2021 has come and gone for Universal and what a year it has been. After navigating through the uncharted waters of the uncertainty of 2020, Universal began its way back to the road of some normalcy (and we’re using that term loosely as we enter 2022 and are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic). Either way, let’s try to stay on the positive side of things as we reach the New Year since 2021 did bring a lot of fun for us theme park fans. So much happened this year, that our beloved Earl the Squirrel didn’t even make the list!
So let’s take a look at the Top 10 Stories from Universal Orlando during 2021.
10. A Different Kind of Mardi Gras
In 2020, Universal was in the midst of holding its annual Mardi Gras event when the world shut down. When Mardi Gras time came around in 2021 and the world still dealing with health restrictions, Universal called an audible and adjusted the event.
Gone were the nightly parades and weekend concerts; with Universal now shifting the focus on the food festival aspects of the event – expanding the event to encompass the entirety of the park.
Guests were still able to collect beads from Parade floats stationed around the park, keeping the party atmosphere. The pivot was such a smart and well-received move, that when Universal announced Mardi Gras 2022‘s plans, they confirmed the food festival aspect will be returning.
9. More Changes at CityWalk
CityWalk Orlando continues to make changes, marking another era of evolution with new experiences – from shopping to dining. This year, we said goodbye to Fusion Bistro Sushi, The Groove, and the Red Coconut Club (although it’s currently being used as a UOAP Holiday Lounge).
Fusion Bistro was replaced by Bend the Bao and was well-received – featuring a variety of items that fuse popular Asian cuisine with diverse ingredients like crab cakes, pork belly, kimchee fried chicken.
A new, larger, Universal Studios Store opened and Universal converted the old store into the Universal Legacy Store – which features a bunch of memorabilia, props, artwork, and photos of Universal yesteryear, including sections dedicated to popular retired attractions.
Voodoo Doughnut even got a dedicated Mobile Ordering stand, making it a much easier experience when picking up the sweet treats.
8. DreamWorks Destination replaces A Day in the Park with Barney
Fans were sad when Universal Orlando officially closed A Day in the Park with Barney in February as it was one of the few things in Universal Studios dedicated to young children.
The show originally closed “temporarily” in August 2020, when Universal made operational adjustments during the pandemic, but it ended up never re-opening.
Replacing the purple dinosaur was DreamWorks Destination, an interactive character experience where guests can meet, greet, and dance with some of their favorite DreamWorks characters; including Kung Fu Panda, Trolls, Madagascar, and Shrek.
The turnaround from Barney to DreamWorks was very quick, so it looks and feels temporary – which isn’t a slight, but its lifespan doesn’t appear to be long-term.
However, while it is around – it gives kids something fun to do and adults the opportunity to let their kids dance off their energy while enjoying some shade and air conditioning.
7. The Path Back to “Normalcy”
2021 was a big year for Universal in terms of rebounding from the effects of 2020. A lot of experiences, attractions, and hotels were closed during the pandemic due to all of the unknown of what lay ahead. As the future became a bit more clear, Universal Orlando began to re-open those experiences as we started the trek back to “normalcy”.
First was the re-opening of Volcano Bay on February 27, 2021, from its first-ever “seasonal closure”.
As 2021 went on, Sapphire Falls, Aventura, Endless Summer Resort’s Surfside Inn welcomed back guests. Events for 2022, such as Mardi Gras, Rock the Universe, and Grad Bash were announced as a more conventional experience. The Darks Arts at Hogwarts returned to Islands of Adventure, and Halloween Horror Nights came back with a vengeance.
During the Summer, Universal also went on a hiring spree.
As vaccine rates increased and cases dropped, Universal dropped some of the requirements it instituted when they reopened – including temperature checks, mask usage, and social distancing. Of course, as we’re still dealing with the pandemic in December 2021, mask usage requirements have come back.
6. Changes in Leadership
Just as it was #6 for our Top 10 at Universal Studios Hollywood, leadership changes were announced for Universal Parks & Resorts. Longtime President, Bill Davis, announced his retirement. Karen Irwin, current President of Universal Studios Hollywood, will replace Davis as President of Universal Orlando Resort effective January 1, 2022.
Mr. Davis spent 15 years as President and led Universal Orlando Resort through a historic expansion that included legendary lands such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley and entire theme parks such as Volcano Bay.
The other big change was Mark Woodbury, Vice Chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts and President, Universal Creative, becoming Chairman and Chief Executive Officer upon the retirement of current Chairman Tom Williams.
5. Fear Factor Closes
After years of rumors, Fear Factor Live officially joined the great beyond of closed attractions.
The show hadn’t been in operation since March 2020, only being used as U-Rest “Mask Free” locations during the pandemic and for the seasonal show, Halloween Nightmare Fuel, at Halloween Horror Nights 30 – but Universal made the decision officially official on November 1st.
While a lot of fans were ready to move on from the show, there was still some sadness within the community as the stage was the home to the popular “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure” for many years during Halloween Horror Nights.
No word on a replacement has been announced, and so far, only the sign has been covered up. Hopefully, we hear some murmurs of what’s coming from Universal #soon.
4. Blue Man Group Closes
In a somewhat shocking announcement, Blue Man Group announced in February that after 14 years, they are ending their run at Universal Orlando’s CityWalk.
A likely victim of the pandemic, the show had remained closed since March 2020, never having a proper send-off.
As of today, the theater was used for the Grinchmas Wholiday Spectacular during the 2021 Holidays. No word on the Soundstage or theater’s future has been announced yet.
3. Halloween Horror Nights celebrates 30 Years
Let’s be real… When Universal announced that Halloween Horror Nights wasn’t happening in 2020, it was a real kick in the nuts. Yes, there were bigger things that took precedent and it was the right decision, but it SUCKED.
When it was clear that Halloween Horror Nights 30 was happening this year, fans were giddy with elation.
And on September 3, 2021, after 2 years of hype and anticipation, the fog filled the air, the sounds of screams and the laugh of a maniacal clown echoed throughout the park.
Celebrating 30 Years of Fear, Universal featured an event headlined by Beetlejuice, Haunting of Hill House, and saw the return of Horror Nights past – including the beloved Jack the Clown as the Icon.
The most important part of Halloween Horror Nights is the fun you have with your friends and family, and it was nice to be back with them in the fog after dealing with all the stresses the past couple of years have brought us.
2. Epic Universe Construction Resumes
With the pandemic causing a bit of uncertainty in the Tourism economy, it came as no surprise that construction work paused in mid-2020. There was some discussion within the community as to whether or not the park would still happen.
Fans breathed a sigh of relief when Universal announced in March that Epic Universe was still happening and construction would resume immediately.
The park was expected to open in 2023, but with the delay, no time frame has been given to the park’s new opening date.
Of course, we’re still in the dark about what to expect in the park – but rumors have been pretty persistent of what’s coming.
1. Jurassic World VelociCoaster Opens
The Undisputed King.
The Jurassic World VelociCoaster is the story of 2021.
One of the most anticipated attractions at the Resort in recent years, the VelociCoaster became an instant hit when it opened in June.
Billed by Universal as the “new apex predator of coasters”, it certainly lives up to its name. The coaster is relentless, giving guests twists, turns, speed, and airtime – packing a pretty intense punch. A truly a one-of-a-kind experience, the VelociCoaster ended up on a lot of top 10 lists for not only theme park attractions but coaster enthusiasts lists.
Universal went all in to hype up the new attraction, in what ended up being a “VelociSummer”. The Summer Tribute Store was dedicated to the Jurassic Park/World films and featured merchandise and food & treats inspired by the franchise. New menus were introduced to the restaurants throughout the land. We even got a new beer, Jurassic World Isla Nublar IPA, which features an awesome tap handle.
No question, VelociCoaster dominated not only the Summer but 2021.