The first phases of a reimagined Fantasyland at Florida's Walt Disney World, a Disneyland attraction in California based on the "Cars" movies, and Universal Studios Hollywood's new Transformers ride top the list of new attractions at theme parks across the country in 2012.
And thrill ride enthusiasts won't be disappointed, with at least 20 new roller coasters debuting at parks from Maryland to California.
Disney says the renovation and new construction at Fantasyland inside the Magic Kingdom in Florida is the largest expansion project in the park's 40-year history, doubling the size of the current Fantasyland. Part of it — including one of what will eventually be dueling Dumbo rides and the rethemed Barnstormer family roller coaster — opened in April.
Much of the construction is still in the middle stages, but Disney says most of the new elements will be open in time for the winter holidays this year, with the rest opening later. It's going to include new "attract-areas" — immersive mini-parks that include attractions, restaurants and retail — built around the stories of "Snow White" and "Beauty and Beast," as well as a new dark ride based on the adventures of "The Little Mermaid."
Replacing Snow White's Scary Adventures in Fantasyland will be Princess Fairytale Hall, where visitors will be able to interact with all the Disney princesses.
"The opportunity to greatly expand and relaunch Fantasyland, which has been largely unchanged since 1972, is just a huge opportunity," Tom Staggs, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, told The Associated Press earlier this year. "Every time I go down and look at the progress in construction I get more excited about it."
Industry consultant Dennis Speigel said the Fantasyland expansion with detail-oriented areas immersing guests in Disney-themed worlds is expected to pay dividends for years, much like the hugely successful Harry Potter mini-park at Universal Orlando, where visitors feel like they've been dropped right into meticulously decorated movie sets.
"It's a big deal," Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services, said of the Fantasyland project. "It's the largest expansion ever in the history of the park. The last number we heard is that it's approaching $500 million....Parks have realized it takes more than a Space Mountain by itself or one ride and attraction. It has to have a combination of all the elements now."
In June, Disneyland California Adventure is opening Cars Land, replicating the town of Radiator Springs from the movies, including a race-course ride and two other new little-kid-friendly attractions.
Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles is expected to debut the new Transformers ride — a dark ride with motion-simulator vehicles inspired by the science fiction action film — on May 25, with gates opening early Memorial Day weekend (starting at 7:30 a.m. Friday) due to expected interest in the ride. On May 8, Universal Orlando introduced a daily interactive character parade and nighttime pyrotechnics show celebrating Universal's 100 years of making movies. A new 3-D ride based on the "Despicable Me" movie will open at Universal Orlando sometime this summer.
In April, SeaWorld Orlando opened a new attraction centered on sea turtles, including a first-of-its-kind 360-degree domed theater showing a 3-D movie about the endangered creatures. Legoland, which opened in October in central Florida, is renovating and reopening an existing water park at the site in time for the summer season.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay this spring rolled out an elaborate ice show called "Iceploration," which features everything from bombastically costumed skaters to real live exotic birds flying around the indoor theater. The show tells the story of a kid who, with the help of his wise grandfather, puts down his electronic devices and discovers the natural wonders of the world. And entering the cool indoor theater for the 30-minute show will undoubtedly be a welcome respite for park visitors in the heat of the Florida summer.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade group reports 135 new attractions opening this year, including water parks, rides and shows, spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said. Among those are 20 new roller coasters.
"It's almost like timing is everything," Mangone said. "And in 2012 we're seeing short-term and long-term projects coming to fruition at the same time, which certainly should create some great thrills at amusement parks."
Among the new coasters debuting are Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, which will simulate underwater flight; and Superman-themed launch coasters at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., introduces a new coaster called X-Flight, in which two riders sit side-by-side with their feet dangling, experience a 12-story drop and turn upside down five times.
Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., introduces a 200-foot-tall coaster called Skyrush, which will reach speeds of 75 mph and includes five zero-G airtime hills. Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., opened the 210-foot-tall Wild Eagle coaster in March. Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia unveils a half-mile-long indoor-outdoor coaster called Verbolten.
Apocalypse at Six Flags America in Largo, Md., is a 100-foot-tall stand-up coaster, and the Stinger at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa., is a scorpion-themed boomerang-style coaster that features six inversions and face-to-face seating.
Based on attendance trends and season-pass sales, Speigel said the theme park industry is expected to see 7 percent growth or more this year, which is much better than expected. He attributes it to the number of new attractions, an improving economy, pent-up demand and other factors.