Ever wanted to fly on the back of a banshee, sail through a bioluminescent jungle or climb a floating mountain?
Well, 2017 is your year, thanks to the opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar, a new extension to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida that recreates the vivid alien world of the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Avatar.”
Not enough theme park thrills? There’s more to come as construction gets underway on hot new adventure experiences around the world.
To get the lowdown on what to expect, we caught up with The Theme Park Guy, aka Stefan Zwanzger, a man whose roller coaster career has so far taken him to more than 350 parks in 150 countries.
Here are his highlights:
1. Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney’s Animal Kingdom
What: A theme park re-imagining of the lush and leafy moon from “Avatar,” the CGI-rich 2009 blockbuster movie from director James Cameron that gave us the best race of fictional blue people since The Smurfs.
Where: The park will be an addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, part of the vast Walt Disney World Resort, near Orlando, Florida.
Status: Opening very soon! May 27, 2017.
Zwanzger’s verdict: “This looks really fantastic. I haven’t experienced it yet, but this could really be a groundbreaking experience in terms of ride and theming.
“It’s always good to have a very talented film director at the helm of new attractions, and James Cameron has been deeply involved in this.
“He’s done incredible rides in the past. Terminator 2 3-D at Universal Studios was one of the best attractions of its time, and that was 20 years ago – it’s still a fantastic attraction today.
“Cameron is known as a perfectionist, which is exactly what theme park attractions need to make sure visitors really experience something immersive, down to smallest details.”
2. Universal Studios Beijing
What: Long-awaited (it was first announced in 2009) big franchise rival to Disney’s recent Shanghai opening. Expect a Harry Potter section, other Universal favorites plus new rides.
Where: Tongzhou, southeastern Beijing.
Status: Under construction. Opening expected in 2020.
Zwanzger’s verdict: “There’s a lot of theme parks in mainland China, but most of them are really, really bad.
“They have no soul, no heart and even though they have imported quality rides, they are depressing copycats – it’s a fake Mickey Mouse in the smog.
“I’ve been to parks that were just recently opened that are empty. Fantawild Qingdao, for instance, was the emptiest place I ever found in China, with more staff than visitors.
“But the Chinese have embraced Shanghai Disneyland and I’m sure they’ll embrace this one too. Let’s not forget, there are still visa headaches for mainland Chinese wanting to travel internationally, and when you look at the numbers it’s evident that world-class entertainment facilities on their own soil will prove a success.”
3. Star Wars land, Disney
What: Inevitable theme park cash-in from Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm. Early reports describe an “immersive” attempt to recreate the “Star Wars” universe in parks that expand existing Disney facilities.
Where: Disneyland Park at the Disneyland Resort, California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, Florida.
Status: On track for 2019.
Zwanzger’s verdict: “Who is more well known, Mickey Mouse or Darth Vader? It’s a good question. ‘Star Wars’ is iconic – a movie from 1977 that is still relevant in 2017, it’s quite incredible.
“I believe Disney will do a good job, although it’s too early to see what they’re doing and how big it’ll be.
“Personally, I think ‘Star Wars’ could easily be a separate theme park – one that’s ‘Star Wars’ right from the entrance up until the exit. That would be much more powerful.
“When it’s just a land, part of another park, it really changes the experience. But imagine if the entrance was a crashed Millennium Falcon, and once you’re inside Star Wars land, you wouldn’t see anything that isn’t ‘Star Wars.’ That would surely be a big hit. Fans would want to sleep on site.
“Maybe Disney will consider it when they see how successful Star Wars Land will be. I’m sure they’ve already considered it.”
4. Paramount Park, London
What: Loudly hyped $3.2 billion theme park west of the UK capital that would likely include “Indiana Jones,” “Star Trek” and “Iron Man” rides, if it ever gets built.
Where: Swanscombe Peninsula, east of London.
Status: Potentially 2022, but despite being announced in 2012 the deal is far from sealed. Discussions are still ongoing with investors, officials and residents in the area and plans are expected to be submitted in November 2017.
Zwanzger’s verdict: “The big question is, will it happen? Let’s wait and see.
“It’s very ambitious. If it happens it’ll be the UK’s most cutting-edge theme park and one of the biggest new theme parks to be built in Europe.”
5. 20th Century Fox World, Malaysia
What: Mountaintop theme park adjacent to Malaysia’s only casino that’ll likely include rides and attractions inspired by Fox properties such as “Ice Age,” “Rio,” “Alien” and “Night at the Museum.”
Where: Genting Highlands, Malaysia.
Status: Also plagued by huge delays, this is now rising from the ground and is forecast to open in 2018.
Zwanzger’s verdict: This started out as a casino operation with the only casino licence in Malaysia.
“They used to have a very third-rate theme park with painful rides – you went on them and it really hurt – but finally shut it down to make way for this expansion.
“The casino itself is like a haunted hospital up in the mountains, populated by dedicated gamblers, posing as a family destination.
“It’s one of the most depressing places in the world today, but maybe this theme park will help.
“The problem is, whatever theming they put there won’t hide these very ugly ’70s-style casino hotel skyscrapers.
“At the same time the location is very stunning, it’s on a mountaintop and therefore one of the few places in Southeast Asia very close to the equator where you can get some fresh air. I hope this Fox park makes the most out of it.
“Will it be a truly stunning experience that’ll be truly immersive? Given the surrounding setting, I have my doubts. Will it be better than the park that was there before? Yes, 100%.”