Special 2014 Large Parks Preview

by Chad Emerson

As every new year rolls in, that means an entire year’s worth of highly anticipated new attractions at the industry’s large parks and resorts.  This year is no different as several of the amusement industry’s big players are slated to debut major rides aimed at driving attendance to record levels.

This issue, The Large Park Report looks at several of these major additions and considers how they might shape new trends in the new year.

Universal Orlando

With big hits like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Transformers under its belt in recent years, one might wonder if Universal Orlando can keep up the momentum as it seeks to make inroads against its crosstown rival at Disney World.  To do so, the Comcast subsidiary has invested big 2014 money in a brand new…hotel.

While this might not initially sound as exciting as Forbidden Journeys and super-coasters, Universal’s debut of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort is being closely followed by large park industry observers.  The reason is pretty simple:  Universal Orlando has never had the onsite lodging capacity to compete with Disney World for overnight guests.

Sure, they have three fantastic (and premium-priced) onsite Loews resorts but both the high dollar cost and the limited capacity have reduced these resorts’ overall impact.  Coming in at over 2,000 rooms with a non-suite price point in the low $100s, Universal’s beach-themed hotel offers a new competitor to Disney’s moderate resorts (including Disney’s original moderate which is themed as the Caribbean Beach Resort—an interesting coincidence).

If Universal Orlando can show the Comcast bigwigs that they can fill this large number of rooms at a high RevPAR (the hotel industry’s gold standard statistic:  revenue per available room), then two Universal contacts have confirmed that conceptual plans are in place for another on-property, moderate-priced resort with roughly the same number of rooms at the same price point (albeit with an entirely unique theming from the beach approach).

If Universal Orlando hopes to be more than an add-on for Disney vacation-goers, this hotel strategy holds the key toward transforming this dynamic resort into a multi-day destination.

Walt Disney World

Just down Interstate 4, the House of Mouse is hardly taking Universal’s big change lying down.  Though its tech-centric MyMagic+ initiative continues to befuddle guests (and even some key Disney execs) on its true usefulness, there’s no doubt that the Magic Kingdom’s E-ticket entry for 2014 is generating major excitement within the industry.

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is the final addition to the massive Fantasyland overhaul that began over three years ago.  Earlier phases have opened to generally positive reviews but it’s this Vekoma steel coaster that has long been pointed to as New Fantasyland’s signature attraction.  Themed after one of Disney’s earliest animated films, the Mine Train has tried to walk a delicate line between being exciting while also family friendly.

The major innovation is a unique track and car system that sways side to side while being propelled forward.  Clearly, the potential for all types of inner ear challenges exist with this dual motion but, according to two former Disney executives, the Imagineering and Vekoma design teams appear to have found the right (inner ear?) balance.  If that’s indeed the case, then Disney’s new mine ride could herald a whole new way to enjoy this classic type of attraction.


Big anniversaries always make for a good reason to re-invest in your theme parks.  For SeaWorld, 2014 represents the 50th Anniversary of the original SeaWorld park in San Diego.  Taking its cue from Disney’s habit of celebrating major anniversaries throughout its theme park resorts, SeaWorld is debuting A Sea of Surprises this March to commemorate the Big Five-O at all of its aquatic parks.

The promotion includes everything from a new Shamu show to a “Surprise Squad” (aka, employees giving guests free swag and interesting experiences) to new attractions such as Ihu’s Breakway Falls at SeaWorld’s Orlando waterpark (check out a teaser here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsDTyHyM6jc).

Named after a fictional gecko character (yeah, we’re still trying to make that connection too) SeaWorld is billing this as a high thrill water ride that is one of, if not the, “steepest” and “tallest” in the industry.  With Disney World’s Summit Plummet checking in at over 120 feet tall, Aquatica’s new water-screamer either is really tall or brings in a new ride system—or both.

Busch Gardens

This year’s preview wraps up with SeaWorld’s sister resort in Central Florida—Busch Gardens Tampa.  Let’s start by saying that The Large Park Report is a hardened, veteran theme park goer.  It’s hard to make our palms sweaty and stomach nervous when it comes to new thrill ride concepts.

Until now (we think).

If Busch Gardens Tampa’s new Falcon’s Fury even remotely lives up to its billing, then the industry is set for an original take on a classic attraction.  According to Busch’s promotional team, this new attraction is inspired by the well-established “drop ride,” which dates back to Cedar Point’s Demon Drop, if not even earlier.

Except that, this one is taller, faster, and face-first in design (thus, the Falcon-reference—apparently this bird of prey is the world’s fastest at over 200 mph).

Yep, you read that right.  Falcon’s Fury will take guests up over 300 feet (one wonders if you might see the Gulf of Mexico from that height) and then drops those same foolhardy guests straight down at over 60 miles per hour and 3.5 G’s—face first.  It’s this last part, where the drop ride shifts guests 90 degrees to give them the sense that they are about to experience a high-speed face plant into the Tampa terra firma that warrants attention.

We’ve been told that the physics, engineering and, quite frankly, gravity of this project all have presented interesting challenges, including foremost, how to make sure that even a small percentage of riders don’t pass out on the way down.

As with the Seven Dwarves dual action coaster, the devil is always in the “test and adjust” details.  For Falcon’s Fury, getting it right could mean one of the 2014’s most thrilling theme park experiences.

On the other hand, getting it wrong could mean, well, gulp!

(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.) 

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