Since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, Universal Orlando, and the rest of the Universal parks for that matter, have undergone a renaissance. Each year since, things come and go, attractions are opened and closed, and changes are continuously made as the Resort continues to evolve.
After a monumental 2017 for the Resort, highlighted by the opening of Volcano Bay, the goodbyes of Bill & Ted and Dragons, and a complete retooling of their Holiday offerings – the past year had its own set of memorable moments that certainly will echo in Universal’s history books for years to come.
Universal Orlando’s recent updates to their locker systems have also brought a change to their locker renting policy – and with that a whirlwind of opinions from fans.
Within the past few months, Universal has updated the lockers at several attractions, ditching the biometric fingerprint scanners with new ticket-scanning lockers, using “Locker Link” technology – which uses the barcode on the back of guests’ park ticket. Each group of lockers comes in two sizes – small and large; and since the new lockers come in different sizes, Universal has also begun to charge $2 to rent the larger ones.
It is worth noting that there are far less large lockers to rent at each attraction in comparison to the smaller standard-sized ones. Regardless, a reason has not been given for the change, or if the change will be a permanent one into the new year.
There still are tons of free lockers to use at Universal and should be satisfactory to use for most people. However, Universal set the precedent for so many years of free lockers, and because there is, mostly, no other choice to ride an attraction if your items can’t fit in the standard lockers – it’s understandable why there were many who voiced their displeasure.
9. Event Shake-Up
One of the biggest surprises this year was the announcement that Universal would not be hosting A Celebration of Harry Potter event in 2019. Many fans were shocked to hear the news, initially not believing several news outlets who shared the press release from Universal Orlando.
The 3-day event, usually held around the last weekend of January, celebrated all things Harry Potter – including appearances from actors of the franchise and a fan expo. The event would’ve been entering its 6th year and was initially successful, but became a bit stagnant in recent years. 2018’s event was notably remembered for a lack of marketing for the new Fantastic Beasts film, zero mention of the new Harry Potter coaster, and many of the special announcements made were for cities outside of the U.S.
Due to the change, Rock the Universe will now slide into that weekend, confirmed to move away from the usual September timeframe and taking place February 1 & 2, 2019. With September now wide open, it has also allowed Halloween Horror Nights to begin even earlier than ever, with the event announced to begin September 6th.
8. The 8th Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show Closes
Another one bites the dust.
The 8th Voyage of Sindbad stunt show – one of the original attractions of Islands of Adventure – closed permanently in September.
While not exactly a fan-favorite, its closure meant another part of Lost Continent will be… lost. Formerly, the Lost Continent was one of the larger islands of the park and included a medieval area called, Merlinwood. The majority of that area was closed in 2008 to be re-themed for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of Lost Continent is removed and/or changed – if the rumors are true…
The show’s last weekend also didn’t receive as much fanfare like other attraction closures, most likely lost in the hype of opening weekend of Halloween Horror Nights.
Since Septemeber, the area has sat idle; and Universal has not revealed any plans for a replacement. The good news is we still have the Mystic Fountain.
7. Blue the Raptor Debuts
The Raptor Encounter Meet & Greet at Jurassic Park has been a hit since opening 2015.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park AND the premiere of the new Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Universal introduced Blue the Raptor.
Blue, of course, became popular after her debut in 2015’s Jurassic World – where she was the Alpha of her Raptor pack and was the beloved dino of Chris Pratt’s character, Owen.
The new puppet was also a huge upgrade, employing the exact computer-generated model and images used to create her for the big screen; and features a lot more realistic qualities compared to previous puppets, including blinking and sneering.
Since her introduction, the Meet & Greet remains as popular as ever. Sometimes, the little additions can make a huge impact.
6. Universal’s Aventura Hotel Opens
With its opening in August, Universal’s Aventura Hotel became the 6th Resort to open onsite, and 3rd to open in the past 5 years. Since 2014, Universal has seen the addition of almost 4,000 rooms, expanding its hotel footprint.
Priced in the “prime value” category, the 600 room hotel is very technologically driven and features a contemporary, modern design. The selling point of the hotel is the views, as well as offering all of Universal’s on-site amenities for a low cost. Guest rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer incredible views. Each room includes a tablet that controls your TV, the thermometer, the lights, and order room service.
The runaway hit has been the rooftop bar, Bar 17 Bistro – offering guests some great food & drink while enjoying the amazing views around the Resort, as well as the rest of Orlando.
Aventura marks the end of an era, of sorts, as it occupies the final piece of undeveloped real estate on the original Universal campus. Universal’s next hotel, the Endless Summer Resort, is currently being constructed on the former Wet ‘n Wild plot on International Drive.
5. Voodoo Doughnut Opens and more CityWalk Changes
CityWalk continues to evolve its offerings; and this year, the entertainment and dining district saw some pretty notable changes.
The Universal AMC Cineplex officially was rebranded as Universal has entered a partnership with Cinemark Theaters. While the theater remains open, each of the 20 theaters is currently being renovated and upgraded with all-recliner seating – including a new Cinemark XD auditorium.
Emeril’s Orlando closed during the Summer. The high-end restaurant, which was operated by celebrity chef and Food Network star, Emeril Lagasse, opened with CityWalk in 1999 and was one of the last original opening day locations left. It was the 2nd restaurant owned by Emeril that has closed at the Resort in the past year. Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, which was located inside Loews Royal Pacific Resort, closed on Dec. 31, 2017. Work on the replacement is ongoing but has not been officially announced by Universal.
Saving the best for last, Voodoo Doughnut opened in the Spring to incredible waits and high praise. Loved for its “delightfully weird” lineup, Voodoo Doughnut features signature originals and one-of-a-kind donuts – such as the Bacon Maple Bar, Grape Ape and more. Throughout the year, Voodoo has also created special event donuts – including a Horror Nights Tombstone donut, a Jurassic World Raptor Claw, and a Grinch donut for the Holidays. To this day, Voodoo remains extremely popular, with many guests leaving the Resort with pink boxes in hand.
4. Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration and Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle Debuts
For a long time, nighttime entertainment was an Achilles’ heel for Universal Orlando. Other than the now-ended Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular, there weren’t a lot of reasons for guests to stay beyond sunset. After this year, that no longer is an issue.
Coming off the successful Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle nighttime show, The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle premiered at Islands of Adventure. The show originally debuted at Universal Studios Hollywood last year. The show features state-of-the-art projection mapping, coupled with special effects and lighting, celebrating the four houses of Hogwarts – Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin – all set to music based on the original scores from the Harry Potter films.
But the winner this year was Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration, which debuted at Universal Studios during the Summer and was an immediate success. Utilizing state-of-the-art water projections, over 120 dancing fountains, and projection mapping; the show features films such as Jurassic World, Harry Potter, Despicable Me & the Minions, and DreamWorks properties – finally introducing a larger presence of their big acquisition. The best segment is easily the Trolls portion, where you can’t help but notice the crowds dancing to the catchy “Can’t Stop This Feeling” by Justin Timberlake.
A new permanent, dedicated viewing area for the show was also constructed in the Central Park area along the lagoon.
3. Fast & Furious: Supercharged Opens
The most polarizing ride to ever open at Universal Orlando, Fast & Furious: Supercharged opened in the Spring to a mixed bag of thoughts and reviews. As the site where our Orlando Senior Editor encourages everyone to get “DRUPERCHARGED”, we stand by our initial thoughts – yes, there are issues, but it’s still plain ol’ dumb fun.
Nevertheless, most of the criticism from fans seems to be pointed at “another screen ride”, and a ride titled “Fast & Furious” is not really “fast” nor “furious”.
There are positives, though. At the start of the ride, there is this really simple, but fantastic effect of simulating high-speed down a street. The transition showed that sometimes less is more, and can have absolutely wonderful results. The utilization of a front screen during the main action of the ride is a nice touch, giving the effect of a true 360 experience.
Outside of the ride, the queue features some great Easter eggs to the franchise and some attractions that formerly occupied the area (i.e. Beetlejuice, Earthquake, and Disaster).
2. Halloween Horror Nights 28
This year’s Halloween Horror Nights was truly one for the record books as the event enters very successful, yet uncharted territory. Netflix’s Stranger Things has brought the event to new heights, with a new wave of popularity and recognition that far surpasses what The Walking Dead did for the event in 2012.
The 28th event was all about nostalgia (well, mostly) and was anchored by some strong houses and zones. Many have considered Halloween Horror Nights 28 to be an all-timer. Poltergeist stole the show, with the house being featured at the top of many lists. The Killer Klowns from Outer Space danced their way into our hearts, taking the little known 80’s B-movie to new heights of popularity. While Bill & Ted was missed, Academy of Villains seems to have found their niche in the event.
But wow, was the event crowded, leaving questions as to what happens in the future. It’s obvious there’s no way to go to but up, so Universal has some very interesting decisions to make, especially as the Big 30th event is just around the corner. Universal has already announced that the event will now start on Sept 6th, the earliest it has ever started. Do they increase the house count? Do they go to 2 parks? Do they add another show?
But if we hear “Shoot to Thrill” one… more… time…
1. A Brief Look into the Future of the Resort
It’s no secret that Universal Orlando is looking to expand. When news came out of Universal’s acquisition of over 500 acres of land just south of their current property, fans went into speculation mode about the future of the Resort.
This year, bits and pieces of info have been coming out regarding the expansion, but we still know next to nothing. However, the little we do know has us excited for what’s to come as it’s obvious something big is on the horizon. For right now though, we have a possible name (Fantastic Worlds), and preliminary construction work has started around the area – but we’re sitting in the dark until Universal lets the cat out of the bag.
Outside of the Expansion, Universal has several projects that are slated to open in 2019 – such as the Harry Potter Coaster, Terminator 2: 3D’s replacement, and Phase 1 of Universal’s Endless Summer Resort.
2018 can be seen as a transition period, in a way. While we know the future is bright for the Resort, one thing is for sure though; they sure like to keep it close to the chest.