Predictions and Observations: What to Expect in 2017

By Chad Emerson 2016 was an extremely successful year for the industry’s large parks and resorts with increased ticket sales, room nights, and overall revenue.  Will that trend continue in 2017?

To help answer that question, in this issue The Large Park Reports examines the new attractions planned for this year as well as a new technology that one park is using to make “old new again.”

The Signature New Attractions for 2017

The last few years have, arguably, seen Universal open more signature attractions that its main competitors, including the Disney family of parks.  In 2017, that trend appears ready to change as Disney is slated to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new rides and shows in California and Orlando ovOld Is New er the next several years.


This massive investment really begins with the new Avatar-themed area at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Central Florida.  Based on the high-grossing 2009 movie (and further inspired by upcoming Avatar sequels), the new attraction takes guests to the world of Pandora and its blue-skinned natives and bioluminescent landscape.

Pandora is slated to be one of the most extensive new areas that Disney has recently opened within any of its parks (CarsLand at California Adventure being the only challenger for that title).  The new area will include two signature attractions:  a high-thrills simulator and a new dark boat ride.

Officially known as Avatar Flight of Passage, the ride was described by one Disney offical as a next-gen version of the wildly popular Soarin’ simulator at Epcot.  In this version, guests will climb aboard the movie’s Mountain Banshee flying beasts and soar through the visually-stunning topography that makes up Pandora.

While the boat ride is much tamer than the back of a banshee, the same Disney official described its visual effects and immersive setting as more advanced than any boat ride developed for a theme park.  Indeed, with its all-ages audience, the Na’vi River Journey very well could steal the show for the new Avatar-land.  Add in the world’s first Pandora-themed restaurant plus extensive queue theming and it’s easy to see that, while Avatar may not have the most memorable characters like Star Wars or Pixar, the attraction’s visual effects will likely be among the most impressive ever in the industry.

What’s even more exciting for the industry is that Disney will roll out equally, if not more, extensive new attractions in the following years with Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios and new Star Wars Lands on both coasts.  To say that the Mouse is prepared for a major run would be a huge understatement heading into 2017.

More Attractions for 2017

While no other large park will come close to the Avatar investment in 2017, several have major additions planned for this year that should garner guest interest in a big way.

Over at Universal Orlando, the park plans to open its first waterpark as well as a Jimmy Fallon-themed ride.  The Volcano Bay will open this summer and include new waterpark technology that The Large Park Report covered extensively in the September 2016 issue.  Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if these advanced technologies transfer from paper to real-life with the same level of uniqueness.

Meanwhile, the Jimmy Fallon virtual ride will be a 3-D adventure through the streets of New York where the host films his Tonight Show for NBC.  The ride will replace the Twister attraction and is slated to include visual and non-visual effects like water features.   No one is suggesting that the attraction will drive major new attendance to the resort but it is anticipated to be a nice addition for as long as Jimmy Fallon remains a trending media figure.

Over at Kings Island, the park has an interesting twist on the venerable roller coaster.  In particular, the Mystic Timbers wooden coaster will top out at over 100 feet tall along with over 3,000 feet of track.  It’s the end of the ride though that is generating the most buzz with guests finishing the ride inside of a mysterious wooden shed that is anticipated to complete the attraction with some high thrills special effects not for the faint of heart.

Six Flags will also expand the rollout of two new attractions at several of its parks.  This includes adding the popular Justice League superhero-themed dark rides to additional parks in 2017 along with an expansion of the Joker 4-D roller coaster to several more Six Flags theme parks.  Needless to say, Six Flags’ big bet on DC Comics characters will continue this year just as Disney continues to build on the Marvel family of characters.  Superhero attractions do not appear to be losing steam anytime soon.

While new rides and shows often require new or renovated structures, that is not always the case.  Indeed, Disney appears to be placing a big bet on the use of digital mapping technology to create new experiences using long-standing attractions.  This approach was on full display in November when Disney hosted a large contingency of media members to unveil a variety of park improvements.

Notably though, the stars of the show were not new ride mechanisms or show buildings but rather advanced digital technology that transformed both Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom and the Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios into projection screens for impressive new shows.

To be clear, this did not simply involve Disney projecting images onto these two iconic park buildings.  Rather, Disney comprehensively mapped the exterior of each building front so that the building features would be integrated into the shows.  Known as digital mapping, the technology takes architectural features like windows and spires and animates them with precise digital projections.

The effect is outstanding.  Both structures appeared to twist, turn, and spin (among other moves) as part of the video show.  One effect showed parts of the castle entirely reconstructed with digital sleight of hand right before the audience’s eyes.

One of the most promising aspects of this strategy is that, while digital mapping is not cheap, it is significantly less expensive than building entirely new structures.  This doesn’t mean that it will serve as a replacement for new rides but it does represent a cost-effective way to bring iconic park structures alive in exciting new ways without a massive exterior redesign.

One can only imagine the exciting possibilities that digital mapping could offer in 2017 and years to come for famous theme park show buildings like Spaceship Earth, Hogwarts Castle, and more…

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