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2017 Amusement Parks Guide: New Sensations

Hottest New & Coming Attractions • Best Values • Reservation Tips • Safety Update

Digital-projection mapping, drone entertainment, more-immersive attractions and line-less reservation systems are on the rise at amusement parks. Unfortunately, so are admission prices.

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Universal Orlando Volcano Bay

Universal Orlando Volcano Bay

When you hear the term “amusement park,” chances are that your mind wanders to thoughts of Caribbean pirates, flying elephants and Mickey Mouse. That’s for a good reason.

Disney runs six of the seven amusement parks that have the highest annual attendance in the United States. (Universal Studios owns the seventh.) Including its two parks at California’s Disneyland Resort and the four at Florida’s Walt Disney World, 81.7 million visitors passed through Disney’s gates in 2015 compared with 72.3 million visitors in 2012, according to Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM’s 2015 TEA/AECOM Theme Index. Attendance dipped slightly in 2016 because of Hurricane Matthew, but attendance is expected to climb again in 2017 because of Pandora–The World of Avatar, which is expected to open May 27 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

In the past 5 years, more visitors than ever before flocked to the country’s other major amusement parks as well. It seems that consumers can’t get enough roller-coaster thrills, pictures with costumed characters and souvenir cups that are filled with soda or “butterbeer.”

The latter beverage is served in the wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. During the 4-year period that ended in 2015, Universal’s parks in California and Florida recorded a 27 percent increase in attendance to 25.5 million from 20.1 million, thanks to the appeal of Harry and the gang. That’s before Universal Studios Hollywood jumped on the Hogwarts Express in 2016 and got its own Wizarding World. We still are waiting to see attendance figures from 2016, but Universal reported “record-breaking attendance,” and the Los Angeles amusement park reached capacity for the first time in its history in January 2017.

Smaller regional parks took cues from Disney and Universal and opened their own story-based attractions in the past 5 years. They also introduced wild new roller coasters, including new spins on the classic wooden coaster.

Although they provide an escape from reality, amusement parks charge a lot of money. One-day admission prices at Disney and Universal soared far past the $100 threshold, compared with a maximum one-day admission price of $89 in 2012. (One-day admission prices at Walt Disney World now range from $99 to $124.) The costs for you to get into regional parks also increased, by about $10 for 1-day admission. After you factor in accommodations, food, merchandise, travel and parking, amusement-park visits can take an unamusingly large bite out of your wallet. Fortunately, ways for you to save and minimize the shock still exist.

Best-Value Amusement Parks

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IMMERSIVE DISNEY. When Universal struck amusement-park gold in 2011 with Harry Potter, Disney announced that it would build a slew of immersive attractions. In the past 5 years, Disney added a “Beauty and the Beast” attraction and a Seven Dwarfs roller coaster in an expanded Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom in Florida; Cars Land, which features an E-Ticket Radiator Springs Racers ride at Disney California Adventure; and a “Frozen”-themed boat attraction at Epcot in Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney’s most ambitious new project is Pandora–The World of Avatar. The attraction, which was developed with “Avatar” director James Cameron, is a real-world facsimile of Pandora, which is the science-fiction movie’s planet. Disney promises a particularly immersive experience. Guests will be able to ogle the film’s signature floating mountains, walk down paths that teem with Pandora vegetation, meet Na’vi people, try Na’vi food and view cultural artifacts.

Pandora will include two rides. Na’vi River Journey will be a boat excursion through a bioluminescent forest that will include animatronic characters. Avatar Flight of Passage will be a simulated airborne journey aboard a winged mountain banshee. The ride, which is based on Disney’s Soarin’ “flying theater” ride system, will incorporate rows of seats that rise and move in sync with video action that’s projected onto large screens.

What themed worlds will open next? Two highly anticipated “Star Wars” lands are scheduled to open in 2019 at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios amusement park in Florida. Wannabe Jedi Knights will be able to grab the controls of the Millennium Falcon in one of the attractions. Also, as visitors make their way around a lavishly detailed trading port on a remote planet, they might end up in the middle of a battle between the Resistance and the First Order or at the Cantina bar slurping blue milk.

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