This week’s SATURDAY SIX looks at Six Things in Orlando We’re Looking Forward To Seeing in 2014. 2013 was a great year to be a theme park fan. Just in Orlando we got the opening of Transformers: The Ride 3D and a huge Simpsons expansion in Universal Studios Florida, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin arrived at SeaWorld, while Disney introduced Princess Fairytale Hall and the incredible Tangled-themed bathrooms at the Magic Kingdom (along with starting a much needed overhaul on Downtown Disney.) But the good news is 2014 looks to be even better, yes, better. Here’s our list of the top six things we’re looking forward to the most over the next 12 months…
# 6 – Universal CityWalk’s Expansion (Universal Orlando Resort)
In late 2013 Universal unveiled a massive reimagining of its entertainment complex, CityWalk. In fact, the new and improved CityWalk had already started with the opening of Red Oven Pizza Bakery in November, but little did we know how much more would be coming.
By the summer of 2014, Coldstone Creamery (ice cream), Menchies (frozen yogurt), Bread Box (sandwiches), Antojitos (Mexican), Hotdog Hall of Fame, and The Cowfish (burgers/sushi) will be joining the list of eateries in CityWalk. Pastamore, which is shutting down this week, will also be reopening as yet-unamed Italian restaurant (rumored to be Pranzo) in which guests will be able to see their pasta made from scratch in front of them. Starbucks, currently on the second level of CityWalk, will also be moving downstairs and assume a more prominent position as guests make their way from the Universal parking garages to the theme parks. Lastly, the Universal Studios Store will undergo a major retheming.
CityWalk was already a great place to spend time in; with an AMC 20 movie theater (with full bar), several top notch restaurants (including the world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe), the Blue Man Group, and hands-down the best mini-golf course in Orlando with Hollywood Drive-In Golf, but these new restaurants are going to breath new life into the area. Judging by the quality of Red Oven (I visited last month), it’s hard not to get excited about the soon to open Antojitos and the possibilities of Bread Box. Universal needed a good sandwich place and, sorry, having a Dagwood at Blondie’s doesn’t count. (Expected Opening: Locations Opening Throughout Spring and Summer)
# 5 – Ihu’s Breakaway Falls (Aquatica)
Fans of Summit Plummet at Disney’s Blizzard Beach are going to have another insane drop ride to be thrilled by as SeaWorld’s Aqauatica water park will be opening Ihu’s Breakaway Falls later this year. Similar to the ultra popular AquaDunk on the Disney Magic, Ihu’s Breakaway Falls will also have the guest having the floor pulled out from under them, adding to the thrill factor. SeaWorld promises that this will be steepest ride of its kind in Orlando, including using the hashtag #NothingTaller in its social media. Aquatica is an amazingly themed water park that can hold its head high compared to anyone – even Disney’s best – and Ihu’s Breakaway Falls looks to make Aquatica even better. (Expected Opening: Fall 2014)
# 4 – Loews Cabana Bay Beach Resort (Universal Orlando Resort)
When it comes to on-site hotels, no one does it better than Universal. While they may not have as many as Disney, the three they currently have (the Hard Rock, Portofino Bay, and Royal Pacific) can compete with Disney’s best when it comes to theming and offer amenities (such as free unlimited Express Pass) that Disney can’t match due to how many hotel guests they need to serve. While Universal has had family suites for a while (including the Jurassic Park kid’s suites at the Royal Pacific and the new Despicable Me themed rooms at Portofino Bay) Cabana Bay Beach Resort will be their first “value resort.” (Expected Opening: Spring 2014)
Cabana Bay is going to have a retro theme throughout, a lazy river, a bowling alley and a first-of-its-kind garden bridge allowing guests to walk from the hotel to the theme parks, which will be valuable considering guests will be able to take advantage of the one hour early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (no Unlimited Express Passes though.) The suites themselves have been ingeniously designed and the price actually gets lower the longer you stay. We are blessed with some incredible hotels in Orlando, and Cabana Bay looks to be the next great one added to the list.
# 3 – The Hogwarts Express (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida)
You know it’s going to be a good year when The Hogwarts Express comes in #3 on this list. The first ever attraction to go from one theme park to another, The Hogwarts Express is going to fulfill the dreams of many a Potter fan who first saw this train after Harry went through platform 9 3/4.
While exactly what is going to happen during this attraction is being kept under wraps, many expect the windows of the train to project a simulated environment that will allow guests to have a thrilling adventure over the course of their ride. Universal is also building a Hogsmeade Village South Station as well as a huge North Station over in Universal Studios Florida that should also be a complete delight to walk through after seeing what they did for the queue for Forbidden Journey. (Expected Opening: Summer 2014)
# 2 – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Magic Kingdom)
It first started when Storybook Circus soft opened in early March of 2012 and New Fantasyland will finally be complete when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens later this year. We’ve seen Disney outdo themselves on theming when it comes to the Be Our Guest restaurant, Gaston’s Tavern, and the Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid attraction, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train looks to be their equal in theming along with adding an innovative coaster-style ride that should please every member of the family. Guests have been able to watch construction of the Mine Train from the very first day, and everyone’s looking forward to a ride which include music from the animated film, audio animatronics, and a ride vehicle that sits in a cradle-like pivot allowing even more thrill. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train promises to be Walt Disney Imagineering at its best. (Expected Opening: Spring 2014)
# 1 – Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley (Universal Studios Florida)
I’ll be honest with you, I’m not even sure what I’m most excited about with Diagon Alley opening this summer. It would be easy to say the Gringott’s Bank coaster, as the recent overhead pictures taken by Attractions magaaine show the sheer size of the show building to be massive (it would fit the entirety of the rest of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express inside it.) Over on Twitter, HateToFly has given a description of every single room inside the queue and it sounds to be even better than the queue for Forbidden Journey. To quote Vizzini, inconceivable!
However, one of the best parts of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter in IOA is just the feeling of being immersed inside Hogsmeade Village. Everything feels right. The designs of the buildings, the small stores, the “magic” happening in store window facades… it all adds up to an experience a guest can completely fall in love with and Diagon Alley looks to take that experience up to the next level. People who have read the Potter series (or seen the films) are going to be able to eat at The Leaky Cauldron. We’re going to be able to go into Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Madam Milkin’s Robes for All Occasions, and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, all ripped from the pages of J.K. Rowling’s books.
However, what I think I’m looking forward to the most is a detail that – till now – has gone under the radar of most theme park and Potter fans. Universal appears to be building a version of Knockturn Alley and there has been rumors of a Borgin and Burkes walkthrough experience. Universal is already the only theme park in Orlando with a section of its park dedicated to villains (Villain’s Alley in Marvel Superhero Island) and having a part of the Wizarding World dedicated to dark magic has me chomping at the bit. One thing I really loved about the Harry Potter book series is that the books seemed to “grow up” as you read them, introducing more and more “adult” themes and ratcheting up the intensity. If Universal can bring the Dark Magic experience to the theme parks, I’ll be the first one standing in line. Just think of the merchandising opportunities. besides Deatheater masks, you can sell Tom Riddle’s horcrux items as well as just creating “poisons” in evil looking containers. It’s a license to print money. (Expected Opening: Summer 2014)
Follow Seth Kubersky’s PotterWatch series of articles for constant updates on the Diagon Alley construction at Universal Studios Florida.
So there you have it: six things in Orlando we’re looking forward to seeing in 2014. See you next weekend for the latest edition of the Saturday Six. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles or, for your listening pleasure, check out Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast.