The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which opened May 28 at Magic Kingdom, is quintessential Disney: Based on the 1937 movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the ride has the requisite storyline.
The faces of the movie dwarfs are replicated in audio-animatronic characters. It has the movie's cheery music. A family roller coaster, it is only moderately scary and is open to kids as small as three-foot-two.
The train is the centrepiece - 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 Diagon Alley, the new Harry Potter land, which has its preview (but no official opening date yet) later this month. This new Wizarding World will have a thrill ride, Escape from Gringotts, plus the Hogwarts Express, which will connect Diagon Alley to the original Wizarding World in Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Busch Gardens has good and bad news for its summer season. The scheduled May 1 opening of Falcon's Fury, a drop tower, has been delayed. However, its colorful home "land" - Pantopia, remade from what was once called Timbuktu - is open, with a new shop and food spots.
There are new features as well at Legoland and two Orlando water parks. And both Disney and Universal are upgrading their dining and entertainment areas, Downtown Disney and Universal CityWalk.
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 Pam Rawlins, a Disney Imagineer and show producer. Work on other elements had already begun. "We needed something to add kinetic energy," Rawlins said.
Snow White's Scary Adventures was to be torn down to make room for Princess Fairytale Hall, leaving those characters without a home. So Disney's newest coaster would tell the tale of Snow White's temporary roommates.
"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 splendour, 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 Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
If you're familiar with the old movie, you'll recognise 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 parlour: 40 minutes.
"Who is the target for princesses? It's little girls," said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. "For them, Snow White might as well be someone from the Middle Ages. That's not their princess, not their character. But the characters from Frozen are."
Princess Fairytale Hall, built next to Cinderella Castle, has a grand tiara over the entrance, stained-glass windows with scenes from the film Cinderella, and decor in royal purple and gold. Inside are two wood-paneled parlours where princesses meet their fans - Cinderella and Rapunzel in one, Anna and Elsa in the other, along with a third princess - Aurora, Snow White, Tiana, Jasmine or Mulan - who changes daily. Guests must choose which parlour to get in line for.
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 Donald Duck, Goofy, Minnie Mouse and Daisy as circus characters.
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 Harambe Theatre in the Africa section of the park a week ago after being closed since January. The show, which started at Animal Kingdom in 1998, moved so the old theatre could be torn down to make room for the new Avatar land. The show tells the Lion King story in acrobatics, dance, music and puppetry. It is performed multiple times every day.
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 Aug. 9.
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 Viola Davis, David Alan Grier and Alfre Woodard. Scenes from the movie are integrated into the production.
"Through Disney magic and Harambe magic, the scenes begin to come to life," said Marsha Jackson-Randolph, the show director. "It's a wonderful film with such an incredible legacy. (Producing the show) has challenged us in a very positive way to look at how this film still has such power."
After the show is a street party with Africa-inspired food and drink (including alcoholic beverages), dancers, stilt performers, characters and a DJ.
Tickets, US$119-$134 or NZ$137-$154 adults, US$79-94 ages 9 and under, at disneyworld.com/harambenights.
Epcot also has two new adult-oriented events that pair specialty drinks and desserts or appetisers during and after the IllumiNations light show. During the show, the IllumiNations Sparkling Dessert Party on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday features a dessert buffet and sparkling wine (US$49 adults, US$29 children). The After Hours Wind Down, Thursday-Sunday, offers a selection of appetisers or dessert plus a beverage flight at four Epcot restaurants (US$35). Reservations for either: www.disneyworld.com/spring.
Downtown Disney, which has floundered for a new theme and updated identity since the Pleasure Island clubs were closed more than five years ago, is finally moving forward with a new design. Construction walls are everywhere.
The plan calls for a major makeover, built around four interconnected neighbourhoods along the water inspired by Florida's turn-of-the-century lakeside towns. Disney says the redo will double the shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities and emphasise its waterfront - plus add badly needed parking and pedestrian bridges and widen Buena Vista Drive.
The transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs won't be completed until 2016, but some improvements will be ready this summer, including Food Truck Park; a cluster of boutiques featuring Disney goods from home furnishings to beauty products; stores offering soccer gear and stuff for dogs; two Starbucks, and a schedule of live entertainment.
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 International Drive such as The Orlando Eye and Madame Tussauds scheduled to open next spring; and Disney's own parks that are open at night.
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 Disney Springs will depend on regular updates instead of letting it languish as it has in recent years.
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 Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios is apparently only weeks away. Although at press time Universal had not announced when Diagon Alley will open to the public, the red carpet event and media preview will be June 18-19. In addition, Universal has started selling vacation packages for Florida residents that explicitly include access to Diagon Alley, for travel beginning June 29 (information: www.UniversalOrlando.com).
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 US$7.7 billion.
The signature element of Diagon Alley is a thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the storyline taken from the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Goblin-run Gringotts is protected by an enormous fire-breathing dragon whose installation atop the bank last month - widely reported on fan websites - was one of the high points of construction. Taken straight from the movie, that is one nasty-looking dragon!
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 Dale Mason, executive producer of Wizarding World. "It seems to me that it's not Harry Potter without Voldemort." Mason said the Universal Creative team wanted an appearance by Voldemort in the first Harry Potter ride, which is set at Hogwarts, "but it just didn't work out."
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 Alley, a secret wizards-only neighborhood in London. This is where wizards bank, socialise and shop for wizarding equipment and school supplies, and where students catch the train for Hogwarts. As Universal did with Hogsmeade, it has created an entire streetscape for Diagon Alley, with a London facade facing out and Diagon Alley on the interior.
Diagon has a number of shops and places to eat, including Ollivanders wand shop, Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour (with Butterbeer ice cream), Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, the Leaky Cauldron and more.
After guests pass through the brick wall at King's Cross Station and arrive at Platform 9 ¾, Hogswarts Express will take them to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade), which is next door at Universal's Islands of Adventure. A two-park pass will be required to ride.
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 Springfield.
Duff Brewery has also opened, serving Homer's favorite beer on the waterfront. Other elements added in the last year are a Lard Lad donut and ice cream stand and Bumblebee Man's taco truck.
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; Red Oven Pizza Bakery, where diners can watch pizzas and salads being made; Cold Stone Creamery, Menchie's Frozen Yogurt and a relocated Starbucks.
Universal has also opened the first wing of its retro-themed fourth hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort. When phase two opens June 16, it will be one of the largest hotels in Central Florida, with 1,800 rooms - 900 family suites and 900 standard guest rooms. The inspiration was beach resorts from the 50s and 60s. The hotel is the most moderately priced of Universal's hotels, with introductory prices starting at US$93 for standard rooms, US$134 for family suites. Later, rates will rise to US$119 and US$174.
The highlight of the season at Busch Gardens was supposed to be Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot (102 metre) drop tower that would turn riders face down before sending them into a 60-mph (96-kmph) freefall.
A grand opening of May 1 was announced, then postponed for manufacture of certain parts and more testing.
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 Jeff Hornick, director of Design and Engineering.
The new Pantopia, unlike other sections of the park (Nairobi, Congo, Serengeti Plain), is a fantasy, not an actual place. "We wanted to create our own story," Hornick said.
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 theatre 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 Busch Gardens' tallest roller coasters, SheiKra and Cheetah Hunt, were stacked on top of each other, they'd still be 33 feet shorter than Falcon's Fury, Hornick said.
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 Duplo Village and announced it was getting a makeover. Like Duplo bricks, which are twice as big as traditional Lego bricks, Duplo Village was for toddlers - kids up to age 5.
The section reopened May 23, renamed Duplo Valley, with upgraded attractions and a farm theme, including oversized Duplo farm animals - cows, goats, chickens, and sheep.
The centrepiece 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 Christopher Jones, a park spokesman.
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.
Aquatica, SeaWorld's water park, opened an eight-story thrill slide called Ihu's Breakaway Falls a month ago. It's a four-way slide, with each tube a little different - faster, steeper, or more twisted than the others.
Three of the slides start with a breakaway box. Riders stand in the boxes facing each other, the sound of a pounding heart piped in through speakers, then one by one in random order, the floor disappears under each.
Riders plunge straight down at 20 to 24 feet per second before the slide turns into a spiral. All three are closed slides, but each takes a different route. The fourth slide is an open slide, steeper than the others.
"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 Bryan Nadeau, Aquatica's general manager.
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.
All three SeaWorld parks - in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio - this year are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of its first park in San Diego. In Orlando, that means longer park hours, a newShamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night show debuting June 21, more encounters with animal ambassadors, a roaming Surprise Squad handing out gifts, and a series of giant sea life sculptures created of garbage collected from the ocean.
IF YOU GO:
Busch Gardens: www.buschgardens.com
Discovery Cove: www.discoverycove.com
Disney World: www.disneyworld.com
Universal Orlando: www.UniversalOrlando.com
THEME PARK DINING
Updates and expansions at the theme parks have added an array of new menu items at a variety of food stands, restaurants and food trucks. Here are some highlights:
Spice Road Table: New table-service restaurant in Epcot's World Showcase, featuring small plates (lamb sliders, fried calamari, mussels tagine) from the Mediterranean.
Downtown Disney food trucks: Four food trucks representing each of the four Disney parks are stationed at temporary spots at Downtown Disney, where Food Truck Park is under construction and expected to open this summer.
Samples from the menus: Variations on meatballs from Hollywood Studios, tandoori chicken and Asian-influenced dishes from Animal Kingdom, Croque Monsieur sandwiches and Disneyland corn dogs from Magic Kingdoms around the world, lobster rolls and pierogies from the best of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.
Leaky Cauldron: Opening this summer in Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, it will feature traditional British dishes including Bangers and Mash, Fisherman's Pie, Fish and Chips, and two new beers created exclusively for the attraction - Wizard's Brew and Dragon Scale.
Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour: Also on Diagon Alley, the shop will offer unique flavors of ice cream, including Butterbeer, Sticky Toffee Pudding, and Orange Marmalade, as well as cakes and pastries.
Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food: New on CityWalk, Antojitos serves enchiladas, tamales, tacos and chiles rellenos "straight from the street carts and cantinas of Mexico" downstairs. Upstairs, the menu has a more gourmet bent: duck tacos, braised short ribs with manchego corn pudding, pan-seared red chile mahi.
Red Oven Pizza Bakery: Also new on CityWalk, it offers salads and Neapolitan-style pizzas made to order in a stone-lined oven.
Twisted Tails Pretzel Bakery: New in Pantopia, offers specialty pretzels including the Bacon Fury Pretzel (about 40 centimetres of warm pretzel entwined with bacon), pretzel sandwiches and craft beer.
Dragon Fire Grill: Part of the Pantopia makeover, Dragon Fire Grill is an outdoor show grill attached to the Pantopia Grill (formerly the Desert Grill) and offers a new assortment of grilled meats and pinchos (snacks).
THE MIAMI HERALD