Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald” review

Fantastic Beasts: the crimes of screenwriting. I am still not entirely sure what I watched last night. J.K. Rowling’s plot for the second film in the Fantastic Beasts is all over the place, goes in every direction except intentionally forward. When the Harry Potter spinoff franchise needed an Empire Strikes Back, it gets an Attack of the Clones. Referencing a hyperbolic statement from J.K. that made its way around Twitter, I am totally in belief that she did, in fact, write the screenplay in 25mins. From pacing issues to odd tonal shifts and a lack of focus, the screenplay suffers from a case of sequelitis. The Crimes of Grindelwald appears to rely on technical marvel and spectacle more so than a compelling narrative. The movie is full of new and familiar characters (plus some Harry Potter cameos), fantastical beasts, and explosive sequences of events, but ultimately loses air ad runs flat. Much in the same way that the first movie felt like the preface to a book, this one feels that it too has the goal to simply setup the next chapter. Moreover, the movie feels like too little plot stretched over too much runtime. Which is a shame, because there is clearly an attempt to provide an escapist allegory for primarily racism and, to a lesser extent, sexuality. Subtext of heavy psycho-social and moralistic themes is nothing new to the Rowling-verse, but Grindelwald simply gets lost on its journey to deliver a powerful thought-provoking story paired with high-flying adventure. This sequel is certainly darker than its predecessor, but fails to provide a well-developed plot that will drive the remaining films forward.

In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans of raising pure-blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings, Albus Dumbledore enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world (IMDb).

Many movies have A, B, and C stories. The A story is the central plot that focusses on the central and opposition character’s external goal; and the B and C stories are typically the subplots that focus on character development, internal needs, and/or supporting character stories. The problem with this movie is that it randomly switches focus, tone, and direction arbitrarily without any rhyme or reason. Each of the A, B, C, D….in short, there are too many stories (plots) in this movie…plots–individually–are interesting. And stacked in an effective manner, could provide quite a bit of meat in this sandwich. Unfortunately, the focus of the layers and ingredients is on the arrangement or presentation of the sandwich more so than allowing the famished to sink their teeth into the otherwise delicious sandwich. Or think of it as the shifting staircases in Hogwarts; you could ascend and descend the staircases for hours and still not make any real progress toward your destination. Structurally, the movie suffers from a shifty foundation. So convoluted is the plot, that it continually introduces new information and elements just for surprise, shock, or brief entertainment value rather than setting up the story in the first act, throwing the characters into crisis mode in the second act, then providing solid resolution or realization in the third. It’s like one really long first act and a rushed second and third acts. As I warn my screenwriting students about science-fiction or fantasy writing, often times, these screenwriters are so wrapped up in world-building that the plot and characters suffer. Perhaps the characters in Grindelwald are complex enough (but truly debatable) but the plot is far from simple. After two movies, it appears that J.K.’s talent for writing novels is not as evident in screenwriting. Hence why many parts of this movie feel better suited to a novel than movie.

I could go on and on about the plot holes and pacing problems, but I feel I’ve made my evaluation sufficiently enough. So, now I want to switch gears to discussing what IS interesting about the movie. There are elements and attempts at themes (and subtext) that almost worked. Had more attention been paid to the logistics of screenwriting, then these would have been thought-provoking or at least meaningful. Upon my initial watch (and full disclosure, I plan to watch it again b/c I’ve heard it’s better on the second screening), the themes of racism, ethics, and sexuality are clearly present. Instead of a classic approach that features two differing ethnic races, the two races are the magical and no-mag (or muggles), skin color or country of origin do not factor into the equation. Grindelwald seeks to elevate the magical above the no-mag because he feels that the magical race is superior to the no-mag and can prevent the world from plunging into war. Ironically, his views insight mass violence and death. Furthermore, he wants the no-mag to serve the magical because the no-mag are disposable. Clearly, there are parallels between the American Civil War and Wold War II. Moreover, Grindelwald’s determined for the magical to stop hiding from the rest of the world and should come out to show the regular humans that they are the superior race–the super race, if you will.

Speaking of “not hiding,” the film also touches on sexuality in the wizarding world. For the first time, a character’s sexuality is pivotal to the plot and thus affords J.K. and WarnerMedia to comment on that in the story. Not a spoiler since J.K. stated it in a tweet, Dumbledore was in a romantic relationship with Grindelwald when they were much younger. It was always rumored that Dumbledore was gay, but this film puts those rumors to rest by addressing his past. Unlike a film that would simply add this character trait to the plot for the sake of inclusivity, Grindelwald allows for this to be an important part to the plot because Dumbledore and Grindelwald made a pact when they were in love never to fight each other directly. This theme of being free to love whom you will is also witnessed in the relationship between Jacob and Queenie. According to the present laws, Jacob and Queenie are not permitted to marry because a magical individual cannot engage in a romantic relationship with a non-mag. Queenie could wind up in the Ministry of Magic’s prison. In the end, Queenie couldn’t live with the divide between her and Jacob that the Ministry created, so she chooses a new future for herself. Although only directly touched on in one scene, there is also some commentary on ethics. At one point, Dumbledore tells Scamander that he appreciates that Scamander always does what is right, not what will best suit him or support a particular side of a conflict. He is concerned with only engaging in decisions that are ethically sound regardless of the personal benefit.

Even more than its predecessor, Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald works diligently to convince you that these movies belong in the same universe as the original Harry Potter movies. The return to Hogwarts and a few familiar character appearances work to connect this film to the rest of the Wizarding World, but at times feel incredibly forced. You will also learn more about Dumbledore’s long lost, secret brother, the origin of Voldemort’s pet snake, and the lineage of Bellatrix Lestrange. With three more movies to go, there is still time to turn this franchise around for the better, but that will largely hinge on the next movie.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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2019: the Year of the Park

2019 is shaping up to be quite the year for U.S. theme parks in Florida and California. Many major theme parks have made announcements in the last few weeks that are of out-of-this-world Jurassic proportions! Looking to history, it feels as if we are in a “space race” of sorts. Except, instead of the United States and Russia vying to be the first in space or one the moon, major US theme parks are breaking new ground, pushing boundaries, and innovating new experiences to vie for your money. Arguably, the biggest expansion is Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) and Disneyland, followed by Lego Movie World and Sesame Street Land at Legoland Florida and SeaWorld Orlando respectively, the new Harry Potter themed rollercoaster at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, Jurassic World replacing Jurassic Park at Universal Studios Hollywood, and lastly Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway also at DHS. Just one of any of the aforementioned announcements would be big news, but collectively it is quite possibly the most massive collection of openings at any given time in recent years.

The sheer economic impact of these attractions on each of their respective parks will be of epic proportions. Beginning with Universal’s Islands of Adventure (IOA) in 1999, the last decade has seen a colossal convergence of cinema and theme parks like no other! And even more so since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) at IOA in 2010. From the original concept of the movie park immersing guests into the magic of filmmaking to creating immersive environments that place the park guest into the world of the movie itself, the movie park has grown by leaps and bounds. As the process to make a film became less magical, the parks compensated by wowing guests with the ability to feel as if they are characters in the film itself. Attendance at theme parks took a dramatic downturn after the housing collapse and financial crash of 2007; and with theme parks being a vacation destination or luxury for many, they had to innovate new ways to attract guests–give them new reasons to return to the parks. By creating new experiences that were unlike any other, the parks knew they could increase their bottom line and share of the marketplace. Universal’s addition of Harry Potter and Disney’s addition of Pandora were major impacts. Moreover, the addition of Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars land) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios & Disneyland Resort and the eventual Nintendo expansion at Universal Orlando Resort will each likely bring unprecedented numbers of guests into the parks.

News from Disney and Universal on new lands is not exactly groundbreaking–the news anyway–but when SeaWorld and Legoland are tossing their hats in, for a piece of the 2019 action, then you know that a wave of innovation is sweeping through the parks of Florida and California. California is interesting. For the longest time, the majority of the big theme park news came out of Florida but more recently the California Disney and Universal parks have made big expansions and announcements. Most recently, Radiator Springs at Disney’s California Adventure and WWoHP at Universal Hollywood opened to rave reviews and dramatically increased park attendance. Next year is bringing about an unprecedented number of additions to theme parks that will even more greatly increase the revenue and attendance than we’ve seen in the last several years. And it’s not just the parks that are going to feel the impact of all the 2019 openings. The local hotels, resorts, beaches, and secondary attractions (zoos, aquariums, museums, etc) will also feel a huge boost from the new theme park lands and rides.

More people than ever will be flocking to the parks next year. And let’s face it, the majority of those numbers will be boarding the Millennium Falcon and Mickey & Minnie’s very first attraction, but the numbers heading to experience their favorite Lego movies, Harry Potter, or your furriest friends at Sesame Street land will be impressive. Local hotels and resorts need to start planning on the massive influx of theme park guests, some of which may be visiting for the first time in a long time or for the first time ever. Although a tourist may spend most of their time at the parks, beach, etc when coming to Florida, the hotel stay can play an important role in the over all experience of the trip. Often times, it’s the hotel (whether on or off property) that sets the initial tone of the trip. So, I hope that non-Universal/Disney/Lego hotels are keeping up with the news because they are about to see crowds likely never seen in any other year, except for when a new park opens.

So far, we’ve heard big news from most the major theme parks of Florida and California, but Busch Gardens Tampa seems to be the wallflower this time around. It’s entirely possible that we will hear of a new attraction offering at Busch Gardens in 2019 but so far there do not seem to be any indicators for that. Fortunately, Busch Gardens may continue the complimentary beer promotion in order to not get completely left behind in 2019. But who knows, 2018 is only about halfway done, so there is still time for Busch to make a 2019 announcement as well. If so, hopefully it will revolve around the space occupied by the former Gwazi wooden coaster.

Okay so here’s a breakdown of what’s coming to theme parks in 2019, so far.

Walt Disney World

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge– a new land with a 14 acres expansion, transporting guests to a never-before-seen planet, a remote trading port and one of the last stops before wild space where Star Wars characters and their stories come to life. And yes, you’ll be able to fly the Millennium Falcon!

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway– After screening an exclusive cartoon in the theatre, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway will put you inside the wacky and unpredictable world of a Mickey Mouse Cartoon Short where you’re the star and anything can happen.

Universal Studios Florida

Harry Potter rollercoaster– The all-new attraction will take guests on a journey that incorporates the characters, creatures and transportative adventures of the wildly successful book and movie series when it opens in 2019. In its announcement, Universal positioned the ride as one of the most “highly-themed coaster experiences” they’ve ever created — which is major, considering The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is already known for immersive attractions utilizing ride systems and technology in ways rarely seen at other theme parks.

SeaWorld Orlando

Sesame Street Land– “We are excited to transport our guests into the colorful and creative world of Sesame Street through immersive theming, character interactions and interactive play,” said SeaWorld Orlando President Jim Dean in a statement. Sesame StreetLland also brings with it SeaWorld’s firs daily parade!

Legoland Florida

Lego Movie World– Based on “The LEGO Movie” and the upcoming sequel, the new world puts guests in the middle of Bricksburg, the city where Emmet lives in the movie. The area will feature two new rides, character meet-and-greets, and a giant themed playscape.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Jurassic World the Ride– Details of the “Jurassic World Ride” are being kept under wraps. But a press release release describes the plans as “epic,” featuring “never-before-seen dinosaurs, enhanced storytelling, lush scenic design, an entirely new color scheme and unparalleled state-of the art technology.”

Disneyland Resort

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge– As of now, there are only two new rides in development. There’s the Millennium Falcon ride, where players are ranked on how well they perform their mission (if you bang up the ship, expect trouble at the cantina). There’s also one in the works where guests are inside a Star Destroyer hanger bay during a major battle between the First Order and the Resistance, though there isn’t a lot of information available on that one yet.

Christmastime is “Magical” at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando guests can now experience the magic of Christmastime in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You’ve asked for a holiday overlay in the Wizarding World, and now you can experience it. From Christmas Pudding at the Leaky Cauldron to the Magic of Hogwarts Castle mapped projection show, your holiday spirits will be uplifted throughout the Wizarding World. This marked the first year that the WWoHP receives a Christmas overlay during the holiday season, and it is not to be missed. Between Grinchmas (see my review from last year as it is largely unchanged) at Islands of Adventure, the Mannheim Steamroller, Holiday Parade, and Harry Potter Christmas at Universal Studios (as well as HP IoA), you will find plenty to fill your day. In fact, my friend Dani and I found so much to do that we didn’t experience one ride because the time just wasn’t there. But when you’ve ridden everything hundreds of times, you feel that there is the time to spend on the limited time engagements.

For months, I have been looking forward to the brand new Harry Potter Holiday offerings at Universal Orlando. This will be the first time that JK’s WWoHP will receive a seasonal overlay of decorations and attraction offerings. Now that WWoHP has received the Christmas treatment, perhaps Halloween will be next! Between both parks at Universal Orlando Resort, there is a world of holiday happiness around every corner, or in this case, through walls. With so much going on, it can be a little daunting to try to fit everything into a day. For annual passholders who visit regularly, this won’t seem as tough because the rides can be skipped. For those who are visiting on vacation, definitely consult the Universal Orlando app or website for show schedules in order to map out your day to make sure you get everything in (for vacationers, you definitely need to plan 2 full days minimum). On our way to the park, Dani and I looked at the park schedule on our way across the I-4 and made a general itinerary of the order in which we wanted to experience the limited time engagements. If you plan out your itinerary, you’ll find that getting to see the shows and parades you want will be much easier and definitely less stressful once in the park.

Our first stop was Diagon Alley to see the There’s Nothing Like a Holiday Spell Celestina Warbeck show. I adore this show, and often watch it when I am in the park. Her voice, the costumes, and music genuinely create the atmosphere of a 1940s jazz nightclub. The Celestina Warbeck show still has the quintessential Wizarding flare to it, and the original songs were superb! Expecting no less, Celestina’s Christmas gown was drop dead gorgeous and her Banshees were killer as well. Although the vocal artists/character performers who portray Celestina always look like they are having a great time, the degree of enthusiasm from Celestina was greatly increased during the show. I imagine it’s due to the show being new, and it’s a break from the regular song lineup. If I could suggest one way to start your holidays at Universal Orlando, this is the show that I would recommend hands down. And get this, at the finale of the show, Diagon Alley is covered in snow flurries!

After leaving the Celestina show, Dani and I made our way to the Leaky Cauldron to see the decorations and to see if they had some seasonal offerings on their menu. To our delight, there were some additional items AND a Christmas Pudding for dessert! I’ve read of Christmas Pudding in Charles Dickens’ timeless masterpiece A Christmas Carol, but never had the opportunity to try one. Without even knowing what was in it, Dani and I both ordered the pudding with her banger sandwich (her regular) and my Guinness lamb & beef stew (my regular). Although the interior of The Leaky Cauldron is not nearly as decorated as the streets of Diagon Alley, the subtle additions of pine garland created a festive atmosphere. After eating out main courses, it was time to dive into our Christmas Pudding. The mini pudding came out in the shape of a bundt cake with icing on the side to drizzle over top of the pudding. I was aware that British puddings were more like buddy cakes, but still to see a pudding in that shape was pretty cool. Once the icing was drizzled, Dani and I sunk our forks into the moist pudding and took our respective bites simultaneously. It was unanimous–YUMM! We both absolutely loved the pudding. Its flavor reminded us both of a spice cake with currents. Hints of cinnamon and sugar were also found in the pudding. We would both definitely order the Christmas pudding again.

After our early dinner, we were ready to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade for the Magic of Hogwarts Castle show. Upon approach to Kings Cross Station, we saw the wait was 60mins; so needless to say, we decided to walk to IoA. On our way, we stopped in the Universal props store where they sell old props to attractions. With HHN having ended just a couple weeks prior, there were many HHN props and decorations for sale. Annual Passholders do not get a discount at this store, but it’s definitely worth a browse because you may find a piece to a show or ride that you enjoy. Once we arrived at IoA, we were greeted with a new holiday mix of music at the Port of Entry instead of the whimsical tunes that are present for most of the year. On our way to WWoHP Hogsmeade, we passed through Dr. Seuss Landing. In no area is there a greater feeling of Christmas than in Seuss Landing. Much like Dickens is credited for inventing Christmas in how we commonly celebrate it, Seuss has also been incredibly instrumental in fostering the Christmas spirit through his brilliant book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Since we saw the show last year, we did not make the time to see Grinchmas again this time. But, I plan to watch it before the holiday season is over. If you haven’t seem it, definitely check it out as it is the live theatrical presentation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As The Lorax is a favorite book of ours, we stopped to take a picture with he who “speaks for the trees” since he decorated the Onceler’s place for Christmas.

We arrived at the base of Hogwarts Castle about 1hr prior to showtime, and there were already about a dozen or so groups of people sitting down in the taped off viewing area for the show. With the queue for Forbidden Journey reading 45mins, we decided to go ahead and select our spot for the new show on its debut weekend. It’s a good thing that we did, because in no time at tall, the area was filling up quickly. Since the show begins at sundown (the times guide states dusk–believe me, it’s after sundown), the start time varies based upon sunset. As the sun goes down, you’ll notice that the cliffs beneath the castle begin to get covered in snow. I’m aware that is mapped prediction, but the snow dropped cliffs look quite real. You’ll begin to hear the familiar Harry Potter theme as snow falls over the castle, and that marks the beginning of the show. And, such an amazing show it is! Simply breathtaking. It has a great blend of familiar images from the movies as well as Christmas animations. The song selection was excellent and paired with eat animations nicely. Whether you have seen the Harry Potter movies or not will not negatively impact your experience of this seasonal show. It is enjoyable for everyone! There is a warmth that iminates from Hogwarts during the show that will have you completely wrapped in the magic of the season.

After making our way through the overly crowded and disorganized streets of Hogsmeade (I’ve heard Universal modified the guest flow of traffic on night two, which is good because leaving the courtyard was horrendous Saturday night), we quickly headed for the Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller concert at Universal Studios. I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the music of Mannheim Steamroller at Christmastime, and I look forward to their limited time engagement at Universal Studios Florida every year. Even if you do not know them by name, it is highly likely that you are familiar with Chip Davis’ combination of synth and orchestra pieces. The company at Universal is the Mannheim Steamroller Orlando compliment and not the full company (because they are touring at this time), but the sound is just as big and the showmanship is excellent. Since my mom does not live around here, I made sure to FaceTime with her so she could vicariously enjoy the concert with me from 500mi away. Attending the concert was the perfect way to end our day of holiday enjoyment at Universal Orlando.

Suffice it to say, Universal Orlando has done an outstanding job with its special limited time holly jolly holiday offerings this year. The addition of the Christmas overlay in the WWoHP more than doubles the festive events going on now. Don’t miss out on the “magic” of Christmas at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this holiday season.