital campaign with a goal of funding a project labeled the “Great Expansion.”
ADMISSION: $10, $9 seniors, ages 1 and younger free. 1925 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 821-8992. greatexplorations.org.
CLEARWATER MARINE AQUARIUM
In the midst of a two-year, $66 million expansion, the leaders at Clearwater Marine Aquarium have said the upgrades will be less theme park like and will provide space to rehabilitate more animals and host more visitors. Plans include five new dolphin habitats, exhibit space, an elevated deck, the final phase of a nearly 400-space parking structure and a new building for education.
The aquarium near Clearwater Beach doubles as a working animal hospital and is home to perhaps one of the world’s most famous dolphins, Winter, whose story was told in the hit movie Dolphin Tale. This summer brings a Summer Sunset Special at CMA with extended hours, evening family fun, talks on sea life and $9.99 admission from 4-8 p.m. through Sept. 3. Visitors will have a chance to meet the Dolphin Tale stars June 4-7 when actors Nathan Gamble (who played Sawyer), Cozi Zuehlsdorff (Hazel) and Austin Highsmith (Phoebe) will be on site for photos and autographs. They will also be back July 21-26.
ADMISSION: $22.95, $20.95 seniors, $17.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater. (727) 441-1790. seewinter.com.
WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS
Florida’s only spring-fed water park has a live mermaid show and marked its 70th birthday in September. The area’s oldest attraction has embraced the newest technology because the park often reaches capacity by its 9 a.m. opening on weekends. You can sign up for alerts by texting the keyword “Weeki” to 82149. The park also updates its Facebook and Twitter pages. Considering what a bargain it is to get a sandy beach, flume rides, volleyball, river rides, a kiddie pool area and mermaid shows for one admission price, there are often cars lined up by 8 a.m. on a Saturday, so get there early.
ADMISSION: $13, $8 ages 6-12, 5 and younger free. 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee. (352) 592-5656. weekiwachee.com.
The kid-friendly dino play park has all the kitsch you would expect from an old-time attraction, except it has only been around since 1998. Sprinkled throughout the outdoor attraction’s pine trees and palmettos are 150 life-sized statues of dinosaurs, a Skeleton Garden, a museum and a play area. Pets and picnic supplies are welcome.
ADMISSION: $16.95, $14.95 seniors, $11.95 ages 3-12, 2 and younger free. 5145 Harvey Tew Road, Plant City. (813) 717-9865. dinosaurworld.com/florida.
TAMPA BAY HISTORY CENTER
The Tampa Bay History Center is offering free admission to active duty military this summer, including their families, through Labor Day.
A new permanent exhibit called Treasure Seekers, above, opened in February. It’s all about conquistadors, pirates and shipwrecks that put Tampa on the map. It features a soaring 60-foot scale replica of a pirate ship and about 100 real shipwreck artifacts. It also dives into the science and technology of shipwreck recovery.
A rare collection of American flags, including an Andy Warhol print, are on exhibit through July 29 in “American Flags: The Stars and Stripes in American History and Culture.” The exhibit features more than 20 original flags dating to the 1790s, and American pop artists Warhol’s Moonwalk (1987) and Jasper Johns’ White Flag (1954).
ADMISSION: $14.95, $12.95 seniors and students, $10.95 ages 7-17, children 6 and younger free. 801 Old Water St., Tampa. (813) 228-0097. tampabayhistorycenter.org.