Can’t Wait For Star Wars? Read this…

Can’t wait for Star Wars? Read This…

The year’s over and for theme parks, it’s been more a time of announcements than actually opening new venues. So here’s a timely question:

What’s ahead in 2016?

What to expect?

Star Wars.

Sorry, not the entire new land. That is still in the future, though not so far away.

A taste of Star Wars, though, is an attraction already here.

A definite highlight for the year.

Just a taste of it

What else can you look forward to, at least when it comes to Orlando theme parks later this year?

It’s safe to say that 2015 was not a big year for Orlando’s theme park resorts.

That will change in 2016 as Orlando’s parks will see dramatic new additions.

But new roller coaster and helicopter rides and a lot more is coming here in Orlando’s backyard before the year is out.

Let’s start with Star Wars.

Yes, we know, it’s still a coming attraction.

But there are elements both in California and here that you can see now.

California’s Disneyland is a bit of a hike, or airplane trip at least, so let’s start with what you can find at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

(We’ll also give you our “verdict” or opinion on it and what it might mean).

Disney’s Hollywood Studios says it this month started a Star Wars themed fireworks display. It’s called “Symphony in the Stars: A Galactic Spectacular.” Expect a stirring musical score with familiar classic and new music by the amazing John Williams. A footnote:

The music performed by the London Symphony was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in England.

Verdict for guests: more of the incredibly stirring music by the incomparable composer.

For those visiting from now until March 19, there’s also a “Symphony in the Stars Dessert Party.”

Price: $60 for adults, $39 per child.

Reservations required.

Verdict: It should get you in the mood for more.

Themed food is another offering.

Dining, Star Wars style

“Dark Side Chicken and Waffles” and a “Royal Grand Burger” offered at Backlot Express. Also Star Wars themed souvenir popcorn buckets and drink sippers (even cupcakes).

Verdict: Food items may not be as to everyone’s taste but they can be found throughout the park. Worth a try, at least.

Some Star Wars experiences can be found at both the Florida and California parks:

“Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple” designed for kids to get a chance to stand up to Darth Vader and the Force.

Pre-registration is required at both parks.

Verdict: Designed for kids 4-12 but older ones also expected.

Star Wars Launch Bay is a walk through experience with exhibits and artifacts from past movies.

Verdict: movie fans should love it.

Among other experiences:

Meeting characters Darth Vader and Chewbacca.

Meet, take photos

Verdict: good for those too old for Jedi Training.

A 10-minute film retelling the familiar story.

Verdict: if you missed it the last time, here’s a chance to catch up.

Another Star Wars attraction before the main event: a simulator ride “The Adventure Continues.”

Verdict: Familiar characters from the movies.

Various souvenirs and merchandise are now on sale.

Verdict: if you have an extra $4,000 around, you can dress like Darth Vader with a replica of his daunting costume.

More Star Wars

What else is ahead for Star Wars?

As you know, Star Wars weekends have crashed and burned.

But some races are still on.

Actually, there will be 5K, 10K and a half marathon race April 14-17 this year at the “Star Wars Half Marathons.” Also kiddie races.

Verdict: fine for joggers but perhaps others might want to avoid congestion at that time.

In other Disney news at Orlando this year, 2016 will also bring an update to the “Soaring Ride” at Epcot. It closes this month and is scheduled to reopen in the summer.

The ride is a flyover of California but the new one will cover the world.

Verdict: This is a popular ride, mainly because of the bird’s eye view. But it might be even more popular if it featured Florida. Wait times should at least be reduced, however, because of an added third theatre.

A brand new attraction set to open in 2016 is “Frozen Ever After” at Epcot. It replaces the former Maelstrom ride in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot. It should open in the spring.

Verdict: Not really a major attraction, but something new. The slow boat ride will take you through scenes from the animated movie. You’ll see Elsa’s Ice Palace and other Frozen characters. There will also be a new meet and greet area.

Animal Kingdom looks for many changes

Disney says its Animal Kingdom this year will be a real, full-day park. More entertainment will include the new “Rivers of Light” show in the spring, located at the park’s Discovery River between Discovery Island and the Expedition Everest roller coaster.

Verdict: Park hours will be extended (historically, it has closed earlier then other parks). The addition is an effort to offer more entertainment — a welcome move anywhere.

The park also in planning an after-dark version of its Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, which will introduce hyenas and African wild dogs to the savanna.

Tiffins, a new restaurant at Animal Kingdom, will also open in 2016. 

Verdict: There’s going to be a lot said about Animal Kingdom this year. It will have the most changes of just about anywhere in Orlando. The new night time “River of Light” will help make it a one-stop destination. But other attractions such as a projection mapping show at the Tree of Life will also contribute to its continuing popularity. New waterfront dining is also on the way. Safaris will be a common theme.

Other Disney openings this year will include The Edison restaurant at Disney Springs. It’s described as an industrial gothic-designed eatery.

And what is that?

Verdict: all we know so far is that it will be American food and cocktails. But what else would you want?

If it’s food you want, you can reasonably expect more restaurants at Disney Springs, including some new ones with multiple bars and even dance floors.

Downtown Disney transformed into Disney Springs in 2015.

In 2016, the entertainment and retail complex will see the opening of several new eateries, including the delayed STK steakhouse, The Edison, Sprinkles, Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, as well as restaurant concepts by chefs Art Smith and Rick Bayless.

More shops at Disney Springs

The Town Center section of Disney Springs should be completed and will feature shops like Lilly Pulitzer, Tommy Bahama and Zara. 

Disney’s expansion will double the number of shops, restaurants and other venues. There will be more than 150 choices.

Verdict: Disney Springs just keeps growing, getting better with even more choices. Parking lots will be challenged to keep visitors from minimal walking times.

What’s new at Disney rival Universal?

As you know, it’s grown hugely from a single theme park, particularly with the original Universal Studios Florida opening Island of Adventure in 1999.

That’s when the complex was renamed Universal Orlando Resort.

The CityWalk dining and entertainment area was added that year as well. Today there are also four hotels, with 18 new attractions and experiences added in the last five years.

Ape-like growth

Coming attractions includes the new “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” attraction, themed on King Kong, along with another hotel and a new water theme park, Volcano Bay (set to open in 2017).

Something that has always defined Universal Orlando’s rides since the beginning is an emphasis on the latest technology.

That’s a point made in past news coverage by Chick Russell, a Universal Creative director and executive producer who’s worked on the Potter attractions and others.

Even in the park’s early days, the E.T. Adventure ride invited patrons to tell the host their names at the beginning of the ride.

Earlier visitors may recall that a robotic E.T. would repeat the names later. Very advanced technology when you consider it happened more than two decades ago.

In 1996, the Terminator 2: 3-D attraction opened, bringing 3-D effects and live-action actors to the park.

More recent rides, like those inspired by “Spider-Man” and “Transformers” movies, create the illusion of fast movement. You feel like you’re speeding along though your pace is snail-like.

It’s an illusion similar to being in a movie theatre.

Films continue to inspire ride creators

Making movies come to life as semi-thrill rides will continue to be a staple at Universal this year.

It’s a trend Universal officials say they expect to continue in its next 25 years.

Universal’s major attraction to open this year (summer) is “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Everyone knows Kong, of course.

Visitors will see him by boarding large vehicles and explore ancient temple structures while encountering hostile natives and fending off “unspeakable terrors.”

Skull Island is set in the jungle, and will be found between Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park in Islands of Adventure.

It promises to will use 3-D tech along with some practical sets including an outdoor ride section. The new 3-D, tram-style, family thrill ride is the first introduction of what was an iconic resort character since the closer of Kongfrontation in 2002
For those looking for a hotel to stay (possibly to comfortably escape the terrors), 2016 will offer a new choice: the fifth onsite hotel here, a Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. More than 1,000 rooms with a casual Caribbean theme.

It’s being built around a lagoon.

Verdict: look for the hotel highlight to be a towering waterfall.

Looking a little farther ahead, Universal’s own major water park, Volcano Bay, is due to open in 2017.

“The water park will offer innovative, thrilling attractions, peaceful moments of relaxation and an entirely new guest experience. A highly themed, completely immersive environment is planned, inspired by postcard-perfect tropical islands,” Universal says.

And at Sea World?

As for Sea World Orlando, not to be left out in the thrill category, it’s well-known plans for now (in addition to its siege by animal activists) involve Mako.

The 200-foot tall coaster is set to open this summer.

It is named after one of the fastest known sharks in creation.

Mako, fittingly, will be Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster. It will travel on a steel tract that is more than 4,700 feet long.

It will reach speeds of 76 miles an hour (beating out the real sea-going Mako if it ever came to a real race).

Mako will also be the centerpiece of a newly themed two-acre place. Shark themed.

The new coaster will also include an updating to theming near the shark attractions. The underwater shipwreck theming will be a new concept for SeaWorld. In the past, it has kept most of their themed areas as ones where humans regularly exist.

Education continues as a theme

Topics will include why sharks are necessary. And human impact on them.

Verdict: the educational part should go down easy for the anti-animal activists who are boycotting the park with complaints about using fish for more than food). Also, this is not a thrilling year for thrill rides, so Mako should get an enthusiastic reception.

Going 90 miles to Tampa Bay, Busch Gardens Tampa will also have a new thrill ride opening this year: Cobra’s Curse.

The coaster is said to be the only one of its kind in the world, featuring a vertical lift.

Key features of the ride will include an 80-foot snake icon, a trek over the park’s Serengeti Plain and the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation.

Verdict: Another reason to go from Orlando to Tampa.

International Drive still evolving

It may seem tame compared to Star Wars, but helicopter tours may also be in your future if you make a stop at I-Drive this year.

There’s a likelihood they will be added to the I Drive 360-entertainment complex on International Drive as early as 2016.

Unicorp National Developments plans to add the attraction within the next six months in the area of retail stores, restaurants and entertainment options.

The complex is anchored by the 400-foot Orlando Eye, an observation wheel that towers over the I-Drive tourism district. Madame Tussauds wax museum and Sea Life Aquarium, also operated by Merlin Entertainments Group, are in the same building.

Verdict: There has been a major transformation of I-Drive in the past couple of years. It’s former identity as a provider of gift shops selling t-shirts has dramatically changed to widespread entertainment offerings. Various projects expected to come this year will further make it a destination onto itself without having to rely on spillover crowds from Disney and Universal.

So major theme parks, watch out. ###