Looking back, 2023 really seems like the year the theme park industry shook off the pandemic and returned to full throttle. The year started off stronger than I ever remember, with two major, award-winning attractions making their California debut.
When Universal is first Super Nintendo World opened in Osaka in 2021, almost no one outside of Japan was able to see it due to ongoing pandemic travel restrictions. So the soft opening of the land in January at Universal Studios Hollywood provided many of us with our first chance to experience this country. Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge gained attention for bringing the wildly popular video game to life through an augmented reality dark ride. But I’ve loved the games elsewhere in the country, which offer physical challenges that make me feel like a real Mario.
Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad at Walt Disney World was the last major theme park attraction to open before the pandemic shut down U.S. theme parks in March 2020. Disneyland’s new facility at Mickey’s Toontown provided this delightful trackless dark ride with a better configuration than the Florida original. Its new queue features a museum of Mickey Mouse “artifacts” from his film career, selling the very idea that you’ve entered a world where cartoons are real.
This year I didn’t get to ride as many new roller coasters as I would have liked (which would have been all of them, by the way), but my favorite of the ones I got to experience was – by far – the new Manta at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, which opened in May. This Intamin roller coaster delivered a great mix of twists and turns and airtime. Inside, this massive indoor facility has reinvented what a SeaWorld park can be, excluding orcas in favor of cutting-edge technology. One example is Hypersphere 360, an Intamin Dome Ride Theater that simulates a journey beneath the surface of the ocean by placing 80 passengers in the middle of a giant sphere whose entire interior surface is a digital screen.
I also loved walking around the Kingdom of Arendelle in the new Frozen Earth World at Hong Kong Disneyland. While I’m not the biggest Frozen fan, this land won me over with an upgraded version of EPCOT’s Frozen Ever After boat ride, along with clever character interactions and gorgeous stage design throughout the country.
Any pleasant surprises? With Rogers: The Musical, Disney took a tongue-in-cheek setting from a Disney+ TV series and turned it into a love letter to classic Broadway musicals. I just wish Disney would have continued to present this Disney California Adventure show beyond its limited summer run, so that more fans could have the opportunity to enjoy it.
Finally, Treasure hunt: The walk has packed the fun of a major attraction into a small basement on Cannery Row in Monterey. This Sally Dark Rides production, in collaboration with Daniels Wood Land, offers a little California history lesson in a wild, pirate-themed adventure. It’s a reminder that fans can experience plenty of theme park-style entertainment outside of Anaheim and Orlando. May this inspire theme park fan travel in 2024 and beyond.
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