On Wednesday, Jan. 6, at the exact moment when insurrectionists were invading our nation's Capitol, I was standing in the middle of the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square amid a much different mob: mask-wearing, diverse and waiting peacefully outside a patriotic performance without resorting to treason or violence. Recent events in Washington, D.C., make writing about Orlando's upcoming attractions feel surreal absurd, but the Disney-bred optimist in me hopes this past week will mark America hitting bottom and the beginning of a much-needed rehab.
With the incoming administration promising economic relief and accelerated vaccinations, 2021 holds potential for a huge rebound in domestic (and even international) travel. And if the theme parks' surprisingly robust post-New Year park attendance is any indication, look for these eagerly anticipated attractions to help lead Central Florida's recovery this spring and summer.
Walt Disney World
Although Disney originally intended to debut an ambitious slate of new or enhanced attractions ahead of their Florida resort's 50th anniversary, it's currently in question how many will actually open during the celebration that starts in October. Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, a near-clone of the 3D dark ride from Disneyland Paris, is nearly complete at Epcot's France pavilion, and obtrusive black barges for the "Harmonious" nighttime spectacular have been installed in the park's World Showcase lagoon. But other announced Epcot projects, from the new Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster to Spaceship Earth's renovation, have been delayed until 2022 or beyond, and the heart of Future World will remain an ugly maze of construction walls for the foreseeable future.
The situation is more dire at the Magic Kingdom, where the hole in the under-construction Tron coaster's building that "lightcycles" will zoom through was recently sealed shut, damping hopes that the ride might open in 2021 as first planned. There's also little new of note planned for Disney's Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, aside from the uber-expensive Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Resort Hotel. Regardless, Disney appears to be preparing for larger crowds at their resort — witness the resumption of park-hopping after 2 p.m., the planned reopening of Blizzard Beach water park in March, and the reduction of social distancing to increase capacity on rides like Flight of Passage and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Hopefully recovering attendance will also encourage the recall of some furloughed entertainers.
SeaWorld and Busch Gardens
2020 was a roller-coaster of a year for SeaWorld Parks, with both widely publicized financial and management woes and well-received pandemic-era special events. In 2021, they are looking to rebound locally with two rides originally scheduled to premiere last year. SeaWorld Orlando's Ice Breaker looks like a perfect transitional attraction for tweens (or timid grown-ups) stepping up from kiddie coasters, with high-speed launches and airtime hills but no upside-down inversions. Real ride junkies probably won't need any liquid courage to face Ice Breaker's 52 mph top speed, but just in case, there's a slick Glacier Bar nearby serving cocktails in color-changing cups. I probably will want a shot or three before braving Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, where Rocky Mountain Construction converted the park's notoriously rough wooden coaster into a 206-foot-tall steel hybrid behemoth. Be warned: Simply watching the YouTube POV of this one could give you whiplash.
2021 was supposed to be the year when construction kicked into high gear on Universal's Epic Universe expansion, which was to include an elaborate Super Nintendo World. Instead, Orlando fans will have to experience the Mario Kart ride opening next month in Universal Studios Japan vicariously via video. But although progress on Universal Orlando's new campus has slowed to a crawl, testing of the VelociCoaster in Islands of Adventure appears to be accelerating months ahead of its summer debut. The raptor-inspired attraction's sleek trains can now frequently be spotted cresting the 155-foot-tall top-hat hill and spiraling along the Jurassic Park shoreline, teasing park guests with a rare combination of immersive theming and intense thrills.
Other recent signs of Comcast's confidence in the resort's long-term future include their December debut of the 2,050-room Endless Summer Resort Dockside Inn and Suites (which is far more luxurious than its budget motel competitors along I-Drive) as well as smaller guest-friendly upgrades, like relocating the logjammed lockers inside Hogwarts Castle. Ongoing additions and deep admission discounts for Florida residents, coupled with the lack of an advance reservation system like the one Disney uses, led to Universal's parks reaching their limited maximum capacity within minutes of opening on many days at the end of 2020. That's a problem few would have anticipated in the spring, when the attractions first reopened to record-low crowd. Hopefully Universal's overcrowded holidays will be a leading indicator that things could be looking up for Orlando in 2021.