All of the major theme parks have big openings on the way in 2014, from the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney’s Magic Kingdom to Falcon’s Fury in Busch Gardens, Ihu’s Breakaway Falls at Aquatica, and Shamu Up Close at SeaWorld (from January through early April; more on this in an upcoming blog), to the ravenously anticipated extension of Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, featuring Diagon Alley/London, the Hogwarts Express, and the major thrill factor of a Gringott’s Bank ride. Universal’s Citywalk is slated for a major overhaul, as is Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney. Over at LEGOLAND Florida, they will debut the pre-schooler friendly, farm-themed Duplo Valley, with a water play area, kid-size train, a mini tractor ride, and plenty of Duplo building blocks to keep the youngest guests happy.
But it doesn’t end there. With the average British visitor’s Orlando holiday spanning 14 days, time away from the parks adds a slightly more relaxed tone while still providing all the fun a tourist could want. And the major news on the non-theme park front is the Orlando Eye complex coming to International Drive, in the location previously occupied by The Mercado.
As of now, the buildings that will house the brand new Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussaude’s Wax Museum are up, though still unfinished, and the first portion of the A-frame that will hold the Orlando Eye itself (similar to the London Eye) is in place. Take note, Orlando Eye facilities are slated to open on 31 December 2014, though some of the peripherals will have staggered openings throughout the year.
The Orlando Eye giant wheel will have 30 gondolas, each of which will hold 15 guests, and at a height of 425 feet it will be the tallest attraction structure in Central Florida (at least for a while; see the Rumour Mill below). Rides will last for 20 minutes, offering a spectacular view of the surrounding area and far beyond, especially on a clear day.
While the Eye will literally be the biggest thing coming to the main tourist corridor, International Drive also ups its game in the dining department, a major attraction for many visitors to the Sunshine State, with several new restaurants opening, many of them in the upcoming Orlando Eye and nearby I-Shops sites.
Within the Orlando Eye complex, Carrabba’s Italian Grill is always a big hit, as are upcoming Outback Steakhouse and Buffalo Wild Wings. Yard House micro-brewery, a Southern California chain that has expanded across the country, will feature an enormous selection of craft beers along with American fusion cuisine. Seafood Republic is a new concept by Orlando restaurateur Bobby Moore (of Race Rock Restaurant and Big Fin Seafood fame); and Dick’s Last Resort serves up cold beer, American grub, and scathing sarcasm, making it a good choice for edgier visitors but possibly not ideal for Grandma and Grandpa, the kiddies or those of a delicate nature. Also coming to the complex are Ben & Jerry’s ice cream; Sugar Factory sweets and gifts; Pretzelmaker soft pretzels; Cafe de Paris (called “a little gem of a restaurant” by Orlando food critic Scott Joseph) light French fare; rowdy Tin Roof bar and live music; and Cowgirls saloon.
At the I-Shops, located on the Wyndham Orlando Resort property, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, a long-time favourite with established locations at The Loop and in Lake Buena Vista near the Orlando Premium Outlets, will feature a well-rounded menu and terrific choices in local and international beers. A personal favourite of ours, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, has some of the juiciest, most creative burgers you’ll find, especially at family-friendly prices. Texas chain restaurant Chuy’s Tex-Mex, Longhorn Steakhouse, upscale Cooper Hawk Winery and Restaurant, the ubiquitous Starbucks, and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop will also open onsite, along with popular convenience store Wawa, which seems to be on a mission to populate Central Florida, to the delight of many locals.
Giraffa’s Brazilian Steaks and Burgers squeaked in before 2014, but if it’s ‘multi-cultural Brazilian food’ you’re looking for, this one is the newest in the quickly expanding South American line-up. Not so sure about Brazilian? You’ll find burgers, ribs, salads, stroganoffs and more here, too. In fact, the menu is far more Brazilian-in-name than authentically Brazilian.
Visitors with a need for speed will want to head to the new multi-level I-Drive Indoor Kart Racing go-kart facility with 805 meters of track, plus a bowling alley, arcade games, and snack bar. We hope this one might be offered on Orlando’s multi-attraction passes, but no word on that yet.
Dinner shows remain popular, and while 31 December 2013 sadly said goodbye to the long-running Arabian Nights, there are still several great dinner show choices both in the parks and out, including Medieval Times, Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Theater, Capone’s, Wonderworks Outta Control Magic Show, and Pirates Dinner Adventure, plus Disney’s Spirit of Aloha and Hoop Dee Doo Revue.
We can’t start the new year without mentioning a few tantalising rumours, and high on that list is the 520 foot tall scare-fest, Polar Coaster, which was announced in 2013 as ‘coming to Florida’ but without specifying a location. Orlando is a natural, of course, but we have yet to hear if it’s coming and where it will be should this be the winning city. It will break ground in 2014, but its projected opening date isn’t until 2016. Still, it’s nice to know there may be one more massive thrill on the horizon, isn’t it?
Avatar is on the way, that much is certain, and the ground for the new land has been cleared at Animal Kingdom. Quiet whispers about big happenings at Epcot are always swirling around, and there may be legs behind some of them. Is Captain EO making his final crash landing? Will Brazil finally build that pavilion we’ve all been hearing about for what…10 years? 15? Will we be Soarin’ over something other than California soon? Will it be Star Wars or Cars Land (or nothing) at Hollywood Studios? And what’s the deal with the night-time show rumoured to be on its way to Animal Kingdom? Disney is keeping mum so far, but you can bet with all that’s rising up out of the ground beyond the House of Mouse, the Imagineers have their eyes fixed on joining the building boom. We can’t wait to hear what they might announce in 2014.