Two Orlando debuts: a family-friendly land at Universal, and a premium VIP backstage tour at Cirque du Soleil

Attractions aimed at younger visitors and premium up-charge experiences are predicted to be 2024's revenue drivers

click to enlarge A meet-and-greet with "Violin" and "Pencil" is part of the VIP backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil's "Drawn to Life" show. - photo by Seth Kubersky
photo by Seth Kubersky
A meet-and-greet with "Violin" and "Pencil" is part of the VIP backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil's "Drawn to Life" show.

A few weeks ago, I attended a press conference at SeaWorld Orlando where International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) CEO Jakob Wahl forecast a healthy travel season for North America's theme park industry, with a predicted a 2 percent increase in attendance and 7 percent boost in spending. Wahl says those trends are being driven primarily by the lure of new family-friendly attractions aimed at younger visitors, and the growth of premium up-charge experiences. Recently, I got to preview two prime representatives of those revenue drivers: the new DreamWorks Land at Universal Studios Florida, and the new "Page to Stage" VIP tour of Cirque du Soleil's Drawn to Life at Disney Springs.

Rumors swirled for almost a decade about the fate of Woody Woodpecker's KidZone — Universal Orlando's long-in-the-tooth land dedicated to faded franchises like Curious George, Fievel and Barney — which was at one point slated to become home to Super Nintendo World. Luckily, those plans shifted south to Epic Universe, and construction walls have recently come down to reveal a radical revamp of the child-centric area that this thrill-focused resort so desperately needs. Fans of the E.T. Adventure dark ride and Animal Actors show can rest assured that they remain as is, but in between them now lies the park's first real new land (not counting 2023's minor Minion Land makeover) since Diagon Alley's arrival in 2014.

Unfortunately, at first glance I found DreamWorks Land to be a downgrade from the area's previous occupants. Fievel's Playland was an elaborate multi-story wonderland with imaginative oversized props, a wide variety of play elements, and even a waterslide. Its replacement, Shrek's Swamp, although admirably accessible and probably easier to maintain, feels like a generic collection of single-story bridges and net climbs that you might find in any number of parks, with some ogre decor and a button-activated Pinocchio animatronic added to tie in with the IP.

Likewise, the basic structure of Curious George's zoo remains, but the soaking water-play elements have been tamed down and the former ball factory is barren. There are some new interactive areas where you can pound triggers to activate singing frogs or frolicking cats; I'm betting kids will get bored and break them before August. On the upside, the old Nuthouse kiddie coaster got upgraded with an eye-popping new color scheme and spiderweb props in its transformation into the drolly named Trolls Trollercoaster.

However, my initial disappointment in DreamWorks Land turned into delight when I discovered that Universal has doubled down on live entertainment in the area.

click to enlarge By far the best place to encounter characters in DreamWorks Land is the "Imagination Celebration" show. - photo by Seth Kubersky
photo by Seth Kubersky
By far the best place to encounter characters in DreamWorks Land is the "Imagination Celebration" show.

The meet-and-greet areas for characters from Gabby's Dollhouse and Trolls are basic outdoor backdrops, and you can't go inside Shrek's new house, but it's great to see him back in the park posing with the pitch-perfect Donkey puppet, whose Eddie Murphy mimicry still hits the mark. Also make sure you check out the interactive kung fu training class, with an on-screen animated avatar of Po driven by an offstage Jack Black impersonator; the effect is an impressive step beyond Disney's Turtle Talk with Crush, when the frame-rate isn't stuttering.

By far the best place to encounter the characters is inside the DreamWorks Imagination Celebration show. As a one-time technician on the Barney show, I was skeptical going into the new occupant of its old in-the-round theater. Happily, show director Jason Horne and his talented team knocked it out of the park with this polished mini-musical featuring live singers, dynamic dancers, wrap-around projections and massive puppets, alongside familiar friends from favorite film franchise.

This is the one element of DreamWorks Land — not the overhyped Shrekzel, a dry pretzel with moss-colored cheese dip — that I'll be returning to time and time again, even when I don't have a kid in tow.

Other permanent Cirque du Soleil shows around the globe have long offered exclusive backstage tours and similar VIP offerings, and since May 24, Drawn to Life fans can go behind the scenes of their Disney Springs production with the "Page to Stage Signature Experience," which I got to test-drive last month. Offered with the late shows on Fridays-Sundays, it starts with expedited check-in and snacks upon arrival, along with premium seating for the performance, followed by a 45ish-minute tour behind and beneath the custom-built venue.

Highlights of my tour, which was led by a friendly and knowledgeable guide, included: peeking in the crowded costuming and props departments; examining up-close set pieces such as Mary Blair's animation desk, some of which include actual artifacts from the Walt Disney Studios archive; seeing the hoists and hydraulic lifts that help move the massive scenery and costumes; and spotting some hidden Easter eggs on stage that are ordinarily invisible from the audience. We also got a meet-and-greet with "Violin" and "Pencil," who have performed with the show since opening, and received a souvenir parting gift.

I heartily recommend "Page to Stage" for hard-core Cirque groupies or anyone with a professional interest in technical theater, and would also suggest it for more general audiences with just a couple of caveats. Caveat No. 1, the coolest thing about my preview tour was that it was conducted while acrobats were rehearsing their acts onstage, which will not be the case for regular guests. And No. 2, while the $285 tour is only about a $50-$90 upcharge over the premium seats it includes, I actually prefer sightlines from the rear center of the theater, as opposed to those off-axis seats up front. If you aren't deeply interested in the minute details that make Cirque so spectacular, you may be better off buying a back-row seat and spending the savings on tapas at nearby Jaleo.

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