Dueling debuts at Disney and Universal demonstrate that when it comes to buildup, bigger isn’t always better

Dueling debuts at Disney and Universal demonstrate that when it comes to buildup, bigger isn’t always better
Photo via Disney

Did you ever plead for a certain present, only for anticipation to sour mere moments after its unwrapping? Did another unheralded gift unexpectedly enthrall instead of the one you'd hyped up in your head? Recent dueling debuts at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando demonstrate that when it comes to buildup, bigger isn't always better.

Back in the summer of 2015, Disney announced that a new expansion dedicated to Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their plastic Pixar pals was in the works for Disney's Hollywood Studios. Flash forward nearly three years to the public premiere of Toy Story Land on June 30, which instantly increased the attraction-starved Studios' roster of rides by 50 percent. It's no surprise that Disney devotees swarmed to DHS on opening day of the park's first major addition in over a decade, waiting in pouring rain for hours simply to enter the new area.

But by day two, I was able to stroll right into the new land at midday without queueing and experience all its offerings within an afternoon, indicating that pent-up demand for the expansion may be shorter-lived than anticipated.

Orlando's Toy Story Land – which is accessed through a nondescript pathway near the park's now-neglected Pixar Place – makes a much better first impression than its Parisian cousin, with a big Woody statue as a welcoming photo-op and the speeding trains of the new Slinky Dog Dash coaster adding kinetic excitement to Andy's backyard. Slinky is the expansion's marquee attraction, and its multiple magnetic launches and airtime-inducing bunny hills hit the thrill-o-meter sweet spot between Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain. FastPasses are nearly impossible to secure, but I felt it was worth the hour I spent waiting standby for my first spin.

Speaking of spinning, the area's other new ride is Alien Swirling Saucers, an unfortunately acronymed copy of Mater's Junkyard Jamboree from California Adventure's Cars Land. ASS is surprisingly fun for a spruced-up carnival spinner and features a clever chiptunes soundtrack, but isn't worth more than a half-hour wait. The decade-old Toy Story Mania shooting ride (with a relocated entrance) rounds out the area's attraction count, unless you include Woody's Lunch Box, a Babybel-sponsored snack stand which may end up being TSL's sleeper hit – their Monte Cristo sandwich is the best counter-service meal I've had at DHS in years.

Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that TSL's dead-end design dooms it to being merely a speed bump en route to 2019's Star Wars land. For one, there's barely any shade, so you'll want an umbrella for the outdoor queues, come rain or shine. Something like a ginormous picnic table over the main walkway would have provided cover and better established guests' toy-sized scale. Beyond the rides, the only entertainment is taking selfies in front of Instagram-friendly colored walls or watching the Green Army Soldiers (whose platoon finally includes women) melt inside their costumes. Unlike Animal Kingdom's Pandora or Universal's Wizarding Worlds, TSL ultimately lacks incentives to linger and explore, which is a shame since its lighting looks lovely after dark.

On the other hand, a reason to linger longer is exactly what Universal Orlando has delivered with its knockout new night-ender. Cinematic Celebration, which was announced only nine months ago and just named in June, began surprise "technical rehearsals" on July 4 in anticipation of its official premiere. Director Mike Aiello and his team have built on everything learned from Universal's earlier attempts, fusing film footage featuring the resort's best-loved franchises – from Jurassic Park to Transformers to Harry Potter – with more than 120 illuminated fountains. Projection mapping on the New York facades, my favorite part of the old 360 show, makes a masterful comeback as buildings freeze or burst into flames, and multiple layers of mist screens create Cinerama-esque ultra wide-screen visuals.

There's so much to see that the pyrotechnics, which merely punctuate the opening segments, are almost unnecessary, though the fireworks are impressive during the Minion-fueled finale. But it's the subtler, more artistic moments – a pulsing crimson heartbeat during Fast & Furious, a lyrical interlude to Shrek's theme – that elevate Cinematic Celebration above a mere clip compilation. The result is a satisfying 19-minute nightcap that rivals Mickey's offerings; I'd rank it ahead of both Rivers of Light and DHS's Fantasmic. World of Color in Anaheim – which was obviously among this show's many influences – is among my all-time favorites, but Universal's production provides almost as much aquatic beauty and more bang, without the airfare.


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