The biggest changes are on the way, but there’s still plenty of new in the theme parks this Gay Days

By : Kirk Hartlage
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Every few years our area’s theme parks go through a phase where they each launch new shows, rides and attractions. Whether the ultimate goal is to provide guests with additional unique experiences and memories…or if it’s a bottom line-based attempt to capture as much market share of tourism dollars as possible is debatable. But hey: if it means fun and exciting new thrills for us, we’re good. And while you might think that the theme park engineers and designers would have their newest offerings all ready to go by Gay Days—because, seriously, who’s better at creating buzz around anything new than we are?—try as they might, sometimes they just can’t get everything running correctly, and safely, until later in the summer.

No worries, though. Even if you hit all of the area’s theme parks last year, there’s still plenty new to be found this year.

Disney World’s expansion
Since Gay Day takes place at the Magic Kingdom each first Saturday of June, let’s start our “What’s New” tour there. The park recently completed its Fantasyland expansion project—the largest expansion in the history of the park. The land is divided into two sections, the Enchanted Forest and Storybook Circus. Fantasyland’s signature ride, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, just opened and takes riders into the mineshaft workplace of Snow White’s seven best friends. Never mind that an attraction themed to dwarfs comes with a 38-inch height requirement, it’s a family-friendly roller coaster that features first-of-its-kind ride vehicles mounted in cradle-like pivots that allow the vehicles to gently sway during the ride’s twists and turns.

The ride, which still somehow manages to look like a junior version of Big Thunder Mountain, joins several previously opened attractions. Those include an above-ground (and nearly waterless) Under the Sea Little Mermaid ride; an expanded Dumbo attraction with two rotating sets of flying elephants; and the Be Our Guest Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant, which is the first and only place in the park to serve alcohol. Don’t get too excited partygoers: wine and beer are only available here with dinner and cannot be carried into the park.

One of the biggest highlights of Gay Day is the conglomeration of red-shirted LGBTs in front of Cinderella’s Castle for the park’s daily 3 p.m. parade. Gay Day guests this year will be treated to an all-new street show, the Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade, which celebrates the opening of New Fantasyland. While there’s the requisite collection of innovative floats, colorful costumes and a soundtrack featuring beloved Disney songs, there are several unique flourishes to this parade. Hipsters are sure to appreciate the Steampunk-inspired Maleficent Dragon that stretches 53 feet in length and 26 feet tall. And gingers will no doubt appreciate seeing Scottish dancers and an enormous bagpipe float announce the arrival of the ever-Brave Merida.

But the hottest Disney characters these days are Frozen sisters Anna and Elsa. The duo were recently relocated from EPCOT’s Norway pavilion to the Magic Kingdom’s Princess Fairytale Hall; it’s a women-only meeting place for visiting Disney royalty such as Cinderella and Rapunzel which apparently has not reached the gender-equality radar of the ACLU.

It’s not just Gay Day that Disney World hosts this first weekend of June. It’s also one of the resort’s Star Wars Weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Special shopping at “Darth’s Mall,” a parade, and nighttime pyrotechnics all themed to the classic Sci-Fi saga are featured, in addition to appearances by various Star Wars celebrities. Slated to appear the weekend of June 6 to June 8 are Mark Hamill and Billie Dee Williams! Viola Davis helps launch “Harambe Nights,” an all-new evening entertainment and dining experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on June 7. Held every Saturday this summer, the special event celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Oscar-winning film The Lion King with a celebrity narrator, a live orchestra and choir, a street party featuring Afro-pop rhythms, and an exotic culinary buffet.

Other new changes abound at the Walt Disney World Resort. The popular live musical Festival of the Lion King show at the Animal Kingdom, which tells the story of the lion cub who would be king despite numerous obstacles faced in the open wild, moves indoors to an all-new theater. Downtown Disney continues its multi-year transformation into Disney Springs, the shopping/dining/entertainment destination that sacrificed Pleasure Island’s unique nightclubs for more restaurants and retail.

Universal updates
The biggest change at Universal Studios is the highly anticipated multi-park expansion of the resort’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter…which, unfortunately doesn’t expect to be open in time for Gay Days Weekend. But based on the press releases and YouTube clips we’ve seen, it might be more than enough for another attempt at creating a Gay Day at Universal Orlando, just in time for next year’s 25th anniversary of the original Gay Day at Disney.

But this year there’s still plenty new to do at Universal since last year’s Gay Days weekend. Transformers: The Ride opened late last June and sends riders on a man versus machine, good versus evil battle to save planet Earth. The 3D action-adventure attraction features hyper animation and massive sets, and continues a long-standing tradition of “Gonna Getcha” storytelling on Universal’s rides. (See: “Jaws,” where a shark attacked boat riders; “Kongfrontation,” where a giant ape chased aerial tram evacuees; “E.T. Adventure,” where the police once fired on guests riding flying bike; “Revenge of the Mummy,” where Imhotep attempts to capture guests’ souls but settles for Brendan Fraser’s career; et al.)

Fans of The Simpsons can now visit Downtown Springfield after disembarking The Simpsons Ride. While in town guests can enjoy food from Krusty Burger and Lard Lad Donuts, and drink Flaming Moe’s at Moe’s Tavern or a Duff Beer at Duff Brewery. Evil alien duo Kang & Kodo have even showed up to host a new outdoor ride, the Twirl ‘n’ Hurl. Speaking of monsters, they’ve all shown up to sing and dance classic rock hits in a brand-new production of “Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue.”

SeaWorld of changes
Over at SeaWorld, guests are in no short need of A/C relief when they visit Antarctica: Empire of the Penquins. This new attraction features a family-friendly ride that allows riders to choose from a “wild” or “mild” exploration, which culminates in an up-close encounter with a huge colony of penguins in their 30-degree world. It’s a unique habitat filled with wind, snow, rock and chilly water, making Antarctica the coldest theme park attraction in Orlando. New technologies combine to create a freezing—but dry—climate, allowing guests to spend time in the penguins’ amazing world. It’s the chilliest reception to be found anywhere this Gay Day weekend, outside of a possible run-in with unforgiving right-wing protestors.

SeaWorld’s water park Aquatica just opened the tallest, steepest and only multi-drop tower slide of its kind in town, Ihu’s Breakaway Falls. At the top of an eight-story tower, riders step into one of three breakaway boxes never knowing when the floor beneath them will disappear. Facing each other, riders watch as their fellow riders fall…unless of course their floor dropped out first. And when the floor does disappear riders drop 20-24 feet per second launching them into a spiraling speed slide culminating in a final splashdown.

Apparently continuing a corporate mandate to install drop rides is SeaWorld’s sister park Busch Gardens Tampa. After ascending Falcon Fury’s 335 feet tall tower, like its bird of prey namesake, riders will pivot 90 degrees in midair to a face-down dive position and soar 60 mph straight down. The soon-to-opened attraction will be the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America.

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