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Universal closing Dragon Challenge for new Harry Potter ride

By Robert Niles
Published: July 24, 2017 at 10:34 AM
Universal Orlando announced today that it will close the Dragon Challenge roller coaster on Sept. 4 to make way for a new Harry Potter-themed "coaster experience."

Originally called "Dueling Dragons," this two-tracked Bolliger & Mabillard inverted racing coaster was one of two attractions to survive the transformation of part the Lost Continent land into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Flight of the Hippogriff, formerly The Flying Unicorn, was the other.) As the original name implied, the two coasters used to duel, with several near miss elements throughout their run. Due to several incidents of guests being hit by possessions from riders on the other train, Universal years ago altered the train dispatch timing to stop the dueling. The incidents also eventually led to Universal's current policy of requiring guests to clear their pockets and stow all possessions in lockers before riding major coasters.

While the concept of riding a dragon fit well within the theming of the Harry Potter land — and the well-decorated queue won favorable reviews from fans — the bare roller coaster tracks looming over the village of Hogsmeade detracted from the otherwise exacting look of the land. Even the stars of the Harry Potter films — typically ebullient with their praise for Universal — took passive-aggressive shots at the coaster's look. (At the Diagon Alley event, several people lauded the second Wizarding World land by noting the lack of visible "roller coaster track.") So many observers long had marked Dragon Challenge for removal.

Universal announced that Dragon Challenge's replacement will open in 2019 and will "be unlike anything we’ve ever done before and it will be fun for the entire family."

Other clues from Universal: "The new attraction will be one of the most highly-themed coaster experiences we’ve created. It will combine a new level of storytelling with an action-packed adventure…and a few surprises along the way."

And, "This ride is going to redefine the category and transport you to thrilling places, drawing you into even more exciting adventures within the wizarding world."

Put that together, and we should be looking at a ride with a lower height restriction than Dragon Challenge's 54 inches, a better themed, if not completely hidden, coaster track, and some sort of hybrid ride experience that combines a roller coaster track with other ride, or at least decorative, elements. Universal's been filing a slew of patents for innovative tracked ride experiences, so we'll see if any of them end up becoming the new Wizarding World ride.

The new ride should help make 2019 an even wilder year in Orlando, as rival Disney opens its Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land that year. And the announcement finally provides us with our answer as to what Universal would be adding for 2019, following the openings of the Fast & Furious ride and Aventura Hotel next year.

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When should you plan your next Orlando theme park vacation?

By Robert Niles
Published: July 21, 2017 at 10:03 AM
With Disney announcing so many new attractions coming to the Walt Disney World Resort, you might be thinking about when would be the best time to plan your family's next vacation to the Orlando area. Remember, Disney's not the only game in town, and rival Universal Orlando has some big projects in the works for the years ahead, too.

Planning vacations around attraction openings is always a bit of a trick. Theme parks typically don't reveal official opening dates until a couple of months before the big day — not enough time to put together a week-long family vacation to this often-booked area. And opening crowds can be ridiculously large, so many smart fans plan to visit new rides only after their first summer of operation. Not only do crowds come down by then, but parks get better at running new rides with a few month's of shakedown and practice, as well.

So we recommend that you use this calendar as just one more piece of information to consider when planning your trip, along with school and work schedules and any other family commitments.

What was new this year in Orlando

Universal Orlando in April opened Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, a Tonight Show-themed experience that includes a walk-through tribute to the six hosts of NBC's long-running late-night talk show, a "green room" where you can meet Hashtag the Panda and watch a live performance by the show's Ragtime Gals barbershop quintet (which, if you are not into the joke, sings mildly risque "buy band" songs, not standard barbershop repertoire), and a "flying theater" ride where you race through the city with an on-screen Fallon and a Easter egg carton's worth of Tonight Show characters.

Volcano Bay replaced Wet 'n Wild as Universal Orlando's water park. Richly detailed and wonderfully decorated, the Polynesian-themed Volcano Bay features a 200-foot volcano at its heart, housing three trapdoor slides as well as an aqua coaster. You will find more than a dozen other slides surrounding the volcano throughout the park, all of which use the park's "TapuTapu" virtual queueing system.

Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom is Disney's most ambitious theme park land to date, recreating the alien world from James Cameron's 2009 hit Avatar. You will walk under floating mountains and among alien flora that becomes bioluminescent after dark. The land's two rides include Disney's first all-new indoor boat ride in the United States in three decades, as well as the exhilarating Flight of Passage, which won our Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best new attraction of the year.

Next month, Epcot will debut its two new Mission: Space adventures. The Green side will feature a mild adventure into Earth's orbit, while the Orange side will offer a wilder, more physically intense ride to Mars.

How have these affected crowds?

Pandora has shifted some Disney traffic to Animal Kingdom, mostly at the expense of Hollywood Studios, which largely remains a construction zone, thanks to all the projects under development there. We expect wait time to increase substantially at Mission: Space when the new adventures open, especially with the neighboring Ellen's Energy Adventure ride closing at the same time, to make way for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy ride.

Fallon hasn't moved the needle at Universal, but Volcano Bay often hits capacity, and at this point, we strongly recommend that you book a stay at a Universal on-site hotel if you wish to visit the new water park, as those guests get one hour of early access to the park, which is essential in getting prime seating locations and first access to the park's often-long virtual queues.

Coming in 2018

Universal Orlando will bring its Fast & Furious: Supercharged experience from Universal Studios Hollywood's Studio Tour to Universal Studios Florida, where it is taking over the former Disaster! site. After walking past some of the street racing cars featured in the hit movie series, you'll end up the middle of an explosive high-speed chase featuring Dom and the gang fighting Owen Shaw and his henchmen.

Also next summer, Walt Disney World will open Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This expansion is being built behind the Toy Story Midway Mania ride, which will become part of the new land. It also will feature Slinky Dog Dash, a Mack Rides family coaster, and Alien Swirling Saucers, another tea cup-style spinner ride.

In August, the new Aventura Hotel will open at the Universal Orlando Resort, located between the Sapphire Falls and Cabana Bay Beach resorts.

Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway will replace the Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios, but Disney has not announced an opening date. However, the Great Movie Ride closes Aug. 13, so it's possible that the new ride could debut as early as 2018, probable that it will be open by 2019, and almost certain to be open by 2020. This will be Disney's first ride themed to Mickey Mouse and will use practical sets and digital effects to take riders from the real world into the world of Mickey's cartoons.

What's the outlook for 2018?

The new land and maybe new ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios will start to bring back the crowds that currently just show up for Tower or Terror and Midway Mania, then park hop elsewhere for the rest of the day. But neither attraction has enough appeal to draw much more than the typical number of new visitors overall to the Walt Disney World Resort. In fact, with Galaxy's Edge on the horizon for 2019, we expect that some fans who might normally consider visiting Disney in 2018 will hold off until 2019, to see the new Star Wars land.

Over at Universal, Fast and Furious will extend the park's appeal to that franchise's many fans and should lead to an increase in attendance, but even since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, predicting an increase in attendance at Universal has been the safest bet in the theme park industry, so we're not exactly going out on a limb there.

Coming in 2019

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens at Disney's Hollywood Studios. We are expecting the Disneyland version of this highly-anticipated new land to open first, which should take a little of the pressure off as the most fanatical early adopters head west to see the new land there. But let's not kid ourselves. This is going to be wildly popular, and certainly will prompt Disney to make changes to its Fastpass+ or ticket offerings in order to control crowds.

What's the outlook for 2019?

Crowds

What else is coming to Orlando?

Disney has announced a Guardians of the Galaxy ride, expected to be an indoor/outdoor roller coaster with "yaw"-rotating cars. (Drifting through space?) This is going into the Universe of Energy pavilion, which is closing on Aug. 13, so we are expecting the ride to open sometime between 2018 and 2020 as we expect construction to begin later this year.

Epcot's World Showcase will get a copy of Paris' Ratatouille: The Adventure dark ride, to go into a new building behind the existing France pavilion. Disney has filed permits for site prep work, but we appear to be months away from the start of construction, so it's unlikely that we will see this attraction before 2020, though Disney has promised that it will be completed no later than Epcot's 40th anniversary in 2022.

Over at the Magic Kingdom, a copy of Shanghai Disneyland's TRON Lightcycle Power Run will be moving in next to Space Mountain and behind the Speedway in Tomorrowland, and Main Street USA will be getting a Broadway-style theater, with both expected to open in time for the park's 50th anniversary in 2021. Don't expect either before then, however.

Universal hasn't announced any opening dates for new rides beyond next year's Fast & Furious attraction, but it has announced that it will build a copy of Universal Studios Japan's Super Nintendo World at some point after the Osaka version debuts in 2020. Widely tipped to replace the Woody Woodpecker KidZone, expect the video game-themed land to open three years after KidZone closes, whenever that might be.

Also announced, but with no opening dates, are a 4,000-room hotel complex on the old Wet 'n Wild site at Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World's intriguing Star Wars-themed "Disney 360" experience hotel, and a new Sesame Street land at SeaWorld Orlando. The Wet 'n Wild hotel is deep within the permitting process and construction should begin soon, while the Star Wars hotel likely won't debut for at least a year or two after the land opens at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And your guess is as good as ours on SeaWorld actually doing anything interesting with Sesame Street.

After 2019's Star Wars-inspired surge in attendance, expect a smaller increase in crowds in 2020 as the spill-over from Star Wars is muted somewhat by other fans choosing to delay their visits until Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary celebration in 2021. Epcot celebrates its 40th in 2022 and Universal's Super Nintendo World will open sometime in this time period, so we probably should just go ahead and brace ourselves for another "Roaring 20s" for theme park attendance in Orlando.

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Let's talk about Disney's theme park and hotel plans for Star Wars

By Robert Niles
Published: July 20, 2017 at 3:07 PM
As much as some theme park fans might be excited about news that Walt Disney World will open Guardians of the Galaxy and TRON roller coasters — among other new rides and shows — over the next few years, let's face what's probably far more important. Disney's Star Wars developments will be the new attractions that really move the needle and draw more fans to the resort.

But Disney's not taking an easy way out with Star Wars. Rather than recreating an iconic location from the films, it is setting the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Disney's Hollywood Studios on a new world in the Star Wars universe. I wrote about the risks and rewards of that move in my Orange County Register column this week: Will Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland succeed in taking us to a galaxy far, far away?

Will setting Galaxy's Edge in an unfamiliar location hurt the project? Fans on Twitter responded:

If anyone thought that creating a new planetary setting for the Star Wars land was an audacious move, Disney is blowing past that by creating a fully immersive Star Wars themed hotel that sounds more like being part of a real-life MMORPG than staying at a traditional hotel.

Star Wars resort

From AJ's story about the D23 reveal of the project: "Using mock windows, guests will feel like they are aboard a starship traveling the galaxy, and nothing aboard will break that illusion in any way."

"This is a brand new concept for a multi-day immersive adventure. Not only is the hotel themed to the Star Wars galaxy, but every guest will live and breathe Star Wars from the moment they enter until the moment they leave."

Theme park fans have been clamoring for years for more immersive themed resort experiences, in which they can extend the illusion of visiting a beloved environment from a few hours in a park to several days in a hotel. While Star Wars holds obvious appeal as such a hotel destination, Harry Potter fans have been demanding the chance to stay in Hogwarts, The Leaky Cauldron, or The Three Broomsticks, as well.

And now, Universal is surveying its passholders and guests about Disney's Star Wars hotel, perhaps to gauge interest in a Harry Potter themed alternative. Of course, that would need the blessing of J.K. Rowling to proceed. But as Potter helped spur development at Disney, perhaps Star Wars could do the same at Universal.

Of course, full authenticity for these themes might carry a price beyond a steep nightly rate.

What would you like to see Disney and Universal do with fully themed hotel experiences, including Star Wars, Potter, or anything else?

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What is the best way to get around the Walt Disney World Resort?

By Robert Niles
Published: July 19, 2017 at 11:57 AM
Select Walt Disney World visitors this month will have another way to navigate the resort, with the debut of Disney's new "Minnie Vans" service.

These Minnie Mouse-themed minivans soon will be shuttling guests from Disney's Boardwalk and Yacht and Beach Club resorts around property, for an extra fee. Disney eventually will expand the service to others, but hasn't yet announced details or a schedule. The Minnie Vans give Disney World visitors another option for getting to one point from another in the expansive resort, which spans 40 square miles - larger than some major US cities.

So what is the right choice to get around the resort, for you and your family? Let's look at the options.

Bring a car: This works only if you live within driving distance of the resort and will be using your car to get to Disney. You will have to pay $20 a day to park in Disney's four theme park parking lots, but after you pay that, you've got in and out privileges for all four lots for the remainder of that day. (*Update: That's only if you are not staying on site. See comments below.) Parking at hotels, water parks, and the Disney Springs shopping and dining area is free. Keep in mind that if you arrive at a lot in the middle of the day, you could end up facing a long walk or tram ride to get to and from your car from the park gate. That can be a big pain at the end of the day, when the tram lines are long and the wait to get out of the crowded parking lots can be even longer. You can get a space at the front of the lot by paying an extra $20 to get the $40 preferred parking option.

Rent a car: It's just like bringing your own car, expect that you have to pay for the rental, which could include upcharges for car seats and insurance, if you don't bring your own to the deal. Renting a car is the preferred option for people who want the control of driving, but who flew into Orlando. Driving a rental (or your own car) provides you complete freedom to go wherever you want in the area at no extra charge — beyond gas and time spent in Orlando's notorious traffic, of course. Want to go to Universal, or the grocery store? Hop in and drive.

Use Disney's buses, boats, and monorails: The cheapest option for a Walt Disney World visitor — Disney will pick you up and take you back to the airport via its free Disney's Magical Express bus service if you are staying at an on-property hotel. Once on site, Disney's network of buses, boats, and monorails can move you between parks, hotels, and other sites on property at no charge, even though that can require long waits and connections, depending where you want to go and when. (You cannot go directly from Disney Springs to a theme park via Disney transportation, for example. That's how Disney prevents people from using the Disney Springs garages as free theme park parking.)

Ultimately, even though it's free, you get what you pay for with Disney transportation. Staying at a pricey monorail resort near the Magic Kingdom? It's brisk trip over to the MK, and a relatively quick connection to Epcot. Staying at the also-often-expensive Boardwalk or Yacht or Beach Club? You can walk to Epcot or the Studios or take a quick boat ride to those parks. Staying at one of the less expensive All-Star or other Value resorts? Get ready for long waits and long bus rides to anywhere.

Use Disney's Express Transportation: A relatively new option, Express Transportation is a paid bus service that Disney operates between its four theme parks. The bus stops are located behind the security checkpoints at each park, so you do not have to wait in a front gate line or go through security again when you arrive at the next park. A single-day ticket for unlimited rides costs $19, but a seven-day pass is just $29. This service is of no use if you don't have the Park Hopper option on your tickets, but if you are an experienced park hopper visiting at a busy period, the Express Transportation option can be a great value to get around on a week-long trip.

Use taxis and private shuttles: This was the failsafe for visitors without cars who needed to get somewhere in a hurry before the Uber era. And they remain popular options for people flying into Orlando who are staying offsite. You don't need a smartphone app to use them, but you do need cash or a credit card, and these options might end up cost you more than Uber or Lyft, depending upon where you are and where you are going. But if you find a taxi stand with waiting cars, there's no waiting to go as there usually is with ride share services. And you don't need to pay to park when you are riding in someone else's vehicle.

Use ride sharing: Uber and Lyft are readily available throughout the Walt Disney World Resort, though you will need to walk to designated pick-up areas at each park to use them. But that's often a shorter walk than heading off to the back of the lot at the end of the day. Like taxis and shuttles, ride share cars can take you anywhere in Orlando, so you are not limited to staying on-site as you are with Disney Transportation. When I was covering the concurrent press events for Pandora and Volcano Bay in Orlando in May, I used Lyft to shuttle between Disney and Universal with no problem, for about $20 a ride - which is what it would have cost me to park at each resort.

Use Minnie Vans: Disney's newest transportation option provides you the flexibility of Uber or Lyft... so long as you stay on site. (We've heard $20 a ride in the seven-passenger vans.) But each van comes equipped with child car seats, which can be a hassle and an upcharge to arrange with ride share services. If you've got a family with little kids, the Minnie Vans can be a cuter — and more convenient option — than Uber or Lyft in getting you to that dinner reservation across the resort without having to sacrifice all the time you'd lose waiting for traditional Disney buses.

What's your favorite way to get around the resort when you visit Disney?

More trip planning help:

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The Wizarding World's Ollivanders may be coming to a mall near you

By Robert Niles
Published: July 18, 2017 at 11:38 AM
If you've been wanting to go to Ollivander's to find a wand, you might not have to book a trip to Universal Orlando or Universal Studios Hollywood to do it. The iconic wand shop from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter might be on its way to a mall nearer you.

Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which licenses Potter to the Universal theme parks, announced today that it has partnered with GES, producers of "Harry Potter: The Exhibition," to create "Christmas in the Wizarding World," a themed shopping experience that will launch this fall in "major shopping destinations."

"This fully themed holiday retail experience will be reminiscent of the setting and atmosphere of a wintry Hogsmeade village, complete with a wand shop, ornate window displays and interactive elements that are sure to be a hit with Harry Potter fans," Warner Bros. said in a press release.

In addition to an Ollivander's shop, where "guests will be able to experience a holiday surprise with the help of the Wandkeeper," the experience will feature a digital background photo op, featuring a choice of backgrounds from the Potter films, animated shop windows, and a large selection of Potter-themed merchandise, including house sweaters, stuffed owls, jewelry, collectibles, and sweets.

Potter fans have been able to find merchandise outside the Universal parks at Warner Bros.' studio stores in Burbank, Calif. and Leavesden in the United Kingdom, so this won't be the first time that Potter-themed shopping has moved outside the Universal parks. Warner Bros. has not announced the specific locations for the Christmas in the Wizarding World experience, promising that announcement "soon."

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Corn dogs are now on the menu at Walt Disney World's Sleepy Hollow

By Robert Niles
Published: July 18, 2017 at 9:53 AM
Sleepy Hollow Refreshments at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is switching up its menu again, this time adding a long-time Disneyland favorite — hand-dipped corn dogs.

The corn dog is served with Disney's "house made" chips for $8.49, joining a $9.49 pretzel dog on the menu, which continues to feature the fan-favorite Sweet and Spicy Chicken Waffle Sandwich ($8.99). There's a baked potato on the menu, too, as well as sweet waffles and funnel cakes.

The counter service Sleepy Hollow is located at the end of the bridge connecting Liberty Square to the castle hub, and features some of the best photo spots for the castle, from the restaurant's tables along the remnant of the old hub canal. Lines are ever-present at the ordering window — and figure to get even longer with corn dogs on the menu — so plan extra time for this one rather than considering it a quick get as you look to fuel up in the world's most popular theme park.

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Fantasmic! returns to Disneyland on the park's 62nd birthday

By Robert Niles
Published: July 17, 2017 at 9:44 PM
Disneyland's night-time spectacular Fantasmic! officially returned to the Rivers of America in Frontierland tonight, following an extended downtime while Disney rerouted the northern side of the river to accommodate the construction of the upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land.

Disney took the opportunity provided by the extended downtime to rework and refurbish the show, which now includes new scenes with characters from Tangled, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as new mist screens and projection technology to improve the animated sequences in the performance.

Fantasmic! photo
Photos courtesy Disney

Fantasmic! photo

Fantasmic! photo

Fantasmic! photo

Fantasmic! photo

Fantasmic! ran over the weekend in soft open mode, mostly for people who'd attended the Disney Parks presentation at the D23 Expo and were given reserved viewing passes. Now that the show is open officially, you can pick up Fastpass reserved viewing passes near the riverboat dock in Frontierland, or by buying one of the park's Fantasmic! dining packages. Disney no longer allows the all-day camping for prime viewing spots that clogged foot traffic around the New Orleans Square riverfront in past years. Here's a full show video from a fan who recorded one of the soft open performances.

The show returned on the park's 62nd birthday, so happy birthday to Disneyland!

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