California's clocks may be three hours behind Florida, but in some ways their theme parks are light-years ahead of ours – and I'm not only referring to Anaheim's eagerly awaited version of Star Wars Land, whose construction outpaces Orlando's project by 12 parsecs. I spent last week exploring Los Angeles-area attractions, and returned with glimpses of new experiences that could be coming to a galaxy near you in not such a long, long time.
At the Happiest Place on Earth, I tried my best to peek through construction walls, but I have no new secrets to share about the Star Wars expansion except that it looks even larger in person than I'd imagined. However, I did get a close-up look at the Disneyland Resort's next major ride, and I'm sad to say that the results ain't pretty.
Disney California Adventure courted controversy by closing their Twilight Zone Tower of Terror earlier this year, and converting it into Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!, which officially opens this month on the heels of the cinematic sequel. California's Tower was a pale shadow of the E-ticket original, which continues to operate at Florida's Hollywood Studios, but the Anaheim attraction's makeover is a carnival catastrophe amid the park's vintage aesthetics. Internet photos don't do justice to how janky the junk-festooned facade looks, now that a hodgepodge of satellite dishes and industrial pipes have been slapped all over the once-elegant structure.
While I'm holding out hope for the ride inside – which will involve Rocket Raccoon recruiting you to rescue Star Lord and Baby Groot from Benicio Del Toro's Collector – the fact that "Hooked on a Feeling" won't be among the attraction's six randomized soundtracks is a bigger letdown that the elevator's 13-story drop. The good news, as far as Orlando is concerned, is that our Tower of Terror isn't going anywhere, but rampant rumors suggest the Guardians are going into Epcot's Future World. Seeing what Imagineering did with the franchise out west, I'm thankful that Universal retains rights to most other Marvel superheroes east of the Mississippi.
KNOTT'S BERRY FARM
People call Disneyland America's first theme park, but that honor could arguably be claimed by nearby Knott's Berry Farm. Walter Knott's Ghost Town predated Disney's Frontierland by a decade, and his Calico Mine Train and Timber Log Flume obviously influenced Disney's Big Thunder and Splash Mountains. The parks have always enjoyed a friendly rivalry, the effects of which have been felt in Florida.
For example, California Adventure resurrected their Food and Wine Festival last year, around the same time that Knott's launched a similar Boysenberry Festival. Both returned this season, and it seems clear that Disney was motivated to improve the variety and value of their offerings – which were overpriced even by Epcot standards – thanks to competition from Knott's popular event. I attended the final weekend of Knott's fest, and despite overwhelming crowds I had a delightful time. The key is Knott's tasting cards (which I received gratis as media) which combine a half-dozen food or beverage samples for a reasonable fixed fee. Portion sizes were very generous compared to Disney, especially the hearty meatballs and fry bread, and I happily downed a six-pack of not-too-sweet Boysenberry beer. Look for Mickey to adopt the prepaid combo concept for their seasonal fests, if only to lock in more money from their foodie fans.
Knott's also recently introduced Shootout in Ghost Town, their first virtual reality attraction from VRCade, the same company behind The Repository at Universal Orlando's 2016 Halloween Horror Nights. It's an upgrade over Universal's underwhelming installation, with improved graphics and a far more affordable $6 price point. Battling digital baddies was a blast, though fatiguing on my trigger finger, and more immersive than Knott's disappointing Voyage to the Iron Reef shooting ride. If VRCade returns to Universal Orlando this fall, hopefully they'll bring along lessons learned at Knott's.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD
Speaking of Universal, the West Coast's Wizarding World of Harry Potter recently removed the nauseating 3-D effects from their Forbidden Journey ride, replacing them with 2-D videos projected at 120 frames per second that make my favorite dark ride look sharper and smoother than ever. Though no changes have been announced for Orlando's installation, the original at Islands of Adventure has seen subtle tweaks recently, so I predict an equivalent upgrade in our future. Hollywood also now offers both non-rider "castle walks" through the queue and "Gate A" express access, so Orlando should be able to as well. Conversely, a projection mapping show on Hogwarts Castle similar to the spectacle I witnessed last summer during Hollywood's Harry Potter debut is officially arriving in Orlando this holiday season; no equivalent has been confirmed for California, but installation work there is well underway.
Finally, I hear rumors that Hollywood's superior version of the Triwizard Spirit Rally stage show is coming to Orlando. Though similar to Florida's production, California's take (whose cast includes former Orlando actor Tony Robinette) is far more dynamic and athletic, featuring flipping gymnasts and erupting flames. Mike Aiello, who helped create the Potter shows and oversees Universal's Halloween, was in L.A. at the same time I was, so I can only speculate that he was taking notes for Orlando's imminent future.