The train is the centerpiece -- and the final piece -- of the Fantasyland expansion that began in 2010. It joins Princess Fairytale Hall, which opened last fall, as well as the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride, Enchanted Tales with Belle and other attractions.
While visitors are checking out the mine train and Fantasyland's other new elements, Disney's Imagineers have moved on. They're in Animal Kingdom, which is about to see the largest expansion in its history. Imagineers are working on the new Avatar land, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in 2017. Construction walls are up and the first dirt has been moved. Flying banshees are coming! Disney is also starting work on a new nighttime light-and-music show, "Rivers of Light," at Animal Kingdom. A start date has not been announced.
Over at Universal Orlando, the final touches are being put on
There are new features as well at Legoland and two
Here's a rundown:
The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was a late addition to the Fantasyland expansion, which began largely as a meet-and-greet site for the Disney princesses, said
Snow White's Scary Adventures was to be torn down to make room for Princess Fairytale Hall, leaving those characters without a home.
"It is a story we have never told before, not through the eyes of the Seven Dwarfs," Rawlins said.
The queue for the ride will briefly keep kids busy with two interactive elements, sorting and washing gems from the mine.
Riders sit in seats that look like the rough-hewn mine buckets in the movie and add another element of motion. The buckets, which the dwarfs carved with their axes, hang like cradles from pivots that allow them to swing from side to side as the train rounds curves.
The ride starts with quick turns and dips on the outside of the mountain, then slows as it runs inside the mine, where the dwarfs are working in all their audio-animatronic splendor, singing songs from the movie. The walls are studded with giant gems. Then the train goes outside again, encountering curves that are little tighter and dips that are a little longer and steeper.
The ride is surprisingly smooth. Scary drops appear, but the train takes them at a speed that will deliciously frighten, not terrify children. In terms of thrills, the ride is about midway between the Barnstormer -- the Great Goofini's junior coaster -- and
If you're familiar with the old movie, you'll recognize details duplicated on the ride: the dwarfs' shadows striding along a mountain wall; the carved wooden sign over The Vault; Dopey with diamonds in his eyes. And in the cabin at the end of the ride, you'll see Snow White and Dopey dancing in a scene from the movie.
Theme parks must constantly update their attractions to hold the interest of its young guests, who may not be familiar with Snow White or the Seven Dwarfs but adore the new princess-stars of Frozen.
That's evident at "New Fantasyland." The stars of Princess Fairytale Hall, which opened last fall, are Anna and Elsa of Frozen. The sisters moved in at the end of April. In mid-May, the earliest a fan could get a FastPass to see them was in July. One school-day morning in May, the wait in the standby line (for those who don't have FastPasses) was five hours. For Cinderella and Rapunzel, greeting guests in the hall's other parlor: 40 minutes.
"Who is the target for princesses? It's little girls," said
Princess Fairytale Hall, built next to
The Fantasyland expansion underscored just how important character meet-and-greets have become for young fans, adding multiple sites dedicated to meeting characters. In addition to Princess Fairytale Hall, those include Enchanted Tales with Belle in Maurice's Cottage; Ariel's Grotto next to her ride, Under the Sea -- Journey of the Little Mermaid; and Pete's Silly Sideshow, with
In March, Magic Kingdom debuted a daily parade that features floats and characters from Fantasyland and Disney movies -- Belle and the Beast dancing; Ariel seated in a clamshell above her under-the-sea friends; Peter Pan and a giant pirate ship trailed by Tick-Tock the crocodile; Rapunzel and the Snuggly Duckling pub from Tangled; Merida of Brave atop a giant bagpipe; Dumbo, Pinocchio, Mickey, Cinderella, and of course, Anna and Elsa.
The star, though (just in time for the movie) is the 53-foot-long, 26-foot-tall fire-breathing steampunk dragon inspired by Disney's Maleficent, a new take on the story of Sleeping Beauty.
Festival of the Lion King reopened at the new
Summer brings a new Lion King event to Animal Kingdom as well, the after-hours Harambe Nights, oriented toward adults although open to children. The evening includes a reception, a theatrical production and a street party with a buffet. The show is presented Saturday nights through
The heart of the evening, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of The Lion King, is a 55-minute theatrical production with live orchestra, choir, dancers and celebrity narrators including
"Through Disney magic and Harambe magic, the scenes begin to come to life," said
After the show is a street party with
Epcot also has two new adult-oriented events that pair specialty drinks and desserts or appetizers during and after the IllumiNations light show. During the show, the
Downtown Disney, which has floundered for a new theme and updated identity since the
The plan calls for a major makeover, built around four interconnected neighborhoods along the water inspired by
The transformation of Downtown Disney into
Downtown Disney, said Niles, of ThemeParkInsider.com, is in competition with Universal CityWalk, where ample nighttime parking opens up as guests leave the parks; developments along
The key, he said, was for Downtown Disney to build parking structures, as well as refresh the dated look and mix at the complex. Disney is now doing that in a big way, he said, but ultimately the success of
MyMagic+: Disney has expanded use of its MyMagic+ program, initially limited to guests of Disney hotels, so anyone can use it to reserve FastPasses ahead of time and buy photo packages. The program still has limitations and is still being tweaked, but reserving FastPasses in advance is definitely an improvement over running all over the park to collect each one. Hotel guests can start reserving FastPasses 60 days before their visit, and everyone else can make reservations 30 days out, as long as they have their ticket number.
Guests can also get a MagicBand, a coded bracelet that serves as park admission, FastPass, and Disney PhotoPass. Hotel guests can also use them as room key and as a method of payment.
Both are done in conjunction with the MyDisneyExperience.com website or mobile app, so a guest can, for example, change FastPass reservations anytime, anywhere on their smart phone.
The opening of the
There's a high level of interest, and that's no surprise. According to Universal, where attendance rose more than 30 percent after the opening of the first Harry Potter attraction in 2010, more than 450 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, while the eight Harry Potter films have grossed more than
The signature element of
Harry and friends break into the bank in order to steal a Horcrux, an enchanted item that would help them destroy the evil Lord Voldemort. Theme park visitors, ostensibly at the bank to open their own accounts with the spooky animatronic goblins, get caught up in the action.
Riders come face-to-face with Voldemort, "one of the greatest villains of all time," said
Also playing a key role in the ride is Bellatrix Lestrange, a sadistic follower of Voldemort who stashed his Horcrux in the Lestrange family vault at Gringotts. "She's just another one of those amazing characters, just so evil but so fun to watch, and I think our guests are really going to love her part in all this," Mason said.
Universal is disclosing little about the technology of the ride, but Mason said it is more advanced than the first Harry Potter ride, using very large format projection and a 360-degree immersive environment.
Gringotts is set in
Diagon has a number of shops and places to eat, including Ollivanders wand shop,
After guests pass through the brick wall at
In scenes playing on "windows" of the train, as if riders were looking out at the passing countryside, characters from the books and movies will appear, including Hagrid on his flying motorbike, Buckbeak the Hippogriff and the Weasley twins on brooms.
Also at Universal, this home of TV's Simpson family, which was only partially completed at the start of the last summer season, now has a second ride, Kang & Kodos' Twirl 'n' Hurl. It's an aerial carousel, similar to Disney's Dumbo ride but with spaceships rather than elephants.
Kang and Kodos are occasional characters on The Simpsons, aliens who want to take over the world. Once the little spaceships start circling, the aliens tell riders how stupid they were to allow themselves to be lured onto the ride, on which they are now trapped, then try to recruit them to attack
This is getting a makeover, with eight new food venues, mostly in existing spaces, coming by the end of the year. Already open are Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, with an old VW bus turned into a bar truck outside;
Universal has also opened the first wing of its retro-themed fourth hotel,
The highlight of the season at
A grand opening of
The latest word from Busch is "later this summer." However, a makeover of the park's Timbuktu section into Pantopia was completed on schedule.
Pantopia's theme is exploration, and at its entrance are doorways, symbolizing places that should be explored, and keys of all sizes -- embedded in the ground, on walls, hanging from chandeliers -- to open those doors and "unlock the wonder of nature," said
The new Pantopia, unlike other sections of the park (
The story is that explorers from other lands traveled to Pantopia and decided to set up shop there. Each business, from the Painted Camel Bazaar to Twisted Tails Pretzels, comes with a tale. Pantopia got several new eateries, a souvenir store, a makeover for a theater where the park's animal show has relocated, and a falcon topiary with a 10-foot wing span. The land also inherited four rides from Timbuktu -- two roller coasters, a swinging ship and a carousel.
The anchor attraction is to be Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot pole ringed by 32 seats facing out. If
The ride got its name from the peregrine falcon, which can exceed 200 mph when it is diving after prey and is the fastest animal on earth.
Once riders are snug behind rigid restraints that are over the shoulder and across the hips, it takes about a minute for the seats to get to the top.
"Then we tilt the seats 90 degrees so you're looking straight down at the ground," Hornick said. The seats hold there for varying times. "It's random -- you don't know when they're going to drop. All you can hear is your heart beating."
Then the ride drops riders in a free fall that hits 60 mph.
Look at the tower now, high above the tops of palm trees, and if you have even a shred of imagination, it will induce vertigo.
Last fall, two years after Legoland Florida opened, the park closed
The section reopened
The centerpiece is a train ride that circles through a Legoland countryside of farms, fishing holes and campgrounds, gentle enough for little ones to ride on their own, but large enough to give parents the option of riding with them.
There are also tot-sized tractors to ride and a new splash-and-play area. In addition, the existing barn has been enclosed and air-conditioned, with new farm-themed play areas and a spot for kids to play with Duplo bricks (and parents to relax). The baby-care station remains.
Legoland is also adding Duplo Tot Spots in other sections of the park where younger children can play next to rides their older siblings are on, said
Legoland broke ground in November on its first hotel. Located next to the park entrance, the 152-room Lego-themed hotel is scheduled to open next year.
"We really wanted to push the envelope and bring that next level of thrill to the park. We wanted to make sure it was the tallest and the steepest," said
The slide looks something like a fire lookout with colorful tubes snaking out in different directions. It's so tall that it's visible before guests enter the park, and anticipation starts building then, Nadeau said.
"You see that thing and you're like, 'OMG, that is huge.' Structurally, it stands above everything else in the park," Nadeau said.
--Wet 'n' Wild: Meanwhile at Wet 'n' Wild, a new water slide is scheduled to open on Thursday. The six-story Aqua Drag Racer will have four racing lanes of braided, twisting tunnels.
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