This is the year a trickle became a tidal wave.
Every theme park in Florida has a significant new attraction opening this summer and most involve walking into the worlds of your favorite fictional characters.
Step into the worlds of Star Wars or Sesame Street. Ride Emmet’s triple-decker couch from The Lego Movie. Fly on a magical motorbike with Hagrid.
We’ve seen an upswing in theme park attractions ever since Universal Orlando blew the ceiling off attendance records in 2010 with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That led to an unheard of 40 percent year-to-year increase in attendance at Islands of Adventure and a transformation for the entire theme park industry.
Following the Potter success, parent company Comcast vowed to open a new attraction every year. Now SeaWorld is saying the same thing, and so is Busch Gardens. This year, the Sunshine State is basking in those promises.
Not only are there more visitors thanks to new attractions, but they are staying a little longer and spending more, according to industry analysts. The uptick in attendance has even allowed Disney and Universal to push through price increases that have apparently done nothing to slow the tide of visitors.
“These new attractions are a marketing tool to get people to come back and it can justify a higher price because it is an enhanced experience, a deeper experience,” said Dennis Speigel, a theme park expert and head of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati.
It has led to big investments in “lands,” akin to Disney’s Avatar-themed Pandora and Universal’s second Harry Potter land, Diagon Alley.
“This is one of the most intensive years of capital spending we’ve seen in decades,” said Speigel, who put the final tally in the multibillions.
So what does that mean for the vacationer? Read on in our annual theme park guide for the skinny on what you will find at the attractions this summer, and ways to make the most of your visit.
WALT DISNEY WORLD
May the force be with you if you try to brave the crush of fans expected to finally get a chance to walk into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios this summer.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In the largest expansion ever at Disney’s theme parks, visitors will descend on Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu and fly the Millennium Falcon. They can also grab a drink at Oga’s Cantina and rub shoulders with Hondo Ohnaka, a pirate first introduced in the Clone Wars animated series.
Disney is spending $1 billion at each park to re-create the world of Star Wars and double-digit attendance increases are predicted, so brace yourself. It opens this weekend at Disneyland in California and Aug. 29 in Florida.
The 135-foot-tall spires that form the distinctive backdrop of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are visible from Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios. They are hand-crafted rock work designed to evoke the fossilized look and feel of a petrified forest. A towering black spire at the center of the spaceport lends its name to the Black Spire Outpost village.
But the outpost won’t be complete when it debuts. The Millennium Falcon ride will be open, but a second ride, Rise of the Resistance, won’t open until later this year.
There will, however, be plenty of merchandise, food and toys. And if California is any indication, that’s enough. Even at prices of $199.99 for a build-your-own lightsaber experience and $99.99 to build your own droid, the merch is getting snapped up.
In California, visitors are required to make a reservation to even get into the park and are limited to four-hour stays in the first few weeks. There have been no such limits announced for Florida.
But there are changes to contend with. Strollers in all four parks can be no larger than 31 inches wide, and wagons are no longer permitted. And smoking areas have disappeared from the theme parks and water parks. Designated smoking areas are located outside the entrances, and this includes vaping.
Other attractions that are new or coming soon to Walt Disney World:
IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
The fireworks spectacle at Epcot will end its 20-year run at the end of September so this is your last summer to see the elaborate show. A replacement show called “Epcot Forever” will launch on Oct. 1.
Disney Villains After Hours
For 10 nefarious nights between June 6 and Aug. 8, Disney’s villains take center stage at an after-hours party at the Magic Kingdom. The Thursday night events (except for July 1) run 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tickets start at $139 to party with the likes of Jafar and Maleficent.
Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy
It opened this spring at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, giving fans of the Disney-Pixar Cars films a live-theater show with an audio-animatronic Lightning McQueen and a curved screen nearly two stories tall, creating a virtual driving experience. Outside the theater is a meet-and-greet with Cars characters and a DJ-hosted dance party.
Wonderful World of Animation
The new nighttime show that opened this month at Hollywood Studios uses high-tech projections to show 90 years of Disney animation.
One more way to move people will be these overhead gondolas carrying guests from Epcot and Hollywood Studios to several resorts. If you don’t mind heights, the view should be spectacular. They are already visible but they won’t be operational until Nov. 14.
$109 to $159 depending on the day. Florida residents can purchase a three-day Discover Disney ticket for $175 for one theme park per day. Add a fourth day for $20. Valid through June 30 with no block-out dates at DisneyWorld.com/DiscoverDisney. (407) 939-5277. disneyworld.com.
Universal has been flying high ever since a boy wizard cast a spell. Using the very set designers from the blockbuster Harry Potter movies, it immersed fans in the world J.K. Rowling created.
A new ride called Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is coming to Islands of Adventure, “the world’s first story coaster.” From what we’ve seen in limited media previews, that may not be just hype. We’ll find out for sure when it opens June 13.
Universal is spending upward of $300 to $400 million, theme park expert Dennis Speigel estimated.
A Gothic castle provides the setting and an elaborate queue takes visitors through dark tunnels and rooms full of movie references, such as Hagrid’s lab, where he created the Blast-Ended Skrewts that tormented the competitors in the Triwizard Tournament. A collection of dinosaur eggs is about to hatch.
It is surrounded by a forest of 1,200 newly planted trees, and there’s also a giant, hand-painted mural — the biggest of any theme park in the world — strategically located to make the forest look bigger. Then there’s the coaster itself.
With nearly a mile of track, the longest in Florida, it will have a world-record seven launches. At one point the actual track will disconnect from the rest of the coaster path and riders will free-fall 17 feet before going into another launch.
Other new features to look for at Universal Orlando this summer:
Just inside the entrance to Universal Studios, look for the bright orange umbrellas and big windows of the sunny cafe modeled after The Today Show.
Universal’s Endless Summer Resort — Surfside Inn and Suites
The new beach-themed value hotel debuts June 27.
A new two-story campfire-themed restaurant opens this summer at Universal CityWalk with a large wood fire grill at the center.
$115 and up depending on the day for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. $80 for Volcano Bay. 6000 Universal Blvd. (407) 363-8000. universalorlando.com.
The famous stoop at 123 Sesame St. arrived at SeaWorld Orlando in time for the show’s 50th anniversary, and just in time to cap off SeaWorld’s comeback story.
Industry analysts estimate the theme park spent upward of $100 million on a 6-acre life-sized re-creation of Sesame Street. It helped the park see double-digit attendance increases.
Parents can step back into their childhood and kids can get up close and even dance with the characters they love in a new daily parade. There’s also a daily story time at Big Bird’s nest and shopping in Mr. Hooper’s corner store. And kids can point magical bubble wands ($30) at various locations to make Ernie sing Rubber Ducky or shoot a swirl of bubbles from a laundry machine.
The 30-minute Sesame Street parade is more interactive than most. Dancers and full-size characters, including Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and Abby, hop off the parade floats to dance and play with kids watching the procession.
The rides in the area once home to Shamu’s Happy Harbor have been re-themed for Sesame Street, such as Super Grover’s Box Car Derby, a family coaster, and Abby’s Flower Tower, a spinning tower ride.
Until 2018, SeaWorld saw year after year of revenue and attendance decline, fueled by increased competition from Universal and the growing anticaptivity sentiment among the public following the 2013 release of the Blackfish documentary critical of SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales.
The Orlando theme park had an astonishing 16 percent increase in attendance to 4.59 million last year, according to a report from Themed Entertainment Association.
While SeaWorld hasn’t abandoned its focus on marine mammals, it has doubled down on higher profile coasters and Sesame Street properties.
Other new attractions and events at SeaWorld this summer:
The raft ride on rolling rapids was supposed to open last summer but was delayed until October. A vertical lift (the first of its kind in North America for an attraction like this) delivers the eight-member rafts to the precipice of its 40-foot drop, a world record. Despite the dramatic splashdown, the minimum height to ride is a fairly low 42 inches.
The nighttime shows are back for the summer season and include fireworks, lasers and fountains. Select nights through Sept. 1.
The new water slide, shown at left, at SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park opened in April. It lasts about 20 seconds and is meant for thrill-seekers. (The minimum height requirement is 48 inches.) It features a 35-foot drop and a moment of weightlessness after the enclosed tube spits you out to a fiberglass vertical wave wall before a final open stretch splashing into a pool.
Starts at $84.99 online. Active-duty military members, veterans and their families can get free admission at wavesofhonor.com by June 9 for use by July 15. The deal is not available at the front gate. (407) 545-5550. seaworld.com.
For its 60th anniversary, Busch Gardens brought back something old (free beers), something new (pin trading) and something borrowed (Tigris, a coaster clone of Tempesto at Busch Gardens Williamsburg).
It has been a wild ride for this Tampa theme park over the past six decades.
When Busch Gardens opened on June 1, 1959, it was just a garden, though a really nice one, with free admission. It was a big hit because it offered free tours of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, free samples of beer and bird shows on the lush grounds.
It has changed ownership over the years and is now part of the SeaWorld Entertainment company. To celebrate its 60th, it’s the #YearOfBeer, with two free 7-ounce beer samples to all guests available daily at Serengeti Outlook Pub and Restaurant and at Garden Gate Cafe.
The park also launched a new pin-trading program in March. Similar to the popular ritual at Disney, more than 150 pins represent animals, attractions and events. Since the park’s workers are required to trade, your best bet is to buy the cheapest starter set ($7-$30) and look for the rare, elaborate ones on an employee’s lanyard.
In April, Tigris opened as the ninth thrill ride in the park’s collection, solidifying Busch Gardens as Florida’s thrill ride leader with the most of any theme park in the state. In 2020, its 10th coaster will replace the old Gwazi coaster with a hybrid and steel ride that will be more than 200 feet tall.
Florida’s tallest launch coaster, Tigris has an orange and black steel track that packs a lot of action into a fairly small footprint. It launches riders 150 feet in the air at 60 mph and then sends them backward at 50 mph before launching again. The ride slows as it heads into the heartline roll at the top, slowly rotating until the riders are fully upside down. It then hurtles 90 feet down toward another twisting loop.
This weekend brings Summer Nights, with thrill rides in the dark, live entertainment and fireworks each Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening through Aug. 11.
Starts at $84.99. Deals recently announced include a $49 single-day ticket available through Sunday (good through June 23) and a $65 Fun Card. Also, active-duty military members, veterans and their families get free admission online at wavesofhonor.com by June 9 for use by July 15. The deal is not available at the front gate. (407) 545-5550 or buschgardens.com.
Legoland Florida Resort opened Lego Movie World in March, where it’s always Taco Tuesday. Visitors can ride Emmet’s Triple Decker Couch and enter the topsy-turvy head of Unikitty in Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The largest Legoland expansion to date puts guests in the world of their favorite movies. It includes three rides, a quick-service restaurant, a play area, retail store and indoor character meet-and-greet.
Just try to keep Everything Is Awesome out of your head in the 80,000-square-foot area set in a Bricksburg cityscape, which includes a restaurant called Taco Everyday.
Masters of Flight is the signature ride aboard Emmet’s Triple Decker Couch. This hanging simulator, similar to Soarin’ at Disney’s Epcot, is the first of its kind to utilize a 180-degree turn that immerses riders in a full-dome virtual screen.
The ride’s animation takes visitors through Cloud Cuckoo Land and splashes down on the waters of Pirate’s Cove. It’s like rolling through a giant video game while kids help Emmet drive.
Expect to get soaked at Battle of Bricksburg, the only water ride at Lego Movie World. Riders stop Duplo aliens from invading and stealing Lego bricks by spraying water from their boats. Meanwhile, spectators shoot back from cannons on land.
Unikitty’s Disco Drop gives the sensation of levitating. Visitors rise 30 feet and are dropped while Unikitty goes through an array of emotions. - Tracee Stockwell, Times staff writer
Lego Movie Days
The park will host Lego characters, photo opportunities and themed dining activities in the movie area. July 13-14, 20-21, 27-28 and Aug. 3-4.
Red, Brick & Boom
The biggest fireworks shows of the year. Before the sun goes down, help create a giant U.S. flag out of thousands of Lego bricks. July 4-6.
Fire Safety Weekend
Teaches fire safety with a variety of fun activities presented by the National Fire Protection Association. Aug. 10-11.
$84.99 and up. Awesome Pass for Florida residents $119.99 includes free parking and 12 months of admission with some blocked dates. (877) 350-5346. legoland.com.