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Park It and Ride

One of the most unique benefits of Greater Orlando living is year-round access to the world’s best theme and amusement parks. Of course, being able to visit Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom or Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter any time we like could easily lead to a sense of jadedness—if the parks weren’t always cooking up something fresh.

SeaWorld Orlando’s new Mako rollercoaster

“We hit up Disney and Universal on a regular basis,” says Sandra Rizzolo, a longtime Orlando resident who has a 4-year-old daughter with husband Christopher, “and we appreciate it when they change things up. Definitely keeps the experience from getting stale.”

From Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, to Star Wars mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and plenty of places in between, our backyard playgrounds have lots of new twists and turns for the whole family, both available now and in the immediate future. So, please make sure your seatbelts are securely fastened and keep all limbs inside the vehicle as we launch into everything the parks have planned for the coming year.

Stormtroopers at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios

Walt Disney World Resort

The Force keeps getting stronger at Walt Disney World (WDW) thanks to recent and upcoming Star Wars additions at Hollywood Studios. Not a sci-fi fan? No worries; all four of Disney’s Orlando theme parks have something new for 2016.

Magic Kingdom: In June, WDW’s flagship park will unveil a revamped Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire stage show, pairing newer characters such as Frozen’s Anna and Elsa with the classic Disney gang, complete with dancing, fireworks and stunts.

Earlier this year, Disney opened a new restaurant paying homage to the Jungle Cruise attraction. What’s more, Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen is Disney’s first full-service restaurant based on a ride.

Epcot: Frozen is breaking out “World” wide, with the film’s stars coming to the Norway pavilion this summer for the Frozen Ever After boat ride. Anna and Elsa will also be available for meet-and-greets in the new Royal Sommerhus.

In Future World’s The Land pavilion, the refreshed Soarin’ Around the World will debut during summertime, with the expanded ride taking visitors across the globe. And in early May, “Turtle Talk with Crush” will give guests the chance to meet the stars of Finding Dory, a new Pixar animated feature scheduled for release in June.

Hollywood Studios: While Star Wars Land won’t be open for years, construction began in April. Furthermore, a new live show called Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away debuted the same month along with the daily “March of the First Order Stormtrooper Procession.” A fireworks event, “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular,” is slated to open in the summer as well.

Beginning May 27, the Hyperion Theater will premiere a live take on—yep—Frozen, and meet-and-greets with Olaf will be available.

“While our production of Frozen will stay true to the heart and soul of the film,” says Dana Harrel of Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, “we have adapted it for the stage so it’s truly a musical theater production.”

Animal Kingdom: Disney’s fourth park will finally begin staying open past dark later this year. The change will also mark the start of the new “Rivers of Light” event at the Discovery River waterside theater, and the centerpiece Tree of Life will premiere nighttime-only visuals. Kilimanjaro Safaris will offer evening options, too, with hyenas and African wild dogs joining the menagerie.

Later this summer, the travel-themed Tiffins restaurant will open on Discovery Island, inviting park-goers to try African, Asian and South American food and beverages.

Hello Kitty store at Universal Studios Florida

Universal Orlando Resort

One of Hollywood’s biggest stars—literally—is appropriately at the forefront of Universal’s biggest update in 2016. But with an expansive new resort opening and other exciting goings-on, there are plenty of reasons for your family to check them out in the coming year.

Islands of Adventure: Skull Island: Reign of Kong is slated for a summer debut at Islands of Adventure. As the name implies, it features King Kong, the giant gorilla who hasn’t just headlined multiple movies and related merchandise, but also helped launch Universal Studios Florida in 1990.

“[King Kong] gives us the opportunity to tap into everything that makes our film history so special and everything that makes our theme-park attractions so spectacular,” says Mike West, executive producer, Universal Creative. “We can’t wait to bring him to life in such an epic way.”

Universal Studios Florida: Hello Kitty has taken up residency at Florida’s original Universal park courtesy of a new shop that opened earlier this year. Besides meet-and-greets with the cartoon cat, the store offers a variety of related merchandise.

“We look forward to this introduction into Universal theme parks to offer new connection points to [Hello Kitty] fans of all ages,” says Janet Hsu, president and COO of Sanrio Inc., which owns the brand.

CityWalk & Resorts: Opening in May, the 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is planned as a Caribbean-style getaway, complete with a 16,000-square-foot pool surrounded by waterfalls and the “ruins” of a stone turret in the lobby. Guests will get hour-early daily access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as complimentary shuttle busses and water taxis to Universal’s parks and CityWalk.

Also, chocolate lovers will want to visit CityWalk’s Toothsome Chocolate Factory & Savory Feast Emporium when it opens later this year. More than a sweet shop, the Emporium will be a full-service restaurant with a menu that relies heavily on—you guessed it—chocolate.

Beyond the Big Two

As residents know, Disney and Universal are far from the only theme-park games in town. This year, coasters, conservation, learning and live shows are among the new offerings from other local attractions.

Manatee Rehabilitation at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando: In March, SeaWorld opened Manatee Rehabilitation, which shows off the park’s rescue efforts for wild manatees. The area includes an acute-care facility for the endangered species and allows for face-to-face encounters with the gentle giants.

SeaWorld will also unleash Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest rollercoaster—or rather, hypercoaster, as the park has dubbed it—in June. Called Mako, the ride will take guests up to 200 feet high at speeds as fast as 73 mph. It will also be the centerpiece for the two-acre Shark Wreck Reef realm.

Finally, SeaWorld pleased many animal activists by discontinuing its long-running orca breeding program earlier this year. “By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will experience these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter,” says Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.

Legoland Florida: Legoland opened Creative Cove in March, marking the park’s first-ever expansion. The new area is geared toward kids, with Build-a-Boat giving youngsters the chance to create and race Lego boats, while the toddler-friendly Imagination Station invites children to bring their dreams to life with Duplo blocks. Free WiFi is now available park-wide, too, and the Lego Nexo Knights 4-D: The Book of Creativity theatrical show is slated to debut in June.

The Holy Land Experience: This park has numerous new and updated shows slated for 2016. They include: light-hearted comedy Lenga, live drama The Passion of the Christ, a journey through the Bible in Forgiven, Christmas-themed The Fullness of Time Has Come, and The Four Women Who Loved Jesus.

Gatorland: Although Gatorland hasn’t announced any additions for 2016, they have extended their annual half-off admission deal for Florida residents. Giving locals the chance to tour the park at a cost of just $13.50, the offer is good through May 27.