One of the most exciting aspects of a Universal Orlando vacation – besides all the thrill rides and the ever-more-expanding selection of butterbeer products, that is – is the constantly changing nature of the resort; with $500 million being poured into all three domestic Universal parks each and every year by parent company Comcast, there’s bound to be a few new additions practically every time you turn around.
While terribly exciting, this can also make planning your next sojourn terribly frustrating. When is the optimal time to visit? What will give you the best bang for your vacationing buck? Will there ever be a time when construction walls won’t dot the landscape as far as the eye can see? (That one’s for your picky Aunt Millie.)
While we can’t definitively answer questions that are so inherently subjective to both your and your family’s desires, we can sketch out the next several developments that will be popping up over the course of the next two summers.
Enjoy, and please let us know when you think you’ll next be slipping past all those bulldozers and cranes.
1. Hello Kitty
Location: Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida
Opening: February 2016
The only experience open thus far may also be the most limited one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, worthwhile, or – most of all – super-cute.
Occupying the former site of Lucy: A Tribute, Hello Kitty is, chiefly, a store carrying a wide selection of Sanrio-infused products, ranging from apparel to accessories to stationery to, but of course, collectibles. Most of these are standard Hello Kitty fare, but expect to see much more Universal-exclusive wares to arrive over the course of the year – along with a meet-‘n-greet experience with the titular feline and all her Japanese pals, to boot.
The most intriguing aspect of the whole she-bang? The exclusive themed culinary offerings, which run towards the sweet and which keep up Universal’s newfound success in developing gastronomical delights that can’t be found anywhere else in the world (Harry Potter’s butterbeer and The Simpsons’s Duff Beer, we’re looking at you).
2. Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Location: Skull Island, Islands of Adventure
Opening: summer 2016
An absolutely mammoth – seriously, you should see this thing in person – new dark ride that heralds the return of King Kong to Universal Orlando (he was last seen in Kongfrontation over at Universal Studios Florida back in 2002), this is the opening that looks to dominate all of Orlando for this summer. Universal has finally started to trickle out information about the attraction’s story, size, and scope, and each new morsel has us absolutely salivating for more – the combination of 3D projections with what is rumored to be one of the biggest audio-animatronic figures ever created just sounds too good to be true.
Fun fact: Skull Island will be the seventh “island” at Islands of Adventure, inserted in between Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon on a swath of land that was originally earmarked as an expansion for JP. While it will be the smallest land at the park – it more than likely won’t even have a restaurant, even a quick-service one – it still promises to house one of the best attractions in all of Orlando, if not the entire Western hemisphere.
3. The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Location: Marvel Super Hero Island, Islands of Adventure
Opening: summer 2016
The Incredible Hulk Coaster, one of the most fun roller coasters anywhere in the country (take that, Cedar Point!), has been completely dismantled and is currently being systematically, painstakingly put back together again. The net result will be a smoother ride, restoring the experience back to its day-one feel all the way back in 1999. (The Floridian climate is none too kind on attractions, particularly the ones that operate nearly every day of the year for 17 years running.)
Just in case that weren’t enough, however, Universal is throwing in what can potentially be an even bigger sweetener: a brand-new, redesigned-from-the-ground-up queue. What, exactly, this will entail is entirely unknown, but we should be looking at a modernized presentation of Dr. Bruce Banner’s backstory, at the least, or a tie-in with the box office-smashing Marvel Cinematic Universe, at the very most. (Yeah, our money’s on the former, too.)
4. Sapphire Falls Resort
Location: next to Royal Pacific Resort
Opening: July 2016
Universal Orlando’s four on-site hotels don’t have tie-ins with one intellectual property or another – unlike Walt Disney World, which is able to absolutely nail it with the likes of the Art of Animation Resort – but that doesn’t mean their theming is threadbare or otherwise inferior; in point of fact, the majestic terraces of Portofino Bay Hotel or the retro immersion of Cabana Bay Beach Resort are hard to beat.
The resort’s fifth venue, Sapphire Falls Resort, looks to double down on this trend. The hotel transports guests to a Caribbean getaway, replete with the ruins of a stone turret in the lobby to a towering waterfall cascading down into the tropical lagoon (which the main restaurant, Amatista Cookhouse, overlooks). Our favorite detail, though, has to be Strong Water Tavern, a bar that offers an unbelievable variety of different rums and your own rum specialist to walk you through them all.
A couple of quick notes regarding Sapphire Falls, though: although it is the sister property to Royal Pacific Resort, its list of perks is decidedly different (concordant with its lower price point). While it still features water-taxi access to CityWalk and the parks, it doesn’t offer complimentary Express Passes, so be sure to factor this into your on-site considerations.
5. Fast & Furious: Supercharged
Location: San Francisco, Universal Studios Florida
Opening: summer 2017
Much like how Reign of Kong is a transplant of and massive expansion upon Universal Studios Hollywood’s King Kong: 360 3D tram experience, Orlando’s Fast & Furious: Supercharged looks to be a similar cloned upgrade of the tram tour’s climax. What, exactly, this will consist of is a giant question mark at the moment, but given how impressively detailed and in-depth Skull Island is looking to be, we have faith that Universal Creative will give a comparable dose of steroids to USH’s big-name addition from last year.
There are two little tidbits we’ve been able to ascertain, however. First and foremost, the footprint for this attraction is going to be absolutely huge – it’s not only taken over Disaster: A Major Motion Picture… Starring You, it’s also subsumed Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue. Secondly, yes, this is most certainly going to be a screen-based experience, given recent permits that the company has filed with the city of Orlando. Make what you will of these two facts.
6. Race through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
Location: New York, Universal Studios Florida
Opening: summer 2017
Race through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon is, quite easily, the most intriguing of the new attractions arriving at Universal Orlando in the foreseeable future – not for what the ride will entail, but for what its limitations are. Going into the slot formerly occupied by Twister… Ride It Out, its space is completely boxed in on all sides, thanks to the location of its show building and the little fact that Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit smashes through its second story.
This left Universal with not very many options for what the replacement experience could be, but the decision to embrace The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon for what is sure to be an attraction infused with comedy (not to mention multimedia synchronicity) could very well be the best of all possible alternatives. The fact that rumors point to a Soarin’-esque ride vehicle are only icing on the theming cake.
7. Volcano Bay
Type: water park
Location: next to Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Opening: summer 2017
The final punch of Universal’s one-two-three salvo that is meant to fend off Disney’s long-in-development Pandora: The World of Avatar expansion at Animal Kingdom, this one looks to easily be the most expansive, the most impressive, and, quite possibly, the most revolutionary.
Here’s the premise: a 200-foot, regularly-erupting volcano marks the centerpiece of a water park that will feature several attractions, some of which will be transplanted from the not-long-for-this-world Wet ‘n Wild Orlando (and some of which will reportedly crisscross through the volcano itself). The theming is said to be out-of-this-world for a water park, and rumors have held strong that tying the whole experience together will be Universal’s own version of Disney’s MagicBands, which will ensure that the entire park is queue-free.
If even half of these items end up coming to fruition, guests are in for an incredible treat next summer.
8. Cabana Bay Beach Resort expansion
Location: Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Opening: summer 2017
Cabana Bay has proven to be incredibly successful since its debut two years ago, and the hotel’s upcoming expansion – adding two new towers and a total of 400 additional guest rooms to the south end of the property – stands testament to this. But it also reveals just how busy Universal believes Volcano Bay will be; these two towers will be adjacent to the upcoming water park, providing spectacular views of its central volcano and the perfect place for visitors to hang up their bathing suits at the end of a long, water-soaked day. (Since Volcano Bay won’t have its own dedicated parking lot, guests will have to either stay next-door or take shuttles from the main parking structure located next to CityWalk.)
Are we expecting any major change-ups to Cabana Bay Beach Resort’s aesthetic, amenities, or other room features? In a word, no – this is a strict expansion, pure and simple, with no added surprises or frills. Still, given how wonderful the hotel already is, and given how much more value (no pun intended) will be added to it once the water park opens up, this is perfectly fine by us.