Every year at RetailMeNot, we read the news, deep-dive into the research and talk to leading experts in the amusement park scene to find out what’s hot at the nation’s biggest theme parks. Why? Because every year, the parks build new rides to entice us to visit them. What’s new in 2017? Read on!
Pandora — The World of Avatar
Animal Kingdom/Walt Disney World Resort
Robert Niles, founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, the popular online consumers’ guide to the world’s top theme parks, reports that 2017 is a big year for Orlando, both at Disney and Universal. Disney has “spent hundreds of millions to re-create James Cameron’s Avatar film and create a visually wonderful environment which they hope will keep people entranced,” he says.
Nanci Rossetti, the CEO of the travel agency Magical Journeys, is also excited about Pandora. “The movie Avatar was visually stunning. I would expect that this new section of Animal Kingdom will be dramatic and bold while relaying the message we need to be kind to our planet.” Eco-tourists can enjoy new rides, including the 3D Avatar Flight of Passage, a trip to a bioluminescent rainforest via the Na’vi River Journey and plenty more to explore (and eat, with fantastic new food at the Satu’li Canteen and other spots).
Niles points out that when Universal debuted Harry Potter back in 2010, it “shook up the industry like nothing else since Walt was alive.” Harry Potter changed the dynamic in Orlando and turned Universal into a true competitor to Disney (while pushing SeaWorld out of the way). With the launch of Volcano Bay, it’s hoping to make Universal Orlando a long-term destination spot, not just an option for people looking for something extra after spending a few days at Disney. Volcano Bay is a water theme park where guests can choose from the tame to the truly wild water rides.
Rosetti loves the TapuTapu wearable device that Volcano Bay offers. It allows you to virtually hold your place in line (genius!), pay for things with a flick of the wrist (so you don’t have to tote around your wallet) and discover more about the park as you walk around. “Volcano Bay succeeds in making Universal Orlando Resort a full vacation destination rather than a side trip for visitors to the Orlando area,” she says. “With the TapuTapu system, I will be able to play in the lazy river rather than waiting in line to ride a slide. I despise standing around in a bathing suit waiting!”
Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: BREAKOUT!
Niles is stoked for Disney’s first-ever Marvel ride. “It’s such a powerful and alluring franchise right now with the action, music and storytelling. I’m excited to see what Disney does with such an irreverent franchise.” The old Tower of Terror ride is now a loud, thrilling and fresh attraction that adds something fun and edgy for older guests past the princess stage. (Niles says that there are even rumors Disney may create an entire Marvel world, but there’s nothing official on that yet, so keep it to yourselves.)
SeaWorld boasts Orlando’s only floorless roller coaster where riders’ feet dangle as they travel in open-sided seats to heights of more than 150 feet. In 2017, the Kraken will add a cool VR experience so you truly feel like you’re in the ocean among the sea creatures as you race along.
Winter Haven, Florida
Legoland is working hard to make sure all its guests feel welcome, including those with autism spectrum disorders. #BuiltForKids offers special passes for those who have difficulty waiting in line; spaces designated as quiet rooms for families to take a break; resources including noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys and LEGO building tables; specialized training for resort employees; and illustrated, step-by-step walk-throughs of all the rides and shows, “so guests won’t be surprised by periods of darkness, loud noises, bright lights or other elements that often can be frightening or overwhelming,” the park reports.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Last year, Busch Gardens Tampa introduced Cobra’s Curse; this year it’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s turn for a brand-new ride: its first-ever wooden coaster, InvadR. Niles says this Viking-themed ride is more of a family coaster, meaning it’s got plenty of thrills (including a 74-foot drop and a top speed of 48 mph), but it won’t be so intense that it only appeals to the truly brave in your party.
JUSTICE LEAGUE: Battle for Metropolis
Six Flags is in its third year of rolling out fan-favorite Justice League: Battle for Metropolis rides. This year Six Flags Magic Mountain, Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Over Georgia will get this attraction at their parks. “DC Comics is a powerful franchise,” explains Niles, “and I’m a huge fan of this ride.” He says it helps keep Six Flags popular and competitive with Disney and Universal.
San Diego, California
This summer, SeaWorld San Diego debuts a whole new land, Niles explains. “It’s educational and aimed at younger guests, with interactive elements to teach about the oceans and conservation.” Kids (and adults, too) can get up close and personal with eels, crabs and octopuses, try out new rides (including a submarine one) and more cool ways to immerse yourself in all things water.
Three smaller theme parks that pack a wallop:
It’s not just the big names that have big news. Your local regional parks have plenty going on, too. Niles’ pick for the “next best big thing at a regional park” is Mystic Timbers, a wooden coaster with “a bit of dark ride feel” that debuts at the popular Midwestern Kings Island.
Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Niles is a fan of Dolly Parton’s theme park, with its “great hospitality, good food, great live entertainment with a wide variety of music and its fair share of good rides. It’s one of those parks that’s a good value. A lot of people go to the Smoky Mountains on vacation, and Dollywood is a great destination in that region.” This year, Dollywood celebrates “The Year of the Family” with a few new offerings, including Whistle Punk Chaser, a junior coaster for what the park refers to as its “younger loggers.” At Dollywood’s Splash Country, a five-story mat-style racing slide called TailSpin Racer opens, along with Drop Line, a free-fall experience that gently lifts guests up so they can view the spectacular Smoky Mountain scenery before dropping them 230 feet!
Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari
Santa Claus, Indiana
Holiday World “is a delightful park with world-class roller coasters,” enthuses Niles, who says it’s a great value. “It’s the only theme park of that size that doesn’t charge you to park; they offer free soft drinks and free sunscreen; and their water park, Splashin’ Safari, is one of the best water parks in the world.”
Plus, he says, “the people there are friendly, the food is great, and it’s a family-run company that has built some really great rides.” This year the park opens Firecracker, one of the nation’s last-surviving Calypso rides. They found it six hours away in an abandoned field, then spent months restoring it to its former glory. The park has also added a new Pick Your Price online ticket deal. Guests can save up to $20 per ticket depending when they choose to visit.
Need advice on making your trip a success? Try our theme park survival guide for parents!