The biggest news in the theme park world this summer is the June 18 opening of the long-anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando in Florida.
But plenty of other new attractions await theme park fans elsewhere, including a unique water-and-lights spectacle called World of Color, opening June 11 at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and the reopening of the King Kong attraction at Universal Hollywood in Los Angeles.
Other highlights this season include Shoot the Rapids, a 2,100-foot-long water ride at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, with an 85-foot drop that simulates whitewater rapids, opening May 29; and a couple of coasters named Intimidator, inspired by NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt's nickname. One Intimidator opened in March at the Carowinds park on the borders of North and South Carolina, standing 23 stories high and reaching speeds of 75 mph. The other opened in April at Kings Dominion park in Doswell, Va., with speeds of over 90 mph and a height of 305 feet.
Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter was created with input from author J.K. Rowling and set designers from the Harry Potter movies. The level of detail is impressive, with butter beer served at Three Broomsticks Inn restaurant, magic wands for sale at Ollivander's shop, and puffs of steam rising from the Hogwarts Express train.
The marquee ride at Wizarding World, called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, is located in a castle housing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even the line to reach the ride is designed to be entertaining: Visitors walk through the castle dungeon, a gallery filled with magical talking portraits, headmaster Albus Dumbledore's office, a Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and the Gryffindor House common room, where a Quidditch match takes place. The ride is a magical flight with Harry and friends.
Two other roller coasters, Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, are located outdoors at the Harry Potter site, which is on 20 acres of Universal's Islands of Adventure park.
Disneyland's big news this summer, World of Color, is an after-dark production at its California Adventure park. The 25-minute outdoor World of Color show will feature water effects, lasers, fire, fog, surround-sound, and animation from Disney classics like "The Little Mermaid," ''The Lion King," ''Pocahontas," ''Toy Story" and others. Nearly 1,200 fountains will shoot water from 30 to 200 feet into the air, synchronized with flame projections, lasers and other special effects. Images will be shown against a wall of water forming a projection screen 380 feet wide by 50 feet high.
Universal's King Kong is scheduled to be open by July Fourth as part of the backlot tram tour at the Hollywood park. The original attraction burned down in 2008 but has been reconceptualized as King King 360 3-D. The new Kong was created by Peter Jackson, who directed the "King Kong" 2005 movie remake. Riders will be in a motion simulator, surrounded by a 25-foot-tall Kong battling dinosaurs, as their tram appears to slide to the edge of a bottomless chasm. Two giant screens flank the tram — each measuring over 170 feet, the equivalent of 16 movie theater screens.
"You'll find yourself right in the middle of the action," Jackson said in a press release.
Elsewhere, Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia, celebrating its 35th year, opened a flight simulator attraction May 1 called Europe in the Air. Guests sit on a moving platform, creating the illusion that they are flying over landmarks like Stonehenge, a German castle and the Colosseum in Rome, all projected on a giant screen.
The variety of new attractions at parks this season is notable, with unusual themes and technology being used to create experiences like Europe in the Air, Cedar Point's whitewater simulator and Disney's World of Color.
"Creativity has always been a cornerstone of our industry," said David Mandt, a spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). "Our designers spend a lot of time and energy coming up with new ways to give guests new experiences that they can't have in every day life. And that's fundamentally what a theme park experience provides — the opportunity to escape and experience a new world or new adventure."
An oldie but goodie, Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., is scheduled to open a revamped Luna Park over Memorial Day weekend, with four new attractions among its 19 rides.
Fans of Kiddieland, the longtime Chicago-area park that closed last fall, will be happy to hear that its vintage, figure-eight wooden coaster, The Little Dipper, was bought by Six Flags and is getting a second life at the Great America park in Gurnee, Ill.
At Holiday World and Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., a new water coaster called Wildebeest has opened. At a third of a mile long, it is one of the world's longest water coasters.
In Las Vegas, the city's tallest building, the Stratosphere tower, has opened SkyJump Las Vegas. Visitors use a cable to jump to a target 829 feet down with views of the Las Vegas Strip along the way. The ride was certified by Guinness World Records as the highest of its kind.
Earlier this spring, Dollywood opened the Adventure Mountain challenge course in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Pigeon Forge is also now home to a permanent Titanic Museum Attraction, similar to an exhibit about the doomed ship that has appeared in many venues around the country. Visitors are given a ticket with the name of a passenger as they enter; they learn the fate of the passenger as they leave.
Other attractions in IAAPA's annual listing of what's new at theme parks include:
—Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., Demon Drop, the park's first free-fall attraction.
—Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pa., Sky Rocket, a new launch coaster that goes from zero to 50 mph in less than three seconds.
—Nickelodeon Universe inside Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., Brain Surge, named for the Nickelodeon game show, with cars that riders control as they spin.
—Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., Mr. Six's DanceCoaster, a family-friendly roller coaster built to look like dancing shoes.
—Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, Calif., Haunted Castle, a dark ride.
—Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo., Snoopy's Hot Summer Lights, an immersive light and sound experience featuring "Peanuts" characters and more than 2 million lights.
—Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, near Orlando, "Summer Nightastic!" a nighttime parade with new or enhanced floats featuring characters such as Tinker Bell, Pinocchio, and Snow White.
—Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in Florida, a Sesame Street-themed playland.
—California's Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., Planet Snoopy, based on the Peanuts cartoon characters.
—Six Flags America in Bowie/Mitchellville, Md. (near Washington D.C.), Thomas Town, based on Thomas the Tank Engine and the show "Thomas and Friends."