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As theme parks hit capacity and add festivals, a return to normal predicted

Disney, Universal and other parks see a rebound in crowds.
SeaWorld’s Aquatica opened Riptide Race April 3, a ride billed as the world’s largest dueling raft water slide.
SeaWorld’s Aquatica opened Riptide Race April 3, a ride billed as the world’s largest dueling raft water slide. [ Aquatica ]
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 6

Florida’s theme parks appear to be slowly returning to the normal state of long lines, new rides and food festivals meant to entice visitors back.

At the height of spring break, Universal Orlando reached its still-limited capacity by midday the last few weeks, and Disney’s parks pass availability calendar is showing one or more of its theme parks “sold out” for almost the entire month of April and May.

Legoland Florida also reached capacity on Saturday. And Busch Gardens announced on Twitter that it reached its limit for park capacity over Easter weekend. “We ask for your patience as you may encounter some delays entering the park today while we ... manage the flow of guests,” the park’s official account tweeted on Good Friday, a day public school students in Pinellas and Hillsborough were off.

This leads people who closely watch the parks to predict that the summer of 2021 will be closer to normal. Touring Plans, a website that uses high-tech data to predict crowd sizes at Disney World and other theme parks, predicts a rebound.

“Disney will likely increase park capacity and more people will feel comfortable traveling,” wrote Steve Bloom, who uses statistical analysis to predict crowd levels for the vacation planning site. He said he will be keeping an eye on vaccination coverage and travel trends to make crowd calendar adjustments.

Patrons wear masks and are distanced on the SheiKra roller coaster at Busch Gardens. The park has reached capacity many days during spring break.
Patrons wear masks and are distanced on the SheiKra roller coaster at Busch Gardens. The park has reached capacity many days during spring break. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Meanwhile, the parks are announcing the opening of new rides, like a record-breaking waterslide at SeaWorld’s Aquatica. For events, Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival is returning earlier than usual and Mardi Gras got another extension at Universal.

EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival

The popular foodie fest will kick off July 15, Disney announced this week. The festival has typically been scheduled during the fall “shoulder season” between summer vacation and the holidays. Disney dropped the “Taste of” prefix that has accompanied its festivals since the park reopened after last spring’s COVID-19 closure. That has lead to speculation that this might be closer to the usual spread put on for this popular festival.

Related: Epcot's Flower and Garden Fest returns with a new look and a new name

The event includes the return of many favorites with food kiosks in Canada, Greece and Germany. More marketplaces, such as Hops and Barley and Appleseed Orchard, will join the international fare as the festival continues through Nov. 20. Find details announced so far at epcot.com.

SeaWorld’s Aquatica opened Riptide Race on  April 3, a ride billed as the world’s largest dueling raft water slide.
SeaWorld’s Aquatica opened Riptide Race on April 3, a ride billed as the world’s largest dueling raft water slide. [ Aquatica ]

New Aquatica water slide

SeaWorld’s Aquatica has opened Riptide Race, a ride billed as the world’s largest dueling raft water slide.

The slide features two tubes with low walls, so you can see the riders in the tube next to you as you race down a slide that is sometimes parallel and sometimes curves around to run in opposite directions.

Riptide Race starts at the top of a 68-foot tower that drops riders along the 650-foot slide. Two people on each raft hit high-speed tunnels, twists and turns. The height requirement for the slide is 42 inches.

Find tickets and details at aquatica.com/orlando.

Universal Orlando news

Easter is over, but Mardi Gras at Universal has been extended to May 2. The event was scheduled to wrap up April 11, an extension from the original March 28 end date.

The coronavirus has forced some changes, bumping the traditional nightly parade in favor of parking the floats as photo opps throughout the park. Guests can take pictures and can find performers tossing beads from overhead. A new emphasis this year is on the food, which pays tribute to the “International Flavors of Carnaval,” not just New Orleans fare.

Universal has extended its Mardi Gras celebration through May 2, though it has bumped its nightly parades. The parade floats are parked around the park and performers throw beads to guests from overhead.
Universal has extended its Mardi Gras celebration through May 2, though it has bumped its nightly parades. The parade floats are parked around the park and performers throw beads to guests from overhead. [ Universal Orlando Resorts ]

With at-capacity days and a popular festival going on, it’s no wonder that Universal quietly hiked the price of its annual passes. The two-park seasonal pass for Florida residents is now $30 more at $299.99, as is the annual Power Pass at $349.99. And the annual Premiere Pass jumped from $509.99 to $559.99.

The high-thrills Velocicoaster is set to open this summer, and “demand is expected to go even higher,” the Theme Park Tourist blog noted, “which is likely at least partially driving these price hikes.”

Find details and Florida resident offers at universalorlando.com.