What were the top theme park stories and best new attractions of 2016?

December 26, 2016, 5:25 PM · What were the top theme park news stories and best new attractions of 2016? Last month, we released our yearbook, Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review. In that, we covered seven of the top theme park news stories of the year, as well as listing the best new attractions of 2016, as determined by Theme Park Insider readers' collective reader ratings.

Here are the top theme park news stories of 2016:

Shanghai Disneyland Opens: On June 16, 2016, the Walt Disney Company opened its 12th theme park — Shanghai Disneyland. Disney’s second theme park in China (after Hong Kong Disneyland) joined that park and the Disney resorts in Tokyo and Paris as the company’s fourth theme park resort outside the United States. Shanghai might be the most unique among the world’s Disneylands, however, with Disney’s largest castle, an 11-acre “Gardens of Inspiration” replacing the traditional hub, and a unique line-up of “E”-ticket attractions, including an entirely new version of Pirates of the Caribbean, inspired by the Johnny Depp films.

Shanghai Disneyland also was wildly expensive to build, even though Disney owned only 43 percent of the project, with the rest held by the Chinese government through a holding company. Estimated construction costs swelled from around US$4 billion to more than $5.5 billion. The park also missed its initial planning opening at the end of 2015, leading to the loss of six months’ income before its eventual opening in June 2016.

When theme park managers in the United States started blaming the Shanghai project for cuts in their own departments, Disney fans launched a sarcastic social media campaign with the hashtag #ThanksShanghai. But many fans set aside whatever ill will they might have felt about the project when the first on-ride video of the new Pirates ride and the TRON Lightcycle Power Run roller coaster hit the Internet. By almost all accounts, Shanghai Disneyland has been a creative success for the company, with the Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure ride winning our Theme Park Insider Award for the world’s Best New Attraction of 2016.

Orlando and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Summer: Two shootings that created international headlines, including the worst single mass shooting in U.S. history, plus a tragic alligator attack, and the first hurricane to hit Central Florida in several years all contributed to a challenging summer for the Orlando community. But adversity creates the opportunity to show hidden strength. As Universal Creative Vice President Thierry Coup told us once about adversity, “It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day.” And, ultimately, the people of the Orlando theme park community did pull together in 2016.

Timing Is Everything: Theme Parks Move to Date-Specific Pricing: Major theme parks in the U.S. this year began rolling out date-specific prices for one-day tickets, charging more on days expected to draw large crowds, and less on days when crowds were expected to be thin. At this point, market leader Disney offers only three different price tiers and is publishing its rate calendar months in advance, so we’re a long way from the real-time dynamic pricing models long used by the airline and hotel industries. Nor does date-specific pricing affect multi-day tickets, which remain the same price no matter when you plan to visit. But date-specific pricing for one-day tickets gives theme park fans yet another thing to keep in mind as they decide where and when to visit.

Disney Makes its Move with Marvel: One of the major ongoing stories in the theme park business over the past few years has been the issue of “what will Disney do with Marvel?” The comic book company’s long-standing deal with Universal Studios prevents Disney from using almost all major Marvel characters, as well as the Marvel brand name, at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. There are no such restrictions at the Disneyland Resort in California, yet Disney’s been slow to add any Marvel-themed attractions there.

Disney did announce its first Marvel-themed ride, a simulator-based Iron Man attraction, for Hong Kong Disneyland, but it was Disney’s next move toward building a Marvel ride that set its fan base afire in 2016. How ironic that the decision to bring what might be its most popular current franchise to one of its U.S. theme parks would prove to be the single most unpopular thing that Disney did this year, at least among its most vocal fans.

Virtual Reality in the Parks: Virtual reality has been around for years. But 2016 brought the first large-scale implementation of VR in theme park attractions in the United States, as Six Flags added VR to several of its roller coasters across the country. That led to VR experimentation by Cedar Point on one of its coasters, and SeaWorld’s announcement that it would add VR to its Kraken roller coaster in Orlando for 2017. Germany’s Europa Park started the trend in late 2015, followed by Universal Studios Japan in January 2016. While many fans expressed skepticism about wearing a VR headset on a coaster, many of the fans who actually tried it loved it, and designers seem eager to add VR and augmented reality technology to their tool set in creating new themed experiences.

A Wizard Moves West - Universal Brings Harry Potter to Hollywood: Five years after announcing it, Universal Studios Hollywood opened its Wizarding World of Harry Potter land this year. The centerpiece of the park’s ongoing billion-dollar-plus transformation, Universal’s fourth Harry Potter-themed land worldwide was expected to boost attendance at a park that’s been enjoying a hot streak in recent years, despite the disruption of all that construction work.

Dubai Enters the Theme Park Business: When the global economy tanked in 2008, it dragged many new theme park deals down with it. Several of those developments were scheduled for Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Plans for Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, and Six Flags theme parks in the area were abandoned, and “Dubai” became a metaphor in the theme park fan community for unrealistic plans. But as the economy revived, so did plans for theme parks in Dubai. The emirate’s leadership remained committed to tourism as the focus of a post-oil economy in the area, and in 2016 theme park developments began to move from proposal to reality.

In addition, we listed our Top 10 Best New Attractions of the Year, based upon your reader ratings:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure, Shanghai Disneyland
  2. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Universal Studios Hollywood
  3. Frozen - Live at the Hyperion, Disney’s California Adventure
  4. Mako, SeaWorld Orlando
  5. TRON Lightcycle Power Run, Shanghai Disneyland
  6. Incredible Hulk Coaster, Universal’s Islands of Adventure
  7. Lightning Rod, Dollywood
  8. Jurassic Park The Flying Dinosaur, Universal Studios Japan
  9. The New Revolution, Six Flags Magic Mountain
  10. The Walking Dead, Universal Studios Hollywood

In the book, we also rank everything else that debuted at major parks around the world in 2016, then looked ahead to some of the major new attractions coming in 2017, including Disney World's new Avatar land, the Guardians of the Galaxy revamp of Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure, and the new Volcano Bay water park at Universal Orlando.

What were some of your most memorable moments from theme park visits in 2016? And what are you most looking forward to seeing in 2017? Please tell us in the comments.

And we hope you'll order a copy of our yearbook, which is less than $10 in paperback and less than $5 for Kindle. Once Amazon takes its cut, the remaining purchase price helps us keep the lights on here at Theme Park Insider in 2017. If you've already bought the book, thank you! Your positive review on Amazon will help to ensure that Amazon recommends it to other readers, too.

Thanks for reading!

Replies (10)

December 27, 2016 at 1:21 AM · Pandora, Fallon, Volcano Bay, and Kraken VR. Looks like I've got a busy summer ahead of me.
December 27, 2016 at 2:24 AM · Looking forward to Symbolica for the Efteling and Vulcano Bay and Jimmy Fallon at Universal Studios resort Orlando. I'm looking forward to see more of Avatar land at MK but won't plan a visit.
Also looking to find more about Kingdom of Poseidon Harbin and Hengdian Shanghai Bund when they open next year (both in China).
Have a great 2017 and thank you for all the articles.
December 27, 2016 at 3:07 PM · Wow, it's been quite a year in the theme park biz! I didn't realize that until seeing it aggregated into a single article. While I'm severely underwhelmed by the VR trend, I hope that if parks continue insisting on implementing it they'll put a little more time, energy and money into it. The visuals on The New Revolution were taken straight from an iPhone 4 game app, not to mention the "interactivity" and (broken) sound just two days in!
December 27, 2016 at 4:00 PM · Seems like a misjudgement that Guardians in the Galaxy would work in replacing Tower of Terror especially with the revealed design that looks like a mere paint job.
December 27, 2016 at 4:21 PM · New things I rode this year:
Joker at Great Adventure. Really meh 4D spin coaster from S&S. SF is building 3 more next year at Over Texas, Over Georgia, and Great America.
Valravn at Cedar Point. Super underwhelming forceless dive coaster.
Soarin Around the World at Epcot. It's a downgrade from an attraction I wasn't a huge fan of in the first place.
New Revolution VR coaster at La Ronde. It was cool but it killed the capacity of Goliath.
Superman VR at Six Flags New England. Didn't work for me, headset died while on lift.
Rage Of The Gargoyles VR at Great Adventure. Of the VR coasters I liked this one the best. It took a bit that popular ride and added something new.
Tomorrow I'm riding Joker at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and that looks like another great RMC creation.
December 27, 2016 at 4:25 PM · Does anyone else think Forbidden Journey shouldn't count? It's almost exactly the same as the one in Orlando that opened in 2010.
December 27, 2016 at 7:59 PM · @Jaiden Although I'm highly skeptical about VR, having experienced inordinately slow loading times at 2 Six Flags parks - and I chose not to do the VR at Six Flags Over Texas - I agree that Rage of the Gargoyles at Great Adventure was very good. Yes, the loading time was excessive - even on a rainy, off day - and it required a lot of help from a ride op to get the headset to calibrate properly - but it certainly added a new dimension to the ride. Skull Mountain was the perfect coaster to which to add VR, as it's pitch black and you can't see a thing anyway. So it in no way detracted from the ride. In fact it was highly entertaining and somewhat alarming. It was also synced in such a way that just by looking at the cityscape visible through my headset I got a sense of when the coaster would drop. Shooting down those gargoyles was a blast!
December 27, 2016 at 10:10 PM · Didn't Kong open this year? Has to be on this list
December 28, 2016 at 10:54 AM · I think one of the biggest stories of 2017 will be how the public reacts to the Guardians takeover of the DCA Tower. As Robert noted, the vocal fans who read sites like this have tended to be negative. But what about the majority of theme park visitors that don't follow the industry as closely as TPI readers?

One random anecdote: Over the holidays, four of my younger cousins (all early-to-mid-20s) were discussing going to WDW this year, but were dismayed when one said that Disney was "taking down the Tower of Terror" at Hollywood Studios.

"No! I love that ride."
"Why would they do that?"
"They're adding a Guardians of the Galaxy ride."
"That's dumb."

There was similar dismay until I interrupted and informed them it was California-only at the moment, which was a major relief to them. Obviously, that's just four random future WDW visitors and not necessarily indicative of anything.

But what does happen this year at DCA will be fascinating to watch.

January 2, 2017 at 8:13 AM · Volcano Bay, Fast and Furious Supercharged, Jimmy Fallon, Pandora I'm gonna be busy this year

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