After all the blockbuster attraction openings in 2019, you might have expected Orlando's resorts to take a little breather, but January turned out to be a busy month for theme park news. Just in case you aren't plugged into #DisTwitter 24/7, here's a cheat sheet to the latest updates from the local parks.
Walt Disney World
Despite the rocky reception the movie Rise of Skywalker received, demand for the newest Star Wars ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios hasn't abated since its debut in December, despite an identical version opening in Anaheim earlier this month. Guests are still lining up daily before dawn, and you'll need to be inside the park before the official opening hour in order to have a shot at snagging one of the limited "virtual boarding passes" required to experience Rise of the Resistance. (Pro tip: Reboot your My Disney Experience app after entering the park, use cellular data instead of Disney's WiFi, and refresh the "Find Out More" page in the app until you see "Join a Boarding Group.") I've done the early a.m. rush for Rise several times now, and although the process is stressful, this remarkable ride is worth the rigmarole. Fortunately, securing a spot on the Millennium Falcon is a lot easier now that advance FastPass+ reservations are available for the Smugglers Run simulator starting Feb. 19. The attraction shares its FastPass+ tier with Slinky Dog Dash, so you'll have to decide between the Toy Story coaster or a flight with Chewie, but at least guests can now pre-book both Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror on the same day.
Epcot is currently in the middle of its fourth annual International Festival of the Arts, which continues through Feb. 24, featuring hands-on creative activities and daily concerts by Broadway stars. This year's event is a bit less aesthetically pleasing than in the past, thanks to the mazes of construction walls currently carving up the park for FutureWorld's ongoing extreme makeover. Three new film-based attractions also recently premiered at Epcot. The best of the trio is Canada Far and Wide, an inspiring Circle-Vision 360 travelogue of our northern neighbor, hosted with surprisingly subdued humor by Schitt's Creek stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. Awesome Planet, a visually stunning ecology documentary with some tactile in-theater effects, suffers from narration by Ty Burrell (in full-on Modern Family realtor mode) that swings erratically in tone between apocalyptic despair and anodyne optimism. Finally, the Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along, which boots the classic Impressions de France out of the Parisian pavilion for most of the day, is the biggest loser of the bunch, despite the vocal contributions of Angela Lansbury; by reframing the "tale as old as time" with the henchman LeFou as the hero, it undermines the legacy of Belle, one of Disney's most progressive princesses. Ironically, Beauty has been drawing the biggest crowds of the three, suggesting we'll be stuck with it for years.
The Holy Land Experience recently announced a major downsizing of their attraction, eliminating their ambitious slate of live shows, which employed some of Orlando's most talented actors. However, there still seems to be a demand for Jesus-centric entertainment just up the road, based on the crowds who attended last weekend's Rock the Universe contemporary Christian concerts at Universal Studios Florida. This week, Universal swiftly switches gears from the sacred to the profane, as their 25th annual Mardi Gras celebration steps off on Saturday, Feb. 1, with a concert by the Roots and a "Treasures of the Deep"-themed parade that rolls nightly through April 2. Next door at Islands of Adventure, next year's yet-unannounced roller coaster in Jurassic Park is getting off the ground; and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is receiving some much-needed renovations, including an overhaul of the miserable locker area that often muddles Muggle riders.
But the big Universal construction news is coming from their Epic Universe expansion property near the Orange County Convention Center, which Comcast executives finally confirmed will be home to Super Nintendo World in 2023. The worst-kept secret in theme parks, Orlando's Mario-themed area will be the ultimate version of the lands currently being built in Japan and California, where it will open first. Beyond rides based on "Mario Kart," "Donkey Kong Country" and Yoshi, guests will be able to use smartphone-synced wristbands to interact with the park, "punching" power-ups and collecting coins. More recently, Alicia Stella of Orlando ParkStop uncovered construction permits showing the site plan for Epic Universe's How to Train Your Dragon land. Look for a large outdoor roller coaster and boat ride, along with indoor attractions and play areas, to be nestled amid a Viking village from the DreamWorks franchise.
Finally, I was recently invited on a hard-hat tour of the construction site for Ice Breaker, the new Premier Rides roller coaster that's been squeezed in between Shamu Stadium and the Wild Arctic simulator. Like Universal's Hagrid ride (which has become much more reliable lately, often clocking over 1,700 guests per hour) it will repeatedly launch riders both forward and backward, and the bold orange track's signature 93-foot-tall 100-degree vertical spike – the steepest in Florida – looks pretty intimidating for what's billed as a "family thrill" ride. While it won't enjoy the immersive theming of its competition across town, if it delivers the negative G-airtime they advertise, Ice Breaker should cement SeaWorld's status as Orlando's coaster capitol.
– This story appears in the Jan. 29, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.