Conflict divides our nation, andFlorida's I-4 corridor is ground zero. An elder advocate for old-fashioned family values vies against an upstart multiculturalist urging investment in innovation. Nope, forget the presidential election, which will thankfully (hopefully) be resolved by the time you read this column. The real war is between Disney and Universal, with both sides launching multimillion-dollar munitions in the fight for tourists' hearts, minds and money.
"Prepare for incoming transmission!" For most Universal Studios Florida visitors waiting for last Thursday's nightly Cinematic Spectacular show to start, the static-filled announcements interrupting the standard pre-show music must have seemed like a simple technical glitch. But for the invited press, it indicated that the theme park industry's worst-kept secret was about to be revealed. As the giant water screens floating in USF's lagoon burst to life with the visage of Optimus Prime, months of rumor-mongering were finally laid to rest: the Autobots and Decepticons are on their way.
Transformers: The Ride 3-D was an instant smash hit when it debuted last year in Universal's Singapore and Hollywood parks, so it was inevitable that a clone would come to Orlando. Still, I'll admit I was suckered by early misinformation indicating the mysterious construction zone that emerged this summer on the site of USF's long-shuttered Murder, She Wrote show would become a simple haunted house. And I was shocked to hear the massive two-story attraction would open by next summer, months ahead of the holiday season debut I'd expected. As Universal's Mark Woodbury proudly pointed out after the reveal, Transformers' build time will be barely a year, an industry record for a project of this scope.
When I rode Transformers' Hollywood incarnation in June, it instantly jumped to the top of my all-time favorite dark rides list, between Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure and Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey. So while I'm excited to experience it again without a cross-country flight, I hope its strong similarities to the superb Spider-Man ride next door doesn't strangle its success here. Regardless, the rock 'em-sock 'em robots are really just a stopgap while the still-unannounced Potter Phase Two (featuring London's Diagon Alley and a Gringott's roller coaster) is constructed on Jaws' graveyard.
Universal's planned one-two punch is just part of the reported $1.5 billion the resort is spending over the next few years on expansions, which will also include the new Cabana Bay Beach hotel and Simpsons-themed restaurants. Universal's aggressive advances can be interpreted as a response to Disney's upcoming openings, which in turn were spurred by the runaway success of Universal's Wizarding World.
The first of those is the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland, which officially debuts Dec. 6, but has already opened for previews. The fresh forested section features lush scenery that rivals Disney California Adventure's spectacular Cars Land area, but unless you're an 11-year-old girl, this addition may feel too little, too late.
New Fantasyland's centerpiece (and the only ride until the mild Seven Dwarves Mine Train coaster is completed in 2014) is an exact clone of California's slow-moving Little Mermaid dark ride. The only improvement over the underwhelming original is a hyperdetailed queue, complete with interactive scavenger crabs (seriously) and a super-creepy Ariel figurehead out front; essentially, it's a middling C-Ticket gussied up in E-Ticket garb.
Unlike Universal's ride-centric growth, Disney seems more concerned with selling snacks and souvenir photos. The Be Our Guest restaurant offers faux French cuisine – controversially including wine and beer for the first time in park history, in violation of Walt's explicit wishes – inside the Beast's iconic castle. If you can't afford the "grey stuff" (it's delicious), Gaston's Tavern serves pork shanks (the new turkey leg) and "LeFou's Brew," a blatant Butterbeer rip-off, minus the addictiveness. Finally, Enchanted Tales With Belle employs impressive animatronics and an amazing "magic mirror" effect while compelling guests to perform; I was forced to stand in a corner imitating a suit of armor.
Long on style but short on substance, New Fantasyland is the first of several imminent Disney upgrades, including Avatar-land in Animal Kingdom (think Soarin' in 3-D and a Jungle Cruise past giant Smurfs), Pixar-based projects in Hollywood Studios, and perhaps new Star Wars attractions inspired by the recently announced Disney-owned sequels. However Mickey's empire ultimately strikes back against Hogwarts, we ride-lovers will be the ones reaping the spoils of war.