A summer of upgrades for Disney (and Orlando, too)
- Last Updated: 4:52 AM, May 25, 2011
- Posted: 6:58 PM, May 23, 2011
SUMMER is always the most intense time to visit Orlando. When school’s out, the theme parks are hopping, the pools are packed, the water slides are at full flume. But there’s one thing missing in Orlando this summer: a blockbuster.
It’s been a year since rival resort Universal cut the ribbon on its Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. The opening was such a smash that Disney effectively threw in the towel, and instead of debuting a major attraction this season (its usual gimmick), it’s taking time out to allow Universal’s glory to peak.
Walt Disney World turns 40 this fall, but you’d never know it from the promotional silence. Like many of us who hit middle age, Mickey is playing the milestone down and turning his focus inward. In other words, plastic surgery — and lots of it.
The first fixer-upper, which opened last Friday, was a newly redesigned Star Tours, its 3-D “Star Wars” motion simulator ride at Hollywood Studios.
Gone is the barf-baiting ’80s version voiced in part by Paul Reubens. In are digital projections, a variety of possible journeys, smoother and more pronounced movements and references to the most recent trilogy of films. Its sly, TSA-style luggage-screening checkpoint in the queue area has been getting early laughs.
But other stuff is going away forever. One Magic Kingdom ride that’s been there since opening day in 1971, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, will soon bite the poisoned apple only to be replaced by a princess meet-and-greet area. Disney hasn’t confirmed an execution date yet, but this summer will be the last chance to ride the classic.
Disney never admits its mistakes publicly, so it has also been quietly backpedaling on another classic, the Enchanted Tiki Room, where Gilbert Gottfried was unwisely invited to give one of his signature crass performances in the ’90s. Following repairs from a January fire, the robotic aviary will return, more like its soothing ’60s self, come August.
Disney also never publicizes its long lines. But to its credit, it’s been pouring money and effort into making its most grueling queues more fun with games and exhibits. Soarin’ and Space Mountain were first, and this spring, the Haunted Mansion was given some interactive elements, such as a playable organ (like the one in the dining-room scene of the ride) to make waiting in the Florida heat more tolerable.
Simply rearranging the furniture aboard Steamboat Willie sounds like a sure symptom of decline. Not to worry, though — a midlife crisis can be a very good thing. The Mouse will get its little red sports car in 2013 in the form of a massive Fantasyland overhaul. That will include a lavish new Little Mermaid ride and a dose of Double Dumbo — two side-by-side Dumbo carousels. The stride comes late, though, because the Mermaid ride will open first at Anaheim’s Disneyland this June.
Meanwhile, Universal’s doing housecleaning of its own. It’s dumping its old Jimmy Neutron ride (itself an update of an old Hanna-Barbera attraction using motion-simulator vehicles in front of 3-D animation) in favor of a new version based on “Despicable Me.” It’s also upgrading its ever-popular, immersive Spider-Man ride with all-digital projections. Both open next year.
The rest of Orlando is regrouping, too. Because of an incident last year in which an orca killed a trainer, SeaWorld had to redesign its killer whale show. The result, “One Ocean,” premiered in April, and the offender, Tilikum, is back in the cast. Suffice it to say, the whales still drench audiences with impressive “behaviors” (as the park calls them), but now their human trainers hug and praise them from a shallow ledge rather than swimming with them. In truth, most people would never see much difference from the old show.
Just one Orlando-area park is cutting the ribbon with a true “wow.” In nearby Tampa, Busch Gardens definitively becomes the region’s top roller-coaster park when it opens its eighth, Cheetah Hunt Friday. The steel thriller launches cars from zero to 60 mph three times over some 4,500 feet of twisty track meant to simulate the big cat bounding across the African plains. Of course, to suit the theme, there’ll be some actual cheetahs nearby, too.
While the old-timers dither, a new kid in town will arrive with a shiny new toy come Oct. 15. That’s when the former geriatric garden park Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven, is reborn as a toddler dazzler: the East Coast’s first Legoland, promising “more than 50 rides, shows and attractions.”
Expect those scant details to solidify over the summer, but there are few worries about the quality of the park, since Legoland has a gorgeous, 150-acre lakeside location and a proven track record for appealing to kids under 13 in San Diego.
But there is concern about how it intends to lure families 45 minutes south of the action along unappealing back roads to a rural backwater known more for auto body shops than family fun.
Then again, that’s exactly what they said about Disney World 40 years ago. Orlando may only be gearing up for a spectacular comeback.
For more on Orlando, check out visitorlando.com.