Back in the spring, I predicted that the summer of 2017 would be the most monumental season for Orlando's theme parks in a decade, but no one could have predicted the public relations roller coaster our area attractions have experienced since Memorial Day. It all started well enough at the end of May, with the near-simultaneous launches of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, and Universal Orlando's Volcano Bay water park. But the confetti had barely been swept up from the grand opening celebrations before things started diving underwater faster than SeaWorld's new virtual reality Kraken coaster.
VOLCANO BAY BELLYACHING
As June began, Universal bore the brunt of the backlash as Volcano Bay guests discovered that advertisements declaring the park "now open" didn't exactly mean "now complete." I had a terrific time at Volcano Bay during my three opening-week visits, despite noting numerous elements around the park that were unfinished. But paying customers have been far less forgiving, hammering the attraction with negative reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor (which ironically just anointed Universal's Islands of Adventure the world's best theme park).
Nearly all of the park's features, save for a few private cabanas, are now complete, with the interactive special effect inside the volcano's caverns debuting just in time for Independence Day. Now that the attractions are all operating, the bulk of Volcano Bay's critics fall into two camps: those who got in, and those who didn't. Universal has been closing the park due to capacity within hours or minutes of opening on a regular basis, and guests who arrive too late with pre-purchased tickets have been turned away. Those who do make it inside – mainly on-site guests with early entry privileges – report shortages of chairs and tubes, and long waits for slides despite the TapuTapu virtual queue system's promise to eliminate lines.
Many of these gripes are endemic to all water parks; waits for the drop slide at Blizzard Beach can break four hours, leading Disney to test slide reservations themselves. Waits are exacerbated at Volcano Bay by strict weight limits that prevent operators from filling rafts to maximum occupancy, reducing the rides' hourly capacities. Adding single-rider queues and making park tickets date-specific could alleviate some problems, but the smartest short-term solution to Volcano Bay's image crisis would be to pull a page from Universal Studios Florida's disastrous opening season and hand a "come again free" pass to every single guest until they get the bugs ironed out.
HALL OF PRESIDENTS: TRUMP TALK
Just when it seemed like Universal's watery woes would completely overshadow Disney's ride capacity constraints and merchandise shortages in Avatar-land, Mickey said "hold my beer" and made a pair of announcements guaranteed to piss off patrons on both sides of the political spectrum. First, Disney admitted that the Hall of Presidents wouldn't reopen until late this year, but then they added that they plan to give Donald Trump a speaking role similar to presidents Clinton through Obama.
I'd hoped that the attraction would be restored to its original 1971 presentation, when then-President Nixon merely nodded, but at least they're using the downtime to upgrade the aging attraction's audiovisual infrastructure. Beyond the pressing issue of whether Disney will allow the Trump-bot to say, "Make America great again," I'm more interested in the rewritten presentation around its appearance. The previous Hall of Presidents show had a populist spin, highlighting Andrew Jackson; since that genocidal racist is Trump's self-proclaimed favorite President, I'm curious how the new script contextualizes 45.
DISNEY ENDS BRIDE AUCTION
As the Trump-related tittering on Twitter was dying down, Disney hit fans with plans to revamp Pirates of the Caribbean, turning the iconic "take a wench for a bride" auction into a sale of looted goods. The famous redhead will still be around, but she'll be a full-fledged pirate (as envisioned in Imagineer Marc Davis' concept art) instead of a sex slave. Predictably, Disney's passionate fanbase is fractured between those who want to "save" the attraction they grew up with and those who want it updated in accordance with modern morality.
You don't have to be politically correct to know no theme park would build a ride with weeping women in bondage today, but it was borderline even back in 1966; Walt was apprehensive about the scene's appropriateness, according to Imagineer Claude Coats. So I have no quibble with reimagining the scene in Orlando or Paris. In Shanghai's version, they were smart enough not to include it.
But while "Disneyland isn't a museum" (a quote often misattributed to Walt), theme parks are an original American art form co-equal with comic books and motion pictures, and historically significant rides like Anaheim's Pirates of the Caribbean deserve preservation in some form. If Disney won't build Yesterdayland (a park filled with lost favorites from Horizons to the Skyway) they should at least donate the original auction scene to San Francisco's Walt Disney Family Museum, so fans will still have somewhere to chant, "We want the redhead!"