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?
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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