Last updated: 12:30 PM ET, Sun January 03 2016

Coming Attractions: Orlando 2016

Orlando theme parks debut new rides, accommodations and experiences

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | Sara Perez Webber

Coming Attractions: Orlando 2016

PHOTO: Universal Orlando will open Volcano Bay, a water park, in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando)

More than 62 million people visited Orlando in 2014, making it the most-visited destination in the country. Yet the area’s attractions aren’t resting on their laurels. To keep visitors coming back for more, Orlando’s theme parks continue to debut bigger and better rides and experiences.

Here’s what you can expect to see open in the next two years.

Universal Orlando
In the past five years, Universal Orlando has unveiled 18 new guest experiences, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, its fourth on-site hotel and eight new restaurants at CityWalk (with another — NBC Sports Grill & Brew — opening this fall).

In summer 2016, Universal Orlando’s fifth onsite hotel will open — the 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Built around a lush, tropical lagoon and waterfall, the Caribbean-inspired property with 83 suites will feature Universal Orlando’s largest onsite, zero-entry pool, with a white-sand beach and water slide. Guests will receive early theme-park admission, complimentary water taxi and shuttle bus transportation to the theme parks and Universal CityWalk, resort-wide charging privileges with their room key, and other perks. Value-season rates start at $119 per night for a seven-night stay.

Visitors receive those same onsite hotel benefits at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which opened in March 2014. In 2017, 400 additional rooms will open at the retro-themed Cabana Bay, occupying two new towers at the south end of the property.

As for new rides, debuting next summer is Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which will take guests into a mysterious island filled with prehistoric predators and the colossal King Kong himself.

In 2017, Universal Studios Florida opens Fast & Furious: Supercharged, a thrill ride that immerses guests in the underground racing world made famous in the Fast & Furious films.

In fact, 2017 will be a huge year for Universal Orlando. That’s when it’s opening its third park, Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort. The water park will feature a towering volcano as its centerpiece, along with water slides, a lazy river and a rapids ride.

Walt Disney World Resort
Last year saw the culmination of the biggest expansion ever of the Magic Kingdom, when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train debuted to complete the New Fantasyland. As 2016 gets underway, visitors will start to see big changes at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which now is undergoing the largest expansion in its history.

PHOTO: This spring Disney’s Animal Kingdom will transform after dark with the new Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World)

In the spring, Rivers of Light will debut. It’s a night-time spectacular in the Discovery River lagoon that transforms the park with live performances, floating lanterns, projection mapping, water screens and swirling animal imagery.

In other developments, Kilimanjaro Safaris will also stay open later starting sometime in the spring, offering nocturnal safari rides.

In 2017, Pandora-The World of Avatar will open in the Animal Kingdom. The new Avatar-themed land will take visitors to a fantastical world that includes floating mountains, a bioluminescent forest and the winged creatures known as Banshees.

Changes are also in store for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening later this year are Star Wars Launch Bay, with exhibits and merchandise, and the opportunity to meet Star Wars characters; a new adventure at Star Tours — The Adventures Continue, featuring locations and characters from the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”; and a reimagined Jedi Training Academy, with new characters from the Disney XD series, “Star Wars Rebels.” Season of the Force, a seasonal event, begins early next year.

Those additions are a prelude to the 14-acre Star Wars Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which will be Disney’s largest single-themed land expansion ever. Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger announced the news in August, at the same time he revealed that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will also take guests to infinity and beyond with the development of the 11-acre Toy Story Land.

Much sooner on the horizon, Frozen Ever After — a slow boat ride through scenes from the movie Frozen — will open next year at Epcot, replacing Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion in the World Showcase. Soarin’ Around the World — an update to Soarin’, which will simulate flight over worldwide landmarks — will also debut at Epcot next year.

In still more news, Downtown Disney is now known as Disney Springs. The shopping and dining area is in the process of doubling in size, and will be completed in 2016.

Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows, the newest resort in the Disney Vacation Club portfolio, will be fully completed by the end of this year or early 2016. Its 20 over-the-water bungalows opened in April, while 360 deluxe studio accommodations have been opening in phases.

SeaWorld Orlando
An all-new sea lion show debuted at SeaWorld Orlando in April. Clyde and Seamore’s Sea Lion High features sea lions, walruses and otters performing on a two-story set with waterslides and elevators. A pre-show teaches guests about the animals, their relationships with their trainers, and how the animals are trained.

The much-anticipated Mako opens in summer 2016. The tallest, fastest and longest coaster in Orlando, the 200-foot-high ride will become one of the world’s few true “hypercoasters,” known for high speeds (reaching 73 mph) and steep drops that create a feeling of weightlessness. Named for one of the ocean’s fastest sharks, Mako will be in a two-acre realm of SeaWorld fully themed around sharks, including the Shark Encounter and Sharks Underwater Grill.

LEGOLAND® Florida Resort
On the heels of opening the onsite Legoland Hotel last May, LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven opened a new themed land, LEGO Friends Heartlake City, based on the popular LEGO Friends line featuring five girl characters. The expansion features Mia’s Riding Adventure, a platform ride with horse-shaped seats that spins while traveling backward and forward; an interactive musical show; a heart-shaped fountain filled with LEGO brick instruments that play music; and several stores.

PHOTO: LEGOLAND Florida’s newest themed land, LEGO Friends Heartlake City, features Mia’s Riding Adventure. (Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND Florida)

Next year the LEGO Movie 4D will open at Legoland. The new 4D animated film, with characters from “The LEGO Movie,” will feature such elements as wind, water, smoke and special lighting effects.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the November 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.