There was more than that, of course, much more. New restaurants, more hotels and other developments, all aimed at catching the visiting tourist’s eye, so we thought we would take a quick look back at 2016 and bring you our highlights of the year.
If you were looking for the most impressive, eye-catching and downright fun ride in town this year, you had to head to SeaWorld. Here, this towering new purple and blue edifice took visitors into the world of the shortfin mako, the fastest of all the sharks. Like its namesake, the ride was sleek, quick and fast-turning, a real roller-coaster predator, and huge fun to boot. There are no inversions on Mako but, at 200ft tall and 73mph, it is the tallest and fastest ride in Orlando, and it provides a LOT of air-time, hence riders get a guaranteed thrill from start to finish. With SeaWorld putting more accent on its rides in future, we think this will stand the test of time for some time to come!
2. Skull Island: Reign of Kong
For an attraction that came loaded with the Wow! factor even before you boarded the ride itself, Universal Orlando’s latest and greatest had to be top of the pops. This addition to their Islands of Adventure park had been more than a year in the making and provided an iconic new look next to the Jurassic Park area. It is intensely themed for the 1930s lair of the giant ape as presented in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film epic, and the whole queuing area is part of the drama, with a brooding build-up (watch out for the scare-actor lurking in dark corners!) and then a wild ride in their purpose-built trackless vehicles. It all adds up to a magnificent presentation that really takes visitors into that immersive realm that Universal’s designers have made their forte in recent years.
3. Disney Springs
OK, so we moaned and groaned about the l-o-n-g construction period that marked the transition of the old Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, but, as it turned out, it was worth the wait. The new-look shopping, dining and entertainment complex of Walt Disney World is now a re-imagined district of ultra-smart proportions. It looks good and it tastes even better, as there are now no fewer than TWENTY new outlets for food and drink, including a couple that we think are among the best in Orlando.
The retail elements are all upmarket and enticing, with several that you’ll find nowhere else in Orlando (like Superdry and the huge Coca-Cola Store), but the restaurants are truly the icing on this particular cake. Morimoto Asia is both a stunning piece of interior design and a purveyor of outstanding Asian cuisine, while Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen & Shine Bar is an adventure in traditional Southern cooking and inventive cocktails. Our fave, though, is Jock Lindsay’s Hangar Bar, themed for the pilot of the Indiana Jones films. Its décor is totally original, the food is imaginative and the drinks are excellent. Who needs anything else?!
4. Cobra's Curse
While SeaWorld was able to boast a major new ride, sister park Busch Gardens in nearby Tampa Bay had an equally impressive new claim to fame in 2016, and one that offered several unique elements, even in Florida’s great catalogue of theme park attractions. Cobra’s Curse is a family coaster of dramatic proportions, as it features a rare elevator-style vertical lift entry to the ride itself, a face-to-fang meeting with an 85ft cobra, and then a ride that features both forwards and backwards sections, which segue into a spinning finale that is different almost every time. We love it for the fact it is not TOO scary while retaining some of the classic swooping feel of a coaster, with those extra moments that provide a truly different ‘spin’ on things! Cobra’s Curse now gives Busch Gardens nine out-and-out thrill rides, and nobody does it better in Florida these days.
5. Frozen Ever After
When the big animated film Frozen became an international hit in 2013, it almost seemed Disney were caught out by its success, and they then had something of a scramble to catch up with it in their parks. The ‘For The First Time In Forever’ show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios gave guests a sampling of the Frozen fun, but Disney’s Imagineers had a much bigger attraction in mind for the Epcot park.
With Norway doubling up as the icy realm of Arendelle from the movie, the Frozen Ever After ride becomes the signature element of the Norwegian pavilion, taking visitors into the vivid world of Anna and Elsa, plus Kristoff, Olaf the snowman, Sven the reindeer and the inimitable trolls. The lighting and other effects are truly special and, for children in particular, this is a gem of a ride in classic Disney style. The new area also boasts the Royal Sommerhus for a suitably regal place to meet Anna and Elsa either before or after the ride. Our top tip? Make sure you try to get a FastPass+ for the ride, as it draws long queues.
6. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular
Disney added another major new entertainment element to the Studios park this year, too, and it was an absolute cracker. This novel fireworks extravaganza takes Star Wars as its central theme and brings it to life in a series of spectacular pyrotechnics, lasers, fireballs, projection images and other special effects, including the essential John Williams music, and it makes for a totally memorable finale to a day at the park. Many of the shells and starbursts have been specifically designed for the show, and the overall effect is designed to mimic the battle with the Death Star – so you know there will be a BIG explosion at the end!
7. The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
While this year debuted a number of outstanding new restaurants and dining experiences – we especially like the Strong Water Tavern at Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort and Urbain 40 in the Dellagio plaza on Sand Lake Road for its upscale 1940s style – there was one place that stood out for both imagination and artistry, and that was this amazing creation in the heart of Universal’s CityWalk district. With a Victorian steam punk theme and a kaleidoscopic whirl of design elements, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium (And Savory Feast Kitchen!) delivered a memorable dining experience that was both fun and delicious at the same time, a feast as good as it looks and with some of the best desserts (and definitely the best milkshakes!) in town. The whole menu is enticing, though, and this should be on everyone’s list of places to taste in future.
If that sums up the large-scale headlines of 2016, there were certainly plenty of smaller-scale ones, too. Disney’s Animal Kingdom park added new night-time Safaris and the Tree Of Life Awakens show each evening, while Tiffins restaurant is also now on our must-try list. The Kennedy Space Center opened the fabulous Heroes & Legends exhibit in November, making this an even more essential place to visit, while those looking for an off-the-beaten-track touch could sample the new Sanford Food Tours and visit Plant Street Market in Winter Garden, where the Crooked Can Brewery highlights Orlando’s growing micro-brewery scene.
All in all, 2016 was a year of adventure and discovery, but you know what – there’s even more in store for 2017…!
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