Americans overwhelmingly picked theme parks over national parks throughout the recession, and the parks are making sure visitors have a reason to return by funneling millions into new attractions.
If there’s ever been a summer to visit a theme park — or two, or three — this is it.
High speed wooden roller coasters? Thrilling, sense-assaulting rides? Penguins?
Yes, yes and most definitely.
In Orlando alone, four of the area’s big parks — Disney, Universal, Legoland and SeaWorld — have opened, or are about to open, new attractions. Cedar Point in Ohio unveiled a new roller coaster a few weeks ago and in Las Vegas, a $50 million water park debuted on Memorial Day weekend. In California, visitors to Disneyland can meet all of the Disney Princesses in one place. Elsewhere in the Golden State, four different parks boast new roller coasters.
“Wherever you live, that park is likely to have something new,” said Jeremy Schoolfield, the senior editor of Funworld Magazine, the trade publication for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). “There’s lots of innovations, what we call immersive experiences.”
There’s been an onslaught of new attractions in Orlando in recent months.
Back in December, Disney World opened a newly expanded Fantasyland, the largest project in the park’s 41-year history. There are two sections: Enchanted Forest, where visitors will find Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” and Storybook Circus, which is inspired by the Disney film “Dumbo.”
A new ride called Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid and Enchanted Tales With Belle, a walk-through experience that features a magical mirror and costumed characters, will impress movie lovers. And the popular Dumbo attraction is now a little less crowded, because Disney built a second, identical ride.
The new spaces are built on what was once the site of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea experience, and the expansion doubles the size of the original Fantasyland.
George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort, said that if he were bringing his family to the park on a summer day, he would begin with the Enchanted Tales with Belle experience, then check out the new Doc McStuffins segment at Disney Junior-Live on Stage at Hollywood Studios.
Hollywood Studios is also the place to find costumed characters from the Disney-Pixar movie Monsters University.
“Something new in every park makes it easy to satisfy everybody in the family,” he said.
Over at Universal Orlando, a 3-D theme park ride based on the Transformers toy and film brand will open June 20; a similar ride is already open at Universal’s parks in California and Singapore.
The park describes the ride as an interactive, “larger than life battle” between the Autobots and Decepticons. It uses flight simulator technology, along with wind, heat and smoke to make the riders feel immersed in the experience.
At SeaWorld Orlando, the Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin attraction opened on May 24.
With a ride, restaurants and the penguin habitat, it’s the largest expansion in the park’s history.
The ride takes visitors through a queue, themed around a fictional penguin named Puck. As visitors make their way through the queue and ride, the temperature keeps dropping — until visitors are in 30-degree temperatures.
The ride ends at the penguin habitat, where more than 250 birds live. Visitors can watch the birds frolic on shore or underwater.
Park executive said that in doing research for a new attraction, penguins are a big draw at parks.
“As we developed this attraction, we found that adults like penguins just as much as kids, and we’ve seen adults act just like kids when they’re around them,” said Terry Prather, the vice president of park operations at SeaWorld Orlando.
Busch Gardens in Tampa has two new offerings: the Madagascar Live show and three just-born rare Malayan tiger cubs.
Over at Legoland Florida, the park is expanding to include a new ride and interactive play area based on the company’s popular Legends of Chima product line.
The section, which is scheduled to open July 3, will include an interactive water ride called The Quest for Chi, a Lego-building challenge, a 4-D movie and a meet-and-greet with costumed characters.
Legoland also has a Carlsbad, Calif., outpost and in April, opened a 250-room Legoland hotel there. Visitors are greeted by a fire-breathing dragon made of 400,000 Lego bricks. Guest rooms are decorated in pirate, adventure or kingdom themes, and most items in the rooms appear as if they are built of Legos.
Not to be outdone by Florida, California’s theme parks also have new offerings — mostly in the form of thrill rides.
At Disneyland, the new Fantasy Faire offers all of the Disney Princesses in one place — the intricately detailed Royal Hall. Also at Disneyland, “Mickey and the Magical Map” is the new show at the Fantasyland Theater this summer.
Great America in Santa Clara will have the Gold Striker, a wooden coaster that soars to 108 feet at 54 mph, opening this summer. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s new Undertow roller coaster will replace the Hurricane coaster in June; it’s described a spinning roller coaster. At Six Flags Magic Mountain, the Full Throttle is billed as “the world’s tallest vertical loop” at 160 feet; that coaster will open later in the summer. Knotts Berry Farm debuts the Coast Rider this summer — with 1,339 feet of track, the company says it “gives guests the feeling of riding the California coast.”
Non-coastal residents also have new offerings at regional parks.
Dollywood in Tennessee has opened RiverRush in the Splash Country part of the park.
In the Nevada desert, a water park called Wet ‘n’ Wild has opened in Las Vegas. A Wet ‘n’ Wild had been on the Strip for 20 years but shut down in 2004. The new, $50 million water park opened to passholders on Memorial Day weekend and is open to everyone on June 3. There are 25 water slides.
And in Ohio at Cedar Point, thrill-seekers will be treated to a new, $30 million roller coaster. Called The GateKeeper, the 4,164-foot track soars over the park’s entrance and winds through the park. It’s the longest winged coaster in the world, industry analysts say — which means that riders sit on either side of the track, with nothing above their heads or below their feet.
The two-minute, 40-second ride features rolling flyover maneuvers, 360-degree flips, drops, spirals and a gut-churning 170-foot drop.
Each vehicle has four riders and each one can move independently and snake through elements,” said Schoolfield. “What’s exciting about this coaster is that it’s very maneuverable.”
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Photo credit: This undated image supplied by Busch Gardens Tampa shows a performance from “Madgascar Live!” which is a stage show at the theme park inspired by the animated “Madgascar” movie. Busch Gardens Tampa / AP Photo