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:
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.
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