By ATD’s Florida Experts, Simon and Susan Veness
Orlando is one of the most dynamic cities in the world, ever-changing and constantly evolving. Shops, restaurants and attractions come and go, but one thing is certain: there is something new to look forward to every year. Here is a look back at our highlights from 2014.
Walt Disney World put the finishing touches on Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland expansion in dynamic style with the family-friendly Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, an indoor-outdoor coaster based on the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs story. Told from the perspective of the Dwarfs, it proved to be a delightful (and surprisingly whizzy!) coaster-and-dark-ride combo with a terrific interactive queue that helps pass the time spent in line. Reviews were mixed but, bearing in mind the ride is geared toward the Fantasyland crowd, we think it’s a winner. We do recommend booking FastPass+ as soon as booking times open up to avoid long waits.
No one does a parade like Disney, and 2014’s Festival of Fantasy Parade was a serious high point in the pageantry department. Whether you’re a Princess fan or prefer your parade floats with an edgier twist, this one has it all. We always make time to watch it when we’re in Magic Kingdom, and that’s saying something.
Over at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the popular Festival of the Lion King show found a new home, but the real highlight was the Port of Harambe, an entirely new area to the Africa section of the park, which blends in so well with the original Harambe you would think it’s been there from the start. Not only that, but the tantalising pathways that can be glimpsed from the back part of the Port of Harambe will eventually link the area with Avatar land, which is due to open in 2017.
Arguably the biggest highlight of 2014 came from Universal Orlando, though, with the opening of Diagon Alley at the Studios park, adding a major thrill ride, a gentle family ride, the ultra-spooky side street of Knockturn Alley, interactive wands, interesting dining options and fantastic shops to the Universal line-up and completing (for now!) the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts attraction gets a big thumbs-up from us for being exciting enough to hold the attention of teens and adults while remaining do-able for young coaster fans. And who doesn’t love an encounter with a fire-breathing dragon?
Hogwarts Express gets a second thumbs-up from us for being one of the most creative means of moving people from one park to another that we’ve ever seen. Brits of a certain age can be heard commenting on the authenticity of the train, from the feel of the individual carriages to the design of the upholstery. We love how the view out of the train’s windows builds anticipation during the journey between parks, and we could spend an hour just watching guests’ antics as they ‘walk through the wall’ at Platform 9¾.
Across town, SeaWorld’s sister park Aquatica cranked up its thrill factor with three drop-floor tube slides collectively known as Ihu’s Breakaway Falls. An open slide accessed via the same tower kept the fear going for those unwilling to brave the break-away, and, if you don’t tell anyone, we’ll let you in on a little secret: we think the open slide is even scarier than the drop slides!
Over on the coast, Busch Gardens was the king of thrill rides in 2014, though, with the addition of the Falcon’s Fury drop tower, lifting riders 335 feet in the air before plunging them at a 90 degree angle, face-down, toward the pavement in Pantopia. Simon braved the drop (Susan had to sacrifice the ‘enjoyment’ for the sake of work by standing at the bottom taking pictures), and if you haven’t seen the video of his ride you can find it on ATD’s YouTube Channel.
Pantopia, formerly the Timbuktu area of Busch Gardens, opened in 2014 too, and there’s another little gem here that some guests miss. Next time you’re in the park, check out the Bacon Pretzel Fury at Twisted Tails Pretzels. We think you’ll agree, it’s a mighty tasty highlight!
Legoland offered gentler thrills geared toward the under-6 crowd as they debuted the LEGO DUPLO Farm setting of Duplo Valley, filled with charming animals, child-sized train and tractor rides, and plenty of creative play opportunities for pre-schoolers. What makes it a highlight for adults as well as their littlest offspring? Much of it is under cover, making it an ideal escape from Florida’s summertime heat and rain.
Outside of the theme parks, we were thrilled to see the opening of the Four Seasons Resort on Walt Disney World property, and, while we fully appreciate it’s firmly in Splash Out territory, we highly recommend dropping by for a meal at any of the resort’s dining locations. Try the Arancini al Brasato (braised short rib and rice croquettes) at Ravello. Delizioso! If it’s on offer while you’re dining, Fabrizio’s home-make Limoncello is also positively sublime.
And, of course, the excitement of watching the Orlando Eye go up piece-by-piece in the new I-Drive 360 complex on International Drive has been a highlight. Every time we drive home from the airport after a work trip we’re amazed to see the Eye’s progress. Perhaps you were surprised by this massive addition to the skyline when you arrived for your holiday, too, and it will be even more spectacular once the capsules are attached in the New Year.
What else can we expect for 2015? We’ll take a look at what’s coming to Orlando in an upcoming blog, but here’s a hint: watch for a whole new shopping and dining complex ; a half-day attraction perfect for a rainy day or a hot summer afternoon in the cool; and a hilarious new show featuring two of Orlando’s most famous sea mammals.
Did you visit Orlando in 2014? Join us on Attraction Tickets Direct’s discussion forums and tell us what you loved most about the year’s new offerings, and what you’re looking forward to in the coming years.