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New Thrills

Orlando’s Disney and Universal parks plan expansions for 2017

Orlando theme parks are bursting with new attractions, with more on the way. If you’re coming to Walt Disney World Resort or Universal Orlando Resort in 2017, you’ll find whole new worlds of enchantment waiting.


Above: Guests can encounter Chewbacca at Star Wars Launch Bay in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World

In Title: The relaunched Incredible Hulk Coaster reaches speeds of 67 mph. Universal Orlando Resort

Below: Universal’s Volcano Bay will be a tropical water park dominated by a fire and water volcano. Universal Orlando Resort

Volcano Bay

It’s Real

Pandora – The World of AVATAR, inspired by James Cameron’s blockbuster film, will open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom this year. Once it’s completed, guests will be able to see magnificent floating mountains, fly on a Banshee, and experience the beauty of a bioluminescent forest. Joe Rohde, who leads the team of Imagineers working on the project, says that the realism derived from the animals at the park will be carried out completely in the mythical world of Pandora.

“We really want to live up to that state of realism, to the detail, to the complete immersion which is part of the signature of that park,” he says.

A highlight will be a family-friendly attraction called Na’vi River Journey, in which guests set out in canoes to venture down a mysterious, sacred river hidden within the glowing rainforest. The adventure includes an encounter with a Na’vi shaman, who seems very real, indeed.

Several attractions opened last year that some Disney fans have yet to experience. Here’s a peak at some of the developments.

Frozen Fever Continues

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, you’ve got to be familiar with the characters in the blockbuster movie that captured life in the kingdom of Arendelle. Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, the trolls, and even Marshmallow show no signs of disappearing from popular culture anytime soon.

In place of the Maelstrom ride that was originally in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion (yes, you loved it, but it’s time to “let it go”), the new Frozen Ever After ride is a boat journey through the Willow Forest, past Troll Valley, and up to the North Mountain. Elsa’s ice palace is spectacular, and the music is as catchy as ever.

If you haven’t had enough of the Frozen phenomenon, you can meet Elsa and Anna in the Royal Sommerhus, a cabin next door to the ride.

Soarin’, Take Two

Your hang glider is no longer tethered to the state of California, but can now move freely about the world. Fasten your seat belt and take in the wonders of this remarkable planet – from the Taj Mahal in India, to the Great Wall of China. The transitions in this new version of the popular Soarin’ Around the World Epcot ride are seamless, and the screens and projection systems have been upgraded for picture clarity. There are even new scents. Plus, a third theater was added, so wait times are more bearable.

Joy and Sadness Mingle

Guests can visit Headquarters at Epcot to meet the characters Joy and Sadness from Inside Out. Both characters are demonstrative, but what’s amazing is that happiness actually seems to emanate from Joy, and when you hug Sadness, well, it’s a bit of a downer. She actually feels sad. Maybe it’s subliminal Disney magic, sort of like the smell of freshly baked cookies you can’t help but notice on Main Street in The Magic Kingdom.

The Power of the Force is Strong

Almost 40 years ago, the first Star Wars movie jolted a generation of filmgoers into the stirring story of the Jedi vs. the Dark Side. The same epic space franchise that grabbed hold of Baby Boomers’ imaginations is just as compelling to their offspring. Although Disney hasn’t announced an opening date for the under-construction 14-acre Star Wars land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, there’s still enough new Star Wars entertainment at the park to keep frenzied fans from pounding their light sabers in frustration.

At Star Wars Launch Bay, would-be Jedi Knights can get an up-close look at replica props, models, costumes, concept artwork, and artifacts from the Star Wars films in four separate galleries. They can also meet warm and fuzzy Chewbacca and encounter cold and imperious Kylo Ren for photo-ops. (“I am finished with you now,” Kylo Ren has been known to growl after the Disney PhotoPass photographer has taken his shots.)

Also at Launch Bay, you can watch a 10-minute behind-the scenes film celebrating the Star Wars saga. Even if you’re not a rabid fan, it’s still fascinating to watch interviews with the directors, writers, and producers for whom making the films consumed such large portions of their lives.

Other out-of-this-world experiences include another short film, Star Wars: Path of the Jedi (continuous screenings are at Echo Lake), and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular, a dazzling fireworks-and-laser show set to the familiar music.

Disney Springs Just Keeps Growing

The four distinct outdoor neighborhoods – The Landing, Marketplace, West Side, and Town Center – are bustling with new shops and restaurants. An eclectic mix of more than 150 shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues in this picturesque area, built around bubbling springs, will keep the entire family happy for hours.

Make a splash, race with a celebrity

Universal’s Volcano Bay, the resort’s third theme park, is a tropical paradise that’s due to open in 2017. At the heart of the 30-acre island, the volcano Krakatau towers 200 feet above the landscape, streaming waterfalls during the day and fiery lava at night.

Inspired by the Tonight Show’s celebrity race segments, Race through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon is set to open at Universal Orlando Resort sometime this spring. This wild adventure in a “flying theater” accommodates 72 guests as they watch cameos by Sara (“Ew”), Jimmy in “Tight Pants,” announcer Steve Higgins, and The Roots band fly by. Prior to this crazy ride, hang out with Hashtag the Panda or write Thank You Notes to friends from the Interactive Desk in Studio 6B.
Oldies but goodies

In the theme park arena, last season’s attractions can become old news quickly, but the thrills continue at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster, relaunched last summer, goes up to a staggering 67 miles per hour, as your world turns upside down, and you twist through a breathtaking zero-gravity roll. The ride’s not for the faint of heart or stomach.

Another Islands of Adventure attraction, Skull Island: Reign of Kong puts guests on huge trackless expedition vehicles controlled by audio-animatronic characters. The immersive technology lets riders come face-to-face with a very realistic King Kong.

Although it’s been two years since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter expanded to include Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express, fans of the J.K. Rowling adventures keep coming in droves. The immersive experience bewitches any Muggle who enters.

The Diagon Alley shops beckon you to make magical purchases. The wands at Ollivanders wand shop have been upgraded from the former versions (which looked cool, but didn’t do anything special). The new wands actually let young wizards and witches interact with shop window displays, so they appear to be casting spells.

With all these new and upcoming attractions, the only problem you’ll have once you get to Orlando is deciding which theme park to visit first.

Nancy Pistorius is a new contributor from Lawrence, Kan.

January/February 2017 Issue


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