Anticipating a Season to Remember: A Summer 2011 Preview

April 1, 2011 No Comments

With winter behind us in most places and summer creeping closer, now is a great time to preview what the industry’s larger parks and resorts have in store for this year’s peak season.  While none of these parks will offer something as big as Universal Orlando’s 2010 boy wonder named Harry Potter, several are bringing highly anticipated attractions to the table.

That said, this summer has the feel of the industry taking a deep breath before late 2011 and 2012 to offer the debut of the new LEGOLAND Florida Park as well as Disney World’s continually evolving Fantasyland expansion.  Both of these have garnered some serious fan interest and industry expectations.  Skipping straight to those mega-offerings, however, would mean missing several new attractions that have the potential to be industry game-changers in their own right.  Indeed, two of the industry’s largest players—Disney and Busch Gardens—are set to debut major attractions at their flagship resorts this summer.
That’s why this season could be one to remember in many ways.

Let’s take a look at what the Large Park Report is calling the Summer of 2011 Top Three Most Anticipated Attractions:

Number One: Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa
Long before Animal Kingdom or many of the modern safari drive-through parks existed, Busch Gardens was combining wild nature with wild thrills.  As the years have gone by, the park has continued to mate interesting rides with informative animal exhibits.  This summer, that proven strategy may have reached its apex with the opening of Cheetah Hunt and Cheetah Run.

The latter is an exhibit that allows guests to get up close to one of the world’s fastest animals with only a glass panel separating you from these beautiful creatures.  If this real animal experience isn’t exciting enough, then the Intamin-designed launch coaster will undoubtedly fit the bill.

The unique element of this triple launch coaster is that much of the ride hugs close to the ground with tight turns at breakneck speeds.  Unlike many coasters that focus on high aerial designs, this low and tight layout is intended to mimic the real world motions of a cheetah in high pursuit.

Beyond this innovative design approach, Busch Gardens has another big benefit going for Cheetah Hunt—its fortunate timing in between the debut of Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter and Disney’s Fantasyland expansion.  Though not expressly mentioned in the attraction’s official materials, we’re told by people who would know that this timing was certainly not a coincidence.  Indeed, for a park like Busch Gardens to compete with its larger neighbors to the east in Orlando, it must use every angle possible.

Busch Garden’s prescient decision to roll-out a signature new attraction during the summer between Fantasyland and Wizarding World is the type of careful planning that demonstrates why Busch Gardens Tampa continues to be one of the country’s most popular theme parks not named Disney or Universal.

Number Two: The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at the Disneyland Resort
While summer time often means big new thrills at the industry’s larger parks and resorts, many theme park visitors also look forward to relaxing afternoons mixed with high quality fun rather than stomach-churning coasters.  That’s exactly what the new Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure offers its Anaheim guests this year—a dark ride whose state of the art technology and stagecraft promises big thrills without the high speeds and huge drops.

The expectations for this new attraction have been high for quite awhile.  Last year, the Large Park Report visited with several creative types from Disney’s Imagineering group.  The conversation started off discussing the fabulous Tokyo DisneySea park and, among other things, its wonderful Sinbad-themed dark ride.  That ride, with its amazing animatronics and set pieces, provides proof that dark rides can rival any thrill attraction in terms of offering a great experience.

This mutual admiration for dark rides quickly turned to Ariel’s Undersea Adventure.  While the discussion was entirely off the record, suffice to say, the genuine excitement that these creative types felt for the Ariel-centered attraction was palpable.

It quickly became clear that the Ariel’s Adventure was not simply an appetizer attraction for the California Adventure park while everyone eagerly awaits the 2012/2013 Cars-themed mini-land and its centerpiece thrill attraction.  Instead, Ariel’s Adventure is an E-ticket (Disney parlance for “major attraction”) in its own right.

From the details released so far, the journey will involve guests entering clam shells for a make believe undersea trip.  While the vehicles don’t actually go underwater, we’re told the undersea effects are extremely immersive and compelling.  So much so that guests might actually wonder how they’ve remained dry through the “underwater” ride.

Disney’s decision to invest large dollars in a dark ride that uses a somewhat traditional ride system could pay off in a big way this summer if its big investment in the storytelling and special effects throughout the ride pay off in a memorable experience.  Indeed, more than any other recent domestic dark ride, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure will truly test the idea of whether a family-friendly dark ride can still become a destination attraction.

Number Three: Star Tours The Adventures Continue at the Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort
Remember the days of “Double Features” at your local cinema?  This year Disney has tweaked that idea a bit to offer a Star Tours Double Feature at its two domestic parks.  The tweak is that, rather than two different features, Disney is bringing this revamped version of the venerable Star Tours attraction to both of its domestic resorts this summer.

So what does this new take on “The Force” include?  For starters, a brand new 3-D film that uses classic Star Wars characters (think, C-3PO) to tell stories that actually predate the original motion simulator film used at the attraction.  Though set up as a Star Tours “prequel,” we’re told the attraction actually incorporates new technology where riders randomly experience one of several different movies created just for the attraction.

To further demonstrate Disney’s confidence in the new Star Tours, the company has gone so far as to create new characters for the film (such as even more ominous Storm Troopers) and even new toy figures for those new characters.

While the fundamental ride mechanism for Star Tours has not been completely overhauled, the 1980s-era system has been upgraded in a variety of ways to make it smoother and potentially more thrilling.

Even so, the big question is whether Star Tours is “different enough” to meet the expectations from the fans.

This is an especially compelling issue when you consider that Disney World opted to premiere its version of the attraction at the beginning of the resort’s yearly Star Wars Weekend celebration.  As a result, the hardest of hardcore Star Wars fans will be in town checking out this re-purposed version of the classic attraction—a set of critical eyes that are sure to triple check every square inch of Disney’s galactic remake. Fortunately, from the early words we’ve heard, Star Tours II appears ready to succeed even under these watchful eyes.

Dark horse Candidate:
Green Lantern First Flight at Six Flags Magic Mountain

For Six Flags’ popular Magic Mountain park, 2011 is the year to be a superhero.  The park’s revamped Superman tower ride rockets riders to higher heights and faster speeds, proving that an existing attraction can be upthrilled in a major way.

The park’s signature summer attraction, though, is Green Lantern First Flight.  The coaster represents the first Intamin AG ZacSpin in the United States—a unique ride system that spins guests vertically while they ride through the coaster track.  In some ways, the ride represents a wild mouse with everything turned sideways so that rather than horizontally spin, the riders find themselves spinning upside down.

The hope is that the novelty of the ride will generate interest that a more conventional coaster system might not.  The risk though is that this same novel system has not yet established a long track record of popularity here in the domestic market.  It’s this type of high risk/high reward strategy that could end up making Six Flags’ Green Lantern the surprise hit of the summer if the unique thrills that can only be found at this Intamin attraction end up resonating with theme park guests.

(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at cemerson@faulkner.edu.)

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