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Opening Dates for Orlando’s Big Summer 2024 Attractions—and Should You Care?

This year, it’s as if the USA’s most popular tourist destination is holding its breath. Most summers, Orlando’s theme parks construct a new blockbuster ride or two to attract families anew. But 2024 is different.

A year from now, Orlando will open its first new theme park in 26 years, Universal Epic Universe. Construction crews are already testing rides at what is shaping up to be the most elaborate and cutting-edge theme park the United States has seen in decades. Ahead of that huge debut, Orlando is putting on a milder party than usual in 2024.

You’ll be hearing lots of hype about Orlando in the coming weeks through the usual advertising channels and on social media, but the truth is that this year’s changes can best be described as rearranging the furniture.

Pretty much every major new thing to do in Orlando is a reworking of an older attraction that needed fixing.

• On June 28, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom officially opens Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, a top-to-bottom re-skinning of the popular but culturally problematic Splash Mountain water flume ride. The attraction will now center on the characters from the 2009 animated film The Princess and the Frog. Disney crews shut down the old ride in January 2023 to redecorate, rip out dozens of Audio-Animatronic robots, and install a much smaller number of more advanced replacements, like Tiana (pictured above).

Until the ride begins hosting preview guests, the jury is out on whether the finished product will reflect the penny-pinching and quality drift typical of latter-day Disney executives, or whether the company’s recent leadership woes and mass layoffs of creative teams have brought Disney’s creative powers back to form. 

We already know that getting a turn on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure won’t be easy. Disney has announced that entry will be restricted to guests who submit to its obnoxious Virtual Queue system. So you won’t be able to walk up and get in line. Instead, everyone will be required to download the Disney World app, set up an account, and compete against other guests at 7am each morning in an instant lottery selection that inevitably leaves some guests in the lurch.

Disneyland’s version of Splash Mountain shut down four months after Walt Disney World’s, so if the California version follows the same renovation timeline, expect Disneyland’s Bayou Adventure to be up and running around late October 2024. 

• Universal Orlando, too, is using summer 2024 to redo existing sections of Universal Studios park to be more pleasing to its corporate masters. Very few youngsters ever clamored for a children’s area with a name as nakedly corporate as DreamWorks Land, but at least the attractions, all of which are geared to Universal’s youngest guests, will be more appealing than in their earlier iterations. DreamWorks Land opens June 14.

The things to do here have existed for many years in other forms and are pretty much the park’s only attractions expressly geared to little ones. A pint-size roller coaster about Feivel the mouse, from 1986’s An American Tail, has been re-christened Trollercoaster, after the Trolls movies. A meet-and-greet with Shrek, Donkey, and Fiona (from the Shrek films) has been relocated from crude quarters in another area of the park and built out as Shrek’s Swamp Meet. And a play area/splash zone that was once about Curious George has been rolled over to the Kung Fu Panda franchise as Po’s Kung Fu Training Camp (pictured in a rendering below).

All of these refreshed attractions, plus some more interactive diversions, join the beloved E.T. Adventure ride, the last Universal attraction to survive from the park’s opening day in 1990. Wisely, this endearingly goofy ride, which whisks riders to E.T.’s psychedelic home planet, was retained.

Meanwhile, the lake inside Universal Studios park—over the years, the setting for several on-but-mostly-off-again evening shows—will receive its latest effort to keep guests in the park until nighttime. CineSensational: A Symphonic Spectacular also opens June 14. The track record on Universal Studios’ night shows has been iffy, but maybe this melding of fountains, music, and high-tech projections will be a keeper.

It’s encouraging that Universal is promising more than 600 drones for CineSensational. For operational reasons, Disney’s Florida parks have been unable to capitalize on the drone-show boom that has been redefining (and quieting) nighttime entertainment around the world, so Universal will be the first Orlando theme park to implement drones in such a major way.

Universal Studios will also introduce a new daytime diversion, the Mega Movie Parade, on July 3. This one capitalizes on some of Universal’s most crowd-pleasing intellectual property, like Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Jaws (in a parade?), and, according to Universal, some 100 performers and 13 floats.

Credit: Universal Orlando

• In Orlando’s International Drive area, home to a carnival of family-friendly restaurants and tourist tat, the enclosed observational wheel formerly known as The Wheel at Icon Park Orlando just got another name. True to form for this year, the name is actually an old one. Reverting to its original moniker from its 2015 debut, the wheel is once again the Orlando Eye.

The poor circle has gone round and round through multiple identities in its 9 years of operation, including Icon Orlando and the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye. Now the name is back to being simpatico with the London Eye, which inspired Orlando’s wheel in the first place.

Merlin Entertainments, the attractions behemoth that owns the London wheel, recently repurchased the Orlando Eye, having sold it a few years ago—the merry-go-round of ownership is very on brand with Orlando’s current penchant for recycling. Merlin is adding tourist inducements to the Orlando Eye such as the ability to rent one of the wheel’s enclosed pods with a package themed to romance, beer, or champagne.

• SeaWorld Orlando is storming full speed ahead on its mission to build out its thrill ride inventory by adding yet another roller coaster, the third in 3 years after Ice Breaker in 2022 and Pipeline: The Surf Coaster in 2023.

This year’s effort redeems 2013’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin trackless indoor ride, a low-capacity, low-approval dud that flopped and sat in mothballs for years. The family launch coaster Penguin Trek replaces it, taking riders on an indoor/outdoor course at top speeds of 43 miles per hour. As with Empire of the Penguin, Prenguin Trek culminates in a visit to the park’s fantastically frigid penguin habitat. 

SeaWorld originally announced a spring 2024 opening for the ride. Although the coaster has been built, not much testing has been observed in recent weeks. That’s par for the course for a new coaster with kinks to be worked out, so it’s no cause for concern, but now the park is hedging on the opening date, saying Penguin Trek will simply open sometime this year. When it does, SeaWorld’s attractively themed penguin section will be complete and embarrassment-free again. Let’s hope the park renovates the decrepit Wild Arctic area next.

SeaWorld would love to be able to promote the new thrill ride as part of its 60th anniversary celebration, but that’s a bit of a fudge since SeaWorld Orlando opened 51 years ago. It’s the SeaWorld brand that’s turning 60.

At least SeaWorld is bringing back a perk that was wildly popular when the park was still owned by Anheuser-Busch. For “a limited time” this summer, guests of legal drinking age will be given one free beer (7 ounces) per visit. Get your brew at the Waterway Grill patio behind Infinity Falls. That’s the same building that served in the old days as the beer giant’s Hospitality House. 

Sure, it’s just a revival of an old tradition—but so is pretty much everything else on the menu at Orlando theme parks in summer 2024. But we’ll still drink to that.

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